A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
They say that with humility comes wisdom. After three years without a trophy, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas decided it was time to go back to basics.
"These past few years," he admitted, "we have sometimes lived beyond our means. But that's because we dared to take risks, contrary to the others."
Like a poker player losing the winning habit, Lyon kept raising the stakes in an effort to get back what they had lost. Sooner or later it was inevitable that there wouldn't be any chips left.
Since 2008, Lyon have spent €131.5 million on new players, abandoning the buy-low, sell-high policy that brought them seven consecutive league titles and made the club a model for others to follow.
"We never took ourselves for the best team in the world," said Lyon technical director Bernard Lacombe, "but for four or five years it was like the Tour de France with Eddy Merckx: we asked ourselves who would finish second. Now we have become a normal club again."
After announcing losses of €35.6 million following the 2009-10 campaign, and with the new TV deal entitling Ligue 1 clubs to €158 million per year less than its predecessor, the time had come for Lyon to curb their extravagance.
With his fingers burnt, Aulas no longer talked about Lyon winning the Champions League before entering their new Stade de Lumiéres in 2014, but rather "starting again from zero."
The swagger has gone. Aulas feels betrayed and senses, not without some justification, that he was made to look a fool by Claude Puel, the coach he sacked at the end of last season who was claiming €5.4 million in compensation.
"I don't understand it," Aulas sighed. "For three years, I gave him everything to succeed, supporting him against everyone else's advice. I expected more dignity. It's an immense disappointment."
Lyon retreated into themselves. They needed to find their identity again. Aulas sought refuge in L'Arbresle, the village where he was born 25km or so northwest of Lyon. It was there, while getting back in touch with his roots, that he thought about Rémi Garde.
Garde, Aulas and Lacombe announce the new era
Garde was also born in L'Arbresle and as a boy he would go to the Stade Gerland accompanied by his parents, either to watch Lyon play or to train on the fields behind the south stand. A gifted, intelligent and fragile player emerged. Garde was inducted into Lyon's academy, but between the age of 18 and 21, he played just three months of competitive football after tearing the cruciate ligaments in both of his knees.
He was given his debut by Robert Herbin in Ligue 2 during the 1984/85 season, but it wasn't really until the arrival of Lacombe as a director of sport in 1988 and Raymond Domenech as coach in 1989 that Garde's Lyon career began to take shape.
"At the first training sessions," Lacombe recalled, "we said to Raymond: 'If he doesn't break anything, it's something.' We got promoted to Ligue 1 thanks to the quality of the team and the mentality of the kids who came up through the academy.
"It wasn't all easy for them. Garde and Bruno Génésio had professional contracts worth 6,500 francs a month, and at one point, the club hesitated in keeping them. It was José Broissart, the academy director, who insisted that we did."
Garde quickly came to embody what Aulas's Lyon were all about. "It was a dream," he smiled. "We were at the club that we'd always dreamed of playing for. We were among friends. We had the absolute confidence of the technical staff and did something that had been unaccessible for six years, returning to Ligue 1."
A renowned hard worker with good technique, Garde could play across the midfield with relative ease. He was called up to represent France under Michel Platini in the autumn of 1989, and would certainly have earned more than six caps if it weren't for the presence of Didier Deschamps in his position.
Garde became Lyon's captain at 23 and scored the first European goal of the Aulas era against Swedish side Osters in the UEFA Cup. However, he never let his personal role in the club's rise go to his head. Always with his feet firmly on the ground, perhaps owing to the many hours spent either in the treatment room or on the sidelines, he was more prone to reflection than many of his peers.
"Rémi has all the qualities," Domenech once said. "He must only stop being so serious. He has to live. Football is important, but life is too. Rémi begins his season on July 1 and ends it on June 30. That leaves him around an hour and a half's rest. He has to decompress."
But Garde never did, and when Lyon's progress stalled in the early to mid-'90s, the tension got to him and he needed a break. Three years at Strasbourg followed before Garde received a call from Arsenal manager elect Arsène Wenger. He moved to Highbury on the same day as Patrick Vieira.
Treated sceptically by the media and his new teammates, Garde set about proving himself the same way he always did – with charm and perseverance. "I was 30 and from France with little status," he bashfully admitted.
Garde shields the ball from John Barnes
But Garde brought something intangible to Arsenal. "I have rarely seen a player who has such little confidence in himself transmit so much confidence in others," Wenger noted.
Garde's reward was to become the first foreigner to captain Arsenal and though he wasn't a regular, often backing up Vieira or Manu Petit, his role in Wenger's first double-winning side shouldn't be underestimated.
After hanging up his boots, a short stint as a commentator for Canal+ preceded Garde's return to Lyon in 2003 as an assistant to Paul Le Guen and then Gérard Houllier. "They were technicians who delegated, who loved to rest on the competences of their staff and, after having analysed everything, decide what was the right thing to do," Garde said.
Yet when Houllier left in 2007 and Aulas offered Garde the top job, he turned it down in favour of staying behind a desk to develop the club's recruitment and later direct their academy.
To Garde, the responsibility was too big and Lyon's ambitions still too great. With the passing of time, however, that changed. So when Aulas reached out again this summer, he didn't leave his president hanging.
"If I accepted the challenge on this occasion without reflecting for too long," Garde explained, "it's because the context is different. Right now at Lyon, it's a question of finding 'the house values' again, and that interests me."
Puel had left the club a house divided. Garde, with his understanding of Lyon, would unite them again, put a smile back on the players' faces and those of the fans.
A low-cost appointment hired on a one-year rolling contract, Garde doesn't so much mark the end of an era as Aulas pressing the reset button. The generation that has taken power of the club is the one discovered by Domenech between 1988 and 1993. Génésio was named one of Garde's assistants, and their former teammates from that era Stéphane Roche and Gilles Rousset are in charge of the youth team.
"I am not working in relation to what happened here before," Garde insisted, as if to further underline Lyon's departure from the unpopular overtly physical philosophy used by Puel with its three cardinal rules of presser, récupérer and accélérer. "It has been a long time since I have seen the players train with the ball on the first day of pre-season," Aulas smirked.
Tempering the optimism, the doubters pointed out that Garde has never managed before, the club hasn't signed anyone apart from Auxerre midfielder Delvin N'Dinga in a deal done late last week, and lest we forget both Yoann Gourcuff and Ederson have already been lost to injury.
In addition, Lyon's plans to compensate for a lack of recruitment by promoting the youngsters Garde so carefully nurtured in the academy have also been shelved, at least for August, as six of them are with France at the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia. In any case, aside from the promising Enzo Reale there are reservations about whether the current crop can have the same impact on the first team as other former academy graduates like Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa.
So on the eve of the new campaign, a big question mark appeared alongside Lyon's name. A solitary victory in five pre-season games had done little to quell the anxiety ahead of Saturday's trip to Nice and neither did the first quarter of an hour at the Stade Municipal du Rey.
Lyon, lined up in a new 4-4-2 formation, managed to give away six corners and inevitably went behind after six minutes. It was Nice winger Anthony Mounier, perhaps the smallest player on the pitch, who somehow got in front of Dejan Lovren to nod one of them in past Hugo Lloris.
Rather than collapsing like they had done at this ground in April – when Lloris was caught by a Canal+ cameraman screaming: "We shat ourselves! I've had it up to here with this sh*t!" – Lyon pulled themselves together and set about playing some wonderful football, decorating the pitch with arabesque short-passing patterns.
Although their goals came from Lisandro López chasing down a long ball, Bafétimbi Gomis scrappily turning in a corner and Maxime Gonalons pouncing from close range after Lovren nodded a Kim Källström free-kick back across the box, Garde's side were expansive and an absolute pleasure to watch, serving up a reminder to those numbed by the Puel years that this team can still put on a spectacle.
"What a breath of fresh air," wrote Le Progrès. "And to think we all thought that this had been lost in a corner deep in the club's archives." There was even talk of a 'Gard-iola' effect among the fans as Lyon's 3-1 win saw them share top spot with Montpellier. "Their style of play and intentions have changed," beamed L’Équipe. "Lyon want to seduce and make the ball run again."
Resisting the temptation to write off Garde's first competitive win as beginner's luck, Lyon will understand more about their new coach after the club's tough Champions League preliminary round matches against Rubin Kazan later this month.
Until then, a cry of "En Garde" seems fitting, as Lyon might not be finished yet after all. Indeed, the rest of Ligue 1 has been warned.
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