A Stade de Reims have changed a lot since they played their famous ‘Champagne football’ in 1956, defeating Real Madrid 4-3 in the first European Cup final. After winning six titles between 1949 and 1962, the club dropped down the French football pyramid in the 1990s and only in the last decade have they established themselves as a Ligue 1 club.
Now things are going on in the land of Champagne. Former Brighton and Watford coach Óscar García took over last summer and began a quiet revolution. He steered the club away from the business world and channeled senior professionals, many of whom quickly left, into a vibrant youth system.
Filling the first team with youngsters trained in the club’s modern academy was a risky move, but García’s inexperienced, unproven side finished with an impressive mid-table finish. Their young striker Hugo Ekitike has since moved to PSG for €30m – the club’s biggest ever sale – but García starts the season with a squad full of talented young players ready to step up to the next level.
How is the mood at the club at the start of the season?
It will be a very demanding season, with the World Cup in the middle and four teams relegated from Ligue 1. It’s always a competitive league, but everyone expects it to be even tougher this year. We will surely encounter similar methods that paid off last year. The first goal is to keep the club in Ligue 1 as soon as possible and then have enough time to reach higher goals. Maybe start looking at the table to see what we can achieve in the last 10 games.
You have done a great job of attracting 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 they explained it to me before I signed the contract. One of the main reasons I said yes was because my philosophy is the same. I like to develop young players, but at the same time I want to be really competitive. You can train players, but you may not always be competitive. Here we try to do both things at the same time. Sometimes it is not easy, but last season, for example, we faced Hugo Ekitike, the most expensive sale in the history of the club. It makes us proud because we have helped it reach another level.
Were you surprised by the talent at the club?
Yes. We have a lot of young, talented players in the second team – some of them have played for the French national teams – but it’s not that easy because Lyon, Paris, Rennes and other clubs have bigger academies than us. But everyone here works really hard – and you have to be brave and give them the opportunity to play in League One, not just for one match, but to continue to give them the confidence to play like they did in the youth teams.
What makes Reims Academy so successful? Is your training ground an impressive modern facility – or is it your exploration?
There is no single thing. Most important was the board’s plan to build something special for our young players. Here, young players feel that they can achieve their dreams of playing in Ligue 1. Of course, the conditions are great, and so are the coaches in the youth department. At the end of the day, it’s the first-team coach who decides to give them opportunities if they’re ready, and I think most of them are ready to compete at this level.
You have marked the sticker. What are his strengths and why was he so great last season?
He returned after a difficult season in Denmark. He was loaned there because the previous coach didn’t have much faith in him, but his development was huge. Last year he came back as the fourth-choice forward, but he showed me in the pre-season that he can be number one. He is an attacking player who does not like to work as a purely number 9, but prefers to be mobile. He is tall and slim but very coordinated and great with his feet. He’s not that strong with his head – which is something he needs to improve on – but with the right coach he can continue to improve and show his potential.
Will he succeed at PSG?
He has maybe 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 get a chance to play, maybe not every game, but hopefully he will learn a lot and continue to improve.
Who are you excited about in your current group of young players? Who is this season’s Ekitike?
It’s hard to say because I wouldn’t have told you this time last season that Ekitike would be the most expensive sale in the club’s history. But I hope the other players will continue to develop and show their potential. But even more than that, I want to keep the team in the 1st League and have developing young players. I did 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, find space behind defenders and also score goals. After Ekitiken’s departure, we had a problem at the gate. We create chances, but it was difficult to put the ball in the net, so we were looking for a profile like his.
Previously, you worked at “Watford” and “Brighton” in England. What makes English football different from France?
English clubs look at the French league a lot 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. Maybe it’s 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 scouting departments to watch Ligue 1.
Ligue 1 is more dynamic, exciting and attacking, with many teams using three defenders and full-backs. Will wingers die?
The position of the defenders is the key to understanding whether the team will play more offensively or defensively, with three or five defenders. I think you have to adapt to the players you have. It’s hard to play 4-3-3 or any other system if I don’t have the right wingers. If you have three really good center backs, you’ll want to use them. It always depends on your team. Many teams play with three defenders, but the most successful teams usually play with four – 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 to do with and without the ball. After that, the system may change. If you watch the match, the system prepared by the head coach may change. The media asked me after a game before why we played 4-3-3 and not 4-3-3. So, in the end, only the players know how we will play.
You’ve won titles in Israel and Austria, and you’ve also captained Greece and Spain. Have you found a home in Reims?
My house is on the beach! I had a great time in England and it is one of my goals to coach there again because the atmosphere, the fans and the league are amazing. One of my main goals is to return one day, but right now I’m focused on my team and my club in France. Reims is a club that has really helped me to continue to develop 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 well-being with the pressures of being a top-level coach?
This is a very important aspect of the game because one of the things that we coaches have to control and work hard on nowadays is the mental aspect. You have to be focused and attentive, then you can help other people and your players. You need to know how to connect with players of different generations. Talking to a 35-year-old football player is not the same as talking to a 19-year-old football player. They need to trust you. For me, this is perhaps 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’m lucky enough to be a professional footballer so I know the pressure. I’ve played in many important games with big crowds at the Camp Nou, but in the end it’s the pressure inside you, not the outside, that can make the difference. How you handle that pressure can make the difference between being a fantastic player or not being able to play at a high level.
You played in “Barcelona” for a long time under the leadership of Johan Cruyff. How much did it influence your playing style and what memories do you have of it?
I grew up playing for Barcelona. I was there from the age of nine to 27, so I have a clear philosophy of how Barcelona want to play and do everything. But I also wanted to go abroad, meet other cultures and become a better coach. I thought if I wanted to be the best coach I could be, I needed to go abroad and learn other philosophies, mentalities and styles of play. I like the Barcelona philosophy and I try to apply it wherever I am, but with some different details. That’s something I learned from Johan Cruyff. He told me that you can change many things, but you cannot change your philosophy. Your players need to see you with a clear mind – don’t change that you think one thing one day and another the next. Also, don’t treat everyone the same – if you yell at a player, they might not react in the right way to help them improve. But if you say the same thing to another player, their reaction will be different. So the first thing you need to do is meet with the players to find out 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.