Lens fans worry promotion will leave empty feeling

Lens (France) (AFP) –


Fans of Lens have responded with both "great joy" and also "great dread" after the early end to the French season brought their club's promotion to Ligue 1.

The old mining town of Lens has a population of just over 31,000, but fans regularly pack the 38,000-capacity stadium despite their last top-flight league title winning campaign coming back in 1998.

Since promotion last week the club's passionate supporters worry however that they will not be allowed into their cauldron like Stade Bollaert to witness their top flight return.

"I was at work when we heard the news, so on the same day we took out the flags," fan Gaetan Guenard told AFP, pointing to the banners displayed above the window of the signage company where he works.

Recent years have been tough for the town, where the last mine closed in the 1990s, and the club, which has spent most of the last 12 seasons in the second division.

"Here in Lens, with the fervour, there is a strong social need. Its a region that has suffered a lot and goes to the stadium to find happiness. It's certain that the happiness of the fans is much greater in Ligue 1," Arnaud Pouille, the club's general manager, told AFP.

French coronavirus containment rules mean most of the shops in Lens are closed and the streets in the small city centre are almost deserted.

"We're going to have a fine cast of visitors at the Bollaert," said David Decoster, treasurer of the Lens United Federation, which has 29 associations and over 2,000 members.

"There have been 30,000 of us at Ligue 2 games, but without wishing to be rude, that's not the top of the bill. Now we'll have the derby against Lille and historic clubs such as Marseille, Saint-Etienne and Nantes."

His friend, Mathieu Fourdrinier, secretary of their fan group, says they deserve the promotion.

"We've had a lot of disappointments in recent years and I think the loyalty of the fans is been rewarded, as well as the good work done by the club," Fourdrinier said.

- Behind closed doors -

The two have mixed feelings. They would have preferred to see the season end on the field so they could celebrate with the players.

"The second frustration is all the criticism we hear, like 'there had to be a global pandemic for Racing to come back'. We've been in the top two almost all season so I think it's deserved. But it would have been nice to do it after 38 matches," said Decoster.

The club and the fans are calm on the sporting front, especially after club president and majority shareholder Joseph Oughourlian wiped out RCL's debts last month.

"He's saying 'financially, I'm going to keep the club on its feet' and that's very reassuring," said Pouille, before warning: "The road ahead is not going to be easy. We've got work to do."

The promotion has also cheered up nearby businesses hard hit by the coronavirus lockdown, as long as fans are allowed to go to matches.

"It great news, because the economic situation is already difficult and we will have to bounce back after this health crisis. But the question we're asking ourselves is: 'Will fans be allowed to go to stadiums?'," said Elise Turkowiak, manager of a restaurant, who hopes the public will be able to fill Bollaert.

The prospect of the club playing part of the season in an empty stadium worries fans.

"It's a given that there will be games behind closed doors, the question is: how long," said Fourdrinier.

"Bollaert is really the 12th man and there's a good chance we won't be able to get there before 2021," adds Decoster. "I don't know if that will be a disadvantage, but it could have an impact."