Papin: I’ve toughened up

While great players do not always make great coaches, some do manage to transfer the experience of years on the pitch into success in the dugout. That is certainly the case with legendary French forward Jean-Pierre Papin. Following in the footsteps of Didier Deschamps, who reached the UEFA Champions League final in his rookie season as coach of Monaco, JPP finished his maiden season as a professional coach by leading Racing Club de Strasbourg into the French top flight.

However, the man who was voted Marseille's Player of the Century by the club's supporters knows all too well how quickly things can change. Already, in his brief career as a coach, the former France forward has experienced the ups and downs that go with the job. Having arrived at Lens early into the new season to replace Guy Roux, the former Ballon d'Or winner is now getting his first taste of management in Ligue 1, after a successful stint with Strasbourg in the second division. With the French season due to pause for its winter break in a few weeks, the boss of the Sang et Or returned to his native Pas-de-Calais, where he agreed to give an exclusive interview to Lens went through a difficult period for a while before getting back on track. Given that this is your first experience of coaching a Ligue 1 side, how did you cope with the pressure?
Jean-Pierre Papin:
I experienced pressure as a player, but this is completely different. You don't feel it the same way as you do when you're a coach. The big difference between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 is the media attention. The pressure at this level is much greater and they are less forgiving. In Ligue 1 there is no scope for "give him more time". They come down on you straight away. When things are going well, you're brilliant. When they're not, it's a catastrophe, and nothing is right. And when you've arrived when the season has already started and haven't been able to pick the squad yourself, it can be a difficult situation to manage.

Was it even more difficult than not being given the chance tocoach Strasbourg in Ligue 1 after leading them to promotion?
From a football point of view Strasbourg was a great experience, but from a personal perspective it was miserable. I prefer to remember the good things. I've moved on, but there are a few people who I'll never forgive. My problem is that I trust people and assume that everything is fine. The players, the supporters and the city were all fabulous. But there were other, non-football factors that meant that I felt unable to carry on the adventure at Strasbourg.

Has your reputation as a player helped you to command greater respect in the dressing room now that you are a coach?
Your name and what you've done in your career do bring respect. That can help at the start. But after that, you have to get the results. If you are not giving the right message, the players will make you pay the price. Last season made me toughen up. In that respect, it was a very useful experience for me.

Has the fact that you started your coaching career with an amateur club, Arcachon helped you?
Definitely. When it comes to managing a group of players and individuals, there are no real differences between the two levels. The big difference is that with an amateur team, the players come to train and to play in order to find a release. They are giving up their free time after work. The professional player is doing his job. That's where the difference is. But the desire to win is just the same. If I hadn't had the Arcachon experience, I don't know if any of the rest would have followed. Starting out at the bottom of the ladder was a good thing. I was able to build something out of almost nothing. We ended up in the CFA (the French fourth division). After that, at Strasbourg we gained promotion to Ligue 1. Today, I'm at Lens, and it's another step up again. At this level, failure isn't an option.

Was the job at Arcachon part of a planned career plan, or was it just because you wanted to give coaching a try and see what happened?
Before I went to Arcachon, I was offered the chance to coach a club in Ligue 2 or to go to Manchester United to work as a coach with the forwards. But I didn't know for sure that I would have the same passion for coaching as I had for playing the game. I had doubts, and I didn't want to launch myself into a new adventure without feeling certain. If you want to make it as a coach, you've got to have passion for football and passion for people.

You won practically everything as a player, and you have presumably ensured that your family will never want for anything. What motivates you to get up in the mornings to go to train your team, in the knowledge that you are likely to be subjected to severe criticism?
I love football and I have a clear sense of how much I owe the game. As long as the passion is there, I will devote every bit of time I can to it. I don't know exactly how long I'll be able to continue doing that. One thing I'm sure of though is that I won't be carrying on until I'm 65. I'm keen to ensure I get to enjoy my children and my grandchildren.

As you say, being a head coach is very demanding. Have you had to make sacrifices in your family life in order to make the return to football?
I had the chance to take a break after I stopped playing. I was out of the game for seven years before returning the game to start a new challenge. I tried to do things right, particularly where our daughter was concerned (after their daughter suffered brain damage, Jean-Pierre Papin and his wife Florence set up the Neuf de Coeur [Nine of the Heart] Association in 1996 to inform parents about methods for re-educating children with the same condition). I put time into getting my coaching badges and then into gaining coaching experience at Arcachon. When you coach a professional team, you are required to adopt a similar lifestyle as when you were a player, and that obviously means making sacrifices. I wouldn't have agreed to do it without the backing of my wife. My family is far too important to me to contemplate anything that would mean we couldn't be together.

How are things going with Neuf de Cœur?
The association recently celebrated its 10 tanniversary and continues to go strong. You couldn't put a price on what we've managed to achieve so far. With the new methods that have become available, there is the real possibility that we can do more to provide support and care. I can't do as much on a day-to-day basis now, but I continue to stay involved in my free time.

Coming back to football. Former players making their return to football sometimes say that the game has changed. In the 10 years since you hung up your boots is that a feeling that you have?
The mentality of the players has changed, but not the football itself. Aside from the fact that there are now more competitions, and the problems that this entails, it is the same game. Some players perhaps have less hunger these days. They enjoy more privileges than we did in my day, and any difficulties tend to be regarded more like calamities. In our day, we were fighters. When you weren't playing it felt like the end of the world. These days, I get the impression that it's not such a big deal as the players know that there will always be another contract waiting for them.

To what extent can you try to change that as a coach?
You can improve things, but you can't change them. That is down to the players. I can reinforce things during training, but the most important thing is how the players approach their own development.

Would you like to go back to Marseille as head coach eventually?
That's not something I've thought about. I am focused on Lens, and I can't imagine myself being anywhere else. This is a big opportunity for me and if we're allowed to do our jobs, we'll get results. What's more, the facilities here are exceptional, especially the training complex. The players realize that, and that's a big plus.

Finally, what have you taken from 2007 and what are your hopes for 2008?
Working with the players at Strasbourg and gaining promotion to Ligue 1 was a great adventure. In 2008, I hope to win one of France's two cup competitions with RC Lens.