Let us be quite clear: whoever was responsible for the story that Steed Malbranque had retired from football because his young son had cancer – when, in fact, no such son and therefore no such illness-related decision exist – was either spectacularly misinformed, or downright nasty, or both.
This is what Steed’s London-based solicitors Thomas Cooper have said, reportedly on the instructions of his agent, Sebastien Boisseau:
“Steed has read with concern the recent stories currently circulating about him and his family. He would like to reassure all of his friends in England and throughout world football that these stories are wholly without foundation. Steed does not have a son and his immediate family are all in good health.
“Steed does not know the origin of these stories but would like to stress that they are without merit. He trusts that they will now cease immediately.”
From a number of sources, among them such footballers as Louis Saha, Joey Barton and Rio Ferdinand, had come expressions of sympathy and solidarity with Steed when the reported reason for his retirement from the game surfaced so soon after his transfer from SAFC to the Ligue 1 side Saint-Etienne. In a comment posted here, but which I have now removed, I endorsed the view of one St Etienne supporter who had said: “Family before everything.”
Ferdinand, who had used Twitter to voice his feelings, now says whoever started the false rumour is a “scumbag” and it is difficult to quarrel with that, unless it was the result of some innocent misunderstanding.
But where did the story start?
The website of Le Figaro loftily reports today that the report originated in Britain before being repeated in France.
It is true that some UK publications stated that Steed had given up football to care for this mythical sick son. An easy search this morning turned it up at a Manchester United fan site, in the Daily Mail and the Shields Gazette, the latter even adding the detail that the “son” was four years old.
But that makes it sound like something new, a baseless story from the last two or three days with no provenance in France. Think again.
My own first sightings of the cancer story were at a St Etienne fan site, envertetcontretous.fr (in green and against all) and other French football sites. And that was on the morning of August 30, ie last Tuesday, before any such reference had appeared in a British newspaper or online source.
I had already seen and reported on the comments attributed to the team coach, Christophe Galtier, after his meeting with Steed three days earlier, ie the eve of a match at Sochaux.
This is how that, ahead of the erroneous explanation, appeared at Salut! Sunderland:
He said he would not be making the journey with the squad. Galtier says Steed did not specifically say he was abandoning the game – “it wasn’t exactly what he told me but he is leaning towards it; it’s not impossible but you have to ask him the question. In any case I noticed a troubled young man and I am worried for him.”
Overnight from Aug 29 to Aug 30, a fellow subscriber to the Blackcats list said during a discussion of Steed’s surprising decision that he understood “it’s a serious health problem with one of his sons”. Soon afterwards I saw the French supporters’ references on their fan sites. Did the rumour therefore start in France and spread, or did it appear first on a British fan site before making it across the Channel?
Update: my electronic correspondent at Blackcats, who is French-speaking, now says he also saw it on a St Etienne fan site. We probably read the same message. Did a French journalist do the same – and quickly put out the story without verifying it, as if a supporter’s comment could be taken to be the absolute truth? And if so, was the story then picked up by agencies and other websites and eventually find its way across the Channel?
In any event, by the end of last week, the story had appeared in French newspapers and on general football sites including 10 Sport, foot01 and a football blog of Le Parisien.
Whatever the true story behind Steed’s decision I am delighted to hear no immediate member of his family has been stricken with serious ill-health. And like all Sunderland supporters, I imagine, I wish him well whatever he now does in life.
It is perhaps a salutary lesson on the need for a little openness: a simple, factual statement would have avoided all of this. Yes, even footballers have a right to privacy, but the unusual nature of what Galtier was reporting about his new star recruit cried out for a proper explanation, whereas the words he used merely stoked speculation.
And here, just in, is what the club itself has said today: “St Etienne and the player wish to strongly deny all the rumours, sometimes fantasy, sometimes hurtful, referring to the health of Steed Malbranque or his children that have accompanied his decision. The choice is his alone and ASSE (St-Etienne) fully respects the wishes of Steed. The management of AS Saint-Etienne would like to wish the best in his choices and his future life.”