It was one of those moments that football is made for. With the Stade de la Vallée du Cher bathed in the honey glow of the spring sun setting over the main stand, Tours FC came out to play the last game of their Ligue 2 campaign.
Their opponents were Clermont Foot, fresh from the publicity surrounding their appointment of new coach Helena Costa and the comments from the likes of Platini, Mourinho and Wenger that followed, but otherwise 14th in Ligue 2, and like their Tourangeaux hosts, with little to play for.
One man with something to play for however was Tours’ bullish centre forward Andy Delort, on 21 league goals at the start of the evening and in with a shout of finishing the season as the highest scorer in the league.
It’s also the worst kept secret in Tours that this would be Delort’s last game for the central French club. There are no delusions about keeping their best player for another season here, and it is expected that Delort’s sale will deliver a cash windfall that will help the club pay its bills.
Signed barely a year ago from AC Ajaccio, Andy Delort has had a breakout season in Tours, and has quickly generated interest from a number of clubs, notably from two clubs promoted to first divisions either side of the English channel, Lens and Leicester.
For a team with perennial hopes of promotion to Ligue 1, finishing in 8th position is something of a disappointment, but Delort’s contribution to the campaign cannot be faulted. Tours’ downfall comes from having conceded the fifth highest amount of goals in Ligue 2, a leaky defence which coach Olivier Pantaloni tried but ultimately failed to rectify in the January transfer window. Tours’ attack by contrast scored the second most goals in the league, spurred on by the 24 goals of Andy Delort.
Delort’s career to this point has been an interesting one. Now 22 years old, Delort started his youth career at his troubled hometown club FC Sète before joining Corsican side AC Ajaccio in 2008. With Ajaccio, Delort played in the French national under 19’s league, scoring 31 league goals in his first season, as well as five goals in the Coupe Gambardella, France’s under 19 cup. Delort’s performances at youth level for Ajaccio brought significant interest from some big teams, and at the age of 17, Delort went on trial with both Borussia Dortmund and Bordeaux, before opting to sign for Nîmes Olympique in Ligue 2 instead on the advice of then Ajaccio youth coach Didier Lelong. Speaking about his trial at Dortmund, Delort said :
I did one trial with the Dortmund under 19 team, and it went well enough that Dortmund called me back for a second trial with the reserves. There I played with Mario Götze and Shinji Kagawa – Götze played just behind me – he was already an extraordinary player, and I felt good playing with him. I played two friendly matches with the Dortmund reserves and scored two braces. Dortmund offered me an apprentice contract, which was brilliant, but I wasn’t ready. Didier Lelong told me one day ‘a player who jumps the steps burns his wings’, and I made the wise choice. I didn’t speak German, and at 17 I wasn’t ready to move alone to a new country.
After turning down Dortmund, Delort had a trial with Bordeaux, and was offered a place in the reserves, but decided to go to Nîmes where he could get first-team professional football in Ligue 2. An interesting footnote in Delort’s career came during that period when he was looking for a club in 2009. Delort received a call from Laurent Castro to play for France’s national ‘Beach Soccer’ team, scoring 5 goals in Les Bleus qualification campaign for the Beach Soccer World Cup, under then manager Eric Cantona.
Delort’s time with Nîmes was not a success, Delort received few opportunities to play for the first team and his stay was marred by his involvement in a fight during a CFA 2 match. Delort thus returned to Ajaccio for the 2010/11 season, where he was used predominately as a super-sub by then Ajaccio coach Pantaloni, scoring four goals and making four assists as Ajaccio finished second place in Ligue 2 and secured promotion to Ligue 1. The combative young attacker was in trouble again during that season though, suspended for four matches for his part in a fight against Nantes.
Delort then had his chance to play in France’s top division with newly promoted Ajaccio. The start of the season however did not go well, neither for Ajaccio nor for Andy Delort. Delort played only a handful of games as Ajaccio struggled in the bottom reaches of Ligue 1, without managing to get on the scoresheet. The January mercato saw Ajaccio bring in Brazilian striker Eduardo Ribeiro dos Santos and, viewing his chances at Ajaccio ever more limited, Andy Delort spent the rest of season out on loan back in Ligue 2 with FC Metz. It was a difficult season for Metz, as they finished 18th in Ligue 2 and were relegated to the third tier, Delort scoring just one goal during his four month stay at the struggling Moselle side.
Having finished his loan spell with Metz, Delort returned to Ajaccio and Ligue 1 for the 2012/13 season, but much like his previous spell at the club, found his chances to play in Ligue 1 severely limited, making 15 substitute appearances and was only picked for the starting 11 for the first time in the last match of the season. Delort scored his only goal of the season at home to Montpellier from the penalty spot.
And so it was that Andy Delort came to sign for Tours last summer, with a reputation as a decent young Ligue 2 striker not yet ready to make the step up to the next level.
Tours are a club with strong Corsican links despite its landlocked position in the centre-north of L’Hexagone. President Jean-Marc Ettori is a Corsican and his Corsicatours company sponsors the club (restored as shirt sponsor in the middle of this season after a brief and bizarre sponsorship episode with Bulgarian businessman Daniel Dimov’s Balkanian Airways), and in 2013, Ettori made Corsican Olivier Pantaloni the Tours manager, a manager Andy Delort knows well from his spells with Ajaccio.
Reunited with Pantaloni, Andy Delort has been in excellent form for Tours FC this season, starting almost every game and scoring 24 league goals for Les Tourangeaux. Tours fans have seen their striker improve immensely since scoring his first goal for the club in the second game of the season against Niort. Delort finished the season on fire, being named Ligue 2 player of the month consecutively for the final two months of the season, and earning a place in the Ligue 2 team of the year.
Andy Delort is not a striker blessed with great technical prowess, but he makes up for this with his excellent strength and physicality, burst of pace, awareness in the box and eye for goal. Great in the air, Delort is always a handful for central defenders to manage, and despite making some progress in this area still carries a mean streak, picking up one red and 7 yellow cards this season. Still, his goalscoring record speaks for itself, particularly at home where Delort has scored 1 goal per 93 minutes played. Delort has also developed his link up play during the course of the season, making 8 assists.
Before the Corsican takeover of the club from ex-President Frédéric Sebag last year, Tours were in deep trouble, penalised by the DNCG and facing the prospect of being sent down to the third division of French football for their financial problems. Not financially stable by any means, it is evident that following Delort’s development into a potentially top-class player this season, the club and fans alike are in no illusion over keeping their best player at the club, when a potential multi-million Euro sale promises to fill the clubs coffers.
And so it came to pass last night that Tours’ dead-rubber final game of the season at home to Clermont became not only the typical end of season party, but also the occasion to bid farewell to a player whose performances have made him a fan favourite over the course of the season. As I stood on the Tribune Sud amongst 7159 other spectators with the sun in my eyes and the rides of the fête foraine twinkly behind the main stand, it could not have gone any better for Tours and Andy Delort.
As has become customary, all of Tours’ attacks looked to find Delort and after 16 minutes, he scored his first before running to embrace all of the players on the bench. 15 minutes later Delort scored another, running into the Tribune Nord this time to celebrate with the fans. By the time the teams went in for the break with Tours leading 2-0, we all knew what was going to happen. Tonight, Delort would score his first hat-trick for the club. We queued for our non-alcoholic beers and we muttered it, we sensed it, we knew it. Delort was saying goodbye and he was going to score one more. And of course in the 52nd minute he did just that, the ball pinging scruffily around the box before sticking at his feet in the penalty area just below where we stood. A beat later, the ball is in the back of the net and up we go, ‘Andy, Andy, Andy Delort!‘.
By the time Delort was substituted for his standing ovation in the last minute, a little piece of Tours football history had been written. The banners unfurled in the stands ‘Merci AD9!’ and some fans chant ‘don’t go Andy’ without really meaning it. The game and the season were over and Delort saluted the fans in a lap of honour. The club and the fans wish him well and have nothing but appreciation for what they have witnessed from him this season.
Tours will be back next season for another shot at promotion to the first division. Delort might await them there, or maybe this time he is ready to make his next step abroad.