Le Havre: the second-tier French club producing world class footballers

Spread the love

Le Havre’s list of alumni makes for impressive reading. World Cup winners, European champions and some of the most expensive players in history have passed through the French club’s academy over the years. Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez, Dimitri Payet, Lassana Diarra, Édouard Mendy, Ferland Mendy and Steve Mandanda all called the club home in their formative years.Despite spending most of their existence in Ligue 2, Le Havre have one of the most prestigious academies in France. They do not have the riches of PSG, or titles of Marseille or Lyon, but their methods have worked in youth development for more than four decades.Michael Bunel, who is in charge of the academy, has been at the club since 2005. Previously an English teacher in France, he was always interested in teaching and coaching football, and combined those two passions when he joined Le Havre. Having coached various age groups, as well as their women’s side, he knows the club’s philosophy inside out.“We think that you have to be smart to become a top player,” he says. “Our philosophy is based around developing the capacity of the player to be smart. When you look at the top players, they have this capacity to analyse what goes on around them and to make the right call, regardless of system, coach or style of play. A smart player will be able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses.”When Bunel uses the word “smartness”, which he does a lot, he is talking about the decisions a player makes when they have the ball: what they’re going to do with it, how they’re going to progress the play, how they analyse situations and what choices they make. The best players enhance their physical gifts and technical ability with this game intelligence.“You must have good technique,” Bunel says. “You cannot play at the highest level if you can’t control the ball or make a pass. From this, we will work on developing the smartness as well as the physical and mental qualities of a player. It’s quite hard to develop mental qualities, because you have to train a player’s character. When I say mental qualities, I mean a player’s focus, being able to develop commitment for the team, to not be selfish, as well as technical qualities. Then there’s the physical part. You have to have the physical qualities to play at the highest level because it’s impossible to not run, impossible to not jump and be a part of duels.”The club also expect a lot from their coaches. “You can be a top player, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be a top coach,” says Bunel. “Especially when you coach young players, you must be able to convey your message. You are a teacher of football. You must be able to organise sessions according to the game and what you expect from the team. You need to identify what players need in order to grow.”Steve Mandanda in action for Le Havre in 2007. Photograph: Icon Sport/Getty ImagesIn recent decades, Le Havre have brought in players from various areas of France. Payet moved from the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, whereas former France international Vikash Dhorasoo was born and raised near Le Havre. Bunel says the club recruits players based on several things, including their playing quality, their proximity to the city and their maturity. He uses Mahrez as an example. Having grown up in the northern suburbs of Paris, Mahrez joined Le Havre as a teenager. Even though he lived about three hours away, the club recognised he was mature and independent enough to deal with the commute.The club tries to find players who live nearby, especially among the younger age groups. “We rarely go beyond two hours, which is Normandy and, maximum, Paris. In our academy, we have a dorm where we can house players from July to June. We are lucky because Paris is a good place to recruit. It’s important for the child to keep this link with their family. You can be a good coach, but you can never be a substitute for the parent. Two hours is a good compromise for the child to focus on football, education and relationship with their family.“From the age of six to 12, we usually have local players – those that come from the city. At 13, we start looking for players that are about two hours away. We have nine boys living at the academy at the moment. We don’t want to have more because we think having more kids means that we need more people to look after them. We want to have quality around them. From the age of 16 to 19, we have mostly local players and sometimes some recruited players a bit further, who are more accepting of this life.”Education is also a crucial factor. Around 0.5% of academy players will make it as professionals, so they need to secure good grades too. If a player does not perform well at school, they don’t get time on the pitch. This strict approach ensures the players keep their feet on the ground. “In France, a pro academy means studying and training,” says Bunel.“We have partnerships with schools and we have daily contact with the teachers, learning about their progress. When the boys are 14 or 15, they go to school from 8am to 3.30pm, after which they have a training session from 4pm to 6pm and then they do their homework just before dinner. After dinner, they have an hour free for their own activities.“For older ones, there are often two sessions a day. For instance, on Tuesdays they are in school from 8am til 10am and then have a session from 10:30am to 12pm, then they go back to school before having another training session at the end of the afternoon from 4pm until 6pm. Everything is organised accordingly.”Ferland Mendy in action for Le Havre in 2016. Photograph: Anthony Dibon/Getty ImagesLike with most clubs around Europe, technology is essential to Le Havre. “Video is a top tool to analyse, to show the player what happens, what he did or should have done,” says Bunel. “It’s good to have them reflect. We have individual and team sequences. In individual sequences, the players often analyse themselves and we have discussions. In team sequences, we have more meetings with the team.“We mix the videos with data we get from the GPS. The boys analyse themselves and every Monday we have a 15-minute meeting with each player and they tell us what they think went right or wrong. Sometimes, we use video to deepen the discussion. We don’t have the money to have a lot of technology, but we are able to find the right balance between what we need and what we have, and the most important is for us to be efficient.”Le Havre’s youngsters are sought after by rich clubs throughout Europe but Bunel thinks they would benefit from staying put for longer and developing within the first team. “I’m proud of Pogba – he’s won the World Cup,” Bunel beams. “I would say he made the right choice. But recruiting a player at the age of 16 is complicated for the child and our academy. We aren’t like PSG or Marseille – our club is organised in a way where it permits young kids from the age of 17 to play in the first team. We have many academy players in the first team. I understand if they want to play for Manchester United or Liverpool. Their careers are short and they want to win big things.”Bunel takes pride in the success of the players who have left Le Havre, but the burning ambition within the club is to reach Ligue 1 and stay there. That’s no easy task, but the work he is doing with comparatively modest resources certainly helps. This is an article from The Set Pieces Follow Karan Tejwani and The Set Pieces on Twitter

Like it? Share with your friends!