Saturday, December 28, 2013

Above those threatened with relegation was the vast comfort zone of the mid-table clubs. Comfort for some, distress for others. Some were rising, others went the opposite direction. Paris SG so far was unable to materialize its ambitious project – the club spent money, bought players year and year out, but so far they were no more than mid-table club. This year they finished 11th , not a surprise. Bordeaux and Lyon, endangered by relegation and only dreaming of the 'comfort zone', presented opposite cases: Bordeaux finished low, but they already started their new team.

On the surface, it was a rag-tag team, combining rising players like Giresse and Bergeroo, dependable foreigners like the German Gernot Rohr and the Swisse star Jeandupeux, and various 'hit and miss' players of little note. The club was still searching and trying to find the right formula – they added the well respected Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Tokoto, formerly of Paris SG, loaned for the spring half of the season Spanish striker, Alfredo Megido Sanchez, from Real Betis. No results yet, but the seeds of the great team of the early 1980s were planted.

Lyon was the opposite case – their solid team of the first half of the 1970s inevitably aged, key players were retiring one after another, but the club missed the right moment for rebuilding and was hit hard as a result. A new team was practically started in 1977 and the jump-start was rather lame.

This is the squad with which Lyon finished the 1976-77 – pretty much the same team struggled in 1977-78, memorable largely for their unusual red kit. Domenech departed for Strasbourg, the rest were at hand. Aime Jacquet was hired to coach them – 36 years old, at the beginning of his illustrious career, and, at the time, a big risk. Young, inexperienced coach is always closely scrutinized and found at fault... but, on the other hand, the choice was right: building a new team needed a coach with fresh ideas. Whatever these ideas were, the new recruits were hardly the kind of players to carry them on. The 30-years old Yugoslavian defender Rajko Aleksic was good, but neither a big star, nor in his prime. He played for Yugoslavia in the very distant 1968, during the successful European Championship campaign of his country. He played a total of 2 games and was never called again. Hardly the player able to propel Lyon to glory. The other recruit came from Strasbourg – there is confusion about him, for some sources tell he came to Lyon in 1977, others say 1978 – in order of invigorating the midfield. The name is Giora Spiegel. A 30-years old Israeli of modest abilities. It was not really a start of a new team, rather the cleaning of the stable was not finished yet.

The third club to drop significantly down was Saint Etienne. Surprisingly, they finished 7th. Not a factor in the championship, although the team still won 18 of their 38 fixtures. They lost 14,though. A crisis? It was inevitable – the great squad of Robert Herbin was old as a squad. Same players for years, hardly going to become stronger if the future, very familiar to every other club in France, may be tired. Herbin made small, well thought changes, but the team reached its peak in 1975 and it was time for radical change. The problem was classical – individually, the players were old, save for a few, they were well tuned to each other, there was no reason to touch a winning team with reserves, who had played for France. No reason, as long as they were winning... but they were not winning, the signal was clear, and it was just a matter of coach's vision and bravery.

Not a team of losers... the very problem! The policy of carefully made small changes exemplified by Zimako – a squad like that perhaps had no room for anything radical, just a new player now and then. Almost automatically one dismisses the very thought of replacements – replace who? Only Farison was at retiring age... But... Merchadier and Repellini reached their peak a few years back and by 1977-78 were more or less reserves. Rocheteau, P. Revelli, and Santini were missing scoring opportunities for years and everybody knew it. It was high time for something larger than inclusion of one new player because somebody retired. It is debatable whether rebuilding had to begin an year or too earlier, but now the signs of decline were sharp. There was no time for waiting, hesitating, giving one more chance – it was now or never. It was painfully sad to see these players gone, but there was no other option, if the club wanted to stay on top. Lyon was scary reminder of what procrastination leads to.

Three clubs went the opposite direction – Strasbourg, Monaco, and Bastia. Ascending fast. Which one was the most surprising is difficult to distinguish. The first two no long ago played in the second division. Bastia was no stranger to second level football and when playing in first division was unimpressive squad, living dangerously near the relegation zone. But they made the biggest French transfer in the summer of 1977, getting one of the top world stars Johnny Rep from Spanish Valencia. His impact was immediately felt as if the not-so bad team was spurred.

Descent team even without Rep – Ognjen Petrovic, Larios, Guesdon, Orlanducci, Vezir – but with the added class of the Dutch forward, Bastia experienced perhaps their greatest ever season. They reached the final of the UEFA Cup and climbed to 5th place in France. Not a title contenders, but coming close. One of the nicest surprises of the season. The only question was about the future – were they able to keep their best players and preserve good form? Or were they to be one-time wonder.