Auxerre's exalted existence in doubt
The Association de la jeunesse auxerroise - or Auxerre for short - is one of football's true fairytales. Little more than a pub team in the 1960s, it rose through the ranks to become French champions and regular participants in the Champions League. Now, however, the fairytale appears to be nearing its end, and there is no Prince Charming in sight.
The AJA have been in the top flight since 1980 but, with four games remaining this season, they are bottom of the table and three points adrift of safety. Sunday's 4-0 trouncing of fellow strugglers Brest suggests the fight may be there, but with an unhelpful looking run-in, which notably features title pretenders Montpellier on the final day of the season, the claim of freshly-installed interim coach Jean-Guy Wallemme that "our future depends on us" rings a little hollow.
It seems an unlikely predicament for a team that was rubbing shoulders - if not doing much more - with AC Milan, Real Madrid and Ajax in the Champions League only last season after coming third the previous campaign. However, the drop was only averted in extremis last May, and the departure of avuncular but highly capable coach Jean Fernandez for Nancy, which could hardly be described as a step up, suggests the rot had already set in, and the perceptive former Sochaux and Marseille boss was fully aware an even deeper crisis was brewing.
Funnily enough, Fernandez, who took over from the hapless Jacques Santini, is the man who has come closest to emulating the success of Guy Roux, the coach who moulded Auxerre from a backwater non-entity to the best team in France.
During his 44-year reign, Roux - like Fernandez - developed a reputation for bringing through young players while also dallying in the riskier end of the transfer market; a necessity as much as anything given this homely club's equally household-sized budget. The list of players Roux brought through is impressive: he kickstarted the career of Laurent Blanc in the current France coach's one season at the club - the 1995-96 title-winning campaign; he managed to keep enough of a rein on a youthful Eric Cantona to allow him to win a France cap while in Burgundy; and more recently he helped guide Jean-Alain Boumsong, Djibril Cisse, Philippe Mexes and Olivier Kapo into the professional world after they had emerged from the once-prolific AJA youth academy.
Fernandez's success in the difficult post-Roux period was based on a similar recipe to that of Roux, with Benoit Pedretti rediscovering the talent he had shown under Fernandez at Sochaux before losing his way at both Marseille and Lyon, while Poland international forward Ireneusz Jelen, once of unfashionable Wisla Plock, provided the goals. With Jelen injured for much of last season - the Pole has a temperamental back - Pedretti's sharp passing was of little use. The departure of the pair last summer for Lille, where Pedretti continues to flourish and Jelen continues to enjoy the comforts of the treatment room and the subs' bench, did nothing to help.
Neither did last summer's appointment of Laurent Fournier, who is one of the most delightful men in football but not suited to the rebuilding job required in Burgundy. "He just doesn't have the required charisma," David Crossan, a Paris-based Ligue 1 commentator, explains. "You have to be able to capture the attention of that dressing room when you walk in. Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc, Jose Mourinho can all do it. Fournier's just a nice guy."
Roux recently chipped in helpfully: "Laurent Fournier's not made for top-level football."
The former PSG coach is also a man who can enjoy his spell out of the game with a year's salary as compensation after being replaced by the equally non-descript Wallemme, the former Lens and Coventry City defender, who is combining his duties with those of being Congo coach. There has been some improvement, with the Brest win taking the team's tally to seven points from the six games Wallemme has been in charge, and he certainly has gone through the gamut of strategies to try to make his team sit up and take notice of their predicament.
Wallemme led his squad on a tour of a local prison last month. "It's the kind of experience that leaves its trace," he said. "I wanted to show them what a chance it is to be free, and that they should put themselves 100% into their work. When you're in there it's man to man. No-one was talking about cars, money and girls."
It seemed to do the trick for a spirited 1-1 draw with PSG. Given that no team with 29 points or fewer going into that stage of a Ligue 1 season has saved itself, Wallemme must have figured he needed to shock his team into action some more to get that 'Get of jail free' card, so he traipsed them round a poultry abattoir last week - the result was the slaughter of Brest.
For all Wallemme's efforts, getting highly-paid, wilful footballers to consider the finer points of human and animal existence is tough, but they have a reminder every day when they head into training that they have the livelihood of the club's office staff, 40% of whom have been told they will be sacked if the club is relegated, on the instep of their so far misfiring feet.
The players, though, are not the only ones to have made a mess of things with a recent boardroom putsch, involving Roux, making life off the field at this habitually tranquil club less than hospitable. Perhaps that off-the-pitch turmoil can explain the club's errant transfer policy last summer.
The players likely to replace Pedretti and Jelen, ex-West Ham man Edouard Cisse and Tunisian forward Issam Jemaa, have failed to do so, with Jemaa already loaned out to Brest in January. Add to that the highly-rated Delvin Ndinga sulking after his move to Lyon last summer fell through, and stir in the dips in form of Kenyan forward Dennis Oliech, sent off at Nice recently when a referee thought a four-letter outburst in English was directed at him, and Mali international Alain Traore, and it adds up to a barely half-baked season.
Surprisingly, Auxerre have scored goals - they have struck six more times than seventh-placed Toulouse, for example - but their inability to keep teams out at the other end has meant potential matchwinners have brought only a point. If only a handful of their 13 draws this season could have been turned into wins, they would be safe. The truth is that the squad, which also features ex-Liverpool man Anthony Le Tallec and former Chelsea youngster Ben Sahar, is simply not good enough.
"You can't turn a Twingo into an Aston Martin," Kapo said, having failed to prove himself Auxerre's answer to James Bond after returning to the club last summer. "If we save ourselves, we're going to have a good laugh."
Even Britain's top fictional spy may not be able to stem the tide now, however. "I still believe we can stay up, but - in my heart of hearts - it's over," Roux said. "We have a terrible run-in." Fellow strugglers Dijon are up next, followed by dogged Bordeaux and Marseille - who admittedly are woefully out of form - before a final-day date with Montpellier, when both teams' fates may still hang in the balance.
And what if their 32-year stint in the top flight should end? The outlook is bleak.
"If you look at the way they are set up, the stadium, the town, there's no reason they should come back up. Look at Monaco and Lens, for example, and how they've struggled in Ligue 2. It doesn't bode well," Crossan says. "Guy Roux is in charge of their youth set-up now, so perhaps some good young players will come through, but how many have done so in recent years?"