Bordeaux currently corked
It's probably fair to say the gruff, tell-it-like-it-is Bordeaux coach Francis Gillot is not a fan of Swan Lake, though you would suspect he does some of his best motivational work wielding a nutcracker. "Instead of playing in ballet shoes, they're going to put on their boots," was Gillot's unambiguous post-mortem of his team's timid surrender to Saint-Etienne in the League Cup last week. The players reacted by putting shinpads on for training. "I didn't make them do it, they felt they should do it themselves," Gillot responded. The unusual move was probably to defend themselves from their irate coach, who has already worked himself into a lather despite only taking over this summer.
The Bordeaux squad have every reason to be afraid. Though they have made a respectable start to the season, Les Girondins have fallen a long way since they won the Ligue 1 title under Laurent Blanc just over two years ago. "If we play like we did against Saint-Etienne, we're going to find ourselves at the foot of the table. If we do a bit better, we'll be mid-table," was Gillot's damning verdict following his team's 3-1 defeat. "I've always said that I had a better team at Sochaux."
Though their coach's last comment will have done nothing to improve morale within the squad, it is hard to argue the case against him. When Bordeaux lifted the title, Sochaux - then under Gillot's first season of tutelage - finished 14th, five points clear of the drop. Fast forward to last season, and while Gillot guided the unfashionable Peugeot-owned club to fifth place and European football, the considerably more chic Bordeaux finished two spots and seven points back.
Gillot was - apparently - fully aware of the mess he was stepping into - "I knew that we would have difficulties" - but perhaps he didn't expect the malaise to run so deep, dating back as it does to the Blanc era. The title win seemed to be the prelude to even greater times at the Stade Chaban-Delmas as Bordeaux led the Ligue 1 table by eight points at Christmas of the following season having reached the knockout stages of the Champions League with startling swagger.
However, as rumours and then the confirmation of Blanc's defection to the national side emerged, the squad seemed to find the whole business rather enthralling. With their attention elsewhere, Lyon ended their European ambitions in the quarter-finals while Marseille eased past to take the title and Bordeaux finished in sixth, 14 points behind the new champions.
Jean Tigana was left to deal with the delicate post-Blanc aftermath, a job that - unsurprisingly given his mediocre managerial track record - proved beyond the former Fulham boss. He actually tried to resign in February this year before - ironically - he finally succeeded in cashing in his hand after a 4-0 home defeat to Gillot's Sochaux. While the seventh-placed finish was Bordeaux's worst in six seasons, Tigana's reputation perhaps doesn't deserve to be entirely tarnished given he too grumbled constantly of the squad's unwillingness to leave their comfort zone.
Gillot now has that task, and with beds of nails for his players likely to be frowned upon by human rights groups, this hard taskmaster has responded by eating into his squad's opportunities to improve their golf handicap. "After a defeat where we showed no fight was I supposed to give them two days off?" inquired Gillot rhetorically after bringing those players not on international duty in for training last weekend, which had initially been slated 'off'.
Those players who were unhappy - wisely - kept their own council, while Gillot must have been pleased with public outbursts from Grégory Sertic and Fahid ben Khalfallah in support of his hard-line stance. "You can talk about any coach you like, but the problem is us," said Ben Khalfallah. "We're sullying the name of the club." Team-mate Jussie urged Gillot to 'name-and-shame' the offenders who were not "able to do what the coach asks of them" while Gillot himself warned: "If we don't manage to make the players change, we'll let them go little by little."
The question is: who would want them? The title-winning side has largely been dismantled already with just a handful of players, such as left-back Benoît Trémoulinas, left at the club. Freshly-installed club captain Jaroslav Plasil, who joined in the wake of the championship triumph, was one of very few Bordeaux players courted by big-name suitors during the summer transfer window, and only the persuasive powers of Gillot prevented the Czech moving to one of Ligue 1's big four - Marseille, Lille, PSG and Lyon - or abroad.
While names such as Marouane Chamakh, Fernando Cavenaghi, Fernando and Yoann Gourcuff have gone out, the list of arrivals has been less impressive, embodied by Anthony Modeste. A striker brought in from Nice, Modeste has lived up to his name in terms of his goals tally, so much so the return of David Bellion from a loan spell at Nice was heralded as almost messianic. The main problem - as ever - is money, and Bordeaux have none. Vincenzo Iaquinta, Amauri and even David Trezeguet were all linked, and then un-linked, with Les Girondins this summer as they tried and again failed to find a prolific successor to Pauleta. The one top-quality summer arrival, Cameroon international defensive midfielder Landry N'Guemo, is hardly likely to set pulses racing.
A frustrated Gillot gave the old chesnut "I'll work with the players given to me" an airing, while Nicolas de Tavernost, president of M6, the TV channel that owns the club, warned things are not likely to get better quickly. "A loss of €17m last season? That's fine. And it'll be about the same this season. The shareholder is willing to absorb that deficit, but we're not Qatari," he said, referring to the new owners of PSG.
If you're happy to lose €34m over two years, what are a few points? The fans, though, are not content, and it takes a lot for the Bordeaux bourgeois to get stirred up in this land of red, white and rosé. De Tavernost's Wikipedia page was hacked into last weekend, and he was described as "the worst director in the history of the club", while a fans group, the Ultramarine, published a press release threatening that they would have "no alternative other than to consider the most radical action at the winter break" if fortunes did not improve.
While the fans sharpen their corkscrews, there is some reason for optimism. A first win of the season - against struggling Valenciennes last time out - is a straw to clutch at, even if Gillot admitted he would have been happy with a draw. With the likes of Plasil, Trémoulinas and goalkeeper Cédric Carrasso, he has the spine of a good squad while plans for a Grand Stade de Bordeaux, a new €170m 43,000-capacity venue, should see supporters installed in their own comfort zones come 2015. For now, though, they are sitting uncomfortably both on an off the pitch ahead of this weekend's game with newly-promoted Evian, which should give some indication of whether the Valenciennes win was a fresh start or a false dawn.
"Last season we beat Brest, and we just had to maintain our form against Monaco and Arles-Avignon," remembers defender Marc Planus. "We didn't do that. We took a point against two teams who were in trouble, and we dropped down again. The match against Evian is fundamental. If we take three points, we could say we've launched our season." If not, Gillot may just swap their training kit for tutus.