You’ll never beat Sauzée

It’s the chant with which Hibs fans celebrate the Frenchman’s unbeaten record against Hearts as player and manager. For grace and charisma, can any Hibs player ever beat ‘Le God’?

By Edd Norval

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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In Edinburgh, rumours had began to spread that he might come to Hibs, but the mooted arrival of Franck Sauzée, a Champions League-winning French international seemed not just unrealistic, but silly.
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There are very few players that Hibs fans would talk about in the same breath as the ‘Famous Five’ of the late 50s. Lawrie Reilly - conceded that Sauzée would have got a start for that team.

Easter Road, the ground of Gods,

Holds its head high above the skyline,

Memories past and present,

Of shouting from the by-line.

This is part of a poem I wrote in 2009, during my first year of university. It was about Edinburgh and one of its landmarks, Calton Hill. From up the top of the hill, the stadium stands out for its shape and colour, a splash of green in amongst all the grey of the old city. Every player seemed like a God when I first started going to Hibernian’s games. As I started to get older, I began to outgrow that youthful idolisation, but not with Franck Sauzée. In Leith, Franck Sauzée is ‘Le God’.

It started with a top-of-the-table meeting with Falkirk, a game in which Hibs could extend their lead at the summit of the first division to six points. On paper, the former French international midfielder was the best player on show, and that was borne out on the rutted grass. Sauzée was always a move or two ahead and carried himself with a finesse that belied his large frame. He was instantly taken by the club and fans because of the warmth they showed – just as they were by him – but no one realised what was in store.

Sauzée’s first season couldn’t have gone better. After playing in nine of Hibs’ remaining 10 games, he seemed able to elevate the whole team so they began looking at the game through his eyes, with his knowledge and experience. His magnetism was obvious in every match, from the way senior players responded to his shouts to the manner the awestruck younger crop looked at him. Buoyed by the fact they had surpassed the burgeoning expectations of the season, they headed into a crackling Easter Road for the final game of the campaign and beat nearest rivals Falkirk 2-1 to win the 1998/99 First Division title by 23 points. The crowd had swelled to bursting point and, when the final whistle blew, the steel and stone was no longer enough to supress the fans who burst from all four stands on to the pitch, lifting Sauzée and his boys high into the air. For this seven-year-old boy, weaving through the groups of fans holding their idols aloft, they looked like giants, and they were only going to keep on growing.

Caught up in that moment, it must be hard to articulate what you feel in a language that is not your own, but when the camera turned to Sauzée on the pitch he uttered the eternal, ‘Vive l’Ecosse, vive Hibs, et Vive la France.’ The ‘H’ was fully pronounced this time, instead of his usual ‘eebs’ – a pronunciation error that endeared him further to the fans. That leadership and charisma made the supporters love him but so, too, did his uncanny ability to stick it to Hearts.

Normally, Sauzée would have wheeled away in jubilation, but this time he lay still, seemingly unconscious, face down in the grass. The other players celebrated for a few seconds before realising that their captain wasn’t moving. They rushed to his aid but Franck’s hands were covering his face, hiding the agonising pain and the mess where his four front teeth used to be. They had been knocked out  when he butted the back of a defender’s head at the same time as he headed a cross over Hearts goalkeeper Antti Niemi and into the far corner of the goal.

After some medical assistance, Sauzée jogged back to his own half for the kick-off with a mouthful of gauze and cotton wool, celebrating his goal with a cock of the arm and remarkably, still focusing on the game at hand. The previous time they had met, it had been Sauzée that drew first blood in a match immortalised as the ‘Millennium Derby’.

Hibernian had done badly against Hearts over the previous few years, but managed a draw in their first meeting of the 99/00 season and approached the second game – Franck’s first at Tynecastle Stadium – in confident mood. They were a goal up after Dirk Lehmann’s low, hard strike from outside the box, but needed another to guarantee victory. There would be no ‘Hibsing it’ with Sauzée in the team, though.

A poorly-defended attack resulted in the ball rolling out of the Hearts box and Sauzée, with the uncanny calmness acquired through years of playing at a high level, struck the ball with his thunderous right foot through a seemingly impossible scramble of bodies towards the bottom corner. The Hibernian fans erupted, but the best was yet to come. Sauzée charged towards them at the other end of the pitch, brushing his team-mates aside before being swallowed into the bosom of the green and white sea of fans. It was, perhaps, the most pertinent example of the unflinching love between fans and player alike.

Sauzée was voted Hibs’ player of the year as the side managed a mid-table finish in their first season back in the top flight, and collected the award dressed in a kilt. In broken English, he spoke of the immediate bond he could sense between the club and the fans and how welcome he felt as a part of it. So as a gesture, he dedicated the prize, this time in very clear English, ‘to the players, to the staff and of course, to you, the fans’.

This was a man who had led an illustrious career in France, beginning with Sochaux at 17 and going on to become part of the Marseille side – alongside the likes of Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps – who won the Champions League and remain the only French side to do so. They also won back-to-back leagues, thanks in large part to the talismanic midfielder in the number five jersey. But after a series of bizarre incidents, including match fixing at the club, most of the squad would head in their own directions.

Sauzée endured unfortunate spells at both Atalanta and Montpellier, before deciding he wanted a new challenge. Any team in France would have been lucky to have him in his prime but, as his legs started to get heavier, he had to regain his joie de vivre. He had exhausted his options in his homeland so he looked a little further afield. In Edinburgh, rumours had began to spread that he might come to Hibs, but the mooted arrival of Franck Sauzée, a Champions League-winning French international seemed not just unrealistic, but silly.

Adding to that, things at Hibernian weren’t too rosy, either. After an appalling season in 1997/1998 – winning just six of 36 games – they were relegated for the first time in 18 years. Thankfully, a silver lining was found in the form of Alex McLeish, whose appointment as manager in the latter part of the season improved results, but it came too late to avoid the inevitability of relegation. The fans and players knew he was the right man to lead Hibs back from the First Division and were eager to see what the season could bring, and who McLeish could recruit.

Despite starting slowly, Hibs went unbeaten from September 1998 to February 1999. They looked good, but to endure, the team needed something more. The rumours of Sauzée coming to the shores of Leith were still circulating but always with an air of the unreal. So when news got out that he was in Edinburgh, even the most persistent torchbearers of the rumour were taken aback that they might actually have called it. In February 1999, it was finally announced: Sauzée would be signing for Hibs. McLeish’s decision to sign the ageing star was inspired, but how did it happen? This was like Led Zeppelin playing in your town hall.

It turned out McLeish had faced Sauzée at international level. Exactly as you’d expect a Scottish centre-half to look, with his fiery hair and fiery resolve, and with charisma and a well-rounded knowledge of continental football, McLeish was able to get in touch with the Frenchman and talk as international adversaries and future partners. Both men were natural leaders, with Franck representing the beauty and McLeish the beast, and the manager was able to entice the veteran to Edinburgh to play in a training match – not a trial – just to make sure his ageing legs still had life left in them. They did.

The man was pure joy, pure passion. The Hibs fans were captivated by his gentlemanly demeanour, aforementioned passion and bravery on the pitch, and for the glorious derbies that he gave us. Hibs never lost a game against Hearts that he played in. Beating your bitter rivals and conducting yourself with grace is always going to cement your place in history. He had taken part in two of the most memorable derbies in recent times in his first full season, but it was in his second campaign that Hibs would enjoy their most cherished encounter with their city rivals.

Having started the season as captain, Sauzée took on a new kind of confidence. If the first year was his way of learning to sing again, he approached this one as his Woodstock. He knew its importance and he knew he had everything around him to make big things happen.

The season began vehemently, with Hibs winning 11 of their first 14 games, including the momentous 6-2 victory over Hearts. Russell Latapy had a perfect match, helping Mixu Paatelainen to become the first Hibs player since 1967 to score a hat-trick in an Edinburgh derby. The bond between the big Finn and the big Frenchman had been clear from their camaraderie in the promotion year and continued with the pair dying their hair brilliant blonde together, forgetting their age completely and making the usual genteel Sauzée look quite the ‘radge’.

Sauzée, it should be noted, also delivered another captain’s masterstroke in that derby win. Before the game kicked off, he brought literally hundreds of pounds worth of champagne into the dressing room as a treat for the players if they won. He might not have scored that day, but his impact had already been felt and he went on to preside over the game in his new role as sweeper in McLeish’s renovated 5-3-2. It was a change from the midfield anchor position that he spent his career perfecting, but now he could watch over and dictate the tempo of the game from the back. Sauzée’s attention shifted to being a manager on the pitch, creating a lot of crucial plays from deep thanks to his laser-accurate passing. If nothing else, he was 35 and his body was beginning to lose its vigour, this role suited him perfectly.

Tactically miles ahead of any other player on his side, he suffered George Best syndrome at Easter Road – getting into positions team-mates would fail to spot and putting the ball where players should be going. But where Best would miss training for a night out with Debbie Harry, Sauzée spent nights with his beautiful wife and a good wine. His mind refining though experience, never dulling through abuse.

There are very few players that Hibs fans would talk about in the same breath as the ‘Famous Five’ of the late 50s, who remained immortalised in the memories, images and songs of the fans. However, one of that quintet – Lawrie Reilly – conceded that Sauzée would have got a start for that team, even if he carefully neglected to mention whose place he would take in the XI. Still, it further built on the ‘living legend’ myth of Sauzée and put him up there with the all-time greats of Easter Road.

The 6-2 game against Hearts helped illustrate Sauzée’s standing as, in the following match, he walked out to a thoughtful rendition of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, rendered by ‘doo doo doo doo doos’ from the Hibees in the stands. Sauzée recognised it as he entered the pitch like a movie star on the red carpet – more alike French actor Jacques Charrier at a premier, fresh from a film with Brigitte Bardot – than a football player in Scotland.

The 2000/2001 season had a dream beginning and middle, but a slightly more fraught ending. The team managed a third-place finish, qualifying for Europe for the first time in 10 years, but the strains were starting to show in the structure of McLeish’s squad. It was clear that Sauzée was a father figure, but his experience and influence was becoming a crutch. Late in February 2001, he picked up an injury that ruled him out for six weeks and, in his absence, the team didn’t win a match. That dismal form persisted, with the side throwing away their chance of second place after registering just one win in the final 11 games. Perhaps the outcome mi ght have been different had Sauzée stayed fit.

The key men that season – alongside Sauzée – were Paatelainen and Latapy, who not only produced most of the team’s goals, but also provided a vital spark despite not being young lads themselves. Even away from the field, Latapy didn’t look like slowing down. On a night out with international team-mate Dwight Yorke, what started as a catch up went a little bit too far when Latapy was pulled over while driving and breathalysed. Blowing over the limit saw the player face a charge from the police, putting McLeish – a man known not to take any prisoners – in a difficult position. Drop him, or let it be a final warning to him and the rest of the squad? Latapy was left out just weeks before the Scottish Cup final and had played his last game for Hibs. As the hundred year-long hoodoo in the competition hung above the club, Sauzée went into the final lacking fitness and the team lost 3-0 in what looked like a training game for Celtic.

To the delight of Hibs fans, Sauzée would return for another season as captain. This was a role that, like his strength on the park, wasn’t fought for, but came naturally to him, and the campaign started with promise, with another win over Hearts and  5-1 and 4-0 victories over Dunfermline and St Johnstone. But Sauzée was encountering recurring problems with his Achilles tendon and it seemed a matter of when, not if, it would give out again. After missing the first leg of the Uefa Cup tie against AEK Athens, then being forced off with a head injury in the second leg, reality was beginning to sink in. His persistence only prolonged the inevitable for the fans, the team and perhaps most agonisingly, as a true football lover, himself.

His Achilles once again gave way in late October, in what would be the last time he pulled on a Hibs shirt. Having lost Latapy and Paatelainen – amongst a host of others – over the summer, the injury woes and bad results had McLeish on the back foot and Sauzée’s injury exasperated the feeling of hopelessness. A 1-1 draw with Rangers earned some respite but, after that game, Dick Advocaat resigned as the Ibrox club’s manager. McLeish was the obvious replacement.

Hibs needed a successor quickly, a man able to communicate well with the players, and the board decided to look within. There were no doubts about the name on everyone’s lips. The fans wanted Sauzée to lead the team, this time from the dugout. It was never going to be easy, taking on the job in such a whirlwind turn of events, but upon hearing of McLeish’s departure, Sauzée cut short his recovery in France and flew back into Edinburgh, knowing he had a job to do. Despite the high number of applicants, a familiar face proved a pacifying presence, Sauzée’s meeting with the board lasting just a few minutes. Two days after McLeish’s departure, he was unveiled as the new Hibs manager.

Sauzée’s achievements on the park inevitably formed the scale that his work as manager would be marked on. It was unrealistic from the start, not only because this was his first job, but also because he was working with a squad very different to the one from the previous season, with fewer old heads and, most importantly, no captain after his bold ‘Franck Sauzée as a player is now history’ declaration.

The atmosphere around Leith was electric, the myth of Sauzée was evolving and any concerns surrounding his pedigree were swept up in the hysteria. The fans were unequivocal in their excitement but initial results weren’t great. Drawing away at St Johnstone, the team they were battling to avoid relegation, was a sign of things to come but it was his first home game that would be a baptism of fire for Sauzée. Rangers and McLeish came to Easter Road and, by all accounts, Hibs were hard done by, with two contentious sending offs and little in the way of consolations. They went down 3-0 and were two men short for Sauzée’s third match in charge, making it harder than anyone would have expected.

The troubles continued, as Hibs gave away a spate of cheap and late goals. There was  anger, but it wasn’t directed at ‘Le God’ – that would be blasphemy – but at the board. The team, the fans and the manager carried an optimistic attitude, even if results were not coming, but Hibs did make it to the semi-finals of the League Cup. However, they couldn’t raise their game against Ayr United and something changed that afternoon in Glasgow. The team looked unsettled as the tie went into extra time, Sauzée’s usual air of calm dissipating in an aggressive display of confusion from the sidelines. Emotions began to bubble to the surface when Ayr were awarded a fortuitous penalty by referee Mike McCurry at the beginning of extra-time and, with that, Hibs’ cup dreams were over.

Sauzée’s abilty to inspire team-mates in his playing days had transferred into bad luck as a manager. After a 4-0 thumping from Motherwell and a draw at home against Dunfermline, the board felt it was time to step in. Only 69 days after his appointment, Sauzée was sacked on February 20, as much of a whirlwind exit as it was entrance. One consolation from his short tenure was a 1-1 draw against Hearts, as it meant he still hadn’t lost against them, and the hum of ‘you’ll never beat Sauzée’ reverberated around the walls of Tynecastle.

The announcement was made official the next day and the Frenchman was present, as graceful in defeat as he was modest in success. This was his farewell to arms. To him, Edinburgh had been home, but after 15 games in charge – and one win – the board deemed him unfit to manage the club. Most of the press and almost all of the fans were united in disagreement. How could someone be judged so harshly in such a short time? Especially someone who has done so much for the club, especially our Franck. This was a dark time for the football club and this was perhaps the hardest part to swallow.

Being still too young to judge the gravity of the situation, I remember feeling angry that Hibs weren’t doing well, but genuinely sad that Sauzée wouldn’t be at Easter Road anymore. Couldn’t we just tell him we made a mistake and give him his job back? Hibs did pick up a bit of form, enough to steer clear of relegation, but a vacuum was left that still hasn’t been filled. The passion and excitement generated during his playing days has never truly been replicated and the resentment towards the board caused by his departure is still felt today. It was exactly because the fans embraced him so warmly that the duplicity wasn’t just about him, but us as fans, as well.

The post-Sauzée era of Hibs hasn’t seen him forgotten. Quite the contrary. In 2005, he was voted by fans on a BBC poll as Hibernian’s all-time cult hero. The number four can still be seen of the back of fans’ shirts in a nod to the great man. He has had books written about him and a touching article by another son of Leith, Irvine Welsh. I remember sitting not far from him when I was a youngster in Easter Road’s west stand. I saw him at half time with his long black overcoat and my dad told me who he was and that we were watching a legend play in the presence of another. Welsh said of Franck, ‘Some players often feel bigger than their chosen sport; they have a grace and presence that seems to throw aside the shackles of its limitations.’ There isn’t much to add to that.

Franck transcended the idea that a football player was only a role model for people who wanted to be football players themselves. He was a role model and an example to everyone who was lucky enough to see him play or hear him talk. He didn’t seem like a mere mortal on the pitch at any point, he seemed like a God. He was ‘Le God’. So all that’s left to say is ‘merci’.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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