Since their promotion to Ligue 1 at the end of last season, Stade de Reims have been bubbling on their return to French top flight action after an absence of 33 years. In a remarkable rise, one of French football’s dinosaurs completed a miraculous ascent back to the domestic top table from semi-professional status in just two years. Playing Championnat National football as recently as 2010, Reims are currently loving life back in the big-time and it is almost as if they have never been away.
Three clean sheets in eight matches where Reims have won four, drawing two after a pair of opening defeats has taken everyone by surprise. They dismantled Montpellier and destroyed Nancy before drawing with Saint-Etienne and beating Nice. However, it has been the performances and not the scorelines that have caught the eye for the club making a splash back in Ligue 1 for the first time since 1979.
The man masterminding this phenomenal return to the domestic game’s higher reaches is Hubert Fournier. “I feel honoured to be the coach of Stade de Reims,” he said. “This club really means something for me and everybody that lives here. The club is a big part of our culture, and I can tell you, this club is sacred. It is like a religion and has an incredible history.”
Indeed they do, the past 33 years have been desperate for a team accustomed to boasting some of France’s greatest ever talents back in their golden era of 1950-1970. The likes of Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa thrilled the fans winning six league titles and reaching two European Cup finals. Contrast that with now, where the current side are trying to put Reims back in their rightful place in France’s football hierarchy.
The club went bankrupt in the early 90s and suffered relegation to the Championnat National as recently as 2009, but now a renewed sense of optimism is palpable. Captain Mickaël Tacalfred has been part of that team that has suffered the lowest of lows but is now experiencing an all time high, and he forms part of a solid backline which has been Reims’ basis for success this year.
“It’s great because we’ve waited 33 years to get back into Ligue 1,” he explained. “Last year, the club celebrated its 80th anniversary and we are aware of its history, but now we want to write our own chapter.”
“Since that relegation to the third tier, the club have started again from scratch and are doing the basics properly again,” said Tacalfred. “We’ve rebuilt intelligently by signing good players but strong characters.”
Part of Reims’ huge success so far this season has been the fact that the squad that gained them promotion from Ligue 2 last year has more or less remained intact. The club strengthened over the summer but only brought in a handful of names, opting for continuity with the squad that they had in place, complimented in areas by carefully selected signings.
“We put a plan together in the summer,” says coach Fournier. “The directors agreed that we should keep backbone of the squad that won us promotion, and just add one or two new faces. That’s what we’ve done and our stability is key to our current success.”
The Stade Auguste Delaune has been fizzing with talent in the early part of the season and Reims’ key players this season have not only been Tacalfred at the back. Attacking full-back Christopher Glombard has been a revelation with his early form including a corking goal against Montpellier, and goalkeeper Kossi Agassa has shown some fantastic ability despite his old age.
Summer arrivals Antoine Devaux and Brazilian Diego have fit right into a midfield depleted by the departure of creative talent Romain Amalfitano to Newcastle United, and the latter’s link-up with striker Gaëtan Courtet has been a particular highlight. Just a year ago Courtet was battling against testicular cancer, but in a story as remarkable as Reims’ meteoric rise over the past three years; he has made a full recovery. Currently he is the club’s top scorer with four league goals.
“It’s a childhood dream coming to life,” says the 23-year-old. “I had a few problems last year but that’s given me added strength and focus.”
The flowing football currently exhibited in the Reims midfield is the result of the calming presence of Devaux and the added attacking bite of Diego, a summer signing from second division Tours. Both players compliment the style of play put in place by Fournier and his men. Devaux has contributed three assists so far, whilst Diego is also developing the useful habit of popping up with vital goals in crucial moments for his side.
The Brazilian says: “As soon as I arrived here I felt good, the other players have made me feel very welcome. We have a strong group and our unity helps us to get results.”
Reims face a real acid test of their Ligue 1 credentials when they take on juggernaut Paris St Germain in the capital on Saturday, with Carlo Ancelotti’s men looking depleted in midfield. If Fournier’s men can win in Paris then the champagne football really looks like it is here to stay.