Montpellier were twenty minutes late. Needing only a draw to secure an astonishing Ligue 1 title in 2012, players of title rivals PSG stood huddled around a television screen in Lorient after a 2-1 win watching the final quarter of the pivotal encounter in Auxerre play out. Although every game in the final round is scheduled simultaneously, Auxerre ultras, infuriated by the financial issues that had already seen their club relegated had staged a protest that saw scores of tennis balls, rotten tomatoes, toilet paper and melons thrown on to the pitch at the Stade de l‘Abbe-Deschamps. “You are the shame of these last 32 years!” read one banner, a sentiment largely directed at club president Gérard Bourgoin but also at their players, including 21-year-old centre back Willy Boly.
Having broken into the first team the previous year, Boly assumed a prominent role in a disastrous season for Auxerre, but the young defender’s individual displays remained admirable, regularly standing out despite poor results. Despite his obvious physical stature, a burgeoning keenness to hit sweeping passes and start attacks, as has been the case with Wolves, was already evident. Boly later explained; “I really like to play this way, where the centre backs have to go out to play, where the team likes to have the ball. For me, it is not more difficult to play this way. I like and want to have the ball.”
Born in Melun, an hour south of central Paris, Boly’s football education was one of the best French football can provide, training as a teenager at the famous Clairefontaine National Football Institute. Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Kylian Mbappé, William Gallas and Blaise Matuidi to name a few, are all counted among Clairefontaine’s more illustrious alumni. At the age of 16, Boly was spotted by Auxerre where he was swiftly promoted to the senior side before signing his first professional deal in 2011.
“I’m blossoming well at this club,” said Boly at the time, but his ambitions were clear, “but I aim for another level. It’s a personal project. Because the most important thing is to play in a big club and play big competitions like the Champions’ League.” Impressing at youth levels and throughout his brief Ligue 1 spell, Boly represented France across the junior ranks and was, as then coach Éric Mombaerts said, only kept out of a competitive under 21s side by Raphaël Varane and Eliaquim Mangala.
Eye-catching performances in Ligue 1 and boundless potential led to wide-ranging interest from across the continent as Auxerre dropped into Ligue 2, but the young Boly’s experience descended into attitude issues and poor form. Despite being a prize asset, then manager Bernard Casoni stating he might have to leave to fill the hole in the club’s finances that contributed to their relegation, Boly fell out of favour in January 2013 as negotiations with Parma eventually fell through. Boly then informed Casoni later that year he was not in the right frame of mind to play against Valenciennes, after another failed round of talks with Parma.
Rumours of numerous possible routes out repeatedly evaporated over Boly’s two seasons in the second division, notably when a €5m agreement with Fiorentina came to nothing, as Bourgoin demanded a higher fee. Meanwhile disciplinary issues resurfaced, as then Auxerre coach Jean-Luc Vannuchi “decided to exclude him until further notice” after he arrived late for training and did not follow his coach’s instructions before a supposed refusal to play for the reserve side saw miss out on the first team squad towards the end of 2013/14 campaign.
Nevertheless, in recent seasons, Boly has matured somewhat while Cédric Hengbart, a teammate at Auxerre, insisted in L’Équipe that Boly was able to handle the transfer speculation in training, explaining “he never let it show, he remained very professional”. However there is certainly another unusual side to Willy Boly. In a strange turn of events for a promising footballer at youth level, holds a “BacS”, roughly the equivalent of top grade A-levels, in Maths and Sciences, while he impressed coaches in Liga Nos by swiftly grasping Portuguese upon joining Braga in 2014 and speaking quasi-fluently with his colleagues, an intelligence perhaps reflected in his style of play.
When Boly eventually moved to Portugal in 2014, he did so for no direct monetary exchange, despite Auxerre’s initial demands, they received no transfer fee for Boly, merely a sell-on percentage clause. However, Boly struggled to assert himself in Portugal. For much of the 2014/15 season, the Frenchman found himself as a Braga B team regular, playing in Portugal’s lower divisions. Fortunately, his attitude towards turning out for a reserve side had evolved since his Auxerre days. “It was a difficult situation for me and I was not going to be happy for the B team,” explained Boly, “inside I forgot everything. It was important for me to play well when I was called to B team to show what I can do for the coach and the A team.”
That attitude proved essential, as Boly, impressing incoming manager Paulo Fonseca after centre-back Aderlan Santos departed, played his way into the Braga senior side. Within a year, Boly had joined Porto, a protracted move due to Boly’s high wage demands, having rejected Wolves before eventually joining them a year later following a failure to establish himself at the Dragao.
Given Boly’s impressive debut season in England, showcasing his ability to bring the ball out from the back, sometimes a little too much, holding onto the loanee Frenchman will likely be near the top of Nuno Espirito Santo’s summer to-do list. Although Nuno might have to spend an eight figure sum to secure a permanent move, given Boly’s ingrained keenness to constantly improve and play at the highest possible level, he would undoubtedly relish a jump to Premier League football.
What’s more, making that step with a club clearly on an upward trajectory, where he is already established, stability will also be a crucial element in terms of furthering his own development. Whether he stays or not, dodging tennis balls and rotten tomatoes should remain a distant memory.
by Adam White