Boy's own stuff at Auxerre
Imagine a tiny youth club that - along with football - features drum-beating and marching as well as shooting and gymnastics among its original pursuits. Take a charismatic tactician with a penchant for woolly hats and messianic motivational powers. Wash that down with a glass of Burgundy and a hearty beef bourguignon and picture the club rising through the ranks to become league and cup winners despite having Stéphane Guivarc'h in the side.
The last part may be asking too much of the imagination, but the goal-shy, ex-Newcastle and Rangers World Cup winner was in the Auxerre team that won the double in 1996, and since last weekend, the club's comic-book existence had another barely believable chapter added to it.
Last Saturday's 2-0 win against Monaco was the seventh successive victory for the Association de la Jeunesse Auxerroise - or Auxerre for short - to extend their club record for consecutive wins and, more significantly, take them top of the table for the first time in seven years.
"Before the game we said to each other that if we went top, we would quit the game," full-back Cédric Hengbart said. "Joking aside, we're happy, especially as we've won seven in a row. That means we can continue working in peace."
Peace is something homely Auxerre know a lot about, so much so that it is incredible such a colourful figure as Djibril Cissé fired his first clear-cut opportunities wide of goal at the Stade de l'Abbé-Deschamps.
Things will get a little less calm, though, if the side continue their current form, all the more so because no-one was predicting Auxerre being anywhere near the top of the table this season.
France Football suggested somewhere between seventh and 13th, hardly sticking their neck out for a team that finished eighth last season. Even that conservative estimate looked further off the mark than a Claude Makelele piledriver when AJA lost their first three matches, conceding six and scoring none in the process.
However, those predictions perhaps failed to take into account the form Auxerre have shown this year. 'This year' is the key, because after a disastrous end to 2008 - which saw them go into last Christmas in 15th place, five points off the relegation zone - AJA have amassed 58 points, putting them behind only Bordeaux and Marseille in 2009 but ahead of Lyon. It seems that this time around, the squad have woken from their summer hibernation somewhat earlier. Given the unassuming nature of the club, though, no one - least of all coach Jean Fernandez - is getting carried away.
"We were bottom after three games and everyone thought we were going to struggle," said Fernandez, whose team enjoy a one-point advantage over the chasing pack. "Ten matches later, we're leaders, which proves that we were right to emphasise stability. I think we have the potential to finish in the top ten."
That stability stems as much from club philosophy as it does the financial constraints created by modest average crowds hovering around the 12,000 mark. While highly-rated Danish international midfielder Thomas Kahlenberg quit Burgundy for the luxury of a club-sponsored Volkswagen at Wolfsburg last summer, only two headline signings were made and the core of Fernandez's squad remained intact. "We play with six first-teamers that have been here since 2006," Fernandez said. "It's unique in Ligue 1."
Two lynchpins of the current setup, Switzerland international Stéphane Grichting and France international Benoît Pedretti, extended their contracts last summer, though perhaps the most important signatures were those of goalkeeper Olivier Sorin and forward Ireneusz Jelen on longer deals.
"In a team, there are two key positions: goalkeeper and goalscorer," Fernandez said. "If you have two players who flourish in those positions then you have a good chance of being up at the top of the table. With Sorin and Jelen, I'm spoiled."
Indeed, Jelen can safely lay claim to the tag of club talisman. After missing a good chunk of the first half of last season through injury, the Poland international returned to score 11 times after the winter break to lift his team away from the relegation zone. It is no coincidence that the first four matches of this season, which brought just a single point, were all undertaken without Jelen, who was recovering from a hernia operation.
"When you've got a striker that scores twice from two chances, that makes things a lot easier," said Fernandez, whose side's results - eight wins and a draw - since Jelen returned would put them five points clear at the top of the table.
That sort of influence naturally attracts attention, but Jelen is clearly not the sort to have his head turned by the bright lights of a big city - a trait symptomatic of the current squad and vital for a player to excel at Auxerre where the ideal night out is a quiet night in.
"Auxerre is a bit like my home town. I feel good here, so do my family," Jelen said. "I had several offers from France and Germany but I wasn't sure of being able to find the same quality of life elsewhere. There are more advantages here than disadvantages."
Sorin has been almost as influential. Originally bought as back-up, the ex-Nancy stopper made his first start last January and has helped the side win 18 and draw four of the 31 games in which he has been between the posts. Sorin is the last rampart of a defence that is currently Ligue 1's joint best and is manned by no-nonsense operators like Grichting and the imposing Mali international Adama Coulibaly, who were described delightfully by France Football as being "not poets". It is a formidable barrier which has kept five clean sheets in the seven-match winning run.
Much of the stability and serenity, though, emanates from Fernandez himself. As humble as his surroundings - "When we get home, we'll drink a glass of champagne" was how he said he and his wife would celebrate hitting top spot - he could be forgiven for being somewhat less modest having helped Zinédine Zidane, Franck Ribéry and Emmanuel Adebayor make their starts - at Cannes for the former and Metz for the latter two.
The 2005-06 season at Marseille was sufficient to convince Fernandez that the Cosa Nostra-esque dealings of Ligue 1's big clubs were not for him, and he immediately stepped into the shoes - or more appropriately in Auxerre's case, slippers - of Jacques Santini to continue trying to exorcise the ghost of Guy Roux.
Roux's shadow looms large at AJA, which is hardly surprising given that bar a brief retirement for the 2000-01 season, he coached the side for some four decades. In addition to giving the club four French Cups and a Ligue 1 title, as well as UEFA Cup semi-final and Champions League quarter-final appearances, the woolly-hat wearing Roux also took care of everything from picking the side to reportedly surveying his players' private lives with a zeal that makes the Stasi appear disinterested amateurs.
'Legend' barely begins to do justice to Roux's standing at the club, but while Santini's one-season wonder was instantly forgettable, Fernandez is finally beginning to show that someone other than Roux himself can succeed at Auxerre.
"When Guy Roux left, everyone thought that the club would explode, would be relegated and never come back," Fernandez, whose life may get a little more complicated if Roux succeeds in getting elected to the club's board this week, said. "But, look, we're still here. I'm in my fourth season with quality players and I work in peace."
Tactically astute, Fernandez has got the full potential out of his squad, adopting a strategy known in France as the 'hedgehog' - establishing a spiky, dogged defensive bloc before catching teams napping with lightning counter-attacks.
It is a masterplan of "biblical simplicity", as France Football put it, and it has worked miracles up until now, though the divine intervention they enjoyed in their win over Le Mans - which saw the beaten side strike the woodwork four times, miss a penalty and score an own-goal - is not likely to be enough to see them sustain their heady current position.
Also, with many of his key players closer to the end of their careers than the start, Fernandez is aware that a return to the days when Roux coaxed rising talents such as Philippe Mexès, Olivier Kapo, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Cissé into providing on-pitch success before allowing the club to balance their books with well-timed summer sales must come soon.
"I haven't changed the club's philosophy, but I'm not going to play young players if they're not good enough," Fernandez, who will hope to see the fruits of the 6 million euros the club are set to invest in their youth academy in the coming year, said. "Now, for the future of the club, I admit that they're going to have to bring some kids through from the youth academy. It's vital."