Now with a stadium completely rebuilt for Euro 2016 and tourists flooding in to visit a major branch of the Louvre, gritty Lens just needs a local football club (and ownership) to come up to the mark. Sadly, the mismanagement saw Racing Club de Lens forcibly relegated before they had even begun their return to the top flight in 2014-15, when a demotivated side finished bottom of the league on points anyway.
Lens have only won the league once, the same year that the town hosted the World Cup of 1998. The later departure of iconic coach Daniel ‘The Druid’ Leclerq led to a gradual decline that saw the Sang et Or (‘Blood & Gold’) of RCL fester in the lower flight.
The promotion of 2013-14 coincided with the closure of the Stade Bollaert-Delilis for renovation during 2014-15. Having to abandon their ground of 41,000 capacity (5,000 more than the town itself), RCL played home fixtures at nearby Amiens, and attracted 70,000 to the Stade de France for games with Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille.
The fact that regional hub Lille was overlooked for hosting 1998 in favour of this former coal-mining village – offered staging rights for another major tournament in 2016 – says mountains for the football tradition here.
It dates back to 1905, when students who had been playing on place Verte, now Mandela, gathered at the Café Douterlinghe on boulevard des Écoles, now the main street of Emile Basly, to form a club. Papers were signed the following January.
Regularly changing colours and grounds, action suspended by World War I fought on the doorstep, RC Lens took a while to rebound. When they did, it was Félix Bollaert who provided the trampoline. A football-loving local mine owner (whatever happened to them?), Bollaert set to work improving post-1918 conditions of work and leisure for his employees. A modern football stadium was top priority.
Built from 1932 and opened in May 1933, the Stade Félix-Bollaert took its patron’s name following his death in 1936. The French and Polish anthems were played at the ceremony – the local workforce, and indeed, local football team, comprised a significant number of Poles.
As both club and community fell on hard times, it was down to André Delilis, local mayor for three decades, to revive both. This modern-day Bollaert not only had the town council buy the ailing club but he had the crumbling stadium rebuilt – to host the 1984 European Championships he had persuaded the organising committee to bring to this bleak corner of north-east France.
Similarly, Delilis, in office until that same year, landed the bigger prize of the World Cup 1998 for little Lens. Sadly, the result was not entirely satisfactory: for the tense game with Yugoslavia, German hooligans attacked police and local businesses, leaving one officer, Daniel Nivel, in a coma. He would never recover all his faculties. The attack had been planned the week before, in the bars of Lens, during the otherwise carnival atmosphere of the Croatia-Jamaica fixture. England fans would also remember Lens with fondness, David Beckham making his arrival onto the world stage with a 30-yard free-kick strike against Colombia.
Lens also staged the France-Paraguay marathon in the knock-out round of 16, the first example of a Golden Goal, Laurent Blanc’s, settling a World Cup tie.
For Euro 2016, the Lens stadium, fittingly renamed after both Bollaert and Delilis (who died 2012), has been entirely rebuilt. Sadly, RC Lens won’t be able to repeat their feat of 1998 by winning take the French title that same year.
The nearest airport to Lens is Lille, 7km (4.5 miles) south of its city centre. An hourly shuttle bus (single €7, return €9) connects with the Euralille commercial centre in town, journey time 20 mins. Euralille is set between the city’s two train stations, Lille Europe and Lille-Flandres, a short walk apart and close to the centre. Trains to Lens from Lille-Flandres run every 30-60min, journey time 45-50min, tickets around €8-9. Lille Europe is a hub for Eurostar services with London St-Pancras. From Paris Nord to Lens, domestic trains take 1hr 10min, the cheapest tickets around €35.
Lens does have a local bus service, Tadao, but distances between station, stadium and town centre are easily walkable. Taxis stand outside the train station. To call one, contact Ass.Lensoise de Taxi (+33 3 21 28 36 36).
With the opening of the Louvre-Lens gallery in December 2012, Lens has been geared towards tourism. The Tourist Office has a comprehensive database of hotels in the region.
Right by Lens stadium, the 54-room Hôtel Espace Bollaert is a tasteful three-star with arty touches whose bar offers TV sports and billiards. Diagonally opposite Lens station, the Hôtel de France (2 place du Général de Gaulle, +33 3 21 28 18 10) is pretty run-down but cheap. Round the corner, le Paris-Brest, taken over by a friendly North-African couple from Paris, is in a similar price bracket, whose owners make up for the relatively basic lodgings on offer. The bar, decorated with a RCL scarf, provides TV sport, the restaurant couscous. About 4km north of town, the outdoor pool and contemporary furnishings of the homely Lensotel, near the Centre Commercial Lens 2, may make it worth the bother of an out-of-town stay – the nearby Campanile is far more prosaic.
Bars line the main drag in Lens, boulevard Emile Basly, including football-focused locals’ spot Reinitas (No.94), with RCL match scarves and pennants behind the bar and a TV for live action. Nearby Les Pirates (No.106) is a late-night spot.
Two expat-friendly pubs stand next to each near a major junction in the town centre: the Irish Tavern is a two-floor spot with daytime opening weekdays and DJs at night; Mac Ewans opens from 4pm and is more sport-oriented. Of the French football haunts, Le Sporting (38 rue de la Gare) has had to close (anyone want to buy a classic corner bar?), while opposite the station, La Loco (105 rue Jean Letienne) combines its previous guise of Lens Frites with a burger bar, full range of drinks, terrace and large displays of yellow and red.