Signed from financially stricken Portsmouth at the end of the summer 2009 transfer window, Sylvain Distin was a straight replacement for Joleon Lescott who had joined one of Distin’s former clubs – Manchester City – in acrimonious circumstances days earlier. A tall, physically imposing player with impressive pace given that he was already in his thirties, Distin had captained both City and Portsmouth and impressed in a loan spell with Newcastle United earlier in the decade.
Distin was a late developer, having been released by the Paris Saint-Germain academy as a teenager. For a player later renowned for his professionalism it seems surprising that he was let go for his own personal excesses. ‘For me football was always a game, I never thought it would be a job,’ he admitted to the Evertonian in 2009. ‘I never worked at my game, I just used my natural ability and that worked fine for me. But one day they asked me to slow down on the nights out and I didn’t, so I got sacked.’
He worked his way back into the game with US Joué-lès-Tours in France’s sixth tier and at the age of 21 signed his first professional contract with Gueugnon. A surprising run that saw the small-town club win the French League Cup brought him national attention and PSG signed him back. He played alongside Ronaldinho and Mikel Arteta before moving to England in 2001, initially on loan at Newcastle. Eight years later he was an Everton player.
With Phil Jagielka recovering from long-term injury and Phil Neville deputising at centre back, the £5million acquisition provided some desperately needed respite for Everton’s stretched defence. He proved to be a fine, committed defender, albeit prone to some excruciating lapses of concentration. A rash challenge late in Everton’s Round of 32 Europa League game against Sporting Lisbon saw his dismissal, gifted a penalty to the Portuguese and completely altered the complexion of a tie in which Everton had been cruising.
It was certainly true that his partnership with Joseph Yobo and Phil Jagielka had some weaknesses when compared to how those players paired with Lescott. But alongside Johnny Heitinga he seemed a different player and their partnership through the 2011/12 season proved the cornerstone on which Everton’s progress was built.
Articulate and well rounded, Distin has emerged as one of the most popular members of the Everton dressing room.
Sylvain is not normal,’ his former team-mate Louis Saha told the Liverpool Echo in May 2012. ‘He is a superhuman like a cyborg. Believe me, he works very hard in every training session – that’s the norm at Everton anyway and he goes beyond that.
Distin connects with supporters via the social media site Twitter, and there is a healthy respect between the player and fans. This was heightened following the 2012 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Liverpool, which proved a personal catastrophe for the Frenchman.
A stray back-pass on the hour mark let in Luis Suarez who equalised for Liverpool and altered the flow of the match. But afterwards a distraught Distin came to the Everton fans to apologise and memories of his aberration were quickly replaced by admiration for his honesty and respect.
In May 2012 Distin signed a one-year contract extension that will take him past his 35th birthday. ‘I don’t need any boost to go into next season. I love my job and I know how lucky I am to do this kind of job,’ he said. ‘I want to carry on as long as I can. No matter what happens, you can be sure I’ll be there the next day. It’s a good squad here with a great atmosphere. I feel so comfortable with the lads, so it’s a pleasure.’