Bernard driving North East revival
Tucked away in the shadow of St James’ Park, a former Magpie takes a sip of his coffee and begins to leaf through one of the Sunday papers in a local cafe. Recognisable to the patrons, and most with a knowledge of football who pass by, Olivier Bernard spent the better part of five years entertaining Newcastle fans -- most notably under the guidance of the late Sir Bobby Robson.
“I wasn’t a big player but I was part of a big team,” Bernard tells ESPN FC, glancing at an article on Sunday’s game between Newcastle and Manchester City. “Looking back, what we achieved as a team, we didn’t win anything but we threatened every single team. We entertained the fans, and did what we could to win games. We were playing attacking football, and that’s what people enjoyed. Every time we were going to restaurants, to the pub, people were buzzing. I had a wonderful time.”
Now 34, Bernard has long since retired following an unfortunate catalogue of injuries. An early exit from the game means he has had to begin planning the next step of his career. For now, that involves working with nearby Durham City AFC, the club he recently purchased.
“I was just about to set up an academy in the North East,” he says. “The two owners came across and showed me the setup. I thought it could be quite a good -- rather than just have an academy -- to have a club and see it from bottom to top.”
Quickly realising the club’s potential for development, Bernard chose to invest his own money in a bid to help raise Durham up England’s football pyramid. “Durham is a city, not a town, and that made the difference,” he explains. “There’s a lot more people in Durham than any other club at that level. The setup is fantastic.”
A graduate of the Olympique Lyonnais academy, Bernard is part of a generation including Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry that emerged from the famed Clairefontaine system in France. Having spent time on loan at Darlington when he first moved to Tyneside, the defender has a unique, and contrasting, blend of experience. “I was born in Paris, then played for Lyon for seven years,” he says. “In terms of academy football I know what it takes to make it, and we’ll look to set up something similar.”
However, by his own admission, simply stocking the side with young hopefuls will not suffice; experience will be complemented by youth as he looks to develop individuals both on and off the pitch.
“I want to get players who went through the net academy-wise at big clubs, players who’ve been released and still got something to give,” he adds.
Happy to talk at length about his playing days, he clearly still has fond memories. And, with a phone book that boasts some impressive names from his past, he won’t rule out asking for assistance from some of his famous friends in order to help his new project flourish.
“I think what’s going to happen is that older players will be coming in to coach for a night or coming to finish their career,” he explains.
However, extensive work is required. In recent years the club have not done well. A playing squad that was once littered with teenagers from the local sixth form college, due to financial difficulties, saw their most notable accomplishment limited to an appearance on Sky Sports News for holding one of the longest losing streaks in English football -- 28 games in fact -- a run they ended against FC United of Manchester in March 2010.
Currently mid-table in the Northern Premier League, it would be understandable if a change in ownership meant a quick departure for those currently involved -- but, surprisingly, that is far from the truth.
“I’m happy with everybody,” Bernard reveals. “My intention is not to make a revolution, but I am a football man and my stamp will be making sure the team is happy, the players are playing well. The club deserve better, that’s what I’m going to try and achieve.”
Still the question remains: With coaching, agency work and a career in the media all relevant avenues of employment, why has Bernard chosen this as his avenue of employment? Simple. “I don't think the area develops enough youngsters,” he states.
His method of youth development is equally as simple. “I believe that players should do repetition,” he says. “For young players it’s about repetition, if you ask the player to play with the ball when he gets older he’ll do it fantastically if you tell him how to play football.”
It is interesting to note the northern twang to Bernard’s French accent. It’s subtle, but still there: a little dip of the north east in his tone that reminds you of his love for the region. For a man who arrived in Newcastle with no connection, he has clearly spent the years in between forging one and speaks with passion about the lower leagues.
How fans of his former club could do with an owner who displays such ambition. His aim for Durham is not just to raise one small football club, but improve the quality across a region of England that once produced Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne.
“I think in the North East there are not enough players in the Premier League and that’s because there are not enough clubs playing higher up,” he explains. “The more clubs that are playing higher up the better for the region.”