So we met at his favourite spot on the coast of the town he calls home. He sat me down at a table facing the Mediterranean Sea, and we are at the café in time for some freshly brewed coffee and warm bread from a nearby bakery. James Naylor explains that the best time for him was this time in the morning (9:30) before the heat gets too much, he wants to enjoy the sea air that is so much part of this bustling city as the rest of it, bakers, fishermen, apartment blocks and all.
I ask James to tell me a little about himself; we all know he is an English born man, whose French mother still lives near the cathedral. Locally, he is affectionately called l'anglais (the English man) but James says it was not always this way.
“My mother, who was an English teacher, met my father when he was in the city on a business trip, looking to expand his company by acquiring a base in the Mediterranean. She was a daughter of a land lord and quickly fell in love with the man who soon became her husband and father of her only child. They married and after the import-export office was set up, my father moved them back to his home town – Liverpool. My mother was already pregnant with me at that time, and she says she nearly lost me when she found out what my father had wanted to do.
“Anyway, she accepted his pleas to move and, you have to understand, Liverpool in 1979 was hell on Earth for a woman who hardly ever ventured out of this town! My father quickly realized this and as his brother quickly became of age to look after shop in Liverpool, my dad made the decision to move back to Marseille.
“My father could speak French well enough but the underlying Scoucer accent was undeniable. And I too grew up with many of the same pronunciations, so my growing up in this town was slightly disadvantaged to say the least. Other children would pick up on it immediately and I was often picked on, and did not have too many friends. Even the parents of the children would try to avoid me, but I cannot blame them for that, I was an outsider and something I had to live with.
“But that soon diminished once we began to play football, though. My father, who is an ever-loyal Evertonian, persuaded me to take up football over my preferred choice rugby. He would always find time to play with me, on weekday afternoons, after studies, we would play and, as my French became more authentic, friends started coming round to play too. On Saturdays my father used to take us all on to his Citroen pick-up van and take us to watch OM play at the Stade Velodrome. There was a special moment when I looked up at him, I must have been about seven, and I told him I wanted to play football when I grew up. Of course being a football enthusiast dad, his heart swelled but he was the one who kept me grounded and made sure I studied first.
“Then as I got older my father began organizing a monthly football tournament for the local school I attended. He would tell me I was good, but only when I asked. One day though, two men that I recognized from the Veledrome were with my dad during one particular afternoon tournament. I stepped it up and really tried hard to play well, taking on board all the tips I got from my dad’s coaching.
“He did not say anything after he came back from a meeting he had with those men, and I really began to wonder what that was all about. I kept my mouth shut about it for three days until at last I demanded an answer for the reason they were there. He turned to me, eyes glistening, wide and honest and he said they were scouts from Olympique de Marseille. They were there the week before too but I did not see them. Of course I thought; I did see them but was too busy showboating with the lads in front of an audience due to it being my eleventh birthday. They chose some of us to join their youth team on trial.
“To this day I remember quite vividly how my jaw dropped when he explained to me why myself and two other boys were not going to his tournament that week.”
What happened next is all vividly portrayed in his first autobiography, written in English in 2006, after his unfortunate early retirement from football by Mr. Naylor himself at the age of 29 and translated in French before its release by a colleague of mine at the gazette. That story was about the blood, sweat and tears of an outsider, who fought the demons both outside and within to play and triumph at the highest level, both for club and England, and being taken to the depths of a career, made short by injuries that took James away from the spotlight and media attention for two years and reemerge as the strong willed man that he is today.
We pick up where that book had left off in the summer of 2006. James, by then had achieved his UEFA pro license and was working with the FA in England, coaching at junior level up to Under 21, assisting Stuart Pearce until 2007. He was offered a coaching role at l’OM. In 2009 he became assistant manager to Didier Deschamps; later in 2010 took up the role as assistant coach of the Croatia National team, who were looking to qualify for the 2012 European Championship having missed out on the World Cup. Croatia were unbeaten in four games when in January 2011 James was given the opportunity to take the role of assistant manager again. By June that year he was appointed head coach. James Naylor becomes the football manager of Olympique de Marseille at just 31 years of age!