By Christian Châtelet
The Ligue 1 season is set to end this weekend with ten top-flight coaches having left their positions in the course of the campaign. In a nation where there have been just 246 top-level coaching changes in the last 71 years, that is a remarkably high figure.
Four seasons ago, a French record was set when nine coaches left their positions during the season - although only seven clubs were involved. However, this season, France has already broken that record, and with ten coaches having moved on, are leading Europe's major leagues in terms of coaching instability.
Traditionally, French clubs have been models of patience, consistently producing good players while coaches were given plenty of time to enforce their ideas without risking the sack. However, for 2004/05, the Primera División, Serie A and the Bundesliga all proved to be safer places for coaches.
For those in charge of French coaching, it is a disturbing development. "Coaching moves have always been a part of French football," said Joel Muller, head of France's coaching union UNECATEF who was sacked as coach of RC Lens on 24 January. "But this season the guillotine has fallen so often that we must ask whether our coaches suddenly became incompetent or if there are other reasons."
Muller was concerned that the lucrative TV rights deal, in which clubs receive funds in accordance to how high up the league they finished, was biting hard. "We don't aim to change the system but we want to make presidents aware that firing the coach is not always the way to climb up the table," he said.
However, while the size of the Ligue 1 TV deal is second only to that of the English Premiership, clubs are still struggling to find funds - and often blaming their coaches when things go badly. Franco-German coach Gernot Rohr, dismissed by OGC Nice on 26 April despite having been regarded as the club's saviour, certainly felt hard done by for this reason.
"Last summer we sold our three best players for €5m," said the coach, who reached the final of the UEFA Cup with Bordeaux. "From that amount, only €2m was reinvested." In such conditions Rohr felt it hardly surprising that he struggled to build a solid team.
However, while some blamed finances, France's longest-serving coach - Guy Roux, who has been in charge at AJ Auxerre since 1963, had another explanation. "The phenomenon is bound to president rotation," he said, referring to a new generation of club presidents who are not club owners.
While the old-fashioned owners tended to be more loyal, the new presidents have characteristically acted decisively at the first sign of problems. This season, the success of early season changes at AC Ajaccio and RC Strasbourg may have emboldened other presidents to ditch their coaches when times were bad.
However, if coaches are dispensible, it is perhaps because there are so many of them. "The coaching market is overloaded," said Muller, adding that he feared the arrival on the scene of "the generation who were world champions in a few years' time won't improve the situation."
Once so calm, it looks like French clubs are starting to take the quick-fix approach to coaching - if results are disappointing, get a new coach. "The value of stability seems to be beyond some directors," complained Muller.
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