FEATURE | The Extraordinary Tale of Jean Prouff

Visitors to Roazhon Park will now see a permanent face gazing down from the stands, as part of the club’s 120th anniversary celebrations saw Rennes unveil a bronze statue of former player and coach Jean Prouff. Located in the seat he occupied watching his beloved team for many years up until his passing in 2008, the statue is a reminder to all of his legendary status at the Breton club. Few outside of France may have heard of Prouff but his story is one which deserves to be told.

Prouff was born in September 1919, in Peillac, a small village just over an hour south-west of Rennes. Shortly after, his family made the move to the city where Prouff discovered football and eventually joined Rennes, then going by the name “Stade Rennais Universite Club”, at the age of 14. During his early years with the club, Prouff also excelled at rugby and athletics, but it was football which was his greatest passion. His performances, even at that young age, were gaining notice, culminating in a stand-out effort in the 1935 “Coupe de France des Espoirs” (an early precursor to the Coupe Gambardella) as Rennes ran out of 5-1 winners against Red Star, with Prouff netting twice. Coincidentally, the Rennes senior team were also in the Coupe de France final which followed that match, in a game that ended in a 3-0 loss to Marseille.

A year later though and Prouff was on the move. His father, who was a manager within the banking arm of the French postal system, was transferred to the Nantes office and therefore his son had to move with him. Fortunately, this disruption did not have an impact on young Prouff’s football though as he continued to make great strides with local team Saint-Pierre de Nantes. He signed his first professional contract with Lille based side SC Fives (a club that would go onto become the modern-day Lille side).

Only shortly after signing his contract, the outbreak of World War II struck. Many players around this time were drafted into the Armed Forces and Prouff was no exception. Once signed up, he was assigned to a Military Engineers regiment in Northern France, who incidentally happened to have one of the best military football teams. In 1940, Prouff was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans. He was only held captive for a short period however, as he managed to escape and then walked the near 250 miles back to Paris.

He subsequently returned to his former club in Nantes before re-joining Rennes in 1941. With the French Football Federation mandating that players must return to the clubs they were signed to before the start of the war, Prouff was then ordered to return to SC Fives. He was only back there for a year before the Federation again made sweeping changes by assigning players across the new regional teams which had been created, with Prouff joining the Breton team in Rennes.

Following liberation from the Germans in 1944, the city of Rennes found itself once again free, with the football team starting to shape itself into a more recognisable unit, of which Prouff continued to play a key part. His first call up to the national team came in an unofficial match against a team from the British Army. Unable to source transport to get him from Rennes to Paris, Prouff chose to cycle the 200 miles instead and succeeded in reaching the capital within two days and shortly before the start of the game. He then further demonstrated his fitness by still warming up with the squad, despite his mammoth cycle journey. Teammate Julien Darui telling him “you have the nerve to warm up before the game when you have just cycled 300km?!” If further evidence was needed regarding his endurance, Prouff also became the Brittany regional champion in the 800m in 1945.

With French league football returning to something approaching normality after the war in 1945, Prouff continued to shine in a Rennes team which was performing well. Capable of playing across midfield but also in attack, Prouff excelled with his dribbling ability and willingness to take players on. He won his first official cap for France in 1946. He scored his first international goal shortly after in a win over England. A cross/shot which Prouff later admitted was completely mis-hit on his part. In total he played 17 games for Les Bleus, finishing as captain as the side failed to qualify for the 1950 World Cup.

In 1948, Prouff found himself on the move to Reims after a three thousand Franc offer was accepted by Rennes. This was a transfer record at the time, and with Prouff as part of the line-up, Reims went on to win the league title a year later. The latter part of 1949 was then spent on loan at Rouen, before he re-signed with Rennes. He played for two more seasons, including alongside prolific forward Jean Grumellon (who would go on to become Rennes all time leading scorer), until 1952 when Caen, then an amateur side, offered him a role as player-coach. He only spent one successful season in this role, as in 1953 he took on the same role at second division Aix-en-Provence, before similar positions at Guingamp, Boulogne and Red Star, gradually playing less and less.

He took his first step into full-time coaching as he took charge of the Polish team that was heading to the Rome Olympics of 1960. Despite a dominant opening win over Tunisia, defeats to Denmark and Argentina ensured Prouff’s team would not progress. Worse came when he fell down a flight of stairs at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. It was a nasty fall which left Prouff in a coma for a couple of days before eventually recovering. Following further stints coaching the Gabon national team and in Algeria, Prouff took his first big coaching role in 1961 when he joined Standard Liege.

His time in Belgium proved relatively successful. He took Standard Liege to the semi-finals of the European Cup in his first season. After knocking out Rangers in the quarter-finals, Prouff’s side were eventually defeated by a Real Madrid side featuring Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano. In the league, Standard Liege finished second behind Anderlecht. It was Anderlecht who influenced Prouff to tweak his go-to tactical setup. As with many sides at the time, Prouff used the W-M formation, however having watched Anderlecht go on to win the league by playing a 4-4-2 and employing a zonal defence, Prouff followed suit and brought these tactics to Liege. A league title followed in the 1962/63 season before Prouff became Reims coach at the end of the year. Reims were in a poor state at the time and despite his best efforts, Prouff was unable to save the club from relegation with locals pointing the finger at the stubbornness of Prouff and his reliance on his new-found tactical system.

After leaving Reims under a cloud, Prouff was offered the coaching job back at his beloved Rennes in 1964. The system he had used since his time in Belgium had been tweaked a little, taking some influence from the Brazilian sides of the time as well as that Anderlecht side, with his 4-4-2 evolving into a 4-2-4. Speaking to Ouest-France journalist Roger Glemee at the time, Prouff noted “the players had not used this system before. Their growing interest though allowed them to fully embrace the new system. I have never had such an attentive group”. Prouff himself was willing to be very honest in his approach, speaking to Miroir du Football he said “My main aim is to help the players avoid the mistakes I made. I don’t want them to be as I was, but rather be as I would have liked to be”.

His first season as coach with Rennes was an undoubted success as he led the side to a highest league finish of 4th as well as being the league’s top scorers. He also took them to the Coupe de France final where the attacking style of play Prouff had developed since his time in Belgium was evident in his side’s run to the final, which saw successive wins of 2-0, 4-3, 10-0, 5-2 and 3-0. That semi-final victory over Saint-Étienne saw the team race to a three-goal lead by half-time. Instead of allowing his players to ease off, Prouff demanded they continue to attack and whilst they failed to add to their tally, the fact they were not willing to sit on their lead gained support and praise from many neutrals. In the final they faced Sedan and with game finishing 2-2, Rennes went on to win the replay 3-1 securing the clubs first trophy.

Sadly, the club were unable to build on that success. The following season saw their form dramatically drop off and their first taste of European football did not last long as they were knocked out in the first round by Dukla Prague. This downward spiral continued and come 1969, relegation looked a very real outcome and financial issues were also starting to impact the club. Throughout this, Prouff stuck with his attacking plans, despite being faced with a struggling defence and the threat of dismissal. Many pointed to the arrival of French international goalkeeper Marcel Aubour in January 1970 as the pivotal signing which saved Prouff. Aubour, who was in goal for the French for the disappointing 1966 World Cup, instilled some confidence in the defence and helped the club avoid the drop.

With the club remaining in the top flight and their financial situation starting to improve, Prouff took his side to another Coupe de France final the very next season. Whilst not hitting the attacking heights of their run in 1965, the club developed an ability to grind out results. They faced Marseille in the semi-final and with the tie all square after the two legs, it was fitting that it was heroics from Aubour which saw Rennes to victory in the penalty shoot-out. It was interesting to note though that Prouff had successfully played mind games against Marseille. A few days before the first leg of the semi-final, Rennes travelled to face Marseille in the league. Prouff played a much-changed team, deployed different tactics and played players in different positions. Whilst they lost that match, his playing around brought success when they reverted to their normal tactics in the semi-final. In the final they faced Lyon and in a low-quality game, a solitary goal for Rennes was enough to win them the trophy for the second time.

The following season saw them return to the Cup Winners Cup, where they would face Rangers in the first round. The Scottish side played a very defensive game in the first leg at Ibrox which ended 1-1. Prouff, with his love of attacking football, criticised the opposition leading to accusations of arrogance from the Scottish press. The return leg saw a narrow 1-0 win for Rangers as they progressed. Come 1972, Prouff took on a new role as he became Technical Director, with former player Rene Cedolin, who played under Prouff in the two cup wins, being appointed first team coach. Prouff only stayed in this position for a year before he left the club to become coach at US Berne, who had just been promoted to the third division. Under Prouff, Berne remained there for the next three seasons, as he brought in trusted players such as his 1971 Coupe de France winning captain Louis Cardiet, and a young Christian Gourcuff.

US Berne was his final position as coach, as he subsequently became Technical Director for Gabon and then the Ivory Coast. He made a return to Brittany and took on a mentorship role for Raymond Keruzore. It was under Prouff that Keruzore became a professional, he played in the 1971 cup final win and took huge inspiration from Prouff into his coaching career. The pair worked together across Brittany at Guingamp, Brest and then back at Rennes when Keruzore became coach in the late 1980’s.

Rennes were the big constant in Prouff’s life and in the club’s centenary year of 2001, it was only right for Prouff to be named “Coach of the Century”. Sadly, Prouff passed away in 2008 at the age of 88. Tributes flooded in to the man many called simply “Monsieur Jean”.

Aubour called him “30 years ahead of his time”

Former Rennes player Jean-Pierre Darchen said of him, “he more than a coach. He was a great tactician and a lover of the beautiful game. He knew how to work with players on a psychic level. I was very happy to work with him, he was also a great footballer with an extraordinary physique. His career and his record have always spoken for him”.

Former striker and goalscorer in the 1965 final, Daniel Rodighiero remembered his philosophy, “the fans were sure to enjoy the game. His mindset was that you just had to score one more goal than your opponent”.

The final word goes to Prouff himself, “we all have a club for life, for me it’s Stade Rennais” and with his bronze presence permanently in place at Roazhon Park, the club will forever remain with Monsieur Jean.

R.A.

Sources: Ouest France, Stade Rennais Online, Rennes Info Autrement