When Sir Alex Ferguson vacated the Old Trafford hot seat in May 2013, there was considerable concern among Manchester United fans about how the club would handle the transition. After all, Ferguson had been United’s only manager since 1986, an incredible 27-year stretch that brought 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues. The Scot was all that a whole generation of Red Devils fans knew.

Compatriot David Moyes subsequently struggled as Ferguson’s successor, lasting just ten months as United won only half of their league games and slumped disastrously to seventh place, their worst finish since 1990. Moyes was perhaps never the right man for the job but it is impossible to underestimate the challenge that awaited him, with the entire club still inextricably bound up with the personality of one powerful, omnipresent and hugely-successful man.

That being said, United were hardly a minor outfit prior to Ferguson’s arrival from Aberdeen; notwithstanding an ignominious year in the Second Division after relegation in 1974, United had been ever-presents in the top flight for decades and Ron Atkinson even led the 1968 European champions to two FA Cups in 1983 and 1985.

Sir Alex Ferguson would later take United to another level again but, despite his undoubted managerial brilliance, the club benefited from their pre-existing fan base, infrastructure and financial pull as they went on to dominate English football for the best part of 20 years. To find a side genuinely unrecognisable from the beginning to the end of a single manager’s tenure, a trip across the Channel is necessary.

In the centre of France, about 165 kilometres southeast of Paris, lies the small city of Auxerre. It is populated today by just 39,000 people, putting it roughly on a par with the likes of Salisbury, Cramlington and Winchester in Britain. Back in 1961, when a local 23-year-old by the name of Guy Roux was appointed coach of the city’s fledgling football team, there were even fewer inhabitants, and AJ Auxerre, competing in the fifth tier, barely registered on the French footballing radar. Forty-four years later, when Roux finally stepped aside for good in 2005 after winning a Ligue 1 title, two Intertoto Cups, four Coupes de France and appearing in the Champions League, their name was famous across all of Europe.

Roux was born in Colmar in October 1938, a town situated close to the German border in the north east of the France. When his father Marcel was captured and held prisoner during the early years of the Second World War, the family decided to move west to the safer town of Appoigny, just ten kilometres north of Auxerre.

Roux would later return to Colmar and develop his passion for football by watching his hometown side at the Stade des Francs, but Appoigny had clearly made an impression on him and it was when he moved back there in 1950 that he became dedicated to carving out a career in the game. In 1954, aged 16, Roux made his first-team debut for Auxerre in the local Burgundy League, beginning an association with the club that would span half a century.

Auxerre had by then been in existence for almost 50 years, but had been unable to progress to the national leagues after the professionalisation of football in 1932. Roux thus joined a proud but modest club and, after three largely nondescript years, went onto play for Stade Poitevin and Limoges. Despite his endeavour, it was clear that Roux did not possess the requisite talent to make any significant money from playing the game, and he soon decided that if he was to have any future in football, it would have to be in coaching. In the summer of 1961, Auxerre made a decision that would change the club forever.

Money was the clincher. When Roux sent off an ambitious application for the vacant head coach position at Auxerre he had little experience to speak of, so instead focused on detailing his future plans for the club.

According to Jean-Claude Hamel, who was involved in the running of the club even before he became president in 1963, it was Roux’s promise of self-sufficiency and low personal wage demands that sealed the deal; within days, the 22-year-old was installed as player-manager, initially on an annual salary of just 7,200 francs.

Promises of a parsimonious approach were indicative of Roux’s personality – his dining partners would frequently lament his perceived stinginess, even in his later, richer years – and characteristic of his entire 44 years in charge. Far from being a bad thing, though, the frugality was probably directly responsible for AJA becoming world-famous for their youth development and knack for reigniting careers that appeared to be on a downward spiral: the likes of Eric Cantona, Laurent Blanc, Basile Boli, Philippe Mexès, Teemu Tainio, Alain Goma and Djibril Cissé were all either developed by the club or passed through on their way to the top. Roux was certainly prepared to spend when necessary, but he clearly felt liable for the health of the club, a sense of responsibility that facilitated a reign of unprecedented length. 

Not that any of that was conceivable in the early 1960s. While it is romantic to envisage a 25-year plan to get tiny, provincial Auxerre into Europe, it is likely that Roux had no grand ambitions of the kind and was managing, at least initially, on a relatively short-term basis. A month spent observing training at English Fourth Division side Crystal Palace was the only coaching involvement Roux had ever had – he had written to Eagles boss Arthur Rowe asking if he could undertake an internship of sorts with the Londoners as part of a research project – and he was presumably aware that he had to get the players onside quickly if he was to avoid pressure from the boardroom. Auxerre may have been an amateur outfit in the lower leagues, but football at any level is a results business, and Roux knew that his tender age made him more vulnerable than most should wins prove hard to come by. 

It was perhaps that overwhelming desire to impress that persuaded Roux to embrace an exceptionally comprehensive role almost instantly; his official job title of player-manager certainly did not tell the whole story. Darren Tulett, the beIN Sports presenter who has spent most of his professional life in France, explains how Roux combined the customary tasks of delivering training, organising transfers and picking the team with things like manning the club’s switchboard and persuading local farmers to donate their goat manure to the club’s playing fields. It is somewhat more difficult to imagine Ferguson arranging deliveries of dung to Manchester United’s training complex, The Cliff, even in his early days at the helm.

Conscription interrupted the early years of Roux’s regime as he was called away to serve between 1962 and 1964, but Auxerre made some steady headway in the years after his return. Roux instilled a professional attitude within the club even before its employees were given full-time contracts, his demanding standards engendering a culture of hard work and sacrifice. In 1970, Roux retired as a player and Auxerre won promotion to the national third division, before climbing to Ligue 2 and the professional ranks in 1974. 

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forme-a-auxerre-djibril-cisse-est-l-un-des-gros-coups-de-guy-roux-20-millions-d-euros_60479_wideRoux and a young Djibril Cissé

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Roux was aware that improvement on the pitch had to be matched away from it, and Auxerre soon unveiled a new training centre to provide the club with previously unimaginable facilities. Both Roux and Jean-Claude Hamel – by now club president after predecessor Jean Garnault took on the role of head of the Burgundy League – shared a belief that behind-the-scenes infrastructure was paramount to long-term success, an attitude that was perfectly encapsulated in 1980 when Auxerre rejected the chance to sign French international striker Olivier Rouyer in favour of opening a state-of-the-art youth academy. It would prove a prudent choice: over the next few years, players of the calibre of Cantona, Boli, Frédéric Darras, Pascal Vahirua, Raphaël Guerreiro and Stéphane Mazzolini would come through the setup and establish themselves as regulars in the first team.

It was the year previous to that decision being made that Auxerre really caught the eye of the French public for the first time. Defeats of Montpellier, Lille and Strasbourg saw Roux’s charges reach the final of the Coupe de France, a stunning achievement for a second tier outfit. Four-time Ligue 1 champions Nantes required extra time to see off the plucky Burgundians, who attracted plaudits for their courageous displays throughout the tournament.

Things got even better for Auxerre the following year when a final day victory over Cannes sealed their spot in France’s leading division for the first time ever. Many observers wondered whether such a small club would be able to sustain themselves in Ligue 1, but Auxerre would remain at the top table until 2012, seven years after Roux’s departure. As it happened, their debut top flight campaign was a comfortable affair, new recruit Andrzej Szarmach helping himself to 16 goals as AJA placed tenth.

That mid-table accomplishment marked two decades in charge for Roux, who was still only 42. Things continued to get better for him as Auxerre finished third and qualified for the UEFA Cup in 1983-84. A first-round exit at the hands of Sporting CP did not appear to affect the club too much: Auxerre famously beat Milan 3-1 in the first leg of a tie the following year before succumbing 3-0 back in Italy, and then reached the quarter-finals in 1989-90.

In 1993, they were cruelly eliminated via a penalty shoot-out in their semi-final with Borussia Dortmund after a famous 4-3 aggregate defeat of Louis van Gaal’s Ajax – who, lest it be forgotten, went onto win the Champions League two years later – in the previous round. Auxerre were now regulars in Europe and, while Roux had no silverware to show for it, AJA were quietly improving domestically too. That defeat to Dortmund hurt dearly, but it would not be long until Roux and his players were sampling the sweet taste of success.

In the 13 seasons since their accession to the top-tier in 1980, Auxerre had, remarkably, only ended a single campaign in the bottom half. That record continued with third and fourth place finishes in 1994 and 1995 – as well as the club’s maiden Coupe de France in the former of those years – before Auxerre and Guy Roux’s greatest ever season in 1995-96.

The club has a good squad heading into that campaign, but they were certainly not favourites for the league title: Nantes had topped the table by 10 points the previous year, while Lens and PSG were also expected to pose strong challenges.

Auxerre, who had only 19 first team players on the books, were fortunate with injuries and, although they were defeated as many times as 11th placed Lyon (ten), 22 wins from 38 games was enough to sneak the title ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco. A few weeks later, the domestic double was secured as Nîmes were defeated in the Coupe de France final, goals from Laurent Blanc and Lilian Laslandes enough to wrap up a 2-1 victory. Alain Goma, Taribo West, Moussa Saïb and Corentin Martins also started that game, yet Roux was the undoubted star of the show.

Auxerre’s title defence did not go too well – the holders ended the 1996-97 season in sixth, 18 points off the summit – but their maiden Champions League appearance confirmed that Roux’s men were now a real force in French football. Ajax, Grasshopper Zürich and Rangers were all beaten in the group stage as Auxerre impressively finished top to set up a quarter-final encounter with Dortmund, their UEFA Cup conquerors four terms previously. The Germans again triumphed on their way to winning the tournament, but for Auxerre to even be competing against BVB in the last eight of Europe’s foremost club competition was something of a miracle.

Roux would take his seat in the Auxerre dugout for seven more seasons, but such heights would not be scaled again. Despite links with the French national team job and Bayer Leverkusen, Roux remained at AJA until 2000, when he was moved upstairs into a sporting director role. The retirement from management was premature, however, and Roux was reinstalled as coach twelve months later. Two more Coupes de France followed in 2003 and 2005, with the final against Sedan in June 2005 turning out to be Roux’s final game as Auxerre manager after an almost-implausible 44 years. In a strange move, Roux signed a two-year deal with Lens in 2007 but lasted only four games, an unsuccessful stint that, while nowhere near enough to tarnish his reputation, certainly spoiled the ultimate one-club career.

Roux was not universally loved. To his many critics, he was a tyrannical dictator who ruled Auxerre with an iron fist. Tulett recalls covering a clash between AJA and Lens and being “amazed at how scared of Roux many of the backroom staff and volunteers were”, while Michel Platini once accused Roux of only “looking out for number one”. His decision to announce his resignation the day after the 2005 Coupe de France victory was widely interpreted as a calculated move to ensure that he, not his players, received the bulk of the attention at Auxerre’s victory parade a few hours later.

A lot of this is inevitable. Considering Roux spent 44 years at the club, managing 2,000 games and a record 890 in the top flight, he was bound to be an extremely powerful figure.

He had earned that through his loyalty and dedication, as well as the extraordinary achievement of turning a provincial outfit into an established member of Ligue 1 with an organic, bottom-up approach based on nurturing, coaching and a fierce work ethic rather than the payment of exorbitant transfer fees and wages. In short, Roux was Auxerre. Before he arrived, they were essentially a different club and, when he finally departed in the club’s centenary year, he had been an Auxerre employee for almost half of their history.

Quite aside from the astonishing transformation of Auxerre from amateur also-rans to title winners and consistent continental competitors, longevity of that kind is a triumph in itself. To adapt to the changing nature of football – tactical trends, the ever-increasing involvement of technology, evolution in training methods and sports science, the increase in player power and different nationalities within the changing room – all while maintaining high standards and progressing year on year is an outstanding feat.  After all, the early-60s and mid-2000s were two very different eras: when Roux took over in 1961, John F. Kennedy was American president, Charles de Gaulle ran France and Winston Churchill was only six years out of office in the UK, while construction had not yet begun on the Berlin Wall.

It was, in other words, essentially another world back then, so for Roux to remain professionally unaffected by the societal, political and sporting change that accompanied his 44 years as Auxerre boss is testament to his genius. Ferguson, whose 27-year spell at United seems absurdly transient in comparison, would surely concur.

By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball