Payet helps ASSE lay ghosts to rest
As a bus snakes its way out of Lyon in the dead of night, four Saint-ÃÂtienne players gather around a table to watch a YouTube clip on a MacBook Pro, the screenÃ¢ÂÂs 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 RhÃÂ´ne 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 ballÃ¢ÂÂs trajectory like Wily Coyote chasing after Road Runner only to run straight into a telegraph pole. He canÃ¢ÂÂt 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 Ã¢ÂÂ the last time Saint-ÃÂtienne beat their bitter rivals in the derby. Ã¢ÂÂThe return of Les Verts is not the return of a myth,Ã¢ÂÂ wrote Vincent Duluc in LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe. Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs a myth itself, that of an eternal return, which is perpetually disappointing.Ã¢ÂÂ
FranceÃ¢ÂÂs 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-ÃÂtienneÃ¢ÂÂs dominance was nothing short of absolute, so much so in fact that having wrapped up the title in 1974, Robert Herbin, the teamÃ¢ÂÂs 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 rivalsÃ¢ÂÂ faces. Roger Rocher, the self-made man, who had formerly been a miner in the pits that surround the city, would famously quip: Ã¢ÂÂIn football, Saint-ÃÂtienne will always be the capital and Lyon its suburb.Ã¢ÂÂ
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-ÃÂtienne skyline. When his side werenÃ¢ÂÂt doing the improbable, like coming back against Valeri LobanovskiyÃ¢ÂÂs Dynamo Kyiv en route to the 1976 European Cup final, they were usually thrashing Lyon, the most one-sided win in the fixtureÃ¢ÂÂs history being a 7-1 drubbing doled out in 1969.
Legend even has it that Oswaldo Piazza, the teamÃ¢ÂÂs 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-ÃÂtienne 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 RhÃÂ´ne derby in 1967 when he heard something whistle past his head.
It wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a bottle, a coin, or even a pigÃ¢ÂÂs head. After all, Bereta was no Luis Figo. Instead, it was a humble carrot, freshly picked and resplendent in its simple orange-ness. Saint-ÃÂtienneÃ¢ÂÂs unflappable captain cockily strode over, cast his eye over the offending carrot, picked it up and took a bite. Ã¢ÂÂThe ground started to laugh,Ã¢ÂÂ 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-ÃÂtienne 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 VertsÃ¢ÂÂ points tally in Ligue 1 to 16 points, something they didnÃ¢ÂÂt 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-ÃÂtienneÃ¢ÂÂs 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 SauxÃ¢ÂÂs infamous scrap with David Batty in 1995 when Blackburn faced Spartak Moscow in their debut Champions League campaign.
Saint-ÃÂtienneÃ¢ÂÂs two presidents came down especially hard on him. Roland Romeyer in particular displayed no hesitation in banning him for Ã¢ÂÂshowing a lack of respect towards the shirt, the club and its values.Ã¢ÂÂ
Indeed, it looked as though a move to Sunderland was on the cards. When asked to reflect on that period of his career in LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe, Payet said: Ã¢ÂÂI donÃ¢ÂÂt know if Saint-ÃÂtienne 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-ÃÂtienne.
Ã¢ÂÂI did things that I shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt have done, notably the altercation with Blaise, my teammate,Ã¢ÂÂ Payet added. Ã¢ÂÂWhen I watch the footage again IÃ¢ÂÂm not really proud of it. Not many people knew me sufficiently well to know that I could change.Ã¢ÂÂ
Thankfully, Saint-ÃÂtienneÃ¢ÂÂs coach Christophe Galtier wasnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 ÃÂric Cantona in Marseille. In fact, his faith in Payet never waivered once.
Ã¢ÂÂI need you, but I need the best Payet, not the one we saw at the start of last season,Ã¢ÂÂ 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 heÃ¢ÂÂd 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 1Ã¢ÂÂs unlikely top scorer. Only a precocious 20-year-old named Djibril CissÃÂ© had gotten off to a better start in the last decade and that was at Auxerre nine years ago. Nonetheless, it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 itÃ¢ÂÂs the four that have rained in from outside the area that have really got people talking. PayetÃ¢ÂÂs sumptuous free-kick against Montpellier on September 18 naturally earned its fair share of knee jerk comparisons with Saint-ÃÂtienne 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: Ã¢ÂÂI can feel it [that this is going in].Ã¢ÂÂ
So itÃ¢ÂÂs fair to say there was a palpable sense of inevitability that Payet would continue his form into the derby. And Galtier wasnÃ¢ÂÂt 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-ÃÂtienneÃ¢ÂÂs 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.
OLÃ¢ÂÂs former Saint-ÃÂtienne striker Bafetimbi Gomis hit the post, as did JÃÂ©rÃÂ©my Toulalan, but if anyone was still under the illusion that Payet wasnÃ¢ÂÂt the man for this occasion, that destiny somehow hadnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 Ã¢ÂÂjust stop alreadyÃ¢ÂÂ after he was seen making a number of complaints to the fourth official, something which got the trash-talking Saint- ÃÂtienne boss into a bizarre little fight with LyonÃ¢ÂÂs goalkeeping coach JoÃÂ«l Bats at half-time.
When the final whistle was blown at the Stade Gerland, Saint- ÃÂtienne finally had the monkey off its back. Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs enormous,Ã¢ÂÂ Matuidi said. Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs a great joy, a great pride and more than anything itÃ¢ÂÂs the 100th derby.Ã¢ÂÂ Meanwhile Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas was personally addressing 2,500 fans who decided to hold a sit-in to ask for PuelÃ¢ÂÂs resignation. Ã¢ÂÂWe have won it for 16 years,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂWe lost this evening. But on Wednesday, we are playing in the Champions League and they are playing it on their Playstations.Ã¢ÂÂ
But the cameramen hadnÃ¢ÂÂt followed Aulas. Their lenses were focused on Payet, the revelation of the season so far. Ã¢ÂÂI knew the goalscorer and the passer,Ã¢ÂÂ Galtier joked. Ã¢ÂÂBut I didnÃ¢ÂÂt know that he was also an excellent defender. There is a star above his head at the moment.Ã¢ÂÂ Laurent Blanc also noticed it was in the ascendancy, offering Payet the chance to make his international debut by calling him up for FranceÃ¢ÂÂs upcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers.
However, the pressing question on everyoneÃ¢ÂÂs lip remains whether this marks the return of Saint- ÃÂtienne 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 JÃÂ©rÃÂ©mie 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. Ã¢ÂÂI believe that this Saint- ÃÂtienne can last,Ã¢ÂÂ said Alain Perrin. Ã¢ÂÂWhy canÃ¢ÂÂt they have a run like Montpellier did last year?Ã¢ÂÂ 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- ÃÂtienneÃ¢ÂÂs website as Ã¢ÂÂStar WarsÃ¢ÂÂ 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.