Louis Nicollin : lived 1943 – 2017; reigned 1974 – 2017
Montpellier’s larger-than-life President, Louis Nicollin, has died. LouLou was one of the great characters in football and seemed indestructible. I thought he’d go on for ever, hugging his players, snaffling shirts from the best of the opposition, giving interviews that you knew had the rest of the MHSC staff with their heads in their hands and/or swearing loudly in the office…but no more.
Nicollin took over the ailing club in 1974; amateurs, playing in the Division d’Honneur, they made their way up to the top flight in just eight seasons. There were name-changes, badge-changes, kit-changes, managerial changes…in the 1980s their players included Laurent Blanc, Roger Milla, Carlos Valderrama and Eric Cantona, the decade culminating in a Coupe de France title. The 1990s ended with an Intertoto Cup win, beating Hamburg on penalties, but also relegation to the second tier. They came back up; they went back down; then under the stewardship of Rolland Courbis, back up in 2009, when the U19 side also won the Coupe Gambardella. Rene Girard took over, and the wheels were in motion for Montpellier’s finest hour – to win Ligue 1 in 2012.
With PSG newly-monied, and many stronger and more historied teams around them, Montpellier’s victory was scarcely believable at the time – and retains a dreamlike quality even now. Through everything, Louis Nicollin was the emblematic figure of la Paillade; the foul-mouthed and more-than-occasionally-problematic figurehead of a club that had punched above its weight, who ended the season with a blue-and-orange mohawk after ‘losing’ a bet with Remy Cabella.
He was also owner of Groupe Nicollin, a waste disposal company, and close friends with long-term local politician Georges Freche. Sitting in the Mosson, in the facing stand, you didn’t see the flashy advertisements meant for the cameras, but the no-nonsense hoardings promoting skips, industrial cleaning, and a variety of bins.
Nicollin had a museum of football shirts, often sending someone to intercept a particularly valued opposition player after a game to obtain another artefact for his collection. But his love for the game in general was second to his evident love for his players, even if that would sometimes be tough love.
One moment sticks out – in the run to the 2012 title, things were getting nervy. In game 35, Montpellier faced Evian at home. At 2-2, late on, Montpellier were awarded a penalty, but a scuffle broke out, Younes Belhanda was sent off, and Souleymane Camara – a stalwart of MHSC since 2007 – missed the penalty he had waited ages to take.
The next match was away at Rennes, and featured LouLou in the dug-out; unusual for him, a superstitious man who had stayed home for most of the away games of the season. The sight of him in the stands, a blanket on his knees, hands knotted in his lap and the nervousness clear on his face, showed him as a surprisingly vulnerable figure, a fan like any other. But as he took his place, he walked past Camara, and whispered in his ear, “you are going to score”. Camara’s ninth league goal of the season – his first away from home – followed in the 26th minute. Montpellier won 2-0.
The feeling of love was mutual; among many, many other tributes, a moving tweet sent by Olivier Giroud, signed by Nicollin from Tours in 2010, sums up very well what the President meant to his players:
Loulou, mon parcours d'homme et de joueur n'aurait jamais été le même sans ton appel…
— Olivier Giroud (@_OlivierGiroud_) June 29, 2017
Nicollin is maybe more famous for his declaration after the next game, the last home game of the season, when Karim Ait-Fana scored an injury-time winner against Lille, «encore un point et on est champion de France!» – or the post-match interview that saw him introduce the concept of a ‘branlette espagnole’ to the watching public.
Since that unexpected triumph, things have been more routinely complicated at the Mosson; the best players sold every year, managers moving in and out, rankings going up and down, punctuated with LouLou interviews, frequently grumbling about his players and/or why one of them would want to move. He stepped back as time went on, leaving son Laurent as front-man for the club, but repeatedly making the promise in his remaining cameos that he would only leave Montpellier « entre quatre planches ».
Louis Nicollin died on his 74th birthday. A heart attack, after a birthday lunch. You can’t help thinking that there was no better way for him to bow out.
Merci LouLou. Allez la Paillade.
« Malheureusement le foot, ce n’est plus des coups de coeur, c’est devenu business-business, et ca m’emmerde »