The sad tale of Stéphane Paille, a player of flair and flaws

Stephane Paille, left, and Gilles Rousset during their time at Hearts. Picture: SNS
Stephane Paille, left, and Gilles Rousset during their time at Hearts. Picture: SNS
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In a little hilltop town in the Rhone-Alpes region of France, mourners will gather tomorrow to hear the story of a young man who really did once have it all.

Described in one obituary as an “emblematic figure of French football in the 1980s and 90s”, he’s also cast as a missing link in its recent, successful history. He was expected to outshine both Eric Cantona, a contemporary, and Zinedine Zidane, a younger team-mate at Bordeaux.

This is the ballad of Stéphane Paille.

A small Hearts wreath sent over from Edinburgh to Marnaz, about a two-and-a-half hour drive east of Lyon on the border with Switzerland, will remind those present of the club where Paille played his last professional game, just over 20 years ago. He left football for good at the age of only 31, another bridge burned.

Paille is probably still best remembered in this country for being the first Scottish league player to be banned following a random drugs test in April 1997 after a game against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park. He was guilty of ingesting an appetite suppressant containing amphetamine.

Paille was handed a six-month ban by the Scottish Football Association. Despite still having a year left of his contract, Paille and Hearts agreed to part ways.

So while Hearts fans of a certain age will recall a stylish, handsome striker, other followers of the Scottish game might associate his name with disrepute. This isn’t necessarily how it is in France, where Paille, who won eight caps, was once their footballing golden child.

That the congregation tomorrow will include the great and the good of French football, including, it’s reported, Eric Cantona, helps explain why a nation was stopped in its tracks when news of Paille’s death emerged last week.

The emotional reaction was summed up by a Twitter tribute from Bixente Lizarazu, the 
97-times capped French international left-back: “Devastated to hear of the death of Stéphane Paille,” he wrote.

Diagnosed earlier this summer with a tumour on his liver linked to long-term alcohol abuse and despite having recently undergone a seemingly successful operation, Paille was rushed back to hospital after suffering two haemorrhages. He subsequently fell into a coma before dying last Tuesday, the day of his 52nd birthday.

“I knew he was ill, because he stayed in my city in Lyon,” says Gilles Rousset, the former Hearts goalkeeper and one of Paille’s oldest friends. “But he’d been ill for just a few weeks. He had some problems before with alcohol and that kind of thing – he was addicted to alcohol.

“We all knew he had this problem. But then we discovered one and a half months ago he had a tumour on his liver.”

Rousset and Paille go back further than their time together at Hearts. As long as 35 years ago they were team-mates at the Sochaux youth academy.

They graduated to the first-team and reached the final of the French Cup in 1988, Paille opening the scoring before Scottish striker Eric Black equalised for Metz (Franck Sauzee, later of Hibs, was also playing for Sochaux). Despite Paille, Sauzee and, surprisingly, Rousset all netting in the shoot-out, Metz won 5-4 on penalties.

But it was an annus mirabilis for Paille; Sochaux won promotion to Ligue 1. Remarkably since he was playing in the second tier at the time, he was named French footballer of the year. He’s sandwiched in this roll of honour between two legends in Alain Giresse, awarded the title a year earlier, and Jean-Pierre Papin, chosen the season afterwards.

So despite some very human flaws, let no one think that when Paille arrived at Hearts he was anything other than an exceptionally talented footballer.

“I always said he must have been some player in his heyday,” said Jim Jefferies, who brought him to Tynecastle, last week. “We got Stephane late on but he was still contributing.”

Perhaps his most memorable display came in only his third appearance in October 1996 against Dundee at Easter Road, when he scored in a 3-1 win that saw Hearts reach the League Cup final. He earned the man of the match award as well as a mountain bike, as was tradition at the time.

Paille scored twice more that season, both times against Motherwell at Fir Park.

“He was a nice guy,” says Rousset. “He had some problems. Who doesn’t get problems? But he had a problem with addictions, gambling and alcohol. He sorted out his problems with drugs and smoking. Unfortunately, in the end, he just had too many excesses.”

If you need a reference point closer to home, think Paul Gascoigne. Their paths did in fact cross – on the pitch at Celtic Park, in a thrilling, seven-goal League Cup final. Paille partnered John Robertson in attack in the 4-3 defeat to a Gascoigne-inspired Rangers.

But it’s Rousset, the likeable goalkeeper who joined Hearts from Rennes in 1995, who truly was a kindred spirit. “He was like a wee brother to me,” he says, still bearing the trace of a Scottish accent picked up during six years spent in Edinburgh.

Footage on YouTube of Rousset comforting Paille after he had sent a decisive shoot-out penalty over the bar for Sochaux against Arsene Wenger’s AS Monaco in the semi-final of the French Cup in 1989 underlines how close they were.

The big goalkeeper is the first to reach Paille, who throws his shirt to the fans before walking off seemingly inconsolable. It was the striker’s last kick for the club.

He joined Montpellier, whose charismatic president Louis ‘Loulou’ Nicollin, in a terrible, tragic coincidence, died last week 24 hours after Paille, on the day of his 74th birthday.

Back in the late 1980s Nicollin wanted to establish Montpellier as a French powerhouse. To do this meant signing the two best prospects in the land – Paille and Cantona, who came in on a season’s loan from Marseille.

The young strikers had become best friends while spearheading the attack for the French espoirs when they won the Under-21 European Championship in 1988 and vowed to find somewhere to play regularly together. Indeed Cantona only agreed to come to unfashionable Montpellier providing Paille, who was being chased by Bayern Munich, was signed too.

Neither flourished in industrial Montpellier, tempering hopes they’d be the partnership to sustain France for years to come. While Les Bleus did in fact build on this Under-21 triumph, neither Paille nor Cantona were pivotal figures. Aime Jacquet, their manager at Montpellier, led France to the World Cup in 1998. But of those who had tasted success with the Under-21s ten years earlier, only Laurent Blanc went on to become a World Cup winner.

Paille had effectively retired by this famous day, becoming mixed up in a cocaine trafficking case for which he received a suspended sentence. Philippe Auclair, the respected French journalist, met Paille while writing a well-received book titled Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King. He detected a lingering unhappiness in Paille. “Regret,” he writes, “pain even”. When the book was published eight years ago, Paille had just been sacked as manager of Cannes. He went on to manage the now defunct Evian, and even worked for a spell at Real Madrid, under Jose Mourinho, following a recommendation from Zidane. Most recently he was coaching in Algeria. According to Rousset, his friend’s itinerant, often chaotic, lifestyle seemed to temporarily calm in Scotland.

“He was so happy in Edinburgh,” recalls Rousset. “So happy. He found a new ‘family’, and I was here to help. All the boys loved him.

“I spoke to Lockey (Gary Locke, a former Hearts team-mate) yesterday. He was shocked too. He said he was such a nice guy, such a funny bloke.

“He was a fantastic player, a great team-mate and a great friend. But this is real life, unfortunately.”

Rousset, 53, was speaking to Scotland on Sunday as he returned from holiday in Marrakesh with his second wife and two young daughters, aged two and three.

It’s the second chance at a happy family life that Paille, who’s survived by a son, Jeremy, in his mid-twenties, has been denied. “He finished really alone,” says Rousset. “He has a son, no wife. In the end he was nearly alone.

“I should have seen him earlier in June when I knew he’d been rushed into hospital,” laments Rousset, now coach of Lyon Under-19s . “I was on vacation in Morocco. I said: ‘I will be there after my vacation’. Unfortunately it is too late now.”