Tasked with returning Hibernian to the Scottish Premier League in 1998, Alex McCleish apparently thumbed through some early 90s sticker books. He was in search of a statement signing, an experienced yet flashy name to send the message that Easter Road was the place to be, even when hosting Clydebank.
Phillippe Albert was looked at, possibly after watching his sumptuous lob for Newcastle against Manchester United on a loop; bemulleted hitman Emil Kostadinov, of Bulgaria’s famous USA ’94 campaign, was another given serious consideration. The candidates however, lacked that certain’ je ne sais quoi’. Then Big Eck turned to a man who had it in spades…
Franck Sauzée’s muscular string pulling for France and Marseilles had seen him dubbed ‘the new Platini’ at the start of the decade. He had 39 caps for Les Bleus, nine of them coming as captain, and he’d also been instrumental in Marseilles winning the inaugural Champions League in 1993. Dynamic yet composed, with a cannon of a left foot, he was arguably the best midfielder in Europe at one time.
Nudging towards this 30s at Montpellier, he fell foul of coach Michel Mezy, who came to see his gravitas as a threat. “In France,” Sauzée would complain, “experience is a pejorative”. Without a club and approaching 34, he did not want for offers as he sought one last footballing adventure, with offers from Austria, Switzerland and even Brazil. It was the overtures from an old foe to which he responded however. Mutual respect had developed between Sauzée and McCleish over numerous battles for club and country, and Eck was able to sell both Hibs and Edinburgh to the Frenchman. Sauzée headed to Leith, and the Scottish First Division.
He would inspire worship that endures to this day.
Quickly dubbed ‘Le God’, Sauzée has been voted Hibernian’s all-time cult hero. He has been publicly eulogised by high profile fans from Andy Murray to Irvine Welsh, who dedicated Porno to the ‘casual colossus’. Books have been written about him. Songs have been written about him.
Why? Because Scottish football hasn’t seen many Franck Sauzées in recent times. This was a man who could produce an eye-popping piece of skill with less effort than it takes Scott Brown to put on a shinpad. He would completely control games with an air of louche absent-mindedness. And he saved his very best for the derbies, inspiring fear and loathing at Heart of Midlothian. Hearts never beat Hibs with him on the pitch.
All that seemed far, far away in February 1999 however, when a player who’d graced Wembley, the San Siro and the Stade Vélodrome stepped onto the turf at Brockville Park, Falkirk…
First Division Pit Stop
In truth, Hibs were well on their way to the First Division title by the time of Sauzée’s debut. They already looked a cut above the rest of the league thanks to the savvy signings of Mixu Paatelainen and, most significantly, freewheeling attacking midfielder Russell Latapy, a Trinidadian magician who arrived from Portugal with a reference from Sir Bobby Robson. A whirling dervish of invention, Latapy was so unpredictable – on and off the pitch – that he appeared to take even himself by surprise, and left defenders wholly mystified.
Sauzée arrived to add a touch of class to proceedings, effectively pimping the ride that was Hibs’ promotion juggernaut. Forming an unlikely midfield partnership with one-time ‘Scottish Vinny Jones’ John ‘Yogi’ Hughes, he slotted into the quarterback role he’d occupied for l’OM. The deftest of backheels helped produce the winner on his debut, and before long he was majestically, balletically orchestrating games almost by accident. Laconic, unhurried, yet one-step ahead of everyone else, he was The Big Lebowski meets The Matrix. Hibs dropped just seven of the last available 81 points, and had the league sewn up by April.
Hibernian were consistently inconsistent on their return to the top flight, as likely to lose 4-0 as win 4-0. Yet the influence of Sauzée continued to grow, as his calm, melodic skills, occasionally punctuated by the odd piece of two-footed thrash – proved just as potent at the next level. This was memorably evidenced by his humiliation of Rangers’ Barry Ferguson, Sauzée flicking the ball over the Scotland star’s head as he advanced and then doing it again seconds later, matador-style.
The real interest in a season of consolidation was the resumption of hostilities with the Gorgie Boys. The Edinburgh derby had not been a happy occasion for the green half of the city for a long time, Hibs failing to win any of the last 22 league encounters. A 1-1 draw in August gave rise to cautious optimism that this might be the year, before the teams collided in the final derby of the century – dubbed ‘The Milennium Derby’ – at Tynecastle in December 1999.
McCleish’s team talk before the game reportedly boiled down to “give the ball to Franck and Russell”, and to be fair that worked pretty well. Dirk Lehmann put the visitors in front after 20 minutes. Then Sauzée took over; just before the half hour mark, he smashed a 25-yard daisy cutter past Anti Niemi before running the length of the pitch to celebrate with the berserk away support. According to author and superfan Ted Brack, it was the furthest anyone saw him run in a Hibs shirt.
Next, as Hearts’ Andy Kirk looked certain to reduce the arrears, Sauzée appeared from nowhere to intercept, nutmegging the striker in his own box. A teenage Kenny Miller sealed a 0-3 rout late on.
The hex duly lifted, Hibs relished the return fixture at Easter Road in March. Latapy cancelled out turncoat Darren Jackson’s early opener, then things started to resemble less a contest than a Looney Tunes cartoon.
At one stage a through ball to set Gary Wales away was cut out by a Sauzée backheel, while Wales carried on running in the opposite direction, oblivious. For his next trick, the Frenchman opted to deliver a literal knockout blow; as he rose to spectacularly loop in a header to give Hibs the lead, he knocked himself sparko. Coming round to find his front teeth missing, he dabbed at the bloody void with a hanky and pumped his fist to the crowd. Galvanised, Hibs won 3-1.
A measure of revenge was grabbed by the Jam Tarts on the final day with a 2-1 win, but the absent Sauzée was not involved. Any faint alarm bells about Hibs’ brittleness without him were drowned out by what he could do when he was there. So much fun was he having that he went back on his decision to retire at the end of the season, choosing to stay for another year. He had embraced the city too, spotted at dinner parties, in Brack’s words, ‘with the cream of Edinburgh society’. Voted the club’s Player of the Season, he attended the ceremony in full highland dress.
2000-01: The Peak
Euro 2000 gave Eck an epiphany. Having seen the success enjoyed by wing backs throughout the tournament, he decided to introduce a 5-3-2 formation built around Sauzée as sweeper, playing to his strengths while saving his 35-year-old legs. It would prove a masterstroke.
Sauzée, who was also handed the captain’s armband, effectively became the on-field manager, dictating positioning and team shape and giving the signal for the wing backs to bomb on. He read the game like a telepath, and strode forward with Beckenbauer-style surges, earning the nickname ‘Kaiser’ Sauzée.
Hibs got off to a strong start, and were declared bona fide title contenders by Celtic boss Martin O’Neill after he watched them vanquish champions Rangers in October. Up next, Hearts at Easter Road. Sauzée reportedly put hundreds of pounds-worth of champagne in the dressing room pre-match, nonchalantly explaining: “This is for after the game lads”.
What followed was a ritual humiliation of their rivals, a 6-2 demolition in which Paatelainen became the first Hibs player to score a derby hat trick for 30 years, Latapy, John O’Neil and Sauzée’s best mate David Zitelli finishing the job.The image of a riotous O’Neil on Sauzée’s shoulders would become iconic and find its way onto t-shirts. Hearts manager Jim Jefferies called it his worst day in football.
The feelgood factor was heightened by another contract extension for the new captain, with Hibs walking out to La Marseillaise in celebration at the following home game. Better yet, the club was looking good to end a 99-year Scottish Cup drought after breezing past Livingston to reach their first final since 1979. Yet little by little, storm clouds were gathering…
A side-effect of the change in role for Sauzée was that the team’s reliance on him intensified further. A six-week injury layoff saw Hibs fail to win at all without him, drawing twice and losing four times.
The real hammer blow to the season, however, came when Latapy was arrested for drink driving weeks before the final, following a night on the lash with his friend Dwight Yorke. A furious McCleish felt he had little option but to make an example and sidelined the Trinidadian. He never played for the club again.
The incident threw Hibs into disarray and their form fell apart. Worse, during a 4-0 defeat to Rangers, with the game already long lost, Sauzée overstretched making a completely pointless last-ditch tackle, injuring himself in the process. He was thrust into a race against time to prove his fitness for the final.
Patched up for the final at Hampden and given the El Cid treatment as a lifeless talisman, Sauzée on the day was clearly nowhere near his best. With one star man exiled in dudgeon and another miles away from full fitness, they were easy pickings for Celtic, losing 3-0.
Still, with a third-place finish and a cup final, it had been a fine season for Eck’s men, and optimism was high that they could go at least one step further the following year. They had the right manager, the right captain, and a European campaign to look forward to. What was the worst that could happen?
Winter of 69 (days)
It was hardly evident from the early months of 2000-01 that the end of the Sauzée era was dawning. True, there had been upheaval, with the likes of Latapy and Paatelainen leaving and 11 new players joining the club. However, the season started well, and the captain bagged four goals from sweeper in the first six games.
At 36, however, his body was starting to struggle, and when he damaged his Achilles tendon, Hibs, despite the influx of new faces, appeared less equipped than ever to deal with his absence. Without Sauzée, their European dream was dealt a swift kick to the bawsack thanks to a 2-0 defeat to AEK Athens. He was back for the second leg and Hibs were much improved, but when he hobbled off again the collapse followed soon after, and they lost in extra time.
Hibs struggled on, ok with the captain, useless without him. An injury crisis took hold, while McCleish appeared to have lost his touch in the transfer market, the likes of Eduardo Hurtado not proving up to snuff.
Then, a few days before Halloween, Sauzée’s Achilles gave out again against Dundee. Few realised he would never wear the shirt again.
In December 2001, Dick Advocaat resigned as Rangers manager, and The Gers turned to McCleish. Initially, the manager insisted he wouldn’t leave, but the job proved too tempting for a son of Glasgow and so, to Hibees’ disgust, he did just that.
To remove the bitter taste of betrayal, a feelgood appointment was needed, and the overwhelming choice of the fans was Sauzée. Within three days he was sworn in, the club’s first non-Scot manager since 1919, to much euphoria.
It was a fools’ paradise. Sauzée had no management experience whatsoever, and with results poor and the budget spent, Hibs were sliding and no place for a rookie. Results only got worse on his watch. The defence, without McCleish to organise them, fell part, while the loss of Sauzée the player (who announced his retirement on taking the reins) created a huge problem for Sauzée the manager, as Hibs, true to form, couldn’t function without him.
While his presence oozed authority on the pitch, as a manager he was too mild-mannered, trying to institute a passing game ill-suited to a dogfight and insisting players over 21 call him Franck, rather than ‘boss’. The players were used to being ruled by fear, and needed a fire and brimstone Souness type to rouse them from their inertia.
Occasionally, the rain fell upwards. Defeat in the derby at Tynecastle was averted via a last-minute Gary O’Connor equaliser to strains of “you’ll never beat the Sauzée” from the Hibs end. But the team’s frailty cost them. Leads were surrendered, wins in the league were not forthcoming. Sauzée’s first victory finally arrived in January, a 4-0 thumping of Second Division Stranraer in the Scottish Cup, but even then they’d needed a replay. By the time Hibs blew an unexpected shot at a place in the League Cup Final with an embarrassing reverse to First Division Ayr in the semis, it was pretty much all over.
On 20th February 2002 – just 69 days after he was appointed, and three years to the day of his debut at Falkirk – Hibernian sacked Franck Sauzée. It was the fastest dismissal in SPL history.
There was fury among the Hibs support, who felt that the board had panicked and that Sauzée could have turned things round in time. However, the board all too painfully remembered giving Jim Duffy too much time to dig an increasingly large hole four years prior, when the club was last relegated. Their real panic had been in rushing to appoint a tyro in the first place. Installing a pragmatist in Bobby Williamson, the club rose from second-bottom to finish a comfortable tenth.
The collateral damage, however, was that they had lost Sauzée altogether. No more would he light up Easter Road with his languid genius. All attempts since by his adoring public to tempt him back to the club as a guest have failed. He hasn’t been seen at Easter Road since 2002, but such aloofness has only deepened the well of love for him in Leith.
It was as if he knew his love affair with Hibernian was over, and staying away was the only way to truly preserve it. Timing was always everything with Sauzée.
Nobody summed up his aura better than Welsh:
‘Franck Sauzée possessed the bearing of a man who truly understood not just the beautiful game, but the world in general and his place in it.’
Huge thanks to Ted Brack, whose book There’s Only One Sauzée was an enormous help in researching this blog.