Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review - There's Only One Sauzee: When Le God Graced Easter Road

It’s almost ten years since Franck Sauzée left Easter Road, a turbulent 69 days of management bringing a passionate Leith love affair to an end.

Yet he’s still revered by the green and white hordes (not all, but a hefty number). Gone but ever more cherished.

Why?

Over the course of Ted Brack’s account of the Sauzée era many observers – teammates, his former manager, Hibs legends and ordinary fans – try to get the bottom of what it was in the relationship between the veteran and the faithful that convinced so many supporters that there was indeed only “one Sauzée.”

A quote from Jonathan Swift, born in Hibernia if not a Hibee, is tucked away on page 53. It seems apt:

“Whoever excels in what we prize appears a hero in our eyes.”

I consider myself a pragmatic realist as a supporter. But even I can never quite shrug off a certain romanticism.

Sauzée embodied what Hibs would like to be and what they once might have been. For supporters of my age, raised in the utilitarian Alex Miller era, he was unlike anyone we’d seen before, playing the game the way we were told Hibs were supposed to play the game.

For older generations he was a throwback, the skillful maestro they thought they’d never see again.

So the fans embraced him and he embraced the fans and that, of course, only made the fans love him even more.

That Sauzée would come to Hibs in the First Division shocked many. I’m not sure it should have. He was winding down and was out of favour at Montpelier. Edinburgh, if you have a certain affluence, is a nice place to live and Hibs were then in a position to pay a more than comfortable wage.

Even a celebrated European Cup winner might have been easily persuaded that there are worse ways to prepare for retirement.

The bigger coup was capturing Russell Latapy at around the same time. Latapy was then aged 29, in theory approaching his peak, and was coveted in England.

“The boy Latapy? Aye, a good little player,” was Bobby Robson’s response to McLeish’s inquiry about the midfielder's calibre. That signing, eventually based on a trial match at Brechin, was remarkable, a genuine moment of McLeish audacity.

Yet as much as Latapy was appreciated and often thrilled the supporters, it was Sauzée the fans were drawn to.

It was Sauzée, more often than not strolling through games, who seemed to embody Hibs as they stormed back to the SPL, consolidated their position in the top flight, finished third in the league, reached a Scottish Cup final and came close to knocking AEK Athens out of the UEFA Cup in one of Easter Road’s great European nights.

It was Sauzée who ran the length of the pitch towards the away fans after scoring at Tynecastle, who lost his teeth scoring in an Easter Road derby, who danced a jig of delight when Hibs touched the heights in hammering Hearts 6-2. It was Sauzée who Hearts couldn’t beat.

If you were explaining to a footballer how to become a legend at Easter Road you’d give them a copy of Brack’s book - which fairly jogs along in recounting the highs and even highers of Sauzée's playing career - and tell them to follow the Sauzée masterplan.

His importance and influence was huge. Alex McLeish built a good team at Hibs. But his reliance on Sauzée was almost total.

Jonathan Swift might provide a theme: Sauzée was Gulliver in Lilliput, his teammates often looked more than the sum of their parts when this giant walked among them and were left diminished when he wasn’t there.

He was even adept at putting out fires when the Lilliputians around him made the occasional mistake or when the manager made the odd tactical error.

McLeish hovers over this book. He was the visionary who, we’re told, had an encyclopeadic knowledge of the European game and a subscription to World Soccer magazine. The man with the contacts and gumption to gift Scottish football Sauzée and Latapy.

The author accepts that at face value - McLeish provides a foreword paying tribute to both Sauzée and Hibs - but I’m not so sure.

Bryan Gunn, Justin Skinner, Grant Brebner, Paul Holsgrove, Klaus Dietrich, Peter Guggi, Barry Prenderville, Derek Anderson, Derek Collin, Tom Smith, Alex Marinkov, Nick Colgan, Ian Westwater, Dirk Lehman, Matthias Jack, Paul Lovering, Stuart Lovell, Martin McIntosh, Earl Jean, John O’Neil, Paul Fenwick. Gary Smith, Didier Agathe, Ulrik Laursen, David Zitelli, Lyndon Andrews, Freddy Arpinon, Marc Libbra, Tony Caig, Derek Townsley, Alen Orman, Allan Smart, Ulises de la Cruz, Eduardo Hurtado, Mixu Paatelainen, Craig Brewster, Paco Luna.

Those are just some of the players that McLeish welcomed to Easter Road. You’ll recognise a few of the names, you might have forgotten many of the others. This was a manager enjoying a Bosman rule orgy.

Even the capture of Sauzée seems might have been borne more from a desire to land a marquee name than an immediate recognition of what this ageing midfielder could offer a team that had already enjoyed 11 straight wins in the First Division.

Philippe Albert and Emil Kostadinov were also apparently pursued in the hunt to sign the big reputation that would put the seal on what was, by the time Sauzée arrived, already looking like a comfortable return to the top flight. By that reckoning we could argue that McLeish got lucky that it was Sauzée he ended up with.

Why does that matter? Is all this not just the bitter ramblings of a Hibs fan still smarting at Mcleish’s departure for Rangers?

Not entirely. It’s important because reading this book is an inexorable journey to those horrible 69 days, to the misery of a league cup semi final against Ayr United and the pain of seeing Sauzée sacked.

Reading Brack's account of the McLeish years it’s easy to see how Hibs peaked around the time of that 6-2 win over Hearts, how Sauzée’s absences became more frequent and more detrimental as age caught up with him.

And how Alex McLeish struggled to cope. A club record on de la Cruz? The Ecuadorian companion piece that was Hurtado? Derek Townsley?

McLeish had mislaid his mojo before he travelled along the M8.

That left Sauzée to take over a diminished team that had lost, in Sauzée himself, its most important asset. The team that had shone, for a few almost perfect months, as brightly as any Hibs side of recent vintage had been dismantled and McLeish couldn’t recapture the magic.

That was the legacy Sauzée had to wrestle with in those 69 days. The board could have insisted he recruit a more experienced assistant than Donald Park. They didn’t. They could have insisted he retained the option of playing himself. They didn’t.

There were financial constraints that Alex McLeish wouldn’t have recognised.

When McLeish confided to the board that he doubted he had the players to win the First Division they countenanced him turning that season into a Cecil B DeMille production, complete with a cast of thousands.

Sauzée's role was as the tortured foreigner in a kitchen sink drama. A club newly worried about the housekeeping budget wasn’t going to give this novice the chance to buy himself out of a disaster.

Not that he wasn’t well rewarded for his three years as player and manager. His sole demand was apparently that no player at the club be paid more than him. He had an awareness of his own value that hints at a thoroughly modern footballer lurking below the gentlemanly, elder statesman surface. The board, which has evolved somewhat since then, acquiesced.

Brack argues that the eventual sacking of Sauzée, this modern day Easter Road hero, could even be seen as a brave move.

I didn’t think that at the time and I don’t think it now. St Johnstone were relegated that season with 21 points. It’s unlikely they would have been able to catch a Sauzée led Hibs even given the trauma of his first two months in charge.

That he was replaced by Bobby Williamson was an act of cowardice, the final victory of the earnestly dull Roundheads. It's true that Williamson gave a talented group of Hibs youngster their chance, sowing the seeds for Tony Mowbray's success.

But the board denied the chance to prove that he could do the same, do it with more inspiration and flair than Williamson was capable of.

From Sauzée to Williamson. It wasn’t the most subtle way to end an era.

Given much of what’s followed for Hibs, the days when Sauzée was in his pomp have taken on an almost dreamlike quality.

And at times he was so good, so nonchalant, so intelligent (“gymnastics of the mind” he told Simon Pia), so unusually Continental and yet so obviously at home that it could be breathtaking. There were moments when he almost seemed to be turning Chick Young’s radio reports into the awestruck ramblings of a smitten Hibs fan.

Those memories make it seem masochistic to linger on how it ended rather than how it once was.

Sadly the book’s missing ingredient makes the parting of the ways impossible to ignore. There is no Franck Sauzée in these pages, he dominates the book by his absence.

His exile from the People’s Republic of Leith now seems complete and permanent. He didn’t object to the publication of this book but nor did he did he give it his blessing. He simply ignored it, as he has done with many requests from the Hibs community in recent years.

Hibs imported an ageing, handsomely rewarded star and bucked the trend of such signings. They got a player who lived, breathed and bled for the cause.

Then they lost him. Apparently forever.

That causes the book to list, if not aimlessly, then a bit uncomfortably. The adulation from the fans inspired Sauzée and, at a time of his career when he was good enough and old enough to coast, gave him the impetus to become a star all over again. He reciprocated with what seemed, unless we can add damn fine acting skills to his list of accomplishments, like a genuine love for the fans and an appreciation of what he found at Easter Road.

It was a brief but perfect circle that gave Hibs the vigour to bounce out of a tumultous decade and grasp a new millennium with both hands.

There's a fine tale to tell here, but it becomes slightly anaemic without both sides of the story, an enjoyable scrapbook but not the book that a passionate love affair or even an aristocratic French marvel deserves.

A reminder, perhaps, that you should always be careful how you treat your heroes.

There's Only One Sauzee: When Le God Graced Easter Road by Ted Brack, Black and White Publishing.

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