Jean-Kevin Augustin: £18m hanging on the forward who became nobody’s player - The Athletic 28/1/22

By Phil Hay Jan 28, 2022 96

The deal was so secretive that when Jean-Kevin Augustin landed at Leeds-Bradford Airport, a car was ready to collect him directly from the private jet. He was driven to the DoubleTree Hilton hotel in the city centre, holing up in two adjoining rooms. His medical took place there and then, away from prying eyes.

Leeds United had their hands on him but even as they began completing the formalities, they were paranoid about a counter-bid from Manchester United and worried that Augustin might yet slip through their fingers. A concerted effort was made to disguise the fact that a loan deal with RB Leipzig of Germany was as good as done.

This was in January 2020, during the final week of that winter’s transfer window, and the last time anyone treated Augustin like royalty; the last time anyone looked at him like clubs look at a valuable commodity.

Augustin has played just 95 minutes of senior football in the two years since and, to all intents and purposes, disappeared from the map; a one-time darling of Paris Saint-Germain’s academy fading from view. He has a contract at another Ligue 1 club, Nantes, but it runs out this summer and it would take a leap of faith on the part of the club to invest in keeping him in their corner of north west France. His track record, for a variety of reasons, is one of prolonged stagnation.

Leeds and Leipzig washed their hands of Augustin long ago, but neither has been able to forget about him.

The two clubs are engaged in a legal dispute concerning the now 24-year-old striker and in March, the matter of who contractually owned Augustin in the summer of 2020 will be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Neither of Leeds and Leipzig wanted him then and neither one wants to pay a price for him now. Neither club wants to accept that, at the end of that 2019-20 season, Augustin belonged to them.

Some £18 million is hanging on a forward who became nobody’s player.

The move to Leeds, from Augustin’s perspective, signalled a breakdown of everything: his body, his confidence, his spirit. He was a late signing in the window, borrowed for the second half of the Championship season, and one Leeds did not plan to make.

Up until the end of that December, they had Eddie Nketiah of Arsenal on what was originally a year’s loan. Arsenal put the cat among the pigeons by deciding to recall Nketiah early after just two starts among 19 league appearances, setting in motion the move for Augustin.

Deep analysis of Augustin was carried out by Leeds’ recruitment team, and head coach Marcelo Bielsa approved the bid personally but the failure of the Frenchman’s move to Elland Road raised an issue the club still pay attention to today.

as well short of the fitness levels Bielsa expects. He had been on loan at Monaco for the first half of 2019-20, but the training and the regime in France was not the same. Bielsa blooded him slowly, but when he did Augustin pulled a hamstring. He made three appearances as a substitute that February totalling 48 minutes and then never played for Leeds again.

That the striker had pedigree was not in dispute.

He had made just shy of 100 first-team appearances for PSG and Leipzig from 2015-19, scoring 20 goals, and in the summer of 2016 he helped France win the European Under-19 Championship, top-scoring in the tournament with six, one ahead of a lad named Kylian Mbappe. Bielsa said publicly that, in peak form, Augustin would be worth in the region of £40 million and the £90,000-a-week wages he was on at Leipzig reflected that but, in England, he was always a step behind the rest of Bielsa’s squad.

COVID-19 then further interrupted his season a month-and-a-half after Augustin’s move and in the interim, he worked to get himself over his injury. But when full training resumed, the intensity of it caught up with him again. His failure to cope began to grate on Bielsa and frustrated some of the other players.

Leeds secured Premier League promotion at the end of that season, but by then Augustin was back in France and no longer involved. Bielsa made it clear to the board that retaining the Frenchman would be a mistake. Augustin, in short, was a footballer he could not work with.

The problem was that the loan agreement with Leipzig included a clause stating Leeds would complete a permanent deal for Augustin if they went up that season, for a fee of around £18 million. It was an obligation not an option, and the basis of a long-term contract with Augustin had been discussed in advance.

Muddying the waters was the fact three months of lockdown delayed the end of the English season until the July and the end date of the obligation had elapsed in the June — after the season was meant to end but before Leeds’ promotion was confirmed with two games to go in that extended campaign.

Leipzig asked Leeds to alter the contract. They declined. As far as the hierarchy at Elland Road were concerned, they were no longer legally required to take him.

With £18 million at stake, Leipzig launched legal action and also filed a complaint with FIFA. Last year, football’s world governing body ruled in the Germans’ favour, instructing Leeds to pay up. Leeds appealed that decision and took the case to CAS, insisting on fighting their corner.

Augustin, meanwhile, was in Nantes, a thousand miles away from the action and a pawn in a battle far above his head.

The refusal of both Leeds and Leipzig to accept ownership of Augustin in that pandemic-shortened summer of 2020 meant Augustin was effectively without a club.

He held a contract at Leipzig running to the end of this season, but their view was that he had signed for Leeds. Leeds refused to accept or register him and as the impasse persisted towards the transfer deadline that October, FIFA gave Augustin permission to join another club on a free transfer. The alternative was to leave his career on hold while the dispute between Leeds and Leipzig played out — a dispute he had no influence over and which was likely to run for years.

Despite the mess, and the fact Augustin had missed pre-season, Nantes were persuaded to offer him a two-year contract.

“He was not a player they were following but his was a name which was still spoken about in France,” says Jean-Marcel Boudard, a football writer with area newspaper Ouest-France. “It was a bet, an opportunity to seize, which the club have often done in the past. He was a reinforcement.”

As with Leeds, Augustin could not get himself going.

In his first season, he appeared only three times off the bench for a combined 33 minutes, none of them after the November. By the end of it, he had been sent to train with the reserves. Physically he was behind the conditioning levels of Nantes’ senior group and there was obvious lethargy in his play.

Pierre Aristouy, who worked with Augustin as reserves coach, told Ouest-France “his head wanted to do (what he was being asked to do) but his body would not follow. Everything was very hard. He had motor problems. We had the feeling that everything was going too fast for him. He was very unhappy about it and it was very complex for us.”

Nantes provided some context for Augustin’s demotion by announcing publicly that he was suffering from long COVID.

In an article published last week, journalist Boudard revealed the forward subsequently developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, an illness affecting the nervous system. It can cause numbness and weakness in the limbs, and the diagnosis revealed what was holding Augustin back. “This explains his problems,” Boudard says. “At the summer resumption (of training), he could not run more than five kilometres.”

With knowledge of his medical condition, Nantes put together a recovery programme aimed at reviving Augustin’s old speed and responsiveness. The player, who had reached a low ebb mentally, took on a physical trainer and a private chef. His attitude was encouraging and Nantes liked the way Augustin carried himself while working with their reserve squad; a supportive voice rather than a Billy-big-time presence, contrary to his reputation for being difficult to manage.

“Players and coaches are unanimous on his personality,” Boudard says. “He played the role of big brother and he has never created a problem. Everyone says he’s different from the image people have of him. The story in Nantes is really different. For me, his real start is now. Now we can really judge him.”

In late November, Nantes eased Augustin gently into a reserve game against Trelissac. It was his first official match in a week shy of 12 months.

Three reserves starts that saw him get around an hour each, a few more minutes every time, followed before head coach Antoine Kombouare sanctioned Augustin’s return to the first-team squad. Ten minutes away to Nice two weeks ago was the first time Augustin had kicked a ball in a senior fixture since November 28, 2020. He was then an 86th-minute substitute in a 4-2 win over Lorient on Sunday.

Shoots of recovery were apparent and hope springs eternal for a footballer most of Europe had forgotten about.

At no stage of the disagreement between Leeds and Leipzig has either club conceded any ground.

Leipzig want Leeds to pay the agreed £18 million for Augustin. Leeds hope to avoid any liability. The fight is entrenched. When Leipzig revealed on Twitter that FIFA had backed them last year, they did so with this caveat: “The judgement is not yet final. The justification is still pending.” Leeds were bound to appeal.

Privately, Leeds understand Leipzig’s argument: that, in good faith, the clause governing a permanent transfer upon promotion in that 2019-20 season meant a permanent transfer whenever promotion arrived (and nobody at the point where the loan was first agreed had any idea COVID-19 was about to intervene the way it did).

But their defence is based on the fact that when they reached the Premier League on July 17, courtesy of a West Bromwich Albion loss to Huddersfield Town, the clause was no longer in date. At no stage had FIFA ordered clubs to adjust or extend clauses of that nature. Leeds themselves had been a victim of the delayed finish. An £8 million option to buy loanee Jack Harrison from Manchester City elapsed before they went up, forcing the club to commit several more millions to eventually signing him last summer.

Though FIFA found in favour of Leipzig, its ruling was not final and the CAS has now set aside March 15 to settle the question of which club, in 2020, legally held Augustin under contract.

Evidence will be heard in a single day and CAS’s decision should be binding, drawing a line under the matter.

What began in those side-by-side hotel rooms and descended into an argument over who bore ownership of Augustin is finally set to end with a verdict on who should foot the bill for him.

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