A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Few were prepared to give Caen a chance. The optimism that followed an opening day victory over champions Marseille and then another at home to Lyon a week later had long since vanished. A 12-game run without a win between September and December had put the Norman invasion in retreat.
Not even the sniper-like striking of Youssef El-Arabi, the Morocco international who is still on course to break Xavier Gravelaine’s club record of 20 goals in a single top-flight season, could pull Caen clear of relegation. A poll in L’Équipe last week revealed that, of the 157 people asked, 28 per cent thought the Normans would join Lens and Arles in Ligue 2 next season. Only Nancy fared worse.
Feeling desperate, Franck Dumas had to do something. The Caen coach switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1, but still no luck. He fooled around with his players’ positions only to then cause confusion in their ranks. Things picked up in March with a four-game unbeaten run and Caen briefly sat 13th in the table. But just when the Normans thought they were out, they were pulled back in.
Three defeats in a row left Dumas with gravel under his fingernails again. His side were hanging on the edge of a cliff and losing their grip. Then a Mannish Boy appeared as if from a Muddy Waters song and offered his hand. That boy was M’Baye Niang, a star in the making with all the ability to persuade the Cannes film festival to up sticks and move to Caen.
The rescue act started at the Stade Malherbe last Saturday. Caen were hosting fellow strugglers Lens and Dumas decided to give Niang another go in the starting line up. The teenage prodigy had made his debut in a 1-1 draw with Toulouse on April 24 and was a member of the first XI a week later in a 4-0 win away to Nice.
Within two minutes, he had made his mark, receiving the ball on the left-hand side of the box before hitting a weak shot that Lens’ veteran ‘keeper Vedran Runje disastrously fumbled into his net. It wasn’t the best goal by any stretch of the imagination, but at 16 years, four months and 18 days, Niang became the second youngest scorer in the history of Ligue 1 after Laurent Roussey, the former Saint Étienne striker who set the record back in 1978.
The match ended 1-1 with another top prospect, the 18-year-old defender Raphaël Varane getting an equaliser for Lens in the 37th minute, something that will no doubt pique reported interest from Manchester United. And yet, all the post-match talk was about Niang. “Even if I am a little crazy for playing him, it’s not a surprise!” Dumas said. “I play the best whether they are 16 or 35. And anyway, we’ve been preparing him for this for two and a half months.”
Dumas left Niang on the bench for Wednesday’s trip west to Brittany to face free-falling Rennes. However, when Abdou Kader Mangane gave the home side the lead just before half-time with an opportunistic dink over Alexis Thébaux, he looked to the wunderkind again to get Caen out of trouble. Niang of course didn’t disappoint, finding the net four minutes after coming on to secure a precious point.
“M’Baye has huge potential,” said Caen’s Under-19 coach Philippe Tranchant. “We’ve never seen a player like him at the club before.” Indeed, many feel Niang will eclipse the academy’s most famous recent graduates such as William Gallas, Mathieu Bodmer and Yoann Gouffran. “He is not at all intimidated and doesn’t have a complex about it, which some people take for arrogance,” said defender Thomas Heurtaux. “But he is always respectful of the veterans and the hierarchy.”
Niang was first spotted in 2006 by the club’s youth scouts David Lasry and Laurent Blaize who drove to the outskirts of Paris one day on a tip off. “In the beginning they told me that he was a présu (a player claiming to be younger than his actual date of birth),” Blaize told L’Équipe. “But he was born in Meulan and at the age of 13 he was already 5’4”.”
Niang had already come to the attention of Saint-Étienne, PSG, Lille and Monaco, so Lasry and Blaize knew that they’d have to move fast if Caen were to beat the competition for his signature. He was invited for a trial and scored a hat-trick during a 20-minute cameo in a training match. The club showed no hesitation in tying the kid down to a contract the following day.
Too good for every age group at youth level, Niang’s size has been only part of his success. He has shown natural ability and instinct too. “It’s bizarre,” he told France Football. “When I get into the box it’s like I have a black out… I don’t see anything, but I know that I am going to score.”
That might sound big headed - indeed, Niang has reportedly been taken to one side by the coaching staff at Caen on several occasions for “sometimes having his head in the stars” particularly after signing a new three-year contract, and you can read what you like into the decision of France Under-17 coach Patrick Gonfalone’s decision to overlook the precocious striker in favour of his teammate Lenny Nangis for the upcoming European Championship in Serbia.
“You can get bored a youth level,” Dumas said in Niang’s defence. “He wanted things to go a little too fast. I can relate to M’Baye on this point, as I was also 15 when I first started training with the first team. It feels strange to go back to the juniors. If he is praised too much, he won’t progress. But if he listens he’ll become an exceptional player.”
Niang’s rise coincides with the quota row and dual-nationality debate currently running across L’Hexagone. Born in France to parents of Senagalese descent, he has already represented les Bleus at Under-16 and Under-17 level.
Mulling Niang’s case over in his column, L’Équipe’s Didier Braun drew a comparison with Sammy Davis Junior: “The artistic talents of the American star allowed him to overcome [the prejudice]. M’Baye is a phenomenon, a striker out of the ordinary. There is no quota for talent.”
There is a price, however, and it remains to be seen how long Caen can hold on to their 6ft, 16-year-old man-child of a No 9. In the meantime, of course, they’ll be hoping Niang can save the club from relegation, starting this weekend against Montpellier.
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