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FEATURE You’re fired! Top 14 follows football’s trend of ‘musical chairs’

You’re fired! Top 14 follows football’s trend of ‘musical chairs’
6 months ago

Big Sam is back! Four words that over the years have struck fear into many English football fans. Sam Allardyce has managed eight clubs in the last 16 years – not including his infamous two months in charge of England in 2016 – which works out at two years per club on average.

That’s not always been the case, mind; At six of those clubs Big Sam was there for less than a season while his stint at Leeds United this year began on 3 May and ended on 2 June – at 30 days, the shortest ever tenure for a Premier League gaffer after failing to keep Leeds up during his four games in charge.

The top-flight of French rugby has in recent years developed a touch of Big Sam-itis. The average lifespan of the Top 14 manager or head coach is also two years; in other words, the 14 clubs this season have on average gone through five different ones in the last decade.

There are exceptions. Toulouse have had just two: Guy Noves – whose trophy-laden 22-year spell ended in 2015 – and since then, Ugo Mola. Toulon on the other hand have seen 10 come and go. One of those was French rugby’s closest approximation to Big Sam – Big Pat, or to give him his full title, Patrice Collazo.

Sam Allardyce
Sam Allardyce kept Sunderland, Crystal Place and Everton in the Premier League but he couldn’t save West Brom or, most recently, Leeds from the drop (Photo Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Given the heave by La Rochelle in 2018, Collazo suffered a similar fate at Toulon in 2021 and also at Brive this summer after less than a year in charge. Three clubs in five years and little to show in the way of success. Toulon was a particular calamity, Collazo alienating the players and the public with his abrasive personality.

One of those players was the French international fly-half Louis Carbonel, who quit Toulon for Montpellier to escape Collazo. Last week Montpellier unveiled Collazo as their new head coach. According to L’Equipe, Carbonel was horrified and wants to be on his way once more.

What possessed Montpellier to recruit Collazo? Leaving aside the Carbonel kerfuffle, this is not a coach with a track record of success, and it would be a brave man to bet on the 49-year-old seeing out his 18-month contract. This is, after all, Montpellier, who have hired and fired seven coaches in 12 seasons.

You remember who owns Montpellier? Mohed Altrad, the billionaire businessman who was in the dock alongside Laporte and was convicted of similar charges. Never a dull moment in French rugby.

Collazo replaces Richard Cockerill, who lasted four months. The Frenchman’s tenure started badly with Montpellier losing at home to Oyonnax last Saturday. They are bottom of the table, 18 months after winning their inaugural Top 14 title. “You can’t just wave a magic wand and change everything,” said Collazo after the Oyonnax defeat. “The task is huge.”

The man who hired Collazo was Bernard Laporte. You remember ‘Crazy Bernie’? In January this year he was forced out as president of the French Rugby Federation after being convicted of corruption. Now he’s come in from the cold courtesy of Montpellier. You remember who owns Montpellier? Mohed Altrad, the billionaire businessman who was in the dock alongside Laporte and was convicted of similar charges. Never a dull moment in French rugby.

The return of Laporte as director of rugby has split opinion among the Montpellier faithful. Some don’t care and wish only to see their club start winning once more. If that means Laporte, then so be it. Others have used social media to express their shame that their club is run by two men with convictions for corruption.

Richard Cockerill
Richard Cockerill left his role as England forwards coach to join Montpellier, but was sacked after just seven games in charge (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Putting to one side Laporte’s off-field misdemeanours, Altrad’s decision to hire him in purely rugby terms is difficult to justify. His last involvement in club rugby was in 2016 when he resigned from his position as manager of Toulon to focus on becoming president of the FFR, which he achieved in December that year.

In his time at Toulon, Laporte oversaw an unprecedented hat-trick of European Cup victories, but the foundations of that success had been laid by his predecessor, Philippe Saint-Andre. It was he who recruited Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman, the heart of Toulon’s remarkable dominance; it was also Saint-Andre who hired the right backroom staff and demanded from the club’s millionaire owner, Mourad Boudjellal, state-of-the-art training facilities.

Are these mediocre journeymen really the right fit for a club as ambitious as Montpellier? It all smacks of a hurried act of desperation by Altrad, rapidly gaining a reputation as the Roman Abramovich of the Top 14

It was Laporte’s idea to hire Collazo as his head coach at Montpellier, and he’s also responsible for bringing in Christian Labit as forwards coach and Vincent Etcheto as the attack coach. Labit left Carcassonne last season after seeing them relegated from the ProD2 to the Nationale (Division Three); Etcheto quit Soyaux-Angoulême in the ProD2 in the summer, saying he needed a change of direction.

Are these mediocre journeymen really the right fit for a club as ambitious as Montpellier? It all smacks of a hurried act of desperation by Altrad, rapidly gaining a reputation as the Roman Abramovich of the Top 14. But it reveals a deeper problem in French rugby: the lack of young coaches coming through the ranks.

As Midi Olympique put it last week, the hiring and firing of coaches and managers is not a new phenomenon in professional sport but rugby “has invented a game of musical chairs played at breakneck pace with managers finding a club often just days after being fired from their old post”. Unfortunately, the chairs are usually filled by the most experienced at the game, adept at making their move as soon as the music stops.

Patrice Collazo
After unsuccessful spells at Toulon and Brive following seven years at La Rochelle, Patrice Collazo is now in charge at Montpellier (Photo Sylvain Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

There are one or two exceptions. Pau are enjoying a superb season and currently sit second in the table behind Racing 92, despite having one of the smaller budgets of the Top 14 clubs (28.2m euros, while Toulouse have the largest with €46.3m). The 45-year-old Sébastien Piqueronies was hired as manager in 2021 but his first two seasons were distinctly mediocre, with Pau finishing 10th and then 12th.

Had Pau conformed to type, they would have sacked him after the mandatory two years. But they had recruited Piqueronies because he had led France Under-20s to back-to-back world championship titles in 2018 and 2019. Their patience is now being rewarded as the structures put in place by Piqueronies pay off.

One hopes Lyon will show similar indulgence to Fabien Gengenbacher, at 39 the youngest manager in the Top 14. He was an elegant and intelligent full-back at Grenoble for many years and managed the ProD2 club for a short while. He was appointed by Lyon in the summer, beating off competition from far more experienced contenders including Jono Gibbes and Michael Cheika.

“I’m constantly learning,” said Gengenbacher, shortly after his appointment. “At Grenoble, I was the manager who’d never managed before, and here in Lyon I’ll be the manager who’s never managed in the Top 14, and in a club like Lyon…I won’t be alone and, with the staff, we’re going to give the players the means to play a part in the project.”

As a society France is much more hierarchical compared to its British and Irish rivals and it’s also more suspicious of youth. Xavier Péméja, currently the manager of ProD2 club Nevers, started coaching with Montauban in 1992. Asked recently by Midi Olympique if young coaches should be given the chance to manage top clubs, he replied: “If they’ve spent 15 years coaching, they can do it.”

If in the next year or two the mercurial Fabien Galthie decides he’d had enough of coaching France, who would replace him?

That narrow-minded attitude explains in part why there are so few young coaches in French rugby. How many talented coaches are being overlooked for the tried and trusted, the Collazos and Labits of this world, who, no matter how unsuccessful they are, keep getting jobs because they do as they’re told and don’t pester the owners with ideas for innovation and evolution?

This cautious conservatism could have ramifications for the national squad, particularly if the FFR adhere to their policy of only having a Frenchman in charge. If in the next year or two the mercurial Fabien Galthie decides he’d had enough of coaching France, who would replace him?

English football was once the same. No matter how many times they were sacked, the likes of Sam Allardyce, Mark Hughes, Alan Pardew, Harry Redknapp and Mick McCarthy would soon be back in the saddle with another club – for a season or two.

A new generation of English football managers has emerged in recent seasons, younger and more innovative: Eddie Howe at Newcastle, Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest, Gary O’Neil at Wolves, Rob Edwards at Luton and Paul Heckingbottom of Sheffield United, all men in their early 40s.

Then there’s 41-year-old Mikel Arteta, a Spaniard but one who has spent most of his football life in England. Had he spent 15 years learning the ropes, he would not be managing Arsenal, the current Premier League leaders. Arsenal took a chance on Arteta four years ago and, crucially, the Gunners allowed him time to construct a squad. They’re now reaping the rewards of their patience.

Montpellier gave Richard Cockerill seven matches before the music stopped and he was left without a chair. Now Collazo is dancing to Altrad’s tune. Bonne chance. 

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