Captain, leader, maverick: Depay thriving as civil war looms at Lyon

On the week that his latest rap video hit the internet, Memphis Depay showed yet another side of his personality. He has changed, not completely, but definitely for the better.

The Olympique Lyonnais attacker is in the midst of arguably the best period of his career, with 10 goals in his last nine outings for club and country, having been entrusted with tremendous responsibility.

When new Lyon boss Rudi Garcia elected to hand him the captain’s armband following his arrival at the club, it seemed like a symbolic gesture towards the team’s technical leader.

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Instead, the 25-year-old has shown that he is a champion of his team-mates, filled with the passion to see his side achieve their potential.

This has only been made evident, though, because Lyon stand on the brink of one of the most unusual civil wars between fans and players in footballing history, sparked by an incident that came about when the two parties should have been united in delight.

A simmering tension has been evident at Lyon since the summer.

Though big changes were inevitable when Juninho arrived as sporting director and appointed Sylvinho as head coach, this season has been even more traumatic than expected, with the latter sacked in October after a run of seven Ligue 1 games without a victory.

The appointment of Garcia, a man who has been forthright in his criticism of Lyon in the past, did not go down well in the stands. Since his arrival, results have improved but the frustrating inconsistency of the team remains.

That was evident as they slumped to a 2-0 half-time deficit against RB Leipzig on Tuesday that seemed to have them careering out of the Champions League.

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Instead, the club showed the fighting spirit that they have often been accused of lacking, battling back to draw 2-2 and sealing progress to the knockout stage thanks to Benfica’s home win over Zenit.

Such a display of mental fortitude was not enough for some fans.

As the team went to celebrate with their supporters at the end of the match, one made his way pitchside and brandished a banner portraying a donkey with a message for centre-back Marcelo – who had played the last couple of minutes – telling him to “Get Lost”.

And that’s where Memphis comes in.

Having seen the flagrant abuse of a team-mate in what should have been a moment of joy, the Netherlands star snapped, charging towards the supporter and attempting to wrestle the banner from him.

It may have been an ugly scene, but it was one that spoke volumes of how much the former Manchester United player cares about his colleagues at Parc OL, and an emotional interview with RMC Sport in the aftermath simply confirmed this.

“I’m upset, angry. I don’t know what to say,” a visibly riled Memphis confessed. “You know how hard it is for the team when we know that somebody on our team has troubles with the supporters? What do you expect from us?

“You go to the supporters and thank them and they say crazy, crazy things about somebody’s family, somebody’s kids. I’ve got no words. It doesn’t make sense.

“You can see on the camera, the fans spit on us. What can I say? I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It was not exactly a statesmanly response from Depay, but it is easy to feel sympathy with the player in the circumstances, while it was certainly one in the eye for any critics who have suggested in the past that he can be too egotistical.

And while his passion was obvious, he was self-aware enough to prevent it overwhelming him as it might have done previously.

“Frankly, I had to be a little careful,” he said. “It reminds me of my past, my life. I don’t want to be that man. I’ve matured, I’m calmer.”

This outlook has been reflected on the field, too.

Houssem Aouar may have been the spark to ignite Lyon’s midweek comeback with a brilliant curling shot from the edge of the box, but Memphis was again their dynamite, offering a persistent threat before eventually firing home an equaliser after showing good strength in the box.

The goal – his fifth in five Champions League outings this season – was befitting of a natural No.9, not someone with so much more to offer. 

“He’s a real captain and he’s acted and spoken like a captain,” Garcia said afterwards. “It shows the strength and unity of this team.”

But while Memphis is hitting his straps and thriving with his new, more serene mindset, Lyon have a problem.

Their ace is out of contract at the end of the season, and while they have intimated a desire to have him prolong his stay in the Rhone Valley, the fans’ actions are chasing away exactly the type of player they need if they are to see their club thrive. Others will be queuing up to sign him at this rate.

Not only has Memphis been the star man on the field, he has shown himself to be the cement that binds the team together in the dressing room too.

Unless this foolish civil war is brought to a rapid close, Lyon’s slim chances of keeping one of the game’s great mavericks appear to be non-existent – and they will only have themselves to blame.

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