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FRIDAY FEATURE: Why Remi Garde and Mike Ashley could become very good friends

It would be wrong to judge the silent, timid and almost introvert Rémi Garde solely on his equally short playing and managerial career during which he featured at Lyon for the most part, because such is the quality of his work behind the scenes that goes publicly unnoticed. Ask anyone that has worked with/for him and they will tell you that Garde has the interest of others first and foremost at heart and that quietly, unassumingly building a club to succeed is something that he has excelled at, as a coach and as a manager.

Garde: The Player

An analysis of Garde’s playing career is not a difficult task as his playing days came to an abrupt end (Garde hung up his boots aged only 33 in 1999). Born in L’Abrésie, a Lyon suburb, Garde trained with his local team as a youngster and played the opening five years of his career at Lyon. He became the “recognised” central figure around a side then coached by Raymond Domenech (who went on to “achieve greatness” as we all know) but the side languished in the French second tier in the late 1980s. With Garde though, Lyon were promoted and qualified for Europe just two seasons later. The emergence of one Jean-Michel Aulas, newly-elected president on the expert recommendation of Bernard Tapie – the symbolic former Marseille president during L’OMs European reign and occasional jail resident – in 1987, playing a large part in JMAs eventual appointment.

Nonetheless, after a half-decade spent at his local club during such time he partook in the Euro 1992 tournament with France, Garde decided to leave in 1993 for Strasbourg to rub shoulders with established players such as Frank Leboeuf, Marc Keller or Aleksandr Mostovoï. With them, Strasbourg reached the French Cup final, losing to Paris Saint-Germain. Paul Le Guen scored the winning goal, a figure that Garde would meet again later on.

Garde’s natural curiosity in terms of wanting to experience different managing techniques in altered environments was a key driver in his decision to move abroad. In the summer of 1996 he relocated to England (not that popular or common a move for a  French player to make 20-odd years ago) to join the French revolution under Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. We cannot say that Garde was an integral part of Wenger’s double-winning team of 1998/99 (42 games in 3 years tells its own story) but it is definitely in North London that Garde realises he has a future in the game once his playing days are over. Garde could have persevered for another couple of seasons on the pitch (he had a persistent knee injury, yes, but his motivation had probably already gone anyway) when he decided that he wanted to stay in the footballing world as an educator. Being the good pupil he is, Garde asked Wenger for advice who encourages him to pursue such a career path, to embark upon a new chapter in the world of football coaching.

Lyon manager

And so it is back home for young Rémi, the freshly retired player and inexperienced manager. He entered the Lyon set-up in 2003 as part of the technical staff and was promoted to assistant manager during Lyon’s reign of 7 straight titles. This is where he encountered Paul Le Guen yet again and continued to learn his trade under experienced manager (who had also coached in England) Gérard Houiller.

Alas, Lyon’s dominance came to an end and the management structure began to shift, changing as the results became less and less satisfactory. Aulas then made quite an unpopular move to appoint Claude Puel – possibly the most hated Lyon manager in modern history – and a radical change was needed at boardroom level. Upon Puel’s arrival, Garde was moved into a position of power at the head of the club’s youth setup, charged with bringing about his President’s latest plan to life. Aulas’ wallet was shrinking and Lyon had to sell their best players (who were on big fat wages in France but on decent money in England) to keep the business going. Selling the established players and promoting youth was to be newly appointed manager Rémi Garde’s biggest test during his 3-year tenure at Lyon.

In 2011/12, Lyon still had quite a solid backbone. The club had finished 3rd the season previous and the prized assets remained (for now). Lloris, Cris, Cissokho, Källstrom, Briand, Gomis & Lisandro Lopez were behind this success, with enough established names for Les Gones to expect nothing less than a top four Ligue 1 finish. It was not however enough for Lyon to qualify for the Champions’ League as they finished only 4th some 10 points behind 3rd place. Rémi Garde’s first season as a manager of a professional club in the league therefore arguably ended in failure. Nevertheless, phrases such as “transitional stage” were brandished about as OL spent the summer of 2012 dumping their most established talents for enviable transfer fees.

Cup competitions were a mitigated experience for Garde in his first season as a manager. He did win the French Cup during the 2011/12 campaign and got his first (and so far only) experience of the Champions’ League as a manager which ended sourly when Lyon were knocked out by fairy-tale boys of the year Cypriot side Apoel Nicosia (on penalties).

One of Garde’s more applaudable feats during that particular season (2011/12) though was that he gave first team opportunities to one Alexandre Lacazette for the first time in the young Frenchman’s career, a man who is the current leading goalscorer in Ligue 1. Having had oversight of the club’s academy the season previously, Garde was perfectly positioned with all the knowledge that he had acquired over the previous twelve months to implement OL’s new strategy of forming a first team squad based fundamentally on the strength of there youth academy. Not only had Garde worked with these players before, the youngsters felt more comfortable entering professional football under their final mentor at youth level.

During the summer of 2012, the axe, as expected, fell on Lyon’s top players in order to raise cash. Lloris was sold to Tottenham, Cris left to join Galatasaray, Cissokho went to Valencia (disregarding the bad teeth episode of Milan) and Källstrom to Moscow. Those players were aptly replaced by an inexperienced but fearless youth and, surprise, surprise, Lyon actually managed more points with the rookies than the previous year with the experienced bunch. Plenty of youngsters were given their breakthrough seasons in 2012/2013 as Lyon finished 3rd again, including Maxime Gonalons, Mouhamadou Dabo, Clément Grenier, Gueida Fofana, Samuel Umtiti, Yacine Benzia and Rachid Ghezzal. Surely some of those names ring a bell today?

The third and final season for Garde at Lyon was full of dramatic highs and lows and heart-racing moments. Perhaps it was no surprise therefore that Garde resigned at the end of it in favour of a sabbatical. Lyon were knocked out in the Champions’ League play-offs by Real Sociedad (if you have seen the goals of those games, you will remember them for sure, they were sublime) and failed to find consistency in the league from start to finish, overshadowed by injury crises and Gomis’ transfer saga. However, Lyon were able to make respectable progress in the Europa League (losing out to Juventus in the quarter-finals) and even though they did not play many big sides along the way, playing so many games in a season gave the current Lyon side experience in difficult corners of Europe, even if this put greater pressure on the youngsters to perform in Ligue 1. It is in those games that Garde was able to give players like Fékir, or Tolisso  the game time that they craved. Their honourable Coupe de la Ligue campaign also deserves a mention, falling foul only to PSG in the final. 

People would be forgiven for thinking that Hubert Fournier is the mastermind behind Lyon’s formidable youth set-up that enables the club to challenge for the title this season but those youngsters were given their first chances by Garde. The once unbeatable title-winning ogre is marching back to its glory days thanks to Garde’s careful, initial planning. Jean-Michel Aulas’ unique and visionary masterplan is ahead of schedule, but there was no single individual who has played a more important role in its success to date that Rémi Garde.

The Newcastle situation

Now speculation is rife about the possibility of Rémi Garde becoming the next Newcastle manager. Here are a couple of factors to ponder before Mike Ashley and co decide that he is the man to take the club forward.

Garde left Lyon last May because he needed time away from the game. Is six months actually enough before undertaking such a demanding and stressful role in Northern England? Despite Newcastle not being accustomed to winning trophies, the fanbase and sheer enthusiasm around the area is nothing like at the Gerland and the whole circus that Aulas has created. If Garde needed to step back last summer because he found the atmosphere to pressurising, then the Premier League and Newcastle is not the right next step.

The fans and chairman situation is peculiar at Newcaslte and an equivalent is arguably seen nowhere else. Unlike at Lyon where the fans worship Aulas for putting the club on the map, Newcastle fans seem to hate Mike Ashley with a passion and remain a tough crowd to please these days. Staying on Ashley’s good side – who, before the Pardew days, often sacked managers for little reason – and being popular with the fans is a tough ask these days. Mr Keegan, Hughton and Pardew can testify to that effect.

Moreover, alongside the added pressure of managing a club the size of Newcastle United comes the increased media attention. Is the studious, quiet but internally fiery Garde ready for total exposure?

However, one can easily envision how fantastic a relationship Garde and Newcastle could harbour together.

He has a proven track record of giving youth a chance. The current emergence of Alnwick and Dummett prove that such a set-up already exists at Newcastle, with Oliver Kemen-esque individuals wait around the corner. Garde would be able to maximise the potential of the youth academy whilst revolutionising the setup to ensure that it becomes a focal point of Newcastle’s future success. That would go hand in hand with Ashley’s strategy if he finds himself in a “I want to sell the club” mood. Indeed, Ashley is known for being financially uptight which Garde has first hand experience with at Lyon working for Aulas.

Garde can also make the strong argument that he won a trophy in his first season as a manager. Often, Newcastle fans criticize the club management for not being ambitious enough in the cups (probably regretting the good old days of the late 90s with 2 FA Cup final appearances back-to-back). Garde may have only won the French Cup (notoriously easier to win than the FA Cup) but Newcastle fans have been dying for a trophy for over 50 years. Winning one would certainly put everyone on his good side.

Then we have the French connection. Newcastle has become a safe haven for Ligue 1 players that are already proven in France but are trying to enter the English market. Cabaye, Debuchy, Sissoko, Gouffran, Obertan paved the way for Cabella and Rivière this season. These two might need a bit of guidance in order to get the necessary confidence to perform on the biggest stage. Alan Pardew was fundamentally going to struggle with a French-heavy squad, having no experience of the culture or the language. Garde develops players, that has always been his strongest coaching asset. Newcastle’s Graham Carr-led project just needs the right driver to take this ship to sunnier shores. 

P.B. with C.N.

[PHOTO: Zimbio.com]

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