Inside a football club – part one: Rising from the ashes
Inside a football club – part one: Rising from the ashes

Philippe Montanier is fresh off the training pitch, the head coach and his Toulouse players having negotiated safe passage through an excitable gaggle of young autograph hunters demanding their toll of signatures and selfies on the forecourt outside the stadium. Now, catching his breath in a small office round the corner from the changing rooms, he is contemplating how best to describe this club’s transformation.

He wonders, briefly, whether the upturn in enthusiasm in this vast corner of south-west France is a natural reaction given lockdowns and pandemic restrictions appear to be a thing of the past. Attending live sport en masse feels an appealing prospect once again. “But it is not just that,” he says. “This is a new team, a young team, playing a style of football people here recognise from a previous era. I played for and against this club in the 1990s and Le TeFeCe were offensive, energetic, attack-minded… as a goalkeeper at Caen, I knew I would be busy when we played here.

“Every club has its own DNA, a style and approach that the supporters demand, which is why it was important we went down this road. I’m a Liverpool fan — Kevin Keegan was one of my favourite players — and there are similarities here with what Jurgen Klopp has done there. I’m not saying I’m our Klopp, but he tapped into what the fans of that club wanted. They buy into what he is doing as a result. That is what has happened here, too. Suddenly we are something fresh, something with which Les Toulousains can identify.

“Life at this club had been so tough. Pretty much for five or six seasons, they had been clinging on in Ligue 1, low in the table and just fighting, fighting, fighting to stay up. Then they were relegated in the first COVID-19 season and all the optimism had drained away. But now, with new owners, a new president, a new team and this philosophy change, people see the trauma has finished.

“Suddenly, there is something to celebrate. Now, more than anything else, we have hope.”

Toulouse are back in Ligue 1 and revitalised under new ownership (Photo: Valentine Chapuis/AFP via Getty Images)

Toulouse are newly restored to the French top flight. The youngest and least experienced team in the division are unbeaten after their first three matches and attacking life at the higher level with all the vim and vigour that saw them establish goalscoring records while claiming Ligue 2 last term. Their corporate lounges are rammed on matchdays. Season ticket sales have gone through the roof. Montanier’s vibrant team — a blend of academy graduates and players innovatively handpicked by a shrewd recruitment department that relies heavily upon data — delight near-full houses at the Stadium de Toulouse these days.

The Athletic has spent time behind the scenes at a club reborn, talking to those who have instigated the upturn in fortunes, and others who have embraced it and are now intent upon maintaining momentum.

This is the first of two articles detailing that revival and how a promoted side, who welcome Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Paris Saint-Germain to the banks of the Garonne at the end of the month, are approaching life back in the French top flight. The second instalment will address the innovative recruitment strategies that have helped spur on the team’s on-field success, and look at how this club is booming in a city often considered a rugby stronghold.

Theirs has been a renaissance instigated on and off the pitch — but it was a metamorphosis kick-started by an American-led takeover.

Damien Comolli starts with a warning. The club president has retired to his office — where the walls are decked with as many reminders of his time working as a scout for Arsene Wenger at Arsenal as mementoes of last season’s Ligue 2 championship — after concluding the weekly heads of departments meeting in the boardroom and is anxious to put the club’s progress in proper context.

“Our culture has not changed yet,” he says. “We are in cultural transition. We’ve turned the ship by maybe 60 per cent, and we want to turn it fully around. It’s not job done, box ticked. Not yet.”

Montanier and Comolli celebrate promotion (Photo: Valentine Chapuis/AFP via Getty Images)

The 50-year-old, a former sporting director at Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, has run the football operation at Toulouse for RedBird Capital Partners since the US-based private equity firm purchased an 85 per cent stake in the club in the summer of 2020. RedBird, founded by Gerald Cardinale in 2014 and whose interests include a $750million (£634.2m) stake in Fenway Sports Group — the owners of Liverpool, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Red Sox — had been exploring the European football market for potential investment opportunities for several years.

Alec Scheiner, a partner in the firm and a figure who had previously helped run the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns, suggested recently they had scrutinised more than 80 clubs in nine countries across 13 leagues. They visited at least 50 of them over four years to gather information. Comolli, who had recently left Fenerbahce, was presented with that hefty dossier when meeting members of the group around the Super Bowl in Miami early in 2020. One of those listed was Toulouse.

The Americans were seeking to buy a club in a dynamic city — economically and demographically — that was blessed with solid facilities, a thriving academy and a local partner with whom they could work. “Le TeFeCe” met all those criteria. Toulouse, with a population of around 800,000, is France’s fourth biggest city and, as home to major players in the aeronautical industry, has a distinctly international flavour.

Its stadium, rented from the city for €1.62million (£1.36m, $1.6m) a year, may be tired but it can accommodate 30,000 spectators and has staged games at Euro 2016, the 2007 rugby union World Cup and, going back even further, the 1998 football World Cup. The current playing staff pass the original, rather weather-beaten mural for France ’98 as they arrive at the ground — as many on bicycles or e-scooters as driving 4x4s — for training every day.

The club’s academy, situated next to the stadium, was placed in the top five of 36 similar institutions in the country last year by the French Football Federation (FFF) and has a long and proud history of producing players who have thrived in senior football at Toulouse and beyond. The fact that Olivier Sadran, a local businessman who had bought his local team in 2001, was keen to retain a 15 per cent shareholding offered a nod to continuity and reassured any locals wary of outside investment. Comolli, born around 100 miles to the east in Beziers, recognised the club’s potential. He could also quickly identify where they were broken.

Toulouse were at their lowest ebb in that summer when the pandemic was at its peak. “I use the analogy that our campus, with our stadium and the training centre for all our teams, is on an island in the Garonne and there are bridges, but those bridges were down,” says the club president. “There had been a catastrophic breakdown in the relationship between the fanbase, the sponsors, the city as an institution — politically and socially — and the club.

“This club represents the region of Occitania, not just the city. Look at the map: there is Bordeaux 200 miles to the north west, Montpellier 160 miles to the east, and then us. Nothing else. Where I grew up, Toulouse was our ‘local’ club. There were Toulouse fans up in Tulle and Aurillac on the Massif Central, into the Pyrenees, in Carcassonne and Narbonne. They used to come here. They were not coming anymore. People were appalled by the constant failure. When Toulouse were relegated (in the abbreviated 2019-20 season) they had the lowest number of points after 28 games ever – 13 – but it had been a car crash in the making for years.”

When the French domestic football season was curtailed early two years ago, Toulouse had secured one point from their last 18 league games. They may have been an opportunity, but they were also a laughing stock.

The revival off the pitch was instigated via a blend of clever marketing, the re-establishment of basic lines of communication and the empowering of a beleaguered workforce. Comolli constantly referenced “community” in his sales pitch with fan groups, sponsors and local student unions — Toulouse is one of the most student-dense cities in France— and stressed a desire to put the club back at the heart of the city in discussions with local government. A PR company, hired from Paris, came up with the slogan “Debout toujours” (“Always standing”).

“This is a club that always recovers,” says the president. “It never lies down.” That defiant mantra caught on and is still inescapable. It even adorns the coffee mugs used by administrative staff at the Nespresso machine outside the boardroom.

The new owners canvassed all members of staff, around 230 people including volunteers and part-time employees, and conducted two-hour interviews with 17 figures — former players, managers, academy graduates, supporters, a sociology teacher specialising in fandom and Sadran — asking them what Toulouse FC meant to them. Some lapsed into English in their feedback, admitting they had come to equate the club with “To Lose FC”. Defeatism had seeped in. They craved a proper structure, a vision, even a discernible playing style into which they could buy after years of desperate mishmashes.

But there was pride, too. Pride in the work of the club’s foundation, overseeing a wide range of projects from stocking local clothes and food banks to coaching in schools and initiatives for the local homeless. Pride in the reputation of the academy. Pride, too, to be Toulousain and to represent Occitania. Those positives have become pillars of the new setup’s “Projet Viola”.

“They wanted a culture based on open dialogue where they could be innovative and not afraid if some of the ideas did not come off,” says Comolli. “A high-performance environment, and a club with a vision. We fed back everything we’d got to them and said, ‘We are going to rebuild the culture of this club, but it’s not going to be done top to bottom. It’s going to be bottom to top. You decide what it is to become’. They have bought into that, hugely.”

Working groups still meet to discuss new initiatives. Externally, a satisfaction questionnaire distributed at the opening Ligue 1 game of this season, against Nice, yielded 2,400 responses. Internally, the ideas box on the counter at the main reception is a reminder this is a process. 

Olivier Jaubert, formerly with Nike and the FFF, runs the commercial and business side of the club, with Comolli overseeing the football operation. There is regular dialogue, too, with the owners in the United States.

Toulouse now comes under the umbrella of RedBird FC, a separate entity to RedBird Capital Partners whose portfolio grows ever more impressive. The fund will add AC Milan to its roster early next month, has also taken a stake in the Indian Premier League cricket team Rajasthan Royals and owns 50 per cent of Zelus Analytics, a sports data business whose input shapes Toulouse’s transfer policy. The club have gladly tapped into their owners’ expertise in the fields of merchandise, media and sport, with the chain of decision-making slick and efficient.

RedBird representatives, initially frustrated by COVID-19 restrictions, have visited Toulouse two or three times since their purchase but there is a company business call once a fortnight, and a weekly football club call. “The operation needs to be self-sustainable, and we are,” adds the club president. “We were even in Ligue 2. We are making money. The owners couldn’t believe that, but last year we made money — a significant profit.

“Now the ambition is to improve the facilities. We are investing money into a new training ground and €1million to refurbish the academy. We want to invest in the stadium, and the municipality are very open to that. The fourth biggest city in France should be able to sustain a top-six club. Just be stressing those messages we were hit by this wave of positivity.

“But, of course, none of that mattered unless we won out on the pitch, and in a way that drew people to us.”

One of Comolli’s first appointments at Toulouse was Selinay Gurgenc as head of strategy and culture.

The pair had worked together at Fenerbahce where Gurgenc — who has a master’s degree in football business from Barcelona’s Johan Cruyff Institute and was a financial analyst earlier in her career — was the sporting director’s assistant. In France, Comolli needed someone to guide his decision-making. A “truth teller”, as he puts it, who would pull him up on his wilder ideas, urging caution where he might have taken the plunge (or vice versa), as well as ensuring the hierarchy’s policies were implemented further down the food chain.

“Selinay is there to challenge me,” says Comolli before adding through a smile, “and she tells me I’m wrong all the time.”

It was Gurgenc to whom Comolli turned when determining how to approach life in Ligue 2. It had quickly become apparent that the trauma of years of failure was too engrained in the playing squad for them to instigate a revival. The negativity was too entrenched, prompting an overhaul of backroom, technical and playing staff. The upheaval was significant. None of the matchday squad involved in last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Lorient had been involved in the first-team setup back in 2020 when the team limped so feebly out of the top flight.

Toulouse were relatively blessed when it came to confronting the second tier so, having spoken to Gurgenc, Comolli adopted a bullish attitude towards that first campaign outside the elite. “We had the biggest turnover, the biggest wage bill, so we agreed we could not say anything other than, ‘We are going to get promoted’,” he says. “I told the players that, if there was a backlash, it was on me. But they had to target going up.

“Maybe the fact we were playing in front of only 5,000 fans due to COVID-19 restrictions helped us rebuild confidence that first season. The players had been booed at every home game the previous year and, this time round, we only had two points after four matches. How would the crowd have reacted if everyone had had access to the stadium? But, with fewer fans in the ground, the players felt they could take risks and try things. Towards the end of September, we beat Auxerre and things sparked.

“That was our first league win for almost a year but, when I came back upstairs to the offices, everyone was quiet and working on their laptops. I couldn’t believe it. So I shouted, ‘So you don’t know how to celebrate? Toulouse is supposed to be a party city, no? We need to have drinks! Everyone in the meeting room now’. So we all piled in there and celebrated a first win in 23 league games. Since then, after every win, all the staff go into the boardroom and celebrate. Sometimes they stay until 4am… it’s starting to cost us a lot, we’ve won so many games.”

Lacour, the academy directory, and Gurgenc, the club’s head of strategy and culture (Photo: Toulouse)

Yet the upturn thereafter was not quite good enough to secure automatic promotion, and a play-off against Nantes culminated in the controversial non-award of a penalty to Toulouse for handball and defeat on away goals over two legs. “That was so painful and still hurts now, and I wanted to go into last season telling the players — telling the world — this is now about revenge,” adds Comolli. “I had tunnel vision. But Selinay and our first-team psychologist, Nodji Myaro, counselled against it. You don’t build a season on frustration. You have to put a positive spin on it. That’s where having people who can shake me and ask, ‘What are you doing?’, is so useful.

“So, at our presentation to the players in pre-season, I just put up a picture of the Ligue 2 trophy on the screen. ‘This is what we are going to win’. We targeted how many goals we’d need to score, how many we could concede, and stressed only the title matters. Promotion is not enough. We wanted to be champions and to do it in a very particular way: to be known as a very attacking team with a very clear playing style. That playing style is the culture, really, and you build all the rest around it.”

There had been a change of coach that summer, with Patrice Garande leaving the club, but the style of play designed to propel the first team out of the division was determined by the one section of the club that had continued to thrive through the senior side’s years of toil.

Toulouse’s academy has always been prolific.

This is the institution that has produced Philippe Mexes and Moussa Sissoko, Alban Lafont and Issa Diop. Images and shirts from former players clutter the walls in the Centre de Formation, situated in the shadow of the Stadium de Toulouse, with as much emphasis granted to those who have forged league careers as others who have progressed into the national setup or established their reputations abroad.

Though 70 per cent of the club’s academy players were born within 30 miles of Toulouse, the catchment area stretches to the fringes of Occitania and the Massif Central, and even to Bordeaux, with around 25 partner clubs as far away as Aurillac supplying them with talent. The main building provides lodging for many of the youngsters on the books. The club reacted to the senior side’s relegation by investing further in their youth section, purchasing a small school a little over a mile away last year where around 50 of the trainees study for their baccalaureate.

The facility is run on a budget of up to €4million a year and its reputation continues to grow. Last season, the under-17s were national champions. The under-16s, under-15s, under-14s and under-13s all won their respective leagues, too, playing a trademark brand of expansive, attacking football along the way. “Our success is based on good coaching and methodology, and a clear style that is established with the ‘Pitchounes’ and now runs up into the first team — rather than the other way round — because our president quite rightly recognises true stability within a club lies in its youth section,” says the academy director, Julien Lacour, hoisting his foot on to a chair. Everything is an effort when you have recently fractured a tibia landing awkwardly from a zip wire.

“The kids here get to play and progress. We have quite a tight group with 120 players across the seven sides — four ‘senior’ academy teams, including the reserves, and then under-13s to under-15s in ‘pre-formation’ — and smaller squads mean everyone is involved. The first-team players train at the same time, eat in the same building and mix with the younger players to offer advice. There’s proper communication.

“It’s a very strong process because the club believes in developing its own talent — it’s something that has always connected us with our fanbase. We aim to have 40-50 per cent of the senior squad made up of players from the academy.” Eight of the current first-team squad were associated with Toulouse’s youth system from the age of 12.

Toulouse players celebrate their promotion back to Ligue 1 (Photo: Valentine Chapuis/AFP via Getty Images)

Like the first-team’s mental coach, Myaro, who was a highly decorated and two-time Olympian handball player for France, Lacour’s background is not in football. He initially excelled at judo, at which he competed to an elite level before spending almost 14 years working in rugby union. Eleven of those were as academy director at Clermont Auvergne, one of the powerhouses of the sport in France. “My role is similar here because we are educating players, as we were in rugby. We offer them an apprenticeship. The boys are learning through trial and error, and we are here to guide them. We feel we are innovative. Avant-gardist.

“But what is clear is this is the heart of the club, and where a playing style that is identifiably Toulousain is established.”

The senior team had offered 183 games to under-23 players over the 2020-21 campaign, more than any other side across France’s elite divisions. So, during the interview process for the new head coach last summer, it was made clear to candidates — initially handpicked according to the metrics put forward by the club’s head of data analysis — that they would have to mimic the academy’s playing style.

“People say Toulouse is the bull horn of Spain piercing into the south of France,” says Comolli. “It’s a very Latin city, and Latin football is highly technical, skilled and attacking. In the interview, I told (Montanier) that his playing style had to be aligned with what the academy was doing, not the other way around. ‘You have to adapt to us’.

“When he left the interview I turned to the head of data and the head of strategy and said he’d never come back. But his agent called within an hour and said Phillipe absolutely loved it.”

“What they wanted fitted in well with my own philosophy,” says Montanier, the former Nottingham Forest, Real Sociedad and Rennes manager who, at the start of a distinguished 20-year coaching career, took Boulogne from the third-tier Championnat National to Ligue 1. “A high press, controlling the game through possession with an emphasis on pushing forward — they were qualities I look to instil in my teams. It felt like a fresh project with a clear objective, to win Ligue 2, and we just had this momentum from the start. In the end, all the objectives the club set us, we met.

“We scored a record number of goals (82). We had the best passer in the division (the young Dutch midfielder Branco van den Boomen), the leading scorer (the Englishman Rhys Healey) and six players in the team of the year. We started the season playing in front of fewer than 5,000 fans and ended it beating Nimes in front of more than 28,000 as champions, and the city came out to celebrate with us at the Capitole. I don’t think that would have happened if we had won the league playing a more restricted style. It is because they identified with us.”

The club shop took as much money on the day of the Nimes game, when they launched their new home shirt for the 2022-23 season back in Ligue 1, as they had over the entirety of the miserable 2019-20 campaign. Montanier chooses not to mention the team also benefited from the coach of the year.

“The challenge now is to step up because we have one of the smallest budgets at the higher level and we play with the youngest squad — the average age is 23.5 — and the least experience,” he says. “But we have started well and that has boosted confidence. And, believe me, we will not be changing our style. We will not betray that work from last season which has seen so many fans buy season tickets. We are attacking this division, just as we attacked the last.”

Those numbers have scaled new heights. The club liaised extensively with fan groups over ticket pricing and, as of last Saturday, had sold more than 13,000 season tickets, a club record. Their previous best, set in 2007-08 after finishing third in the top division the year before, had been 7,500. Nearly three-quarters of this year’s sales were made to new supporters and 65 per cent of season ticket holders are below the age of 35, while sales to women have leapt from five to 18 per cent. That rise in interest should bode well for the development of the women’s team.

Antoine Gerard’s side were quietly successful in their own right last season, beating Monaco in a play-off to gain promotion to the second tier of the women’s game in France. “That was a huge step forward,” says the coach. “The club follow the same approach with the women as they do on the men’s side, promoting young players coached in the system rather than throwing money at everything. We could spend heavily and try and rise as quickly as possible into the top division, alongside Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, but that would block the pathway for our youngsters into the first team. Instead, they rightly want us to use what we have intelligently and try to build, progressively, an ambitious project through our youth and women’s team.

“We feel very much part of the project at this club. Our players are used more and more at the heart of promotional operations. They do more and more media. The president (Comolli) is regularly at youth-team and first-team games. They’ve just put a bit more emphasis on the women’s game since coming in.”

There are 130 registered players within the women’s section, ranging from the ages of eight to 31, who train on-site and play their matches on the all-weather pitch next to the stadium. Average crowds were around 50 last season, but the club anticipate that figure will quadruple over the campaign. Their achievements have been celebrated by the men’s team, with every aspect of this club seemingly on the up.

Montanier’s team face a tough challenge in a division from which four clubs will be relegated this season, but his side have been enterprising to date.

They carved apart a sorry Troyes team in their first away fixture of term, winning 3-0 at a canter. Their home draws against Nice and Lorient have been missed opportunities. Naivety, perhaps inevitably, reared on Sunday with the sloppy concession of two penalties — one well saved by Maxime Dupe — and the late surrender of a lead, but their eagerness to pour forward, all overlapping full-backs and forward-thinking midfielders, is undeniable.

Their approach has already caught the imagination of the division, even if that has left Montanier anxious not to become “just the hit of the summer”.

“But we all feel we are part of something special that is happening,” adds Anthony Rouault, the young centre-half who has progressed from academy centre-half to mainstay of the first team over the past few years. “This is my club, the club my father supported and pushed me towards when I was a boy. In the past, when you were a Toulouse fan, you kept quiet. You did not talk too much about it. My uncle and my cousin were rugby fans and used to tell me that football sucked. But they are interested now.

“There is enthusiasm around the football club. The image of Le TeFeCe is transformed. To have contributed in a little way towards the success the club is now enjoying… well, that means everything. For me and my family. Because to wear this shirt is everything.”

Tomorrow, read “Inside a football club – part two: How you recruit”

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic; photos: TeFeCe)

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