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“I’m very thankful for that. It’s an honour,” says Stephane Pounewatchy modestly when I tell him that, 25 years after an unforgettable season with Carlisle United, he still holds iconic status among many of the fans who watched him.
It is indeed a quarter of a century since United won Division Three and the Auto-Windscreens Shield with a team given culture, strength and a certain curiosity by a new French centre-half.
Pounewatchy was an unexpected signing in the summer of 1996 and, with his marauding runs, imposing defensive play and quirks of character that every so often came to the surface, very much endeared himself to supporters.
One of United’s all-time favourite overseas players has not been on Carlisle’s radar for a long time now, and an interview has been a while in the chasing. Thanks to the help of a French journalist, I catch him on the phone during a quiet afternoon in London, where he is currently based.
The 53-year-old laughs a lot during our conversation and retains a detailed command both of his good times at United and how it all ended. It is special to be speaking to Pounewatchy at last – and he is also glad of the chance to look back.
“I had a really, really good time in Carlisle,” he says. “I spent two years there and have good memories. I remember the fans used to give back what I tried to give on the pitch. I think I was appreciated when I was in Carlisle.”
I tell Pounewatchy that some fans have been longing to hear from him again, 25 years on from 1996/7, whether it be for his account of the glories under Mervyn Day, eventful times under Michael Knighton, his life in Carlisle, and especially those classic Stephane eccentricities, such as his pedestrian returns down the pitch after contesting corner kicks, or the sudden and fearsome outbreaks of Gallic rage when the red mist came down.
He chuckles at this and says: “When you arrive in another country you try to give your best, so to hear that is a pleasure. It’s always nice to hear about Carlisle and about all these fans. So many years have passed, but they still think about what I did when I was there…”
Pounewatchy regrets that he has not been back to Brunton Park since he left in 1998 after a two-year spell. There had been the possibility of returning for the charity game in honour of his former team-mate, Tony Hopper, in 2017, but he says commitments overseas sadly prevented this.
More on those later. His memories, in the meantime, remain vivid – and so we go back to the beginning. Pounewatchy, a sizeable defender with a refined touch and languid style, had played at France’s top level with Martigues and Gueugnon until 1996, when his career path brought him to England.
He spoke little English at the outset of this fresh start, but is fluent now. “First of all,” he says, “it was a change of life. I was 28 at this time and I wanted to have a new experience and challenge. But my ambition was to play at the highest level that was possible.
“My agent explained to me an opportunity to put a step into English football, and if I was doing well, other opportunities would come.”
Pounewatchy initially headed to the south coast. “I was supposed to sign at Southend with Ronnie Whelan,” he says. “It didn’t happen for some reason. I then had this opportunity to come and play a friendly game with Carlisle.
“I think it was through a friend of the chairman – Paul Montgomery was a friend of Mr [Michael] Knighton. I think they talked about this opportunity together to see myself on the pitch at Carlisle. Paul Montgomery used to work with Peter Harrison [an agent] also at this time. These two men [made] me come to Carlisle.”
Pounewatchy says he was not initially set on joining United. “This game was to show my potential, to have some different opportunities in England. Some scouts were at the game.”
Pounewatchy, though, was a striking addition to Carlisle’s team against Kilmarnock in a pre-season friendly watched by 3,643 fans; a mystery arrival who was applauded off after a fine 90-minute performance, and a defender United clearly had to sign.
“After that I had a chat with the chairman and Mervyn Day,” he says. “Mervyn Day [the manager] was a key man for my choice. I had good discussion with him, and I found the place attractive. The challenge was also attractive for me to start in English football, even if the level wasn’t what I expected.
“The year before I was in the Premier League in France. But it was an opportunity.”
Pounewatchy duly signed for a club who had just been relegated back to England’s bottom tier, but with aspirations to rebound. “My impression was good,” he adds. “The chairman [Knighton] looked like someone ambitious, who wanted to do well with Carlisle United, and push the club to get promotion.
“I was convinced I could do well and it could be a step for me to reach the best level possible in England.”
Thus United’s unlikely new signing, Stephane Zeusnagapa Pounewatchy, bedded in. There were things to learn immediately, on and off the pitch. “My English…no, it wasn’t great!” he laughs. “It was just what I had learned at school. I managed to learn quickly…” He chuckles again. “But the difficulty was the accent in Carlisle!
“I was welcomed to the club. That made it easy.”
Pounewatchy had the stature of a warrior but was not an old-school defensive hardman. He could play – and this added a new dimension to a three-man United defence staffed by the popular Dean Walling and the emerging Will Varty, in an inventive wing-back system promoted by Day.
“In the beginning, it was totally different football,” says Pounewatchy of life in Division Three. “It was more direct – but the thing I enjoyed with Carlisle, and with Mervyn Day’s conception of football, was that we used to play.
“I remember also we had a good squad and good mix between young and experienced players. Mervyn liked to see you play with confidence and take the ball from the back. I used to like that. I think the fans remember that I was comfortable on the ball.”
When he settled into Day’s system, Pounewatchy would sometimes enliven the crowd by collecting the ball and cruising up the field. A rumble of encouragement would come from the Paddock as their French marauder attacked. “Definitely, I remember that,” he says. “I think it was something different I brought to this team, because we had different qualities. I used to play with Dean Walling at the back, and he had different qualities which I probably didn’t have. It was complementary.”
Day led Carlisle into a promotion race, and a revived United enjoyed good times with Pounewatchy. “What I remember most is we had a really good team spirit and atmosphere on and off the pitch,” he adds. “This is very important. I think you can’t build a team spirit without both.
“I can name a group of the players from this time – Dean Walling, Steve Hayward the captain, Matthew Jansen was young, Darren Edmondson, Rod Thomas, Rory Delap, Allan Smart and the left-back Archie, [Owen] Archdeacon. And Warren [Aspinall], of course! All characters. I think it was a mix of all that that made things happen, because all these names were winners and ambitious.
“We were close to the fans also. They would meet us in the city and during the nights out. Good memories.”
Off the pitch, Pounewatchy made his home in a quiet corner of Cumbria. “I had a dog, and when I came, my first desire was to ask the club to get a house outside Carlisle. Even though Carlisle isn’t a big city, I didn’t want to live in the city centre. After one month in a hotel I found the right place for me to settle down. I lived in Wiggonby, a little village. It was a nice time.”
United were in a promotion race that also involved Wigan Athletic and Fulham, whilst they advanced in the Auto-Windscreens Shield, seeking a second Wembley visit after 1995’s maiden trip to the Twin Towers. Their football was positive under Day, and Pounewatchy was a mostly composed presence.
Only on certain occasions did his temperament boil over, and it was a formidable sight indeed when the big Frenchman cast off his gloves and stalked an irritating opponent like a big cat pursuing its prey.
When I mention this, he is amused and answers immediately. “We’re probably thinking about the same game! Actually I became friends with this player. I think he was from the north-east. I received an elbow from him, and a couple of minutes after, I used a challenge to make sure he will remember that he has to be correct with me.”
Pounewatchy enjoys this recollection of firm but fair retribution. “If it was a test from him to see if I was ready for the physical part of the game, he definitely realised I was ready for it.”
“A lot of weekends in England I used to fight against players my size,” he adds, “sometimes bigger and stronger, and this wasn’t the case in France. It was normal, if we had hard tackles, for there to be some…disagreement.”
Pounewatchy says he usually preferred to keep a lid on his feelings. “I think I was calm during all games. I could lose my temper when someone wasn’t correct with me on the pitch, but I used to respect my opponent and think I had only one red card. It was my second season during my time in Carlisle. It was because of a bad situation – one of the players spat on me. I react badly after that. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but unfortunately sometimes you do things you regret after.”
The consequences of a heated and emotional sport, I suggest. “Voila.”
Pounewatchy stirred different emotions when, having strode forward to contest attacking set-pieces for United, he returned to his defensive base with all the urgency of a gentleman who would have preferred to do so in a taxi.
Amusement and frustration blended in the crowd as Pounewatchy routinely sauntered back to his station. This feels like a particularly niche Blues memory, but he is straight onto this one too.
“I remember!” he says. “Fitness wasn’t my quality! I had to take some time to, how to say…to recover…”
Carlisle worked their way to promotion, finishing third – and battled to Wembley in the Auto-Windscreens, via a two-legged northern final epic against Stockport County.
“When I arrived at Carlisle at the beginning, I didn’t know this cup would give us the opportunity to play at Wembley,” Pounewatchy says. “But during the season I realised it was a special occasion and I heard about the past, when Carlisle went to Wembley against Birmingham [in 1995]. It was one of my objectives to reach this final again.
“I think what stopped us finishing at the top of the league was the cup. To play at Wembley was a big goal for the team, and we were sometimes more focused on the Auto-Windscreen, because we knew we would get promoted. It took a lot of energy from us, because we had big games, like the north final against Stockport.
“It was a special game. We won in Carlisle, 2-0, and the second leg was really hard.”
Walling’s defensive heroism was at the forefront as United drew 0-0 at Edgeley Park. “It was really exciting for me,” says Pounewatchy of the moment Wembley was achieved. “Some of the players in Carlisle at this time already had played there, but for me, coming from France, having the opportunity was special.”
Under the Twin Towers on April 20, 1997, United battled Colchester in an uneventful 0-0 draw. Pounewatchy’s defensive control earned him the man-of-the-match award. “The memory,” he says of the day, “is all these fans. Colchester is closer to Wembley than Carlisle, definitely, but we won on the fans. I think it was around 50,000 and maybe 30,000 fans from Carlisle.
“It was really amazing to experience this game: the fans when we arrived at the stadium, and when we went to the pitch. Being man-of-the-match was a big honour.”
Of the tense game, across 90 minutes and extra-time, he says: “Both teams had little opportunities, but nobody wants to lose a final…it was a big, big game. We can say the best team won, I think. Voila.”
United claimed the trophy thanks to a penalty shoot-out which saw Paul Conway net for Carlisle before Archdeacon’s miss put them in arrears. Nerveless efforts from Walling and Aspinall followed, and when Tony Caig saved twice, Hayward dispatched the winner.
Was Pounewatchy in the queue? “Yes…it was between Deano and me [for United’s third kick]. Deano asked me if I wanted to take it, and I said, ‘Ok, I can take it’. But he had so much desire to take it too that I say, ‘Ok, I will let you go first, and I will be the sixth one if we have to have six.
“Deano was a big character. I wasn’t scared to take the penalty but he was so determined to have this one that I did let it go…”
Pounewatchy says he was “excited” to be a Wembley winner, something he shared with friends and family members who had flown from France. “After that, we had a night to celebrate, to share with the fans in Carlisle.”
United were upwardly mobile again, and Pounewatchy was an iconic part of these good times, but the picture then changed. A month into the 1997/8 season, Knighton surprisingly sacked Day. A glut of key players left and, instead of appointing a new manager, Knighton installed himself in a three-man regime which incorporated the coaches David Wilkes and John Halpin.
Despite how this all looked, chairman Knighton always protested that he did not take training. Pounewatchy backs this up. “He was closer to the team, because I think the [other coaches] were really young. (Wilkes) I remember the chairman coming, during the training sessions.
“I won’t say he used to train the team, but he was near the line, and probably advised the young managers. He maybe touched the ball, to show us that he could [play]…but he didn’t go further.”
United struggled without Day and particularly once the emerging stars, Jansen and Rory Delap, were sold. Pounewatchy remained, but not with the same contentment.
“I was disappointed at this time,” he says. “Because I had done well in this first season, I had some opportunities to reach higher level, but I wasn’t aware about clubs asking about me. At the end of [the next season] some people told me that.
“I was a bit disappointed, but I was pleased to finish the season with Carlisle, because during this time a lot of players moved, and I wasn’t one of them. But it wasn’t the same.
“At least it would be good at this time to speak with the chairman and share a couple of situations. When you have the opportunity to play at higher level, you are always interested, because you are ambitious.”
United’s dissatisfying 1997/8 featured two further and rather bizarre overseas interludes. In October, Pounewatchy’s countryman Laurent Croci made a solitary appearance in a televised defeat to Preston before quietly departing. “I had a really good relationship with him. I had played against him in the France Premier League when he was at Bordeaux and Sochaux. I was always pleased to help a French player who came on trial at Carlisle; it is good to have someone when you don’t speak the language or you need help.
“I really don’t know [what happened]…because he was a good player. I don’t know if it was the club or the player who didn’t want to stay, or didn’t reach an agreement.”
Then, in February, came Jean-Claude Pagal, another one-game curiosity. “He used to live in my house!” Pounewatchy declares. “I had played with him at Martigues, and I knew he was a top player, even if he didn’t succeed at Carlisle.
“When he came to visit me, I introduced him to the staff [at Carlisle] and told them he was free. It was interesting to have a look at him. He had just one game I think, Gillingham, but it wasn’t what the club or the manager was looking for.
“It’s hard, sometimes, in one game or two weeks to judge a player, really hard. I had the chance, and I succeeded. But, even if you are a top player, you don’t know your team-mates, they don’t know you. For me it worked out, it didn’t for Jean-Claude, and it’s about opinion after all, but I definitely know he was a top player. You can’t play in quarter-final of World Cup, for Cameroon against England [in 1990], and be an average player.”
United were relegated back to the basement division, and entered newly challenging times. It proved the end of Pounewatchy’s Cumbrian romance. “The relationship with the team was still good, but…I was close to Merv. I think Merv gave me a lot and I gave him back a lot during the first season, and he wasn’t there any more.
“I think I needed something new, after two years. The team went down, and both parties wanted to move on, I think.”
Was he sad to depart? “Yes, of course, because I enjoyed my time in Carlisle. But it’s the way football is. Sometimes you stay longer, sometimes you don’t decide on your own. I think it was a good thing for both parties. But of course I was sad.”
Pounewatchy’s vision of marching up the leagues was now less clear. “I was supposed to sign at Kilmarnock, but I needed some break, and they wanted me to be too rushed and to be in Scotland,” he says of his next move. “It didn’t happen.
“I came back to England, then I had an opportunity in Dundee. I went back to Scotland, [played a handful of games] and I was supposed to sign two years, but we didn’t reach agreement. Then I went to Port Vale, who were in the Championship. They were out of all their central defenders. I left Dundee on the Wednesday, I arrive Thursday morning, I train Friday morning with Port Vale, and Saturday I was playing in the Championship against Swindon.
“Actually, I was man-of-the-match at this game. They had another game on the Monday against Ipswich. It was probably too much, two games, the team didn’t do well and after this second game…I didn’t receive any offer. After that, I signed for Colchester with Mick Wadsworth. He knew me from Carlisle. I didn’t know him but he was the manager before Mervyn Day.”
Pounewatchy says he had “six good months” under Wadsworth, helping the Essex team survive in the third tier. On May 8, 1999, the day Jimmy Glass was saving Carlisle United, Pounewatchy was scoring his fourth and last goal in English football, in Colchester’s 2-1 defeat at Blackpool.
After a short spell at Scunthorpe United the following season, Pounewatchy’s horizons changed. “I had really good opportunity to play in an exotic place,” he says. This place was Reunion Island: a small French-governed island near Mauritius.
“I was there for two years,” he says. “It was really interesting. Because it’s French island, they used to bring ex-professional players from France, and try to make the league bigger. The lifestyle was really nice too.”
After this expedition, Pounewatchy returned to the UK, and briefly tried out with Queen of the South, but life after playing was now on his agenda. “I was based in Newcastle and at this time I had an agent, Peter Harrison, one of the people who made me come to Carlisle. He had a big company in Newcastle, and gave me an opportunity to start a new career inside his agency. I decide to stop playing and go for a new career.”
Pounewatchy says he learned to be a player’s agent over two years, helping stars such as Leeds United’s French midfielder Olivier Dacourt, before gaining his own licence and going it alone. His new vocation saw him back in touch with familiar friends.
“I kept good contact with Mervyn Day, at Charlton,” he says. “I had a young French player sign for them, Kelly Youga.” More recently, he says, he worked with Naby Keita before the Guinean midfielder joined Liverpool.
“I did quite well in France and other countries, with some African or French players. I enjoyed doing it. I’m still doing it now, but I also I divert my work onto sports events too.”
These, Pounewatchy says, concern the place of his origins. “I always wanted to give back,” he says. “Even if I was born in Paris, I am originally from Central African Republic.
“I was involved in projects for the kids. I had an academy where my parents are from, Central African Republic. The [country] had a lot of trouble, political trouble, and I wanted to help the youth during this time. We still have a lot of problems in the country. It was important to try to help these kids during this hard time and all this conflict in the country.”
Pounewatchy, who says his work in Africa continues, was helped in the promotion of one scheme by stars like Thierry Henry and Claude Makelele. “They are players I had played against. They knew I was from Central African Republic, knew there was a lot of problems and trouble in this country. It’s nothing for them, but a big thing for a young boy from Central Africa to hear that Thierry Henry and Makelele think about them. They give a lot of hope.”
Mention of the legendary Henry leads Pounewatchy back further, to a time before Carlisle. “When he was at Monaco, I was at Martigues,” he says. “He came from the academy and was really young. I have a story about this.
“There was a time I was coming back from an injury and I had a game with the reserve team. He [Henry] was 17 or 18 at this time, and wasn’t involved every time with the first team at Monaco at this moment, so he was playing with the reserve team.
“We had a challenge together, we went head-to-head…and he went to the hospital after the challenge…”
Pounewatchy cannot help laughing at the heavy treatment he gave to the future great of Arsenal and France. “I went to the hospital afterwards to try and have some news about him. He went back to Monaco, and after this game, Monaco decide not to let him play again with the reserves! They say, ‘They are too hard on you…’”
Did Henry recall this when they were reunited years later. “Ah, definitely! You can mention that to him.”
There will hopefully come a time when Pounewatchy is also together again with Carlisle. He says that, while he gave his Wembley shirt to a close friend in France, he is proud to keep his man-of-the-match trophy – and retains connections with some of the other names of the time.
“From my job as an agent, I often kept contact with Merv, and with Joe Joyce, because he was at Newcastle academy. Players…I had sometime contact with Deano, Rod Thomas, and also Billy Barr at Blackburn.”
His work in Africa, he says, meant he had to decline the chance to return and honour Tony Hopper, whose death in 2018 he regarded as “very sad”. He hopes a visit to his old English home will be on the cards one day.
“I will be pleased to see Brunton Park after more than 20 years,” he says. “If have an opportunity, definitely.”
Brunton Park does not forget its favourites, and, when the day does come, Pounewatchy and the fans who enjoyed him will embrace all over again. After all our reminiscing, 25 years in the making, I ask Pounewatchy to picture United’s faithful appreciating him again.
“It will be both parts – my part and their part,” he says of this imagined reunion. “I will appreciate too.”