The following article is extracted from Football News’s 200,000-word guide to the world of French football, The Football News 100 that focused on ranking individuals’ performances over the course of 2014 as a calendar year. To download the whole guide, click here.
Max Gradel joined Premier League newcomers Bournemouth this summer, a club who has recently agreed a sponsorship deal with , who have also become the official club sponsors of Crystal Palace for the 2015/2016 campaign.
The following piece was written in December 2014 and published on the 5th January 2015. Max Gradel ranked 100th in our index out of French football’s 100 best players in this year’s Football News 100 and was a new entry this year.
2014 has definitely been a year of growth for . He has become an ever-present in Christophe Galtier’s Saint-Étienne side, has had a first taste of European football in the Europa League proper and represented his country at the World Cup in June.
Born in his country’s capital city, Abidjan, Gradel soon flew out to Paris where he started his playing career at Championnat Sport, a club located in central Paris. Gradel took the opportunity to sign for Lewisham College Football Academy which he would go on to later admit that he got in by chance. From there on, he had the perfect springboard, having trials at several big London clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea & West Ham) but was finally taken on by Leicester. Gradel became a professional football player on May 5th 2007 – a relatively old age for a footballer.
Most of Gradel’s playing career in England was actually in the 3rd tier. The season Gradel joined Leicester, they got relegated and during his time there he had two loan spells at Bournemouth and Leeds United (who would later sign him permanently) who were at the time in League One (or division 3). Gradel showed great enthusiasm at Leeds and was willing to stay with them given the club’s stature for a 3rd division club after failing to make a breakthrough at Leicester.
It is at Leeds that Gradel confirmed his best attributes (pace, solid technical level and determination) and also improved the physical side of his game. He was also able to play alongside established players such as Luciano Becchio and Robert Snodgrass (the latter a full Scotland international and Premiership-level player for 3 years now) which meant he had to fight for his place to play, something he would have to continue doing later in his career.
However, in his first full season at Leeds, Gradel also showed signs of indiscipline such as being sent off on a particular occasion and refusing to leave the field of play, an offence for which he would serve a 4-match ban. Gradel later admitted to his mistake and repeatedly said in interviews that nobody’s perfect and that people make mistakes every now and then. He was, just like a lot of other Saint-Étienne players, shocked by the one-month prison sentence that his former-ASSE teammate Brandão recently received for headbutting PSG midfielder Thiago Motta.
After two full seasons at Leeds, clubs came knocking on the Yorkshire side’s door and Gradel got a €2M move to Saint-Étienne and alongside each other, player and club have arguably seen constant improvement ever since. Indeed, since arriving at the Forez, Saint-Étienne have finished 7th, 5th and 4th. Not bad for a side that narrowly avoided relegation just a few years prior.
When playing for a club like it is important to feel accepted by the Les Verts’s faithful. This special club, despite having a less than successful spell on the pitch than in previous glory days, still has the second biggest fanbase in the country behind Marseille.
Paris Saint-Germain’s following support has largely been dismantled (it might have been a contender back in the days of Boulogne and Auteuil) and Lyon’s monopoly on the pitch ended in 2008, enhancing Saint-Etienne’s away day trippers’ statute as #2 countrywide. The fans adore Gradel for his determination and overall good attitude and you can feel the passion he has for the club as soon as he puts on the green shirt.
Gradel’s time at Saint-Etienne was a success from the word go. In his first season, in 2011/12, he played 29 games out of 38 (19 starts) and scored six goals (still a personal best for a whole season but of course we’re not through 2014/15 yet) despite the competition for places with quality players like Aubameyang, Sako or Sinama-Pongolle.
The following season was pretty much the same story although he played less (23 games resulting in only 3 goals) but the big test was to come in 2013/14, a big season for “MAG” as it was at the end of it the World Cup was due to play out and Gradel had to grab hold of the opportunity to convince Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi to take him to Brazil.
It was touch and go as Gradel was injured and could only start playing in October. At this time last year, Gradel had only played seven league games and five of them were coming off the substitute bench. Thankfully he started 2014 injury-free and was an integral part of his side’s quest for 3rd place, a quest that ended disappointingly as Lille snatched 3rd place and Saint-Étienne were resigned to battling it out in the Europa League qualifying stages once again.
However, Gradel got his reward for his satisfactory second half of the season: he was picked in Lamouchi’s 23-man squad and flew to Brazil. Sadly, Ivory Coast’s stay in South America was short-lived and Gradel only started one game (against Colombia, a game his country lost 1-2) and was an unused sub in the other two. Just like in 2006 and 2010, Ivory Coast left the competition with a lot be desired and got knocked out by Greece by a late penalty.
Back in France, Gradel started the season as an established and experienced Ligue 1 player and is now one of the Saint-Étienne players that the youngsters seem to look up to. Indeed, he is one of Galtier’s first names on the team sheet. He has started all but one game in the league this season (only goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier and Fabien Lemoine have managed to play in every single league game) and has also played a big part in Les Verts’ (short) European adventure starting five of his sides six group stage games.
2015 will be a big year for Gradel and Saint-Étienne. At 27 years old, he is entering what is often considered as the best few years of a footballer’s career and he will want want to take Les Verts to the top of the European scene: the Champions’ League. Competition for 3rd will be tough but the club has shown that they can fight for their spot with the squad they have and with such an ambitious wing-wizard, there is no reason that they cannot achieve that come May. But first things first: he has his second African Cup of Nations to relish in just a few weeks time.