Name: Stéphane Paille
POB: Scionzier, France
Clubs: Sochaux, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Porto, Caen, Lyon, Servette, Mulhouse, Hearts
International caps: 8
This is the story of how the terrific target man with the killer touch and an eye for goal went from French Footballer of the Year to playing at Tynecastle and, ulimately, forever having the ignomy of being the first ever player in Scottish football to test positive for a random drugs test.
Hearts began the 1996/97, like many seasons that proceeded it, with John Robertson as their undoubted star striker, but there weren’t many options for manager Jim Jefferies behind the club idol: Alan Lawrence had been allowed to leave in the summer; John Colquhoun had just turned 33; promising youngster Kevin Thomas was struggling to make a return to form after a long injury lay off, and early season signing Darren Beckford did not look the part. Having been successful with his forays into the foreign market the previous season, signing Gilles Rousset and Pasquale Bruno, Jefferies returned to the continent to pick a once heralded talent off the football scrap heap.
Stephane Paille had began his career playing with Sochaux, making his first team breakthrough in 1982. At the time the club continually found themselves in the boring comforts of mid-table obscurity within French football’s first division. Then, in 1985/86, things began to take a turn for the worse and the following campaign they were relegated. Nine years later, when Paille turned up at Tynecastle, the distinction that Hearts touted was that they were signing a former French Player of the Year. This was true, but they left out the most amazing part: he’d picked up the award as a Second Division striker. Sochaux had torn their league a new one en route to an immediate return to the top flight, while also reaching the French Cup Final. Paillie played, and scored in the penalty shoot-out, but they still lost the match to Metz. It was a disappointing end to an incredible year that marked his arrival as a top talent in French football. Proving that the honour was highly coveted, the winners the next two years were Jean Pierre Papin and Laurent Blanc.
Back in the top flight, Paille forgot his previous struggles to help Sochaux claim a European spot in their first year back. The forward grabbed 15 league goals, one more than George Weah, and interest was now hotting up around the full internationalist who was very much French football’s flavour of the month. In the end he decided to stay in France to play with Montpellier, an unwise decision in hindsight. Over the next nine years the forward failed to stay with any one club longer than two seasons. After failing at Montpellier, where he briefly played with Eric Cantona, he landed at Bordeaux and then Porto. Each team bought into the potential of the 6ft 3in forward who could kill a ball stone dead and had previously proved he had what it took to succeed as an international footballer. Whatever the cause he had tailed off badly and was a shadow of the player he once was.
That was until he made a brief comeback in a two-season spell with Caen. The provincial side were performing well in Ligue 1, finishing eighth the campaign before, but it still represent a less pressurised atmosphere for the forward to get back on form. He hit 14 league goals in his first year, two more than Abedi Pele, before getting a respectable nine the following term as Caen regressed back to the mean. It was enough to convince Bordeaux to hand him a second chance and he gave a fairer showing of his talents during the 1993/94 season where he found 10 goals in 31 appearances. Despite finishing as the club’s top scorer he moved on once more, to Lyon, where he was forced into the role of bit part player.
After a season in Switzerland, Paille moved back home to play for Second Division side Mulhouse. Part of the reason for his desire to return home was to care for his terminally ill father. During his time with the club he tested positive for cannabis and was banned from football. His initial excuse was that he had taken the drug at a party but later admitted that it was due to the problems in his personal life. It soon emerged that those problems went beyond his sick father, with a French newspaper implicating the footballer in a police investigation into drug trafficking.
So, at the age of 31, the player seemed to be done. However, a call from a distant friend helped revive his career. Gilles Rousset had been a member of that Sochaux 1988 Cup Final losing side and he recommended Paille the player, and the man, to help with Hearts’ European push that season. As a trialist he featured in a 1-1 draw against Raith with John Robertson reacquainting himself with the comforts of playing with a target man as the record goalscorer grabbed Hearts only goal. Having observed him in that match and in a friendly against the same opposition, and having monitored his interaction with the rest of the squad, Jefferies decided to take the gamble no-one else seemed prepared to risk by signing Paille on a short-term deal until January.
It wouldn’t take long for the striker to repay the faith. The League Cup semi-final saw Hearts have the perfect opportunity to get back to a major final after losing the Scottish Cup six months earlier to Rangers. Dundee were the second tier opposition and on a cold night at Easter Road the Frenchman lit up the occasion with a man of the match performance and the third goal in a 3-1 win. Hearts supporters marvelled at the talent of their latest continental hero. At 6ft 3in he filled the target man description, but went about his job with an elegant grace rarely witnessed on these shores at the time. Despite his new fond adoration, controversy, as usual, was not far round the corner.
In his first Edinburgh derby, Paille was accused of the worst kind of gamesmanship by feigning injury to get an opponent sent off. TV cameras missed the incident, but witnesses from the national media said John Hughes had playfully ruffled Paille’s hair and the Frenchman responded by hitting the deck. The injustice was almost compounded when Paillie swivelled and shot from the edge of the area later in the match, but Leighton tipped his effort over the bar.
The storm soon died down and he played his way into a contract extension in early Febuary. This was despite him failing to appear much over the previous month because of illness and having not scored since November, a misfortune he remedied with the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Motherwell.
Another French forward was soon acquired for next season, Stephane Adam, while Jim Hamilton had already joined the team. Despite these buys Jefferies was still interesting in keeping the player for the next season when Paille ran out of second chances. After playing in a 1-0 defeat to Kilmarnock at Rugby Park in April, the player was selected for random drug testing. It would be a test that he would later fail. The news was broken by the club: they had been informed by the SFA of the failed test and Paille would be sacked immediately. This time it wasn’t cannabis, or cocaine, but a appetite suppressant called Dinintel. It wasn’t a “designer drug” but it was a banned substance in Britain because health experts believed that it could cause dependence in the user since a continually higher dosage is required for long term use. Paille, in his defence, could legally get his hands on it back in France and claimed his innocence by stating that he was previously unaware it was banned in Britain. Hearts, however, held firm and the player was sacked.
Even if Hearts had been forced to back track by the Player’s Association, they would have had an even better reason to dismiss the player two months later when he was thrown in prison. It turned out that the rumours circulating in the French press about an investigation into drug trafficking had been true. Paille was found guilty of possessing and moving cocaine, and for complicity in paying for its purchase. He was sentenced to four months in prison, although this was later reduced to six-week day-release. The player has always maintained his innocence by claiming that he had naively loaned money to a man who then used that to buy cocaine, and that he had no prior knowledge of the man’s intentions. Nevertheless, it was the end of his playing career.
Where is he now? The saying goes “it doesn’t matter what you know, it’s who you know”. Well, in the case of Paille it should “it doesn’t matter what you’ve done when you’ve got pals like Zinedine Zidane”. The Real Madrid great called in a favour and got his old pal Paille a job working as a scout for the world famous club. You see kids, don’t take drugs, it won’t get you anywhere in life… except the Bernabeu.