Football: Harrow fever engulfs visiting French

Roger Lemerre reveals extra motivation his world beaters are bringing to Wembley.
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The Independent Online
IT WAS all a far cry from Bastille Day on the Champs-Elysees when the French team celebrated their World Cup triumph with half of France, but hysteria similar to last July still greeted the world champions when they arrived at Harrow Borough's ground last night for a training session ahead of tomorrow's international at Wembley.

An abundance of excitable children and equally excitable French ex-pats produced what might turn out to be the Ryman League side's best crowd of the season, and in future they ought to think about charging on such occasions. Even the Mayor of Harrow turned up in his stretch limo for what was evidently a happening of grand proportions for the whole borough.

For Roger Lemerre, the man with the enviable task of succeeding Aime Jacquet as coach to the French team, it was a chance to retrace his steps back to 1969 when he was a member of the side beaten 5-0 by England, who were then the world champions themselves, of course.

Judging from the way his eyes lit up at the mention of that game, not even the scoreline is enough to taint what are obviously fond memories for the 57-year-old Lemerre.

"It's very present in my mind still," he said. "I thought I was a competitive player in those days but within a quarter of an hour I was totally knocked out by the fans and the fervour of the English team, and when you are losing 5-0 and you hear 90,000 people bellowing 'we want six' it's very tough.

"But I'm still fascinated by English football and that's why I am very happy to be back. The atmosphere never changes and on Wednesday it will be exactly the same. It will be a pleasure to be in the stadium again but it will be difficult because the English team is always so committed."

One man who is unlikely to be there is Glenn Hoddle and Lemerre, while careful not to embroil himself in other people's business, nevertheless gave the impression he would be sad about that.

"It's very difficult for me to talk about that because I don't know the whole story. But Glenn Hoddle is very well respected in France. He has an excellent reputation both as a coach and as a player and everyone was very surprised. In France we appreciate his ideas on football."

France remain unbeaten under Lemerre since the World Cup and lie second in their qualifying group for Euro 2000 with an important match next month against the leaders Ukraine in Paris. By drafting in Arsenal's Nicolas Anelka, who is almost certain to play tomorrow night, Lemerre has already shown he is not afraid to give youth its chance but otherwise he has remained faithful to the group that carried all before it last year.

His task in emulating Jacquet's achievement might seem easier to Lemerre than most given that he has already won a World Cup, having coached the French to the Military World Cup in 1995.

As a player with Nantes, Nancy and Lens he won six caps for his country, but it was as Jacquet's number two at the World Cup that he really made his mark on the international game.

As far as his next assignment is concerned, Lemerre said: "It's very important for the French team to maintain our unbeaten run, but I think Hoddle's departure will serve to motivate the England players even more than usual."

Speaking as he was at the club where Hoddle's father, Derek, was a player for many years Lemerre's parting words seemed to carry an added resonance.