Chris Waddle was one of the most underrated English players of his time. A player who never seemed to be played in the right position or left to do what he was good at when playing in England or for England.
After a good year at Tottenham, Marseille put in a bid for the winger, which Tottenham accepted finally at £4.5m, after the French team doubled their initial offer. The deal was too good for Tottenham to turn down. Marseille wanted a player who could put in dangerous crosses for their main striker Jean-Pierre Papin and saw Waddle as the perfect player to do so.
Waddle’s first season at the club did not start the best. It was no surprise, as he was living in a hotel while his house was being built and the Geordie was taking time to settle.
When Waddle arrived at the club for the 89/90 season, he had not managed any preseason training but was thrust into his first match against Lyon just days later. A clearly unfit Waddle struggled, but Marseille continued to play him, while during the day trying to build up his fitness. With his lack of fitness showing, the Marseille faithful started to wonder if the winger was worth the money the club had stumped up for him. Waddle was, after all, the third most expensive signing of all time. He had scored his first goal for the club against Toulouse in a 2-1 loss and added another one against Sporting Toulon, but this did little to stop the murmurings of the fans. The winger was under pressure, and his performances had not been great.
But he needn’t have worried. Marseille played Paris Saint-Germain in October with Waddle scoring a fantastic goal. The ball was knocked into the area after a corner was only half cleared. Waddle was the first to react as he beat the offside trap as the ball was floated in. He controlled the ball on his chest and flicked the ball over the onrushing keeper Joel Bats’ head. But the finish was all about Waddle. With the goal gaping, he turned slightly to back heel the ball into the goal. Flair and arrogance maybe, but it was the goal that propelled him into the Marseille faithful’s hearts.
From then on Waddle could do no wrong. As the season progressed so did his worth to the team. Waddle was a vital piece in the Marseille line-up, as the team went on to win the French Division 1, beaten Bordeaux by two points to win the title.
The Englishman had been brought to provide crosses to Jean-Pierre Papin, and he did exactly that, the Frenchman finishing top league scorer with 30 goals with Waddle the provider on numerous occasions. It was a great first year for Chris Waddle who had played in 35 matches and scored six goals. But it was his willingness to adapt to French life outside football as well as on the pitch which helped him. More importantly he was loving life.
The following season, 90/91 was one of Waddle’s best.
As league winners the club had qualified for the European Cup, a trophy that president Bernard Tapie wanted to win. The team was filled with stars, Manuel Amoros, Basile Boli and Brazilian Mozer at the back, in midfield Jean Tigana, Abedi Pele, Dragon Stojkovic and Waddle and Eric Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin up front. This was a team good enough to take on Europe, and they came so close.
After their first eight league games, they remained unbeaten, winning six of them, with Waddle grabbing his first of the season in a 2-1 win against Paris Saint-Germain. After dispatching Toulouse 2-0 with Waddle opening the scoring, they faced their first round match against Dinamo Tirana in the European Cup. Marseille won 5-1 at the Velodrome, Papin scoring a hattrick. The return leg finished 0-0 with the tie already dead after the first leg win as Marseille progressed to the next round.
A disappointing 1-0 loss in Ligue 1 to Cannes was followed up by three wins on the trot beating rivals Monaco 3-1 and St Etienne 3-1 with Cantona grabbing a brace.
The European cup had pitched their next match against Lech Poznan. After taking the lead after eight minutes, Lech Poznan scored three without reply. Waddle pulled one back for Marseille to keep the French club in the tie. Although they had lost 3-2 the team were confident they could produce at home, and produce they did, as the second leg at the Velodrome saw Marseille win 6-1, Philippe Vercruysse scoring a hattrick to send them through 8-4 on aggregate.
With the quarter finals not until March, Marseille could concentrate on the league. A 2-0 loss to Nancy away was followed by three wins, Waddle scoring in a 4-1 victory over Rennes the pick of the games. A hammering at Auxerre losing 4-0, brought the team back down to earth, but they bounced back immediately, beating Metz 3-0 with a brace from Papin and one from Waddle, as well as a fantastic 7-0 win over Lyon, Papin in great form scoring four goals.
Their next three games were a mixed affair, losing to Lille 1-0, hammering Nantes 6-0, before drawing 1-1 with Bordeaux. February was a big month for the club as the league was getting to the business end of the season. A 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain was followed by a win at the Velodrome against Toulouse by the same score line. Then came Cannes and Monaco, both team pushing for titles and Europe. After securing a scoreless draw away to Cannes, Marseille beat Monaco 1-0 at home, Bruno Germain scoring the goal.
Next came AC Milan in the European Cup. Milan had such greats as Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard, Roberto Donadoni and Ruud Gullit. The match over two legs turned into one to remember but for all the wrong reasons. The first leg was excellent for Marseille, although Milan took an early lead through Gullit after 14 minutes after a defensive mix up. However Papin scored the equaliser after 27 minutes after good work from Pele found Waddle who crossed perfectly to the feet of Papin to score. It was an excellent result for the French side as the match finished 1-1.
It was however the return leg that caused controversy. The match was a feisty affair with five yellow cards issued by the referee. It took until the 75th minute for Marseille to take the lead. Pele’s cross was flicked on to Waddle who hit the ball right footed on the volley into the corner of the net. Waddle ran straight to the Marseille faithful before being mobbed by his teammates. The Velodrome erupted, the team were so close to knocking out the mighty Milan.
With the match entering stoppage time, the floodlights suddenly went out. The referee called a temporary halt to the match in the hope the light would return. It took 15 minutes for the floodlights to burst back into life with all expecting the game to restart and play out the final minutes of the match. However, Milan Director Adriano Galliani refused to put his team back in the pitch, claiming TV crews had disrupted the match by going onto the field. With Milan refusing to play, the match was forfeited and the win given to Marseille with Waddle’s great strike the winner.
Marseille had made it past the mighty Milan and into the semi-finals under somewhat controversial circumstances. The next two league games Marseille could only draw against Saint-Etienne and Sochaux before they faced Spartak Moscow in the European Cup.
With Marseille playing in Russia first they pulled off an incredible 3-1 victory in front of a packed stadium on a poor pitch. Pele opened the scoring as he broke free after a good through ball by Waddle and finished low past the goalkeeper. The second goal was again assisted by Waddle as he won the ball in the middle of the park to turn and play a fabulous pass for Papin to run onto and fire home. Igor Shalimov managed to pull one back for Spartak until on 89 minutes, Vercruysse headed home from close range from a Papin cross to seal the win.
With two league games sandwiched in between the two legs, Waddle scored again in the 6-2 defeat of Nancy, Papin also scoring another hat-trick, as well as a 1-1 draw with Rennes.
The second leg against Spartak at a full Velodrome saw Marseille win the tie. Pele scored in the 34 minute after Papin chested the ball to him on the edge of the box, before he drove into the area to unleash a powerful shot into the net. The stadium was buzzing they could feel there was no way back for the Russian side. Just after half time match was won. A free kick was whipped in by Waddle who tried to take the keeper by surprise as the ball struck the post before Boli knocked in the rebound. The noise inside the ground was deafening, the players and fans realising they were so close to the final. Spartak managed a consolation penalty but it was too little too late as Marseille ran out 5-2 winners on aggregate to reach the European Cup Final.
With five games remaining it was up to Marseille to win the league. They drew the first three, 1-1 against Brest, 3-3 Sporting Toulon and a scoreless draw versus Montpellier. Their final two games were close matches, but a 1-0 win at home to Auxerre with Vercruysse scoring the goal. Marseille had become Ligue 1 winners.
Their final league match away to Nice also finished 1-0, Pele scoring the winning goal to cap off a wonderful season domestically for the team. For Marseille to win the league while participating in the European Cup was a great achievement and to finish six points ahead of rivals Monaco. Waddle finished the league campaign playing 35 matches and scoring six goals as well as numerous assists. It was a fantastic season for him with the final still to come.
The European final kicked off on the 29th May in front of 58,000 fans crammed into the San Nicola in Bari. Marseille were up against Red Star Belgrade. The then Yugoslav team boasted Sinisa Mihajlovic, Dejan Savicevic, Robert Prosinecki and Darko Pancev. But Marseille were in great form and the fans expected.
Papin had a great chance to open the scoring as he found himself unmarked in the area only to put the ball wide. Red star continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack, their speed on the break frightening. Waddle had a chance which was closed down well by the Red Star defence but the score remained goalless in the first half.
Deep into the second half, Waddle again had a great chance to score with 14 minutes remaining. The ball crossed in by Papin, came onto the head of the Englishman who somehow managed to head wide from six yards out. With neither side offering much in attack, Waddle again put a header just wide from distance. It was a great header which had the keeper beaten only for the header to bounce agonisingly wide. Waddle with his head in his hands knew how close he had come to winning the match just before full time.
With extra time added, neither side could find a way through. The referee blew the final whistle to take the game to a penalty shootout.
Prosinecki scored the first penalty to put Red Star 1-0 up. Amoroso then stepped up to take Marseille’s first. The veteran hit his shot too close to the keeper who saved well. Dragisa Binic confidently scored for Red Star which Bernard Casoni did likewise for Marseille. Miodrag Belodedici put his penalty into the corner, before the reliable Papin made the score 2-3. Inside the stadium the Marseille support were beginning to feel nervous. Red Star had not looked like missing from 12 yards. Mihajlovic took Red Star’s next penalty and powerfully found the net. Red star were now in pole position. With the screw beginning to turn a miss from centre back Mozer would finish the match, however the Brazilian kept his nerve and calmly scored. It came down to Pancev who had the chance to win the European Cup for Red Star Belgrade. Looking the calmest man in the stadium, Pancev slotted the ball to the keeper’s right-hand side to win the Cup for Red Star.
It was tough on Marseille who had had the chances to win the match in normal time but had failed to find the net.
They had come so close to winning the match, only to be beaten by penalties, was sickening and for Waddle, having lost on penalties in the 1990 World Cup Semi-final, this was a bitter pill to swallow.
Waddle had taken teams apart at times during their European Cup run. He had tormented defences all over Europe and was the standout player in the Marseille team, during their run. Waddle had played in all nine matches scoring two goals. After the way Waddle and Marseille had played to reach the final, the game itself was a major disappointment. But they had a team capable of conquering Europe.
The following season ended up being Waddle’s last at Marseille. The club continued to perform well in the league and Waddle was playing some excellent football, being deployed as a central attacking midfielder just behind Papin. Waddle was excelling and his performances helped Marseille win the League for a third consecutive year, finishing four points in front of Monaco. Waddle played in 35 matches scoring on seven occasions.
However their European Cup adventure ended abruptly after being knocked out in round two by Sparta Praha. For Tapie it was the last straw. He wanted a European win and after being knocked out so early, Tapie wielded the axe on the team.
Out went Trevor Steven, Mozer, Papin and Chris Waddle. Waddle sold to Sheffield Wednesday for £1m. After what Waddle had given to the club in his three seasons, being transferred was harsh.
For Chris Waddle, he had won three Ligue one medals and got to the final of the European Cup. Nicknamed by the Marseille faithful ‘Magic Chris’ they had truly seen the best of the brilliant winger.
The difference for Waddle in France than in England was the fact he was given the license to roam in France. They knew what his assets were and played to them, rather than placing him in a rigid formation asking him to track back when he was devastating going forward. Waddle could win a match on his own and Marseille knew that, it was a shame that the England national team didn’t.
A player so underrated in England even to this day, was loved in France and a Marseille legend.
When a player is voted second in the best player of century behind Jean-Pierre Papin in a Marseille shirt, you know how good a player he was.
Waddle and Marseille were made for each other. Waddle had skill, arrogance and a tremendous technical ability that all world class players have.
They came so close to that European dream only to be beaten on penalties, but without Waddle it wouldn’t have been possible.
One of the most underrated players in English history, but in France one of the world’s greats.
‘Magic Chris’ deserves so much more recognition.