It’s Saturday, 4.05.2002, around 22:00h. A 16 years old boy is crying in the away crowd on Stade de Gerland. The home team fans are invading the pitch, celebrating their team’s first domestic title. For the visitors, the only thing left is to wipe their tears and suffer through the long way home. RC Lens have wasted 6 points lead in just 5 games, to lose the title in dramatic fashion, on the last day of the season.
The scenes of triumph and sorrow remain in the boy’s mind, not only for the 5 hours train ride back to Lens, but for the years to come. The team never again came so close to it’s second league title. One by one, the team goals went lower and lower. Champions League, Europa League, mid-table, relegation battle, relegation. As the club descended, the boy’s love for it only grew stronger. The boy, of course, is me-your guide in this story, Martin Valois.
I was born on 30.01.1986 in Tournai, Belgium. When I was 10, my father left the family. My mom and I moved to Lens, where lived her sister. By chance, my new home was on Rue de Tulipes, 500m from Stade Felix Bolaert, the home of RC Lens. I quickly fell in love with the town, the stadium and the club. I stayed there and supported-through the glory days (title in 1998, Coupe de la Ligue in 1999, UEFA Cup semifinal in 2000), and through the worst nightmares-the relegations in 2008 and 2011, and the FFF decision to discard the promotion we won in 2014 and to send us back in Ligue 2.
The only time away from Lens was, when I finished my education in Paris. Math. I have always liked Math. Combined with my love for football, there was only one thing to do, when I came back home- applied for the recently vacated position in the club’s statistic department. Jean Guy Wallemme was the man, who got me in the club structures. He was the one who also sent me to my first coaching courses, two years later. “It can be useful in the future”, he said. Well, he was right. A wise man, Jean Guy.
In the next 7 years I worked for the club- in the scouting and statistics department, and often helping the coaches and the managers during the training sessions. And speaking of managers, there were plenty of them- namely, four men were at the helm, for the five years, since Wallemme left. Do you know how hard is to learn something from a substitute teacher? Knowing that someone is here, just for the time being, doesn’t help towards building a positive attitude. That’s how players and staff in the club felt during this time. Even a legend, like the Romanian Laszlo Boloni stayed only four months, and was released after a relegation, which couldn’t be avoided. The only man, who remained on the windy position, for more than a year was Antoine Kombuare. He was the second, whom cared for the people, who weren’t his “personal” staff. And the second, who sent me on coaching courses. As a young manager himself, he saw a point in helping people, who were like him.
And one day, in the middle of May 2016, the manager, Antoine Kombouare was released after a disappointing season in Ligue 2, ended in 6th place in the league and only 39 goals in 38 matches- not nearly enough for a team, considered favorite for promotion.
Mr. Kombouare took all his staff with him, so, as a person with long servitude in the club, I was left in charge of the few old dogs and young guns, who decided to stay in Lens and help the new manager with the rebuilding, required for a return in the top flight.
Only, there was no new manager. The club’s owner mr. Hafiz Mammadov, a man, known for his inconsistency, wasn’t exactly the person, most of the managers in France would like to work for. On top of all, there were rumors that he has financial problems, back in his native Azerbaijan, and the result was clear- the club was far away from swimming in petrol money. So the days were rolling, we had to start preparing for the preseason, and the club was still without someone, to hold the reigns.
One morning, I was checking the reports of some players, whom our scouts were looking at, when my phone rang. It was Gervais Martel- the club president. He is not just the man in charge- he is institution in RC Lens, and the French football. Being in the club since 1988, respected by everyone, who has some kind of connection with the club.
-“Martin”-he said- “I have a proposal for you”
-“And what would that be, mr. President?”
-“I’d like you to be the club’s next manager”
When I heard that, I was about to drop the phone on the floor. Me? A manager? Of this club? A guy, who has never played professional football, a guy, who doesn’t even have high coaching licenses. A manager?
-“What is it, boy? Are you okay?”
-“Yes, mr. President, I am fine, just a little shocked.”- yeah, a little, right- “But why me, there must be other managers, far more experienced and respe…”
-“Listen, Martin”-mr. Martel said –“You know what is the situation in this club. We are not rich, and our owner’s reputation doesn’t help us find a more experienced manager. We have to choose someone young and bold. And I know you. You love this club and will do anything for it to prosper. And after all, you may be young, but I see how you work and want to learn. I prefer someone, who I trust, Martin. That someone is you”
What could I have said? There was no way to decline this offer.
-“I can’t say no, mr.President. And I promise, I will do my best, not to disappoint you”
-“I know you will, Martin. I know. Now, come to my office and let’s do some work. Trust me, boy, there is a lot of it ahead of us, and the sooner we start, the better.”
-“Yes, mr. Martel. I am on my way.”
And we started. The rebuilding of a team, which needs to be returned back to glory. I want a revenge for this night in May 2002. I know, it won’t be easy. But as they say in that popular TV show- you know our words. “Es Sang et Or”. For there will be Blood, but at the end of this, there will be Gold too.