Date: 7th May 2008 at 12:33pm
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This week I’ve decided to take a look at one of the many Tynecastle favourites of yesteryear due to take part in Robbie Neilson’s testimonial match this Sunday: Gilles Rousset.

Big Gilles’ arrival at Tynecastle coincided with the offical end to Jim Jefferies’ ‘honeymoon period’ as new Hearts manager in 1995, as the Frenchman’s debut in a 2-0 defeat at Brockville saw Hearts
crashing to the bottom of the SPL table.

It had been a difficult three years for Hearts, with each of their previous two managers only narrowly able to prevent the club from dropping down a division. Jefferies had been many of the fans’ number one choice to succeed Sandy Clark in 1994 when the club (under new ownership) opted for Tommy McLean instead, but after the ‘Gerbil”s unconvincing reign as Tynecastle manager, Hearts eventually sought out the man they should have gone for in the first place, and after a long and drawn out affair, they got their man in the summer ’95, along with his assistant Billy Brown.

It was clear from the start that some major surgery was required in order to breathe new life into Hearts. The first team squad was largely a combination of players who were either past their best or simply never good enough in the first place, with many of McLean’s signings falling into the latter category.

One of the positions that had the most pressing requirement for new blood was the one between the sticks. Henry Smith had been a fantastic servant but was now on the brink of retirement, and young Craig Nelson, who had been seen as a positive signing the previous season, had been a huge disappointment, showing none of the promise he’d displayed during his time with Partick Thistle. The universal opinion among supporters was that a new ‘keeper was required, and Rousset was the man that Jefferies turned to in order to fill the gap in late October 1995.

The result of Rousset’s debut at Falkirk may have been disappointing, but there were several positives to be taken from the match with a view to future improvement, with the big Frenchman’s performance being one of them. At long last we appeared to have a goalkeeper prepared to command his penalty area, and given that Rousset was such a big man compared to his predecessors, we had every reason to be confident in his ability to excel at this. Our faith, for the immediate term at least, was well founded.

That defeat at Falkirk along with a number of inspirational new signings, became the catalyst for Hearts to inject new life into their season, and with Rousset growing in stature with each passing game, his popularity started to soar.

Football fans are never slow to exaggerate, whether it be about something good or bad, and it would be fair to say that the comparisons at that time being made in some quarters between Rousset and Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel were ever so slightly in this category! However that said there were some similarities in the two men’s styles back then – both were of a similar physical stature and used their considerable frames in a rather unorthodox way at times to blocks shots, both with effective results. Over the piece though, I think we may have to admit that the Dane was ever-so-slightly better!

Rousset’s stock at Hearts was probably at its highest in the early months of 1996. It was during this period that he played an integral part in the side reaching their first Scottish Cup final for ten years, as well as excelling in some memorable league matches also. One of the most memorable of those was a 3-0 win at Ibrox that saw young Allan Johnston scoring a hat-trick. This was the day that the ‘Rousset – there’s only one Rousset’ chant was born after a series of fantastic first-half saves (one in particular from Brian Laudrup was amazing), and is to this day probably still one of THE games that Hearts fans of that time will remember from the ’90s above the rest.

The one defining characteristic of Rousset’s performances during his first season at Tynecastle, was the way that he commanded his penalty area like no other ‘keeper I’d ever seen in a Hearts jersey to date. Henry Smith had generally been excellent at cross balls until his Hampden nightmare against Celtic in ’88 (we won’t go into that!), but Rousset had been even more dominant, taking pretty much anything up to his penalty spot in the air, which is something that IS in the goalkeeping coaching manual but very rarely seen in practice in the professional game.

The Scottish Cup run of ’96 had seen Hearts visiting some tricky venues along the way, and it’s fair to say that Rousset was probably Hearts’ top performer on the road to the final. His display at Rugby Park where Hearts edged out Kilmarnock in the third round was worthy of the tumultuous acclamation he received throughout that match from the massive travelling support (amazing atmosphere at that game), and his commanding performance at McDiarmid Park in the quarter-final was equally impressive.

So it was therefore all the more tragic that it was Rousset’s horrendous gaffe at Hampden that all but settled the cup final against Rangers that year. With the game at 1-0 Rangers shortly into the second half, Rousset let a harmless-looking Laudrup cross squirm through his legs into the net to effectively hand the trophy to the then very strong champions – not many sides came back from two down against them, let alone a side synonymous with blowing it on the big occasion, and so it proved, with the Gers going on to record a rampant 5-1 win.

Rousset was understandably disconsolate, but the fans continued to back him, realising that this was practically the only error he’d made in what had been a highly successful first season with the club.

Sadly though, although big Gilles continued to be a capable goalkeeper for the remainder of his Hearts career, he was never again able to consistently hit the heights he had during that first season. It was as though all of the confidence had been completely sapped from him in a single moment, and as a result his approach to taking cross balls went from being totally assured to occasionally solid but shaky. You could no longer have total confidence in Rousset as we had done before.

However despite this loss of confidence, Rousset was still much more reliable than what we’d been used to since Henry had become just a little long in the tooth, and he continued to be one of the SPL’s most solid goalkeepers.

Of course, the highlight of his Hearts career still lay ahead, on the 16th May 1998, a date that few Jambos will be unfamiliar with. Once again Rousset and Hearts found themselves in the Scottish Cup final against Rangers (this time at Celtic Park), and although no-one was saying much about it out loud, I think everyone was secretly praying that it wouldn’t be another personal nightmare for the Hearts ‘keeper.

Thankfully though, the script for that gloriously sunny May afternoon (bit like today in fact!) was entirely different, and Rousset was not only a part of the first Hearts team to lift a major trophy in 36 years, he also picked up the Man Of The Match award. It was a very emotional day for all concerned at Parkhead (even the Rangers players as it was the end of an era for them), but everyone was delighted for Rousset to have performed as he did on the day – it said a lot for the man’s character after what had happened two years earlier, and it was a nice touch seeing Andy Goram seeking him out to congratulate him afterwards. As a fellow goalkeeper Goram would have known the personal torture that Rousset’s mistake in ’96 would have put him through, so it was nice to see an opponent publicly acknowledging his achievement in this way.

That was the Rousset that everyone will remember – the smiling, friendly giant of a man who helped Hearts to finally get the monkey off their backs with that trophy win in ’98. This was justice after the magnificent performances of ’96, and for the overall contribution that Rousset made during his time at Tynecastle.

As well as being a great ‘keeper for the club, he was also one of the nicest guys there too, a man who always seemed to have time for everyone. It was nice therefore, that he was able to leave the club as a legend and be forever remembered for the good things he did at Tynecastle rather than a single mistake.


3 Replies to “The Legendary Gilles Rousset”

  • My lasting memory of him is meeting him at Saughton on one of Hearts goalkeeper courses. He signed my gloves, I still have them somewhere.

  • Good article, Mr H. A great servant to Hearts, and fitting that he played in the team which won the Cup. Giles and Bruno played a big part in turning Hearts around, and setting the foundation for the exciting play that the team became renowned for over a couple of years. I seem to recall 1 or 2 other gaffes from Giles after 1998, but can’t remember the occasion – however all goalies have their silly moments, and I’m sure he’ll get a great reception on Sunday.

  • He sure will. I remember some other mistakes too, one in particular which provoked a hilarious rant from the guy behind me who consistently referred to him as Gene Wilder after that! He had a point…

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