Chris Waddle's criticism of Joey Barton's loan move to Marseille was unusual: unconventionally bold, in the civil service sense employed by Sir Humphrey Appleby as a euphemism for foolhardy, and because it is rare for a player to adopt such proprietorial tones about a former club.

Those who question Barton – Gary Lineker for instance – tend to be repaid with a rapid raising of the stakes, an arms race of insults that too quickly escalates towards flirting with mutually assured destruction. By saying: "Unless someone's built him up into being Zinedine Zidane, I don't know how he got that move," Waddle risks retaliation. The game's Twitter Pied Piper normally does not let such slights go unpunished.

But Waddle is not being as reckless as he seems. Unlike most critics he carries a shield. The enduring affection of Marseille supporters for the Gateshead-born winger makes it unwise for Barton to respond in kind for fear of alienating his new home crowd. "It's a fantastic club with fanatical support and if he upsets the supporters he might as well leave town," Waddle said in a one-two combination, the implicit threat backing up the earlier observation.

The prospect of Barton enjoying success and adulation to match Waddle's three-year triumph at the Stade Vélodrome is implausible but one emotion they share that started their careers there is the feeling of relief to have escaped English football, the former QPR captain desiring a new start, Waddle from what he perceived as tactical drudgery.

A year after leaving Tottenham as the then third-most expensive signing in history Waddle joined up with England's 1990 World Cup squad as a French title winner and spoke about the difference between the playing styles in the two countries. "In France I'm an attacker," he told Pete Davies in All Played Out. "Here I'm running up and down, up and down, defend, attack, defend, attack – I'm shattered."

There had been doubts in the summer of 1989 concerning whether he was worth the £4.25m Marseille paid for him and some derision about a Geordie acclimatising to life in the south of France which was, back then, still seen as the acme of continental sophistication, all Brigitte Bardot, Cézanne and Eric and Ernie in That Riviera Touch.

Here Waddle tended to suffer by comparison with his good friend and former team-mate Glenn Hoddle. The latter was the personification of urbanity as a player, directing games at his best as though he were draped in ermine-trimmed robes with a viscount's coronet balanced jauntily on his blow wave. And yet as we were later to discover it was deceptive. An early indication came when the Diamond Lights duo were interviewed live after both scored in Spurs' 2-0 FA Cup quarter-final victory over Wimbledon in 1987. Asked to describe his glorious 30-yard free-kick, Hoddle said: "I just twatted it." Waddle, standing next to him, cringed at the profanity his friend had just broadcast to the nation.

After a difficult spell settling in when he played up to the stereotype of the ingenue abroad by telling reporters that he used his hotel suite's bidet to wash his boots, Waddle blossomed alongside Jean-Pierre Papin and Enzo Francescoli, winning the first of three successive league titles and getting to the semi-finals of the European Cup. Papin, who had spent a year at Brugge and struggled to establish a rapport with the club's Flemish speakers, took Waddle under his wing, influencing his 'Allo 'Allo! approach to English in interviews for a British audience and Papin adopting Geordie pronunciations for words such as Wembley and February in return.

Waddle, living in Aix-en-Provence, became an adopted Frenchman, never more so than when Graham Taylor refused to pick him for England and he became a kind of prophet in exile for a different philosophy. He had worked at winning over the Marseille public with the same diligence he had once applied to transforming himself from a one-footed, orthodox, left-winger into a two-footed attacker. He did this by entertaining the crowd with comical facial expressions, celebrations and stunts such as borrowing a mobile phone from a steward before taking a corner. To his team-mates he was Le Magicien while L'Equipe called him Le Dribbleur Fou and when Francescoli left after one season Waddle, in tandem with Abedi Pele behind Papin, became more expansive still.

The winger without blistering pace requires a peculiar style of nerve to complement his skill. As a magician Waddle had stealth; defenders knew what he was going to do – like the victim of a short con shell game – but could do very little to prevent him bamboozling them with a shoulder swerve or a hip shimmy with the ball always under his immaculate control.

He left Marseille as one of Britain's best three exports alongside John Charles and Kevin Keegan and by the time he returned to Sheffield Wednesday in 1992, to win the Footballer of the Year in his first season back, he was thoroughly uninhibited. France had liberated him and turned him into a player with the courage of his convictions.

"If he plays well, they'll take to him," Waddle said of Barton as a consolation after the scepticism. If he has a quarter of the impact of "Merlin" they certainly will.