The strange case of Claude Le Roy

Matthew Gooding enjoyed a brief period of cosmopolitan influence at the Abbey Stadium, especially as it was so out of character for Cambridge United

Like a well-worn pair of shoes, the process of appointing a new Cambridge United manager is one which is comfortingly familiar for the club’s long-suffering fans. A motley cast of has-beens and never-will-bes throw their names into the hat via the back page of the local paper, while ex-U’s boss Tommy Taylor usually pops up to express an interest.

So when John Taylor got the boot in March 2004, it came as no surprise when the likes of Mark Wright, Brian Horton and, worryingly, Carlton Palmer were linked with the vacancy. Eventually stories began to circulate that an ex-international manager was in the running, leading to a piece in the Daily Mirror speculating that Glenn Hoddle was being lined up for Abbey Stadium job.

The club soon put pay to that by announcing that Frenchman Claude Le Roy, the former national team coach of Cameroon and Senegal, was to take charge. “In Claude we have secured the services of one of the most respected managers in Europe, if not the world. This is possibly the most exciting appointment the club has made in its entire history,” said United chairman Gary Harwood, a man known to laugh in the face of hyperbole. “Hopefully, when League status is secured he will build the team into an attractive and successful side that will aim for honours.”

All well and good, but Le Roy wasn’t so sure about the arrangement due to his ongoing punditry commitments with French TV station Canal Plus. “I am engaged with Canal Plus and I have to be loyal to them. I said when I was free I was ready to help a little bit at Cambridge,” he said when contacted by reporters. “That was the deal. I never spoke about money or anything like that. It was just to do an audit.”

This bizarre exchange continued back and forth in the media for a couple of days until Le Roy eventually arrived in Cambridge the following week with assistant Hervé Renard in tow. Most U’s fans had never heard of the former PSG and Strasbourg coach, and his flowing locks and trademark lilac scarf were a world away from Taylor’s gruff Suffolk demeanour. Photos of the new entraîneur standing on the pitch looking enigmatic adorned the club’s website as he watched the squad being put through their paces.

Le Roy once famously described football as a une jouissance permanente – a permanent orgasm – while in charge of Cameroon. Whether he revised this view after seeing the likes of Danny Webb and Ashley Nicholls in action is unknown.

It turned out that Renard and Taylor’s assistant, Dale Brooks, were taking charge of the day-to-day stuff, with Le Roy occasionally jetting in like a footballing Lord Sugar to offer words of advice or encouragement. The new manager wasn’t present for his first two games “in charge”, but was in the dugout as United beat York City 2-0 at the Abbey. He flitted in and out for the next five matches as his side climbed away from the relegation zone thanks to a run of one defeat in eight, eventually finishing 13th.

But reports were already circulating that Le Roy wasn’t planning to extend his stay, and it was soon confirmed that he was off to coach the Democratic Republic of Congo, retaining the honorary title of director of football, while Renard was handed the manager’s job on a permanent basis. “Claude said ‘my heart is in Cambridge and will be until the day I die’. I genuinely believe he has become a true friend of United,” claimed a hopeful Harwood at the time, though in truth all Le Roy left the U’s with was Renard, a likeable man whose lack of knowledge of the English game proved to be his undoing.

United were bottom of the table with just three wins from 21 games when he left the following December, and relegation to the Conference followed six months later. Le Roy had returned briefly in November to oversee training ahead of an FA Cup tie at Halifax, but he was unable to recreate the magic and the U’s were dumped out of the competition at the first-round stage.

He was never to be seen in Cambridge again and is now in charge of the Oman national team. United, meanwhile, returned to what they know by appointing Steve Thompson, a veteran of lower-league management, as Renard’s replacement. Five unsuccessful gaffers later, the post is now vacant once more, but the chances of a second French revolution taking place in East Anglia seem pretty slim.

From WSC 291 May 2011