A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
As a bus snakes its way out of Lyon in the dead of night, four Saint-Étienne players gather around a table to watch a YouTube clip on a MacBook Pro, the screen’s brightness lighting up the smiles on their ecstatic faces. Its owner is sat fidgeting in front of the keyboard, pressing play, then rewind over and over again with childish abandon.
Dimitri Payet is watching himself stand over a free-kick in the 75th minute of the 100th Derby du Rhône with the score deadlocked at 0-0. The atmosphere at the Gerland is loaded with tension. He looks left, then right in feverish anticipation and spits as footballers tend do, although this one has the feeling of a cowboy un-holstering his gun.
After a short run-up, he fires a shot, laser-like in its accuracy, up and over the Lyon wall, sending Hugo Lloris scurrying across his goal, tracking the ball’s trajectory like Wily Coyote chasing after Road Runner only to run straight into a telegraph pole. He can’t reach it and the net swells, prompting Payet to set off in raucous celebration, diving Klinsmann-like into the turf.
The 23-year-old had just lifted a curse, the length of which stretches back to April 6, 1994 – the last time Saint-Étienne beat their bitter rivals in the derby. “The return of Les Verts is not the return of a myth,” wrote Vincent Duluc in L’Équipe. “It’s a myth itself, that of an eternal return, which is perpetually disappointing.”
France’s most decorated and romantic club with its record 10 league titles last topped the table in 1982 just as financial scandal sent them into oblivion, prompting stars like Michel Platini to flee before they too were completely engulfed.
The previous decade had been one of unprecedented success. Saint-Étienne’s dominance was nothing short of absolute, so much so in fact that having wrapped up the title in 1974, Robert Herbin, the team’s ginger haired coach, laced up his boots and came on to score a penalty against Troyes.
Les Verts liked nothing better than rubbing it in their rivals’ faces. Roger Rocher, the self-made man, who had formerly been a miner in the pits that surround the city, would famously quip: “In football, Saint-Étienne will always be the capital and Lyon its suburb.”
Sat in the stands at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Rocher would sit with his beloved pipe spewing out smoke like the chimneys that populate the Saint-Étienne skyline. When his side weren’t doing the improbable, like coming back against Valeri Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv en route to the 1976 European Cup final, they were usually thrashing Lyon, the most one-sided win in the fixture’s history being a 7-1 drubbing doled out in 1969.
Legend even has it that Oswaldo Piazza, the team’s cult hero of a centre-back, was so confident of a victory in one derby in 1978 that he even asked to be substituted early so he could get a taxi to the airport and catch a flight back to Argentina to spend Christmas with his family.
Saint-Étienne had simply grown used to not being fazed by Lyon. The example of George Bereta had been past down from one generation to the other. There he was stood at the corner flag at the Geoffroy-Guichard during a Rhône derby in 1967 when he heard something whistle past his head.
It wasn’t a bottle, a coin, or even a pig’s head. After all, Bereta was no Luis Figo. Instead, it was a humble carrot, freshly picked and resplendent in its simple orange-ness. Saint-Étienne’s unflappable captain cockily strode over, cast his eye over the offending carrot, picked it up and took a bite. “The ground started to laugh,” he recalled, producing the wryest of smiles that would live long in the memory.
But that long-held supremacy would all change in a way Rocher for one never thought possible, so when Saturday night arrived Saint-Étienne were looking for a saviour, one that could end a 16-year drought against a team poetically enough 16 places below them, hopefully taking Les Verts’ points tally in Ligue 1 to 16 points, something they didn’t achieve until December last season.
As fate would have it, Payet of all people would be the man to turn the tide back in Saint-Étienne’s favour. The 23-year-old winger had looked on his way out of the club in May when he had a fight with club captain Blaise Matuidi during a match against Toulouse.
The referee had to separate the pair in a shocking set of circumstances that were eerily reminiscent of Graeme Le Saux’s infamous scrap with David Batty in 1995 when Blackburn faced Spartak Moscow in their debut Champions League campaign.
Saint-Étienne’s two presidents came down especially hard on him. Roland Romeyer in particular displayed no hesitation in banning him for “showing a lack of respect towards the shirt, the club and its values.”
Indeed, it looked as though a move to Sunderland was on the cards. When asked to reflect on that period of his career in L’Équipe, Payet said: “I don’t know if Saint-Étienne wanted to break with me. In my head when I left for my summer holidays everything was clear. We all had to give everything to have the best possible season with Saint-Étienne.
“I did things that I shouldn’t have done, notably the altercation with Blaise, my teammate,” Payet added. “When I watch the footage again I’m not really proud of it. Not many people knew me sufficiently well to know that I could change.”
Thankfully, Saint-Étienne’s coach Christophe Galtier wasn’t one to write off a troubled genius on account of a few behavioural problems, which is no doubt something he learnt from growing up with Éric Cantona in Marseille. In fact, his faith in Payet never waivered once.
“I need you, but I need the best Payet, not the one we saw at the start of last season,” Galtier reportedly told the player. And Payet responded, instantly repaying him by scoring no fewer than six goals in the first six games of the season, a feat made all the more remarkable when you consider he’d managed only two in the previous campaign.
Having carved out a sizeable reputation for his lock-picking passes and wiry dribbles, Payet was now Ligue 1’s unlikely top scorer. Only a precocious 20-year-old named Djibril Cissé had gotten off to a better start in the last decade and that was at Auxerre nine years ago. Nonetheless, it wasn’t just the number of goals Payet was scoring that caught the eye, but the quality and variety, be they short or long, from the left or the right.
Three of his goals have come from inside the box this season, yet it’s the four that have rained in from outside the area that have really got people talking. Payet’s sumptuous free-kick against Montpellier on September 18 naturally earned its fair share of knee jerk comparisons with Saint-Étienne legend Michel Platini. And just to add to the hype, his teammate Lolo Batlles revealed after the game that when Payet was stood over the ball he turned to him with his chest stuck out like a peacock and said: “I can feel it [that this is going in].”
So it’s fair to say there was a palpable sense of inevitability that Payet would continue his form into the derby. And Galtier wasn’t taking any chances, choosing to rest him for a League Cup tie against Nice in midweek after he complained of a muscle problem, which sparked understandable concern amongst Saint-Étienne’s long-suffering fans, a concern of course that would remain for much of the derby as Lyon set about battering their opponents in everything but goals.
OL’s former Saint-Étienne striker Bafetimbi Gomis hit the post, as did Jérémy Toulalan, but if anyone was still under the illusion that Payet wasn’t the man for this occasion, that destiny somehow hadn’t cast him especially for this role, then his presence on the post to clear two efforts off the line surely turned the most cynical of doubters into believers.
It was by now becoming evident that someone was watching over Les Verts, as the free-kick from which Payet scored the historic winner should never have been given, while Jimmy Briand, the effervescent Lyon forward, would also see a header hit the bar in the dying minutes.
Claude Puel cut a disconsolate figure on the sidelines. Galtier had already told him to “just stop already” after he was seen making a number of complaints to the fourth official, something which got the trash-talking Saint- Étienne boss into a bizarre little fight with Lyon’s goalkeeping coach Joël Bats at half-time.
When the final whistle was blown at the Stade Gerland, Saint- Étienne finally had the monkey off its back. “It’s enormous,” Matuidi said. “It’s a great joy, a great pride and more than anything it’s the 100th derby.” Meanwhile Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas was personally addressing 2,500 fans who decided to hold a sit-in to ask for Puel’s resignation. “We have won it for 16 years,” he said. “We lost this evening. But on Wednesday, we are playing in the Champions League and they are playing it on their Playstations.”
But the cameramen hadn’t followed Aulas. Their lenses were focused on Payet, the revelation of the season so far. “I knew the goalscorer and the passer,” Galtier joked. “But I didn’t know that he was also an excellent defender. There is a star above his head at the moment.” Laurent Blanc also noticed it was in the ascendancy, offering Payet the chance to make his international debut by calling him up for France’s upcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers.
However, the pressing question on everyone’s lip remains whether this marks the return of Saint- Étienne as a force in French football. Les Verts have a new spirit under Galtier - that much is clear - and their away form has markedly improved, something that can be put down to an experienced spine consisting of Jérémie Janot, and new signings Laurent Batlles, Sylvain Marchal and Carlos Bocanegra.
But few see them as genuine title contenders, more a surprise package. Lest we forget they were nearly relegated in each of the last two seasons. “I believe that this Saint- Étienne can last,” said Alain Perrin. “Why can’t they have a run like Montpellier did last year?” The acid test will come tomorrow when champions Marseille arrive at the Geoffroy-Guichard for an encounter jokingly referred to in a video on Saint- Étienne’s website as ‘Star Wars’ simply on account of both teams winning more league titles than anyone else in France. Only an Ewok would miss it.
Meanwhile Payet is once again practicing his free-kicks, beating Galtier in a challenge to put the ball through a shed window. Marseille should probably consider that a warning.
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