Rene Girard could never be accused of having grand ideas about himself: “I tend to refer to myself as a football labourer”. However, 2012 proved that there was a lot more to the Montpellier coach’s skillset than simple hard graft, as his meticulous preparation and tactics paved the way for the French club to win their first-ever Ligue 1 title.
At a time of year when many in the game of football look back on the previous 12 months and take stock, the ex-midfielder has been reflecting – without any sign of false modesty – on the culmination of a project launched in 2009, when he was handed the reins of a side that had just secured promotion to the French top flight.
“Of course I didn’t think it was all my own doing, no!” he told FIFA.com. “Everyone worked so hard, and it all came down to the players, really. But this game has a way of not letting success go to your head.
"There are some great coaches out there who have won lots of trophies but then find themselves in a tricky period. You have to keep your feet on the ground, but also savour the moments of glory. And so I acknowledge the part I played.”
In fact, Girard would be wrong to play down his role in transforming a team with modest expectations into all-conquering champions. As season 2011/12 kicked off, Montpellier were coming off the back of a campaign in which they had finished in 14th place, and had harboured hopes of snatching a European spot at best.
By the time May came along, and a high-pressure victory at Auxerre on the final day that guaranteed La Paillade a maiden league crown, it would not be an understatement to claim that Girard and his charges had created one of the greatest upsets in French football history.
“I don’t know if that aspect received sufficient coverage,” said the former France international, when asked about the magnitude of Montpellier’s feat. “But I don’t need anybody else to help me to measure what we achieved. Perhaps if Paris Saint-Germain end up champions this year, we’ll get more of the plaudits that should possibly have come our way last year.
“It’s worth remembering that we racked up some impressive stats with only the 14th highest budget in the division, so maybe we did deserve a bit more credit," he continued. "We’ve tried to take in what we did, but outside the club, I’m not sure if the wider football community and the press have truly recognised the scope of our accomplishment. It was an exceptional performance.”
Girard also gives short shrift to the argument that his players’ success was due in part to the failures of supposedly stronger rivals. “For a club like ours, pipping a team like PSG to the French title, after being neck-and-neck with them right up till the last day of the season, is an achievement that is worth its weight in gold,” said the former Nimes and Strasbourg supremo, who at one time was seriously considering leaving the game to become a pub landlord.
“We earned the 82 points that we amassed; nobody handed them to us. Let's be honest, we weren't expected to be crowned French champions. But our campaign and points total, as well as the fact that we had the league’s best defence, one of the best attacks and the top scorer, shows how commendable our performance was, any way you look at it. There may never have been more deserving winners,” he added.
In order to lay the foundations for this victory, Girard worked hard to find the right tools, while attempting to get rid of the team’s previous reputation, that of a battling side that could be overly aggressive. “It’s always the same– it’s difficult for people to get a preconceived image out of their heads,” pointed out the man who assisted Roger Lemerre in France's win at UEFA EURO 2000.
“I’m not going to dwell on the matter, but we showed first and foremost we could play football with quality players, all the while sticking to club values like desire and honesty. People come up to me now and thank me for last season. They turned up at the stadium to be entertained, and they’ve been coming back because they know we play good football. That makes our triumph even more satisfying.”
Sustaining that level of success has thus far proved a significant challenge, however. “It was a great year. The greatest year of my life? I couldn’t say, but I don’t know if I’ll experience any more like it either,” he said.
Girard is aware that, after a tough start to the 2012/13 campaign, the chances of the southern outfit claiming a second title in a row have probably already gone, just as they did in the UEFA Champions League, where Montpellier secured just two points from a possible 18.
“After teams achieve something incredible, there’s often a subsequent drop in intensity,” explained Girard, who picked up three league winners’ medals as a Bordeaux player. “The coach is always partly responsible. At my age and with the experience I have behind me, I’m not the type to blame other people. I’m constantly being evaluated in this job.”
Girard has had to amend some of his coaching methods this season, in particular his pre-match team talks. “For the first few years and especially last season, I would always try to motivate the lads by saying, ‘You haven’t proved anything yet, you haven’t won anything’ to them,” he recalled.
“I wasn’t trying to provoke them or be ironic; it was the truth. The trouble is, I can’t use that type of team talk anymore. They did win something, and they proved that they could become champions of France. So now I’ve had to find other ways to get them going, to take a different approach, so that everyone regains their focus,” he said.
Girard is convinced that hard work is the key to turning things around, and concluded on a measured note: “When it comes down to it, these changes won’t bear fruit overnight.
"This is a job where you can quickly be put under scrutiny, and where everyone has a tendency to press the panic button. Personally, I’m just focusing on the task at hand, and ensuring we put our noses back to the grindstone.”