To paraphrase perennial midfield shithouse turned philosopher Joey Barton, Ligue 1 and in particular its title race *insert scouse infused French accent*, “is a little bit boring”. And since the turn of the millennium, this has largely been true. The Olympique Lyonnais dynasty of the noughties, followed a few years later by the advent of the Qatari era at Paris Saint-Germain, has seen the pair win 12 of the last 18 Ligue 1 titles. On seven of those occasions, the gap between first and second was nine points or more.
But there was a time when French football was a bit less predictable. The 1990s saw a period of instability at the top of Ligue 1, owing to the match-fixing scandal that saw Olympique de Marseille relegated to Ligue 2 and stripped of their 1992-93 crown. The following six years saw six different champions, including an exciting young AS Monaco side and a first (and only) triumph for RC Lens. But perhaps the greatest success story of the decade occurred in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comte, roughly 90 miles from Paris.
The 1995-96 season saw AJ Auxerre win their one and only Ligue 1 title, as well as the Coupe de France, yet they did so in a rather unspectacular fashion. As the final league table suggests, they didn’t exactly blow their opposition away; over 38 games they won 22, drew six and lost ten, a remarkable number of defeats for a league champion. They accrued 72 points, four more than runners up PSG and third placed Monaco.
Yet despite their sometimes-inconsistent performance on the pitch, it was the whole culture and atmosphere around the club that made them stand out. Whether it was their superb kits, their (almost) one-club hero of a manager, the loyal generation of fans that watched their journey from the regional leagues of the fifth tier to becoming the best team in the country or just the fact that future Nigeria and Championship Manager cult hero Taribo West was their left-back, Auxerre were cool.
On the pitch, AJA were organised, hard-working and utterly committed. In goals they alternated between the long serving Lionel Charbonnier and the superbly named Fabien Cool. A rear guard including West and a mid-career crisis Laurent Blanc conceded a league-low 30 goals, while a midfield containing Phillipe Violeau, Moussa Saib, Correntin Martins, Sabri Lamouchi and Bernard Diomede offered steel and flair in equal measure. Upfront, Lilian Laslandes, Christophe Cocard and Stephane Guivarc’h all chipped in. But it wasn’t star quality that propelled Auxerre up the food chain.
Legendary coach Guy Roux, who was appointed as player-coach in 1961, was France’s answer to Sir Alex Ferguson. While nowhere near as successful in the trophy stakes as the famous Scot, his man management, work ethic and commitment were strikingly similar. But, unlike the Manchester United inherited by Ferguson, Auxerre had neither the reputation or finances to challenge in the upper tiers.
A staggering 44-year stint at the helm saw Roux implement an ambitious but sustainable plan at the club, one which looked to get around limited funds by placing emphasis on youth development and frugal purchases. Clearly it worked, as over the years the likes of Eric Cantona, Laurent Blanc, Phillipe Mexes and Djiberel Cisse all passed through the doors of the Stade Abbe-Deschamps on their way to stardom. At the same time, Auxerre rose from non-league obscurity to UEFA Cup stardom.
In the seasons preceding the double winning campaign, onlookers could tell something special was going on at Auxerre. After making its European debut in the late eighties, the 1992/93 season saw the club embark on a remarkable European run. Roux’s side disposed of FC Copenhagen, Standard Liege and Ajax on their way to the Semi-finals, where they eventually succumbed to Borussia Dortmund in a cruel penalty shootout defeat. The following year saw AJA win its first major trophy, a Coupe de France title another sign of the club’s upward trajectory.
Now, the double winning season. Let me begin with something that realistically had little effect on the title winning success, but made it that much better. The kit. Wow. It’s a shame that Uhlsport don’t make many kits anymore, because what they pulled out of the (kit)bag in 1995 was a belter. Think classic 90s collar. Think crisp white body with mad blue chevrons on the sleeves. Think Uhlsport branded-trim all down the sleeves and the shorts. Think DUC. DUC? Yep, for whatever reason, Uhlsport did away with the club badge that season and instead replaced it with the massive red logo of French poultry company, DUC. While I wouldn’t usually advocate such behaviour, it absolutely works.
Although football shirt purists may disagree, the best shirts of the nineties had sponsors, and big ones at that. ERG at Sampdoria, Panasonic at Marseille and Nintendo at Fiorentina all worked because they were loud, classy and added to the overall aesthetic of the shirt. DUC did this too. The logo sat both centrally on the chest and on the bottom left of the shorts, its bright red tone giving the kit a recognisable identity. The colour also complemented the white body and blue sleeves, creating the tricolour which gave the kit a classic French look. The team photo from the final game of the season, the title already in the bag and the players sporting tricolour painted hair, shows the kit in all its glory.
When it comes to the club’s changed strips, it all gets a bit odd. Hours of research online produced nothing by way of an away kit, while YouTube highlight reels suggest that when Auxerre played away at a team who normally wore white, it was the home team that changed shirt. AJA did have a cup kit though, which despite having the exact same design as the regular home, had changing sponsors (RTL and TFI were both used) and wasn’t manufactured by Uhlsport, but by rival German sportswear giants, Adidas.
In a way, coming up with such an iconic shirt design after a string of uninspiring efforts from Uhlsport mirrored Auxerre’s unexpected run to the title. Despite a number of top three finishes in previous seasons nobody thought the small-town minnows could really go all the way, especially given the talents of Monaco and PSG. Three defeats in their opening five games seemed to justify this notion, but it wasn’t until the tale end of the season when Roux’s side came into their own.
A 3-0 drubbing of PSG on matchday 32 saw Auxerre summited the table for the first time, and from there they didn’t look back. They went unbeaten in their final 10 games and secured an unlikely title with a game to spare with a 1-1 draw away at EA Guingamp. 20,306 Auxerrois, over half the city’s population, crammed into the Stade de l’Abbe-Deschamps to welcome home their heroes at the season finale, a 2-1 win over Nantes. The cup run was similarly impressive, with Auxerre overcoming PSG, Valence and Marseille before defeating Nimes 2-1 in Paris.
Although Auxerre would go on to become more universally recognised, thanks to both a shock 2-1 win at Highbury against Arsenal in 2002 and an iconic Playstation sponsored Kappa shirt, the club from Burgundy will likely never top their 1995/96 double. And in some ways, perhaps it’s best they don’t. Admittedly, given their now lowly stature (Ligue 2 has been home for the past seven seasons) and the infinite resources of their competitors, securing a second Ligue 1 title would be a seismic achievement. But it wouldn’t be the same.
The 1996 incarnation of the club was different to anything we see today in football. It was a team not of globetrotting stars, but of hardworking lads who gave their blood, sweat and tears to achieve the unthinkable, led by a manager who devoted over half a century to the small-town club who put their faith in him when the going was tough. It was a true Roy of the Rovers tale, the like of which I don’t think will ever be repeated. Allez les Auxerrois. Allez your beautiful 90s kit.