Remembering Stephane Paille, one of France’s greatest unfulfilled talents

Stephane Paille, who died on his 52nd birthday last week, was one of the most gifted French footballers of the 1980s. At one point, he was better than team-mate and friend Eric Cantona.

1988 was his year, and always will be. During a six-month period he inspired Sochaux, the club where he had emerged as a tall, elegant striker of considerable gifts, to promotion from France’s second tier and a place in the French Cup final. At the same time he was the star, alongside Cantona, of the France U21 side crowned European champions.

It was no surprise that Paille was named France’s Footballer of the Year at the end of 1988. Forced to pick at that stage whether it would be Cantona or Paille to emerge as a talismanic figure of international standing in the 1990s, Paille would have got the nod.

Born in Scionzier in eastern France in 1965, Paille broke into the Sochaux first team as a teenager. Aged 19, he scored 15 goals in 38 Division 1 matches, netting a further 10 the following season. At 21 he made his France debut in a European Championship qualifier against Iceland in September 1986.

Following Sochaux’s relegation in 1987 from Division 1 – or D1, as France’s top flight was known back then – Paille embarked on the most glorious 18 months of his career. There were other fine players in that Sochaux side, such as Franck Sauzee, who would win the Champions League with Marseille in 1993, and Yugoslav duo Faruk Hadzibegic and Mehmed Bazdarevic, who’d earn 117 caps between them. Yet Paille outshone them all.

France’s second division was split into two groups of 18 teams in those days, with the winning sides earning automatic promotion. At the end of the 1987-88 season Sochaux topped Group A, finishing 16 points clear thanks to their W29-D3-L2 record. Two points for a win was still in place; under three points for a win Sochaux would have been 26 ahead of the chasing pack. They scored 97 times, giving them an average of 2.85 goals a game.

The performance that summed up Sochaux’s thrilling superiority was their 7-1 victory at Lyon, the team that would eventually finish second behind them in Group A. Paille’s goal that night was a work of art: somehow killing dead a cross at neck height, he flicked the ball over the head of a defender with his right foot before swivelling and volleying beyond the goalkeeper with his left foot. It was all executed with such grace, ease and authority that it was obvious Sochaux had an extraordinary talent on their books.

Sochaux played such sensational football during that 1987-88 D2 promotion campaign it became fun to wonder how high they might have finished had they been in D1. Fuelling the debate was their run to the French Cup final: Sochaux knocked out four top-flight sides, the highlight being their 6-1 aggregate victory over PSG in the last-32 stage.

At just 22 Paille was captain when Sochaux walked out to face Metz at Parc des Princes on 11 June 1988. Sochaux would lose 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw, but Paille provided the highlight of the evening when he scored one of the most audacious goals ever seen in a French Cup final.

It came on 36 minutes, when he pulled away on the left-hand side of the penalty area. Rather than controlling Fabrice Henry’s long cross, however, Paille volleyed the ball first time with the outside of his right foot back across the Metz goalkeeper into the far corner of the net. Reminiscent of Paolo Di Canio’s goal against Wimbledon? The other way round, French football followers would tell you.

Paille’s career was going from strength to strength. A few weeks before the French Cup final he’d been a member of the France team that had drawn 0-0 in Greece in the first leg of the European U21 final. The second leg, played some five months later, saw France claim the trophy for the first time in their history thanks to a 3-0 victory.

Cantona was suspended for that second leg yet he and Paille had emerged as the stars of the side. Both tall, upright and stylish, they had similar strengths and weaknesses: height, touch, vision, prowess in the air and a lack of pace. Theirs was an atypical partnership, yet it worked. Equally comfortable creating and taking chances, the pair struck up a marvellous understanding that carried France through the rounds and enthralled the public watching on television.

The duo’s telepathy was never better illustrated than in France’s 4-2 European U21 semi-final first leg win over England in front of 22,000 fans in Besancon. With France leading 3-2 and seven minutes on the clock, Paille – involved in two of France’s other goals on the night – dispossessed a defender in the England half. He slipped the ball towards Cantona, received a back-heeled return pass from his attacking partner and stroked a left-foot finish beyond goalkeeper Perry Suckling.

The return fixture at Highbury finished 2-2. Over the two legs a France side inspired by Cantona and Paille had simply been too strong for an England team containing Martin Keown, David Rocastle, Paul Gascoigne and Paul Davis. Greece went the same way in the final, France running out comfortable winners to clinch the title. Paille finished as the competition’s four-goal second-highest scorer.

At the end of that year he was named French Footballer of the Year. To illustrate the illustrious company Paille was keeping at that point, the previous four recipients of the award were Jean Tigana, Luis Fernandez, Manuel Amoros and Alain Giresse (Juventus’ Michel Platini is absent from the list as only France-based players were eligible).

The foremost star of his generation, Paille continued to entertain in 1988-89. He helped Sochaux finished fourth on their return to D1, just five points behind champions Marseille. Paille scored 15 times, meaning he’d reached double figures for goals in four of his first five full seasons as a professional.

And that was as good as it got. Paille left Sochaux in the summer of 1989 but would never play as consistently well again. He joined Montpellier for 12 million French francs (£1.1m) in a high-profile double transfer deal that saw Cantona arrive at the same time on loan from Marseille. But the pair were unable to recreate the magic that had made them such a feared duo for France U21s. With Montpellier’s expensively-assembled team floundering, Paille was offloaded to Bordeaux at the midway point of the 1989-90 season, while Cantona stayed and kicked on.

It’s tempting to see this as a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment for the pair of them. Paille had arrived at Montpellier on the back of 12 months of dizzying success yet soon found himself shunted out. Cantona signed at a low point having underachieved at previous club Marseille and served an international ban for calling France manager Henri Michel a “bag of shit”. Paille left while Cantona stayed, helping Montpellier win the 1990 French Cup and eventually going on to enjoy so much success in England.

Paille failed to recapture the mastery of his Sochaux years, but there were flashes. In 1991-92 he helped unfashionable Caen finish fifth in D1, scoring 14 times. At 28, he enjoyed 12 productive months at Bordeaux where he was a valued member of a raw but talented squad that included future World Cup winners Christophe Dugarry, Bixente Lizarazu and Zinedine Zidane.

Yet there was no denying the sense of a talent unfulfilled. Even in an era of greater privacy and less media intrusion there were reports of heavy drinking. He turned out for short spells at Lyon and Servette. Reports of unprofessionalism had plagued him pretty much ever since the moment he had left Sochaux. He was banned for taking cannabis while playing for second division side Mulhouse. In 1996-97 he played for Hearts but his time in Edinburgh was brought to an end by a court case that saw him handed a prison sentence. He never played professionally beyond the age of 31.

In his mid-30s Paille turned to management. There were tenures at Besancon, Racing Paris, Angers, Cannes and Evian-Thonon-Gaillard. These brought little success. Yet it was a sign of the esteem in which he was held by the more successful line of French footballers that had followed him that Zidane asked him to scout for Real Madrid in 2011. Paille accepted, enthusiastically reporting to his former Bordeaux team-mate.

Paille won only eight caps: his first at 21, his last two months short of his 24th birthday. He was the personification of a deeply melancholic period for les Bleus, the national team essentially searching for itself in those lost years between the end of the Platini era and the start of the Zidane generation. France failed to qualify for the 1988 European Championship and 1990 World Cup, meaning other gifted individuals fell through the cracks, too: Jose Toure, nicknamed ‘the Brazilian’, Philippe Vecruysse, once described by Franz Beckenbauer as “the best No.10 in Europe”, and Jean-Marc Ferreri, one of several players burdened with the ‘new Platini’ tag.

Yet Paille was the most exhilarating of all, his rise the most stellar. His fall was dramatic, too, but he contributed plenty to the fabric of French football, as anybody lucky enough to be watching towards the end of the 1980s would tell you. The list of names lining-up to honour him last week shows he’s far from forgotten, a tribute to a brilliant talent that burned brightly before fading away.

Remembering Stephane Paille, one of France’s greatest unfulfilled talents
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