In the midst of transfer rumours and gossip it’s too easy to get lost in the hype of players of the future. So we asked John Dobson to cast his mind back to one of the greatest players ever to grace Ligue 1.
Sometimes, even seasoned football observers must look at the Dutch side of the mid- to late-seventies and wonder if Rinus Michels was a genius or a chancer. Did he create something new or did he luck in when he was appointed Oranje boss and was granted a group of players so in tune with one another and so comfortable on the ball that a strategically shaved monkey in a suit could have coached them to successive World Cup finals?
Whichever it was, there’s no arguments about the football they played. It was mesmerising at times, but it also placed unique demands on the players. Of course, there was Cruyff, the undoubted star of the show, but also the van der Kerkhof brothers, Arie Haan, Johan Neeskens and, ostensibly out on the right wing, a gangly young fellow from Zaandam called John Nicholaas Rep.
In that system, he defied convention by being conventional. He was less inclined to go walkabout like his team-mates. He was quite happy sticking to his wing and in many ways embodies the modern winger, happy to cut inside onto his left. Arjen Robben, Adam Johnson et al owe a debt to Rep.
Cruyff moved to Spain in 1973 and was an immediate hit. After the ’74 World Cup,Valencia thought they’d sprinkle some of that stardust onto their team and snapped up Rep fromAjax, but we’re concerned with his French adventure which began two years later at Bastiaon the northern shores of Corsica. The highlight of that period was a UEFA Cup final, almost inevitably against Dutch opposition in the shape of PSV. A goalless first leg in a biblical downpour on the island was followed by a bit of a humbling in Eindhoven, but Rep had attracted the attention of the most successful club in the republic and they wanted him alongside their stars.
Les Verts had won the title and the cup four times in the 1970s, including three doubles, and reached the ’76 European Cup final. To say they were good was a massive understatement. It’s on the back of this period that St Etienne fans can still claim to be the most successful club in France despite local rivals Lyon dominating since the turn of the millennium. And it was this environment that the softly-spoken winger arrived into in 1979 as they looked to build a dynasty that would last a lifetime.
Rep’s career looks a bit nomadic. He didn’t tend to stay long in any one place, but comparatively speaking, he settled at the Geoffroy-Guichard and made more appearances for them than any other of his clubs. He won his only club honour outside Hollandas he helped them win the title in 1981 – still the last of ASSE’s ten triumphs. Rep was an instant hit. Early in his St Etienne career, they faced Widzew Lodz in the first round of the UEFA Cup. Trailing 2-1 from the first leg in Poland, a packed stadium watched on as their new Dutch import rattled in a hat-trick as they turned it round to progress.
It would go sour in the end. In recruiting the likes of Rep, the club managed to balance the books by only registering contracts worth a fraction of the players actual wage, topping it up with brown envelopes full of flipping great wodges of cash. Michel Platini and Patrick Battiston were among other expensive recruits to benefit from this boot money and when the rort was uncovered, chairman Roger Rocher was jailed and many players threatened with the same for avoiding tax on these undeclared incomes. Many players jumped the country – Platini went to Juventus, Rep back to Holland with Zwolle– and the dream of joining Europe’s elite was over, but for a while it looked possible. They made French football glamorous, to be envied. Something for young boys in the York suburbs to see on TV and realise there was a world of football out there that needed to be explored.
Sadly, Rep’s career was on the slide by this point as well. Les Verts had him at his peak, but he was fighting a battle with the bottle that he was beginning to lose. Twice divorced, largely as a result of his drinking, he ended up penniless and ignored, most of all by Hellas Sport, the club he grew up at, who failed to mention their most famous son in their centenary celebration book.
How is his time at St Etienne remembered? There’s not many footballers who have records named after them. The Wedding Present’s seminal album George Best apart, we’re struggling. But local band Mickey 3D scored a minor hit with a song called Johnny Rep. That UEFA Cup debut in green was a huge inspiration, lead singer Mickaël Furnon told L’Equipe in an interview back in 2004. Hellas Sport may have ignored him, but there’s an area in central Francethat will forever recall the name and deeds of Johnny Rep.