Nantes hoping new coach Kombouare can stave off relegation

·3 min read

PARIS — Nantes is a proud French club that suddenly finds itself in a relegation battle 20 years after the last of its eight league titles.

Survival mode has kicked in, with Nantes coach firing Raymond Domenech after an eight-games winless run and hiring Antoine Kombouare, hoping the popular former club stalwart can turn things around.

But a quick glance at Kombouare's resume makes uneasy reading for worried Nantes fans: his last coaching stint saw him fired after 10 straight defeats with relegated Toulouse.

Nantes is the fourth-most successful club in French league history and has also won four domestic cups. But the yellow-jersey Canaries have nothing to sing about now sit in 18th place.

First up for Kombouare is a tough trip to eighth-place Angers on Sunday afternoon, and training will be intensified beforehand.

“We’ll get down to work, don’t worry about that,” said Kombouare, who has a reputation as a strict disciplinarian.

He is already the club’s third coach this season, underlining how unstable things have become.

Christian Gourcuff was axed in December to make way for Domenech, who was fired on Wednesday night. When Domenech took over Nantes was 15th. But instead of pulling clear of the relegation zone, Nantes slid into it.

Domenech, who lost his last five games as France coach in 2010, was widely blamed by fans and media for taking the club backward.

Kombouare, however, made it clear that the players should look a bit closer to home.

“They know that if they’re playing badly, if they’re in this position, they're a little bit to blame as well," he said. “They need to take a bit of responsibility."

Domenech's eight-game tenure — four defeats and four draws — will go down as the shortest in club history, excluding interim coaches. But in the wider picture, he is just one more name in the merry-go-round of coaches since businessman Waldemar Kita bought the club 14 years ago.

Kombouare is the 16th coach since Kita's arrival and the list includes Premier League-winning Claudio Ranieri. The former Leicester boss initially did well but left three years ago amid tense relations with Kita. He has been urged to leave the club by angry supporters' groups, who have converged on training at times this season to make the feelings known.

Kombouare says he is not fazed by Kita's hire-fire reputation or the difficult context surrounding the club.

“I like pressure. I know the situation, who I'm working with,” Kombouare said. “I know what I'm doing.”

He probably knows how Domenech felt, too, for Kombouare's stint at Toulouse ended in even worse manner with a humiliating French Cup defeat to a fourth-tier side in January last year.

“I wasn’t given time to do my job," Kombouare said. “Yes, it is a personal revenge (with Nantes), I want to prove to myself that it’s ancient history.”

The 57-year-old Kombouare played 177 games for Nantes from 1983-90 as rugged central defender.

“I left Nantes 31 years ago, and memories have been flooding back," Kombouare said. “I have a very strong attachment to the club. I want to save it, I really do.”

Kombouare also played for and coached Paris Saint-Germain, where he was top of the league when the club surprisingly replaced him with Carlo Ancelotti in December 2011. That season, PSG went from being three points clear to finishing second behind Montpellier by three points.

This time, he knows that only staying up will be enough to stay in the job.

“If it doesn’t work out, I’ll leave. If I accomplish my mission and we stay up I have a two-year contract to come," he said. "I won’t stay if I’m not good enough to do my job.”

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Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press