What has the Northern League ever done for us?

#18 Olympique de Marseille

England’s World Cup winner Jack Charlton dismissed him as “a load of rubbish”. Michel Platini, who captained France to glory in Euro ’84, called him “an artist”. Chris Waddle was never a typical English footballer: beginning his career outside England’s top divisions, Waddle found his spiritual home at Olympique de Marseille, winning three French Ligue titles and helping L’OM to their first ever European Cup Final in 1991.

Born in December 1960, Waddle began playing football in forty-a-side games in Tyne and Wear. Here, he developed the extraordinary dribbling skills and repertoire of tricks that would eventually make him England’s Footballer of the Year: “if you didn’t show,” he told Four Four Two in 2008, “you didn’t get a pass.” This experience shaped his later distrust of English coaching methods, which trained flair and technical skill out of young players, and led him to join Northern League club Tow Law Town as a 17-year-old.

Famously, Waddle worked in a factory whilst playing for Tow Law Town, making seasoning for sausages (but not, he was at pains to point out, the sausages themselves). He had a two-week trial with his boyhood club, Sunderland, using all his annual leave before Newcastle United invited him to train with them. Waddle was unable to accept, but the Magpies signed him when his amateur contract expired, in summer 1980, for a fee of £1,000.

Waddle quickly established himself in Newcastle’s team, playing alongside Kevin Keegan (who had just returned from SV Hamburg) and Peter Beardsley. Crucial to their First Division return in 1984, he represented England’s Under-21’s, making his full international debut against Ireland in March 1985, becoming a favourite of fellow Geordie Bobby Robson.

After 46 goals in 170 games, Waddle joined Tottenham Hotspur in July 1985 for £590,000. He established himself in the England team: capable of playing on either wing, he vied with Trevor Steven on the right and John Barnes on the left. During the 1986 World Cup, he featured on the left, linking well with Beardsley, and returned to England to enjoy his best season yet, as a key creative figure in David Pleat’s dynamic Spurs side.

Within Pleat’s attacking 4-5-1 formation, Waddle shone alongside Glenn Hoddle, setting up many of Clive Allen’s 49 goals. Spurs finished third in Division One, and reached the FA Cup Final, which occasioned the nightmarish Hoddle and Waddle musical collaboration Diamond Lights, a Top 20 hit which they performed live on Top of the Pops. Spurs lost the Final to Coventry City, and Waddle had to wait for his first major trophy.

English clubs were still banned from European cup competitions after the Heysel disaster, and Hoddle left White Hart Lane to join Arsène Wenger’s Monaco, winning the French title in his first season. This meant that Waddle formed a new attacking midfield partnership – with Paul Gascoigne, who followed him from Newcastle to London. This proved highly effective for their club, and after England’s disastrous performance at Euro ’88 (where Waddle played all three games), their country as well.

In July 1989, Spurs received an offer for Waddle from Bernard Tapie, an ambitious politician and President of Olympique de Marseille. The new French champions bid £4.5m for Waddle, who had just signed a seven-year contract: Spurs accepted and Waddle became the world’s third most expensive player, moving to the south of France. The price tag placed huge pressure on Waddle as he struggled to adapt to the climate, culture and language: getting no help to settle from the club, living in a run-down hotel with his wife and a young child, he asked his agent to find out if Spurs would buy him back.

Waddle was persuaded to stay, but the French press demanded that he impress immediately. Struggling for fitness, Waddle became so tired of the criticism that he refused to talk to them. Matters improved when he found a home in Aix-en-Provence – as with Spurs, when he had lived in Hertfordshire rather than London, Waddle preferred to settle outside the city – and scored a brilliant back-heeled goal against L’OM’s hated rivals, Paris Saint-Germain.

Soon, Waddle fell in love with Marseille, and Marseille with him. The notoriously fierce Stade Vélôdrome Ultras dubbed him ‘Magic’ as he helped L’OM to a second consecutive title and the semi-finals of the European Cup. Under a succession of managers – Gérard Gili, Franz Beckenbauer and Raymond Goethals – Waddle thrived in a 5-2-2-1 formation which freed him from any defensive responsibilities, paired with the explosive Abedi Pelé behind brilliant striker Jean-Pierre Papin.

Starting every game for England in the 1990 World Cup, playing particularly well against Belgium and West Germany, Waddle famously missed the crucial penalty against the Germans as England lost the semi-final. He put the disappointment behind him to have his greatest season yet, as L’OM won their third championship in a row and reached the European Cup Final.

In the quarter final, Waddle scored the goal that finally ended AC Milan’s stranglehold on Europe’s most prestigious club prize – a sublime volley across goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi from the edge of the box that went in off the far post. He would later name this as his favourite goal. Before the Final, Waddle recorded another record, this time with feisty defender Basile Boli, a pop-rap number called We’ve Got a Feeling. Like Diamond Lights, or Paul Gascoigne’s contemporaneous collaboration with Lindisfarne, it is not regarded well by music scholars.

Once again, Waddle suffered defeat on penalties. Red Star Belgrade, who had won their semi-final with a thrilling 2-2 draw against Bayern Munich, winning 4-3 on aggregate, stifled L’OM and after a 0-0 draw, won the shoot out. (Waddle did not take a penalty, not being listed amongst L’OM five first choices.) Before the match, Waddle had been told by several French journalists that his club won, he would be awarded the Ballon d’Or for the European Footballer of the Year. In the event, it went to Papin. Amazingly, Waddle did not even make the top three – and could not establish himself in Graham Taylor’s England team. Despite his remarkable form for L’OM, Waddle played just once under Robson’s successor, finishing his international career with 62 caps.

During his final season at the Vélôdrome, Waddle’s rift with President Tapie grew wider. Waddle had complained to Tapie during his first season that he was constantly rotated with playmakers Enzo Francescoli and Philippe Vercruysse by manager Raymond Goethals (who Waddle, in an interview with Olivia Blair published in Christov Rühn’s Le Foot, named as a “puppet” of Tapie). Tapie informed Waddle, “We pay you to play as you’re told.”

In summer 1991, Tapie tried to replace Waddle with another Englishman: Trevor Steven, his old rival for an England spot, and a veteran of Howard Kendall’s “no stars” Everton side. On buying Steven, Tapie told the press that “I’m fed up with dribbling showmen like Waddle, he can stay out of the way on the wing,” and it looked like Waddle would lose his hard-won creative freedom. Both Waddle and Steven were accommodated, however, as L’OM won another title, but they lost to Sparta Prague in the second round of the European Cup, and the Coupe de France semi-final ended in tragedy: Corsican side SC Bastia erected temporary stands for L’OM’s visit, which collapsed as they stamped their feet to create an atmosphere, killing 18 people. The final was never played, and both Steven and Waddle returned to Britain. He had wanted to stay in France, with Monaco expressing an interest, but Tapie refused to sell ‘Le Dribbleur Fou’ to a rival, or an Italian club, and Waddle joined a club who would not face L’OM at home or in Europe, signing for Sheffield Wednesday for £1.25m.

Waddle excelled at Hillsborough, helping Wednesday to two Cup Finals. In the Steel City derby for the FA Cup semi-final, he scored a wonderful free kick to help defeat Sheffield United, but once more he was defeated, as Wednesday lost both the FA Cup and the League Cup final to Arsenal. However, Waddle was voted England’s Footballer of the Year, partly compensated for his domestic and international disappointment.

Meanwhile, a much more pragmatic L’OM side, without Papin or Waddle, finally became the first French club to win the European Cup, beating AC Milan 1-0 in Munich with Basile Boli’s header. ‘Magic’ Chris missed their glory, but also their downfall, as Tapie was engulfed by L’Affaire VA-OM – the bribery scandal that destroyed his dynasty. Waddle was remembered there as a legend: having helped sell over 20,000 L’OM shirts with his name on the back, even inspiring fans to adopt his much-maligned haircut, he was voted the club’s second greatest player in 1998 – after Jean-Pierre Papin. From the Northern League to the south of France, Waddle always stood out as a talent thoroughly unique.

Aside from writing a regular column for The Guardian, Norwich City and French football fan Juliet Jacques is a contributor to football websites including In Bed With Maradona. Recently longlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize, you can also follow her on twitter here.

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