Bakary Sako, who left AS Saint-Etienne ten years ago, could make his Ligue 1 Uber Eats comeback with Les Verts in the all-important Rhône derby against bitter rivals Olympique Lyonnais on Friday in the derby against OL. Interview with the former Wolverhampton and Crystal Palace defender...
It has been more than 3,440 days since you last played in Ligue 1 Uber Eats (last match on 18 August 2012). A record for Saint-Etienne player. What kind of player have you become almost ten years later?
I am almost the same player with a little more experience (33 years old). I got used to England, where I was able to grow as a player and as a man. That is to say, in the way of approaching and managing matches, in maturity. When I was at Saint-Etienne, I was discovering Ligue 1 (at 21). I was a bit crazy, very explosive. With the years I spent in England, I learned to manage myself better, especially my emotions.
And on the pitch, what is your position now? Under Christophe Galtier at Saint-Etienne, you were exclusively a wide defender.
I still play in that role. But the last three seasons, as I managed to score a lot of goals, my coach Roy Hodgson (at Crystal Palace) decided to make me play up front as a No9. So I had to learn the position of a striker, which I didn't like at all... But he managed to make me appreciate it with efforts and movements different from those I used to make. That's a rare development. There are not many players who do it in that order. Usually as you get older you go further back on the field. As I scored goals from outside the box during my career, he said to me: 'I'm sure you'd make a great No9. With your speed and impact, I think you could thrive up front. At first I was a bit sceptical, but I really enjoyed playing in that position.
Did you discuss this possible tactical option with Pascal Dupraz?
Yes, we talked about what my preferred positions are. But I don't mind being on the flank or up front. Because even when I'm up front, I don't just stay in the middle, I go deep or I peel off. He's happy with that - it will allow him to use me in several positions if he wants to.
'I've already played and won derbies'
So you're back at ASSE. Have you found your bearings within the club, apart from former club captain and current assistant coach Loïc Perrin, who is part of the furniture?
Among the furniture, there is also Romain Hamouma [laughs]! There are also some people in the offices, and the steward. I saw the doctor, the physiotherapist, the chiropodist... who were already there ten years ago. But what has changed is the stadium. It's a really beautiful stadium. But otherwise, I feel like I never left. I've kept my bearings. I recognise the city, I know the city centre by heart.
Your status has changed since you left in 2012. What role will you play in this team?
I know the club well. I try to play an advisory role with some of the players, to bring freshness. And I think the players trust me. With my experience, they listen to me because they know that I have the recipe to do well and satisfy our supporters. Even if it's not in my nature to speak out, when you have a role to play I think you have to take it. I'm always smiling and optimistic.
Your return coincides with the derby against Lyon on Friday. How do you feel before this match?
I'm approaching this derby serenely. I know that it is really different from other matches in Ligue 1. I've already played and won derbies. I know that we have to prepare well and try to get a result. There is more concentration, more effort, more everything: everything is multiplied. We go beyond what we are usually capable of doing. A derby is all or nothing. Either it's exceptional or you miss out. So knowing that, you have to keep a cool head, stay focused from start to finish. Everything I know about this derby, I will pass on to my team-mates before the match. I know they will need it. The team is quite young, they haven't played many derbies yet, so I imagine they will be looking for advice.
'I was really surprised to come back'
So you are one of the Saint-Etienne squad who have experienced this fixture against OL. What is your first memory of a Rhône derby?
It was the one played at Geoffroy-Guichard, my very first (2009). As Blaise Matuidi was injured, Christophe Galtier brought me on very early in the match. We had a very good game even though we lost (1-0, Gomis 83'). At the end, I said to myself, 'Wow! So this is a derby'. That match left its mark on me.
Tell us about your entrance into the game in such a context.
I was really surprised to come on. Because Blaise is a midfielder. And the coach said to me, 'Baky, hurry up, you're going in straight away'. And in my head I said to myself, 'But he can't play me in the middle'. In the end, I came on and he changed the organisation in the middle so that I played on the left. I did well. I was really surprised what a derby was like!
What did you notice the most in that first derby?
You could see that it was a bit more tense than usual. That the players wanted to prepare themselves well. You could feel the fervour around the derby. When I was walking down the street that week, a lot of people came up to me and said, 'Come on! You have to go and win this match'. When we arrived at the stadium, it was really crazy. You could feel that the fans really wanted to win. To thank them for such support, you have to give everything on the pitch.
During that first derby, which players acted as advisors to you?
There was Pape [Diakhaté] who had experience of derbies and of course Jérémie [Janot] too. But for my first derby, I think I forgot all the instructions I'd been given! I was in a bubble.
The fans bring an extra motivation to this match. But it's also an extra pressure, isn't it?
It's a very important match for the Saint-Etienne fans. It's also important for us players, but maybe even more so for them. I try to live normally, not to put any more pressure on myself. Before this match, people say things like, 'If you win this derby, you can lose all the other matches'. So we know that this is said in euphoria, but it shows the importance of a derby.
And you contributed to writing one of the most beautiful pages of the derby for Saint-Etienne, in September 2010...
It's without doubt the best memory! The year before we had lost, but that was a special derby, the 100th [ASSE won 1-0]! To succeed in winning at Gerland was something historic for our supporters and the club. On top of that, Dimtiri Payet scored with a magnificent free kick! It will remain engraved in the history of Les Verts. It was a close match. We had to weather the storm, but we kept our heads down. We had chances, notably through Emmanuel Rivière, who had some clear ones. When you miss that kind of chance, you tell yourself that it's going to be difficult... But Dimitri's stroke of genius saved us.
Have you kept the shirt from that historic match?
The derby shirts we always try to keep or give to our loved ones. It's a special shirt. My first shirt with Saint-Etienne, I had it framed. For my return to the Coupe, I also kept the shirt. And this one, if I play on Friday, I think I will keep it too.
Once you've played in this type of match, do you continue to be interested in the club's performances even after you've left?
It's especially so once you've played at Saint-Etienne. It's really an endearing club, with a history. Once you've worn the shirt, you continue to follow the results, especially on derby days. You try to see what the team has managed to do. That's what I did when I left for England. I've also kept in touch with former teammates: Max-Alain Gradel, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Kurt Zouma, Faouzi Ghoulam, Josuha Guilavogui... We've taken different routes, but we follow each other's career development. These are players with whom I was very close at Saint-Etienne. So we stayed in touch and we still are today.
The last element of a derby is motivation on the day. What memories do you have of the coach's talks before a match against OL?
Before the derbies, I don't remember one precisely... Christophe Galtier had to give us messages from the supporters. But before all the games, he liked to put videos on the bus. For example, he would show us all our last goals to motivate us, to show us that we were good players capable of reproducing them. He would show the defenders their best tackles and the goalkeepers their best saves. It gave us a boost to start the match on top!
And before a derby, these talks were supposed to be even more motivating, stronger than usual...
I think it's quite the opposite. Before a derby, I remember that the coach prepared us very well during the week but, on the day of the match, he was quite silent. He knew he didn't need to tell us anything: we were fully loaded. We wanted us to leave nothing on the pitch, to have no regrets. He didn't need to motivate us any further. You could already see it on the players' faces. With the staff and the club's management, we were really all as one. We tried to give it our all. It didn't work out every time, but we played some good games.
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