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Sep 23, 2008

Le Mans finally come of age

When struggling Union Sportive du Mans and Stade Olympique du Maine fused in 1985 to become Le Mans UC 72, the mayor of the town, Robert Jarry, declared, "We mustn't create illusions, we must create hope." Hope is something that has generally been in fairly short supply in the Sarthe in the club's short history, but their fifth top-flight season promises to be their best yet.

After they salvaged a 2-2 draw at Nice on Saturday night, MUC 72 were as happy as pigs in the proverbial as they rolled joyfully around in fourth place in the Ligue 1 table. However, 'certain relegation' rather than 'cautious optimism' were more the buzzwords associated with the club at the start of the season as it was mercilessly stripped of its prized assets, with no less than seven first-choice players and coach Rudi Garcia - who had only taken over from Frédéric Hantz the summer before - all departing.

Romaric disappeared to Sevilla for 9m euros, and the excellent Benin international Stéphane Sessegnon popped off to Paris St Germain for roughly the same amount. Defenders Hassan Yebda, Jean Calvé and Marko Basa, Brazilian striker Tulio de Melo and Japanese playmaker Daisuke Matsui all left - their respective destinations, Benfica, Nancy, Lokomotiv Moscow, Palermo and St Etienne, adequate indication of the extent of the potentially crippling drain of talent for which, it appeared, not even a US government bail-out could compensate.

Although the scale of the exodus was startingly massive, such blood-letting is not unknown for a club which could justifiably have a leech as its mascot and can only be tagged 'fashionable' in the same way Joseph Stalin could be branded 'reasonable.'

A year ago, Guinea international Ismaël Bangoura, who'd been plucked from the backwaters of Corsica, completed a €5m move to Dynamo Kiev where he played against Arsenal in the Champions League last week, while another striker, Grafite, joined Wolfsburg for €8m in a switch brokered by his fossil-fuel-monikered agent, Pascal Carbon. In 2002, a certain Didier Drogba was tempted away from Le Mans by the dubious delights of Guingamp.

"But that's the destiny of teams like Le Mans," recently protested president Henri Legarda with an air of resignation greater than that which currently cloaks the Labour Party. "As long as we don't have our new stadium, and as long as we don't have some history behind us, we're going to have trouble keeping our players."

The state-of-the-art stadium of the ambitious Legarda's dreams will come into being in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile, Legarda's realpolitik should ensure the club will enter that stadium still in the French top flight.

It is ironic that this summer witnessed pillaging in a manner rarely seen since the Vikings as Le Mans' bullish start to the season has largely been thanks to two Scandinavians they raided themselves.

Norwegian duo Fredrik Strømstad and Thorstein Helstad arrived for a combined €3m from clubs called Start and Brann, which together sound like a Weightwatchers exercise and diet plan. In their six Ligue 1 games to date, the pair have linked up effectively. "It's like love at first sight," declared Strømstad, and their union has spawned a goal for Helstad in each of the side's three victories, two of which were created by his impish compatriot.

The pair were previously unheard of outside of their homeland, but thanks to an scouting network which would be the envy of Baden-Powell, Le Mans appear to have again successfully reincarnated themselves. The karma guru is Legarda's 'presidential advisor' Daniel Jeandupeux - a former Swiss international player and coach - who has brought untapped talent to the club, particularly from Brazil and Africa, and did so judiciously early to ensure the gulf created by the summer departures would not stay unfilled for long.

Steely Brazilian central defender Geder swapped samba for the Sarthe last January, and has so far meant the loss of Basa - who wanted to quit France as he paid "too much tax" - has not been felt, while Tunisian international full-back Saber ben Frej was drafted in to slip seamlessly into Calvé's boots. Helstad has more than succeeded De Melo, now at Lille after two months in Sicily, while 22-year-old Malian midfielder Modibo Maïga, signed from Morocco's Raja Casablanca, is joint top scorer with the Norwegian.

Gervinho - a rare survivor of last season's side - returned from playing for Ivory Coast at the Olympics to link up with Alphousseyni Keita, another 22-year-old Malian, and new boy Frédéric Thomas - who came back to the club from Auxerre - to emulate the creative drive of Romaric, Sessegnon and Matsui.

The names would hardly be likely to provoke a reaction from even the most informed supporter, but Jeandupeux explained that the low-key recruitment drive was very much premeditated. "The most important thing is how you treat your new signings. We have faith in them and we let them develop calmly," he said. "Some need six months, others twelve or eighteen months to integrate, but as long as they work well, there's no problem. In fact, we only bring in players who, initially, are destined to stay on the bench."

That philosophy sits well at a club where the no-frills ambiance mirrors that of the town itself. Far enough from the nocturnal distractions of Paris, Legarda prides himself on having created "a solid base" of backroom staff "which doesn't change." It has proved a formula which allows young players to excel. Homegrown talents Yohan Pelé - an almost perennial target of Europe's big boys in need of a goalkeeper - and French under-21 international midfielder Mathieu Coutadeur are two of the most influential members of the current first team. Even hobo Anthony Le Tallec - still only 23 - seems to have found the ideal niche after racking up the air miles in a series of otherwise ill-fated loan moves from Liverpool. If anyone knows how to bring the best out of those youngsters it is current boss Yves Bertucci, an unknown on the Ligue 1 stage, but who has excelled at the club's youth academy. His calm demeanour clearly rubs off on his team, who despite their inexperience, did not panic when they went two down at Nice or when they fell behind early on at Nantes recently, where they maintained their poise before steamrollering the hosts 4-1. "It's true that this team doesn't do what it can't," was how Bertucci unfussily summed up the win over the troubled 2001 champions.

You could even expect the exuberance of the scoreline to embarrass Legarda, whose quiet, realistic ambition contrasts ever so favourably with those who have recently strutted cocksurely into the Premier League roost. "Le Mans is a club that wants to progress and become one of the top 50 teams in Europe," said Legarda before the start of the season. "When I say that, you may think that that is not very ambitious. However, when you see the number of countries in Europe and the number of clubs who have far greater financial means than we have, that goal will already be very difficult to achieve."

Three League Cup semi-final appearances in as many seasons have shown that Le Mans - in their various guises - are capable of beating most teams on their day. In a town best known for the Porsches and Audis that grace its legendary endurance race, the question remains whether its second-hand Renault Clio of a football team has the stamina to keep going lap after lap around the Ligue One circuit until the chequered flag in May.

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