Parking The Coach, Part One: Guy Roux

by | May 4, 2016

In the first of this brand new series on the greatest coaches of all-time, Edward Carter picks apart the life and times of one of the longest serving coaches in the entire history of the game – Auxerre’s idiosyncratic Guy Roux.

Guy RouxIt is a truism, well accepted by all parties with a vested interest in Association Football (with perhaps the exception of people who are actually responsible for the hiring and firing of such people), that managerial continuity is a Good Thing. Successful clubs can often look back to a period when on-field affairs were less than optimal, when pressure built both internally and externally for there to be a change in regime. However, given the benefit of hindsight, it becomes immediately obvious that it in resisting that temptation there was so forged the first link in a chain which eventually led to a period of great achievement.

The finest contemporary example of this, of course, is Mark Robins’ winning goal for Manchester United in the third round of the 1989/1990 FA Cup against a heavily fancied Nottingham Forest side. United’s manager, Alex Ferguson, was on borrowed time. His much-heralded arrival three-and-a-quarter years previously had done nothing to change the fortunes of England’s sleepiest sleeping giant. It is now enshrined within English soccer folklore what happened next. Within five months, United had won the FA Cup. Within eighteen they’d won the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Within ten years of that day in January 1990, United were European Champions and Alex Ferguson was a Knight of the Realm. By the time he retired, his club were statistically the most successful English League team of all time. The previous holders of that title, Liverpool, had worked their way through seven managers during this time. One of their number, Kenny Dalglish, served two separate terms. More notably, Manchester United (and Alex Ferguson)’s date with destiny in the 1990 FA Cup Final came just a couple of weeks after their great rivals from down the M62 had secured their eighteenth League Championship title. Twenty-six years on, they still await their next.

The story of Sir Alex Ferguson is an extreme example. A best-case scenario that can be cited in increasingly desperate press conferences by Brendan Rodgers or Bryan Robson as they plough their lonely furrow to the dole queue and one which will be discussed in greater depth later on as this series grows. Ultimately it is quite unrealistic to expect that, in keeping the faith with your floundering head coach, you will transform your team into the Carthaginian army, all conquering despite the fact it is proportionately high in elephants. Carthage, it must be remembered, was eventually sacked too.

However, what constitutes “success” in football management is far more nebulous than Rupert Murdoch would have you believe. Probablistically, it is highly unlikely that any single club will reach the heights of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United by standing by their manager, but – with all things considered and all the many variables weighed – they might end up with Guy Roux’s AJ Auxerre.

It will, mind you, take a fair bit of time, a fair bit of trust and a lot of imagination. In 1961, Association de la Jeunesse Auxerroise played in the Burgundian League D’Honneur and, aside from an appearance in the 1908 F.G.S.F.P. national cup final (they lost 8-1), that was pretty much as good as it had ever been. The Burgundian league is nominally the sixth tier of the French game, but compared with its English counterpart it has more in common with the ninth – the network of county leagues immediately below the regionals. It is not unheard of for a twenty-two year old to assume managerial duties of a club at that level. The chances of them still being in the same post over forty years hence, however, are significantly more slender.

This was the situation in which Auxerre and Guy Roux found accommodation. Roux was twenty-two years old, and a semi-professional footballer of little note. Indeed, the breadth of his on-field ability can be summed up by the fact that, from 1952 to 1961 he had been playing for AJ Auxerre. As with a lot of successful and driven people, as soon as Roux realised his ability did not meet his ambition he changed tack. When the manager’s chair became available at Auxerre, Roux was in England: he had written to Fourth Division Crystal Palace’s visionary boss Arthur Rowe asking if he might be allowed to observe him working for a month.

In his submission to Auxerre chairman Jean-Claude Hemel, Roux cut a parsimonious figure: promising to rein in financial wastage, curb excess and never squander a penny. It is unclear whether it was this willingness to keep a tight hold of the club’s purse strings that eventually swung it for the youngest candidate: it was, more likely, his own meagre monetary demands of just 600F per calendar month. Either way, his appointment was rubber-stamped and thus began one of the most unlikely stories in the history of professional sport.

In fact, appointing such a young coach has a number of advantages. Twenty-two year olds are far less likely to be set in their ways. Their enthusiasm will far outweigh their experience, meaning you are more likely to get considerable work done for the thinner wedge that you pay them. Unfortunately, France is possessed of a very low birth rate and this meant that, until as late as 1996, all young men were subject to compulsory service in the military. It came to pass that, no sooner had Auxerre’s new player-manager got behind his desk at the Abbé Deschamps, he was off again on an 18-month long tour of duty. Roux returned to his post in 1964, more worldly, more experienced and no doubt suffused with fresh ideas. Furthermore, one of the buddies Roux met in service was Lionel Jospin, future Prime Minister of France. It’s always useful to have friends in high places.

As a coach, Roux was not an innovator. He had no great tactical masterplan, no shape or strategy can be traced back to his door. Instead, Roux was a manager of the Brian Clough school. Hard work, discipline and application were the key. Like Clough at Hartlepools, Roux would be hands-on and do whatever needed to be done. In the early days of his tenure, he would frequently be found manning the club’s telephone switchboard. The players’ wives were responsible for the washing and upkeep of the team’s kit. Even the local farmers fell under Roux’s spell, donating free goat dung to the club to help fertilise the playing surface. He even got a summer job writing match reports for a French newspaper in order that he might attend the 1966 World Cup finals in England. As Roux’s regime started to take hold, ever-increasing levels of professionalism slowly began to infiltrate his club. When Roux finally called time on his playing career in 1970 – the same year that AJA won the Burgundian League – these incremental improvements accelerated further. By 1974, Auxerre were in Ligue 2.

Like Clough at Derby, Roux cut a patrician figure. Discipline and acceptance of his total authority were absolutely essential. However, for those willing to toe the line of his regime, Roux could be an avuncular and insulating presence. There are countless examples of players that he brought through who went on to have spectacularly successful careers and who leave no doubt when asked that Guy Roux was absolutely central to their development as players and as men. When Djibril Cissé got married in 2005 he asked Roux, forty-three years his senior, to be his best man. “To be a manager you must be an example, and to love”, Roux argued. Great players as varied in skill and temperament as Eric Cantona, Joël Bats and Sabri Lamouchi can all attest to Roux’s influence.

Toeing the line, however, meant accepting the fact that Roux was a man prone to significant eccentricities. He was not above pulling his players out of nightclubs himself, or turning up at their houses before sunrise to surreptitiously feel the bonnet of their cars for warmth or make a note of the mileage. Any trips of four hundred kilometres, for example, were an irrefutable sign of a trip to the bright lights of Paris, 200km to the north. When Basile Boli, another of Roux’s unique production line, used to sneak out of the famous Auxerre Academy (built in 1980 at Roux’s insistence instead of investing the money on French international striker Olivier Rouyer) to tazz around town on his moped, Roux chained the offending vehicle to a railing and sent Boli the bill for the padlock.

Like Brian Clough, though, the chief reason why players, staff and supporters alike would tolerate such indulgence was because they got results. It was a time before multinational sugar daddies brought their own unique style to European football, when people would accept step by step improvements and realistic goals. Roux continually met or exceeded these. In 1979, the second division Auxerre reached the final of the Coupe De France, only losing to Nantes in extra time. The following season, AJA were promoted to the top flight of French football for the first time, as Ligue 2 champions. In their first season in the top flight, 1980/81, Roux splashed out on the thirty year old Polish striker Andrzej Szarmach, scorer of five goals at the 1974 World Cup finals and nine at the 1976 Olympic Games. Szarmach would score sixteen goals as AJ Auxerre consolidated their position with a 10th place finish: he would go on to score 78 more during five seasons in Burgundy. Auxerre would not relinquish their place in Ligue 1 for thirty-two years.

Indeed, by 1983/84, they were fast becoming a force in French football. Third place saw them qualify for Europe for the first time. Guy Roux was now forty-six years old but had already been the manager at Auxerre for twenty-four years, a remarkable enough achievement in itself, without taking into account what happened next. In 1985, AJA beat AC Milan 3-1 in the home leg of a UEFA cup tie before succumbing on aggregate after the second game; in 1990 they were quarter-finalists and in 1993 reached the semi final by beating Ajax, only to lose on penalties to Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund would be their undoing, too, in the 1996/97 Champions League, beating AJA in the quarter finals on their way to winning the trophy. It was a remarkable achievement for Dortmund, but even more impressive was Auxerre: they had qualified for Europe’s top competition by winning the French league championship in 1995/96.

Since their arrival in the French top flight, Auxerre under Guy Roux had only once finished a season lower than halfway down the league. In 1995/96, every single aspect of Roux’s stewardship of the club coalesced. Using a squad of just nineteen players, the team won twenty-two out of thirty-eight games to secure the title. There was even enough left in the tank to beat Nîmes 2-1 in the Coupe De France final at the Parc du Princes and secure the double. The squad was archetypal Guy Roux: older professionals were drafted in to fill key positions – not least Laurent Blanc at centre back – but the majority were younger players either found, bought and moulded by Roux or brought through using the club’s own academy.

For anyone who has been following British football since the mid-1990s, many of them will be familiar names – Lionel Charbonnier (developed at the academy and later signed by Rangers); Bernard Diomède (an academy product, World Cup winner in 1998 and later at Liverpool under Gerard Houllier); Stéphane Guivarc’h (another World Cup winner, signed from Guingamp in 1995 and later on the books at Newcastle); Moussa Saïb (later of Tottenham); Alain Goma (another academy product, later of Newcastle and Fulham); Taribo West (brought from Nigeria as a 19-year old, later of AC Milan, Internazionale, Derby County and Plymouth) and Lilian Laslandes (later of Sunderland).

None of these players – nor other key squad members like Yann Lachuer, Fabien Cool, Franck Silvestre or Corentin Martins – particularly went on to set the footballing world ablaze. Indeed, the majority of the contingent who subsequently went on to ply their trade in Britain are usually greeted by volleys of stifled giggles, thumb-biting and nose holding by the supporters of their respective clubs. Like a Clough team again – or, to use a much more current example, like Claudio Ranieri’s all-conquering Leicester City – this Auxerre side was very much more than the sum of its parts, skilfully blended by Roux using every piece of footballing knowledge, life experience and psychological nous he was able to bring to bear.

Roux was, by now, a big deal. A big deal in football, where his story and achievements were – are – unprecedented. A big deal in French society, too, particularly in the Burgundy region that he had done so much to put on the map for reasons other than their vintners. Staff at the Presidential Palace of François Mitterand used to complain that they found it harder to get an audience with Lionel Jospin than Roux, his old army brother, did. Staff and volunteers at AJ Auxerre walked on eggshells as not to invoke the ire of an increasingly indomitable Roux. He had become a Personality, one whose opinions were floridly expressed to whichever journalist had taken him to dinner (they paid); one whose likeness made regular appearances on Les Guignols de l’Info, the irreverent satirical puppet show similar to Britain’s Spitting Image. There, Roux was portrayed as a wobbly-nosed, ruddy-cheeked bumpkin, whose daft bobble hat and doughy hangdog face could not hide the fact that he knew far more than he was letting on.

The Roux dynasty came to an end as the new century ticked over. The 2000/01 season saw him move upstairs, a thing that football coaches do and that no-one really properly understands. It is observable, however, that when they do so they are awfully prone to coming back downstairs again. Which is exactly what happened: his successor, Daniel Rolland, did not even last out his first full season in charge before the bobble hat returned to the bench at Abbé Deschamps. And while Auxerre are yet to again hit the heights of their remarkable rise to the 1995/96 championship, Roux nevertheless oversaw two additional Coupe De France titles, in 2003 and 2005. It was after the latter that, during the celebrations, Roux announced his retirement. For good, this time. Some – players, staff, supporters, commentators – complained that he had upstaged their triumph by doing so. Those with longer memories, however, considered these grumblings churlish beyond belief. As far as AJ Auxerre are concerned, Guy Roux has earned himself the right to do more or less what he wants. If you wish to see his monument, look around you.

1961 to 2005. More than a lifetime for countless unfortunates. Certainly more than you’d get for murder. Roux’s tenure was not, strictly speaking, continuous during these forty-four years, but it would be nit-picking in the extreme to point this fact out too strenuously. Guy Roux is now seventy-seven years of age, so even if we figure that his actual time spent in the Auxerre hot seat was just forty-one or forty-two years, it is still a figure significantly north of half of his life. It is a remarkable achievement, a tribute to one man’s vision and to all those who subscribed to it. During his time at the club, they won three league titles, including the Ligue 1 crown in 1996, and four French Cups. They won the double. They competed – and competed – in Europe. They were never relegated.

Roux today remains active in football as a pundit, a journalist and a motivational speaker. By all accounts he is doing rather better than AJ Auxerre, who were relegated to Ligue 2 in 2012 and are yet to return, although they did finish as runners-up in last season’s Coupe De France final. Those who believe in omens could look back to 1979 and view this as a positive step, although putting your faith in fate, providence or portent is probably more than a little short-sighted once you have had Guy Roux.

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