It wasn’t pretty, but Saint-Étienne battled their way to a goalless draw against Montpellier on Sunday night, extending their unbeaten start under Claude Puel to seven games. Their latest clean sheet owed a lot to their veteran goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier, who was honoured before the match for making his 303rd league appearance for the club. Ruffier is now Sainté’s joint-record appearance maker in the top flight, having drawn level with Ivan Curkovic, the goalkeeper who played for the club in the 1976 European Cup final.
Ruffier is a physically imposing keeper who has been blessed with fine reflexes. His quick reactions were on show against Montpellier at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. Having broken his hand earlier in the season, he has returned to action and played a massive role in stabilising the team’s defence. He made two decisive saves against Gaëtan Laborde on Sunday night, offering a firm reminder of his importance to a back line that has weathered injuries and some tactical changes this season.
Ruffier has only won three caps for France, but he has been unfortunate to come of age in the same era as Steve Mandanda and Hugo Lloris. He has never been voted into the Ligue 1 team of the season but, in his decade in the league, he has never been far from the conversation.
Born in Bayonne, Ruffier was always destined for a life between the posts. From the age of four, he was kitted out in a pair of gloves as he played with his father’s Basque pelota ball in the family garage. After flirting with the 13th-century sport as a youngster, he was attracted to football and joined Aviron Bayonnais at the age of six.
He was bigger than the other boys, so initially played as a striker, but he lacked technique with his feet so was moved into goal, where he could use his skill with his hands. As a goalkeeper, he still exhibits some attributes normally associated with a gritty striker: he is energetic and brimming with a passion that stands in stark contrast to his recalcitrant manner off the pitch.
This grit has been with Ruffier throughout his career. In fact, Monaco were convinced to offer him his first contract after seeing him being sent off in a youth game. Ruffier made his debut for Monaco in 2007, coming on as a substitute for the injured Flavio Roma. Ruffier was only 20 years old, but he made an immediate impression and was quickly made first choice.
He moved north to Saint-Étienne in 2011 after Monaco were relegated. Again, he was signed as a back-up keeper and would have to fight to win his place. Once more he came out on top, replacing the experienced Jérémie Janot to become the club’s undisputed starter.
The rest, as they say, is history. Ruffier’s durability has been remarkable. His injury earlier this season was only his second spell on the sidelines in his Saint-Étienne career, the other being a hamstring injury he suffered in the 2016-17 season. Despite his fiery presence on the pitch, he has rarely been disciplined, making him a reliable presence for the club week in and week out. He does not captain the team – another example of his role as a footballing bridesmaid – but serves as a leader alongside the experienced Loïc Perrin, who has been on the books at Saint-Étienne since the mid-1990s.
In an age when French football is dominated by the flashiness of PSG, the market-driven model of Monaco, and the ambitious projects at Lyon, Nice and Marseille, it is fitting that Ruffier – a faithful servant who embodies the history and traditions that run deep in the French game – stands between the posts for the most successful club in the country. Ruffier has never given anything less than his best for Sainté and, even though he has played behind some slipshod defences in recent years, he has always turned in strong performances, even if he only has a solitary Coupe de la Ligue to show for his heroics.
Sainté, whose fans rue the infamous “poteaux carrés” at the European Cup final in 1976 – the “square posts” at Hampden that meant two of their shots hit the woodwork and rebounded back into play rather than into the net – have suffered their fair share of heartache in recent decades, including two relegations and a few agonisingly close tilts at the top three. But they boast the sort of history that PSG fans can only dream of. Their current situation is frustrating for some fans but, in Ruffier, they have a player whose status as a club legend makes him both a part of the club’s history and its present.
Ligue 1 talking points
• Another match, another red card for Monaco. Leonardo Jardim’s side have picked up six red cards this season, including one in the Coupe de la Ligue. Having opened the scoring for Monaco, Islam Slimani was sent of midway through the second half. His inexplicable handball not only gave Bordeaux a penalty but also the chance to score their winning goal. Monaco had been thoroughly in control of the game, but ended up losing 2-1. In Slimani and Wissam Ben Yedder, Monaco have the league’s best attack (behind PSG) but, without discipline, their efforts will continue to go for naught.
• The race for second place remains tight. Marseille continued their recent revival on Sunday night, beating 10-man Toulouse 2-0 thanks to goals from Dario Benedetto and Nemanja Radonjic. That’s three wins on the bounce for Marseille, who are out of the Coupe de la Ligue and looking forward a favourable run of fixtures before the winter break. André Villas-Boas’ small squad looks well placed to keep up the pace.
• A word, as well, for Angers, the club chasing Marseille. Stéphane Moulin’s side have not conceded a goal in their last three matches. Like in the 2014-15 season, they are building a reputation for being airtight at the back. This comes in stark contrast to their more freewheeling approach at the start of the season. Moulin once again has his veteran side well organised and defensively sound, with holding midfielder Baptiste Santamaria one of the league’s best in his position.