Adam White

'Juni' Returns

Adam White
'Juni' Returns

This article also featured on Guardian Sport

It’s difficult to overstate Juninho legendary status at Lyon. Between 2002 and 2008 OL won seven consecutive French titles, a run even PSG’s modern dominance has not been able to match. Alongside winger Sidney Govou, keeper Gregory Coupet and outspoken president Jean Michel Aulas, Juninho was one of few constants. Where many dynasties are built round a sole coach, four managers contributed to OL’s run and although intelligent recruitment alongside and Aulas’ oversight were pivotal, Juninho and swathes of gloriously unerring free kicks from every position remain the iconic image of that period. Now, after a quiet revolution, ‘Juni’ has returned.

Juninho Pernambucano is unquestionably Lyon’s greatest ever player and a titan of French football. As a result he carries significant capital with, what has recently become, a fractious and aggressive OL fan base. Fan campaigns against outgoing coach Bruno Genesio had become toxic and divisions between coach, support and board were widening. Juninho’s introduction is, in part, designed to ease those tensions. With his return as sporting director rumoured, Juninho’s name was sung before any free kick in shooting range during OL’s draw with Lille earlier this month.

As a result Juninho’s role will also resemble a general manager or technical director with Bernard Lecomte and Gerard Houllier continuing to advise on transfers with Aulas remaining central to negotiations. Given the club’s prosperity in the market of late, all of last summer’s major additions proving successful, a change in tact on recruitment would prove baffling. Nevertheless L’equipe reported this weekend that Juninho has already started work on next season from Los Angeles, his family having left Brazil following the election of the controversial Jair Bolsonaro. His first major decision was appointing the club’s new manager.

Given Aulas’s prominence in the day-to-day running of the club during his three decades at the helm, handing Juninho so much responsibility, and so suddenly, marks a considerable shift. Since Genesio announced he would leave at the end of the campaign after his new deal dramatically evaporated following the Coupe de France semi final loss to Rennes, Aulas has been vocal about the appointment of a ‘big name’ manager. Overt flirtations with Jose Mourinho were mixed with reports that club officials had met with Arsene Wenger and that Rafael Benitez engaged with a Lyon based football agency, a Ligue 1 move a possibility.

Nevertheless, having stated last year that “when 50 to 70 percent of the squad comes from the academy I think we have an interest in having a coach who has OL DNA,” Juninho’s appointment seems to hold true with Aulas’ previous philosophy. Whether the new sporting director’s choice of coach follows suit however remains questionable. Having few links with French football and in his first management role at club level, the appointment of former Barcelona and Arsenal full back Sylvinho - remembered in the UK for a 2000 swerving volley at Stamford Bridge - proved a more than surprising. And, ultimately, a sizeable risk.

While an established, successful manager may have been expensive, such an appointment made sense. OL are trophy-less in seven years and the sense of underachievement has become overbearing of late amid Parisien dominance; Aulas later underlining the importance of silverware after the defeat to Rennes which ultimately ended Genesio’s reign. The last decade, particularly under Genesio, should have equalled greater success given Lyon’s prolific academy, various talented teams and the increasing resources of the club. A growing sense of frustration from all concerned underlines that Lyon need success now.

However, Sylvinho’s appointment hints at a longer term ‘project’. Although ‘OL DNA’ may also refer to a border ideology as well as an understanding of the club, to expect the speedy success Lyon require from a first time manager with no direct experience of Ligue 1 or the club itself is more than optimistic. But Juninho has clearly been given the scope to implement his own ideas. Since his appointment, talk has switched from Mourinho, Benitez and Wenger to, as per Friday’s L’equipe, Sylvinho, Manchester City assistant coach Mikel Arteta and former midfielder Thiago - currently part of Atletico Madrid’s coaching staff. A far younger, rawer cohort.

Admittedly, although Wenger and co are far more established, it would be wrong to brand Sylvinho inexperienced in a broader sense. Originally slated to lead the defence of Brazil’s Olympic title next year, the former full back has been coaching for the better for a decade, largely as an assistant across Brazil, with Roberto Mancini’s Inter and under Tite at the Brazilian national team, overseeing the U23s and U20s. Nevertheless Aulas conceded in Sunday’s L’equipe that the Juninho-Sylvinho ticket remains a gamble. “When you’re an entrepreneur and invest 500m euros in a single stadium, life is full of risk taking,” the 70 year old Frenchman explained after Saturday nights 4-0 win over Caen which secured a place in next season’s Champions League preliminaries, “it is a cleverly calculated risk.”

Cleverly calculated choices have formed the basis of Aulas’ successful thirty year stint in charge of Lyon, but Sylvinho’s appointment represents a seismic departure; the club’s first foreign coach since the early 80s, largely lacking in ‘OL DNA’ and picked without Aulas’ input. Sylvinho may be a well regarded coach, the Brazilian FA were disappointed by his exit and extracting him was tricky, but given the malaise of a fractious, impatient and underachieving club the size of OL, Juninho’s legendary status and his “love story with Lyon”, as Aulas put it, may erode faster than either man is expecting if their gamble on a rookie coach and Juninho’s quiet revolution doesn’t pay off, and soon.

by Adam White