Such is Guy Roux's standing in France that the recent decision taken by the French Professional League (LFP) to refuse him a coaching license on the grounds that he is too old provoked a feverish nationwide debate. At 68 the former AJ Auxerre stalwart, who announced a shock return to coaching with RC Lens last month, is three years over the age limit specified in the LFP's football charter.
Roux has received support from many corners, including the weighty backing of France's new president Nicolas Sarkozy and the case looks set to rumble on for several more weeks, with Lens appealing to the National Olympic Committee. Yet in truth, observing Roux put his new players through their paces at La Gaillette provides ample evidence that the charismatic, durable and highly-successful coach remains very much up to the task.
'I surprised myself'
As the rain teemed down in northern France this week, Roux's squat, unmistakable figure buzzed about Lens's training pitch with the energy and enthusiasm of a first-year novice. Many questioned the wisdom of returning after a two-season absence, having previously served Auxerre for 44 years, but coaching is in Roux's blood. He is in his element cajoling players on the training ground or bellowing instructions from the dugout, and depriving himself of such obvious pleasures ultimately proved too great a sacrifice. "People were surprised I came back and I even surprised myself," Roux told uefa.com. "
I never thought I'd coach another club. But earlier this summer, just as I was feeling a little melancholic, I received an offer to coach again. I realised then that I wanted to return. It was very sudden. Some men have a mid-life crisis and start chasing younger women. I'm experiencing my second youth with a football."
Roux's love affair with the profession began in 1961 when he was appointed player-coach at Auxerre aged 23. He famously guided the club from the obscurity of amateur football to the glamour of the UEFA Champions League, before resigning after their fourth Coupe de France triumph in June 2005. Since then he has performed the dual role of head of youth development at Stade de l'Abbé Deschamps and commentator for French television, but neither Roux nor his successors - Jacques Santini and Jean Fernandez - have felt entirely comfortable. "I was casting too much of a shadow," Roux conceded. "Auxerre must move on and they will find that easier to do without me hanging around. I enjoyed working with the kids, and commentating on Ligue 1 games, but I still felt distanced from the real action."
'A fantastic welcome'
By joining another club so late in his career, Roux accepts he is taking a risk. He will no longer go down in history purely as the loyal, one-club man who performed miracles in Burgundy, and his reputation as a master tactician will certainly suffer should he fail at Stade Félix-Bollaert. "It's a big challenge and of course I'm worried about failing," Roux said. "But there will always be a risk, whatever job you take." So far the experience, albeit just two weeks old, has been positive. "The supporters gave me a fantastic welcome and the players are treating me with respect. They've responded well to the extra efforts I'm demanding from them and I'm confident we can take Lens forward."
While Roux would oversee everything at Auxerre from organising reserves matches to brokering sponsorship deals, his Lens duties will be restricted to coaching the first team. "Football has changed a lot since I started," he reflected. "We never used to have physical trainers or goalkeeper coaches - I did everything. But the technical staff at Lens are extremely competent, and I'm grateful for their assistance." Renowned for his success with young talent, Roux will none the less pay close attention to the club's youth teams. "The youngsters haven't arrived for pre-season training yet but I'll certainly run the rule over their progress. I've already got the most talented ones training with the first team."
UEFA Cup goal
Les Sang et Or only missed out on a UEFA Champions League spot on the final day of last season but Roux, in traditional fashion, was keen to play down expectations. "We're not FC Bayern München or AC Milan," he said. "We'll look to get to 42 points as quickly as possible to ensure we don't go down. Once that goal has been reached we can assess our ambitions again." Roux was involved in almost a century of European matches as Auxerre boss, and already has his sights on Lens' UEFA Intertoto Cup campaign, starting in two weekends' time. "The Intertoto Cup is the perfect preparation for the French season. We'll take it seriously because we want to be in the UEFA Cup, and don't forget..." he added with a glint in his eye. "
Winning a European trophy remains one of my great unfulfilled ambitions."
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