For a long time, Auxerre were widely regarded as an example of a side in France that performed above expectations, developed players for the French national side and consistently remained in the top flight. Under Guy Roux’s tenure, Auxerre played in Ligue 1 for 32 consecutive seasons between 1980 and 2012 and the likes of Eric Cantona, Djibril Cissé and Philippe Mexès all came through the illustrious youth academy that Les diplomates boasted. The domestic double was achieved in 1996 and in the mid-2000s, Auxerre were also a regular in European competition. Seeing Auxerre on the videprinter on Wednesday and Thursday nights became common as the side featured in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup for five years between 2002 and 2007.
However, severe mismanagement at boardroom level has cost the side enormously. Since being relegated from Ligue 1 in 2012, Auxerre have been stuck in France’s second tier. This is how consistency turned into chaos.
AJA’s rise all started in 1961. In the same year that the Berlin wall was built and Lothar Matthäus was born, an unknown 25-year old called Guy Roux was appointed player manager of Auxerre. Roux, who’s only experience before taking the job in management was a month watching Crystal Palace training for a research project, would end up taking Auxerre from an amateur regional league in Burgundy to the promised land of French football.
Roux, alongside president Jean-Claude Hamel and later vice-president Gérard Bourgoin, were responsible for changing the entire culture of the club by investing in state of the art youth facilities and opting to develop young players. It would mean that instead of having to invest in high profile signings which wasn’t possible due to the financial disparity between Auxerre and the top clubs in France, Roux and his backroom staff could instead foster players for the future and develop the likes of Cantona and Basile Boli for the French national side and their own.
By 1970, Roux had got his side promoted from the Burgundy League that was on step five of the French pyramid into the French third tier. Another promotion followed in 1974 to Ligue 2 and by 1980, Auxerre were in Ligue 1, the top flight of French football. Deservedly, Roux was credited for his achievements with a side that were based in a city with a population of just 39,000, the same as Leighton Buzzard or Port Talbot.
Apart from a brief stint in the director of football role for a year in 2000, Roux was at Auxerre for a staggering 44 years as manager. This made him the longest-serving manager of a single football team in Europe. Four Coupe de France’s, a UEFA Intertoto Cup alongside a semi-final appearance in the 1992-93 UEFA Cup and the Ligue 1 title he picked up in 1996 meant that when Roux finally left Auxerre in 2005, he could put his feet up for a bit. The man had done an unbelievable job over five decades and deserved to enjoy the rest of his life as someone admired by everyone in French football and adored by the AJA faithful.
Except the issue was, Roux and his acquaintances struggled to let go of their power that they had been given for so long. Really, Roux should’ve just cut all of his ties after being at Auxerre for that long. He’d achieved everything and didn’t need to prove himself to anyone.
Six years later though, the trio of Roux, Hamel and Bourgoin managed to seize power again of the club through a coup and removed Alain Dujon from his post as club president. It was a bizarre event as under Dujon’s two-year presidency, Auxerre finished third in the 2009/10 season and despite being involved in a relegation battle, ninth in 2010/11.
Roux was now in charge of the youth setup with Bourgoin as president and Hamel acting in the background as an adviser. This resulted in complete chaos. Jean Fernandez, who had been the first-team manager since 2006 resigned at the start of the 2011/12 season due to feeling undermined by Bourgoin. His replacement Laurent Fournier was a surprise choice. Despite a brief spell with PSG in 2005 (a long time before they were bought by QSI), Bourgoin mainly managed sides in the third tier. His last job before he went to Auxerre was with a Strasbourg side in freefall, who had fallen from Ligue 1 to the Championnat National (the French third tier).
This appointment combined with the departures of several key players that summer such as Benoît Pedretti, Jean-Pascal Mignot and Ireneusz Jelen who were inadequately replaced meant that Auxerre were going to have a tough season in Ligue 1.
A 3-1 defeat at home to Nancy-Lorraine at the end of January sent Auxerre into the relegation zone for the first time that season and they never managed to climb back out of the bottom three. It seemed like the power that Bourgoin had clung onto for so long meant that when the time came for him to finally leave, he couldn’t. His decisions that season ended up costing Auxerre their spot in Ligue 1. Fournier was inevitably sacked in March after going 10 games without a win and his replacement Jean-Guy Wallemme, couldn’t do enough to keep Auxerre being the only side in Ligue 1 alongside PSG to have never been relegated.
It had been a disaster of a season for AJA. The final home game of the season where an unfancied Montpellier secured the title with a 2-1 win at the Stade de l’Abbé-Deschamps sunk Auxerre to the bottom of the table. 16 years ago this was Auxerre being the underdog in picking up the title and overachieving. Instead, the match had to be suspended for 20 minutes when angry fans threw eggs, tomatoes and tennis balls onto the pitch in protest.
A lack of investment on the youth side of the club was also starting to catch up with the money that Auxerre were receiving for their best youth players. The way that young players were being signed had changed completely since Auxerre originally set up their academy. They simply couldn’t compete with the likes of PSG and larger clubs abroad cropping up their best players before they could properly develop them to generate a profit.
Relegation to Ligue 2 caused even more issues for Auxerre but this time it was between Roux and Marseille legend Jean-Pierre Papin. Bourgoin remained as president for the first season back in the second tier but after failing to get promotion, he left the club. Apart from a run to the Coupe de France final in 2015, five more seasons followed of mediocrity under Guy Cotret’s presidency and then in 2017, the 60% majority shares of the club were bought by Chinese firm ORG Packaging. The AJA Association which Roux acted on behalf of controlled the other 40% with Cotret remaining as president.
Roux once again was quick to assert his dominance in the running of the club when in January 2017, Cotret announced Papin as the new sporting director, Chinese ambassador and manager of the club. Roux, however, strongly opposed this appointment and publicly came out in favour of the then-current manager Cédric Daury. What then ensued was a complete and utter embarrassment.
Roux gave an interview to French TV Channel, France 3 and claimed that Papin was too inexperienced, not up to the job and it didn’t make sense to replace Daury as it would be dangerous to have three managers in one season after Viorel Moldovan was sacked earlier on in the season as well.
Papin hit back at Roux via his Facebook page and was understandably not happy with Roux’s comments about him.
“Mr Guy Roux, you insult me and talk about me in a false and humiliating way in the media for a week almost every day, Don’t think that because I don’t say anything I don’t know. Your great age has probably made you forget my year in Strasbourg where I brought the club back to Ligue 1.”
This was all playing out whilst Auxerre were in a relegation battle down to the third tier. Roux, in the end, got his way and Daury stayed on as manager and kept the side up by five points, one place ahead of 18th. Luckily for Daury, Ligue 2 only has two relegation spots otherwise he would’ve taken them down to third tier. The club was still in a mess even if he managed to keep them up. Auxerre’s average attendance dropped significantly as well as fans grew tired of seeing their side play in the second tier. In their last season in Ligue 1, AJA averaged 12,000. This was cut in half to just over 6,000 by the 2016/17 season.
Since the Roux-Papin fiasco, Auxerre have unsurprisingly remained in Ligue 2. Cotret left his post as presidency at the end of the 2016/17 season for Francis Graille and Auxerre have consistently finished in the bottom half of Ligue 2 for the past three seasons. 11th in 2017/18, 15th in 2018/19 and 11th again last season.
Jean-Claude Hamel died in June this year aged 91.