A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Frédéric Antonetti should really be watching the game. After all, the silver-tongued Corsican tactician is on the brink of a momentous achievement. Rennes are playing early pace setters Toulouse in Ligue 1 and if the Breton outfit win, they will go top of the table for the first time in 40 years.
But at the half-hour mark, it’s 0-0 and the home fans are getting restless at the Route de Lorient. One in particular aims a volley of abuse at the Rennes bench, and Antonetti is no longer able to grin and bear it. He stands up, turns around and delivers what the French call a gueulante, the kind of harangue for which Antonetti has earned a cult following in two decades of coaching.
“He is particularly tiresome,” Antonetti grimaced, referring to the supporter in question. “It’s always the same guy and he deserves a slap. He comes here just for that. He calls me a big c***t. He’s always in the same place [three rows backs]. He says: ‘I pay for this’. I tell him that it doesn’t give him all the rights. In other circumstances, I would put my fist in his face, which he really deserves. He’s sick.”
Before he could do so, however, Romain Danzé, one of several graduates from the Rennes academy, was played through on the right-hand side just on the edge of the Toulouse box where he struck the ball with a rip-roaring outside of the foot toe-poke medley to open the scoring in sensational fashion, capping a well-worked team move.
Unsurprisingly, the mood at the ever so hard-to-please Route de Lorient suddenly changed. The red mist that had descended on Antonetti was temporarily lifted. Rennes would win 3-1 and reach the very summit of Ligue 1, turning back the clock to the 1970s when the club enjoyed a short but sweet golden age, winning the French Cup for the second and last time in their history.
And yet much to the delight of the local press corps, Antonetti wasn’t entirely pleased. There were fears that, as he approached his 400th appearance as a coach in Ligue 1, the 48-year-old was going soft, a little too Zen even.
Incidents like the one at Bastia in 1998 when he gave Lubomir Moravcik such a dressing down that the Slovak midfielder didn’t come to training for a month and even threatened to quit now seemed like a thing of the past.
That all changed when Rennes, who looked almost certain of a spot on the podium in April, failed to win any of their final eight games last season, a run that cost them European qualification, resulting in a ninth place finish, their worst in six years. “At Rennes, we tend to go to sleep a little and fall into the habit of thinking everything is going just fine,” Antonetti said witheringly.
The Rouge et Noir have been seemingly unable to arrest their slide down the table in each of the last three seasons, with a fourth place being followed by a sixth, a seventh and now a ninth. Since missing out on the Champions League on the final day of the 2006-07 campaign when a last minute equaliser from Lille striker Nicolas Fauvergue shattered their dreams, Rennes have been in a constant state of regression.
Their presence in the French Cup final in 2009 was supposed to put an end to all that, but incredibly they lost 2-1 to neighbouring Guingamp who were then in the second division. Embarrassingly, the club owned by the 77th richest man in the world with the ambition of becoming the best in France wasn’t even the best in Breton, as Lorient finished higher than them last season.
Writing in France Football, Saint-Étienne legend Jean-Michel Larqué, the Hexagone’s equivalent in punditry to Alan Hansen, mused: “Rennes suffer from a weird disease: they have deservedly boasted about the progress of this club in the grand scheme of things, but each time there is the chance to be involved in the fight for the title, they never give the final thrust.”
Naturally when Patrick Le Ray became the new president of Rennes this summer, he wanted the old Antonetti back, the one who was always in his players’ ears. Interviewed in Ouest-France at the end of June, Le Lay said: “He must have the urge to be like a marine commando who hits them in the face. He’s not there to manage a ballet group.”
With his temperament in question, Antonetti immediately responded: “I have become again what I once was,” he smiled. So pity the players. For after a 1-0 defeat to newly promoted Brest in pre-season, the bald man gave them the hair-dryer treatment. “Frankly, I am hopping mad,” he raged. “I don’t want to have to accept games where we can’t score goals. José Mourinho explained that he gets fed up with strikers who need nine chances to score rather than two. Here, three wouldn’t be bad.”
"Don't look at me, mate - I was sat down quietly..."
But that’s exactly what Antonetti would have to accept, as Rennes, having already sold Jimmy Briand to Lyon, would also flog their two other star strikers Asamoah Gyan and Ismaël Bangoura in the final hours of the transfer window, leaving the club with no time to replace them at all. So in one fell swoop one of last season’s most potent strikeforces had been comprehensively dismantled.
Admittedly, Victor-Hugo Montaño had arrived from Montpellier to become Rennes’s only proven centre-forward – and by proven it bears remembering that while the Colombian may have scored 26 goals in his last two seasons in France, he had managed only 12 in three years before then.
Antonetti was at a complete loss, calling the club’s transfer strategy “a marriage between Plan B and Plan C,” especially given no fewer than 15 players had left Rennes in the last year, and the defence, another of the team’s strong points, was also broken up. Rod Fanni, the crack full-back, did eventually stay after talks with Atletico Madrid came to nothing, and Onyekachi Apam, the coach’s old favourite, was signed from Nice, making the losses of Petter Hansson and Carlos Bocanegra easier to take.
Stéphane Dalmat, the midfielder whose playing style Clarence Seedorf recently said resembles his own, made Rennes his 11th club, vowing to “give everything” after a poor attitude and too many off-the-field shenanigans meant he never made the most of his talent at Inter and Tottenham. “I have already said that I don’t have the head of a good Frenchman or that I’m the ideal son-in-law,” he said in an interview with France Football.
In all, six new players were brought in, and the ranks were once again bolstered by the club academy, which lest we forget has been voted the best in France five years running – and why not after producing a midfielder like Yann M’vila, the 20-year-old whose maturity convinced Laurent Blanc to start him in his first three matches in charge of Les Bleus.
But the doubts remained. What happened if Montaño got injured? Well, dedicated Ligue 1 fans, Rennes might learn as much on Sunday when they travel to Lens. The Colombian picked up a knock against Toulouse just before the international break and it’s touch-and-go whether he’ll start at the Felix-Bollaert. “Playing 38 games with only one striker is impossible,” Antonetti complained. “We are competitive in defence and midfield. But up front we don’t have the squad for the place that we occupy. The evidence today says that Rennes are first, but it’s not Rennes’s position.”
The club’s general manager Pierre Dréossi has slowly seen the error of his ways and is now being linked with a move in January for Paris-Saint Germain’s Mevlüt Erdinç. But this Rennes side has the spirit to keep going as evidenced in their gutsy reaction to the absence of Fabien Lemoine, their 23-year-old midfielder whose kidney split into three parts after a collision with a Nancy player in August.
Rennes may not be Barcelona - as Antonetti recently said - in fact they’ve recorded fewer shots on goal than any other team in Le Championnat this season. But they are still unbeaten in Ligue 1 and have started to show the kind of fire in their belly that can be identified with one man and one man only – their portly but pyrotechnic coach, the inimitable Frédéric Antonetti, who has thankfully rediscovered his mojo.
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