FC Nantes: Goalless and now Coachless
You cannot spell slaughter without laughter. Both were in evidence in spades Wednesday night at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes. The slaughter took place on the pitch as Olympique Lyonnais inflicted a historic 6-0 defeat on their hosts. The laughter was down to the enormous amount of gallows humour on show in the stands, particularly during the second half.
With news of a sacking slowly coming through on various internet sources 24 hours after the match, the inevitable was confirmed Friday morning with Rene Girard and his assistants being relieved of their duties and Phillippe Mao, the CFA coach, to take charge of the first team away at Guingamp in matchday 16. The search for a new permanent manager has begun.
The background to this wholly ruinous toxic situation stems from various fractious relationships at the heart of the club. The club’s president Waldemar Kita has been tremendously unpopular for a long time – almost since his arrival in summer 2007. His tenure has seen one relegation, two promotions, ten managers and counting (Michel der Zakarian’s two spells included) and as many seasons in Ligue 2 as Ligue 1. Fan unrest has been a fairly constant presence during his ownership. Anti-Kita chants have been commonplace for a long time, the only period of respite coming during the promotion season of 2012-13 followed by three seasons of stability under club legend Michel Der Zakarian. However fans began to tire of a perceived lack of ambition and yearned for a return to the famous jeu a la nantaise style that had swept FCNA to titles in the past.
At the end of last season with Der Zakarian’s contract set to expire, one of French football’s worst kept secrets came to pass as said contract would not be renewed. A bitter end to a productive relationship ensued, ending in somewhat farcical scenes when Der Zakarian was due to address the Tribune Loire after the last home match of the season; rather than have his outgoing manager defame him or the club, President Kita is said to have ordered the PA system to blare loud music in an attempt to drown out Der Zakarian’s address.
Der Zakarian’s successor was the coach who some four years previously took unheralded Montpellier to the title in one of European football’s greatest exploits. Yet Rene Girard was not a widely popular choice amongst most FC Nantes fans. A #toutsaufgirard hashtag was doing the rounds on the internet during the early summer in a vain attempt to convince Kita to hire someone else. The reasoning behind this was his perception as another purveyor of dour and defensive football, largely based on his time at Lille between 2013 and 2015.
After an opening day win at Dijon, Girard’s Nantes had to wait until matchday 8 for the next taste of victory. They would follow this up with a win at Lorient the following week; since then the only points have come from two draws at home to Toulouse and Lille, the Lille match notable only for its atrociousness, a real footballing purge played out between two teams at the wrong end of the table.
The Toulouse match made the headlines after a group of supporters endeavoured to show their anger and total discontent with the running of the club by attempting to gain access to the president’s box. Police managed to quell the attempted coup; nevertheless they were shocking scenes to witness for those in close proximity. As a result, the club sanctioned the stand in question, the Tribune Loire, by banning flags, banners or tifos and such like for three games.
The Tribune Loire houses FC Nantes’ most fervent supporters and equally the club’s largest supporters/ultras group the Brigade Loire. For the last four years the Loire has provided the lion’s share of the atmosphere at Nantes home games, constantly supporting the team with chants and songs. However, in the aftermath of the ban the tone of the singing was very much changed. The positivity has disappeared, the stand now chanting almost exclusively against President Kita and his running of the club. Once the wheels began to come off against Lyon, the singing became sarcastic and bitterly ironic in nature. Chants of ‘Merci Kita, Merci!’ rang out once Mathieu Valbuena made it 4-0. Rachid Ghezzal became probably the first player in Lyon colours to have his name chanted by Nantes fans at the Beaujoire. A slightly sinister chant threatening to invade the pitch luckily never came to fruition. Around the 75th minute the Loire began chanting ‘on rentre chez nous’ . So the mass exodus began in force, this made easier by the fact that Lyon had just made it five goals to nil. Nabil Fekir’s sixth cannot have been seen by many of the close to 20,000 spectators.
Girard’s departure does not come as a surprise and whoever his successor is will have a sizeable job on their hands. The club sit 19th after 15 games. Before the winter break Nantes play Guingamp and Angers away whilst taking on Caen and Montpellier at home. Five points currently separate Nantes with tenth placed Angers. The four remaining fixtures of 2016 have to generate points if Nantes are to avoid becoming stranded in the drop zone.
A quick look at the team sheet for the Lyon game saw that Girard selected all five of his summer recruits (Diego Carlos, Lucas Lima, Alexander Kacaniklic, Nicolaj Thomsen and Mariusz Stepinski) plus three academy graduates aged under 23 (Amine Harit, Abdoulaye Toure and Léo Dubois) which leaves just Remi Riou, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Guillaume Gillet as geniunely experienced players in the starting eleven.
Vizcarrondo gave away the penalty from which Alexandre Lacazette made it 2-0. Keeper Riou dropped a corner in front of Maxime Gonalons three minutes later, 3-0. To cap it all off Gillet was withdrawn after 71 minutes.
What this does this say about the summer recruitment? The team still cannot score goals: they are the only team in Ligue 1 still in single figures. As things stand, PSG scored as many goals away to Troyes last season as Nantes have in total this season. The attackers charged with doing this are a mixture of unproven, raw or just disappointing. Yacine Bammou’s attitude has been called into question after the PSG match last month, Emiliano Sala is a hardworking attacker who can produce moments of brilliance but is hardly prolific. Mariusz Stepinski is top scorer with three goals in eleven games and is doing as well as can be expected for a 21 year old playing in a foreign league for the first time. Fernando Arisitigueta has barely had any game time, 52 minutes across 5 appearances, to show what he can do.
In September Nantes took on Saint-Etienne at home. After 25 minutes the visitors found themselves down to ten men with no substitutes available after injuries. Nantes missed the resultant penalty before huffing and puffing, unable to blow the door down: the game finished goalless.
The team is callow in the extreme. Whoever comes into the managerial hot seat will have to work with the youngsters around the club. Nantes had three players in the French U19 squad that triumphed in the European Championships this summer. Finding the right blend of youth and experience as well as working out a way to get Nantes scoring goals – think blood and stones – are tasks facing Nantes’ next manager.
The last time Nantes dropped out of the elite it took them four seasons to get back – they even nearly went another level down in 2009-10. Should the club not turn things around things look increasingly bleak. A club as storied as FC Nantes with the palmares they have should not be in such turmoil on or off the pitch. But modern football waits for no man.