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FEATURE: Lens and Metz on the brink – life at the bottom of Ligue 1

Philip Bargiel takes a look at life from the Ligue 1 sewers.

Bastia and Caen are safe while Lens and Metz will be going down in May.

Is it really wise to be making such bold statements? Ligue 1 in its current state has experienced sides dipping in form with a handful of games left to play, but great escapes are uncommon in this league. This is best exemplified by Brest who lost their last 11 games in 2012/13. This is why I don’t think I am taking too much of a risk in saying that Lens & Metz will be relegated in 3 months time.

Up until the 2002/03 season, Ligue 1 only had 18 clubs in their top two divisions (Italy quickly followed suit 2 years later leaving France with only Germany on 34 league games per season left.

With a distinct waning interest in the sport (the French national team’s performance in Korea/Japan 2002 not helping), the French Football League, the LFP (Ligue de Football Professionnel) decided to increase the amount of teams and games putting ourselves on a par with England & Spain. Thus we are left with 12 full seasons of relegation analysis to pick up from. Fun!

Well I have bad news for Lens and Metz fans reading this column. Their chances are slim, statistically speaking. The lowest safety total reached during those 12 years was 33 points in 2009/10. If we assume that this total would be enough to stay up (I’m 99.9% that it will not as Evian, Lorient & Toulouse are picking up points every weekend and they already have 26 points), Lens & Metz would have to pick up 11 points in 12 games knowing that both of them will have to face PSG, Marseille & Monaco in those fixtures.

The good news for these two is that they have already beaten the lowest total achieved by a Ligue 1 side since returning to 20 clubs which was Arles-Avignon in 2010/11 with a meagre 20 points (still a total that Derby County would be proud of).

Going further with that train of thought, what would relegation mean for both clubs?

Metz are no strangers to relegation. Since almost winning the title in 1997/98, Metz have been struggling to survive for most seasons. After 3 years of mid-table mediocrity around the turn of the century (from 1998 to 2001), Metz suffered their first relegation in 2001/02 just before the switch to 20 clubs. Their stay in Ligue 2 was short-lived as they finished 3rd, going straight back up.

However, as the rest of the decade passed by, Metz’s stay in the top division decreased and their time in the lower leagues increased. They suffered relegation 3 years after their promotion in 2005/06, finishing bottom of the league and then doing the yo-yo to perform the same feat two years later. Between 2008 and 2014 however, the club went from promotion-hopefuls to relegation to National (3rd division) in 2011/12 despite managing an admirable 42 points (not a record highest total to be relegated from Ligue 2 with though).

This relegation was actually a blessing in disguise as the club was able to reorganize itself and give youth a chance. Two back-to-back promotions followed to see Metz promoted to the top flight last summer.

Avoiding relegation is an ambition which most managers in Ligue 1 set for themselves as the season progresses, the infamous “on joue le maintien” phrase being branded about recently by Rennes boss Philippe Montanier and Lille head coach Rene Girard, two clubs who one might expect should have greater ambitions.

Since the middle of last summer, for Metz and Lens there has sadly been no need to recalibrate their season aims, survival has always been the benchmark. In Metz’s case though, relegation will not kill the club. They might have upset their wage bill after promotion, but the majority of the players that they brought in this season will either be let go (Florent Malouda) or have relegation release clauses in their contracts (Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, for example) so relegation would not be such a big deal for that part of Eastern France (especially since their big rivals, Strasbourg, are still languishing in division 3).

Metz are expected to go down but to be competitive next season in Ligue 2, under the continued guidance of a coach in Albert Cartier who will most likely be afforded the loyalty that he has earned during the two seasons previous.

Lens are a different kettle of fish though. The type of following this club gets is the envy of big cities such as Bordeaux, Lyon or Nantes. Unlike Metz, they are much less accustomed to life in the lower leagues. They even went on an exciting continental run at the turn of the century going as far as the UEFA Cup semi-finals only to be beaten by Arsenal in the 1999/00 season.

The rest of the century was spent mostly in the upper half with lots of 7th/8th place finishes. They were relegated in the 2007/08 season which came as a shock to most as the squad was of then adjudged to be of sufficient quality to remain in France top flight. However, the change of management was too hard to cope with. Their stay in Ligue 2 was short (Lens won the league the following year) but it was not long before they spent another 3 seasons in the 2nd tier between 2011 and 2014.

In the end they did gain promotion with Metz but the difference between the two fundamentally lies behind the scenes.

It is no understatement to say that Lens president Gervais Martel, has had the club’s best interests at heart for what seems like an eternity, appearing at times in a slightly desperate manner as if he wishes to remain chairman forever. He has been with RCL since 1988 and only stepped down temporarily for a few years whilst looking for a suitable investor for the club.

Martel sold his shares to a French bank (Crédit Agricole Nord) back in 2012 but was able to buy them back thanks to the funds of an Azerbaijani industrialist named Hafiz Mammadov. Today, it is no secret that the source of those funds is unclear and that Mammadov is not as wealthy as he makes out to be.

What was thought to be a return to glory last May was in fact the beginning of another season of hardship for Lens fans. Just after getting promoted for the points one on the pitch, Lens were denied the right to play in Ligue 1 by the French football financial authority (called the DNCG) due to the lack of transparency of its finances. Mammadov, representing 60% of the club’s shares, played the role of the main culprit.

Another major reason why the club was denied to play in Ligue 1 is that the club cannot play its home games at their ground this season. Félix-Bollaert, Lens’ stadium since 1933, is being renovated for Euro 2016 so Lens have had to ground share with Amiens (when they are not playing at the Stade de France for big games like PSG and Lille).

The lack of ticketing income is a big hole in revenue: Bollaert was full most nights in Ligue 2 and was, before renovation, a 40k seater while Amiens averages this season a bit more than 9k spectators. The irony is that when Lens return to Bollaert this summer, the stadium will be able to welcome less spectators than before.

The plan was to increase the capacity to 44k but the lack of funds provided by Martel and Mammadov stalled the beginning of the works and there were even talks of Bollaert not being picked for Euro 2016. In the end, the budget was decreased to €70M (from 111M€) and the official capacity goes from 41,229 to 38,223! Not exactly money well spent…

Right now, Lens are on the brink of another relegation and you get the feeling that even if they do manage to miraculously survive on the pitch, the DNCG will relegate them to Ligue 2 anyway.

Lens’ finances are much less stable than Metz’s and it is anyone’s guess whether they will be able to compete next season in the 2nd tier. They have been forbidden to enrol new players due to a transfer embargo and with Mammadov looking as frankly dodgy as ever, Lens may well rely on its B string to field teams next season. 

Neither side is yet relegated of course but you now know which one of these two clubs  has, at the time of writing, the best laid foundations to bounce back… 

P.B.

[PHOTO: Icon Sport]

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