THERE have been many business deals struck in the Swallow Hotel on the outskirts of Dundee, but few more intriguing than the one which saw Arsène Wenger stir a cup of strong coffee in the company of Ray Stephen.
Then making his way in the game as manager of Nancy, the alert Wenger had been motivated to make the trip to Tayside from north-east France by memories of seeing Stephen play for Dundee in pre-season games in Germany.
It proved an early indication of Wenger's attention to detail, although other signs that the French manager might grow into one of the game's finest thinkers were less obvious. It was October 1986, and Wenger was in desperate need of a striker to solve a goal-scoring problem that had deposited his side near the bottom of Ligue 1.
While Stephen was a success, the club where Michel Platini started his career were relegated on goal difference. Wenger left for Monaco, and Nancy began an existence which saw them flit between the first and second divisions. The latest period, though, has been one of relatively sustained success, and sees the club entertain Motherwell in the Uefa Cup tonight.
Stephen, who stayed with Nancy for six seasons, will be watching on television in a bar in Aberdeen, perhaps unable to resist letting slip that not only was he once the toast of the Stade Marcel-Picot, but he was brought there by Wenger. "It's my party piece," he jokes now. "He certainly knows a player when he sees one."
Stephen would have been denied this boast had a proposed move to another French club, Mulhouse, not fallen through due to a novel hitch. "I had signed but the president of the club was mucking about with the mayor's daughter," recalls Stephen. "The mayor was helping finance the deal and so he pulled the money out after Dundee had agreed a fee."
Stephen returned to Dundee, and, he says, was forced "to eat humble pie" as he sought to regain his place in Jocky Scott's team. Dundee games were attracting an intriguing cast-list of spectators at the time. Wenger arrived to watch Stephen in a derby with Dundee United and then Aldo Platini, father of Michel and a long-time coach with Nancy, came to obtain a second opinion on the striker during a midweek match with Hibs at Easter Road. Dundee won 3-0, and Stephen scored his final goal for the Dens Park side.
"I had made up my mind that I had wanted to go and try something new," he says. "There had been a few clubs sniffing around, including Celtic."
Stephen arrived in France at the right time. France were reigning European champions, after a Platini-inspired victory in the 1984 finals. Other foreign stars included the German internationals Pierre Littbarski and Karlheinz Forster, while French players themselves had become household names, including Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse.
Stephen made an instant impact. "I scored twice in my first game, a 2-0 victory over Toulouse," he recalls. "The team had not scored for 13 games before that. It was pouring with rain. Just my conditions."
Stephen was a consistent scorer, and even now stands fifth in the all-time charts at Nancy with 54 goals. Platini heads this list, while Tony Cascarino is behind Stephen in eighth position. "When I went back to the club in December, for a game against Lyon, I got a standing ovation from the fans," he says. "It was the first time I had been back in 15 years." He grew close to Platini, and their sons played in the same Under-9 team. He even appeared in the Uefa president's testimonial match, alongside Zico and Diego Maradona.
Wenger, given their similar age, was more friend than father-figure. "He was the youngest manager in French football at the time, and you could see he was something special," says Stephen. "I was there for a month by myself, and he used to take me across the border to Germany to watch games with him."
Stephen returned to the Scottish game in 1991 to play, briefly, for Kilmarnock, and then finished his career in the Highland League with Cove Rangers. Memories of his French sojourn have been stirred by Motherwell being paired with his old club. As if on cue, his phone rings and a tell-tale +33 code flashes up. It is a magazine journalist from France, and Stephen negotiates the call in fluent French. "Obviously, for the benefit of Scottish football, you want Motherwell to progress," he says. "But in my heart, it has to be Nancy."