Interview: Eric Black’s brush with burlesque in France

Eric Black in his days with Metz. (Picture: Mark Leech/Getty Images
Eric Black in his days with Metz. (Picture: Mark Leech/Getty Images
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When Aberdeen star Ian Black signed for ‘provincial’ Metz, he did not expect his journey to lead to a burlesque icon, writes Alan Pattullo

Not every cup winning celebration ends in a legendary burlesque club with the opposition team. So it’s understandable Eric Black regards a French Cup win at Metz with just as much fondness as higher-profile successes, such as in Gothenburg with Aberdeen in 1983.

Black scored on both occasions, putting Aberdeen into the lead against Real Madrid en route to lifting the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Five years later it really was a case of being “en route” to make history when he helped Metz secure what remains their last major honour.

This success against a Sochaux side including future Hearts goalkeeper Gilles Rousset and striker Stéphane Paille as well as Franck Sauzee, who later became so well-loved at Hibs, was the high-point of a five-year sojourn in France.

Black’s header at Parc des Princes made it 1-1 and took the game to penalties. Rousset, while scoring one himself, was unable to save any of the efforts from Metz, who won 5-4.

“At Aberdeen it seemed to be a case of every year winning a couple of trophies, going away on holiday and coming back and winning another couple of trophies,” reflects Black. “When you go to a more provincial club like Metz, who have won only four trophies in their history, it was a really big deal.”

Among the most striking observations from watching highlights of the game on Youtube is that Black has the beginnings of a beard creeping across his normally boyish features (the entire team agreed not to shave throughout their journey to the final). Something else is notable: Black, who shook off marker Frank Silvestre to score past Rousset with a fine glancing header, does not take a penalty.

The reason for this was another injury setback: “I had to have an injection in my back and in my leg before the game and I was done in at the end of extra time. I could hardly walk. I think it took me two-and-a-half months to recover.”

Black’s entire career was bedevilled by a chronic back ailment that meant such a fine talent quit the game aged just 29.

But by then he’d packed in far more than any Scottish footballer could dare dream, including meeting French president Francois Mitterand. That was before the French Cup final. The partying at the world famous Les Folies Bergère came afterwards. Despite their obvious disappointment, Rousset, Paille and Sauzee joined in too.

“My son (Jonathan) had been born six months prior to it, and my father was over,” remembers Black. “He watched the game and my wife babysat in the hotel and then they swapped roles after the game because tradition was that both teams went to Les Folies Bergère. We had dinner together and watched the events put on. Yes, it was a bit strange to have both teams there.”

Les Folies Bergère is a cabaret music hall dating back to the 1860s. It quickly became the premier nightspot in Paris, catering for the great and the good, as well as the victors and vanquished of French Cup finals.

“Normally after finals teams depart to do their own thing,” says Black. “But in France both teams had tables booked, the club presidents, wives, everyone all together. It worked. There was no fighting! When Gilles and Stephane came over to Hearts, and Franck was manager of Hibs, and I was manager at Motherwell, we reminisced a bit about it.”

The Auld Alliance is reinforced this Saturday evening, when Steven Fletcher hopes to emulate Black’s French Cup final deeds of 1988 for Marseille against Paris St German. The final now takes place at the Stade de France. Whether the night still ends in a cabaret club, Fletcher will soon discover.

“I think he will come back from Marseille a better player and better person, it is a very untypical club,” says Black. “It is not like playing at Metz. Marseille is a massive city with a strong support, and a very vitriolic support. It is a pressurised situation. I loved playing in the stadium there, because the atmosphere was sensational. He will certainly benefit from the experience.

There are no hard feelings between Black and Fletcher, despite the latter ruining the former’s one and only match in charge of Sunderland in 2011 following Steve Bruce’s sacking with a brace in Wolves’ 2-1 win. Fletcher joined Sunderland shortly afterwards but Black had already left.

“I would love to see him winning it,” says Black, when asked if he would welcome Fletcher joining his exclusive club of Scottish French Cup champions. “I would be more than happy. But they played Sochaux in the semis and I was hoping Sochaux won because my friend Albert Cartier, who played for Metz in 1988, is manager. Marseille beat them 1-0 in the semi. But now they are through I will be more than happy to see Steven lift the trophy.”

Fletcher’s time in France could be brief since he is only on loan at Marseille from Sunderland. But Black threw everything into his new life, planting roots in the Lorraine area, where both his children were born. He was particularly motivated to make the move work because he knew it was so hard-earned. The switch to France led to him receiving the cold shoulder treatment from Alex Ferguson.

The manager was indignant when he learned the identity of the team his star striker had signed for behind his back, describing Metz as an “insignificant club in Europe”. In fairness to Ferguson, not even Black could argue. “You take a step in the unknown,” he says now. “That is what I did. I never even knew where Metz was.”

Black discovered the city lay near the German border, which only strengthened his hunch to sign. “My only link was that my wife’s mother is German and so she spoke German and I can get by in German. Her grandmother lived about two hours over the border and so that was a wee link: ‘I thought well we’ll go to Metz’.”

But he liked to think, given his service and success at Aberdeen, he might be waved off with good wishes. Some hope. Upon hearing the news Black had elected to go abroad, meaning the Pittodrie club were forced to accept a smaller transfer fee, Ferguson dropped the striker from the Scottish Cup final team who beat Hearts 3-0, thirty years ago last week.

“I watched it in the house,” says Black. “It was slightly less exciting than it would have been playing. I can understand maybe why he did it… But I decided I wanted to leave and I was going to leave.”

Black was a pioneer of sorts, becoming only the second Scot to play in the top flight in France (Ian Wallace played for a short spell at Brest in 1984). Other British players followed in his wake, including Mark Hateley and Glenn Hoddle, who signed for Monaco the following year.

Indeed, Black might well have beaten them to Monte Carlo too. It is little known because he has rarely told the story, but Black was set to join Monaco from Aberdeen rather than Metz. It is his own sliding doors moment, lent some topicality this afternoon because Black, now caretaker manager of Aston Villa, will occupy the opposite dug out to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who “signed” him for Monaco in 1986.

There was one small problem, sadly; Wenger wasn’t at Monaco at the time, and wouldn’t become their manager for another 12 months. “I had it all signed and sealed, done and dusted,” explains Black. “But crucially there was a clause in the contract that if Arsene was not released from his contract from Nancy to take over at Monaco, which subsequently was the case, it was null and void.” Strangely given he has not signed a Scottish player since, Wenger turned to another striker based in the north-east of Scotland – Ray Stephen joined Nancy from Dundee in late 1986.

Black has met Wenger a couple of times since, but hasn’t mentioned this “what if?” scenario to him. He resolves to do so today. “He probably doesn’t remember! It’s part of history I suppose,” Black says.

But other than eventually bowing to an injury sustained at Aberdeen when he was 17, he has no complaints about the way things worked out, lifting the League Cup as well as the French Cup with Metz, who are now in Ligue 2.

New, rich investors were appearing in the French game in the 1980s, while the national team’s success in winning their own European Championships in 1984 maintained the focus on French football. It was the place to be. “They started buying in players like (Pierre) Littbarski and (Enzo) Francescoli, world names at the time who both signed for Matra Racing Club Paris. It was a really exciting league. I enjoyed it enormously.

“They were other big clubs like Marseille and PSG, while Bordeaux were another big team at the time, they had five or six internationals. My first game was in Bordeaux and they had (Jean) Tigana, (Patrick) Battiston, (Joel) Bats, they whole lot! I never kicked a ball for 90 minutes! It was a completely different style of football which I had not been used to at Aberdeen. In a cauldron on a hot Bordeaux evening, it was very different for me.

“The game started and I immediately started chasing the ball. I turned round and there were nine of them looking at me, and the captain shouting: ‘don’t be silly, come back!’ I realised after ten minutes why. I could hardly move.”

But he quickly became accustomed to life as well as football in this new country, hiring a tutor to learn a language now proving so useful to him while coaching in English football, where so many imports are French-speaking.

Black has been invited back to Metz next month when Scotland play a friendly against France in the city. Holidaying in the south of France at the time, he will fly up for the game and is looking forward to catching up with old friends.

An intoxicating potpourri of reasons why, 30 years on, Black has no regrets about incurring the wrath of Fergie.