A tiny town beats the moneybags

John Lichfield reports from Lens, who are in sight of a French cup and league double
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IT IS a wet, weekday evening in Lens, a grey day in a small, grey town. But, in the Stade Bollaert, home of the Racing Club de Lens, all is raucous, passionate joy. Mexican waves; organised, rhythmic chanting; a Brazilian-style drum section; a fans' band with a passable trumpet soloist ("Amazing Grace; "the Saints"). The Lens supporters are a wet night's entertainment in themselves.

And the football is pretty good too. The fervour for Les Sang et Or (the blood and golds) was once fuelled by a bitter pride in a devastated region and a sincere passion for football which is rare in France. In those days, the Lens fans would sing of their under-achieving heroes: "On a perdu mais on est heureux" (We've lost but we're happy).

Abruptly, the red and yellow hordes have something to sing about. Their 3-0 victory over Stade Rennais, amid the cacophony on Tuesday night, put them three games from their first championship. If they defeat Lyon in the French Cup semi-final today they will be on course for an extraordinary league and cup double.

Extraordinary because Lens, in the Pas de Calais, 50 miles from the Channel Tunnel, is smaller than Macclesfield or Stevenage and has a population of 35,000. The Stade Bollaert holds 42,000, 20 per cent more people than the town. (The stadium has been entirely rebuilt for the World Cup as a concrete and glass replica of Highbury. Arsenal fans who procure tickets for the England v Colombia match on 26 June will feel, bizarrely, at home.)

This is not, in truth, the story of a French Wimbledon or a French Blackburn Rovers. The Sang et Or have been a major French club, on the cusp of honours, for years. They attract fans from across the stricken industrial belt of the Pas du Calais and Nord and from as far afield as Normandy and Picardy.

After Paris St-Germain and Marseilles, they are the third-best supported team in France with an average gate of 26,800 this season. It would, nevertheless, be a considerable achievement for a club with a relatively modest budget (pounds 12m a year), from a small, depressed town (20 per cent unemployment), to win one of the major championships in European football.

It so happens that their closest rivals, Metz, are also a small town team. Two years ago the championnat was won by a wholly bucolic place, Auxerre, in the green depths of northern Burgundy.

How is it that the fashionable moneybags - Paris St-German, Marseilles, Monaco - are so often squeezed out by their country cousins?

French rates of taxation make even the highest gross salaries uncompetitive with Italy, Spain or England so almost all first-choice French internationals play abroad these days. The standard of the French First Division remains high but a well-run provincial club with a squad of good, mostly home- produced players and a clever manager can win the title.

Racing Club de Lens fit the bill on all three counts. The principal difference this year has been the new coach, Daniel Leclercq, 49, a former player brought back from obscure retirement as a football-cum-tennis coach in a nearby village to be the youth trainer and then first-team manager.

Leclercq is an unlikely looking soccer supremo, a balding, stooping, chain-smoker with unruly wisps of blond hair, a disorderly beard and mournful blue eyes. After Tuesday's important victory he said his players were "desole" (desolate or sad) that they had not played better. Leclercq looked desolated; the players did not.

Home and away Racing Club play an aggressive 5-2-3 formation, or perhaps 4-1-2-3. The advanced sweeper is the excellent Frederic Dehu, a target for Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers and a host of others. At any moment, the midfield two can become five, six or seven.

The attacking guile is produced by three bought-in stars, Vladimir Smicer, from the Czech Republic, Anto Drobnjak, from Montenegro and the club's record signing at pounds 1.7m, Tony Vairelles, from Nancy. Almost all the rest of the squad is home-grown.

Lens could cause a few surprises in the Champions' League next year - if they hold on to their players. There is the rub. Among the 35,000 spectators on Tuesday were Alex Ferguson, Roy Hodgson and the representatives of nine other British, Italian and Spanish clubs. Apart from Dehu and Smicer, transfer targets include a tall, fast, powerful, skilful midfielder from Cameroon, Marc-Vivien Foe.

I had a brief post-match conversation with the club's clever, abrasive president, Gervais Martel, 44, a local free-newspaper millionaire. The very presence of a foreign journalist seemed to put him in a bad mood. He hates the Parisian and foreign press treating Lens as a bunch of surprising provincial hicks and he hates the menacing presence of all those foreign scouts in the stands. Martel believes that Racing Club are not giant- killers to be patronised, but sleeping giants about to waken.

"We're not a small club, we're a great club with a great record. If you English don't know that, you know nothing," Martel raged. "All you English care about is transfers. I'm not interested in transfers. I'm interested only in the next game. If they [presumably Ferguson, Hodgson et al] want to know about transfers, let them phone me. But I'm not interested."

Martel has hired the firm that built the Manchester United superstore to work the same miracle for Lens: to turn that passionate base of supporters into a merchandising gold mine (or blood-and-gold mine). Ownership of the club has been opened up to a consortium of local businessmen, who believe that a successful club can be a symbol for the renewal of the economy of northern France based on distribution, services and the proximity of five other EU countries.

There is talk of almost doubling the club budget to pounds 20m if Lens make the Champions' League next year but this dream could fade if the team is pillaged in the off season as Auxerre were in 1996.

It may be that success has come to Lens a couple of years too soon, while the club is still developing the financial muscle to compete at the highest level. But there is no point in telling the fans that. They are winning and they are still happy; not at all desolate.