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FEATURE | Rennes President Létang exits – why a week is a long time in football

They say a week is a long time in politics, well it can feel even longer in the world of football. Rewind the clock back a week and Rennes were in raptures after a dramatic, last gasp win over local rivals Nantes, which helped cement them relatively comfortably in 3rd place. A week later and with the team nursing their wounds after a disappointing loss to 4th place Lille, the club dropped the bombshell that President Olivier Létang had left the club.

To the majority, the announcement was a complete shock. The brief statement Létang gave to accompany the announcement made it clear this was not his own decision, claiming he was “reluctant to leave.” So how did the club and Létang find themselves in this position, despite all the recent success?

When Létang was announced as President just over two years ago, he immediately went on the offensive. Out went Christian Gourcuff, replaced as coach by Sabri Lamouchi. Under Lamouchi, the club finished the season in 5th place and thereby secured the return of European football to Roazhon Park. With Lamouchi struggling to continue the immediate success the following season and the team floundering in the league, Létang again acted swiftly and ruthlessly, showing Lamouchi the door as autumn turned to winter in 2019. Reserve team coach Julien Stéphan was handed the reigns on a temporary basis and after taking the club back to winning ways, he was appointed on a permanent basis. 

The impact was pretty much immediate as unheralded European success followed including knocking out Real Betis and a famous win over Arsenal at Roazhon Park. The ultimate cherry on the cake though was to happen at the end of May as Rennes defeated PSG on penalties in the final of the Coupe de France to end a trophy drought of over 40 years. On the face of it, everything appeared to be going swimmingly, but all was not what it seemed. 

After a summer where rumours began over disagreements on transfer targets and despite a super start to the season, including the emergence of Eduardo Camavinga, more on him later, Rennes then endured a poor couple of months. Results started going against them and more reports surfaced that Létang, not happy with the performances, was considering wielding his ruthless axe once more, reportedly leaving the young French coach with three matches to save his job. Stéphan managed to turn the ship around, taking Rennes back up the table. At this point there seemed to be a truce called, before the surprise announcement of Létang’s departure. 

Few can deny that the 27 months that Létang was at the club for have been the most successful in living memory. To go with the cup win and successive seasons playing in Europe, Létang oversaw big money arrivals (Raphinha) and departures (Ismaila Sarr) plus making the club attractive enough to convince the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa to sign. Plans were drawn up to redevelop the club’s training facilities with an increased focus and getting the best from the academy as possible. There was a feel that under Létang’s stewardship, Rennes were being dragged kicking and screaming into becoming a much more modern football club.

However despite all this, there remained concerns that the relationship between Stéphan and Létang was continuing to deteriorate. Clearly the Pinault family, as club owners, felt the relationship had reached a stage where they needed to act, and act they did in quite brutal fashion. 

François-Henri Pinault met with Létang on the evening of Thursday 6th February to deliver him the news he was being dismissed. On Friday morning he met with the board who ratified the decision and he began saying his goodbyes to the staff one by one. He then met with the players in the changing room to tell them the news. According to L’Équipe he delivered quite an emotional speech telling the team “I couldn’t help but say goodbye because our relationship is and has been very strong.” The players reacted in shock with several reportedly refusing to train, namely Hamari Traoré and Mbaye Niang. Létang, again stepped in, pleading “Guys, this is exactly what I didn’t want. I have a dream in mind, to see this club qualify for the Champions’ League. You can do it. It starts with a victory tomorrow against Brest. Do it for me.” He then packed up his things and that was that. By all accounts, he got home and went for a run. 

With the shock of the announcement still reverberating around Roazhon Park, the post-mortem as to why he had been dismissed began almost immediately. It must first be noted that the club have not released any further details, the players have denied they refused to train and Létang himself has denied requests to speak about this further at this time. That hasn’t stopped the rumour wheel going into overdrive. There have been unsubstantiated reports that transfer fees may not have been reported correctly, stories that the Pinault family were not happy with alleged early stage discussions between Létang and Real Madrid over a future move for Camavinga and claims that some within the club have not been too happy with the power Létang has wielded, including a pretty secretive appointment of a new man in charge of the training centre. 

In the end it looks like the tense relationship between Létang and Stephan will likely be seen as the main reason for his dismissal. If things had been left to run their course, then the club could well have started to rot from the inside and with Stéphan every bit of a precious commodity as Camavinga, there was only ever going to be one winner. 

The post-match press conference after the Brest game perhaps gave a brief glimpse into that relationship with Stéphan admitting “it was no secret that our relations were not always harmonious, however, I cannot forget that it was he (Letang) who gave me the opportunity to position myself where I am now. We now have to look forward.” 

Look forward Rennes must. They still, just about, hold on to 3rd place at the time of writing and will be keen that this news does not prove too much of a distraction. Jacques Delanoë, Chairman of the Board of Directors and former school classmate of Pinault Jr, has been handed the Presidency on a temporary basis. Names that have been mentioned to fill the position for the long-term include Arsène Wenger, who the Pinault family are keen on, Damien Comolli, ex of Saint-Etienne, Tottenham and Liverpool, and Pierre Ruello, son of former President Rene Ruello. The new President needs to balance all the positive attributes of Létang, the business acumen, the contacts along with the ability to work closely and harmoniously with Stéphan. The pressure though will be on the Pinault family to get the permanent appointment right.

One thing is for sure, it’s never calm for too long with Rennes. 

R.A.

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