When West Ham signed Dimitri Payet for Marseille last summer, he arrived in England a largely unknown quantity. Even many observers in France were unsure whether he would survive in the Premier League, despite coming off a fine season with OM, which was to that point his most impressive in a career chequered by inconsistency.
Less than a year after being taken under the wing of Slaven Bilic, Payet finds himself a player with his reputation transformed. Not only was he regarded as one of the outstanding players in the Premier League during the 2015-16 campaign, he is currently the toast of France, having struck a stunning late winner for Les Bleus in their 2-1 opening day victory over Romania.
While Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann both found the going tricky – Didier Deschamps replaced both the players expected to star for his team – it was the 29-year-old who set the Euro 2016 party going with a fierce shot into the top corner from outside the box. Neither Pogba nor Griezmann is certain to start against Albania: Payet, though, will be the first name on the teamsheet.
Such a moment as Friday's is typical of the season that Payet has enjoyed, and it is little wonder that some of Europe’s very top teams are considering a summer move. Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain are among those, but with the Hammers holding out for €60 million – and perhaps more if the player continues to excel for the hosts at the Euros – there is no guarantee they will be able to prise him away from the Olympic Stadium.
Due to a personality described as “naturally nonchalant” by former Nantes reserve coach Stephane Moreau, it has taken Payet a long time to mature as a player. His career has progressed in a stuttering manner, as he was dogged by inconsistency at Nantes, Saint-Etienne and Marseille before Marcelo Bielsa arrived to take him under his wing.
It was under the Argentine that the Reunion-born attacker finally started to produce quality on a regularly basis, and West Ham were shrewd to profit when OM’s financial problems saw contract talks with the Stade Velodrome side breakdown.
“My idea was not to cross The Channel but to stay at Marseille,” Payet told Canal+ in September. It was a move, however, that may have been the making of him as a player.
“I arrived on tiptoes. It wasn’t so bad. It allowed me to work serenely and not have to worry from the moment I joined,” he admitted.
Payet would not go unnoticed for long, however. Since moving to London, he has proven he has what it takes to play at a top club. His level has been irreproachable and consistent. On his debut he shone away to Arsenal, providing a free kick assist for Cheikhou Kouyate to head the opening goal of a 2-0 victory. Set pieces would become his trademark in a season in which he accrued nine goals and 12 assists in just 30 league outings in a sparkling debut campaign.
A former self-confessed bad boy – “I used to p*** people off when I wanted to,” he once admitted – his attitude has improved immeasurably over the last two years. While he did grumble in the French media about being overlooked by Deschamps for the autumn internationals of 2015, he has largely done his talking on the field, and successfully won his coach over by the overwhelming quality of his displays.
This in itself is no small feat, given that Deschamps and Payet fell out spectacularly during their Marseille days, leaving the relationship between the two fractious. These wounds, it seems, have healed, with ‘DD’ embracing his tearful player as he was replaced following his winning goal against Romania.
Moments earlier, he proved his ability to come good at the most decisive moment. While Pogba and Griezmann seemed to freeze on the occasion, Payet conducted the France squad brilliantly throughout. Opening games are always tricky affairs, dogged by big build ups and nerves. No-one on the field handled themselves better than Payet, whose winning goal was a fitting conclusion to a terrific display.
And it was simply a replication of what he has produced for West Ham all season on an even grander stage. Little wonder, then, that having shown this big-game mentality that Europe’s best are convinced he can still be a worthwhile addition to their squads, despite his comparatively advanced 29 years.
“If I go to the Euros it’s very good, but if I don’t it’ll be one of my biggest regrets,” he said while his place in the squad was still hanging in the balance back in March.
If Payet had not gone to the tournament, it might well have been one of Deschamps’ biggest regrets, for he now has a star in his midst.