Montanier warming to Liga challenge
© AFP

Taking his place in the Real Sociedad dugout almost a decade after fellow countryman Raynald Denoueix did so, French coach Philippe Montanier is currently acclimatising to life in La Liga. And as he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview, with only two years’ experience under his belt at the highest level the former goalkeeper was almost as surprised as anyone when the call came from the other side of the Pyrenees.

“Seven years ago I was in the CFA (the fourth tier of the French league system) with Boulogne-sur-Mer and my immediate objective was to win promotion to the Championnat National,” said the smiling Montanier. “And after two years with Valenciennes in Ligue 1 here I am with a Spanish team, in a league that many people regard as the most competitive there is.”

As Montanier went on to say, however, coach and club seem to be made for each other: “It was pretty amazing because I wasn’t expecting to get the call from a Spanish side, least of all La Real. It’s all been very straightforward, though. We spoke about the way I work and the club, and a deal was struck without much fuss - so much so in fact that I feel the club fits my philosophy and my outlook on life perfectly.”

Montanier is indebted to Denoueix, who coached the txuri-urdin from 2002 to 2004, for blazing the trail to San Sebastian. “There’s no doubt that I’m partly here because of the good impression Raynald created as a coach and as a person, not to mention the good results he got,” said the latest Frenchman to sit in the Real hotseat. “I think they were looking for someone with a similar profile, and I think that was one of the things that swung it in my favour.”

Yet there is more connecting the two men than their respective associations with the Basque outfit, their paths having crossed at Nantes in the 1990s.

“He was on the coaching staff, though I’d almost go as far as to call them ‘career advisors’ because they made me want to take up the profession,” explained Montanier. “Even though we’ve taken different paths, I’ve identified with a lot with what he said.”

Montanier has many good reasons to draw inspiration from a coach who masterminded the Basque side’s most successful league campaign since their back-to-back championship triumphs in 1981 and 1982. In the first of his two seasons at Real, Denoueix exceeded all expectations by taking them to the top of the table, the Basques only relinquishing their lead to Real Madrid’s galácticos with the finish line in sight.

Montanier’s stay at Nantes was restricted to a single season as an understudy in 1990/91, time enough, however, for him to gain an appreciation of the cultured style the club is known for: “I can’t say I’ve made my teams play the Nantes way, like Jean-Claude Suaudeau or Denoueix did, but what is true is that I like to put out teams that control possession, that play the ball short and on the ground.”

The disciple applied those principles in his two-year tenure at Valenciennes, and not without success, the French press dubbing his team the “Barça of the North”, a nickname he did not appreciate at all.

We spoke about the way I work and the club, and a deal was struck without much fuss - so much so in fact that I feel the club fits my philosophy and my outlook on life perfectly.
Philippe Montanier, Real Sociedad coach.

His first contact with the real Barça came only a few days ago, the experience proving to be a positive one for the Frenchman, as his new charges fought from two goals down to force a 2-2 draw against the all-conquering champions at the Anoeta.

Though delighted by that performance, Montanier knows that the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid are operating on a different level to Real Sociedad.

“They’re untouchable, but if you want to climb the mountain, you can’t let yourself by overawed by how high it is,” he said undaunted. “These are exciting challenges and they’re very difficult to overcome, but I think there are lot of my colleagues back in France who would love to swap places with me, even if the task I have here is an extremely tough one.”

Montanier’s arduous new assignment is also the fulfilment of a childhood dream, the French coach taking the reins at a club where the legendary goalkeeper Jose Luis Arconada stood tall for a decade and a half.

“I first heard about Real Sociedad in the 1980s because my goalkeeping hero was Arconada, the best in Europe to my mind,” he explained. “In France he’s unfairly remembered for letting in that Michel Platini shot,” he added, in reference to the free-kick that squirmed under Arconada’s body in the final of the 1984 European Championships between France and Spain, an error that set the French on the road to victory.

As Montanier went on to explain, his goalkeeping background is unusual for a coach, in Spain at least: “People are a bit more surprised by it here than they are in France, where you have keepers-turned-coaches like Alain Casanova, Elie Baup and Gerard Gili. But there’s a simple explanation, and that’s the fact that keepers are in charge of their defences, and they have a great view of the opposition and the game in general.”

Another person with a big part to play in Montanier’s upwardly mobile career is his mentor, the recently retired and vastly experienced French coach Robert Nouzaret. It was Nouzaret who gave him his first playing opportunity at Caen in the late 80s and who later taught him the ins and outs of coaching, an education his pupil remains grateful for.

“He was my role model, I really wonder what I would have done if I’d never met him,” pondered Montanier. Maybe I’d have stayed in Pacy-sur-Eure (where he began his playing career) doing social work. He’s always been a hugely important figure, and always will be.”

An integral part of his brief at Real Sociedad is to show the same kind of confidence in his players that his mentor once showed in him, a potentially key aspect in the club’s bid to return to the pinnacle of Spanish football without compromising their proud traditions.

“As was the case with Raynald, they want to nurture the home-grown ethic and open the doors to young players from the academy,” said Montanier. “To achieve that they need a coach who has experience of giving youngsters a start in the top flight and helping them develop.”

La Real’s ambition in that respect is perfectly encapsulated by another Frenchman, the highly promising attacking midfielder Antoine Griezmann.

“He’s got the talent and the quality,” said his new coach approvingly. “He had a great debut season in La Liga last year, but that was only the start and the hardest thing is to kick on and establish yourself. There will always be lots of young players who shine for just one season, but there are a lot fewer players who shine for ten.

“I hope Antoine is one of them,” he continued. “He needs to keep on moving forward and developing here. And if there comes a day when he really is too big for La Real, he’ll go elsewhere and will have what it takes to success at a very big club.”

Before that happens, however, Montanier will be hoping to succeed in his own mission: to restore Real Sociedad to their place in the elite of Spanish football.