Apologize for being there? He’s not quite the type of guy. But on the eve of vibrating behind his Stade Rochelais on Saturday, May 22, in the final of the European Cup against the Stade Toulouse, there is at Vincent Merling the modesty of the modest. The one that prevents the president of the Atlantic club from fully realizing what is happening: yes, his team is indeed playing for the continental trophy and could therefore write a first line on his record by offering himself a major reward.
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Even this possibility of victory, Vincent Merling still struggles to believe it. Yet he does everything for, and for a long time, the valiant leader. Next June, he will celebrate his thirtieth birthday at the helm of the Stade Rochelais. No other oval president can tell such a story. A story which, for a long time, was a matter of well-tempered ambition.
Grow without rushing anything
And for good reason. When he took over the reins in 1991, the former third row Vincent Merling, then 41, was initially faced with difficulty. “The financial situation was bad, we had to save the club, he recalls. With other former players and friends, we embarked on the adventure, but without thinking about the very long term. “ Vincent Merling also finds himself bombarded as president because he is a company director, at the head of the Merling cafes. ” VSgave a slightly futuristic dimension, he jokes. We were not many at the time. “
It is not, however, a question of anticipating the call for professionalism which will prevail from the middle of the decade. “We did not have an identity very favorable to professionalism, underlines the president. When I wanted to create a club of partner companies, the candidates were not legion. We had to adapt, at our own pace and staying true to our values. “ Solidarity, sharing, sense of the collective, the club is built on these foundations and without haste. It titillates the elite at the turn of the century, but also descends sharply in the second division, to the point that the 2000s parade with a Stade Rochelais which seems in its place a tone below, second knife forever.
The rebound is a man’s business. “I am an emotional”, summarizes Vincent Merling. And the current passes from 2008 with the arrival of Pierre Venayre, a former player injured too early, loaded with diplomas and converted to manager. It was he who worked out the new development strategy, like a five-year plan, when Stade Rochelais climbed to Top 14, but was returned to ProD2 the following year. The project is called “Grandir ensemble” and runs until 2015. “I actually lived through more complicated seasons that made the institution suffer than great joys, comments Vincent Merling. To make a great team, you have to structure. It has become our priority: to ensure the sustainability of the club, the basis of everything. “
A real sense of belonging
The elevator brings the Yellow and Black back into the elite for the 2014-2015 season, and a second plan – called “Writing our history” – drives home the point. The Rochelais Stadium is now comfortable in its stadium renovated in 2017, taking advantage of its performance center inaugurated in 2018. It has more than 600 local partners. It enjoys a more than loyal audience, always sold out (13,000 subscribers out of a capacity of 16,000 seats). The budget (23 million euros this year) and the results follow (first place in the regular season in 2017, the podium this year with three days remaining).
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Now playing in the big leagues, is the club in danger of losing its soul? “I don’t think so, and the pandemic has shown it on the side of our partners and our subscribers. Solidarity is not an empty word here. There is a real notion of belonging in everyone. “ Which President Merling particularly cherishes. At the start of the year, the link could have loosened a bit with his candidacy for the presidency of the National Rugby League, pushed by his peers and assumed “Out of a sense of duty”. The former president of the Toulouse Stadium, René Bouscatel, was finally preferred to him, and Vincent Merling is hardly moved by it. “Suddenly, I stay 100% in La Rochelle. And I can live this final to the full. The worst thing for me is not being able to share it with the public because of health constraints. It’s heartbreaking. “ But now he can believe it: this kind of occasion, there will be others.
Toulouse for the pass of five
With a record still blank and a first in the final of the major continental competition, La Rochelle is obviously a Thumbs up against the Toulouse ogre. The Rouge et Noir will have their 7the European final, and will aim for a 5e crowned after those of 1996, 2003, 2005 and 2010. For their strategist Ugo Mola, it is the opportunity to become the first French to win the title as coach and as player (in 1996).