Until recently, the picturesque town of Angers was known mostly because of its Plantagenet-era history and because of its tradition of being one of Europe’s intellectual centres.
However, after achieving promotion to Ligue 1 in the 2014-2015 season, the city’s football club, SCO Angers, has once again emerged into the limelight, taking centre stage.
The club is proud of its history – France and Real Madrid legend Raymond Kopa started his professional career at the Stade Jean-Bouin and this remains one of its fervent boasts – but Stéphane Moulin’s contemporary side also appear to be making key strides on the pitch.
Angers have had a great start to life in France’s top-flight – they currently sit in a dizzyingly-high third-place after three matches, having won two games and drawn one along the Loire against relatively local rivals FC Nantes.
Les Angevins convincingly beat fellow Ligue 1 new boys Gazélec Ajaccio in Corsica on Saturday evening by two goals to nil, in an away fixture in which they would have at best hoped to manage a draw last season.
So how have Angers done it? How have they appeared to have made the transition to France’s top-flight so smoothly?
The answer lies in the club’s recruitment policy, and should their current form continue, the behind the scenes work at the Jean-Bouin could serve to be the benchmark to which future promoted clubs in France and further afield aspire to.
The answers to the club’s recent success lie in a structure which has been in place for a number of years, which existed before promotion hopes were ever present in the wildest dreams of the club’s faithful support.
Despite not being the most renowned or celebrated person in French football, the brilliantly-named Axel Lablatinière is a man to whom Angers supporters owe a lot of gratitude.
The former lower division football, sports journalist and successful football agent is the club’s head of recruitment, and his eye for talent and dedication to the task at hand has helped him to become one of the most successful recruiters in France.
Lablatinière admits to watching around two-hundred games a season, and alongside head coach Moulin, club president Saïd Chabane and sporting director Olivier Pickeu, he has helped to develop one of the country’s most cost and result-effective recruitment cells.
Lablatinière’s focus at youth level has always been to aim for targets within the club’s native Pays de la Loire region and then to develop them with the intention of integrating them within the first-team set-up.
At senior level, the switched-on scout has casted his net farther, with the focus moving to both professional and semi-professional clubs across the length and breadth of France’s héxagone.
This system allowed the club to make the most of their relatively modest €10.2 million (£7.5 million) budget last season. It should be noted that six other clubs in Ligue 2 had higher budgets than Angers during the 2014-2015 campaign.
In last season’s promotion-winning season, Angers SCO stood out because of the strength of certain individual players. Standout attacking midfielder Sofiane Boufal, who has since moved on to Lille and who has become one of Ligue 1’s most exciting young players, came through the Angers academy to become a regular in Moulin’s side until his January transfer.
Goalkeeper Ludovic Butelle, who remains the club’s number one, was signed on a free transfer to replace the veteran Grégory Malicki, and he went on to be nominated by the UNFP (French Professional Footballers’ Union) as one of the three top Ligue 2 goalkeepers of the season.
Imposing centre-back Romain Thomas excelled in the aforementioned draw with Nantes and he was a consistently steady and assured performer for his side last season.
The giant Breton was spotted by regional scouts within Lablatinière’s recruitment network while he was playing for third-division National outfit USJA Carquefou and he has since played over seventy games in a black and white jersey.
Further up the field, left-sided midfielder Abdoul Camara has been a revelation since moving to the club after his contract at Sochaux was ended by mutual consent.
The former Rennes man was snapped-up on a free transfer at the end of the 2013-2014 season, and he went on to become one of Ligue 2’s brightest players in last year’s campaign, threatening defences with his pace and quick feet.
In a poignant and historic day in the club’s history, Camara grabbed Angers’ opener this season in their surprise two-nil away victory against Montpellier, with a trademark left-foot drive.
Another sensational signing orchestrated by the club’s recruitment cell came in the shape of the now Bristol City centre-forward Jonathan Kodjia.
The Franco-Ivorian had a tough time trying to make an impact at Stade de Reims and after three loan spells away from the Auguste-Delaune, the club from the Champagne region decided to put his Ligue 1 hopes on ice when they told him that he no longer had a future at the club.
Kodjia was then brought in to Stéphane Moulin’s squad ranks thanks to the club’s recruitment cell and the Paris-born attacker then went on to score fifteen vital goals for the Pays de la Loire side, wooing fans at the Jean-Bouin with his dribbling and finishing skills.
Like Butelle, Kodjia was also nominated for an UNFP award, but he went one better than his teammate – he was crowned Ligue 2 Player of the Season, before moving to the Championship for a fee of around £2.4million.
Having achieved so much on Ligue 2’s seventh highest budget last season, it was no surprise that Angers decided to delve into the transfer market as quickly as possible when the new window opened in June.
Les Angevins may have Ligue 1’s third-smallest declared budget, which stands at around €24mil (£17mil) and is believed to be around twenty-times smaller than Paris Saint-Germain’s declared figure, but it must be remembered that it is substantially bigger than their figure for the 2014-2015 season.
Moulin has added fourteen players to his squad ranks, from both inside France and from four other overseas leagues. The added financial power has given Angers the chance to cast their nets further and to expand their network of scouting further afield to great effect.
So far, the most influential of the club’s signings have been players that the club have signed from Ligue 2. This marks an important evolution in the club’s politique de recrutement or recruitment policy, and it also highlights the positive change of power shift towards Angers.
Instead of signing cruelly-dubbed ‘rejects’ from Ligue 1 clubs, Moulin’s side are now in the position where they can recruit the best players from the league below them, from sides who were promotion rivals last season.
Cheikh Ndoye is the archetypal example. Ndoye was Créteil’s star player last season and had also been in his two previous seasons at the Île-de-France club.
The gigantic Senegalese holding midfielder, who almost plays like an extra centre-forward or centre-back at set-pieces, has so far been a revelation since signing on a free transfer, scoring two goals already while captaining his new club.
Another smart signing in this regard among others has been the transfer of Brest’s Ivorian international defender Ismaël Traoré who appears to be developing a very sound central defensive partnership alongside Romain Thomas.
The club have also signed former Arsenal youth player Giles Sunu from newly-relegated side Évian Thonon-Gaillard, once again marking the changing tide of influence towards the Pays de la Loire club. Despite the apparent evolution in the club’s recruitment policy, Lablatinière has also maintained the traditional elements of his network.
The head of recruitment has employed former Sochaux player Allann Petitjean to monitor both player and opposition developments in the South and East of the country, while former Chamois Niortais defender Philippe Leclerc continues to carry out similar roles for the club in the centre and the west of the country.
This has allowed the club to continue to track players in the lower levels of French football, and as a result the club have signed three players from clubs participating in leagues below Ligue 2.
Twenty-four-year-old midfielder Mathias Serin was a surprise arrival at the club from CFA (fourth-tier side) Romorantin and he appears to have brought the club plenty of pace and trickery.
One player in particular to keep a close eye on is Slimane Sissoko. The twenty-four-year-old striker joined Angers from third division side Vendée Luçon Football in the summer and Lablatinière has tipped the striker for big things.
Speaking to Le Parisien, he explained that Sissoko has ‘the potential to play at the top level’ and that he is blessed with pace and excellent awareness.
The pacey player had an almost impact when he came off the bench against Montpellier to set up Sunu for his first and Angers’ second goal of the season on Matchday 1 with a knocked-down header. In a team that appear to be full of surprises, Sissoko could be the biggest surprise of all.
What Angers appear to have done successfully over the past few seasons is to make the most of the knowledge at their disposal, thanks to presence of people with an intrinsic knowledge of the game in France – whether this can be translated into the club’s new overseas signings remains to be seen.
However, what excites many is the fact that Lablatinière appears to be systematically targeting players that have either been formed in French youth academies and whose talents haven’t yet been fulfilled, or even more obscurely, players who youth scouts have missed at pre-academy level.
It may surprise some to realise that high-profile players Mathieu Valbuena, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté were all playing amateur football in France whilst in their early twenties and that they amassed between them over hundred games at amateur level before coming to the attention of first-team scouts at professional clubs.
The ‘forgotten ones’ market is reachable for clubs like Angers, and it is a market that could help Les Angevins’ to continue to causes surprise in Ligue 1 this season.