Tragically, a club in decline because of instability at every level is not uncommon. When it’s a side responsible for producing some of the greatest French talent of the past 20 years it deserves a further look. Welcome to IBWM Liam Milner.
The first match I ever saw live outside of England was Nantes v Lyon. The date was December 6, 2008. Two goals from Ivan Klasnic turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory for Les Canaris. The side battling relegation had beaten the champions.
Had I been watching the same game 10 or 15 years ago, this result would have been far less surprising. Far from battling relegation, the Nantes sides of the 1990s were accustomed to success. A Ligue 1 title in 1995 and success in the Coupe de France and the Trophée des Champions in 1999 underlined the club’s claim to be a significant force in French football. The rest of Europe also took note, as Nantes reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1995-96.
A lot has changed since then. In the context of what has happened to the club since my visit to the Stade de la Beaujoire-Louis Fonteneau, the victory over Lyon represented the last flicker of life from a former shining light.
The club which nurtured the talents of Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps and Claude Makélélé, and which last won Le Championnat just ten years ago, played their last home game before the winter break against Sedan. In Ligue 2. They drew 0-0, in front of 9,119 people, less than a quarter of the stadium’s capacity. How could a club responsible for producing some of France’s brightest talents of the past 20 years, a club with eight Ligue 1 titles and three Coupes de France, have come to languish so lifelessly in such a lowly position?
A side riddled with instability is rarely going to achieve much, and don’t Nantes just know it. Losing their brightest talents played a part in Nantes’ demise. The need to raise money through the sale of their best players meant that the club lost players including Makélélé, Japhet N'Doram and Nicolas Ouédec in the two years following their 1995 league triumph. During the seasons after Euro 96, Nantes finished 3rd, 11th, 7th and 12th, before winning the club’s eighth (and most recent) league title in 2001. The period of financial difficulty for the club was significant for more than simply the effect it had on the playing staff. Jean-Claude Suaudeau, a man who lived and breathed FC Nantes, and who had won the league twice during two different spells, resigned as manager. He was unhappy at being forced to sell his best players. The club’s fans would have to get used to more regular comings and goings in the dugout. Looking now at the past five years at the club, at the end of Suaudeau’s reign it resembled the epitome of stability.
For all the changes on the pitch, the changes off it have been equally significant. Changes in owners and managers have created an unstable club which has had no long-term plan for success. Firstly, let us consider the boardroom. The club was bought in 2001 by Socpresse, a company more famous for its involvement in the media world than football. Three years later, the club was taken over by Groupe Dassault, and three years after that, ownership of the club passed to Polish-born businessman Waldemar Kita for a reported fee of 10 million euros. Such instability at the top of a club can have no positive influence on those it employs. Dassault’s ownership coincided with the beginning of the end for Nantes. The 2004-05 season saw the club finish one point above the relegation zone. Minor improvement followed the season after in the form of a 14th placed finish, but Nantes finished bottom at the end of 2006-07.
Kita’s time in charge saw the club initially bounce back to Ligue 1, but since relegation once more, Nantes have looked less likely to return to the ranks of the country’s elite clubs. There are reasons for Nantes supporters to be apprehensive. After initially failing to buy the club in 1998, Kita took control of Lausanne-Sports. During his tenure, the club won the Swiss Cup and finished second in the league. He departed the club in 2001, but seemingly failed to leave them on a sound financial footing, and they were relegated at the end of the 2002-03 season because of bankruptcy. The denizens of the Beaujoire must hope that lightning does not strike twice.
Managers have arrived and departed even more quickly than the owners. Since the sacking of Raynald Denoueix in 2001, mere months after he had guided the club to the league title, the club has employed 10 managers, and even dabbled with a short-lived joint-manager arrangement in 2007. Instability in the boardroom creates a culture of insecurity and short-termism throughout the club. When the manager is changed almost every season, this is even more acutely felt by the players, as they often have to adapt to a new system. It is no coincidence that the club’s worst years on the pitch have come at a time when neither an owner nor manager has been able to feel secure in his position and map out a long-term strategy for the club.
Unsurprisingly, poor football has led to a drop in attendances. In Nantes’ last title-winning season, their average attendance was 32,058. Last season, in Ligue 2, the figure was 15,814. Without Ligue 1 football, I doubt those lost supporters shall be found. For that to happen, the lessons of the past decade must be learnt. Managers must be given time. There must be a sense of permanence at the top of the club. Investment must be made, firstly to get Nantes back into Ligue 1, and then to keep them there. If seasons of mediocrity follow, then French football may never again owe such a debt of gratitude to the team in yellow and green.
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