Franck Sauzee: No, we weren’t dreaming. That really was Le God playing for ’eebernians ... at Boghead

Pre-1999, a Hibernian supporter’s favourite Frenchman was a five-way face-off between Beaudelaire, Renoir, Monet, Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
19/12/99 SPL
Franck Sauzee celebrates alongside Hibernian team-mate John Hughes.19/12/99 SPL
Franck Sauzee celebrates alongside Hibernian team-mate John Hughes.
19/12/99 SPL HEARTS v HIBERNIAN (0-3) TYNECASTLE - EDINBURGH Franck Sauzee celebrates alongside Hibernian team-mate John Hughes.

I’m kidding, the actual contenders were Sacha Distel, Jacques Cousteau, Inspector Clouseau, the director of cinematography on the Emmanuelle films and the postprandial chat-up smoothie in the Cointreau ads.

Then, on 20 February that year, Franck Sauzee stepped onto the pitch at Brockville. Now, with a name like that, pronounced with the right second-syllable inflection, the Champions League winner and 39-cap redoubtable of Les Bleus could very well have been in France, in a semi-obscure football outpost, perhaps for a cup-tie or an exhibition match. Brockville-sur-la-mer? Or maybe it was Baroque-ville?

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But, no, this was the Brockville we all knew, the home of Falkirk’s Bairns, and on the day of days it was the setting for – equal-tied with George Best – the most improbable debut in Hibs’ long and storied history. And, way out on its own, the most incroyable.

Sauzee, serious continental football royalty, turning out for us, in Scotland’s second tier, at that rickety stadium with the sardine-tin enclosure, maximum height 4ft 10ins? Hibs fans must have thought they’d overdone the Cointreau, the Pernod and the Kronenbourg, and if they couldn’t believe it, then neither could his team-mates.

“Apologies to all Falkirk fans but this was Brockville, an absolute dump,” Stuart Lovell told me, “with these cold dressing-rooms and condensation running down the walls. I was sitting next to Franck and wondering: ‘What the hell is he doing here?’”

And the fuzzy-eyed, fantastical hallucinations would continue the following Saturday when Sauzee reappeared at Ayr United. Lovell described the Brockville pitch as a “quagmire”. Hibees’ captain John Hughes recalled Somerset Park being an “absolute gluepot”. And yet the nouveau signing in green and white performed, according to Lovell, “like a ballet dancer – one who loved crunching tackles”.

But surely this French-themed fever dream had to stop? No, because the week after that Sauzee turned up at Boghead. Now there’s a Scottish football ground which could never have been mistaken for anywhere in France. In 1999, though, it was the temporary home of Clydebank and Franck was able to add it to the career gazetteer featuring all the great stadia of Europe and beyond – albeit this was surely the first time he’d teamed up with a goalkeeper in Oli Gottskalksson prone to performing, according to the manager who signed him, “like a drunk trying to catch a balloon”.

To repeat: what the hell was Sauzee doing at Hibs? The manager who signed the Marseille legend was Alex McLeish and the Leith faithful, who will welcome the player they revere as Le God back to Easter Road on Saturday, are eternally grateful to Big Eck whose vision and contacts book made the incroyable happen.

The pair had played against each other internationally in Auld Alliance clashes and reinforcing McLeish’s powers of persuasion there was the pull of Edimbourg and the passion of Scottish football. “So my agent said: ‘Maybe there’s a deal with between you and ’eebernians,’” Sauzee recalled. “I said: ‘Okay, okay, let’s go … ’”

Stevie Crawford won’t forget Sauzee’s first day on the training field: “Franck brought wine, a very nice crate. Plastic glasses were found and he invited us all to toast the day. ‘I’m here with you and I want us to do well,’ he said. That was pure class.”

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Sauzee also graced Firhill when it was the temporary home of Hamilton Accies, the game which confirmed Hibs as champions with goals from Russell Latapy. Big Franck and Wee Russ, what a double-act. You’ll never convince a Hibs fan that life in the second tier is dull. Not when it once produced these two and, 17 years later, the Scottish Cup.

Sauzee strutted around the midfield and would continue there in the next campaign. Hibs beat Celtic and he dominated Barry Ferguson in an epic match which convinced Rangers they should snap up Kenny Miller. And the great man scored in successive Edinburgh derby triumphs which have passed into legend.

The first was the millennium derby, 3-0 to Hibs at Tynecastle, Sauzee thrashing home a 20-yard drive at the Gorgie Road end, then yomping the length of the park to accept the acclaim of his delirious disciples – effort which may have done for his legs and hastened his switch to sweeper.

But he still had sufficient power in them to climb steeple-high in the next capital clash for the headed goal which cost him his front teeth. That seemed far above and beyond the call of duty, especially after we’d asked him to play at Boghead, but I’ve met most of Sauzee’s old team-mates and no-one spoke of him having airs and graces or thinking Scottish football beneath him.

The following season brought the 6-2 thrashing of Hearts, a third-place finish, a Scottish Cup final and everyone was becoming accustomed to Sauzee’s thunderbolt free-kicks and delicious back-heels. But then we went and spoiled it all by saying something silly like: “Will you be our manager?”

I was at his unveiling. “Maybe,” he smiled with his replacement gnashers, “I will be the worst boss in ’eebernians’ history.” He was let down by guys he’d been playing alongside then dismissed in a panic. It was horrible. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t rush back to Easter Road after that.

The long absence may have encouraged some to wonder if he'd ever been there at all. Was Franck Sauzee like Keyser Soze in the movie The Usual Suspects, mythical and unknowable? No, I was at Baroque-ville, I saw him. Bonjour again, Le God.



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