With Dominique Arribagé sacked and the club ten points adrift of safety, Toulouse’s situation looked bleak, but up stepped balding, unfashionable, unpredictable Frenchman Pascal Dupraz to save Les Violets from certain relegation and remould the team and the club in his own image.
Now TFC are making waves at the top of Ligue 1, a win over PSG put them above the Parisiens and into European contention and with Dupraz and his side continuing to develop, the end of their astonishing run is nowhere in sight.
“You deserve to stay up. For two and a half months I have been saying that you will stay up. The problem is not whether or not I will look like an idiot it is to see whether you have the mental, physical and technical capacity to do it. It is now that you have to do it. Not tomorrow, not yesterday. It is now! I have realised that I am not the only one who loves you. The staff, they love you. The fans have chastised you but they have shown you that they love you. What we will see here is undeniable. What we will see are people who love you.”
February 27th 2016. It’s the final minute of a hard fought encounter in front of a sparce crowd at the Stade Municipal in Toulouse, the hosts have a slender 1-0 lead. A weak pass from Swiss left back Francois Moubandje puts centre back Uros Spajic in trouble.
Under pressure from Kamil Grosicki, his hurried touch falls to the electric Ousmane Dembélé on the edge of the area and as Spajic loses his footing the teenage forward shapes his shot round defender Issa Diop and keeper Alban Lafont to steal a Rennes equaliser. Spajic falls to his knees and beats the turf in sheer anger.
Two minutes later he and his teammates are left distraught. A Dembélé through ball and an arrowed Grosicki finish had won the game for Roland Courbis’ side to leave Toulouse ten points from safety with ten games to play. They were all but down.
A few minutes more and Toulouse were managerless; Dominique Arribagé, half sacked, half resigned, saved Les Violets from relegation the previous season but could not repeat the trick: “This is a resignation decided in full consultation, there is no plan B for the time being”, said club president, Olivier Sadran, the club now seemingly destined for the gaping crevasse at the foot of the French top flight marked ‘Ligue 2’.
But Sadran moved quickly. By Wednesday lunchtime, the void had been filled by former Evian coach Pascal Dupraz. Dupraz joined Toulouse with a modest CV, a history of unpredictability and a record of heart trouble but later that afternoon the fightback had begun.
Dupraz is an out-and-out coach, his main asset is his ability to cajole performances from his players through any means at his disposal: physical, tactical, emotional or motivational.
In his first press conference, he insisted:
“We must fight against fatalism. We must find, or at least increase the collective qualities of the team, pour into enthusiasm and love. Records are made to be broken, we know that no team has survived with our number of points. But it will happen one day.” By the end of the week, the players were subjected to double training sessions and as Danish striker Martin Braithwaite explained: “It is different, it changes. It feels good. Tactically, he’s very strong. It’ll be different in this game. He’s a very serious guy, I think that’s good. He will try to change small things we did not do well. I feel that the group is very focused.”
However, the game Braithwaite mentioned would not feature the bald head of Dupraz prowling around his technical area. The new TFC boss watched the game from a hospital bed after the 53 year old suffered a mild heart attack during the Saturday training session. “He spent the night under observation and will not now be on the bench for Toulouse FC at the Stade Velodrome. The club and its supporters want to wish the coach a speedy recovery” read a club statement. But the battling 1-1 draw at Marseille that Sunday showed that Dupraz’s boundless, fiery enthusiasm was exerting an influence even from afar.
With Dupraz safely taking his place on the touchline at the Stade Municipal the weekend following the draw in Marseille, his Toulouse side thrashed Garrone derby rivals Bordeaux 4-0 to end Willy Sagnol’s reign at Les Girondins and start to rekindle hope amongst fans.
Attendances had dropped to as low as 9,000 under Arribagé but for the final home game of the season with Troyes they were pushing 30,000 and despite Dupraz accusing supports of wearing ‘mittens’ and ‘reversible shirts’ they too now believed their side could overcome the deficit and make history. A recent Tinder inspired tifo featuring Dupraz and the phrase “It’s a match!” proof of the bond created between manager and supporter.
A snap Oscar Trejo shot won the encounter with Troyes to haul Dupraz and his charges out of the bottom three after a run of four wins, three draws and just two defeats in Dupraz’s first 9 games ahead of the difficult final day trip to Ligue 1 surprise package Angers.
Toulouse were just a point clear of Reims with Gazelec Ajaccio, still in the fight a further point back. A nervy final day was in store but Dupraz, already something of a cult hero, was yet to unveil his most potent weapon.
Despite Dupraz’s miraculous influence on his side and the club as a whole, he can’t claim all the credit.
On November 28th 2015, Toulouse were without a win since the opening day of the season and had conceded 7 goals without reply in their last two games, which included an embarrassingly inept 5-0 thumping in Paris.
For the game with Nice that weekend, Dominique Arribagé added 16 year old goalkeeper Alban Lafont and 18 year old defender Issa Diop to his starting 11 for the first time. Toulouse won 2-0 and embarked on a mini revival which saw them lose just once in the next two months and went some way to keeping them in the division.
Despite Dominique’s eventual departure, Dupraz has his predecessor to thank for bequeathing him two of his greatest assets as TFC coach. Lafont, although sometimes unorthodox, has grown into an assured, reliable and cat-like keeper. Still just 17, a trio of remarkable saves gave his team the platform on which to construct their 2-0 win over Unai Emery’s reigning champions, PSG, before the international break.
They may have got some luck in Serge Aurier’s plenty concession and eventual sending off but ahead of Lafont they were assured, composed and generally excellent in their all round play, fully deserving of their win. Key to this display was Diop. The French U21 centre back has been monotonous this season, as he continues to develop into the complete defender.
Excellent in the air, great on the ball and regularly proves that his decision making is amongst the best in the league at centre half. Without Arribagé’s willingness to promote youth; Alexis Blin, Yann Bodiger (who features heavily in this story) also beneficiaries, Dupraz might not now be hailed as the remedy to all TFC’s issues and enjoy the cult hero status his astonishing success has brought him.
Dupraz’s management style is an unusual, perhaps old fashioned one. He is rarely interested in plugging gaps with new signings, he prefers to use what he has and aim to mould a more effective, cohesive unit.
Anyone that he sees as destabilising this is cast aside, his treatment of Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro being a case in point; stripped of the captaincy, quickly moved to right back from his normal midfield role and swiftly dropped from the side, while Alex Pesic and Uros Spajic were told they were surplus to requirements almost immediately and the promising Zinedine Machach was sent to the reserves after a disagreement during the manager’s first week in charge.
Passion is the his most overt of Durpraz’s assets. He shouts at, stares at and harangues his players, delivering alarmingly aggressive team talks at every opportunity, including one particularly fiery example during a water break at St Etienne this season. But crucially these are not to the detriment of any of his players, rather they are positive in sentiment and supportive in theme.
As Dupraz says: ‘A coach has to love his players.’ That love transformed the side and cast in sharp relief Arribagé’s comparatively limp and aloof demeanour.
Eight of top scorer Wissam Ben Yedder’s 17 goals came in those final ten Dupraz-led games, the inconsistent Braithwaite was given the captaincy upon the new manager’s arrival and is now a talismanic leader and a reliable sources of goals, the previously anonymous Trejo (despite being reduced to a substitute role) found his form and showed his class with some important goals while youngsters Blin, Bodiger, Diop and Lafont repeatedly put in displays beyond their years.
Dupraz changed everything, almost overnight.
May 13th 2016. It’s the night before the final match of the Ligue 1 season, Toulouse need to win at Angers to be sure of their survival. The Toulouse squad sit in a small, poorly lit room, the staff gathered around the edges and their manager stood before them. With the fire in Dupraz’s eyes verging on the maniacal, he unleashed a tirade of affection on his squad…
“You deserve to stay up, you deserve to stay up. For two and a half months I have been saying that you will stay up. The problem is not whether or not I will look like an idiot it is to see whether you have the mental, physical and technical capacity to do it. It is now that you have to do it. Not tomorrow, not yesterday. It is now! All there is left to do is eat. The table has already been made. It is magnificent. Just before going on holiday. At the last moment. What does that remind you of? At the last moment we push through, at the last moment we are there!
I have realised that I am not the only one who loves you. The staff are reserved, they do not want to tell you but they love you. The fans want to show you that you have to be cruel to be kind. They have chastised you but they have shown you that they love you. Ok, it is not the most important thing. Now, the most important thing is what we are about to watch together.
Because here for sure what we will see here is undeniable. What we will see are people who love you. What we will see are people waiting tonight, to see you again. They are waiting! To hold you in their arms. Let us watch the video. We will watch them with humility, we will watch them with conviction. And if any one of you leaves this room after seeing this tape and tells me that he is not convinced that we are going to finish the job, to stay in Ligue 1. Open your ears. Open your eyes. These are your lives.”
The videos carried messages of support set to music from player’s wives and children who, as Dupraz said, were sitting waiting at home for their fathers and husbands to complete the job.
As the lights came back on and the players dried their eyes, the coach finished with a simple: “At the end of game, you will be heroes and you will responsible for keeping the club in Ligue 1. Good match everyone.”
Despite Dupraz’s best efforts, with an hour gone in Angers and Toulouse are again staring at the wide open Ligue 2 trap door. Goals from Billy Ketkeophomphone and Said Benrahma had them 2-1 behind while rivals Reims raced into astonishing 4 goal lead over second place Lyon. Toulouse have to win or they are down.
78 minutes, a hopeful Pavle Ninkov cross found Braithwaite (who already missed a first half penalty) who snuck across his marker to clip the ball in off the post for 2-2. But this is still not good enough, Reims are still cruising.
80 minutes; Toulouse win a free kick on side of the area, almost on the line. From it’s location, a cross would have been expected by most, but Yann Bodiger had something else in mind.
The 21 year old’s left foot whips the ball over the wall to catch Angers keeper Alex Letellier out at his near post for 3-2 and his first ever league goal. Cue pandemonium in the away end, on the pitch and on the away bench. Toulouse were safe.
The unfancied Dupraz and his down-and-out team had overcome a huge points deficit and their own shortcomings in little more than two months to make history.
Inspirational barely does Dupraz justice. The fire in his eyes during the impassioned tirade of love before the Angers game would lead one to think that he was more unhinged than enthusiastic and caring but his honest mix of affection, dedication and intensity for his players, his staff and the game as a whole proved otherwise.
Ten points from safety on February 27th, Les Violets are now (despite a narrow loss at Caen last time out) fourth in Ligue 1. The aggressive, precise and intense win over PSG being a high point, a win which proves that Dupraz’s influence is a lasting one and one which continues to develop while the lap of honour in front of a packed Stade Municipal at the final whistle points to a club reborn under their new hero.
Since March, Toulouse have lost just four times in 18 league games, they have gone from relegation fodder to one of the most effective sides in the division, they have a steely determinism and boisterous attitude perpetuated by an inspirational, larger than life coach and are starting to upset the established order on a routine basis… Remind you of anyone?