The audio version of this article can be heard as part of this week’s Onside Inzaghi Podcast.
Lyon are a club in disarray. The disastrous 3-1 home defeat to bottom club Dijon on Saturday afternoon followed Tuesday’s nightmare Coupe de France semi final loss to Rennes - accentuated divisions at an already fractious club. Despite an embattled season after fluctuating results with pressure mounting from both press and supporters, OL coach Bruno Genesio was on the verge of the new contract. But with the club’s seven year wait for a trophy now certain to be extended, Genesio’s contract offer evaporated in the time it took Rennes full back Remi Bensebaini’s winner to fizz past Anthony Lopez. With fans, president and manager now all seemingly on opposite sides, “A week in hell”, as L'equipe’s Sunday morning front page read wasn’t far wrong..
Initially assistant to previous head coach Hubert Fournier, a Lyon native and former OL midfielder, Genesio’s tenure has been characterised by extremes. The highs of marquee domestic wins over PSG, ending unbeaten Parisien campaigns twice in four seasons, a Champions League win at Manchester City in September, plus making the 2017 Europa League semi finals, have been balanced out by catetophoic collapses. An abject 4-1 first leg loss in that Europa League semi to Ajax and repeated struggles against lesser opposition in France have halted progress.
While negative chants and banners aimed at the coach are common, fan ire with Genesio has often spilled into the unsavoury. Forced to end his presence on social media, Genesio was filmed in an altercation with an OL fan before Christmas who reportedly insulted his daughter. "We believe, as we said last season, that only the departure of Bruno Genesio will allow a more serene atmosphere around the club,” a statement from the Bad Gones ultra group read last month, “Without serenity, our club will not be able to reach the summit for which it is intended." With pressure mounting and his contract set to expire this summer, Genesio’s future has been debated all year.
The 52 year old has been in this position before. With fans infuriated at a limp European defeat to Lokomotiv Moscow last March, Genesio seemed to be limping towards an exit with his contract expiring before a dramatic 3-2 win over Marseille and subsequent return to the Champions League revitalised his tenure. Back from the brink, not for the first time, Genesio explained after Memphis Depay’s late headed winner against OM, "there is only one thing inescapable in life; death”. His contract later being extended into this season.
However, little has changed between now and then and before the semi final with Rennes the OL coach was again nearing the end of his contract in almost identical circumstances. With the day following the Rennes encounter set for an announcement on Genesio’s future, the Lyon board - lead by outspoken president Jean Michel Aulas - were planning offer a new two year deal with an option for a third linked to Champions League qualification according to L’equipe.
President Aulas has always been Genesio’s most fervent supporter, describing his victorious game plan at the Etihad as “perfect, the match went as Bruno imagined”, while routinely highlighting the fact that his “players play for him.” In September Aulas, who regularly meets with fan groups, dismissed protests as “a movement of the young, who have an opinion on everything that is not necessarily supported elsewhere.”
During the now 70 year old Frenchman’s 32 year tenure, Lyon have conquered many a ‘summit’ but their golden age of the early 2000s which included seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles, a Champions League semi final and a smattering of cup success has receded from memory quicker than many would have expected. In light PSG’s QSI driven success and Monaco’s glorious 2017 title win, OL fans have grown impatient - particularly with Genesio.
However, for Aulas, fiercely proud of his club, Genesio meets his coaching criteria. “I do not think the arrival of a foreign coach would be the best thing” stated Aulas last Autumn, “I’ve never had one... when 50 to 70% of the squad comes from the academy I think we have an interest in having a coach who has OL DNA.” Genesio, equally proud and maintaining a life long connection with the club, certainly has that, explaining after last year’s Europa League exit: "I am Lyonnais, every time I go out in the streets it's as if I have a Lyon jersey on. When we're playing well, we're proud, but right now I'm not afraid to say that I'm ashamed of what we did, considering the fans and the institution."
Despite Aulas’s support, L’equipe reported before the Coupe de France quarter final with Caen that Genesio was still “playing for his future”, while suggestions that Jose Mourinho was interested in a Ligue 1 job have intensified with Lyon reportedly a preference. L’equipe went so far as splash a sneering Mourinho on their front page last month with the headline ‘The Special (Ligue) One’. When asked if his interest was genuine, Mourinho responded: “If I say no, I will not be honest with you.” While no approach was made, Genesio humbly countered to speculation, explaining: “Wherever he went he’s won, obviously he is a great coach. If he is to succeed me, it is with great pride."
As Bensebaini’s goal highlighted, any contract extension proved dependant on OL making the Coupe de France final and Ligue 1’s top three. Instead a decision will now be taken at the end of the season, the first of those criteria not fulfilled. As Aulas announced as the two men sat together at Wednesday’s painfully awkward press conference which should have been a triumphant announcement of Genesio’s new deal.
With OL fans furious, the loss to Dijon was played out in a toxic atmosphere. Ultras chanting for ‘seven minutes of silence for seven years without a title’ and displaying a banner reading: "Players - you dream of being somewhere else? Go and soil someone else's colours". An obvious reference to Memphis Depay who was dropped at the weekend and repeatedly states he see himself at a ‘bigger’ club. Ironic ‘oles’ were even heard as Dijon kept possession late on. Genesio had refused to comment on whether he would accept any hypothetical deal in the summer, even implying that he may not: "I am going to leave the club like I found it; In the Champions' League." With the club in turmoil, that target is far from assured. Neither is Genesio’s immediate future, Aulas having to rejects calls from fans for a swift sacking after the Dijon defeat.
Aulas meanwhile has done well to resist flirtations with Mourinho, the Lyon president stating this week that the former Manchester United and Real Madrid boss wouldn't be joining OL. The Portuguese's arrival would have proved disastrous, his conservative outlook and a mallevent persona seen at Old Trafford being directly opposed to a youthful, free-wheeling Lyon squad. Links with Rafael Benitez may be more realistic. The Newcastle coach having engaged a Lyon-based footballing agency to explore job opportunities in Ligue 1, according to L’Équipe.
Regardless of the semi final defeat, Lyon’s campaign has been solid enough overall and the level of criticism Genesio endured has been largely unjust but the time may be right for Aulas to “turn the page”, as one fan banner pleaded this season. Despite little shame in Champions League defeat to Barcelona, PSG remain out of sight domestically as Lyon routinely falter against weaker Ligue 1 sides while performances continue to fluctuate. Although Aulas may be a passionate, inspirational leader, his famed stubbornness in persisting with Genesio could yet condemn his beloved club to two more years of underachievement and running battles with fans. Leaving OL’s ‘summit’ far beyond reach.
by Adam White