FootballFootball LeagueLigue 1

Rudi Garcia faces angry fan backlash as he embarks upon Lyon rescue mission

October 18, 2019January 6th, 2022

LYON'S social media team could not have wished for a greater level of engagement with the tweet that they put out on Monday afternoon to announce Rudi Garcia’s appointment as head coach, but it was probably not quite what they had in mind.

“DELETE” was one common response. Others went for “DELETE CLUB”. Several people replied with photoshopped pictures in which the Lyon hierarchy – president Jean-Michel Aulas and sporting director Juninho Pernambucano – had been made to look like clowns. Rival supporters took huge pleasure in posting video clips of Garcia criticising Lyon during his time as Marseille coach. There were also helpful reminders that he had previously worked for their sworn enemies Saint-Étienne. Within hours of the club’s initial post, the hashtags #GarciaDemission (#GarciaResign) and #GarciaOut were proliferating.

Garcia may have won the Double at Lille, steered Roma to consecutive second-place finishes in Serie A and taken Marseille to the Europa League final, but the consensus among Lyon’s fans was clear: they did not want him. Matters were scarcely helped during his introductory press conference when he hesitated while pronouncing the name ‘Olympique Lyonnais’, his mouth automatically forming the ‘d’ of ‘de Marseille’ before he hastily corrected himself. “Olympique d- Lyonnais,” was the fudged end result.

Garcia’s wobble was perhaps understandable – he had, of course, spent the previous two and a half years as head coach at Marseille – but for Lyon’s fans it was further proof that he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Most of their reproaches centred around the manner in which he had tried to undermine Lyon during Marseille’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to snatch a Champions League place from OL’s grasp in the second half of the 2017-18 season.

On several occasions, Garcia publicly declared that Lyon were benefiting from favourable refereeing decisions (a common refrain in French football), to which Aulas responded in characteristically forthright manner on Twitter. The Lyon president branded Garcia’s comments “intolerable” and “unacceptable” and at one point retweeted a tweet by a Lyon fan who had called the Marseille coach a “cry-baby”.

There were a few awkward smiles when the subject came up during Wednesday’s unveiling press conference, but both men did their best to draw a line beneath the affair, with Garcia using the opportunity to have a sly dig at Aulas’s Marseille counterpart, Jacques-Henri Eyraud, over the lack of public support he felt he had received during his time at the Vélodrome.

“It’s better to have president Jean-Michel Aulas with you than against you,” Garcia smiled. “As a professional, I defended my colours and my institution because I felt like I was the only one who could do it. Today, with the charisma of ‘Juni’ and the experience of president Aulas, I won’t need to do that as much.” Aulas approvingly dubbed Garcia “a fighter”.

Garcia was initially the second favourite for the job. The expectation was that Lyon would turn to Laurent Blanc, who has been out of work since leaving Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2016. Jocelyn Gourvennec, the former Guingamp and Bordeaux coach, was also in the mix, while Juninho is known to be a fan of Jorge Sampaoli. But Garcia reportedly made a much better impression than Blanc during his interview, impressing Aulas, Juninho and club advisor Gérard Houllier with his detailed knowledge of the Lyon squad and his plans for the first XI, as well as the fact that he was prepared to work with the club’s existing back-room staff.

The 55-year-old takes over from Sylvinho, whose failure to get to grips with his role saw him sacked after just four months. The former Arsenal left-back won his first two Ligue 1 games in stylish fashion – 3-0 at Monaco, 6-0 at home to Angers – but then the wheels came off.

Eager to address the defensive shortcomings that frequently proved Lyon’s undoing last season, Sylvinho introduced cautious tactics that did not suit the naturally attack-minded players in his squad, notably instructing adventurous full-backs Léo Dubois and Youssouf Koné to play with the handbrake on. He arrived promising to play in a dominating 4-3-3 system, only to switch to a safety-first 3-5-2 formation whenever the stakes were raised, and he struggled to accommodate last season’s top scorer Moussa Dembélé and €25 million new signing Jeff Reine-Adélaïde.

Lyon recorded an impressive 2-0 win away to RB Leipzig in the Champions League, but their league form has been disastrous. They have taken only three points from a possible 21 – the worst form in the division – and were left just a point off the foot of the table in 14th place after losing 1-0 to Saint-Étienne in the Derby du Rhône before the international break.

“We only have nine points in the league, we’re one point off the bottom, but above all, I think we’ve lost the foundations that Bruno [Génésio] left us last year,” said Juninho.

“We’ve stopped playing, we’ve stopped creating. And I also think that the changing room wasn’t necessarily under control. That’s what made us decide to make a change. It’s not easy, because I’m the one who chose Silvio [Sylvinho]. I don’t doubt that he will succeed, but maybe it wasn’t the right time and maybe I also lacked experience with my choice.”

Juninho has been fulsome in his praise of Garcia, saying that he felt “a real football connection” with him and asserting that the pair “speak the same language”. Garcia has given few indications regarding the kind of football he wants to see Lyon play, but said his first objective was to meet the players individually to find out “what they’ve got in their bellies”.

He begins on Saturday with a home game against his former club Dijon. A mixed reception is probably the best that he can hope for and he will not need reminding that when Marseille old boy Mathieu Valbuena returned to the Vélodrome with Lyon in September 2015, having crossed the same divide that Garcia has just traversed (albeit with a stint at Dynamo Moscow in between), the fans of his old club reacted by hanging an effigy of him behind one of the goals.

Fans can be slow to forget when the OL-OM rivalry is concerned. But if Garcia can get Lyon back on track, their supporters might be a little quicker to forgive.