ice were considered the best-run club in France in the 2016-17 season, when they challenged for the Ligue 1 title under manager Lucien Favre, president Jean-Pierre Rivère and transfer specialist Julien Fournier. They were top of the table at Christmas, lost just four games all season – fewer than PSG – and gathered an impressive 78 points on their way to finishing third.
Jim Ratcliffe, the owner of the Ineos chemical company who says he is in the running to buy Manchester United, bought Nice in 2019. Despite his vast wealth, and input from Favre, Rivère and Fournier in recent seasons, Nice have been unable to replicate the success they enjoyed before Ratcliffe’s arrival.
In the six years before Ratcliffe bought Nice for €100m, the club finished in the top four of Ligue 1 three times. That success, under Claude Puel and then Favre, was achieved thanks to astute scouting in France and some of Europe’s less fashionable leagues, where they acquired cost-effective talent and developed players to be sold at a profit. It’s a model nearly every Ligue 1 club now uses in some form after its success at Nice and, more recently, Monaco.
The Ratcliffe era started with a promising fifth-place finish under Patrick Vieira in the shortened 2019-20 campaign. However, Vieira was sacked by Christmas 2020 as Nice slumped to 11th in the table. Vieira’s assistant, Adrian Ursea, took over as caretaker for the rest of the season before the club appointed Christophe Galtier in the summer of 2021. The arrival of the manager who had just won the title with Lille brought promise, but Nice dropped away again and had to settle for a place in the Europa Conference League . Their demoralising defeat to Nantes in the Coupe de France final in May accelerated an increasingly chaotic period of Ineos’s running of the club.
Sir Dave Brailsford, the former Team GB cycling coach who now serves as the Ineos director of sport, acted as Nice’s de-facto director general in the summer. He conducted an audit of the club and then set about overseeing their transfer policy. That audit dragged on and – combined with a spectacular falling-out between Galtier and Fournier – the club wasted weeks of valuable time in the transfer market and were left scrambling.
Brailsford’s audit led to the departure of CEO Bob Ratcliffe, Jim’s brother, and transfer guru Fournier. Galtier might have been sacked as well had his old friend Luis Campos not been installed at PSG, essentially allowing him to fail upwards. Galtier had been openly critical of the club’s recruitment before he left, and was apparently concerned about Ineos’s commitment and the calibre of people making transfer decisions. The manager had reportedly “lost faith” in Ineos before leaving for PSG.
With Nice’s coach, sporting director and CEO all gone, the former Crystal Palace and Cardiff City director Iain Moody was enlisted to aid recruitment. He signed a host of Premier League has-beens. This version of Nice, owned by a detached pharmaceutical company and lacking a true sporting director or smart recruitment policy, was unrecognisable from the precise and methodical outfit run by Rivère, Favre and Fournier in 2017.
None of Moody’s signings from England have met expectations. Midfielders Ross Barkley and Aaron Ramsey have jumped between woeful and anonymous, while Brentford defender Mads Bech Sørensen’s loan spell was terminated without the Dane playing a minute of competitive football. Arsenal loanee Nicolas Pépé and Kasper Schmeichel have proven little more than solid, with Gaëtan Laborde and Sofiane Diop – who were both signed from French clubs – the only bright spots.
The lack of planning and joined-up thinking left Nice with a talented but horribly disjointed squad this season. With the atmosphere seemingly toxic and the team again struggling in mid-table, Nice sacked Favre earlier this month after a humiliating defeat to third-tier Le Puy in the cup. Despite various missteps by Ineos, Brailsford and Moody, it should be noted that Favre’s pernickety nature also contributed to the ill-feeling in the squad. The fact that Nice thrashed Montpellier 6-1 in their first game after his departure, under new interim coach and ex-Middlesbrough midfielder Didier Digard, is telling.
The club remains in limbo, with no new permanent manager in place. However, the arrival of Florent Ghisolfi as sporting director is a positive. He has masterminded Lens’ recruitment since their riotously successful return to Ligue 1 in 2020. Lens beat PSG earlier this month and are now just three points behind the league leaders, so Ghisolfi comes with a lot of promise.
Nice fans at the Allianz Riviera stadium. Photograph: Daniel Cole/AP
Would Ratcliffe be a good owner for Manchester United? The club’s fans might argue that anything is better than the Glazer family’s ownership, but there is a long way to go before Ratcliffe buys the club. We have been here before. He made a last-minute attempt to buy Chelsea last year and there have even been reports of interest in Liverpool.
“Ineos does a lot of acquisitions,” said Bob Ratcliffe when we interviewed him a few years ago. “The talent is in many ways the preparedness to walk away from a deal if you want to secure value. That’s quite important to us because we will invest in Nice but, through Financial Fair Play, you are limited to what you can invest so have to make the absolute best of that investment.”
The complications of multi-club ownership may also affect any potential deal. Nice and Manchester United have never met in Europe but that could soon chance, and Ratcliffe also owns the Swiss club FC Lausanne-Sport as well as Racing Club Abidjan in Ivory Coast. The multi-club model could benefit United – Rivère admitted last September that “if Nice is the second club after Manchester United, I don’t have any problem with that” – but Nice fans are already weary of becoming a feeder club. Rivère’s statement last summer that potential purchase of Chelsea “wouldn’t have changed anything for Nice” helped little.
If Ratcliffe buys United, the former Paris Saint-Germain CEO Jean-Claude Blanc is likely to be involved. Blanc, who will become CEO of Ineos Sport next month, has a wealth of sports management experience, including two years as Juventus CEO between 2009 and 2011 before he held the same position at PSG for 12 years. PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi described Blanc’s contribution as “fantastic” upon his departure over Christmas
Having taken two months to even attend a game after buying the club, Ratcliffe’s ownership of Nice can be described as “hands-off”. However, his decision-making over the last three years – although admittedly indirectly via Rivère, who remains something of a figurehead president, his brother and Brailsford – has led to Nice’s continued stagnation. The supposed aim of becoming PSG’s main rivals in Ligue 1 has never really looked like being realised. In the last 12 months alone, Ineos have sacked Fournier, Favre and Galtier, while also sidelining the popular and previously successful Rivère.
Less than six years ago, Rivère, Fournier and Favre led the best-club run club in Ligue 1, a project that became a model for the rest of the division. The future may yet be bright for Nice, but there has been plenty of change and even some chaos during Ratcliffe’s reign.