Steve Savidan: The Man Who Brought Joy Back to Valenciennes
The annals of football are littered with late bloomers. Toto Schillaci went from Serie B to World Cup Golden Boot in one year, while Ian Wright, signed by Arsenal at the age of 28, somehow still managed to become their highest ever scorer.
And of course, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you can add Jamie Vardy to that list. The Leicester City striker has taken the Premier League by storm this year, breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for goals in consecutive games, and is now a regular feature in England squads. Not bad for a player who just over five years ago was playing in the seventh tier of English football and working in a factory making carbon fibers for medical splints.
Like Leicester City, Valenciennes FC are considered a bit of a yo-yo team, having spent most of their history flitting between Ligue 1 and 2. Overshadowed by their more successful near-neighbours Lille and Lens, they have a modest history, with runners-up medals in the 1951 Coupe de France being the nearest they’ve come to a major trophy.
In 1993 they were nearly ruined after being caught up in the Marseille match-fixing scandal, in which three of their players were contacted by OM’s Jean-Jacques Eydelie and asked to throw a game in order for Marseille to be able to rest players for their upcoming Champions League final. They went to pieces for the following decade, declaring bankruptcy in 1996 and dropping into the Championnat de France Amateur, the fourth tier of the French system.
By 2004, they had rebounded somewhat, having spent six of the previous seven seasons in the third tier, the Championnat National. But for a club that had spent much of its history in the top two divisions, they were still playing semi-professional football. Something needed to change.
Steve Savidan had never exactly set the world alight over the course of his career, which had been largely spent in the second and third divisions. After his breakthrough second season of senior football, 1998-99, in which he scored 15 goals in the Championnat National for Angers SCO, he only scored nine goals in four years, and in 2002-03, at the age of 25, he suffered the ignominy of going a whole Ligue 2 season without scoring for AS Beauvais. This forced him to drop back down to the National, signing for one of the smallest teams in the league, AS Angouleme. They were one of the few amateur teams at that level, forcing Savidan to work as a bartender over the course of the year (a slight step-up from earlier work as a binman during his time at Chateauroux).
But this season was the making of him. Despite the club’s relegation, he hit 12 goals, provided 14 assists and earned a move to the Stade Nungesser and Valenciennes, where he would go on to work under manager Antoine Kombouare. This was a massive step up in terms of the size of club, despite the sideways move it appeared on paper, as the pressure was on for promotion. He did not disappoint, finishing the 2004-05 season as the league’s top scorer with 19 goals as Valenciennes were finally promoted back into Ligue 2 and professional football after 10 years in the wilderness. He even popped up with nine assists. At the age of 27, Savidan was finally blooming.
But would he be able to make the step up to Ligue 2, where just three seasons before he had failed so miserably?
Well, if by step up you mean finishing as the league’s joint-top scorer with 16 goals and carrying your team to a second consecutive title and promotion, then yes, Savidan did. And if you can just about make out some of his goals that year from this footage, you can see the variety of goals he scored; from poacher’s goals in the six-yard-box to long range screamers – he had it all in his locker.
Not exactly blessed with great height (in fact, only standing at 5 foot 7), it is surprising that many of his goals that year came from headers, and this is a testament to his intelligent runs and great jumping ability. Yet Savidan’s footballing intelligence did not just stop at scoring goals: he was also a prolific creator, with 11 assists that season, which meant he was involved in over half of Valenciennes’ 51 goals that year.
Of course, promotion meant that the 28-year-old Savidan would have to make the step-up to Ligue 1, a league that he had never previously come close to in his nine-year-career. It would be a big ask, particularly as Valenciennes would have one of the smallest budgets in the division.
But Savidan continued on his hot streak, scoring on his Ligue 1 debut against Auxerre, earning player of the month honours for August and eventually finishing up as the second-highest scorer in the league with 13 goals, just two behind PSG legend Pauleta. Ligue 1 was certainly seeing a lot of his trademark somersault celebration.
Propelled by his exploits, Valenciennes didn’t do too badly either, only dropping into the bottom three for one week that year and eventually finishing 17th.
The highlight of the year for Savidan was undoubtedly his four goals against the World Cup-winning goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, during a 5-2 victory away at Nantes. Sure, Les Canaris would eventually finish bottom of the table, while Barthez was way past his best, eventually retiring before the season was out; but for a newly promoted team to destroy one of the grand old names of French football at their place was quite something. Another famous away win came against Paris Saint-Germain: after seeing his team go down to 10 men in the 50th minute, Savidan popped up with a header for Valenciennes 11 minutes later, followed by an 88th minute strike from Sebastien Roudet. Pauleta’s 90th minute penalty could not save PSG manager Guy Lacombe’s job: he was sacked after the 2-1 defeat.
The next season provided Savidan, or Savigol as he was quickly becoming known, the chance to prove that it wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan, and that his form was sustainable. He took that chance with aplomb, scoring 13 goals again as Valenciennes, who spent much of the year in the top half, eventually finished four places up from the previous year in 13th. The variety of goals in this footage from that year, from 30 yard free kicks to acrobatic volleys to this absolute stunner vs Lens, showed his immense footballing ability. In his pomp, Savidan was the rare player who could score in any situation on the pitch.
However, this would be his last year at the club, as, in the summer of 2008, he was on the move, signing for an ambitious Caen outfit for around €5 million. He had scored 61 goals in 145 league appearances, and left a club legend.
The €7million sale of Yoan Gouffran to Bordeaux had given the Normandy outfit a comparatively-large war-chest, while Valenciennes needed money to build a new ground, after attendances had soared on their return to Ligue 1.
Savidan was expected to fire Caen to a top-half finish, and after a stunning home debut, coincidentally against Valenciennes, in which he scored one and assisted twice in a 3-1 win, things were looking promising.
After his first 14 league games, he had become their talisman, notching up seven goals and four assists, and rumours were rife that he would soon be on his way to a European giant, with both the ‘Olympiques’, Marseille and Lyon, as well as Atletico Madrid being linked with a winter move for the 30-year-old.
And this was soon followed by the high-point of his career.
Despite a prolific record in Ligue 1, Savidan had never received any international recognition for les Bleus, perhaps due to his employers being one of the more unfashionable teams in the French top flight. The array of big-name attacking talents available to Raymond Domenech, such as Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and a young Karim Benzema, had always won out over the former binman.
However, after that superb start to the season, the clamour for Savigol to earn international honours had increased, with even the man himself going to the press and pleading for a chance two days before the squad was to be announced for the November friendly against Uruguay.
“If Raymond Domenech wants to take players who are in form, then he’s well within his rights to try me in a game. Imagine that it works. Imagine I score two goals like I’ve always dreamed of doing since I was a child. Where’s the risk? If it doesn’t work, then I go back from where I came and people can say, ‘You see, he wasn’t up to it.’”
Domenech took the risk, selecting the 30-year-old as his number 9. He eventually came on at half-time for Anelka, and was probably the only bright spot of a desperately dull goalless draw, his energy and creativity standing out. He looked like he was having the time of his life out there, and nearly scored an acrobatic volley that would’ve been all too familiar to those who had seen him for Valenciennes.
Sadly that was to be the only time he ever played for France. From there, things took a steep downward turn.
The interest from bigger clubs had greatly unsettled Savidan, but when he was offered an improved deal soon after the France cap, despite already being the highest earner at the club, morale amongst his teammates plummeted. And for the first time in his Ligue 1 career, the goals dried up. Savidan only scored three times in the next 15 games; Caen didn’t win a single one of them.
When Savidan made his international debut, Caen were 12th, and a win in their next game against Auxerre would take them to 9th. By their next win, they would be 17th.
Eventually, despite a late-season revival of sorts, Caen were relegated, finishing in 18th place. A season that had promised so much had delivered so little. Savidan’s goalscoring record looked good – on paper, it was actually his best Ligue 1 season, with 14 goals and five assists – but he had gone missing right when his team had needed him.
Following relegation, Caen were forced to cut costs, and, following on from a 14 goal season, it was clear that Savidan would move on. Rather than being the subject of interest from giants such as Marseille and Lyon in the summer of 2009, it appeared likely that Savidan would move to one of France’s mid-ranking teams; Rennes, Toulouse and Nice were linked with a move for the 31-year-old, but eventually a deal was agreed with Monaco, and it looked like Savigol would be taking his talents to Monte Carlo, and one of the most famous clubs in the land. A beautiful player for a beautiful place.
But sometimes, fate can deal a cruel hand. During his medical, doctors discovered a cardiac condition, and Savidan was forced to retire at the age of 31, just as his career was reaching its peak.
He currently does punditry work for French television, and he remains a popular figure, particularly in Valenciennes, where he is still adored.
Savidan was such a joyous player to watch – one who gave hope to a football club that nearly died. The shadow that was cast over Valenciennes after their involvement in the Marseille match-fixing scandal grew lighter with every flick, every assist and every 30-yard screamer.
Despite having faded somewhat from their Savigol-inspired peak, culminating in relegation in 2014, and – like most clubs in France – being plagued by financial difficulty in recent years (actually ending up back in the CFA for two weeks that summer before being allowed back into Ligue 2), things are still an improvement on that bleak decade of amateur football. Valenciennes have modern training facilities and a shiny new ground; one that will help host the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Where before was a club that was always to be reminded of its lowest point, there was now a club with something to be proud of. A player who always had a smile on his face, who was capable of producing unforgettable moments, who had shown that the impossible was possible.