Speaking in an exclusive interview with Get French Football News, Amiens SC President Bernard Joannin discussed the legal battle that he is leading against his club’s relegation to Ligue 2, which was announced when the LFP decided to truncate the 2019/20 season, despite there being 10 matches left for the Picardy side to play, who sat just 4 points from safety.
Let’s start by taking things chronologically. Things started – or ended – on 6th March and your excellent comeback 2-2 draw at Marseille. Your fifth draw in seven matches, including against Lyon and PSG too. How was the spirit in the squad?
They were totally motivated, close-knit, focused on staying up. There was a great motivation in the club, among the players, the staff and everyone working at the club. It is unbelievable. And I want to start by explaining why I am the president of the club. I took over the club in 2009 with other local businessmen and my objective was to give back to the city what they had given us by helping us to build our businesses and become successful. So we wanted to act as good citizens for the city by taking over the club, and our great source of pride was to bring the club to the highest level in France, from their being in the third flight when we took over. I wanted to tell you that because it’s important.
I’ll come back to that because it’s clear that the club is important to the city, and vice versa.
After that match came the start of quarantine. How did the squad handle that?
We set up a programme to keep up the squad’s spirit and togetherness. Every player was given an individualised fitness plan to keep them motivated. We had no issues with the quarantine because this pandemic is terrible for Europe, the whole world. So we had no issues. At the time when we thought we would restart training and the season I had ensured that the players and staff had all taken both blood and nasal tests – and I want to make clear that everyone tested negative.
It was the Thursday the week before the Prime Minister’s announcement that Ligue 1 was suspended. I think that the FFF and the LFP took too hasty a decision. They could easily have done the same as other countries and simply suspended the league, saying ok, for the moment we can’t play, but let’s wait and see. The decision was too hasty and not thought through.
The Prime Minster’s announcement was made and within two days everything was sealed.
I agreed with the decision to suspend the league – but not to stop it. But in any case, even if the league were to be stopped, one cannot then proceed to confirming relegations when, out of a 38-match season, only 28 matches were played – representing only 66% percent of the competition [actually 74%]. You can’t decree a competition – a sporting contract – completed when one quarter of the competition is yet to be played.
How did the cancellation of the league work? Because the government didn’t strictly say that it should end – only that football should not be played until August. Then Noel Le Graët [FFF president] spoke up quickly and arguably out of place. And the impression I had was that events happened to the LFP, rather than their taking a lead.
I agree with you. The LFP could have taken control, been more robust, and said ok, we’ll be patient, we’ll see how things play out and, if we are able to, we’ll restart. Look at Germany – they started again. Portugal are preparing to too. I don’t know about England, Italy or Spain – but they have restarted training. And in France – rugby, handball, basketball – they have all declared their leagues over.
But for the sake of humanity and solidarity, they cancelled all relegations. And it is this that shocked me the most about the LFP – it’s that lack of humanity and solidarity during a time when everyone on the planet is showing each other great humanity and total solidarity. I don’t know if you agree with me but this lockdown has returned us to true values.
They say that it is in tough times that you find out who your real friends are.
Speaking of “friends”, when you say that the LFP made the decision, you mean the Board of Directors. Who is it made up of?
It’s made up of club presidents, the players’ union, the managers’ union, other members of the football family – doctors, referees – the president of the FFF and the LFP’s director general and president. And when I talk of an absence of humanity and solidarity, maybe certain people, by stopping the league, ensured their club’s safety and in doing so ignored the effect that the relegation would have on Toulouse and Amiens, without their being able to defend themselves.
Do you put the blame on certain people or clubs who could have done more to fight your cause?
I never have bad feelings, I am someone who always looks at the positives, and I don’t blame anyone for decisions made. I just regret that absence of humanity and solidarity. That’s the word. Regret.
Playing devil’s advocate, people could say well you haven’t won since November, you’re four points behind Nimes [in 18th place]. What makes you think that you would have survived?
It’s what we call the Picard fighting spirit! Let me take you through Amiens’ recent history. When we were promoted from the third division, we secured promotion on the final matchday. When we were promoted from Ligue 1 to Ligue 2, we secured it in the final second of the final match. When we stayed up in our first Ligue 1 season, we secured safety on the final matchday. The same again last season. Amiens always has a strong final quarter of the season. It’s the spirit of the people of Picardy. You need to understand that the Picardy region is a land that has often been invaded and the locals are used to fighting. Against lots of things. Against unemployment, against the cold, against difficulty. The people of the region are fighters.
I love the fighting spirit notion. But I also read an interview with your Sporting Director John Williams, in which he said that it was almost in the club’s planning to finish the season strongly?
As we have very limited financial resources compared to the likes of Lyon, PSG, Marseille etc, we are obliged to wait until the final day of the transfer window – 30th August – in order to do our business. So the first months of the season are always difficult for us. It takes time for the coach to work out his best team and to set a tone for the “human adventure” within the group. That’s why we always have a strong final quarter – because we build momentum.
And on top of all that, we were still due to play the three teams directly above us in the table. This decision is unjust, it makes no sense, it has no basis. It is a punitive decision. And I cannot accept it. And I am not the type of person who likes to take things to court – I prefer dialogue and coming to agreements together. But unfortunately, we have been forced to make a claim to the administrative tribunal of Paris, to defend our rights.
Before taking legal action, did you try to speak to the administrative council, to Le Graët, to persuade them to change their minds?
Of course, I am in permanent dialogue, and I put strong proposals to them. I proposed to have no relegations but to still promote the top two from Ligue 2 – so to have a 22-team league – and to allay financial concerns I took the decision to give up a part of our share of the television broadcast rights. So it really was a fair proposition which, in an exceptional situation caused by COVID-19, would have been a humane, solidarity-led solution, which would have penalised no one financially.
To explain the financial aspect: at the moment there are 20 clubs. The new TV rights will give each club an additional €20m each. Amiens’ and Toulouse’s parachute payments come to €20m. So if there are no relegations, €20m is saved. If we and Toulouse give up €10m of those additional TV rights, twice €10m plus the €20m parachute saving comes to €40m [for the two promoted teams]. So Amiens staying up would not have cost anyone a single euro. So there is no financial motivation.
The other argument against 22 teams is that it creates four additional matches per team. But as you know, the Coupe de la Ligue has now been phased out, and so those additional matches are covered by the dates on which that competition would have been played.
So it becomes clear that no one wanted to show humanity or solidarity. And that is what annoys me. I really regret that.
Was there no one at all? Did you receive any support? Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas signed the club’s petition, for example?
There were some clubs, but there were maybe 17 clubs that voted for Amiens’ relegation. And I really regret that. But there you go. You need to always look ahead and move forward. So now that the Board of Directors’ decision has been taken, either my proposition persuades them to go back on what I maintain is a decision with no basis; or we are forced to take that legal route.
You were four points from safety. But Toulouse were 14 points off. So your argument about not having the chance to climb to safety is strong, but it is a lot less so for Toulouse. Do you think that if Toulouse were as close to safety as you, another decision would have been taken?
I don’t know. But I cannot talk of solidarity and humanity without carrying Toulouse with me in that same spirit. COVID-19 is an exceptional situation. If the season had played out and we had been relegated because we didn’t play well enough, I would have accepted it. I’m a sportsman, I was born into sport, it is sport and competition that make me tick. And when you fail in competition, you lose and you move on. But here, we didn’t lose. We’re being relegated by administrative means. And I cannot accept that.
So you’re taking legal action. What is it that you are hoping for?
To be clear, we are not asking for any financial compensation. What we want is the cancellation of the arbitrary relegation of Amiens. Full stop.
When do you expect your appeal to be heard?
We have made an interim application, which is the quickest route, so we should have a response within 10 days (as of last Sunday).
And have your lawyers given an indication of your chances of success?
We believe that the legal arguments are in our favour. I believe in French justice and I believe that we will be proven right because, looking at it subjectively, the arguments are with us.
The LFP have said the same.
If you want more technical explanations I can give you my lawyer’s details and he can explain better than me. I’m a businessman, a sports fan and a sportsman but I’m not as strong on the legal stuff.
It was revealed that the municipality of Amiens has joined you in making an appeal. And you have spoken of the links between the club and the city.
How would a relegation affect the club and the city? From a financial and a human point of view? Will the club survive? Would there be redundancies?
In financial terms, relegation would mean the club losing €40m of revenues. So it would be necessary to reduce drastically Amiens’ budget. And of course I don’t want to leave anyone behind, but no one can achieve the impossible. So I can’t yet tell you, and we’ll try to find solutions for everyone. But I can tell you, as shareholder, that I will meet the challenge and the club will not die.
As for the city, firstly in terms of notoriety, the name of Amiens has never been mentioned in the media as much as this since the club has been in Ligue 1. And it’s not me saying that, but the city’s two leaders, Brigitte Fouré (the mayoress) and Alain Gest (president of Amiens Métropole). Secondly, there are also economic consequences for local businesses. Amiens airport welcomed other clubs’ private planes, and our plane when we played away from home.
The hotels that welcomed away teams and fans. For every home match I would employ more than 300 people, from stewards to hostesses. So the relegation would mean a real economic hit for the city. That’s why the city is also fighting it. Take the stadium too – if we go down, the convention is that our rent be reduced by half. So there are lots of financial consequences. And again – if the relegation had been as a result of our non-performances, we would have accepted it. But that is not the case.
Relegation or not, the club has limited means and looks to make sales in the transfer window. There are lots of rumours linking striker Serhou Guirassy with English clubs. Is he likely to leave this summer and will it be to an English club?
I’ll reply to you very precisely. In January we agreed terms with an English club and it is Serhou Guirassy – who is an exceptional character, with great values, he’s fantastic – he said to me “listen president, I want to stay at Amiens as I want to help my friends to survive this year.”
So he stayed, he turned down a very lucrative contract with an English club. There are several English clubs that want him, like West Ham who are very clear on that. There are other clubs, including offers from other French clubs. And if people make an offer at the right price I will allow Serhou to leave.
I saw you mention that you’re willing to sell players but at the right price and that you don’t want anyone dancing on Amiens’ grave.
Exactly. It is financial justice. One should never profit from others’ misfortunes and I’ll never let that happen to us.
There have also been rumours linking your English sporting director John Williams with other clubs, such as Lyon and Monaco. As Sporting Director he is arguably more important than certain players. Will he stay? Does it depend on whether or not you stay up?
I’ll answer clearly here. Above the professional relationship that John and I have – because John is a great professional – we met when Amiens were in the third division – we also have a deep friendship. And just as I spoke about Serhou, John spoke in the same way to me.
He said to me “Bernard, it’s when times are tough that we must remain united. I’ll stay with you to defend Amiens.” So whether it is Luka [Elsner] – our coach – or John – our sporting director – whatever happens, we’ll be together next season.
And if I’m telling you that, it’s because it is what they have told me.