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Exclusive | OGC Nice CEO Bob Ratcliffe: “Performance in the league has always got to be a priority for us.”

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Get French Football News, OGC Nice CEO Bob Ratcliffe discusses the club’s ambitions for the 2020/21 campaign.

5 months without Ligue 1 football & now we are finally back – how does it feel?

It has been good to see live football. When I watch it on TV, I don’t notice it much anymore, the absence of crowds. If I look at the Champions’ League, that was a great competition. You saw some great football and I wasn’t thinking: “Oh, I am really missing that support behind the goal.” I was just watching the football. The TV produced has been quite good in terms of camera angles. Certainly from a personal perspective, the guys who like football who I talk to, we have got used to it. Which is good, I think it is important that we do that, particularly in the big leagues where TV income is so important to us.

I am in a privileged position that I get to see it live as well. I was at the Rennes game (pre-season friendly), I was at the Lens game (1st Ligue 1 fixture of 2020/21). It is like watching Sunday League football in terms of the noise. You should probably look for the loudest goalkeeper, I know that is a big attribute, but the Rennes goalkeeper (Édouard Mendy), jeeze. He has got a strong voice that guy.

How has the nice surprise of Europa League qualification, obviously facilitated by PSG’s Coupe de France win over St Étienne, impacted the club’s summer planning?

The Europa League has been a real killer for French teams in the past who have maybe not had a big enough squad to deal with the realities of Thursday night football.

Everybody thinks that the Europa League is a double-edged sword don’t they for that reason. Firstly the positive: I think our route in, I think I had reservations if our route in involved preliminary (qualifying matches), fortunately it didn’t. We go straight in – so that is a big tick in the box, that we didn’t get immersed in that. Obviously, Thursday night football takes its toll. In a way, we were ahead of our sort of project in getting European football, but at the same time, it is a good problem to have.

I think on the basis, we are trying to develop young players, you look at the players we are bringing in, getting some experience of Europe, younger players, they can play more often. I think we are in reasonable shape for it, but it is a concern. But would you rather have it or not have it, I think you’d always say you’d rather have it. I suppose our bigger issue is how much is it going to impact our performance in the league. And performance in the league has always got to be a priority for us. But hopefully we can do both.

What do you make of the LFP’s COVID-19 protocols – currently a Ligue 1 game can go ahead if a club has no more than 3 or 4 confirmed cases in their 1st team squad. We have seen active cases in 13 of 20 Ligue 1 clubs & the intended league opener, Marseille vs St Étienne, was postponed owing to COVID cases.

It is very challenging. If you look at the COVID intensity, you could argue that on the Mediterranean, the tourist season starts to go away and we regularise. We also seem to be getting some false positives that we have not seen before. I think COVID is a moving piece. We have to learn to live with it, it is sort of omnipresent. I think the arrangements give a level of flexibility, it is not absolutely draconian, and they push you to try and manage behaviours as best as you possibly can.

But can you imagine for a whole season plus European games, you put players and their families in a bubble? I just don’t think that is practical.

Our big concern is a situation like we had last Saturday, with Lille vs Rennes, when Rennes had 1 confirmed case before the match. Then on Monday they had another 3 confirmed cases – the identities of those players is not yet known, but if they were lining up against Lille, then the infection could spread rapidly across Ligue 1 teams.

The other thing is most clubs have links to academies – you’ve got a level of contagion there if you are not careful within the club. I think in fairness, what we do here, the protocols are very good, Jean-Philippe Gilardi (club doctor) runs a very tight medical ship. And the level of testing. The number of times I have had that probe up my nose (PCR test), you get used to it. It is good to have – I think you have to test, test, test. But testing is quite expensive as well. That is another factor for Ligue 1 clubs, it is not easy.

I went to the game in Lyon (pre-season friendly), and I had a test in the UK, and I wasn’t sure if I could go to the game because what was called the Abbott Lab test… all of a sudden Abbott Lab is swamped by NHS demand. So what was supposed to be a 24 hour turnover, turned into more than a 48 hour turnover. I think it is not unique to France these issues.

Are you in favour of what LFP CEO Didier Quillot said last weekend that he wants to relax the COVID-19 protocols even further to the point that actually the LFP would operate in the same way as UEFA – the idea that basically if you can clobber together a team, if you have to reach into your U19s to do so, the show goes on.

I think it is worth considering, I haven’t studied it in detail. I haven’t heard the pros and cons, even within Nice here. If you continue to have issues, you need to be flexible. If we see clogging of the season and the fixture list, then I think we need to consider it.

Are we becoming desensitised to this virus in football? Is there a sense now that maybe 6 months ago clubs were petrified by the idea that players could be seriously hurt by COVID-19 to the point that it could have an absolutely devastating impact, financially or otherwise.

Are we getting to the point now where the science is fairly clear – the likelihood of someone under 30 getting this thing to the point of being more than a severe cold is so minimal that this is part of maybe not the conscious thinking, but the sub-conscious approach?

It could be. When I’ve talked to our doctors and this is more Switzerland (Lausanne), about players who have had it, and this is tested positive, the worst that seems to happen is that you have a loss of sense of taste or smell – nothing else. So you are right, the impact is not significant. The big concern for me is how you get people being comfortable coming back into stadiums and how do you manage that.

That is a real headache. At what point does that happen? In Switzerland, we had 1,000 people in a stadium, I don’t know how you get people being comfortable in a crowd situation, whether we even do without a vaccine, that is an even bigger concern. 

OGC Nice were alone last weekend in playing the opener against RC Lens behind closed doors, choosing to take that decision yourselves – why did you do that?

We thought that it was the right thing to do given the circumstances and seeing some peaking here in Nice (Nice is currently a major COVID hotspot in France). We thought that the last thing we want is to be seen to be a party to that. So, we just thought it was the sensible thing to do for the fans, for the city, and the city is very good to us. I think Christian Estrosi was very positive about doing that.

We also had the circumstances as well, we were sensitive to the fact that the city was going to host the Tour de France. If we had had a real issue because of a football game, and all of a sudden that has a knock on effect for the Tour de France, that would have been not good for Nice and sport in the city.

How will you allocate tickets when you choose to allow 5,000 supporters into the stadium? Will you prioritise the Populaire Sud ultras to try to create as much of an atmosphere as possible? Or is it going to be luck of the draw type approach.

I haven’t been close to how we are going to deal with that yet – and I think you are sensitive to your season ticket holders as well. You have to get your constituents right. I also think you have to think about how will people behave in the stadium with regards to social distancing. You need to weigh that all up.

That has been a big problem that Paris Saint-Germain have had pretty much across their pre-season – ultras disregarding social distancing and stewards in the stadium not wanting to pick a fight they feel they will lose.

That is the problem.

What do you think of newly-promoted sides Lorient & Lens breaking their transfer records this summer – is this a symptom of the new broadcasting deal? Do you see them as mid-table contenders?

I think it is so difficult to tell at the start of the season – if you asked me having grown up with the Premiership, who would have ever expected Sheffield United to perform like Sheffield United did over the course of the campaign. Nobody. Even if you make quite significant signings, predicting how they will cope over the course of the season – it is a lottery ticket to me, very difficult.

Even if a club is well run, and well managed – Lens were an effective team in that opening game against us, very effective. I suspect that the new TV deal is obviously a big asset for people in terms of financing player purchases. Whether that carries you through the whole season…

Let’s talk about Expected Goals (XG) – it is a measure that has grown in prominence over the last 5 years and it encapsulates the reality that in order to score goals you need to create chances. And how do we get a sense of the quality of those chances.

As a club CEO, it is not something you have to deal with everyday, but are you aware of the concept and do you value it?

Yeah I am. I think data is incredibly important – but I think XG has become the pundits favourite, it is even on Match of the Day now. There is a piece of me as a football fan, something that really annoys me is short corners. Will somebody give me the bloody point on short corners. Because I actually believe they are a complete waste of time. You are forgoing, and this sounds a bit Sam Allardyce, but you are forgoing a certain opportunity for a ball in the box. So I do think general data is becoming more and more important, but I could say to you that XG is subjective in its own right. Somebody has got to discern what the nature of that opportunity is. Everyone is making it this huge objective, but it has got subjective associated with it.

The same subjective viewpoint is then applied to thousands of games, so there is overarching layer of relativity that supplants this base layer of subjectivity. (Ratcliffe is shown the XG differential from Nice’s opening Ligue 1 fixture vs RC Lens (0.14 vs 2.96), where his club severely struggled to create chances despite winning 2-1)

Data about pressing is very interesting. (Thomas) Müller made more interceptions and tackles (in the UCL final) than the entire PSG front 3. No team seems to be successful, in terms of a league campaign, unless they press extremely well. You look at the way City do it, the way Liverpool do it, it is a different level.

It is one game in our second season. If you look at the players that we have brought in, I think they are important ingredients in moving to the dynamics we would like to see. In fairness, the season we came on board, the tail-end of that season, which we had no ownership of. Patrick (Vieira) did very well with a very defensive squad – he didn’t have much up front at all, did he (no recognised #9 after the departure of Mario Balotelli to Marseille in January).

And last season was something of a transition year. People came in late, (Kasper) Dolberg came in late, a number of those players (Alexis) Claude-Maurice came in late, and they missed the first few games. When players are bought late in the transfer window, they are not always in the best shape, so it took us a while to get going. 

But it is something we are conscious of (XG) – but we have (Amine) Gouiri, we have Dolberg upfront, we have more speed down the wings, people with an ability to come inside. It should add up to better data than you are showing now. It didn’t against Lens, and I get that it didn’t against Lens. If you look at the more basic shots on target they had versus us, we did the conversion.

Are you worried about squad depth with the Europa League in mind? Last weekend, the club seemed to miss a player like Hicham Bouadoui who could link defence and attack.

He is a special player – so that was very disappointing. But that is football and hopefully he can recover.

What’s your reaction to Malang Sarr joining Chelsea?

Hey, you know, good luck to him. Good luck to him! Chelsea are the one club who seem to be spending an amazing amount of money. It’s incredible!

Is OGC Nice concerned about/prepared for an eventual attempt from Premier League clubs later on in this window to pillage the squad? Nice feel like a bit of anomaly in that unlike most Ligue 1 clubs you don’t need to sell.

Yes but at the same time, we are subject to Financial Fair Play. We have to balance, the days of getting there by just writing cheques isn’t there. We are in a fortunate position at the moment, but we have to find the right players, develop the right players, and at some point sell players.

Are you saying that if a big offer comes in for a fairly important player this summer, thinking of Kasper Dolberg, there is Premier League interest there, that you are not closing the door 100%?

I don’t think we’d like to, players we have just acquired and are starting to see the benefit of, I don’t think we’d like to see those players go.

What were your main takeaways from PSG’s Champions’ League final loss to Bayern Munich?

I thought it was a very good game of football and I think that first half it could have gone either way. Neuer, for a guy who looked like his career was sort of petering out, to be playing at that level again – he was so critical in that first half. If a goal had gone in PSG’s favour, it could have been completely different.

I actually think Neymar was a revelation in the early stages of it, I think he struggled more in that particular game, but I think he has matured and is a huge asset for Ligue 1 and the same for Mbappé. I think the game could have gone either way.

Do you feel like Ligue 1 is more respected after PSG and Lyon’s showings in the Final 8?

My honest view is that it should be. But did I hear anyone say: there are no Spanish teams, there are no Italian teams, there are no English teams, but there are French teams and there are German teams? The Bundesliga gets the recognition now. Because you have got some, from the UK optics, you have Jadon Sancho, there is more of a focus.

I still don’t think that French football is getting the recognition that it should. I come back to what we were talking about before. It is a league that doesn’t have commentary on it… you look at the French players who emerge from the French league. Look at some of the players people are talking about and moving across. It sounds terrible, but I think it would have been absolutely fantastic for Ligue 1 if PSG had won the competition. But again, if they had won, they would have said it is all about the oil. We will struggle on that front for some time.

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