ONE A lot has changed since Stade de Reims completely overhauled Real Madrid in the first European Cup final in 1956, losing 4-3 as they displayed their famous “champagne football”. After winning six titles between 1949 and 1962, the club dropped down the French football pyramid in the 1990s and established itself as a Ligue 1 club only in the following decade.
Things are looking up in Champagne country now. Óscar García, former Brighton and Watford coach, started a quiet revolution last summer. He steered the club away from the workforce and established senior professionals, many of whom soon left, to a vibrant youth system.
Mixing the first team with youngsters developed at the club’s fledgling academy was a risky move, but García’s inexperienced and unproven side eased into an impressive midfield. Their young striker Hugo Ekitike has since moved to PSG in a €30m move – the club’s biggest ever sale – but García starts the season with a squad full of talented young players ready to push themselves to the next level.
How is the atmosphere around the club at the start of the season?
It will be a very busy season, with the World Cup in between and four teams relegated from Ligue 1. It’s always a competitive league but this year everyone expects it to be even tougher. We will face it with confidence, with the same methods as last year. The first goal is to keep the club in Ligue 1 as soon as possible and then have enough time to aim higher. In the last 10 games we will probably start looking at the table to see what we can achieve.
You did a great job of getting the academy players. Was that the plan when the club approached you? Was it your decision or was it due to talent?
The philosophy of the club is clear and it was explained to me before I signed. That was one of the main reasons I said yes, because my philosophy is the same. I like to develop young players but, not only that, I want to be really competitive. You can promote players but you may not always be so competitive. Here we try to do both things at the same time. Sometimes it is not easy but, last season, for example, we did the case of Hugo Ekitike – the most expensive sale in the history of the club. This makes us proud because we helped him reach the next level.
Were you surprised by the talent at the club?
Yes. We have a lot of young and talented players in the second team – some of them have played with the French national teams – but it’s not that easy because Lyon, Paris, Rennes and other clubs have bigger academies than ours. But everyone here works really hard – and you have to be brave and give them the opportunity to play in Ligue 1, not just for one match but to give them the confidence to play like they did in the youth teams.
What makes the Reims academy so successful? Is your training ground a highly effective modern facility – or is it your quest?
There is not only one thing. Most important was the board’s plan to build something special for our young players. Here young players feel they can achieve their dreams of playing in Ligue 1. Of course, the facilities are amazing, as are the coaches in the youth section. At the end of the day, it’s the coach of the first team who decides if they’re ready, give them opportunities, and I think most of them are ready to compete at this level.
You mentioned Ekiti. What are his strengths and why was he so impressive last season?
He is back after a tough season in Denmark. He was there on loan because the previous coach didn’t trust him too much, but his progress was huge. Last year, he came back as the fourth striker but he showed me in the pre-season that he can be the number one. He is an attacking player who does not like to operate as a pure No 9, but prefers to be mobile. He is tall and thin but very coordinated and very good with his legs. He’s not that strong in his own right – that’s a point he needs to improve on – but, with the right coach, he can improve and show his potential.
Will he be successful at PSG?
He has probably three of the best players in the league in front of him, so it won’t be easy, but Paris plays a lot of games and there are always injuries and suspensions. He will have a chance to play, maybe not every game, but hopefully he will learn a lot and develop.
Who excites you about your current group of young players? Who is this season’s athlete?
It’s hard to say because this time last season I wouldn’t have told you that Ekitike would be the most expensive sale in the club’s history. But I hope other players will develop and show their potential. But more than that, I want to keep the team in Ligue 1 and also to develop young players. I was doing it in Barcelona and Salzburg. I like to work like this.
You recently signed another young player, Folarin Balogun from Arsenal. What attracted you to him?
We were looking for a player like him, who can run deep, a player who can find space behind the defenders, as well as a goal scorer. After leaving Ekitike, we had a problem at the lake. We create chances but it was difficult to put the ball in the net, so we were looking for a profile like his.
You previously managed in England, with Watford and Brighton. What makes English football different from France?
English clubs look a lot at the French league because we have a lot of talented players and young players who are physically ready to play in England, which is a very physical league. It’s probably the most similar league in Europe because we have good players who can play box to box, they’re fast and strong, so it’s normal for Premier League clubs to send their scouts to watch Ligue 1 do it
Ligue 1 has become more dynamic, exciting and attacking, with many teams using three defenders and wing-backs. Will wingers die?
The position of the full-backs is the key to understanding whether a team will play more offensively or defensively, with three defenders or five. I think you have to adapt to the players you have. If I don’t have the right wings, it’s hard to play 4-3-3 or any other system. If there are three really good center backs, you want to use them. It always depends on your group. Many teams play with three defenders, but the most successful teams usually play with four – such as Manchester City, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Milan. But no system will win you every game and no system will lose you every game. It depends on your coach and your team. The most important thing is to have a clear philosophy so that the players understand why we are going to play a certain way and what they should do with and without the ball. After that, the system can change. If you watch a match, the system that the coach has prepared for the start can change. The media asked me after a previous game why we played 4-3-3 and not 4-3-3. So, in the end, only the players know how we will play.
You have won titles in Israel and Austria, and managed in Greece and Spain. Have you found a house in Reims?
My house is in the square! I had a great time in England and one of my goals is to coach there again because the atmosphere, the fans and the league are amazing. One of my main goals is to come back one day but right now I’m really focused on my team and my club in France. Reims is a club that really helps me to keep developing and has the potential to grow, with a great academy and a lot of young talent. I am very happy here.
How difficult is it to manage your physical and mental health with the pressures of being a top-flight coach?
That aspect of the game is very important because one of the things that we coaches have to control and work on a lot nowadays is the mental aspect. You need to be careful and attentive, and then you can help others and your players. You need to know how to relate to players of different generations. Talking to a 35-year-old is not like talking to a 19-year-old player. They have to trust you. For me, that is probably the most important thing for a coach, to work on a mental level in different situations. You have to be human, everyone can have problems, so the better you understand other people’s problems, the better you can help them.
Do you think the pressure on coaches is too much?
It depends on the person. I was lucky enough to be a professional soccer player, so I know the pressure. I’ve played with big crowds at Camp Nou in many important games but, in the end, it’s not the pressure from outside, it’s the pressure inside you that can make the difference. How you handle that pressure can make the difference between being a fantastic player or a player who can’t play at a high level.
You played for a long time in Barcelona under Johan Cruyff. How much did he influence your playing style and what are your memories of him?
I grew up playing Barcelona. I was there from the age of nine to the age of 27, so there is a clear philosophy of how Barcelona wants to play and do things. But I also wanted to go abroad, experience other cultures and become a better coach. I thought, if I want to be the best coach I can be, I have to go abroad and learn the philosophy, mentality and other styles of the game. I like the philosophy of Barcelona and try to apply it wherever I am, but with some different details. This is something I learned from Johan Cruyff. He told me, you can change many things but you cannot change the philosophy. Your players should see you with a clear mind – don’t change so one day you seem to be thinking one thing and the next day you’re thinking something else. Also don’t treat everyone the same – if you yell at a player, he probably won’t react in the right way to help him improve. But if you say the same thing to another player, their reaction will be different. So the first thing you should do is meet the players to learn about their personalities and the best way to help them understand the game and what you want from them. That was one of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me.