Franck Sauzee: There's only one show in town as Hibs legend makes long-awaited return to Edinburgh

A familiar face peers down at the O2 Academy from banners on the walls. The room is bathed in Hibernian green as an expectant audience files in, a buzz of anticipation growing louder and louder.

Monday, 4th April 2022, 5:20 pm
Updated Monday, 4th April 2022, 5:41 pm

‘Twenty years in the making’ states the evening’s co-host Grant Stott, as he gets proceedings under way. The part-time pantomime villain is a dab hand at getting crowds going but there is no booing tonight apart from when Hearts are mentioned, which is fairly often, as a host of former Hibees reminisce about three memorable Edinburgh derby victories.

Stott introduces the top table: John O’Neil, Ian Murray, Dirk Lehmann, Alex McLeish, John Hughes and Stuart Lovell take to the stage accompanied by their own entrance music including ‘Yogi Yogi Bear’ for Hughes, and ‘Land Down Under’ by Men at Work for Sydney-born Lovell.

Flanked by Sky Sports reporter Luke Shanley – ‘the Ant to my Dec’ – Stott barely has the words out before the crowd is on its feet, clapping and cheering.

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Franck Sauzee listens to former Hibs manager Alex McLeish talk about bringing the Frenchman to Easter Road. Picture: @HanlonStevenson

"Mr Franck… Gaston… Henri… Sauzee!”

The man himself strides onto the stage. Two decades have passed but he is as suave as ever, retaining that cool, calm exterior that served him so well on and off the football pitch. He turns 57 later this year but looks like he could still do a job in defence.

He seems almost overwhelmed as he shows his appreciation to the audience, and Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson. Their Hanlon-Stevenson Foundation is the reason the Frenchman has returned to Edinburgh after taking up a role as an ambassador in March 2020. Covid-19 might have delayed his return but good things come to those who wait.

Perhaps it is best to start with McLeish, the man who brought Sauzee to the Capital and sparked an everlasting love affair.

The event was fittingly dubbed 'Le Retour', meaning 'The Return'

"There was an agent who would phone me and always tell me, ‘I’ve got a cracker for you’, but most of them were s****,” he recalls.

"I said to him, ‘who is it this time?’ and he asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of a player called Franck Sauzee?’ Of course I’d heard of Franck Sauzee; I’d played against him when Scotland beat France 2-0 at Hampden [in 1989].”

Sauzee interrupts, pointing out that France then beat Scotland 3-0 in Paris a few months later.

"I knew all about Franck,” McLeish continues after the laughter dies down. “I knew he was a wonderful manipulator of the ball so I told the agent, ‘I’d love to get him’. He was in the prime of his career and I felt he could do great things for Hibs – hit a 50-yard pass and land it on a 50 pence. That was the accuracy of his distribution.

"We were still kicking the ball long at the back. I thought Franck could take the ball from the goalkeeper and start the build-up.

"We wanted to play good football; I felt we were getting the players to do that and putting Franck in the back three was an absolute revelation. It was a great formation for us and we had the right players at the right time. We were lucky to get Franck for the last few years of his phenomenal career.”

Sauzee takes up the story: "When I came for the first time it was strange because in Scotland, the tactic often is that the ball goes from the back to the striker and after three or four games, I still hadn’t touched the ball…

"Eventually we found our own football and it was fantastic. I played for 20 years and I had two wonderful moments in my career; when I was with Marseille and we won the Champions League, the French Cup, and the league, and then when I was with Hibernian.

"That’s why it’s been 20 years: it was too difficult for me to come back because when I left Edinburgh and Hibs I was so sad. It was not possible for me to return.”

Given the manner of his departure – sacked after 69 days as manager – it is perhaps understandable that he should be reluctant to return. But it was also the affinity he developed for the club and the supporters; a fanbase that took to him in a way that not all players experience in their careers.

It is a joy listening to Sauzee and his former colleagues. He likens O’Neil to former Bordeaux and France midfielder Alain Giresse and refers to Hughes as ‘my language professor’ throughout. Lehmann laughs as he remembers Hughes nailing his boots to the floor and Murray recalls the daunting nature of playing alongside the Frenchman – ‘He’d never shout at you, but you’d know when you’d let him down. He had this look…’

Sauzee is in his element; regaling the audience with tales of the dressing room, losing his teeth as he scored a goal in a 3-1 home Edinburgh derby victory, and running the length of the Tynecastle pitch to celebrate his goal in the Millennium derby.

There are plenty of laughs, video highlights, stories unfit for printing in a family newspaper, and video messages from Ulrik Laursen and Mixu Paatelainen, who are unable to attend. Sauzee even recreates the celebratory jig he danced with Paatelainen in the 6-2 game.

Former Hibs midfielder Des Bremner makes an appearance with the European Cup – he and Sauzee are two of five players to have worn green and white and won Europe’s premier trophy – and plans for a charity game involving the 2000/01 squad are revealed.

Sauzee seems delighted to be back and touched by the turnout.

In his programme notes he wrote: “Time has not diminished the feeling I have for Edinburgh, Hibernian, and the people who make the city and the club what they are.”

Going by the reception afforded to him at this event, the feeling is entirely mutual.

After all, there is only one Sauzee.

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