Giovanni Sio’s winner in the last kick of the match as Montpellier defeated Pascal Dupraz’s Toulouse 2-1 spelled the end of the Savoyard’s time in charge of the club. His era of nearly two years was marked by tremendous highs and crushing lows: one of the most astonishing relegation escapes in Ligue 1 history, famous scalps of some of the league’s biggest clubs, alongside a gradual decline of performances and results, and an increasingly toxic relationship between manager, players, and fans.
The stat of 10 victories in his first 19 matches, followed by 10 victories in his subsequent 51 matches sums up depressingly well his story at Toulouse. His former side now find themselves in yet another relegation battle (they are currently 19th in Ligue 1), which has an element of cyclical irony about it; when he joined in March 2016, they were also in 19th position, albeit back then they were a massive 10 points from safety, this time round there is only a 2 point deficit.
It leaves disappointed fans thinking just what might have been for Dupraz’s Toulouse. After 2015/16’s epic survival story (the speech and the Yann Bodiger free kick at Angers…) and the dispatch of both PSG and Monaco the following season, there was the reasonable expectation that Dupraz would be the man to steer them away from perennial struggle, and onto at least mid-table consolidation. And Perhaps maybe even hope of stealing a European spot or a cheeky cup run, the latter of which he did have with Evian in 2013, when he took the Alpine minnows to an unlikely Coupe de France final.
These two ambitions: Europe and a cup run, were oft-stated by Dupraz, and formed part of his strategy to raise the status and self-esteem of a club and fans that are used to being second best, in both the “rugby” mad city, and across France where the club’s lack of prestige, ‘history’ and fervent fans (compare the docility of the Stadium de Toulouse to attending the Vélodrome, the Beaujoire or the Geoffroy-Guichard for example) mean they come in for ridicule for their support of the Violets.
Just as Dupraz motivated his players, he motivated the fans and the city to get behind their team and show some pride in what they were trying to do. And in those heady days of 2016 this worked: manager, players, fans and city alike united behind TFC, and the fruit of this effort was seen in a hardworking and stylish team getting impressive results on the pitch.
It was when the euphoria of the Dupraz honeymoon wore off that the problems of this style of management became apparent. Publicly calling out players for their lack of effort, skill or concentration was always going to be a risky move, but it was done in the hope of provoking something from those players that were slipping blindly from poor result to poor result.
However when Dupraz turned on the fans: “I want to go to the cup final to see that there are no supporters in Toulouse. There should be 25,000 Toulousains there but I bet you there won’t be. Good supporters will win you 10 points in a season, bad supporters will lose you those 10 points”, it represented a turning point in the Dupraz-TFC relationship.
The goodwill he had built up for himself in the early days was evaporating with the turgid football produced by his players, and his teasing of an infamously apathetic fan base. The banner put up in early 2018 at the training ground declaring “Without you we’d be in Ligue 2, with you we’re going straight there: mediocre results, no style, contempt of the supporters…if you love Tèf you’d quit Pascal!” said it all. A world away from the “Dupraz President!” messages of March 2017 displayed to mark Dupraz’s anniversary in charge.
Whenever a manager leaves his post prematurely, some blame must be levelled at the players, and this is certainly the case in this current Toulouse side, who appeared to have given up playing for Dupraz maybe as early as midway through last season, after the ‘last-hurrahs’ against PSG and Monaco.
This is a squad that, on the face of it, has a good blend of some of France’s most promising young talents (Alban Lafont, Issa Diop, Christopher Jullien, Kelvin Amian, and Alexis Blin) along with some experienced Ligue 1 players (Yannick Cahuzac, Andy Delort, and Ola Toivonen). The summer loan signings of Giannelli Imbula and Max-Alain Gradel brought genuine excitement to the club as these were two players who, although disappointing in the Premier League (at Stoke and Bournemouth respectively), came with previous experience of excelling in Ligue 1, and the potential to move this team towards that cup run or at least to the top 10 of the league.
Alas no. The signings of Imbula and Gradel appear to have been an unmitigated disaster. Rather than galvanise the team around two players of genuine quality, both of whom are looking to give their careers a kick start, their presence has not brought about an improvement in either their own or their team-mates’ performances. It may even have planted a wedge between them — on loan and looking for bigger and better things in summer — and the rest of the team.
Talk of aloofness, a lack of motivation and dressing room arguments has contributed to the bad atmosphere that has weighed upon the club in recent months. And when you consider also that Toulouse’s prize assets: the youthful core, may also be snapped up in the summer, then it is easy to see that all is not well on the banks of the Garonne, and that relegation will surely lead to an exodus of a number of players who could feasibly play in the top half of most of Europe’s top leagues.
Where does all this leave Toulouse FC then? What next? Who next? Do the players have the stomach to fight another relegation slog? Will anyone else be able to motivate them the way Pascal Dupraz once did? Are those same players already thinking about where they might be next season? Are the fans ready to pick themselves up and get behind their team in their struggles once again? Many questions, and as it stands, very few answers.
The new incumbent and fans alike will be heartened by the knowledge that a 2 point deficit with 16 matches to go is an eminently surmountable obstacle for a side that is still of superior quality to other teams nearing the drop zone. Toulouse FC have never made things easy for themselves however, so those next 16 matches will surely be watched with nervous anticipation and a lingering sense of where this team could have been had Pascal Dupraz, players and fans alike followed through with their early promise and optimism.