WE RAISED a glass of champagne and scoffed a few morsels of fine French charcuterie last Sunday night as we bade a fond farewell to Paul Le Guen, a man who began the season as our new pundit and ended it as a valued friend.
I cover British football for Canal Plus television station in France, appearing particularly on our showcase Sunday night show L'Equipe du Dimanche, a sort of European Match of the Day, with highlights from the weekend's top games around Europe, and news from each major championship. Paul, who had previously done some punditry for us in his sabbatical year between managing Rennes and Lyon, was added to the team at the start of last season and proved to be a tremendous asset. He has this great ability to analyse games, teams, tactics, and the clarity to explain his thoughts in just one or two concise sentences - perfect for television.
He sees things others don't and has been able to demonstrate his great understanding of the game. Paul has also amazed us with his encyclopedic knowledge of European football. Here is a man who watches a lot of matches! He tunes into a lot of football-related programmes, too, and I think he was a little overawed at first at the idea of appearing on a show he's so used to seeing from the safety of his settee.
He was, though, a success right from the start and grew in confidence as the weeks went by. He was even cracking jokes after a while, until I reminded him that was supposed to be my job.
Paul also did some sterling work for us as a co-commentator and analyst on our live Champions League coverage. With a tendency towards understatement, Paul is sometimes rather serious but always lucid and spot-on in his reading of the game, and quickly gained a reputation as one of the very best.
Personally, I loved the time when he lost his cool for a rare moment during the Werder Bremen-Juventus Champions League game, which the Germans won 3-2 despite some cavalier defending. When Werder, in the midst of a flurry of mad-cap attacking, were caught on the break for the third time in five minutes, it was all too much for our usually mild-mannered pundit. "But these Germans are completely crazy!" he wailed.
Paul, though, is a reserved man who will usually do his best to avoid the limelight. So much so, it probably suits him that he is not even the best-known Le Guen in the Brittany village where he was born. In Pencran, population 1,300, Paul's mother is the mayor and he's happy to allow her to be the family spokesperson. His father's a retired insurance executive, if you really want to know. To complete the family picture, Paul is the middle one of three boys, and also has a little sister. He and his wife have three children, a 16-year-old boy called Antoine and girls of 14 and ten - Pauline and Erwana.
The kids have had to put up with their 42-year-old father watching BBC Prime and CNN in recent months in their Brittany home as he attempts to brush up and improve his English.
As a professional footballer, Paul was a late starter. His studies always came first and it wasn't until he played for Brest reserves as an amateur for one year during his time at the local university that he really started to think there might be a career in it for him. Brest, then in the French First Division, drafted him into the first-team squad and he made his top-flight debut at the age of 20. He also managed to complete a masters degree in economic sciences.
After five years with Brest, where he played alongside Glaswegian striker Ian Wallace (whom he has since lost touch with but would love to catch up with, if anyone knows where he is) Paul moved to Nantes. Two years later he switched to Paris Saint-Germain, where he enjoyed seven successful seasons - first as a stylish, defensive midfielder, then as a classy sweeper - and became a France international.
French champions in 1994, at one stage PSG reached the semi-finals of European cup competitions in five successive seasons. He played alongside the likes of Youri Djorkaeff, George Weah, David Ginola, former Brazil captain Rai and, lest we forget, Stephane Mah at PSG.
Le Guen was partnered by future Hoops defender Mah in central defence for PSG's 1995 Cup Winners' Cup tie with Celtic. After a 1-0 home win, PSG then won 3-0 at Celtic Park thanks to two goals from Patrice Loko.
We at Canal Plus knew that Paul would only be with us for 12 months, the time he needed to re-charge his batteries after leading Lyon to three straight French league titles. We knew he would be targeted by clubs around the continent and that he'd soon be off for a new adventure. Still, it was sad to see him go.
Paul is diligent, hard-working and a bit of a perfectionist. He's funny, too. During last week's show, we had an interview with Bayern Munich's Mehmet Scholl as part of a grand farewell to Bixente Lizarazu, the veteran French left-back who is retiring from the game and who will replace Paul on our programme next season. Scholl laughingly recalled the time Lizarazu punched Lothar Matthaeus in the face during training. Back in the studio, we were laughing, too. Paul, though, quick as a flash, turned to the presenter and said: "I don't know why you're laughing, he's going to be sitting next to you next season!"
Paul, we'll miss you!
LIFE AND TIMES OF LE GUEN
March 1, 1964: Paul Le Guen is born in the small Breton village of Pencran.
1981: Le Guen starts his playing career at AS Brest, staying with the club for six years
1987: He then moves to Stade Brestois, the bigger of the two clubs in the town of Brest, playing as a defensive midfielder for two years.
1989: Le Guen gets his first taste of Ligue 1 football, playing for Nantes for a further two years.
1991: Paris St Germain become Le Guen's final club. He goes on to make 478 appearances for PSG, winning the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1996 and playing alongside David Ginola, Patrice Loko, Rai and Youri Djorkaeff. Domestically, he is part of a team that sets a record 27 games undefeated in season 1993-4 and in his time at the club, wins Ligue 1 once, the League Cup twice and the French Cup twice. Retired from the club in 1998
1994: Is part of the French team which squanders the chance to qualify for the World Cup in the USA. Makes 17 appearances for his country in an international career plagued by injury.
1998: uSrprisingly announced as the manager of Rennes. However, during his three-year tenure, he guides the club to UEFA Cup football two seasons running in fifth place and unearths players such as Shabani Nonda, El Hadji Diouf and Julien Escude.
2001: Resigns as manager of Rennes after a disagreement with club owners, who believe the club is underachieving after finishing season 2000/01 in 13th place. He decides to take a year away from the game
2002: Takes over from Jacques Santini at Lyon. Despite predictions of a decline in silverware, Le Guen wins three league titles and in 2005, catapults the side to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where his talented side lose to PSV on penalties.
May 9, 2005: A day after winning Ligue 1 for the third time in a row, Le Guen stands down from his position as Lyon manager. The Breton decides to spend a year working for French television company Canal Plus, where he becomes a successful, well respected pundit, working with former Hibernian player and manager Franck Sauzee.
2005-6: Le Guen turns down numerous overtures for his services. Major European clubs such as Lazio, Auxerre, Fenerbahce, Benfica, Olympiacos and even PSG all fail to lure him as manager.
March 13, 2006: Rangers announce that Paul Le Guen will succeed Alex McLeish as manager of Rangers. He signs a three-year deal at Ibrox with the option of extending his contract should he wish. The Frenchman will start work at Ibrox on the June 20.
May 10, 2006: Le Guen completes his first signing for Rangers, adding South African teenager Dean Furman to his squad from Chelsea. That same day, Le Guen releases Greek defender Sotiris Kyrgiakos. The Frenchman is also linked with a plethora of players, including Laurent Robert, Steed Malbranque, Kim Kallstrom and Gregory Coupet.
May 16, 2006: Czech midfielder Libor Sionko becomes Le Guen's second signing, arriving on a free transfer from Austria Vienna.