Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Blood, gold and the Druid
The origins of the Lens club motto 'le Sang et Or' - 'the blood and gold' - are as unclear as the murky overcast skies that habitually hover over the unremarkable northern French town.
One legend has it that the 'Sang' refers to the blood shed in the numerous mines in the area, while the 'Or' is the 'black gold' once hewn from deep below the region. Those mines now lie dormant, the perfect metaphor for the town's football club.
With Ligue Un's fourth biggest budget and average gates of 34,000 - a remarkable feat in a town of just 36,000 - Racing Club de Lens is one of France's sleeping giants.
But with four games left this season, Jean-Pierre Papin's side are in danger of abandoning the top flight for the first time in 17 years; though a 3-2 defeat of fellow strugglers Sochaux last weekend means they now have a three-point life-jacket between themselves and third-from-bottom Paris St Germain.
However, while PSG's troubles were predictable after a shocking 2006/07, Lens' worries were less logical having finished just outside the European spots in fifth in the last campaign.
There, however, lies perhaps the main reason for the malaise as major disappointment is masked by what is - at face value - a creditable finish.
Heading into their eminently-winnable final game at relegated Troyes nestled in the third and final Champions League qualifying spot, Lens' season promptly folded faster than an origami sprint champion as they were beaten 3-0, condemning them to the Intertoto Cup instead and costing Francis Gillot his plush office at the Stade Bollaert.
Having to pit your wits against Chernomorets Odessa in mid-July rather than streaking drunk through the plaza of a southern Greek seaside resort on a pre-season jaunt is enough to send anyone over the edge, and the psychological damage had clearly still not healed when the new league campaign began under Guy Roux.
Having single-handedly masterminded Auxerre's metamorphosis from a youth club to a European force and the breeding ground of many top players (and Jean-Alain Boumsong), Roux has messianic status in France. However, rather than finding solutions at Lens, he created yet more problems.
The question had always been whether Roux could succeed at a club he had not built, and after just four games, he himself declared the answer a resounding 'Non' as he resigned with the unenviable record of drawn two, lost two and the side third off bottom.
Roux was swiftly replaced by Papin, the former European Footballer of the Year taking on his first job at a big club after giving a glimpse that he knew his way around the technical area at Strasbourg by guiding the Alsatian side to promotion to the top flight last season.
Papin, though, inherited a squad that was not his and a fractured and fractious dressing-room. Like many managers, Roux's transfer policy was largely based on Kylie Minogue's 'Better the Devil You Know' maxim as he brought in ex-Auxerre players. He then signed former Marseille keeper Vedran Runje to pull the rug from under popular first-choice glovesman Charles Itandje, though that did afford Liverpool the almost unique opportunity to acquire a back-up keeper whose middle name is Hubert.
Roux's notorious old-school pre-season regime of long cross-country runs proved equally unpopular and led club president Gervais Martel to concede the 69-year-old's appointment had been - like the decision to give Russell Osman a speaking part in 'Escape to Victory' - 'an error of casting.'
However, Papin has proved equally unsuccessful as the star turn in his native north.
Referred to often simply by his initials, 'JPP,' there is a much popular affection for Papin, who had Chris Waddle as a lodger when the pair helped Marseille reach the 1991 European Cup final, and the diminutive striker has more gongs than the Rank film studio from his time at OM, AC Milan and Bayern Munich.
Lens' technical director Daniel Leclercq believes, however, Papin's years of rubbing shoulders with the Van Bastens, Savicevics and Desaillys of his époque may have blinded him to the limitations of the run-of-the-mill players in his squad.
'Jean-Pierre is a young coach,' said the 58-year-old of his 44-year-old counterpart in an interview with France Football. 'He only played at big clubs. But in great teams, there are only great players, in terms of both talent and their attitude. However, here [at Lens], there are not only competitors.'
What Papin has managed to do is give his side a cutting edge, though that is hardly surprising for someone who scored 215 times in 410 club games. Lens' 'goals for' column compares favourably with their rivals - they have the 10th best total in the league - and they do possess attacking players of quality in Eric Carrière - an ephemeral French international and title winner with Lyon - the capriciously-gifted Olivier Monterrubio and Ivory Coast international Aruna Dindane.
However, despite Papin - who once rejected an offer to coach the forwards at Manchester United - reputedly being a defensively-minded, it is, ironically, the porous back four that have been Lens' undoing.
Solidly-built Mali international Adama Coulibaly has apparently adopted a Schengen-area policy of 'Everyone shall pass,' left-back Nadir Belhadj has shown Roberto Carlos-esque disdain for his defensive duties, while the welcome reserved for opposing forwards by Brazilian Hilton has been only marginally less warm than that of the hotel chain which - no doubt - inspired his moniker.
Only bottom side Metz have seen their onion bag ruffled more this season, while stoppage-time equalisers for Marseille and the hopeless Metz have cost Lens valuable points in recent weeks - the latter slip-up provoking the ire of Runje, who spat a venomous 'If we defend like that, we deserve to go down' in the direction of his dozing defence.
Regardless of whether Papin manages to save the side from the drop, his card looks marked after the appointment of Leclercq in January cast Papin in the role of the affable Scouser in a 100% Gallic remake of the Roy Evans-Gérard Houllier ménage à deux.
Known as 'the Druid' - presumably for his encyclopaedic football knowledge rather than a penchant for the ritual sacrifice of virgins to pagan gods - Leclercq is an emblematic figure at the club after guiding them to their one and only Ligue Un title in 1998 and the League Cup the year after.
Martel hoped Leclercq would 'bring experience to this current crop of young coaches,' but the move could not have more undermined Papin had 'le Druide' arrived wearing a hard hat and swinging a Davy lamp as players, fans, media and even Leclercq himself were left bemused over just who exactly was in charge.
'They listened, but not with the attention required,' Leclercq said of his first meeting with the players. 'When a coach says something, they have to stick to it. Because he's the boss.' Except Papin was still - according to Martel - in sole charge of first-team affairs.
Despite the obvious difficulties, the move initially looked a masterstroke as they lost just one and won three - including a 3-0 defeat of Lyon and a 4-1 win in Caen - of their next five games to reach the heady climes of 13th, their highest position of the season, and the League Cup final.
However, having apparently turned the corner, they promptly made a U-turn. The victory at Caen in early February was their last until the Sochaux match, which - given the woeful form of PSG, who beat them to win the League Cup - may just be enough to save Lens from the drop, but will not spare the Papin-Leclercq partnership the chop.
Martel had publicly announced Leclercq would give the pre-match pep-talk ahead of the do-or-die game with Sochaux, and recently lukewarmly referred to the likelihood of the duo continuing together next season as 'a possibility.'
More tellingly, Leclercq has been handed responsibility for the club's long-term development while - going into tabloid rumour mode - Papin was wearing trainers in the colours of Marseille at the recent defeat at St Etienne. With Erik Gerets on Schalke's summer shopping list, a prodigal return to the south coast could be on.
Martel, however, is understandably keen to maintain the status quo for now, insisting relegation would not be a coup de grace and stating his determination not to auction off the family silver if the worst does happen.
Dindane, who scored a brace against Sochaux, would likely head elsewhere as would Hilton - 'His family wants to go somewhere sunny,' says Martel. So that's Middlesbrough out of the running then.
The bulk of the squad, though, will remain. 'Next season, we won't build a team to finish 16th,' claims Martel. Perhaps not, but how he'd settle for that this season.
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