Lens is a town of about 37,000 people and is just an hour’s drive from Calais; as a town it’s not much to look at, but then it was virtually annihilated during World War One, although that had an upside as it now has a fabulous 1920’s art deco railway station featuring four beautiful mosaic friezes depicting the heavy industry made possible by the coal that was hewn from the ground below this town and those around it. This is the land of Emile Zola’s Germinal, a fabulous book which you should all read when not reading this blog. Staying with the arts, Lens is now possibly more famous for having an outpost of the Louvre museum, built to help regenerate the area, the economy of which was devastated by the closure of its coal mines in the 1980’s. Although we can’t blame Thatcher for these mine closures, she probably would have gladly taken the credit seeing as she didn’t seem to care much for coalminers or the French. But most of all, Lens has a football club with a large and fanatical fanbase. Racing Club Lens is in Ligue 2 and this season their average home attendance has been 28,966, making them the fifth best supported club in France behind only PSG, Marseille, Lyon and Lille, all of whom are Ligue 1 clubs.
Tonight is the last match of the league season and Lens, along with RC Strasbourg, SC Amiens, ESTAC Troyes, Stade Brestois and Olympique Nimes have a chance of getting into the promotion/relegation play-off with the team placed third from bottom in Ligue 1, or they could get automatic promotion by finishing second or as Champions. Lens are currently fourth in the league table or classement, two points behind first placed Strasbourg, but they must win and hope that at least one out of Strasbourg, Amiens and Troyes does not. Tonight’s opponents at the magnificent Felix Boleart Delelis stadium are Chamois Niort, placed 10th in the league and as journalistic cliché tells us, they have “nothing to play for but pride” and are likely to be “at the beach already”; but they are a half decent side having hauled themselves up to mid-table after occupying the bottom places earlier in the season. This is surely the most exciting end of season scenario of any professional league in Europe.
Kick-off is not until 8.30 but my wife and I arrive at the stadium at about five o’clock where there are oceans of free car parking, which also serve the Louvre museum. Already the place is busy with bars and food stalls doing a good trade, but not as good as the club shop which is absolutely heaving. I can’t resist getting a T-shirt and scarf to help me join in with what could be a momentous evening; my wife rolls her eyes. Leaving my purchases back in the car along with the wine and beer I’d already bought from a nearby Intermarche supermarket, we make the short walk into town to take a look at that marvellous railway station. On the way we pass Chez Muriel, a small bar decorated with red, black and gold balloons, the colours of RC Lens, it’s a popular pre-match haunt for Lens fans and there are several people stood out on the pavement drinking beer. Opposite the station another bar also already seems to have standing room only. Having taken my fill of those mosaics rather than any beer, I watch a TGV (Train Grand Vitesse) pull away and think how much like the HS2 it probably is, the only difference being it actually exists and has done for years; French Republic 1 British Monarchy 0.
Strolling away from Gare de Lens we head for the town hall (Hotel de Ville) and then turn left along the main street, which leads down directly to the Stade Felix Boleart and provides a perfect view of the top of Le Stade. That’s another thing the French understand, vistas at the ends of streets. There are more bars along the length of the main street, particularly at the stadium end. Many of the bars are decorated in club colours, most of the drinking is taking place out on the street. Some tables have ‘beer engines’ on them clear towers of beer with a dispenser at the bottom that looks like a football; this is beer drinking that is dedicated to football. This is France, but it is northern France, and it shares the beer drinking culture of Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia and Britain; we are all northern Europeans together, but your dumb Brexiteers wouldn’t have known that. Lens and the towns around it could have been transposed from the coalfields of South Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire or the Ruhr valley in Germany. For a boy from Suffolk some of this lot seem a bit rough and they probably are, brutalised as they or their forefathers were by that hard industrial heritage. Football was the escape from the brutality of the mine and along with a belly full of beer it still is the escape from whatever gets us down, life for instance.
Close to the ground amongst some trees a bunch of blokes who look old enough to know better are setting off some very loud firecrackers, people flinch but take no notice; the police aren’t bothered and four of them on massive white horses that look like their antecedents were at Agincourt (it’s not that far away) just stroll on by up toward the main street. If this was Alderman Rec’ in Ipswich there would be pandemonium “Oooh, you can’t do that here.”
There is still plenty of time to go until kick-off and we return to the car for me to slip on my pristine RC Lens T-shirt. We finally head for our seats, which cost just 17 Euros each and are at the far end of the stadium behind the goal, in the stand called Trannin. We wend our way through the ever increasing crowds. As I walk on I am handed a political leaflet about forthcoming local elections . At the top of the steps that lead to the Trannin there is a promotion by the Pasquer bakery company and attractive young women hand us little packets containing a small brioche roll with a stick of chocolate stuffed through the middle. It’s a new product from Pasquer called “Match” and the packaging tells me it’s given away free and is not for re-sale; another business plan down the tubes. Having acquired a dessert I need a main course and there is a big friterie truck right in front of me at the back of the stand, so chips and beer it is. Like I said, this is northern France, chips and beer is what these French people want and it’s what they get. Also, weirdly, the beer outside the stadium is alcoholic, inside it’s not; no wonder it’s busy out here. I go back to get some mayonnaise to put on my chips, as is the custom in these parts. I pump the dispenser and nothing happens, so pump it five, six, seven times more and then it sprays out all over the place accompanied by a nasty farting noise. I get mayonnaise on my sleeve, but there is some on my chips too so it’s not all bad and the bloke stood next to me doesn’t seem to notice that he has mayonnaise splattered down the side of his coat. Sniggering stupidly, but at the same time apologetically, I make a strategic withdrawal.
Full of chips and beer we enter the stadium through the automated turnstile and I pick up a copy of the free match programme; it’s just a folded A3 sheet but it gives you the two squads, the table and the permutations that will see Lens promoted, and that’s all anyone needs; save the vacuous interviews for the football papers. We climb up to our seats in
the the second tier from where the view is fantastic because the stadium is fantastic. The Stade Felix Bolaert Delilis consists of four steep stands that tower over the pitch, they are all painted white, with white metal mesh cladding at the back and sides. When I last came to a game in Lens in 2005, as big as they were some of the stands had amazing wooden roofs; a lesson in sustainable construction, but the refurbishment for the 2016 European Championships sadly did away with those, although the result is nevertheless breath-taking. Each corner of the ground is marked by a soaring spike which looks like it might be a floodlight pylon, but isn’t, the spikes are there to unify the four stands. Once again the French demonstrate their clear ability and desire to make an architectural statement with a football stadium, something desperately lacking in Britain; although Ipswich’s Sir Bobby Robson stand is a happy exception, they just need to tie the other three stands in with it.
Once inside, predictably the stadium is rocking; it is full with the attendance announced as 37,700. From every stand the thrill of the occasion is palpable. Scarves are held aloft and the club anthem is sung with gusto. Flares are lit amongst the ultras who occupy the lower tier of the Marek Xerces stand at the side of the pitch; they wave banners and flags ceaselessly. We all have coloured A1 paper sheets beneath our seats which we hold aloft and the stadium is a sea of red and gold; the blood and the gold (le sang et or); it’s loud, very loud and it’s bloody brilliant, like blood and gold, naturellement. The stadium announcer tells us the team, announcing each player’s first name and then pausing as in unison the crowd shout back his surname. Lens are kicking towards Trannin and at 37 minutes past eight they are top of the league as the brilliantly named Kermit Erasmus (middle name Romeo) smashes the ball home after an initial shot is blocked. Man, this is good! The railway line from that marvellous station runs behind the main stand and the trains hoot their horns as they go past, sounding “Allez Lens” as best they can. Five minutes later and it’s not quite so good, the word is Amiens have scored at Reims and are now top, although Lens remain second and therefore still in line for automatic promotion. At a quarter to eight the mood shifts a little again, a corner is nodded on at the near post and Cristian barges through to head in a second goal for Lens, but as he does so Strasbourg score at home to Bourg-en-Bresse and Lens are knocked back in to the play-off (Barrage) position. But Erasmus and Cristian are the goalscorers, God must be on Lens’ side tonight.
Despite having dropped from top to third Lens are still better off than they were at the start of the night and a bit after ten to eight our mobile phones tell us that Troyes are losing at Sochaux and by half-time they are losing 2-0. The mood remains confident, 2-0 up and even if that means a play-off match, what team is going to fancy coming to Lens? This is the most fun I have had all season, this is football as it should be with a slightly lairy, almost insanely passionate crowd doing their all to support their team, willing them to win. I remember football like this in the 1970’s with scarves held aloft and twirled above our heads; Lens fans still do this and a banner at the far end reads “ Magic Fans”, that is so 1970’s, the age before things were awesome or cool, when they were “Magic”. Bringing things up to date however, one banner reads “Bollaert Boys” whilst a short distance away another reads “Girls 2009” showing that sexual equality has reached the spectators. Mai ’68 wasn’t in vain. Incidentally, the French clubs take their women’s teams much more seriously than we seem to in Britain. Nevertheless, sexism still seems to be alive and well as dancing girls adorn the pitch at half time and an all-male shoot-out takes place, although sexual politics don’t seem to affect the raffle of a new Nissan car amidst a minor display of non-gender specific pyrotechnics.
The fervour of the crowd remains strong as the second half begins and a pair of rather drunk young lads make a spectacle of themselves whilst trying to urge even greater support from the crowd. A female steward instructs them to go and sit down and obediently they walk away, but as soon as she is gone they joyously and amusingly return, skipping with puckish delight. They stagger and wave and entertain looking like a pissed-up Ant and Dec whilst the rest of the crowd hurl screwed up programmes and those coloured pieces of paper at their heads.
Back on the pitch and within a quarter of an hour Kermit Erasmus alarmingly tries to cancel out his goal as his under hit back pass leads to a penalty for Niort; the team from the far west of France score to add further to the tension and then they begin to show some of the form that took them away from the relegation zone and Lens start to look nervous. Lens manager Alain Casanova doesn’t hang about and makes changes, the first one of which is to replace Kermit Erasmus with Abdelrafik Garard. But then a wave of joy crashes through the crowd as we learn of a Reims equaliser against Amiens and Lens are back into second place; and there they sit until just three minutes before full-time when the news is that Troyes have come back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 at Sochaux and Lens are once again in the play-off position. It’s not ideal, but it will do and Cristian adds another goal in the second minute of time added on just to be sure that Niort won’t be emulating Lazarus. A minute later the referee Monsieur Letexier calls time on what has been an enthralling game and we are left to wait for the final score to come in from Reims. All the other teams in the top six have won but Amiens are drawing at seventh placed Reims, which leaves Lens in third and the play-off. The Lens players remain on the pitch.
Noooo! The man in front of me holds his head in his hands and curses incomprehensibly. Jaws drop all around, there is sadness, there is anger, there is disbelief. In the sixth minute of time added on Emmanuel Bourgaud has scored for Amiens pushing them up into second place, sending Troyes down in to the play-off place and condemning Lens to another season in Ligue 2. Mon Dieu! I am shocked,although I had half wanted Amiens to go up having seen them earlier this year, I feel like I have been folded into the heart of the Lensoises tonight; I have cheered and gasped and drank and eaten chips with them, I have worn the T-shirt and squirted mayonnaise at them; I feel their pain, their numbness. Je suis un Lensoise! This is awful. How can something that was so good so quickly feel so hollow?
Most of the crowd stay in the stands to applaud their team, in spite of their disappointment. These people are true supporters. They show no need for recriminations, they love their club. We leave them to their grief, we were Lensoises for an evening only and a Pompey fan and an Ipswich fan cannot authentically share that grief, we are frauds really; they have our sympathy but we must leave them to it. We slip away, back to our car. It’s 10:30 but we are staying 40 minutes away in Lille and we have another match to go to tomorrow night and it’ll take a friggin’ age to get out of the car park. Stay tuned for the next not quite as exciting instalment, Lille v Nantes.