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He Who Laughs Last

We look at why Lyon’s Jean Michel Aulas is one of the wisest and most astute President’s in European football.

The year is 1987. A relatively unknown French businessman buys Olympique Lyonnais and appoints Raymond Domenech as the first head coach as this new chapter in Lyon’s history begins. Domenech’s job – do anything it takes to rise to the biggest stage of French football. So the ambitious entrepreneur already with a plan in mind, takes charge of the Rhône team and over the course of two decades, Lyon rise from a Ligue 2 club to one of the main Ligue 1 contenders, and one of the best in Europe.

26 years on, there is scarcely a week in which Jean-Michel Aulas doesn’t manage to spark controversy. A man of vision, the 64-year-old President developed a reputation of holding his own in the most difficult and high pressure situations. Despite the sometimes incomprehensible choices he often makes, some of which have been quite unpopular with the team’s fan base, Lyon have thrived with Aulas at the forefront.

Two seasons ago, Aulas looked to alter the structure of the club in favour of a more sustainable financial model. With eyes set on new horizons, he chose to emphasise improving Lyon’s youth academy. This new approach forced sacrifices to be made, including the offloading of a number of high-earning players, such as Kim Källström and Michel Bastos.

The infamous “dinosaur and pharaoh” interview in Le Progrès last year saw Aulas take a strong stance against numerous players, including Aly Cissokho and fan-favourite Cris. Such departures paved the way for a new mentality, in stark contrast to those adopted by the other leading European clubs at the time. Despite facing heaps of criticism for selling a number of key players, the selling of such players has thrown up long term positives. Hugo Lloris’ departure to Tottenham saw Remy Vercoutre, and more recently Anthony Lopes, step up in spectacular fashion, and Lyon fans didn’t take long to forget the new Spurs signing. And the 2012 summer transfer window wasn’t the last time Aulas stole the spotlight.

In 2013’s summer transfer window so far, Jean Michel Aulas has made very few friends. Lyon’s chairman went all-out against Gomis and the appropriateness of the ongoing situation embarrasses certain Lyon fans. While some are glad that the 28-year-old is on his way out, others still feel that Aulas is treating Lyon’s 2012/13 season top scorer harshly. Aulas defended his stance by reiterating that Gomis’ contract is about to expire in a year… A strange reason, seeing as Grenier and Lisandro were still at the club with one year left on their contracts and fair solutions arose from that.

Two years after the financial clean up started at Lyon, Aulas’ work seems to be coming to fruition, with an excellent start to this season despite spending little. In fact, they received almost €25M in transfer revenue, and have spent just €4M to date. Gone are the days of extravagant spending in Lyon. Contrary to Monaco’s and PSG’s spending sprees, Aulas has used the fact that Lyon are perceived as a club struggling financially to his advantage. He has a knack of convincing clubs to relinquish their best players at exceedingly low prices. Gael Danic, Valenciennes’ most potent attacker last season, cost OL just under €1m and Cameroonian international left back Henri Bedimo for a little under €2.5m.

From the depths of their youth academy (which was recently ranked best in France) a newfound desire is emerging. Clement Grenier, Alexandre Lacazette, Yassine Benzia and others are leading the revolution. Unlike Monaco and PSG, Lyon’s squad building has been extremely cost effective and they have undoubtedly had the best start to Ligue 1 this season out of any other club. With Grenier and Benzia having both made two assists and scored once, and Lacazette finding the net three times, it seems like Aulas has made the unthinkable possible.

Aulas’ decision to rely virtually purely on breeding talent through their youth system isn’t the only bold move he has taken. What is perhaps so special on Aulas’ part is that despite having an ethos of backing his youngsters and offloading lazy high-earners he is flexible.

Despite offloading a number of high-earning players, Aulas repeatedly chose to take Gourcuff’s side, who reportedly pockets close to €7M annually. In his first two seasons at Lyon, he did nothing to justify the €22M which was splashed out to prise him from Bordeaux. His seasons were riddled with average performances in-between injuries, and it didn’t take long for Lyon fans to start voicing their discontent at the player’s performances and demand for their team to cash in on the playmaker. Yet tides seem to be turning at long last.

Two weeks into the 2013/14 Ligue 1 season, Gourcuff is turning heads with his performances. His statistics speak volumes, boasting two assists and two goals in just a couple of games. Another triumph for Aulas? Well, time will tell.

With the Stade des Lumières’ ongoing construction, logically-speaking now isn’t the time for Aulas to take risks. Yet the adventurous businessman who took the reigns at Lyon years ago has repeatedly proven pundits wrong, and after such a successful story as the President, Lyon fans have come to expect anything and everything from Aulas. With Gourcuff seemingly finding his form and the youngsters stepping up to build one of the most exciting Lyon sides in recent years, it appears that despite all the abuse and criticism he will be laughing the loudest this season.

Nicholas Mamo and Charles Stone

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