When Caen were promoted to the French top flight for the first time in their history in 1988, nobody gave them a chance. This was a league full of stars. A glance of the top scorers in Ligue 1 that season reveals the scale of the task: Papin, Hoddle, Weah, Blanc, Cantona and more.
Caen’s signings were rather low key by comparison. Rudi Garcia arrived from Lille to add composure to the midfield and alongside him there was Graham Rix, the former Arsenal man. “It was a big thing for the people of Normandy that they had Caen in the top league,” Rix told Sky Sports.
“After six games, for the first time ever in French football, we had no points. Not one single point after six games. Then there was just this dramatic turnaround. We started playing this pressing game and we survived. We won the last three games to stay up.”
Two goals down to Cantona’s Bordeaux in their final away game of the season, a Fabrice Divert hat-trick turned things around in sensational style. The never-say-die attitude of Robert Nouzaret’s men saw Rix liken Caen to their contemporaries at Wimbledon’s infamous Crazy Gang.
They ended up writing a book about that season – The Baptism of Fire - and the bonds that were forged that year remain. Divert has described the achievement as “phenomenal for this group of friends” while Rix feels it is significant that several of the protagonists have enjoyed success since.
“It was the best time of my life. Rudi Garcia was there and now manages Roma. Philippe Montanier went on to manage Real Sociedad and is now at Rennes and I’m still in regular contact with them both. It’s quite interesting that quite a few of them have gone on to quite big jobs in football.”
It is tempting to believe that Garcia took inspiration from the events of that spring, although his sister Sandrine has suggested that his passion began far earlier. “I liked to watch him when he tried out his first tactics with a Subbuteo set,” she said last year. “He wasn't even 10 years old.”
There was certainly a sense of determination to his steady rise to prominence as a manager – securing a sports science degree and working as a television pundit, physiotherapist and scout before eventually embarking on his coaching career.
The Caen link was important in making that final step as it was his old boss Nouzaret who brought Garcia into the coaching set-up at St Etienne. Later roles at Dijon, where he won a promotion, and Le Mans where he guided them to a top 10 finish in Ligue 1 showed his potential before he was given the chance to coach Lille, the club for whom both he and his father had played.
His achievements there can hardly be overstated. Garcia took the club to their first title in 57 years, a league and cup double in fact, playing attacking football that was far removed from the more pragmatic style of his immediate predecessor Claude Puel.
He had quality players, of course. Eden Hazard was in wonderful form and Gervinho thrived but it was the balance he found in midfield with the likes of Rio Mavuba and Yohan Cabaye that suggested the hand of a skilled coach was at work.
With Paris Saint Germain’s continued investment and the numerous player sales to cope with, prolonged success was perhaps too much to expect – something Garcia had foreshadowed in the immediate aftermath of Lille’s title win. “They don’t realise that in 10 or 15 years, it will be unique and they’ll become friends for life.” Apposite words given the regular Caen reunions over the years.
The challenge at Roma
In 2013, Garcia took on a new challenge at Roma – one so big that the subsequent success has already threatened to distort the context. This was a club at a low ebb upon his arrival. With no European football for a second consecutive season after a sixth place finish, the Giallorossi had also just lost the Coppa Italia to arch-rivals Lazio – prompting opposition fans to hold a mock funeral for the club. It was quite an environment to walk into.
Garcia responded by delivering a club record points tally and a record number of clean sheets – the latter achievement particularly unthinkable with predecessor Zdenek Zeman in charge but further highlighting the extent to which the Frenchman had transformed the club’s fortunes. Importantly, he brought tactical discipline without inhibiting the key performers in the team.
Ten straight wins to start his reign helped. Indeed, Roma didn’t lose their first Serie A game under Garcia until January. But typical of a meticulous planner, Garcia was anxious to stress this was not a case of happenstance. “There is no luck,” he declared. And in a sense, he was right. He had already laid the groundwork.
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Perhaps the biggest victory was winning over Francesco Totti so quickly, the Roma hero labelling Garcia “the coach of the future” within months of taking over, but there were others too. Daniele De Rossi immediately received a phone call upon Garcia’s appointment, with the coach stressing how excited he was to be working with the unsettled midfielder.
In addition to these man-management qualities, other Roma stars were inspired by on-the-field tweaks. The talented Miralem Pjanic has said he feels freer to express himself under Garcia, while the acquisition of Gervinho – a player he knew well from their time at Lille – proved a masterstroke.
“Garcia has a very special style,” says Gervinho. “He often tells me that he knows my qualities better than anyone else. There are many players with talent, but it is important to find a coach who knows how to make the most of that. Rudi was very good with me in that sense. He knows how to do what is best for the team and, at the same time, to let me be free with my football.”
This season was always going to be tougher with a European campaign to deal with but Roma are coping admirably thus far with Garcia able to manage the workload of key players like the 38-year-old Totti even in the continued absence of Kevin Strootman through injury.
The team won their first five Serie A matches of the season, only slipping up controversially away to champions Juventus – a game in which Garcia was sent to the stands for his violin gesture when Juve were awarded a penalty: The Roma boss refusing to dance to the Bianconeri’s tune.
The Champions League return has been impressive too with a 5-1 win over CSKA Moscow followed by a thoroughly deserved draw at Manchester City. But Bayern Munich in the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday evening is a bigger test. Group E truly is a baptism of fire for Roma. But as he showed in his time at Caen – and indeed ever since – that doesn’t necessarily mean Rudi Garcia won’t prevail.
Roma host Bayern Munich live on Sky Sports 1 HD this Tuesday (7.45pm kick off)