LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Racing Club de Lens

Blood and gold brighten up Ligue after budget crisis

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Promoted in 2020, Racing Club de Lens are aiming to revive the glory days of the late 1990s when they won the French league, the League Cup and made the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. 

Transformed by club president Gervais Martel from 1988 to 2012, Lens were later rescued by Armenian-Lebanese entrepreneur Joseph Oughourlian, who has not only overseen a return to Ligue 1 but also to the Champions League after 20 years.

With money missing from the club’s coffers, Lens had been demoted from Ligue 1 before they had even played out the season – a miserable campaign that saw the club finish bottom anyway in 2015. Bizarrely, yet typically given the club’s fanatical support, RC Lens attracted the two highest attendances, 70,000 at the Stade de France for the visits of PSG and Marseille, while their own stadium was being rebuilt for Euro 2016.

RC Lens museum/Peterjon Cresswell

Founded in 1906, Lens played at muddy La Glissoire (‘The Slide’), halfway to Avion, from 1912. One president was Monsieur Douterlinghe, whose café was the meeting place for the club’s founding students. With World War I fought nearby, recovery was slow for club and town, each bolstered by emigré Poles.

Playing in the now familiar red and gold instigated by Douterlinghe’s successor Pierre Moglia, a nod towards local Spanish history, RC Lens became a major player in the region and moved into the downtown Stade Raoul Briquet. 

The club’s – and community’s – fortunes changed forever when mine owner Félix Bollaert decided to build a stadium here worthy of a town ten times its size. With an initial capacity of 51,000, several thousand more than Lens itself, the ground took Bollaert’s name after his death in 1936.

It would later host three major international tournaments and host several European campaigns.

RC Lens museum/Peterjon Cresswell

Promoted to the top flight in 1937, Lens won war-time silverware in the so-called ‘Forbidden Zone’ league involving French clubs along borders and the coast. After the war, the Derby du Nord with a dominant Lille included the epic French Cup Final of 1948, a late 2-3 defeat.

With winger Maryan Wisniewski, provider for prolific Just Fontaine at the 1958 World Cup, Lens achieved two second-place league finishes before a period of decline and amateur football. Another World Cup star, Didier Six, then starred in a memorable victory over Lazio in an early European jaunt, before Lens hired a young Gérard Houllier as coach.

Creditable domestic and European campaigns followed, along with incoming president Gervais Martel. Under their former stalwart defender Daniel ‘The Druid’ Leclerq, Lens picked up a surprise title in 1998, midfield stability provided by Marc-Vivien Foé and flair from later Liverpool star Vladimir Šmicer.

Chez Muriel/Peterjon Cresswell

Despite beating Arsenal at Wembley, Lens failed to make the knock-out stage of the Champions League but won the League Cup in the following season. Arsenal then gained revenge at the semi-final stage of the UEFA Cup in 2000. El-Hadji Diouf joined the team’s Senegalese contingent to star in the impressive 2001-02 domestic campaign but had left for Liverpool by the time the Champions League, then UEFA Cup, came round. Wins over Milan and Deportivo La Coruña live long in the memory.

Lens then drifted into mediocrity – even Martel pulled out briefly – before money from selling Raphaël Varane to Real Madrid, and new Azeri owner Mammadov, helped achieve promotion in 2013-14. From 2015-16, they had to do it all again. 

it took five seasons and the arrival of Joseph Oughourlian for Lens to climb out of Ligue 2 in the pandemic-hit spring of 2020. Surprising many by just missing out on a European place in their first season back, Lens held their own in 2021-22 then, wisely sticking with Franck Haise as coach, even challenged for the title in 2022-23. Goals from Belgian international Loïs Openda pushed the club into contention, including one in the remarkable 3-1 win over PSG on New Year’s Day.

His departure to RB Leipzig saw Lens struggle in 2023-24, failing to win any of their first five league games but achieving a creditable draw at Sevilla to kick off a long-awaited Champions League campaign.

Stadium Guide

The field of dreams – and the story behind it

In 2015-16, the Stade de Bollaert-Delilis reopened after a €70 million rebuild. Capacity, a bone of contention among petitioning fans, is now 38,000 – some 3,000 lower than the pre-2014 figure but still more than the population of the town itself.

The reason for such hubris is enshrined in the stadium name. Félix Bollaert was head of the local mine company, which in 1929 bought a large patch of land west of the town centre. Despite the discovery of several unexploded grenades from World War I, a stadium was built in four years, shortly before the death of Bollaert himself but shortly before Lens joined the top flight.

By the 1970s, with the club cash-strapped and in decline, and the stadium in decay, Lens city council bought the ground for a nominal fee and set about renovating it. It was further developed before hosting Euro 84, which saw the opening of the large East Stand of 20,000 places. By the early 1990s, capacity had passed 50,000, reduced by 10,000 as the Félix-Bollaert became all-seated for the 1998 World Cup. Three of its stands were knocked down and rebuilt for the occasion, sadly marred by terrible violence for the Germany-Yugoslavia clash.

The €70-million rebuild – reduced from the more ambitious €110-million one first envisaged – keeps the fiercest home support in the Tribune Marek-Xercès along one sideline. Opposite, the Tribune Lepagnot accommodates VIPs and sponsors. Behind the goal, away fans gather in the Tribune Trannin, home ones in the Tribune Delacourt.

getting here

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

For the Stade de Bollaert-Delilis, turn left out of Lens station to the end of rue Jean Letienne, cross the main road onto rue Maurice Carton and turn right by the park – the stadium is ahead of you. Allow 10-15mins.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

Tickets can be bought from the club shop Emotion Foot (see below; Tue-Sat 1pm-6.30pm), lensbillets.comticketmaster.fr and francebillet.com.

For lower-flight league games in 2015-16, RCL charged €31 for the best seats in the sideline Tribunes Marek-Xercès and Lepagnot. Cheaper seats were set at €24, behind the goals in the Trannin and Delacourt €16. Under-16s were charged at 50% across the board.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

Dominating the entrance to the stadium from the park side, Emotion Foot (Tue-Sat 1pm-6.30pm) is a large boutique with a ticket office and photographic display of club history at the back. 

Vintage newspaper reports and a collection of match tickets are carefully presented behind glass. Note the photo of local students outside the Café Douterlinghe when the club was founded in 1906. 

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for away fans and casual visitors

Bars by Lens stadium remained popular even during the rebuild of 2014-15, partly because supporters’ buses have been leaving from one, Le Racing (5 route de la Bassée), for 30 years. Note the themed door handle as you enter a den of football gossip and gambling. It stands near the junction with route de Béthune, where former Le Bollaert pre-match bar is now a Corsican restaurant, Le Maquis

Turn the corner on Béthune and you come to La Mi-Temps (No.24), a real RCL hang-out. A row of scarves over the bar counter complements arty images of local football scenes, with a Jackson Pollock touch. Cheap lunches, too.

The RCL bar par excellence is Chez Muriel (17 rue Edouard Bollaert), whose landlady has been talking football and current Racing form with regulars for 40 years and counting. The league ladder is faithfully annotated every weekend, while photos and souvenirs testify to past RCL triumphs and European ventures.