Fans of French side Avant Garde Caennaise can’t chant “You don’t know what you’re doing” at the manager, because they’d be singing it at themselves.
Julien Le Pen is boss of the team, in the sixth tier of French football, and the 33-year-old has plenty of company on the sidelines.
Decisions such as the team line-up, in-game tactics and substitutions are decided by more than 2,000 virtual managers – this is like the Football Manager simulation game in real life.
However a French Football Federation ruling in December could now threaten the whole concept…
2,000 virtual managers – so who makes decisions?
“Before, I used to choose the team with my two assistants, now I do it in collaboration with thousands of people so that’s the big difference,” Le Pen tells BBC Sport. “They make plenty of decisions that a normal coach would make.”
The supporters are known as ‘Umans’ and control the team using the free United Managers’ app – a start-up which began working with the club in 2017.
Before the game Umans can decide on the starting line-up, substitutes, the formation, set-pieces and communicate with staff and players.
They vote using coins that they receive by using the app, or they can purchase a premium subscription. The more a Uman plays the game, the more weight their vote is worth.
Umans watch the game streamed live on the app or even go in person, with access to Opta stats and GPS data, and can vote on the gameplan and approve or reject substitutions that Le Pen wishes to make.
“It’s filmed in a way that would be worthy of professional football,” says Le Pen. “Having stats is unusual at this level too.”
When the majority of users have agreed on a decision, it is then relayed to Le Pen in the dugout, via his assistant, who wears a headset.
Alternatively, Le Pen can recommend a decision, but the Umans have the power to accept or decline it.
“I’m still the manager, I’m the link between the Umans and the team but if there’s a decision that needs to be made quickly because there isn’t time to consult the Umans, I can do that,” says Le Pen.
“There aren’t any fixed rules around that, we just use common sense on the day. The objective is that the team performs better so decisions need to be made as quickly as possible.
“If there was a bug in the app, I’d retake control. That hasn’t happened so far. The community has been great so far, they’re behind us not against us. It’s a collaboration and that’s what’s so nice about the concept.”
‘Pride to one side’ – how does the manager feel about it?
The collaboration seems to be working. The Normandy team won promotion last season and are currently top of the Regional 1.
Le Pen, who is in his seventh season as manager at the club, says he has to “put his pride to one side a bit” in the job, but insists he is “very happy”.
“For me, being a manager isn’t just about making decisions, it’s about working every day with my players,” he says.
“No-one’s taken that work away from me, so thinking that managing is just about choosing players is false. That’s why I say my job hasn’t changed because I’m still the one who’s working with the players every day.”
And so far, he says, his and the Umans’ decisions have been “more or less the same.”
“The team is competitive and that was the aim, so the primary aim has been validated so there’s no problem at the moment,” he continues.
Despite so many different people helping to make key in-game decisions, Le Pen still takes feels personally accountable for results.
“It doesn’t change anything, all the pressure is on my shoulders, it’s me who’s on the sideline with the players and me who’s training with them during the week.
“The stress and pressure are always there and that’s part of the charm of this job. The Umans don’t take away the stress of a match because that’s a personal feeling on the day and that will never change.”
The players’ view – ‘I only disagree when they substitute me’
“Like with a normal coach, they’re rarely happy,” says Le Pen when discussing substituting a player.
“It’s different because normally the player knows it’s the coach that’s taking them off, but in this case it’s many people who have decided to do it.
“It’s easier to accept for the player and equally when someone’s brought on it’s more flattering because it’s a whole community who thinks they should play.”
Le Pen says the United Manager partnership means the amateur club has been able to attract “players of a better level” and former professionals.
“The fact that the match is filmed and broadcast live, the players are seen more and that provides more motivation,” he says.
Midfielder Nicolas Suzanne says the collaboration played a “big factor” in him joining the club in June 2018.
He says players tend to “give even more” in training sessions, which the Umans can also watch via the app, to be selected for the starting XI, but that benefits the team.
“The goal in this project is to convince as many Umans as possible to be part of the team,” the 29-year-old adds. “Having to give the best at each training to please the Umans pulls the team up in its performances.”
During a match, Suzanne says players “don’t think too much about Umans”, until they are substituted.
“If the community decides to replace me, I take it, it’s part of the game. We accepted the conditions by signing for the project, even if nobody likes to be taken off,” he continues.
“Personally, I haven’t yet had too much disagreement with a decision made by the Umans except when they decide to substitute me.”
So what does an ‘Uman’ think?
“I manage a real football team and can’t start a new game like in a video game,” says one Uman, who has the user name *ZenAGC*.
But it is not just AG Caen fans that are part of the decision making process.
The online community is a mix of supporters, players’ relatives and football fans from other countries.
“There are people from Belgium, from around Paris, from the South of France, from all over the place – we hope soon in England too,” says Le Pen.
“It’s the first time that a club in the sixth division has been able to attract supporters from outside its little village. The visibility of the club, the players and even us the coaches on the internet and in the media because of United Manager is exceptional.”
“I didn’t know this club,” says *ZenAGC*, who lives 180km from AG Caen and was a Paris St-Germain fan. “Now it’s my heart club and I’m more passionate about it than PSG.”
He spends up to an hour every day on the app and watches every match live, even travelling to watch AG Caen in a French Cup game.
“It’s not like being on my couch yelling. I can only blame myself because I have participated in all the votes. And I’m not alone because we’re a community.
“The objective this season is to climb to National 3 [the fifth tier]. If the objective is achieved, I will tell myself that I would have participated a little in this success.”
The backlash – why is it under threat?
The concept has not been universally welcomed by rivals and Le Pen says the club’s recruitment and ambitions have “got people’s backs up”, adding that some presidents have “looked to throw a spanner in the works”.
Opponents complained about the filming of games, claiming image rights and financial compensation. But the Normandy Football League allowed the team to continue.
However in December, the French Football Federation made new rulings that could directly threaten Caen’s concept. They:
- Prevent clubs from establishing a partnership with a third party to “influence the performance of its teams”
- Prevent a third party from “questioning the real responsibility of the team held by the head coach”
- Prevent the broadcast of live matches without permission of the league.
United Managers have called the lawyers in and claim that the FFF can not change rules mid-season, insisting this will not be the end of their collaboration with AG Caen.
They say they have not been contacted directly by the FFF and are still preparing for their next league game on 23 February.
“Several articles expressly introduced against a project and a club is probably unprecedented in the history of French football,” United Managers said in a statement.
United Managers – the company which runs the app – says the club will continue to play and win promotion despite the “most violent adversity”.
And the company is hoping to expand internationally, by duplicating the idea at other clubs around the world.
BBC Sport has contacted both the Normandy Football League and the FFF for a response.
Additional reporting and translation by Becky Grey.