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Dec 9, 2008

Perrin getting Greens back on message

For a team that was founded by a supermarket and whose form has been more Netto than Harvey Nichols this season, Saint-Etienne have not lost their sheen of snobbery. "It was only Le Havre," said coach Alain Perrin after seeing his side record a second successive Ligue 1 victory to keep themselves a place above the relegation zone in 17th position on Saturday. "We've got to see where we are when we face teams at the top of the table." Before Perrin walked in the door in early November, 'where' France's most successful club was, was virtually down and out.

Like all snobs, their disdain springs from a glorious past. A barely credible period of success, which saw seven titles come their way - including four Doubles - between 1967 and 1976 took their tally of top-flight successes to ten, and the valiant failure of a side featuring one-time Spurs media entertainer Jacques Santini in the 1976 European Cup final has cemented their place as the favourite 'second' team of every French football fan.

However, like all snobs, the present-day reality is far less glamourous. While nouveaux riche neighbours Lyon brashly ride roughshod over French football and eat regularly at Europe's top table, les Verts - the Greens - have lived up to their nickname by leaving the carbon footprint of a toddler thanks to a 26-year absence from continental competition that ended only this season.

Last season's fifth-place finish - and the UEFA Cup campaign that affords - was hailed as the prelude to the restoration of the ancient regime. However, while legend has it that Santini & co. were denied victory over Bayern Munich by Hampden Park's poteaux carrés - square goalposts - which meant a Santini header ricocheted out rather than in off the woodwork, many fans have been asking whether the summer saw some of the squad develop pieds carrés - square feet.

"Saint-Etienne are digging themselves into a hole deeper than Barry White's voice," was how L'Equipe put it recently after their 3-0 mauling by Lille in Perrin's first game in charge, which saw them drop into bottom spot - the habitually austere sports daily's rare attempt at 'humour' merely serving to highlight the gravity of the situation.

Perrin - shabbily disposed of by Lyon in the summer after leading the club to a first-ever league-and-cup double - had justifiably argued that the three days he had to prepare for the Lille game had been "too short." Another defeat against Nice followed to rack up a club-record seventh-successive loss, but back-to-back wins over Nancy and Le Havre have now lifted the team out of the bottom three.

So far, Perrin is fulfilling the mission conferred upon him by club co-president Bernard Caïazzo "to keep the club up, and then do the best possible." Caïazzo admitted he dreamed of Perrin leading the side to what would be the coach's third French Cup in three years after picking up the trophy with Sochaux and Lyon.

Those ambitions, though, are a distance shy of those which Caïazzo must have been harbouring as the season commenced under Laurent Roussey, a former on-pitch prodigy of the club's youth academy turned first-team coach.

Roussey - who was accused of helping oust former coach Ivan Hasek in a backroom putsch to earn his maiden managerial position - had garnered valuable experience as assistant to Claude Puel at Lille between 2002 and 2006, and worked the miracle Puel achieved in the north by taking Saint-Etienne back into Europe.

However, an opening-day defeat to a poor Valenciennes side sowed the seeds of an appalling start to the season which eventually led to the crass publication of an ultimatum on the club's official website. 'Bring back six points from our UEFA Cup tie with Rosenborg and our Ligue 1 match with Rennes - or else,' Roussey was warned. The Norwegians were beaten, but the Bretons left with a three-nil win and - despite having all but clinched a place in the UEFA Cup knockout stages - Roussey's fate was sealed.

"I really had the impression that Laurent Roussey had lost faith in this squad," said Caïazzo, whose indecent haste in starting negotiations with Perrin hours after informing Roussey of his dismissal gave a far clearer idea of just who had lost faith in who.

That impression was reinforced by Caïazzo's appointment of Damien Comolli - yes, Spurs fans, that Damien Comolli - to oversee transfers 48 hours prior to Roussey's departure, a move the co-president was well aware would not sit well with the then-coach's resistance to having someone else do his deciding for him. Perrin, though, had worked successfully - though not always tranquilly - in that set-up at Lyon.

Like Comolli, Perrin enjoyed only mitigated success in his time in England, but also like Commolli, the ex-Portsmouth boss does know his way around Ligue One, and the tricks that pulled rabbits out of the hat at Troyes, Marseille, Sochaux and Lyon appear to be slowly winning the audience round at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.

Roussey's minimal communication with the media - and his constant reference to himself in the third person - hardly enamoured him to the press, and that lack of personal touch extended to his players creating a dressing-room that had more cracks in it than a Peter Kay joke book. Perrin is hardly more demonstrative when faced with a camera, but scored brownie points with the team by declaring, "Everyone starts on an equal footing," when he was appointed, and has dutifully practised what he preached.

Jérémie Janot - one of Ligue 1's best goalkeepers last season - was restored to his position as first-choice after Roussey had designated him as Jody Viviani's warm-up routine leader, while Daisuke Matsui - a summer capture from Le Mans - has finally been given the freedom to express his talents. A Japanese midfielder in the cultured mould of Shunsuke Nakamura, Matsui's fitful displays under Roussey led the club's other co-president, Roland Romeyer, to ask in an unguarded moment whether it was 'Matsui or his cousin' who they had signed.

The 27-year-old's promising performance in the win over Nancy was repeated against Le Havre, and suggests he may eventually fill the space left by the mercurially-talented-but-infinitely-phlegmatic Pascal Feindouno's dollar-fuelled departure for Qatar. Kevin Mirallas - who returned injured from the Olympics after representing Belgium - is beginning to show why Saint-Etienne were keen to tempt him away from Eurostar stop Lille, providing both goals against Le Havre.

Bafétimbi Gomis put the finishing touch to the second of those passes for just his third league goal of the season. 'Gomis-sing' is what he would surely have been christened were the 23-year-old subjected to the acerbic wit of the British tabloids, after a powder-puff start to the season which left the side with all the cutting edge of school canteen cutlery. However, with Matsui and Brazilian Ilan refinding their own form, and Mirallas and the promising Dimitri Payet also growing in stature, Gomis may too recapture the state-of-grace which saw him grab 16 goals last season and a place in France's Euro 2008 squad.

Gomis is not Perrin's only concern. One point from seven away games prior to his arrival suggests a lack of character rarely seen outside of a porn movie; while a propensity to concede from set-pieces led Perrin to comment that "We have to be well-positioned, and divide up the tasks," provoking others to suggest Janot had already been selected as the man to pick the ball out of the net with former Arsenal reserve-team favourite Efstathios Tavlaridis cast in the role of the 'marker who left his man.'

Though the potential of midfielders Blaise Matuidi and Paulo Machado - the former is tipped to be Arsenal's next new Frenchie - suggests the future could be brighter, Perrin's other worry should things turn sour will come from Saint-Etienne's uncompromising fans, whose vociferous and passionate support of their side led to their ground being nicknamed 'Le Chaudron' - the Cauldron - and whose antipathy towards Lyon should not be underestimated.

The club was fined following a recent derby where supporters had unveiled rather nattily-drawn caricatures of Lyon players as animals before displaying a large banner which read, 'The hunt is on - Kill them.'

Perrin's messy divorce with OL may help his cause, while he insisted on his appointment that all traces of his association with his new club's nemesis will be airbrushed from his personal history, right down to the geographical indications given by his car's registration. "I've turned the page, Lyon is in the past," he said. "What concerns the supporters is that I get good results, and invest my energy in the club. And don't worry, I'll change my licence plates."

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