Drawing 40,000-plus crowds in recent weeks
12 May ~ The French Ligue 2 season ends this Friday with the promotion-chasing clubs, apart from champions Metz, failing to put a convincing sequence together. In particular, Racing Club de Lens, backed by Azerbaijani money and sharing Atlético Madrid's "Land of Fire" sponsorship, looked certain to go up a couple of months after three years away. But since beating Metz away in March, Antoine Kombouaré's side have been stumbling towards the season's end like a drunk taking a shortcut home across a ploughed field.
A lack of what the French call réalisme – the ability to make and convert chances – has led to a series of disappointing draws and losses against mid-table teams. Were it not for the excellent Alphonse Aréola in goal (a young loanee from Paris Saint-Germain) they would probably have dropped away entirely. Throughout this, the support from the Lens fans has stayed strong.
Fans who bang on about being the "best in the land" can be tedious, but the Lens supporters deserve the label. Crowds rose steadily as the dodgy run went on, finally topping 40,000, which is almost ludicrous for a division where the overall average is 7,847.
Last week it looked like those fans would get their reward. In midweek, their rivals Nancy and Niort faltered. Meanwhile Lens went to struggling Istres and, in front of a vocal away support whose travel had been paid for by the Lens players, a second-string forward line knocked in six. Which set up things up perfectly.
The chance to clinch promotion with a point against mid-table Brest in a last game at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, not just for the season but before one of the most characterful grounds in France closes for a year to be renovated for Euro 2016. Another 40,000-plus crowd saw another toothless performance. A late goal by Brest saw the old Bollaert off with not just an anti-climax but, unusually, some trouble which put paid to any recognition of what has been overall a decent season.
Lens could still go up, but if they do it'll be about as far from home as they can get. Their last game is at long-since relegated CA Bastia, more than 1,000km away. How many Lens fans make the trip remains to be seen. Visitors to the Corsican side regularly record official away attendances of zero (although that's not too unusual for Ligue 2 and can sometimes be seen in Ligue 1). Charter a coach and you would be looking at a return trip of more than 2,500km. Nevertheless, Lens fans being what they are, you wouldn't bet against there being as many sang et or shirts and scarves in the stands are there are home fans come Friday night. Matt Hopkinson