Christian Gourcuff has left his imprint on the history of French club Lorient like no other coach in the last 30 years. A guiding light at each stage of the Brittany side’s development during his three separate spells, he has steered Les Merlus (the Hakes) from amateur status to Ligue 1, all the while bringing a number of shining young talents to wider prominence.
Aged just 27 when he first took the Lorient reins in a player-coach capacity in 1982, Gourcuff already possessed strong convictions and a clear vision of the style of play he hoped to introduce. “The important thing is how you achieve a result,” he told FIFA.com, having remained faithful to that idealistic outlook in the intervening years. “That’s why we play sport. I’m not saying that results are secondary, but it’s the means rather than the ends that make football beautiful.”
Lorient had just been promoted to France’s sixth tier when Gourcuff first took over and four years later they were enjoying the dizzying heights of the second division. The methods of their bright, young tactician, based around movement and short passing, were clearly working wonders, and, after five years away, he returned to take up a full-time coaching role in 1991.
This time, Gourcuff stayed for ten seasons and stabilised the club before pulling off another remarkable feat. “The 1997/98 season was exceptional,” he recalled. “We had the smallest budget in Ligue 2, but the quality of our football and our team spirit was extraordinary. It was almost unreal when we achieved promotion to Ligue 1.”
Relegation followed swiftly the next season, but Gourcuff had by no means had his last taste of life in the elite. He harboured a burning sense of unfinished business, in fact, having never got a chance to test his skills in France’s elite division during his days as a No10. He admits now that “that frustration is a driving force” in his daily life as a coach and educator.
Back at the top
Gourcuff left for Rennes in 2001, but results proved disappointing during his stint with Lorient’s Brittany rivals. “It was clear that I needed time, not least to introduce the style of play I’d been recruited to implement,” he explained, underlining how “the success enjoyed by Arsenal and Barcelona at the highest level in recent years is down to stability.”
I’m not saying that results are secondary, but it’s the means rather than the ends that make football beautiful.
He eventually received the time he desired after taking the Lorient helm for a third time in 2003, following a brief adventure in Qatar. Back with Les Merlus, he began work on an extensive rebuilding programme which bore fruit when the club attained promotion to Ligue 1 in 2006. They have not left it since. “There was a long period of years when we achieved a lot with very little. We’re now feeling the benefits of that in terms of being able to work in calmer conditions.”
Gourcuff must nonetheless deal with the challenge of regular turnover, with his attractive philosophy bringing the best out in his players and inevitably attracting scouts to the Stade du Moustoir. Lorient lose key men to the biggest sides in France and Europe every year, and last summer their highest-profile departure was Kevin Gameiro, the France striker joining Paris Saint-Germain after finishing second in the Ligue 1 scoring charts. “Kevin has had a good start to the season, but I don’t think the technical style of either PSG or France really suits him,” said Gourcuff. “He’s a lad who’s great at making runs and getting in behind defences, but he needs a passing style that knows how to make use of his calls for the ball.”
Of all the budding young talents he has brought through the ranks, Gourcuff has a special place in his heart for Bakari Kone, whom he discovered while in Qatar. “He was almost like an adopted son to me,” explained the coach, recalling the Côte d'Ivoire forward who spent seven years in Ligue 1, including two with Marseille, before returning to Qatar. “I don’t think Baky has had the career he should have had.”
Gourcuff’s real son, Yoann, is currently playing for Lyon, whom Lorient will host in December in between away tests at Montpellier and Marseille. The encounter is sure to be an intriguing one, but Gourcuff Sr is wary of these peculiar family reunions. “It’s not something I like very much, but unfortunately I have to live with it,” he said.
He is also fiercely protective of Yoann, criticising the intense media attention the 25-year-old midfielder has received, particularly two years ago, when comparisons were hastily drawn with Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini. “When they analyse his game, the press always goes too far, whether they’re being positive or negative. Every player is different and you can analyse their faults and qualities without necessarily having to refer back to former players.”
A football coach in addition to being a maths teacher, Platini’s father Aldo no doubt expressed similar sentiments several decades ago...