When, in the customary steaming heat of summer, the French began their championship in Lyon last July, Chris Waddle and Mick McCarthy, the new arrivals from Britain, found themselves in direct and contrasted opposition.
For Waddle, the problem was simply one of whether, and how soon, he could adjust to his team and tactics. Marseille, having spent a fortune, would be interested in nothing less than retaining their title.
For McCarthy, the question was one of sheer survival; his own, and that of Lyon, his newly promoted team. A question exacerbated by the fact that he was expected to operate not as a zonal central defender, but as a sweeper.
Giving away a fatuously soft goal in the first few minutes, Lyon were 3-0 down before the quarter hour. McCarthy booted one ball off the line with his keeper beaten, got in a tackle or two, hit one excellent long pass out to the left wing (he couldn't have done much, he observed dryly, if I remembered that) and did not have to face Waddle until after the interval. Asked what he thought of Waddle's performance, he replied, good naturedly: "He's a pain in the backside!" This, he quickly made clear, was meant as a compliment.
Troubles over his transfer, with his consequent late arrival, meant that Waddle had had only two and a half days' training. He was stiff, he said, before the game. But as McCarthy remarked, things worked out perfectly for him: the fact that Lyon, to quote McCarthy again, conceded in the first half three goals which were gifts made of excuses.
Waddle didn't, as he himself said, do at all badly. There was a delicate through ball from the left which sent a colleague racing in on goal, and a characteristic cross from the right, a left footed inswinger, which very nearly brought a goal, as the ball rebounded between attacker and goalkeeper.
Much more significant’ and important than any of this, however, was the moment when, ten minutes from the end, Jean-Pierre Papin went off the field and asked M. Vautrot, that distinguished referee, to hand his skipper's armband to Waddle.
"C'etait prevu!" joked the young Marseille manager, Gerard Gili, when I asked him about it, after the game. What it represents was a generous and friendly gesture by Papin, the chief mover and shaker of the Marseille team, friendly, ebullient but explosive, a young man of evident strong likes and dislikes. "Un tipe euperbe!" - a terrific chap he had said to me about Waddle, before the game. “I saw him looking a bit lonely, so I phoned my wife and invited him back to my house, for a meal." He was sure, said Papin, last season's top League scorer, current French international striker, author of a hat trick in the Cup Final, that when Waddle was fully fit and adjusted, they would play very well together. "A good dribbler, good with his head, like all the English.“
One hopes all goes well, though I am perhaps a little less sanguine than Papin and than Bernard Tapie, the young, exuberant, jaunty, slightly raffish tycoon who shelled out so much money for Waddle. When, in the dressing-room corridor, I suggested to Tapie that Marseille might have to change their tactics, he replied that they had 'no tactics’. The idea that attackers should just attack, defenders should just defend, was ridiculous. Nevertheless, he also said that Waddle would not be used in a striker's role, but would play in a deeper position. Waddle, said Tapie, was "adorable."
Waddle himself was very happy with the kind of football played. It was, he said cheerfully, Total Football, in which every man was a footballer, and the long ball was seldom used. In England, the custom was to put pressure on the back four, but in France, defenders were so "comfortable on the ball" it was a waste of time; you would probably get it only twice in ten attempts. In so far as the methods often seemed to leave you one on one, this was ideal for him, this was his game. With Papin able to speak pretty good English ("I have the basics, but not the vocabulary") there is another plus for Waddle who, like McCarthy, means to get down to his French, but may not find it easy.
McCarthy lamented that while he had been told a few useful words of the language, and while one did not need many words on a football field, it was frustrating not to be able to find them, in the heat of the moment. "It's so easy to say it in English." As for Lyon, “They 're a young team, and when any team goes three goals down, it's difficult, but for your players, it 's harder still ... Chris Waddle played well, but he came on in a side that was winning 3-0. It was a great situation for him. Chris is a very, very good player, and I'm sure he'll be an instant success here.
“It's going to be difficult for us, it always is for a team that's just been promoted, especially playing these sides, if you give them a goal in the first 10 or 15 minutes, they're such good players, they'll get confidence. My feet are covered in blisters. I've lost four and a half kilos.“
But he would not accept his employment as a sweeper as any kind system didn't work, not only because McCarthy himself looked slow and ill at ease but because his two marking centre-backs, Knapp and N'Gotty, were so hopelessly inadequate, perpetually being beaten for pace and power, or by balls which caught them on the turn, when played over their heads.
In the first half, the Lyon defence split time and again, like a rotten banana. In the second, it was noticeable how often the Marseille defence was split in just the same way, despite the presence (or perhaps, who knows, because of the presence) of the two expensive new international purchases, Mozer (Brazil) and Roche (France) at centre-back.
Mozer, cool and accomplished, actually went up field to score a goal, and Roche had a good strike or two, but there was clearly still much work to be done, not least so far as Bernard Tapie's true ambition, the European Cup, was concerned.
The Anglophone Gerard Houllier, once manager of Paris Saint-Germain when it romped to the Championship, now assistant manager of the French international team, was at the game and said, "Waddle's out of condition at the moment, I think he must lose two or three kilos, but he's got something I like in his feet."
This article originally appeared in the August 1989 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.