Puel to the death for wounded Lyon

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France's most successful team of the modern era may be one defeat from sacking their manager. James Horncastle reveals the extraordinary tale of derby defeat, decline and press wars around the team who won seven straight Ligue Un titles this decade...

History tells us that a dissenter’s best work is often done in the dead of night when the rest of the world is asleep, blissfully unaware of the shady goings on outside their windows on the streets below.

So it proved in Lyon on the morning of September 30. The locals woke up, got dressed, ate their petit déjeuner and headed out to work - only to find no fewer than 50 sinister banners strung up on landmarks around the city, from the Saône and Rhône bridges to the Fourvière district.

The message was unmistakable even to the uninitiated, its thick black lettering leaving an indelible impression both on the canvas and the memory of those who saw the handiwork of a disgruntled group of Lyon supporters, most probably the Bad Gones. “PUEL RESIGN,” read each tawdry banner, their exhibition no longer confined to the virage nord at the Stade Gerland where the artists are also the critics.

Funnily enough, Lyon had actually won the night before. But a 3-1 victory away to Hapoël Tel Aviv in the Champions League wasn’t enough to placate the fans, not after the team’s first defeat to Saint-Étienne in the Derby du Rhône since 1994, not after leaking the most goals in their opening eight games since Caçapa and Patrick Müller were partners in crime at the back in 2002, and especially not after the team’s worst start to a season since the 1995-96 campaign when they would finish way down in 11th place.

Jean-Michel Aulas was now making the role of majority shareholder and voluntary firefighter look interchangeable, pointing his hose here, there and everywhere to extinguish the blaze of rebellion that was slowly engulfing his beloved club.

At 11.35pm after the unlucky loss to Saint-Étienne, he was still at the Gerland addressing between 2,000 and 3,000 Lyon fans who had staged a dramatic sit-in protest at Puel’s sorry reign in charge. “You are letting yourself be influenced by the journalists. By the ones at L’Équipe,” Aulas claimed. “I don’t read L’Équipe. I don’t risk being influenced.”

L'OL lose to St Etienne, and Puel loses his public

That would later emerge to be a white lie, but it seemed Aulas had been desperately fighting Puel’s corner every week for a month, expressing “surprise at the criticism of him”, while also admitting that although “he is not my spiritual heir and the cost of his sacking is not an inconvenience, I think that a change is not the solution right now.”

Aulas would refer to Puel’s “broad shoulders,” the second and third place finishes in Ligue 1, and a first-ever qualification for the Champions League semi-finals. He moved to calm the supporters and encourage the players, just like in December last year when Puel's side were again in the sort of rut that had long been forgotten during the seven consecutive league titles won between 2002 and 2008, preceding his appointment.

Ultimately, even Aulas had to concede something, offering up to the fans a managerial review meeting (scheduled for October 24, then October 26) to decide Puel’s future.  Clearly not one for self-pity, Arsène Wenger’s former Monaco protégé simply got on with the job at hand. “I have not said to myself: ‘Well, if we win here and we win there, I’m staying’,” Puel told L’Équipe.

“Aulas will take the decision that he judges to be best for his club. Lille, Benfica and Arles are the important matches for the construction of our season, not for me. The players mustn’t put themselves in a position where they play for or against the coach.”   

Four wins in a row later, it looked as though the crisis had been somewhat averted going into Sunday’s trip to Arles, the league’s bottom club, a basket case of a team that had sacked its manager, brought him back, sacked him again, signed 18 new players, lost its first eight matches of the season and only recorded its first point of the campaign the weekend beforehand against newly promoted Brest. Needless to say, this was supposed to be the game when Puel put all doubts about his future to rest.

Except Lyon could only draw 1-1, needing a second-half equaliser from Jimmy Briand to spare their blushes away to the Lanterne Rouge. And as if a reminder were necessary, France’s richest club, the one that had spent €110m in the last 15 months alone, was 14th in Ligue 1 after 10 games, admittedly still just seven points behind league leaders Rennes, but occupying an unacceptable position nonetheless.

Puel at Arles: Minging in the rain

Puel could have expected the firing squad, but Aulas saved his Tommy-gun for someone else, training his sights on L’Équipe - and in particular Vincent Duluc, the journalist who had broken a story on Friday that claimed to lift the lid on Lyon’s problems.

Duluc had stunningly alleged that shortly after OL’s defeat in the Derby du Rhône on September 25, Aulas called a meeting with nine senior players in which he asked each of them to vent their feelings on Puel (who, incidentally, was absent). At first no one was forthcoming, but after further encouragement, Cris, the Lyon captain, apparently badmouthed him.

Two days later, Cris is said to have received a phone call from Aulas, who wanted to see him at one of his offices on the banks of the Saône. The veteran Brazilian expected it to be just the two of them, but when he was ushered in Puel was also sat around the table. Before he had time to compose himself, Aulas made the first move. “Cris, I’d like it if you repeat what you said about the coach the other day.”

To say the atmosphere was tense is an understatement. Duluc claims Cris threatened to tear up the contract extension he’d signed only last summer and that his actions there and then supposedly explain why Puel kept him on the bench against Nancy on October 2 despite being 100 per cent fit after a two-month injury layoff.

Circumstantial evidence was provided in an interview Puel gave when he said: “It’s strange with Cris. There are moments when things go super-well between us and other moments when things go less well without knowing why.”

Cris and Puel: "Strange"

And that wasn’t all; for Duluc had yet more ink in his pen, alleging that the existence of a golden parachute payment in Puel’s contract - said to be worth between €7m and €9m - is part of the reason why Aulas has been so reluctant to part with his beleaguered coach, especially after Lyon made a loss of €36m last season.

Duluc also reported that if Puel were to get the sack, his replacement would likely be a foreigner with a working knowledge of French, the favourite being Leonardo with Juninho as his assistant.

After telling Lyon’s fans he didn’t pick up L>’Équipe on his morning paper run, Aulas showed that, on the contrary, he actually read it from cover to cover, calling the accusations false, unacceptable and cowardly before reportedly branding Duluc an “a**hole” on his way out of the press conference.

It was an extraordinary attack and one that L’Équipe countered on Monday morning, declaring their intention to stand by the story while also publishing a sarcastic list of ‘corrections’ such as: “Lyon are not 14th in the table as we are trying to make you believe out of malice; The ‘Puel Resign’ banners which have appeared for some weeks in Lyon and elsewhere were composed by our journalists in an effort to manipulate your supporters.”

L’Équipe concluded its stinging rebuttal by producing an apology of sorts. “Sorry Monsieur Aulas for not being the newspaper of your dreams. Sorry for trying to reveal what you hope to hide or minimise,” wrote Fabrice Jouhaud, tongue firmly in cheek.

The next instalment in this soap opera is fast upon us, as the attention now turns to Wednesday night’s League Cup tie with Paris-Saint Germain, Puel’s last chance to impress Aulas before his eagerly anticipated managerial review meeting.

Asked to comment on his future, Puel quipped: “Lyon is a little Hollywood, but without the H.” Just like Journey, he’ll be hoping that the movie never ends, but goes on and on and on and on, while the Bad Gones throw popcorn as they wait impatiently for the end credits.