Olympique Lyonnais: Failure, Success, and Everything in Between

It’s difficult to look further than the dominance of PSG in recent years, the club was acquired by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011 and have embarked on a relentless spending spree in an attempt to obtain silverware. To some degree, it has been successful as Les Parisiens have won eight Ligue 1 titles since the takeover. However, before the Ligue 1 title effectively took up residence in the capital, there was another club that dominated the landscape of French football: Olympique Lyonnais.


 The club was formed in 1896 as a multisport club Racing Club de Lyon. A few years later, the football team Lyon Olympique was created and throughout its early years, the club was often overshadowed by local rivals FC Lyon. The advent of two other local teams; CS Terreaux and AS Lyonnais meant that the city was soon divided with residents supporting one of the four clubs. Lyon Olympique went on to gain their first title in 1910 as they won the French Championship. 


Moving forward in the timeline to 1945, Félix Louot was manager of Lyon Olympique, he had aided the development of the professional game within the city. His skills as a manager ensured the club won the 1945 championship which saw them move up to the first division, however, there were many issues within the club as half of the squad were professional players whilst the others were amateurs. This led to a lack of harmony within the squad and as a result, Louot sought to break away and form a new club.


This eventually took place in 1950 as Dr. Albert Trillat led the formation of Olympique Lyonnais. Following a few years of yo-yo-ing between the second and first divisions came a period of limited success. This was largely thanks to the strike force of Fleury Di Nallo (The Little Prince of Gerland) and Néstor Combin who is often regarded as the greatest player to ever wear a Lyon shirt. After losing the 1963 Coupe de France final against Monaco, the club remedied this the next year, taking home the cup after a 2-0 victory over Bordeaux in the final. 


When Montpellier Ruled France: A Look Back at the 2011/12 Ligue 1 Champions


In 1987 local businessman Jean-Michel Aulas bought Olympique Lyonnais with the primary objective of turning the club into a force to be reckoned with on the domestic stage and to also make strides in European football. The first drop of success under the Aulas regime came in the form of the Ligue 2 title which ensured that the club managed by local lad Raymond Domenech gained promotion back to the topflight in 1989.


OL’s first season back in Ligue 1 saw them finish in eighth place, comfortably avoiding relegation. The following year, a fifth-place finish saw them qualify for the UEFA Cup, however a severe underperformance the year after brought about the end of Domenech’s reign and former Lyon player Jean Tigana was brought in to steady the ship. The early to mid-nineties saw Tigana become hugely popular with the Lyon fans despite never managing to win any silverware, his successor Guy Stéphan also struggled with fulfilling the ever-growing demand for success.


By 1996 Bernard Lacombe had been appointed manager, the Lyon native is credited with changing the atmosphere at the club and his reign is thought to be the beginning of cultivating a winning mentality within the dressing room. This also coincided with Ludovic Giuly becoming something of a key player for the team after scoring 16 goals during the 1996-97 season. The death of goalkeeper Luc Borelli was a particularly tough moment for all associated with Lyon. Borelli had signed for Lyon in 1998 but was tragically killed in a road traffic accident in February 1999. The club retired the number 16 shirt in his honour. 


The turn of the millennium was when OL began to really hit the heights that Jean-Michel Aulas had been chasing since he purchased the club back in 1987. After a third-place finish in Ligue 1, Les Gones embarked on an ambitious recruitment plan following the 1998-99 season. Aulas shelled out a then French record €17 million to bring Brazilian forward Sonny Anderson to the Stade Gerland from Catalan giants Barcelona.


The transfer took many by surprise especially as Anderson was considered by many to have been a flop during his time in Spain; other arrivals included winger Pierre Laigle and forward Tony Vairelles. The 1999-2000 season saw Lyon take control of Ligue 1 despite poor showings in Europe, their league form remained consistent until a calamitous 6-1 loss to Nantes in February which was the beginning of the end for Lyon’s title challenge that season.


Les Gones eventually finished in third place but on a more positive note, Sonny Anderson repaid Aulas’ faith by winning the Ligue 1 golden boot after scoring 23 goals throughout the campaign. Lacombe departed his position as manager at the end of the season and was replaced by Jacques Santini. During the summer of 2000 Aulas oversaw another impressive transfer window, this time the onus was on shoring up the defence.


A Nod to Loic Perrin and Other One-Club Men


In came Brazilians Edmilson and Caçapa, alongside Swiss defender Patrick Müller they would form the backbone of the Lyon defence. Santini set his team up in a traditional 4-3-3 line up which played to the strengths of his squad. Les Gones went on an eighteen-match unbeaten streak which saw them finish runners-up to Nantes in Ligue 1. However, Santini did bring home some silverware as OL defeated Monaco in the Coupe de France final thanks to goals from new signings Caçapa and Müller. It’s fair to say the future was beginning to look very promising in the city of Lyon. 


The summer of 2001 saw the transfer of another Brazilian to the club, this time it was dynamic midfielder and set-piece specialist Juninho Pernambucano. At the time he was an unknown entity in Europe despite racking up over 180 appearances for Vasco da Gama in Brazil. His arrival at the Stade Gerland is considered the main catalyst for the incredible domination OL demonstrated through the following years.


The 2001-2002 league campaign went down to the final day of the season as second-place Lyon faced off against first-place Lens. OL were crowned champions thanks to a 3-1 victory, their first French title since 1945 and their first ever Ligue 1 title. This season is credited as being the one that developed the ‘Lyon DNA’ – a winning mentality that ensured the players took to the pitch with a never say die attitude and an incredible ability to overturn deficits and overcome any adversity. 


Les Gones retained their title in 2003 despite Jacques Santini leaving to coach the national team. Paul Le Guen had been hired as his replacement and with the adoption of a new 4-2-3-1 system the team overcame a rather shaky period during the winter months.


The return of Sonny Anderson after a lengthy spell on the side-lines coupled with the consistency of Juninho who regularly produced pieces of magic ensured OL were back at the top in no time. The celebrations though were bittersweet as on 26th June 2003, midfielder Marc-Vivian Foé suffered a cardiac arrest whilst playing for the Cameroonian national team, OL retired Foé’s number 17 shirt as a gesture of respect.


Le Guen was well known for his ability to develop youth players into first-team stalwarts, he applied this strategy at Lyon, overseeing an improvement to the youth setup and signing talented youngsters such as Peguy Luyindula, Hatem Ben Arfa and Michael Essien and Florent Malouda to name a few. Luyindula would become a key component of the OL side in the 2003-2004 season as Sonny Anderson departed for pastures new, the young French forward led the goalscoring charts with 19 goals in all competitions which enabled Lyon to retain their title once again. 


The 2004-2005 season would see Lyon exert a new level of dominance over their domestic rivals. New signings Eric Abidal, Cris and Sylvain Wiltord helped Les Gones race to a 12-point lead at the top of the table, one which they would never give up throughout the season and ensured another title was heading to Gerland. Manager Paul Le Guen announced that he would be leaving during the summer months, Aulas soon announced former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier as his replacement.


Saint-Etienne: A Sleeping Giant In Freefall


Incredibly despite the constant revolving door of players and management, Lyon just kept on winning. Houllier stamped his own authority on the squad by bringing in Norwegian forward John Carew, Brazilain forward Fred and midfielders Pedretti and Tiago, the latter being a replacement for Essien who had departed to Stamford Bridge after a long and tedious transfer saga. Youth prospects Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa saw their first team opportunities increase dramatically under Houllier. 


OL began the 2005-2006 season with a 15-game unbeaten streak which included an incredible 3-0 victory at home to Real Madrid in the Champions League. They sped to the top of the table, taking up pole position at the end of August and never once relinquishing it. The title, which was never in doubt, was secured on match day 35 as Les Gones secured their fifth league title by a spectacular 15-point margin.


During the summer, the constant flow of transfers was in full effect, John Carew was swapped for Milan Baroš from Aston Villa while Mohamadou Diarra departed for Real Madrid thanks to a €25 million outlay from the Spanish giants and Jeremy Clement also left the club. Through the door came Swedish midfielder Kim Källström along with Jeremy Toulalan and Alou Diarra.


The 2006-2007 campaign was much the same for Lyon, they were soon perched atop the Ligue 1 table and despite some poor form during the second half of the season, they claimed their sixth consecutive title. Despite all the success on the domestic stage, progress in continental football was much more difficult to come by.


OL had consistently failed to reach beyond the Quarter Finals of the Champions League, and it was this lack of improvement on the European stage which saw Aulas push Houllier out of the door at the end of the 2006-2007 season. Alain Perrin was installed as manager for the 2007-2008 season and his first task was to oversee the departure of yet more key players from the club. Malouda left for Chelsea, Abidal for Barcelona, Tiago went to Juventus and Caçapa headed to Newcastle.


Aulas looked to sign the top players in Ligue 1 as replacements; Mathieu Bodmer and Kader Keïta were signed from Lille while World Cup winner Fabian Grosso signed from Inter. This season was much less dominant than the previous campaigns but nevertheless 31 goals from Karim Benzema ensured Lyon not only retained their crown but also won the Coupe de France for the first time in over 30 years.


Sékou Mara: The Latest Gem to Emerge from Bordeaux’s Academy?


Notwithstanding the success of this season, it is worth noting there was a dramatic decline in the squad harmony as there were multiple clashes between players including Hatem Ben Arfa and Sebastian Squillaci fighting in training, the former would then continuously clash with management while Fred would consistently undermine Perrin’s authority which eventually led to the Brazilian being shown the door. This perceived lack of man management would be touted as the reason why Aulas decided to part ways with Perrin despite him winning the league and cup double.


What has followed in the 15 years since Lyon’s last title win has been a steady decline into somewhat obscurity. Paul Le Guen was reinstated as manager after Perrin’s departure, but he failed to replicate the previous success and OL had to settle for a third-place finish in 2009. The club did manage to maintain some level of stability by consistently qualifying for some form of European football until 2020 when they finished a disappointing seventh.


Aulas invested heavily in the infrastructure as OL said Au revoir to the Stade Gerland in 2016 and moved to the brand new 60,000-capacity Groupama Stadium. Keen to ensure the club continued to develop talented youngsters Aulas also oversaw the rebuilding of the famed Lyon academy Centre Tola Vologe.


Despite all this investment the club has failed to reach the heights of yesteryear and in 2022 Jean-Michel Aulas sold a majority share of OL to American businessman John Textor. Lyon are currently in ninth place in this season’s Ligue 1 table and have struggled to find any sought of form, Peter Bosz was sacked as manager and Laurent Blanc has been installed to try and repair the damage and re-establish Les Gones as a force to be reckoned with.


Lyon’s dominance of the early 2000s is nothing short of incredible, looking back at French football, local rivals Saint Etienne dominated the sixties and seventies as they won eight league titles. Bordeaux were the force of the early to mid-eighties until Marseille stepped up to the plate and won four consecutive titles between 1988 and 1992.


Qatari-backed PSG are creating something of a dynasty having won ten league titles, but one club stands out above them all. No club has matched Olympique Lyonnais’ period of dominance, for seven years Lyon reigned supreme atop the Ligue 1 peak. The ever-changing managers and playing personnel never affected the winning mentality that was coursing through the veins of the club, it is a level of sheer authority and audacity we may never see again.


By: Bethany Limb / @bethlimb

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Olivier Chassignole / AFP