The Brest of the bunch
Okay, get the smutty jokes and schoolboy giggles out of the way now. Brest may have a name to raise a juvenile smirk, but the city's football team - Stade Brestois 29 - is for the moment wiping the smiles from the faces of France's established footballing elite. And no, they don't have any cups. And not much support either.
At the start of the season, Brest were an easy target for mirth with the city's perilous perch on the tip of westernmost France a handy metaphor for what the knockers thought would be the football team's grip on their Ligue 1 place. Freshly promoted as second division runners-up last summer, this homely club was expected - at best - to struggle against relegation and - at worst - outdo the pathetic efforts of Grenoble last season.
Twelve games in, however, while they may not quite have had the last laugh just yet, Alex Dupont's men are certainly smiling as widely as an electioneering politician atop the Ligue 1 table. "It's so good over Brest now," ran L'Equipe's headline following the side's win over Saint-Etienne ten days ago that lifted them into first place. The weather reference is fitting given Brest's reputation as being to the sun-worshipper what Wayne Rooney is to marital fidelity, and the stoic resilience of the townsfolk against the elements lashing in from the Atlantic is reflected in the side's on-pitch demeanour.
While they do - and I know you've been waiting for this - have a good pair up front in journeyman Romain Poyet and up-and-coming French Under-21 international Nolan Roux - described as "a phenomenon" by Dupont - it is the team's stingy rearguard that has been the platform for their start. Only Chelsea conceded fewer goals in any of Europe's top five leagues with goalkeeper Steeve Elana and his back four shipping a miserly four goals in their opening 11 matches. Those stats took a blow - as did Chelsea's for that matter - at the weekend with Lille scoring a 3-1 win over the Bretons, but with other results also going their way, Brest remain top.
"I really enjoy defending well. It's not a problem if people call us a defensive team," claimed veteran Omar Daf, who enjoyed Ligue 1 experience with Sochaux before moving to Brittany in summer 2009, and who with holding midfielder Oscar Ewolo - formerly of Lorient - has stiffened the team's backbone. "Playing well means winning, doesn't it?"
If that is the barometer, then Brest have been playing the best football in Ligue 1, thumbing their noses at the seemingly irresistible logic that the bigger your bank account, the bigger a trophy cabinet you are going to need. Last season, the club's budget came to €9.5 million - only the eighth biggest in Ligue 2 - while this season's war chest contains just €23.5 million.
That has meant limited room for manoeuvre in the transfer market, which - whether it was intended or not - has proved a key factor in the club's success, allowing a united front to be formed in the dressing room. "The team's not changed very much. No one thinks that their word counts more than another's," said midfielder Bruno Grougi. "We don't stop saying that we get along well, but it's great to see it out on the pitch too," added the re-born Poyet, who scored a superb second against Saint-Etienne and claimed his side's goal at Lille. "We're just a bunch of mates having fun on the pitch. At the end of the match, the four attackers [against Saint-Etienne] were the same lads who were together in Ligue 2."
While stalwarts of the promotion campaign, such as Gabon international Moise Brou Apanga, and ephemeral Moroccan international Ahmed Kantari, were given contract extensions and the opportunity to make the step up in class, the club did tinker with its squad. Bordeaux youth academy product Paul Baysse was drafted in, while French Under-21 international midfielder Granddi Ngoyi was picked up on loan from Paris Saint-Germain. Just to add a touch of the exotic, Czech duo Mario Licka, who had a two-season spell at Southampton earlier in the decade, and Tomas Micola were lured away from Banik Ostrava, swapping one industrial town for an equally unpleasing-on-the-eye port. The club's sporting director, Corentin Martins, conceded the lack of a Gucci boutique and the low Prada-handbag-per-capita ratio means Brest will always face a struggle to convince players to go there.
"I was a player. I know how things go. There's not 50,000 things to consider. First is 'how much am I going to earn?' Next is 'what level does the club play at?', and third, 'what's the city like?'" admitted the Brest-born Martins, whose career as a playmaker in the French national side was curtailed by the emergence of Zinedine Zidane. "If they're reticent, it's usually because of the weather."
While big-name players may eschew its dubious delights, Brest has proved fertile ground for budding talents. Paul Le Guen - admittedly Breton-born - Claude Makelele, David Ginola and Franck Ribery have all braved the Atlantic swell in the past, launching their careers in Brittany before seeking glory, glamour and significantly more sunshine elsewhere. Martins has a persuasive figure to help make his job easier in the shape of club president Michel Guyot, credited with being the first club supremo to ban headphones following France's World Cup debacle. "Whenever Thierry Henry got off the bus, he always had his headphones on. He didn't when he went to see Sarkozy," reasoned Guyot, who once offered to fight the leader of the Brest Ultras one-on-one after being criticised for his running of the club.
Needless to say, the club's passionate fans, who cram into the cosy 16,000-capacity Stade Francis-Le Blé, are just a little happier about Guyot now, largely thanks to the man he appointed as coach. Born in the gritty, working-class north of France - a land of coal mines, ports and football not dissimilar to north-east England - Dupont is a snug fit for the club. "There's a real football culture here," said the man dubbed 'Sir Alex', who worked a similar miracle in qualifying habitual bottom-feeders Sedan for the UEFA Cup with a fifth-place finish in 2000-01. "In Brittany, it's just like at home: It smells of chips and beer, I love it."
A man seemingly of simple pleasures, Dupont was equally back-to-basics when he took over the team in mid-2009 with relegation to the third and amateur tier of French football looming large. "When he came in, he told us that we were allowed to be beaten by better teams than us," Elana said. "I'd never heard that before and it did a lot of good. It meant we could play without pressure."
It is a recipe that took Brest from 14th at the end of one season to promotion the next. "He's a magician. He'll never coach another club," exclaimed Guyot with his usual exuberance recently, but Dupont is quick to pass on the credit to his players. "To be leader at this stage is no longer a question of luck," said the 56-year-old, whose otherwise unremarkable career was jazzed up by a brief spell in charge of the United Arab Emirates Under-21s. "I've got a great team, and with each match they surprise me."
The fans too have raised more than an eyebrow at the club's success, but Bretons are not renowned for their expansiveness. No one is getting carried away, especially those who experienced the club going bankrupt in 1991 and only winding their way back to Ligue 2 in 2004.
Martins was a Brest player when the bank manager pulled the plug, and was promptly auctioned off to Auxerre. Though those memories remain painfully vivid, he still does allow himself to dream. "One day I said to Guyot, 'I want to bring in a Brest-born player'. 'Oh yeah' he says. 'Yes, Gonzalo Higuain was born in Brest,'" said Martins. "Even at the end of his career, it would be tough, but it would be a great story."