Tom MasonComment


Tom MasonComment

Some clubs in Europe seem to be inextricably linked to players of a certain nationality. In the way that Barcelona’s trophy-laden history is indebted to the contributions of both Dutch and Brazilian players, or the same way that the success of Wenger-era Arsenal has been built on a continuous stream of wildly talented Frenchmen, Olympique de Marseille have a lineage of players from the British Isles.

The undeniable jewel in the Anglo-crown was Chris Waddle, who left Spurs in the wake of the Heysel ban to seek European football in the South of France. His exquisite left foot and ingenuity quickly endeared him to supporters—and to club legend Jean-Pierre Papin. The Frenchman glutted himself on the winger’s surfeit of creativity as the two fired Marseille to back-to-back Ligue 1 titles at the start of the nineties.

For the second of those titles, Bernard Tapie augmented his Provençal Galácticos squad with the industry and invention of Trevor Steven, signed from Rangers for £5.5 million—a joint transfer fee record for a British player at the time.

Their next foray into signing a British player was decidedly less glamorous. Following an enforced relegation due to financial irregularities under the Tapie regime—as well as the Valenciennes match-fixing scandal that saw them stripped of their 92/93 league title—Marseille acquired renowned penalty area clogger Tony Cascarino to reclaim their place at the pinnacle of French football.

Cascarino had just endured a pair of woeful, painful spells at Celtic and Chelsea before arriving at Stade Vélodrome, so it was to everyone’s surprise when the striker managed consecutive 30 goal seasons in Ligue 2, simultaneously rejuvenating his career and Marseille’s fortunes.

In his first season with them they actually won the title but were denied promotion due to the ongoing investigations into their previous wrongdoing. Undeterred, Cascarino and his side achieved promotion for a second time although they missed out on finishing in first place by a narrow margin. (The gloss of his remarkable transformation was slightly diminished by the striker’s admission in a 2006 interview with L’Equipe that the club frequently administered injections to players before games.)

From there, Marseille’s relationship to the British game descends into the realm of the bizarre. In the Autumn of 2012, Joey Barton joined on loan from QPR.

Barton had been handed a 12 match domestic ban on arrival at his new club. In the

final day of the previous season, relegation-threatened QPR faced title-chasing Manchester City. He was sent off for elbowing Carlos Tevez but then proceeded to kick Sergio Agüero and square up with Vincent Kompany, using his body as a sort of swiss army knife purpose-built for earning violent conduct charges. The only games he played for Marseille before a league debut against Lille in November came in the Europa League.

Barton generally performed well for the club as they finished second. Barton returned to QPR, however, once the season was over.

Three years later, another mystifying loan deal saw Steven Fletcher spend the tail end of the 2015/16 season with L’OM. The Sunderland forward had scored a paltry four league goals and had been struggling to get a start for his relegation side. Even though Marseille had found themselves in a period of financial turmoil, Fletcher was a baffling choice for a club whose motto is “Droit Au But” – “Straight to the Goal”. Unsurprisingly, goals were in short supply during his 12 games for Marseille, but he was generally quite well-received—his physical presence and ability to occupy and fluster defenders granted Michy Batshuayi the space to flourish.

And yet, despite the oddities of their time in France, Fletcher and Barton aren’t the most eyebrow-raising British-born players to be signed by Marseille. That title comfortably rests with Tyrone Mears.

When Marseille came knocking in the summer of 2008, Mears was a Derby County player. He and the rest of his teammates were licking their wounds following relegation. This wasn’t just any relegation, though. It was the relegation.

History records the Derby side from the 2007/08 season as the worst that the Premier League has ever seen. Over the course of the 38-game season, they accrued just 11 points, including a solitary win (shame on you, Newcastle United). To get a better idea of just how poor they were, they conceded 89 goals, a ratio that is comfortably over 2 per game.  Indeed, three Premier League players— Fernando Torres, Cristiano Ronaldo and Emmanuel Adebayor—scored more goals individually that season than Derby County did as a whole. They were dire.

Despite being a part of that monument to ineptitude, Mears was one of the few players to escape the season with his reputation, if not unscathed, then at least only mildly sullied. He was one of their most impressive performers; some might mischievously say that this would not be that difficult considering he was rubbing shoulders with Robbie Savage, Andy Todd and Craig Fagan.

Even so, it was surprising when then eight-times French champions Marseille, who had finished third the previous season and thus qualified for the Champions League, showed an interest in taking the Derby full back on loan for the year.

Even more surprising were the circumstances in which the transfer actually took place and, as with most things of this nature, exactly what happened depends on who you listen to.

According to legend, when Marseille approached Derby with the intention of taking Mears on trial before a loan, the English club were enraged by what they perceived to be a desultory offer and rejected their interest outright. A press release from the club at the time said the bid was “completely and utterly unacceptable - in fact, it's laughable. Both the chairman Adam Pearson and the manager Paul Jewell communicated this to the player directly and to Marseille and made it clear that, as the offer stood, there would be no deal."

Mears, however, was so determined to make the move that he furtively scurried out of a window at the training ground and manoeuvred past his manager’s office undetected to go and surreptitiously meet with Marseille officials and discuss the potential move.

As you might imagine, the defender’s conduct did not go down too well with his parent club, earning him a fine of six weeks’ wages, as well as Paul Jewell’s ire.

His manager told BBC Radio Derby: “To me, he's just insulted the whole football club - the players, the staff, chairman, but more importantly the supporters. I'll tell you now, he'll never play for Derby again while I'm manager. Who does he think he is? It's an absolute affront to Derby County. I am absolutely raging. I don't want him here. I don't want him here at the football club anymore, that's for sure. If he wants a move, he can go. Tyrone Mears has no future at Derby. This is a brilliant place to work and he's just signed his death warrant." Even in text, you can practically see the vein in Jewell’s temple throbbing, threatening to burst through the skin.

However, it seemed that Mears’ cavalier approach had worked. Shortly after their declaration that no transfer would take place, Derby agreed terms with the French club to take the defender on loan for a fee of around €200,000, with an option to buy him at the end of the period for £1.5 million. And, with that, Mears had swapped a season of slumming it in England’s second tier for twelve months on the French Riviera and a chance to play in Europe’s premier club competition.

Mears’ season at Stade Vélodrome was as unpredictable as his transfer. A cruciate knee injury hampered Tyrone Mears’ introduction to life in France. Coupled with the form of Laurent Bonnart, it meant that it was mid-February before he made it onto the pitch in a white and blue strip.

His debut came in the home leg of a UEFA Cup round of 32 match against an FC Twente side managed Steve McClaren, himself rebuilding his reputation in Europe following his umbrella-related international management debacle. Marseille succumbed to a 1-0 loss courtesy of a first-half strike from Marko Arnautović but Mears had completed the ninety minutes.

It would be another three weeks before he made his league debut, but it was worth the wait. Paris Saint-Germain away. Le Classique.

A typically tempestuous affair saw PSG’s Zoumana Camara sent off just after half-time. The game ended in a 3-1 win for Marseille. Mears, donning the number 8 shirt, ploughed his furrow down the right wing, offering support to Bakari Koné, while also managing to keep Péguy Luyindula quiet at the other end. A victory over the Parisians is always cause for celebration for La Marseillais but this one was more significant than usual. It allowed L’OM to close a 3 point gap on PSG; they leapfrogged them into second place, back into touching distance of Olympique Lyonnais.

Just three days later and still buoyed by that vital league win, Mears would enjoy arguably his greatest moment in a Marseille shirt. It came in the UEFA Cup. The loanee sat out the second leg victory over FC Twente and spent the entirety of a 2-1 home win against Ajax in the next round picking splinters out of his arse. But in the return fixture in Amsterdam, Mears started, After ninety minutes, Marseille had lost 2-1. That meant extra time.

He’d arguably been culpable for Ajax’s first goal, caught so far out of position that he was practically playing in a different time zone to the rest of his back four. It meant that when Luis Suárez prodded a through-ball between Marseille’s central defenders, puncturing their defence with the ease of a pin deflating a balloon, Mears was playing Eyong Enoh onside. He calmly rolled the ball past Steve Mandanda. So, as the sands of extra time slipped away, Tyrone had some making up to do. And he did just that.

With ten minutes left, Bolo Zenden’s free-kick from the right side of the box was deflected into the stratosphere by the Ajax wall. As the ball was headed from the edge of the box towards the near post, Mears eluded the attention of Toby Alderweireld to find an ocean of space at the back post. His appreciation of being in line with the last man was considerably better at this end of the pitch, as he checked his run to ensure he was onside for Mamadou Samassa’s knock down. Kenneth Vermeer, the Ajax ‘keeper, came hurtling out but to no avail. Mears headed the ball past his flailing right arms.

Decked in a gold shirt, wearing ivory coloured boots, he nodded a silver ball into the back of the net—Tyrone Mears was the picture of opulence scoring a profoundly ugly goal which drew his team level on the night and put them ahead on aggregate.

“I am not the saviour,” Mears told Marseille website after he scored the goal that secured them a place in the quarter-finals. His teammate and playmaking football goblin Mathieu Valbuena was more effusive about the defender’s contributions: “It wasn't easy for us, in fact, it was really rather difficult, but we kept going and this goal from Tyrone is a real source of joy. It hasn't been easy for him since he arrived and this goal is just recompense for him."

That PSG game was the start of a run of four consecutive Ligue 1 games that Mears started for Marseille (in fact, the only league games he appeared in). They resulted in four consecutive wins for the club, including a pair of clean sheets against Nantes and Saint-Étienne—with a 2-0 loss away in Donetsk against Shakhtar squeezed in between—and a 4-1 battering of Grenoble. Mears was taken off at half-time during the game against Grenoble and that was the last time he ever appeared for the club.

From a purely footballing perspective, it has to go down as one of the more bizarre transfers to ever take place, even if Mears was predominantly brought in as a cover player. And yet, there’s something oddly fitting about it, something that explains Marseille’s attraction to cast-offs and their ability to act as a source of regeneration.

There’s something about Marseille. Like most ports, it’s a city in constant flux; a ceaseless tide of comings and goings, a temporary home to the itinerant, to the peripatetic. There’s comfort in that, in the sense that it doesn’t matter where you’ve been or where you’re destined for – all that matters is what you have to offer now.

Perhaps with Marseille more than most. Its location on the Mediterranean places it on one of history’s more significant trading routes and causes it to function as a gateway between continents. Little wonder then that there’s an inherent diversity to the place—a multiplicity. The city as a patchwork quilt of chaotically cobbled together scraps.

Historically, it’s been a place of refuge, too. From the Armenians fleeing genocide in 1915, to Italians escaping a fascist regime in the 30s, to the post-colonial influx from North Africa. Marseille has long been a place for the displaced, a home for the untethered.

It’s easy to see its appeal for outcasts, offering a place to mix and intermingle and to reforge yourself. Paradoxically, it is also offers isolation—separated from the rest of France both ideologically and geographically, being bordered by hills to the North and the Med to the South.

It’s this that explains the fervour with which locals support their football club – with no other major sports teams in the region, L’OM becomes a focus for their attention, for their passion. That fanatical intensity makes it the perfect place to fall in love with the game again.

Marseille decided against signing Mears permanently. Instead, he bounced around clubs in his native Lancashire for a period, before enjoying a successful spell in the Pacific Northwest, with Seattle Sounders in MLS. He was released at the end of last season and has recently signed with Atlanta United, one of the league’s newest expansion teams.

As if it wasn’t odd enough by itself, his time at Marseille proved the catalyst for controversy for the defender. While on loan in France, he caught the eye of Jamaica manager John Barnes who called him up to a squad in February 2009. It was only after Mears had played against Nigeria at The New Den, the home of Millwall, that it surfaced that the Jamaican FA hadn’t done any background investigation or even checked his passport. Mears had, in fact, no Jamaican heritage at all and, as such, he was actually ineligible to play for them. It remains his only international appearance to date.

Years later, in an interview with Seattle Times, Mears allowed the truth to get in the way of a good story when he dismissed the apocryphal story of his exit from Derby— and his liberal interpretation of the concept of the transfer window—as a “miscommunication” between management and player.

Even if he didn’t actually crawl out of a window to escape his training ground, whichever way you look at it, Marseille signing Tyrone Mears on loan has to go down as one of the most peculiar transfers to ever take place.

By Tom Mason. Header image credit goes fully to Vladimir Varfolomeev.