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Page last updated at 20:08 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 21:08 UK

How Fellaini became Everton's mane man

Marouane Fellaini

By Chris Bevan

Whatever happens at Wembley on Saturday, it is safe to say that Marouane Fellaini has already done more than enough to get himself noticed in his first season in English football.

Nine goals, a burgeoning reputation as the greatest aerial threat in Europe and, of course, the largest afro in the top flight have earned the 6ft 4in Belgian international cult status among Everton fans.

The big-haired but softly-spoken midfielder will have hundreds of wig-wearing followers at Saturday's FA Cup final, all hoping to see the 21-year-old cap an eventful campaign with a trophy.

What many of them won't know is that the track was Fellaini's first love and he came close to taking up a career in athletics.


"He was very good at long-distance events and, at that age, his aim was to become a runner," Paul Schraepen, who was in charge of Anderlecht's youth academy where Fellaini played for three years from the age of eight, told BBC Sport.

"When he was 10 or 11, we were in discussions with his father about signing him but he wanted to do athletics - the 10,000m was his event."

Thanks to the guiding hand of his father, Abdellatif, football soon took over as Fellaini's sport of choice.

He became a Belgium international while still a teenager and, following his £15m move to Merseyside, is now his country's most recognisable football star.

But being so easy to spot is not always advantageous.

Fellaini has had plenty of attention from referees too - picking up 13 bookings in domestic games, more than any other Premier League player.

Fellaini has become a cult hero for Everton fans
Fellaini has become a cult hero for Everton fans

And while some Toffees fans adore him, others have been quick to point out their record signing is yet to really show whether he has any ability with the ball at his feet.

When he moved to Goodison Park at the end of last season's transfer window, little was known about Fellaini apart from the fact he had just helped Standard Liege come close to knocking Liverpool out of the Champions League.

Nine months later, his lack of fluent English means he remains something of an enigma off the pitch, while on it the only things we know for sure are that he possesses supreme ability in the air and gets in a few scrapes with referees.

Ostensibly defensive-minded, Belgium's most expensive player remains unproven in the middle of the park largely because Everton's dearth of fit strikers has seen him regularly pressed into service up front or as a secondary striker.

Not many players could manage the double whammy of shining in an unfamiliar role in their first season in the Premier League but, his disciplinary problems aside, it is fair to say that Fellaini has pulled it off.

What Fellaini has done is even more impressive because usually every player needs time to adapt in a new country before they play well

Standard Liege striker Igor de Camargo

His former team-mate at Liege, Brazil-born Belgian international striker Igor de Camargo, always knew about Fellaini's versatility but admits he is shocked by the speed at which his friend adapted to the demands of the English game.

De Camargo, who along with Fellaini helped Liege win the league for the first time in 25 years in 2008, told BBC Sport: "Maro is big and quick, so he definitely always had the physical ability to play in England.

"And it is not a surprise for me that he has scored so many goals. For Liege he always played in central midfield but had the legs to get forward and score with his head. For him to play up front was never going to be a problem.

"But what he has done is even more impressive because usually every player needs time to adapt in a new country before they play well.

"You need to learn about the players that you play with, as well as those you play against, but Maro settled in so quickly."

David Moyes and Marouane Fellaini
Moyes watched Fellaini for two years before taking the plunge

Moyes had watched and waited for two years before finally moving for Fellaini after his impressive performances against Liverpool, which alerted a host of English clubs to his talent.

He got his man after convincing the Belgian that Merseyside was the best place for him to continue his development as a player.

But, like many Everton fans, the Scot still seems unsure of what Fellaini's best position is - he has spoken about him playing in a holding role or as an attacking midfielder in the mould of Tim Cahill.

The only thing Moyes seems convinced of is that the man from Etterbeek will improve.

That was also the view taken by Schraepen, who was in charge of Anderlecht's youth academy when Fellaini joined aged eight.

Schraepen worked with him for three years and told BBC Sport: "Marouane was not a naturally gifted player when he was younger but he was very athletic.

"He would run from the beginning of games to the end - you couldn't stop him, he was that determined."

Fellaini's father undoubtedly played a huge role in his son's progression to the Premier League.

Abdellatif was a goalkeeper for Raja Casablanca in his native Morocco but saw his own career stall when he moved to Belgium and could not gain clearance from his former club to play on.

It is a surprise even to me that Maro has become such a star. I never would have thought it possible that he would reach such a high level

Anderlecht academy coach Paul Schraepen

Instead he became a tram and bus driver and, in his spare time, coached his three sons in the sport he loved.

Fellaini left Anderlecht at the age of 11 when Abdellatif got a new job in Mons, 60km away, joining the local club RAEC Mons. He also played for Royal Francs Borains (now known as Royal Boussu Dour Borinage) and Sporting Charleroi before joining Liege in 2004.

His time at Anderlecht held him good stead because former Stoke City boss Johan Boskamp, who managed the 'Purple and Whites' in the mid 1990s, remembered him when he was briefly in charge of Liege almost 10 years later.

"Johan took him at Liege and put him in the first team in 2006," explained Schraepen. "He gave him his chance, no-one else did that. Six months later, he was in the Belgium team.

"But it is a surprise even to me that Maro has become such a star. I never would have thought it possible that he would reach such a high level.

"He was good as a boy but not formidable and there were many more skilful players in his age-group when I coached him.

"Marouane's personality and character have been very important to him making it and his father has helped him a lot too, firstly by always believing in him 100%."

Marouane Fellaini
Fellaini has not always sported his famous afro

It seems that, while he is best known for his aerial prowess during games, Fellaini's willingness to keep his feet on the ground is the reason he has come so far, so quickly.

Away from football, according to De Camargo, his old team-mate is shy and likes to "keep things simple", adding that he is enjoying the attention he is getting because of his distinctive hair but is not getting carried away by it.

Hard work remains Fellaini's mantra, and he is keen to improve all aspects of his game, including his discipline.

His relationship with referees has never been the greatest, even back in Belgium but, when he collected his 10th booking of the season against Hull on 10 January, he and Moyes knew it was time to act.

Fellaini avoided a lengthier suspension by attending a personal hearing with Keith Hackett, England's chief referee and general manager of Professional Game Match Officials Limited, where the player gave his side of events but also vowed to improve his behaviour.

He has kept his promise. After being booked 10 times in his first 17 games for Everton before meeting Hackett, he has picked up only three yellow cards in 16 games since.

And De Camargo feels Fellaini will react in a similar fashion to criticism over his passing ability - by getting better with the ball.

The striker admits Liege missed Fellaini badly when he left, although they recovered to retain their Jupiler League title in a play-off after finishing level on points with Anderlecht.

"I never played against Marouane but I would always prefer to play with him," de Camargo added.

"He is comfortable in two positions, offensive and defensive midfield. Yes, if there is a weakness to his game, it is his passing. He is not poor in that area but he is no Ronaldinho, if you see what I mean.

"That is not his strength right now but he is definitely the sort of player who can improve and he has always worked hard at doing so.

"At Liege, with every game and every day I watched him get better. For sure he has areas of his game he can improve but he has made big progress already in his first year in England."

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Inside Sport - David Moyes
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Liverpool 1-0 S Liege (1-0 agg)
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Standard Liege 0-0 Liverpool
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