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FEATURE | Happy 100th Birthday Angers SCO – an unprecedented look at Ligue 1’s most understated club

Christmas of 2015 seems a long time ago, many people will have forgotten what they received as a present that year. Maybe a nice calendar, some perfume or a coffee mug. However, in the city of Angers, they will remember what their football team presented them with. The newly-promoted side were sitting in 3rd place after a brilliant start back in the top flight and a calendar year that only saw them conceding 22 goals, the best in the top 5 leagues in 2015.

Now, almost 4 years on, Le SCO sit in the same position and are attracting closer attention not just from in France, but elsewhere. This recent success is not a fluke. It has been a calculated and intelligent progression over the past dozen years. Combining financial stability with recruitment expertise and coaching, all focusing towards a common goal. All underpinned by a family culture and atmosphere grounded in reality. These elements fused together form Angers Sporting Club de l’Ouest.

Now in their centenary year, it is a great occasion to look back on how exactly this small outfit has risen through to Ligue 1, and established themselves as a regular fixture. All this whilst quietly performing astute, clever and cost effective business in the transfer market.

Before Le SCO was acquired by Willy Bernard in 2006 they were bouncing between the 3rd tier (Championnat National) and Ligue 2. They regularly replaced presidents and coaches and it made the club very unstable. At the end of the 1997/98 season, the club was relegated to the fourth tier.

However, Poitiers, Tours and Saint-Denis-Saint-Leu, clubs in the third division had filed for bankruptcy, so through others’ misfortune, Angers were drafted back into the league. In 2006, Bernard purchased the club, restructured massively and installed Olivier Pickeu in their recruitment cell. Jean-Louis Garcia joined on the touchline and before long the club were a regular in Ligue 2.

However, the recent success in the last decade put simply, has been as a result of the club’s own three Musketeers. Each have been integral to the function and ascension of the club. President Saïd Chabane, General Manager Olivier Pickeu and coach Stéphane Moulin. It is a rarity in the modern game of football to see such a strong continuity of staff at a club, but this is something that Angers pride themselves upon. Chabane has been president since 2011, Pickeu was appointed in 2006 and Moulin, a former player of the club, has been present since 2005 and as the 1st team coach since 2011. The 52 year-old holds the record as the current longest serving manager in Europe’s top 5 divisions.

Chabane was at first an investor for the club, but after president Willy Bernard was found guilty of tax evasion within Angers, Chabane purchased his shares and eventually became the 93% majority shareholder and new president in 2011. Under Bernard, the finances of the club struggled. The annual audit from the DNCG was always a time of finger crossing and hoping for the best, an alien concept nowadays. Chabane provided Le SCO with the economic stability and a foundation to build on. Less than a decade on and the club is renowned as one of the most financially sound, not just in France but across the footballing landscape.

But Chabane did not stop there. The Algerian entrepreneur knew that a successful football club, especially in France, must have an academy worthy of its name. So in 2014, Chabane invested heavily into redeveloping the training academy and infrastructure. In such a short space of time it is already bearing fruit. Nicolas Pépé was signed at 18 and developed through the youth programme.

This season Rayan Aït Nouri (18) has been the mainstay left-back in the side and represents the first player purely from this new academy structure to feature for the first team in a league game. Both him and Anthony Gomez-Mancini, another academy product, were at the critically acclaimed Toulon Tournament this past summer and performed strongly. With a call up to Sylvain Ripoll’s U21 squad already and a first team starting place, Nouri’s stock will only continue to rise.

Whenever he speaks about the club, Chabane always states that it is under perpetual construction, that there are clear ambitions for this development. In May, Chabane unveiled plans for the rebuilding of the Saint-Leonard stand. The stand was demolished over the summer and the €20m project is expected to be completed by 2021, bringing the total capacity of the stadium to 20,000. The club have recently launched SCO TV, a subscription channel that provides an inside look at the club, interviews with plays, staff, behind the scenes on every match-day.

Chabane revealed in interviews last season that almost two-thirds of club revenue come from TV rights deals and he stated that he wants to balance this to a 50/50 split to further strengthen the club’s financial state. These recent events at the club are clear indications of this plan in motion. A plan that so far, has manufactured Angers into one of the best financial football models around.

This claim is thoroughly backed up by the statistics. The most impressive of which was recently published in an article by France Football. They listed the top 20 clubs in the top 5 leagues who have made the largest net profit on transfers since 2010.

Somehow, amongst prestigious and well-established clubs such as Villarreal and Nice, Angers sat 18th with a profit of €44m. Considering that Le SCO have only been back in the top flight for less than half of this period, and the comparatively small size of the club, it is frankly absurd and a perfect indicator of the phenomenal work the club has achieved.

The staff at a football club are sometimes referred to as the furniture, as they tend to swap around every few years, but with Angers the staff are the whole house. This statement is not physically embodied better than by head coach, Stéphane Moulin. A man that is woven into the very fabric of the club so much so that it is difficult to imagine the sidelines at the Stade Raymond Kopa without his presence.

Starting his playing career at Angers, Moulin also played for local clubs and retired at Châtellerault to become a coach and spent many years in the amateur divisions. He was called back to Le SCO in 2006 to coach the youth team and B side, where he began to hone his ability to coach young players. Then in 2011, current manager, Jean-Louis Garcia, set his sights on bigger horizons and moved to Lens; new president, Chabane, installed Moulin as the first team coach.

Across his early career Angers, Moulin developed the team into a fierce attacking unit with a devastating counter-attack. Before long, they were knocking on the door for promotion. Unfortunately, consistent injuries plagued the squad and they dramatically faded towards the end of the 2013/14 season, only winning 2 of their last 14 games. The next season, Angers captured the 3rd promotion place and were back in Ligue 1 for the first time since 1993.

With promotion and new signings, Moulin realised that the tactics and team setup that thrived in Ligue 2 would no longer be suited to the stronger division. So in this first season, Moulin crafted the team into a phenomenally organised defensive unit that were a powerhouse from set pieces. New signing Cheikh Ndoye was given an almost free role to roam about the field, disrupt play and act as a second striker arriving into the box to power crosses towards goal. This was possible due to another new signing Romain Saïss, who was imperious in protecting the defence and covering the space left if Ndoye began to charge forward.

In that first season, Angers scored 40 goals. Only 19 of which were from open-play. Ndoye hit double figures across all competitions and Angers finished an impressive 9th. Since then, Moulin has begun to integrate and develop more technically gifted players so that every year, the general play and attacking dynamic of the squad improves. The notion of a set-piece team of one dynamic is now a lazy myth spoken by those who have forgotten to watch the team since.

In their 3rd campaign in the top flight, Le SCO sat in 19th at Christmas and Moulin was touted to be sacked by almost all media outlets with his contract running down. After another defeat Chabane approached Moulin and asked him “Do you feel you have the strength to continue?”, Moulin answered yes and that was enough for Chabane to renew Moulin’s contract. The club surged to safety, where Flavien Tait would become the next star for the club.

Even as a manager in Ligue 1, Moulin still projects an aura of being early in his managerial career. He does not wear sharp suits and ties, he will happily turn up in jeans and a jumper, accompanied by a 4-day stubble. It’s this appearance that fits the very down-to-earth nature of Angers. A common sight in the changing room pre and post-game is Chabane and Pickeu walking around, congratulating and speaking with players.

The family atmosphere is very literal as Olivier Pickeu’s brother, Benoit, is the fitness coach for the players and joined not long after his sibling. Moulin demands a lot of physical effort from his players; last season no team in Ligue 1 covered more ground than Angers and they were one of the top teams with the highest intensity sprints. No player covered ground more than Baptiste Santamaria (442.8km, 11.65km per match), who Pickeu refers to as the “4X4”.

Signed from a nearby team in Ligue 2, Tours, that Angers have dealt with many a time. It’s tempting to brandish the recruitment policy as signing the best talents from the lower divisions of France, but this too simplistic a view. Sporting Director, Olivier Pickeu has been at the base of the club’s good fortunes since arriving in 2006 alongside Willy Bernard. In the years that have followed, the former Amiens attacker has slowly developed into one of the most proficient sporting directors on the continent.

Pickeu arrived in 2006 when the club was in dire financial circumstances and for the majority of these early years he almost single-handedly began to nurture the scouting network. The recruitment policy of the club has evolved alongside their rise to Ligue 1. The strategy was to recruit from the smaller teams in the Maine-et-Loire region of France that Angers is situated, while attempting to convince out-of-favour or out of contract players yet to reach their talent level to join. Pickeu, with little assistance and very limited resources, was able to build a network of highly expert scouts in the region.

His contacts and web grew and when Philippe Leclerc joined from regional division side Poiters, both him and their chairman told Pickeu that they had someone he might want to take a look at. It was a young 17-year-old attacker by the name of Nicolas Pépé, Pickeu immediately could see they had someone special, the young Ivorian signed for Angers and the rest is history.

Pickeu has been the main force behind this consistent development enjoyed by Angers over the past dozen years, unearthing talent and finding players for Moulin to work with while continuing the develop the club’s project.

The club restructure in 2011 brought in not just a new president and coach, but former regional journalist and Saint Étienne scout, Axel Lablatinière as the Head of Recruitment. His vast array of connections across the region and wider France kicked the recruitment into another gear. Once promoted, the boost in the club’s budget from €10.4m to €24m allowed them to attract the names from Ligue 2’s top sides.

Interestingly enough, they did not spend a single Euro in transfer fees, opting instead to sign some of the best Ligue 2 players on free contracts. In the years that followed. the club was able to expand the scouting network while becoming able to sign experienced players from Ligue 1. This was clearly evidenced with the three signings they made from Nîmes this past summer (Antonin Bobichon, Rachid Alioui & Sada Thioub).

Among many things, the strong identity of the club comes through. They will always look after their players with their best interests in mind. A perfect example of this was the sale of Karl Toko Ekambi in the summer of 2018 to Villarreal. Angers were struggling throughout the season, Ekambi was angling for a move away. The club asked the player to stay on for the rest of the season and help avoid relegation and then they would let him go to the club of his choosing.

President Chabane stated afterwards that the club had received offers for the Cameroonian attacker in the region of €25m, a huge amount for a club like Angers. However, the following summer, Villarreal offered €18m, significantly less than the best proposals on the table, and Ekambi wanted the move to the Yellow Submarine. The club respected the choice of the player and accepted the offer. In the ever competitive and ruthless footballing landscape, Angers have somehow maintained a family ethos with an almost dangerous level of sentimentality.

Year upon year, Angers lose their star player but this does not faze them. There is always a plan and structure in place to replace the player and continue on.

However, the most recent occurrence of this differs to the past. Jeff Reine-Adélaïde was on fire in the last two months of the 2018/19 season and during the pre-season, Moulin was attempting to perfect his role positionally so that he could become the standout main player. Both Moulin and Pickeu believed that Adélaïde should be kept at the club for another season to continue his progression and with a Man of the Match performance in the first game of the 2019/20 campaign against Bordeaux, it looked like this would be his year.

But Lyon, who had been scouting and discussing with the player in the summer, came in with a huge offer of €27.5m.

This fee is close to Angers’ entire season budget. The president, Chabane, accepted the bid and the player moved to Lyon. This caused rare public frustration from Moulin after a 6-0 defeat to Lyon followed in the next game where he talked of the troubled week that the club had faced. This was a rare and clear source of disagreement between the president, Moulin and Pickeu. The latter two were looking to continue the upward trend and make JRA the focus of the 2019/20 campaign.

It looked like this one-two punch may have pushed the club into a worrying state, however, there is one thing you should resist to do at all costs when it comes to Le SCO and that is doubt them. Without a direct replacement walking through the door, Moulin has managed to reconfigure the squad and adjust fairly well to the loss of Adélaïde. After the Lyon defeat, Angers won 4 of their next 5 games. Regardless of whatever challenges are thrown at them, Angers stand unfazed and able to continue their development.

The club has evolved into a petri dish for developing talent. In football, there is always a plethora of talented players that fail to reach their potential. Factors that contribute to this can vary enormously from both inside and outside their profession. However, there is a factor the continues to arise in part of these cases. Inconsistency. It is clearer how Angers continue to produce quality players. There is an almost natural growth, the consistency of every aspect of the club allows minimal interference to development and this is clearly a tactic that has paid off.

In an interview with Le Parisien last December, when asked if he had ever doubted the coach, the Algerian owner Chabane stated:

“No. And to comfort him, I have already said that he will leave when I leave, that is to say in ten years.”

So whatever happens in the next decade, you can be certain of one thing. That a small football club in the west of France will continue to glow with its ever evolving flame under the white and black of Angers.

Happy Birthday Le SCO!

T.W.

 

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