“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
There is not much to Les Ulis, a collection of shabby concrete and ill-concieved mid-century tower blocks, born of the booming 1960s French economy. It is a town far from the emotional heart of the student uprisings that took place later in the decade and the cultural renaissance that followed.
Located in département Essonne, some 20 miles south of Paris, Les Ulis boasts little of note. Courtabœuf, one of the continent’s largest industrial parks, forms a large part of the area’s post ’60s development.
It is a suburb seemingly far from the nation’s cultural heartbeat, but one that has become a maternal home to myriad talent. Thierry Henry, Yaya Sanogo, Patrice Evra, and Anthony Martial, call Les Ulis home.
Founded in 1977, amid the building works of the new town, Club Omnisport des Ulis operates much as it has for the best part of 40 years. It is a breeding ground for youth, a social club for the local community, and a team barely ascended from the lower reaches of the French league system. Martial’s rise to the professional ranks was hardly certain then, although the adage that talent begets talent may well be true however modest the surroundings.
Martial’s acquisition by Manchester United was not without criticism this side of the channel, nor doubt back in France. Humble beginnings will breed that. The predominant opinion was that Martial owned a sharp talent, but one that had achieved limited returns in less than 50 matches as a professional.
After all Monaco had snapped up the youngster as a 16-year-old for just €5 million in 2013, and while there was much hope for the free-scoring French under-16 international, no guarantee comes with a talent so raw.
And in truth few supporters knew much about Martial before United’s deadline day largess; a transfer that will cost the club at least €40 million, with substantial add-ons should Martial become one of the planet’s finest. Even those who caught Monaco’s Champions League fixture against Arsenal last season, will only fleetingly remember the player, save for the sprightly run and pass that enabled Dimitar Berbatov for the French side’s breakaway third goal.
For the rest Martial’s introduction at Old Trafford has heralded a joyous few days. Four games in which the level of expectation has risen from abstract hope to stratospheric confidence. Warnings of ‘early days’ be gone: everything Martial has demonstrated to date screams ‘world star in the making’. Heaven indeed.
Here is a player with all the requisite tools. The youngster’s first touch is outstanding, the pace blistering and his composure puts more seasoned players to shame. There’s something else though; a touch of magic whenever Martial gets the ball and runs at an opponent. The last player to pass through Old Trafford with that talent: Cristiano Ronaldo. Wayne Rooney once had that too.
“He’s like you see him in a game, very calm, very relaxed, his head is on his shoulders,” says Morgan Schneiderlin of his compatriot and now international team-mate.
“He’s an amazing talent, many people would have been confused by the price tag but he came to the Premier League on his toes. He just wants to do the best, he’s a very intelligent guy, very calm, has shown great composure, great skill and great power. He will be a great player for the future of Manchester United.”
That intelligence has seemingly accelerated adaptation to a new environment, although his manager, Louis van Gaal, admits that the real test will come when wife and child join the player in Manchester later this month. For the moment Martial is camped in the Lowry Hotel – and living on the adrenaline from goals scored against Liverpool, Southampton and Ipswich Town.
In those four strikes Martial has set a high bar, but each also offers confidence in the multi-faceted talent at play. Against Liverpool Martial scored the most individual of goals, weaving between two defenders and calmly scoring; the predator emerged in United’s fixture with Southampton; and in last week’s game at home to Ipswich the teenager demonstrated the raw power at his disposal.
So can Martial continue in a similar vein in more testing fixtures to come during a difficult October programme?
“He has the talent for it, that I have said, but when you are 19 years old you cannot expect consistency. Mostly, he shall have a lot of dips so that I expect also from him,” says Van Gaal.
“But that is not a big problem for me. I am very happy with what he gave and the talent at a high level. And he has adapted to the system that we want, which is also important. He wants to do that and it is not so easy.”
The fine start to his United career, adds Van Gaal, is down to “luck, quality and an open personality.”
“The main thing is his quality. As a player, he has to do it and he has to cope with the pressure. What we have seen until now, he can do it. He is listening, he is watching, he is focusing on the matches. For a manager, he is a very coachable player.”
It is an assessment that could once be made of Wayne Rooney, of course, now United’s elder statesman whose form and declining talent is held in stark contrast to Martial’s explosive introduction. Rooney’s acquisition came at a similarly lofty price for a teenage striker who had appeared in just 77 games for Everton before a £27 million move to Old Trafford in 2004.
Rooney was electric too, scoring a hat-trick on his début against Fenerbahce in the Champions League, and grabbing 17 in 33 starts during his first campaign for United. Martial and manager alike would be delighted with a similar return in the Frenchman’s first season in Manchester.
Martial’s introduction also tempts nostalgia for the player Rooney once was. In the Scouser’s golden period – between 2005 and 2011 – Rooney was for a time one of the world’s great forwards. It is easy to forget the superb number nine and gifted number 10. Two players in one. Rooney ran at opponents with electric pace, bringing supporters to their feet, much as Martial does now. As a teenager Rooney had the touch and maturity of player far more experienced.
Today, Rooney is neither United’s best number nine, nor the team’s most talent 10. Too slow off the mark to trouble the best central defenders as a lone striker; too crude with his first touch to compare with the best creative players in Van Gaal’s squad, let alone on the continent. If Martial has done anything, it might well be to hasten Rooney’s gradual elimination from the team. The club might just be better for it.
The temptation is to declare Rooney shot. Not that the former Evertonian has become a player of limited talent, but that too many years and too many games – and perhaps too little professionalism – have blunted Rooney’s pace and loosened the technique.
Still, Rooney has scored five for United this season – three against Club Brugge, another in the Capital One Cup fixture with Ipswich last Wednesday and one in off his knee on Saturday versus Sunderland. It was the Scouser’s first Premier League goal since April.
“I don’t think that is an issue for him, for me or for the club, so he shall score also in the Premier League. That I am convinced of. And you shall see it,” claims Van Gaal, but he cannot be without concern.
Martial, meanwhile, is rapidly paying off his fee, while covering for Rooney’s sharp decline. That hefty fee secured his old club in Les Ulis a £150,000 windfall as part of FIFA’s ‘solidarity’ system. It completes, in a fashion, a full circle for the teenager who once received Evra’s boots as an inspirational gift.