Made in Montpellier
The only time the words 'Montpellier' and 'title contenders' have been mentioned in the same breath in recent years was when France's handball championship was being discussed. After winning the double for the last two seasons, the southern French city's handballers are among the continent's elite, but - for the moment at least - Montpellier's football club is finally being talked about in almost as glowing terms.
Victory over Marseille a couple of weeks ago was followed by 2-0 win at Boulogne last weekend to leave the newly-promoted side in second place, three points behind leaders Bordeaux and with many pundits quietly munching various items of headwear. Anyone who picked Montpellier as having top-three potential at the start of the season would have been politely asked to get their coat, but no-one was, because no-one did.
Earning their top-flight place by finishing runners-up to Lens in Ligue 2 last season, Montpellier - or 'Montpellier Hérault Sport Club' to give it the name its mother uses when it's in trouble - reeked 'relegation fodder' as its youthful side emerged from the kindergarten of the second division for a kickabout in the big boys' playground.
Not that the club has never been there before. A side featuring youth academy product Laurent Blanc finished third in their first season in Ligue 1 in 1987/88, a campaign in which Blanc scored 15 goals. The current Bordeaux boss, who remains Montpellier's all-time leading scorer, was joined by the unpredictable talents of Eric Cantona and Carlos Valderrama a couple of seasons later, losing to Manchester United in the Cup Winners' Cup quarter-finals of 1990/91.
However, while that match was just a step towards a haul of silverware rarely seen outside a burglar's swag bag for United, Montpellier have had to take the 'scenic route' back to the big time. As Blanc, Cantona and Valderrama headed for pastures new, the latter much to the chagrin of the Montpellier hairdressing community, the club had to wait for a new generation of talent to arrive. They took their time.
The team that beat Boulogne had four youth academy products in it at kick-off. The XI that scored the eye-catching win over Marseille boasted six. Mapou Yangambiwa and Abdelhamid El Kaoutari have impressed in defence, Karim Aït-Fana - on target against Marseille - is one of Ligue 1's up-and-coming forwards, and Geoffrey Jourdren - the eldest of the quartet at 23 - has performed admirably in goal as cover for Johann Carrasso, the 21-year-old brother of Bordeaux's Cédric and another 'Made in Montpellier' man.
"We've known each other for five or six years having come through the youth academy, and we've become real friends," Aït-Fana said. "We're more than team-mates, and that has an impact on the way we play. We get on just as well on the pitch as off it. There's a great understanding between us. We can find each other with our eyes closed. We know exactly the ball to play and when to play it."
Not that the kids have been let out to play on their own. Grizzled midfielder Romain Pitau was plucked from Sochaux last summer, and was joined by Ligue 1 stalwarts Geoffrey Dernis and Cyril Jeunechamp as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina captain Emir Spahic to add some experience to the squad, and ensure the youngsters were tucked up in bed by 11. Other players signed in the last couple of seasons with the express aim of clambering out of Ligue 2, such as Argentine playmaker Alberto Costa and Colombian forward Victor Hugo Montano, have proved they too can make the step up.
"What they've done is superb, because they're a newly-promoted club and budget-wise it's tough to come up and survive on a small budget," French football commentator and chief editor of the Ligue 1 official website, Robbie Thomson, told Soccernet. "Montpellier have done something unbelievable, especially given that they have to compete with Marseille for talented youngsters. They're a well-run club, have a strong youth academy, and passionate fans. It's a surprise that they've done so well with a squad of youngsters and journeymen, but there are reasons for that."
One of the main reasons is current coach René Girard. The man who signed the bulk of the squad at Girard's disposal, Roland Courbis, is set to be released from jail this week after serving time for 'financial irregularities' in transfers during his spell as boss of Marseille. Despite getting the club into the big time, Courbis was told his services were no longer required by the only man in French football more outspoken and colourful than him, Montpellier president Louis Nicollin.
His family made their fortune in what would now be termed the 'refuse disposal business', proving that one man's rubbish really is another man's treasure. Nicollin's outbursts are legendary, and so barely an eyelid fluttered when he called Auxerre midfielder Benoît Pedretti "a little puff" earlier this season, and threatened the France international with reprisals when the two teams meet again. He is also the president of the French sea jousting and life-saving association, but on certain occasions he shows a humility and clarity of thought that smacks of the down-to-earthness of the source of his family's fortune. One of those moments was in appointing Girard.
Girard, a former Bordeaux midfielder, was called into the hallowed DTN - Direction Technique Nationale, the elite coaching body of the French FA - by World Cup-winning boss Aimé Jacquet in 1998. After playing assistant coach to Roger Lemerre and picking up EURO 2000, Girard then took charge of various national sides at a more junior level, notably the under-21s, making him the ideal choice to nurture Montpellier's fledgling talent.
"It was a very well-clued-up decision from Nicollin," Thomson said. "He knew he had talented youngsters that could go either way, that they could be a nightmare or quite incredible, and so far it's proving a fairytale. Girard has a lot to do with that. He's the right man in the right place."
All the signs are that Girard will be able to keep his young side on the straight and narrow. While they - to a man - tell the press that they "mustn't get carried away", results on the pitch suggest they have not and will not. They have lost back-to-back league games only twice this season, and each time have quickly bounced back with big wins, notably at Lyon just before Christmas. The fact that nine of their 14 victories have been by a single-goal margin also hints at an admirable mental steeliness, and even Girard himself has been impressed.
"What I like most is the simplicity that we manage to keep on the pitch. Our team isn't very athletic - it relies more on movement and co-ordination. Everyone plays for everyone else," Girard said recently, reprising the Musketeers' motto. "Over the games, even if it remains fragile, we've progressed, and gained in maturity in particular. The team is young, new and can improve. They're still learning, but they learn their lessons."
Apparently, within the confines of Montpellier's Stade de la Mosson hangs an engraving of Saint Bernadette, given to Nicollin by a supporter when the club was promoted to Ligue 1 in 1982. In addition to other ills, Bernadette is the patron saint of those ridiculed for their piety. It seems the long-suffering citizens of Montpellier who chose 'foot' over 'hand' may no longer need any protection from above.