By Chris Dunlavy
STRANDED between the sticks from the age of six, Philippe Montanier always dreamed of ditching the gloves and haring up the wing.
“In my village, Bois-Saint-Ouen, my father was a goalkeeper,” explains the Nottingham Forest manager. “My older brother was a goalkeeper. So when I arrived at training as a six-year-old, they said ‘Your name is Montanier? Ah, you are a goalkeeper.’ I never got a choice.
“Whenever we had a training session with no goals I’d say, ‘Hey coach, why don’t I join in with the players?’ He’d say, ‘No, you go and practice saving shots’.
“Until the age of 12, I actually used a false registration to play on the right wing for a Sunday team. I just loved to play.
“These days, I would have been encouraged because goalkeepers need good technique. Back then, it was just roll out, pass back, pick it up. You could spend about ten minutes doing that!”
Standing eye-to-eye with the Frenchman in a City Ground suite, it’s hard to believe that Montanier was a highly-regarded stopper for the likes of Caen and Toulouse in his homeland.
Modestly built and relatively short – certainly no more than 5ft 9ins – the 52-year-old looks like he wouldn’t fill a five-a-side goal and is a world away from modern-day hulks like Manuel Neuer and Fraser Forster.
“Ah yes, but I was explosive,” he counters. “When was I playing, 25 years ago? Back then, you didn’t have really tall goalkeepers.
“If you remember the World Cup in 1982, France played England. I remember the game well because Graham Rix, my friend from Caen, played.
“The goalkeeper for France that day was Jean-Luc Ettori. You know how tall he was? One metre 73. But he was very agile and explosive. Fabien Barthez was the same.
“Now, playing against people like Didier Drogba, it would be more difficult for me. I think coaches would say ‘No, he is too short’. But I would show them, just like I did then.”
This last remark comes with a wry grin. Affable, warm and engaging, Montanier does a great line in self depreciation and it is easy to see why Forest fans have warmed to the man from Normandy.
Take for instance, his tale of how an early interest in coaching and tactics was ruthlessly stymied.
“As a goalkeeper, you have to speak to everyone,” he says. “Organise your defenders, even shout at the wingers and attackers to come back. You have a lot of time to analyse the game.
“I remember after the game, I’d go and see the coach. I’d say ‘Tactically, I think we are doing this wrong’ or ‘This guy up front is making things complicated, we have to change’
“The manager would say ‘Yeah, that’s great Philippe. Now stand between those posts, stop the ball going in the net and shut up’.”
Not to be deterred, Montanier moved into coaching with Boulogne and Valenciennes, then Spanish outfit Real Sociedad.
Appointed by Forest in September, he has gradually turned the Reds into one of the most flamboyant outfits in the division, with three straight wins hinting at a belated promotion push. “Anybody is better after four, five months together,” he insists. “But getting injured players back is also important. We had six or seven missing. I also arrived late, the first day of pre-season. That left me behind on recruitment.”
Many overseas managers struggle to adapt to the pace of the English game. Stale Solbakken, the former Wolves coach, recently described the Championship as a “brainless” division compared to the more cerebral style employed on the continent. Given his schooling in France and Spain, does Montanier agree?
“It is not worse, just different,” he says. “English players have a great mentality. They play with a greater energy and intensity than anywhere else in the world.
“With this intensity, you naturally lose a little of your technique. In Spain, for example, you can control the tempo of a game with passing a lot more easily. Here, because of the speed, it is difficult sometimes to make five or six consecutive passes.
“But the English culture is great. I wouldn’t want to change that intensity. It is, I think, why the fans have a special attitude. Everywhere we go, they are there, supporting the team, making a lot of noise. It is why every player and manager wants to work in this country.
“But yes, I also want to add a French touch – a balance between the great attitude and speed of England and a little more technique and efficiency.”
Last week’s trip to Pride Park was, of course, unlikely to be an exercise in control and efficiency. A visit to play bitter rivals Derby rarely is.
Refreshingly for a modern manager, Montanier is happy to admit that the East Midlands derby is “more than game”, and admits it may be rather more fiery than the relative bonhomie of Basque derbies between Sociedad and Bilbao. “It will be different,” he says. “Sociedad is Basque Country. During the civil war with Franco, it was very difficult for the Basques. They were suppressed and it forged in them a great bond.
“Yes, there is great rivalry with Bilbao. During the game, the shouting is fierce. But, afterwards, they are together. In the stands, in the streets, having a drink. You would often see a mother who supported Bilbao and a father who supported Real Sociedad, side by side in different shirts.
“We used to start the game with a Basque flag, both sides cheering. I always found it incredible to see because, in France, it is not like this.
“St Etienne v Lyon is very violent, for example. Very violent. If you drove into Lyon with a St Etienne flag on your car, it could have the windows broken when you come back. It’s very dangerous.
“This, I think, will be somewhere in between. I know because I actually have a friend in my home village who knows a Derby fan. He comes from France every year for this fixture. I hope we can send him back unhappy!”
Sadly, even the favour of supporters and a derby victory may not insulate Montanier from an undeserved dismissal.
Chairman Fawaz Al-Hasawi is in the process of selling the club to American John Jay Moores, with reports suggesting the Texan millionaire will seek a manager of his own choosing. With a deal likely to be signed in the next fortnight, does Montanier fear his good work will be undone?
“No, no,” he insists. “When I come to any club, I work as if I will be there ten years. In reality, we don’t know what will happen in two months. But my mentality is always long-term.
“For example, we started the season with a lot of young players – Matty Cash, Ben Osborn, Oliver Burke, Jorge Grant. I want to put things in place for the future of the club.
“Every club has short-term targets. But they are no good without a vision. Perhaps I will never reach it, but I feel it is my responsibility.
“I still remember the European Cup watching my great idol Peter Shilton. To be at his club is an honour. To hear the song (Mull of Kintyre) before games, to play in this stadium. It is incredible.
“I am not here to serve myself, I am here to serve the club – and I want to do that for as long as possible.”
*This article originally featured in The FLP’s 11 December 2016 edition – the day of the East Midlands Derby