Lens’ Champions League clash with Arsenal on Tuesday will see the French side come full circle in the season that marks their return to Europe’s elite club competition after two decades away.
The golden era for the Blood and Gold (“Les Sang et Or”) came in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before a long stint in the doldrums and then a remarkable recent revival.
Lens were crowned French champions in 1998 for the only time in their history, an achievement which earned them a first crack at the Champions League.
In November that year, having already held the Arsenal of Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Nicolas Anelka and Marc Overmars at home, they travelled to London to play Arsene Wenger’s side at Wembley.
A Mickael Debeve goal gave them a shock 1-0 win as 8 000 travelling fans celebrated one of the finest results in the club’s history.
“It was the high point of my career,” recalled Debeve, hardly a superstar, in an interview last year with lensois.com.
“They were one of the best two or three teams in Europe at the time. It was like playing against Real Madrid or Barcelona, a team full of internationals.
“It was unexpected for us to be playing in such a competition against a team like that.”
SPELL IN THE DOLDRUMS
Lens were nevertheless denied a place in the knockout rounds by Andriy Shevchenko’s Dynamo Kyiv, and two years later Arsenal gained revenge by beating the French club in the Uefa Cup semifinals.
Now, a quarter of a century on from that night at Wembley, Lens will host Arsenal at a packed Stade Bollaert-Delelis, whose 38 000 capacity is famously larger than the entire population of the northern French town.
Lens did have one other crack at the Champions League in 2002/03, beating AC Milan and drawing with Bayern Munich.
But decline set in as they suffered three relegations between 2008 and 2015 and spent the best part of a decade in Ligue 2.
It was hard to imagine them returning to this stage, especially given the context in Lens itself.
Situated in an industrial region near France’s border with Belgium, Lens was a centre of coal production for over a century before the last mine shut in the 1980s.
That was a huge economic blow to the town, which is among the poorest settlements in France and where Marine Le Pen came out on top by a distance in the 2022 presidential election.
It is a world away from the glamour of Paris, the other French city hosting Champions League football this season.
Yet the resurgence at Lens began with the arrival of a Parisian-born financier, Joseph Oughourlian, who became majority shareholder in 2016.
On the field the chief architect of their success is Franck Haise, the coach and general manager who has been in charge since 2020.
He steered the team to promotion that year and then led them to successive seventh-placed finishes.
Lens improved steadily until charging to a remarkable second-place finish last season, when they took the title race with Paris Saint-Germain down to the penultimate game despite operating on a budget less than 10 per cent that of the Qatar-backed giants.
“My dream was to take Lens into Europe. I didn’t know if we would do it, or if I would still be there,” Haise said at the end of last season.
“It is a source of immense pride. It is not just the result of one season’s work.”
Yet Haise’s squad was weakened over the summer, with inspirational captain Seko Fofana joining Saudi club Al-Nassr and star striker Lois Openda going to RB Leipzig in a deal reportedly worth around 50 million euros ($53 million).
Lens started this season poorly, collecting one point from five league games before a fighting 1-1 draw with Sevilla in their Champions League opener.
Back-to-back domestic wins have followed, including on Friday against a Strasbourg side coached by Vieira, when striker Elye Wahi scored his first goal since signing from Montpellier for a club-record 35 million euros.
“I don’t know if that is us back, but we are performing better than in our games at the start of the season,” said Haise, who will now hope his team can give the club’s fans another night to remember in Europe.