The French Herbert Chapman: Albert Batteux

Football history is liberally scattered with instances of football managers taking charge and revolutionising the fortunes of an also-ran club. Somewhat rarer are examples of managers who have performed this laudable feat and then repeated it – taken one club to prominence then moving elsewhere and in different circumstances doing the same thing again.

England’s most celebrated example is Herbert Chapman who transformed Huddersfield Town into the best team in England during the 1920s before repeating the feat in the early 1930s after decamping to Arsenal. And then there’s France’s version of Herbert Chapman: the celebrated Albert Batteux who was responsible for creating two of the greatest post-war club dynasties in Ligue 1 history.

Batteux will always be primarily associated with Stade de Reims with whom he had an unbroken 26-year run as a player and then manager. The young Albert Batteux joined the then amateur club in 1938 and soon developed a reputation as a player of considerable skill and poise. He played notionally at inside right and brought a subtlety and tactical intelligence to the role which would have echoes a generation later in Raymond Kopa – one of his future prodigies.

Batteux’s playing career was limited by the war but in its immediate aftermath his, and the fortunes of his club, picked up dramatically. League reorganisation saw Reims granted top-flight status and the club from the Champagne region took to its new surroundings quickly. By 1949 it had won its first national championship with Batteux – by now a French international – its captain and chief inspiration.

The following season would be his final one as a player and it ended on a high as he led his teammates to success in the Coupe de France Final against Racing Club Paris. That very same night he was invited to take over as the new entraineur from Henri Roessler and a golden age for the club, and French football, was underway.

In an age when coaches were traditionally older and patrician like, Batteux’s relative youth when he set out on his management adventure – he took over Reims at the age of just 31 – made it easier for his players to have more of an affinity with him and he became renown as a figure who inspired loyalty and maximum effort from his charges.

His principles as to how the game should be played were straightforward. He liked players who were technically strong, attack-minded and willing to work hard for the team – le jeu collectif was his motto. He was a great believer that his teams should always be proactive in seeking to impose their game on the opposition, as opposed to reactive and dependant upon opponents making mistakes for chances to be created – a criticism he levelled against the English game in particular.

Batteux was also infamous for the heavy and extensive fitness work he undertook in pre-season with his squads. For ten days his players would be worked to the point of exhaustion in the summer sun in what he labelled as his ‘séminaire’. It brought tangible results though and how strongly his teams finished seasons became a feature of his managerial career.

Albert Batteux transformed Stade de Reims into the dominant French club of its generation. Another League title followed in 1953 along with a Latin Cup success, followed by four further title wins in 1955, 1958, 1960 and 1962. Had it not been for the brilliance of Real Madrid then Reims would surely have been one of the earliest European Cup winners; alas, twice they fell in the Final to the Di Stefano-inspired Spanish juggernaut.

The peak year for club and trainer came in 1958. Reims secured the domestic double and Batteux managed France to an excellent third-placed finish at that summer’s World Cup in Sweden, a success that was only possible because of the strong six-man Reims contingent in the squad. The dazzling attack of Just Fontaine, Jean Vincent, Roger Piantoni and Raymond Kopa were all Reims players apart from Kopa who had left the club for Real Madrid and would later return.

Delivering what would be his fifth and last title for Reims in 1962, within a few months Albert Batteux’s quarter of a century involvement with the club was over. Most managers are pushed out because of bad results but Batteux was dismissed for purely financial reasons – the club was struggling financially and needed to shed its big earners. The void that the talismanic figure left was so seismic that the club plunged to relegation at the end of the 1963-64 season.

Batteux’s services were hugely in demand all over the continent but this was a man never motivated by money and one who was happy to live and work exclusively in his beloved France. Still, eyebrows were raised when his next stop was the minor D2 club Grenoble and even with such an esteemed manager on board the club rarely looked likely to earn a promotion to Ligue 1 during his 4 years there. His main motivation for taking this job was reputedly an enjoyment of the town’s wonderful mountain scenery.

After this unusual sabbatical Batteux would return to the big time in 1967 with Saint Etienne on the recommendation of Jean Snella, the club’s departing coach and Batteux’s assistant in Sweden during that fine World Cup of 1958. He was joining a club that was reigning champions but hadn’t yet progressed to becoming the overwhelmingly dominant force in France, a situation Batteux would quickly advance.

With both existing players and new signings galvanised by the attacking ethos of the new coach, Saint Etienne won three successive titles and five of the six available domestic trophies during that time. Bereta, Bosquier and the freescoring Revelli were the standout players as the club moved into an extended period in which it would become France’s standout club.

An opportunity to win a fourth successive title in 1971 was lost in the most controversial of circumstances. Midway through the season the ASSE players Carnus and Bosquier announced they upon the ending of their contracts at the end of the season they would be signing for Marseille. A normal state of affairs today perhaps, but back then such a deal was seen as a scandalous betrayal of loyalty to a club.

Technically there was nothing illegal about such an announcement, but ASSE president Roger Rocher was so outraged he suspended the pair and their absence cost the club during the title run. Ironically it was Marseille who took the title with four points to spare.

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The controversial Rocher took a similar hardline approach with his manager the following season following a disappointing campaign and a sixth-placed finish. With no trophy won for two seasons and European qualification missed, Batteux was deemed a failure and summarily dismissed. In truth he was happy to leave having long become weary of his president’s ongoing histrionics.

This was to spell the end of Albert Batteux’s long and hugely successful spell as a manager. He lapsed into semi-retirement and was only occasionally persuaded to get back into the saddle with short stints at Avignon, Nice and finally Marseille – by then a second tier club – at the beginning of the 1980s.

He retired properly and lived out a quiet life in the town of Grenoble which he had come to love until his death at the age of 83. Batteux’s record of winning 8 French titles as a manager stands to this day and is one that’s unlikely ever to be beaten; indeed, no other manager has managed any greater than half that number.

The only person before or since who could legitimately challenge Batteux for the unofficial title of the greatest manager France has produced is Aimé Jacquet, the man who led his country to World Cup success in 1998. Typically the individual who inspired Jacquet to become a manager in the first place was Albert Batteux who had coached him during his years with Saint Etienne.

Upon his death Jacquet described his old friend and mentor as ‘‘a footballing intellectual who had the words to explain,’ touching upon Batteux’s rare gift for communicating and connecting with his players. France will never see his likes again.

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