The rise and imminent demise of AC Arles-Avignon

Many English football fans would say that Blackpool’s play-off victory over Cardiff City last May was one of the biggest underdog victories in recent memory. Blackpool had been a sleeping giant for well over 30 years and their return to the big league was truly memorable. But in fact, there is a bigger fairytale story in European football of a smalltown club which hasn’t had enough coverage considering how far the club has come in such a short time. That club is AC Arles Avignon.

If you thought the antics of Ian Holloway’s press conferences were crazy, then think again. AC Arles-Avignon are perhaps one of the strangest clubs in Europe.

Arles is a small French city in the southern region of Bouches Du Rhone, with a population of just under 60,000 (about the same as Margate). It is about 50 miles from Marseille and is known for its Roman monuments, which are World Heritage sites. It also known for holding bullfighting in its amphitheatre. Famous people to come from Arles include former Liverpool and French international Djibril Cisse and Blackburn defender Gael Givet.

Considering that the town of Arles has produced two very talented footballers, you would think they would be higher up in the league. But the club has always languished in the lower leagues of French football, occasionally making it into Ligue 2 only to return back to non-league football, even dropping down to the 5th tier. The English equivalent of that would be the North West Counties League.

The manager behind the magic (Photo: Le Equipe)

Michel Estevan - the manager behind the magic (Photo: Le Equipe)

But in 2005, Arles-Avignon began their ascent out of French football obscurity. They hired Michel Estevan. Not a household name even in France. Estevan’s club career wasn’t impressive as he struggled to make a living as a centre-back in the 2nd and 3rd tiers of French football. The biggest club he played for was Nimes, who spent one season in Ligue 1.

By contrast his managerial career is undoubtedly superb. He took non-league FC Martigues to the quarter finals of the French cup, where they were narrowly beaten by Paris St Germain (a Ronaldinho goal no less). Despite that he was sacked after 25 league games. Martigues went down. They rehired him in February 2004 and then sacked him again 9 months later after failing to gain promotion to the National (French conference league basically).

Estevan joined Arles in 2005, at the request of chairman and good friend Chauvin Patrick. In his first season, Arles were promoted. Then in his second season, Arles were promoted. I think you see the trend here. In 07/08, they finished 8th in the National, but the following year they finished 3rd. Estevan’s nickname as the Magician was well justified and he has been compared to Guy Roux by some, a compliment of the highest order.

However to gain promotion to Ligue 2, a club must have professional status. AC Arles-Avignon had always been an amateur side. Their former ground, Stade Fernand Fournier had a capacity of 2,000. Fortunately, an agreement with nearby club Avignon 84 allowed them to play at the Parc Des Sports with a capacity of over 7,000. This also instigated a name change with Avignon being added to the club name.

You’d think this would be beneficial to both sides, but relations are tense. Avignon is a bigger city and has a bigger stadium, and it’s fair to say that they are jealous of their neighbours sudden surge up the divisions.

Getting into Ligue 2 wasn’t exactly easy either. The DNCG (the French regulatory body) barred AC Arles-Avignon from participating in the league due to financial problems within the club, likely caused from the change to professional status. They eventually won on appeal however.

Last season at AC Arles-Avignon could be described as an emotional rollercoaster for fans, but that may be understating it slightly. If you were to liken Estevan to an English manager, he would be Sam Allardyce. Not due to the style of play but plucking young and old players from nowhere.

But he also is the master of the loan deal. He brought in Marseille’s Andre Ayew to bolster his side. This deal paid off big time and Ayew was sensational on the right wing. The 20-year old’s performances have impressed Didier Deschamps back at Marseille who says he will have more game-time next year. He was also impressive at the World Cup for Ghana, and was praised on this blog previously along with Kevin Prince Boateng.

But Estevan’s ragtag bunch of mercenaries were well worth last season in Ligue 2. They chalked up 16 wins, 12 draws and 10 defeats. The catalyst in Arles-Avignon’s season was an away fixture against Metz (The French West Bromwich Albion) on Matchday 34. Arles were 1-0 down but then scored twice in injury time. The winner was scored by Maurice Dale, who coincidently has left the club this summer for Unirea.

Arles-Avignon made tough work of the last few fixtures, which set up a winner-takes-all match against Clermont on the final day of the season. Talk about tense.

Arles Avignon won and after 5 seasons they had reached the lucrative Ligue 1 for the first time. But the story doesn’t exactly end there.

You’d think after leading such a small club into the top league that Michel Estevan’s job would be safe for life. Well no. Former president Jean Marc Conrad was relieved of his duties in June after proposing a new contract to Estevan that the club simply couldnt afford.

Salerno and Perrot

Marcel Salerno and Francois Perrot

In step new majority shareholders, Francois Perrot and Marcel Salerno who promptly fired Estevan. After weeks of negotiations where even the players thought a new manager was imminent, the decision was reversed and Estevan will lead the club he built into Ligue 1. The two new chairman probably made the most unpopular first move possible, a decision which seems baffling but at least they changed their minds.

Both have invested a lot of money just to get Arles-Avignon to the division itself. Arles had the smallest budget of all the teams in Ligue 2 last year yet still got promoted. Promotion on €5.2 million is some feat.

The club probably weren’t expecting it, and the cost to bring the facilities at the club will take its toll. For example, a Ligue 1 requirement is for all grounds to have a capacity of 17,000 or more. The current ground holds at maximum 9,000 and work is under way to get the ground ready in time. Add floodlighting, press boxes, commentary boxes etc, and it’s clear that Arles have a massive task on their hands to even be ready for their first home game against Lens on August 14th.

So what are Arles-Avignon’s chances of staying Ligue 1? Without seeming harsh, remote at best. Most of the current players are Ligue 2 quality at best. Estevan has continued his reputation of bringing so-called footballing mercnaries by signing the notorious Yann Kermorgant. For those of you unfamiliar, he was the person who chipped a penalty for Leicester last season in the play-offs which sent them out.

He’s also signed former Fulham player Hameur Bouazza, a player he will be familiar with since Estevan is of French-Algerian nationality. From Blackpool of all places.

Also interestingly, the man at the centre of the French national football scandal, fitness coach Robert Duverne has joined the club. If that doesn’t cement your reputation as a club of rebels then I don’t know what does.

Little is known of this enigmatic club from the South of France. Sure they may have a turbulent time staying in the top division but for a club of this size to even make it there, is somewhat remarkable.

Note: Credit to Martin Michelot for information on Arles-Avignon.

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