Hearts and soul of the party

Stephen Brenkley reports on the other Frenchman hoping to star in a Cup final
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There is a French footballer who has become an idol in a foreign land. He has helped to transform the fortunes of his club, who acquired his services for a song, and he has become so revered that they can barely contemplate life without him.

This is, of course, Gilles Rousset, the giant star goalkeeper of Hearts, whose first season in Scottish football will culminate this weekend in an appearance in the Scottish Cup final. He can be expected to control his defence and the aerial contest with equal assurance.

"He's a hero here, it's as simple as that," said Jim Jefferies, the club's manager who has taken them to heights unimagined last August. "He has been an astonishingly good buy, not the only one, but the fans love him."

Doubtless the Gallic mystique is a key factor as with messieurs Cantona and Ginola further south, but at an amply framed 6ft 6in Rousset is hard to miss. That and his command of the air might have been instrumental in his recruitment last autumn. But there were other factors.

"He was cheap, that was the important thing," Jefferies said, and he meant it. "We got him and more because we could afford them, and when you've no money to spend that's not easy."

Rousset was signed from the mid-table French First Division club Rennes, on the strength of little more than a recommendation6. Pasquale Bruno, the Italian defender who once played for Juventus and Torino, was enlisted using a similar method.

"We had them for three matches before we had to make up our minds," Jefferies said. "It didn't take that long. One look and you could tell that they would do for us." The result has been that Hearts, faced with a relegation struggle in the first part of the season, have gradually climbed the table to fourth, which guaranteed them a place in the Uefa Cup, and assembled a long cup run.

Rousset, who was in the French squad at the last European Championships, has stood out in the thick of it, chiding, cajoling, smiling. He played for Boulogne-Billancourt, Sochaux, Lyon and Rennes in France, but he is still only 32 and so has the goalkeeper's prime years ahead of him. At least two of them will be spent at Hearts, more if the love affair continues.

When Jefferies took over the club last summer, having spent five seasons at Falkirk, he expected a longer period of consolidation. The squad in place contained 10 players over the age of 30. With a large-scale ground renovation starting, the only promise was that no cash was available for players.

Jefferies formulated his strategy early: shop around mainland Europe for likely bargains and blood homegrown youngsters. The combination has been compelling, and if Rousset has been exceptional in the former category the 20-year-old Gary Locke has been equally outstanding in the latter. Not that the manager is anything but pragmatic. The success, he is aware, is relative, and may not last.

Continued recruitment is essential, particularly if Europe is to be confronted with any hope of advancement, and the recent pounds 400,000 signing of the midfielder Colin Cameron from Raith Rovers is an indication that success, even on the minor scale so far, has a habit of yielding money for transfers.

"We can look back on a wonderful season, which apart from anything else will make the team-building easier from now on," Jefferies said. "But I can't say that we'll be in a position to challenge for the league title. Over a long season that's going to be unlikely when you look at the money others have to spend."

The others in question are the usual suspects, Rangers and Celtic, but if they prove unbeatable over a campaign they can be overcome in a single battle. Rangers may start as favourites on Saturday, but Jefferies is a canny soul and he will have devised a deliberate game plan.

Nor is precedent of especially huge benefit to Rangers. During the past 10 years they have won nine league titles but been cup winners only twice. Hearts have won it just five times in their history but only once since 1906, and even that was 40 years ago. Jefferies was in the side beaten by Rangers in 1976.

"That was a long time ago," he said. "It's not like I'll be wanting revenge or anything. We can win it but whatever happens we shouldn't forget how far we've come in a short time."