Football Features

RC Lens: A club who’ve produced more mavericks and champions than you’d think

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 11:15, 15 February 2021

Lens’ nickname is Sang et Or, which translated means Blood and Gold.

Admittedly, this is a reference to their traditional kit colours, but it sounds monstrously epic like the title of some epic fantasy novel or perhaps a hair metal album from 1984.

However, Lens aren’t quite that epic. Since the turn of the millennium, they have had some flirtations with success. Most memorably losing the Ligue 1 title on the very last day of the season to Lyon in 2001/02. Going into that game, they were leading the table on 64 points, one ahead of Lyon on 63. But in the final day clash at the Stade Gerland, Lyon beat them 3-1 to move onto 66 and secure their first of seven consecutive titles.

Since then, Lens have never been the same, embarking on a slow crawl down the table and into Ligue 2 obscurity. That became ignominy when their 2014 promotion was overruled because of financial irregularities.

Despite their fall, they’ve nonetheless persisted and now find themselves back in the big time. Lens may not be as illustrious as the Ligue 1 clubs they’re rubbing shoulders with, but the club based in northern France have still managed to produce quality players. Here, Squawka have put together a combined XI of how they could have lined up today.

Goalkeeper: Alphonse Areola

Period: 2013-2014

League Games: 35

Areola joined Lens on loan when they were in Ligue 2 and was instantly their first-choice goalkeeper. Lens’ defence went from conceding 53 goals the season before to just 40 with Areola between the sticks. He helped them gain promotion but they made no effort to bring him back the following campaign and have regretted that decision since with the Parisian turning out for PSG and Real Madrid before joining Fulham last summer.

Right-back: Serge Aurier

Period: 2009-2012

League Games: 48

A product of the Lens youth academy, Aurier debuted at the age of 17 in 2009 while the club was still in Ligue 1. He was instantly impressive, a powerhouse up and down the right flank. He moved to Toulouse, where he was even better and hit the big time at PSG in 2014 before moving on to Spurs. He’s won copious amounts with Les Parisiens and even helped Ivory Coast win the Africa Cup of Nations in 2015.

Centre-back: Raphael Varane

Period: 2010-2011

League Games: 23

An absolute colossus of a defender. Debuted for Lens while still a 17-year-old, and he made such an enormous impression that by the end of the season, Real Madrid and Manchester United were battling over his signature. Los Blancos won, and Varane has gone on to be a key part of winning every trophy available as well as an international mainstay where, in 2018, he performed fantastically in France’s World Cup triumph.

Centre-back: Timothee Kolodziejczak

Period: 2000-2008

League Games: 0

Kolodziejczak never actually debuted for Lens, leaving the club (who he had no confidence in following their relegation to Ligue 2) to sign his first professional contract with Lyon. He was solid enough although Lyon never won anything while he was there. However, he did catch the eye of the star-maker Monchi and after moving to Sevilla suddenly became a key part of the side that has won the Europa League the last two years in a row. One Lens surely miss. In January 2017 he switched from Sevilla to the Bundesliga for £6m to join Borussia Monchengladbach before moving on to Mexican outfit Tigres UANL months later. He is currently at Ligue 1 club AS Saint-Étienne.

Left-back: Benoit Assou-Ekotto

Period: 2004-2006

League Games: 67

Joined Lens as a 10-year-old in 1994, then a decade later made his debut for the first team. A fullback that was so dependable in both defence and attack he earned a move to the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur where he was a mainstay for the better part of a decade. After playing for Saint-Etienne and Metz, the former Spurs defender retired from the game.

Defensive-midfield: Geoffrey Kondogbia

Period: 2010-2012

League Games: 35

Another product of the impressive youth academy, Kondogbia debuted after Aurier and Varane but showed just as much promise. An uncanny combination of power and left-footed precision, he looked like the heir to Seydou Keita’s throne. He has not prospered as much as Keita managed to (failing to turn his spell at Sevilla into a huge move), but then he is 28 and is starting to show his worth at Atlético Madrid following a spell at Valencia.

Defensive-midfield: Seydou Keita

Period: 2002-2007

League Games: 119

Seydou Keita joined Lens just after their title heartbreak and then proceeded to dominate the side to such an extent that he was made captain and earned a move to Sevilla, where he won the UEFA Cup, and then Barcelona, where he won everything in sight. A man of such immense standing, Pep Guardiola once said he was one of the best souls he had ever known. He moved to Qatar’s El-Jaish, where he ended his illustrious career, after a spell in Italy with Roma.

Right-wing: Anthony Knockaert

Period: 2001-2004

League Games: 0

The winger won promotion to the Premier League with Fulham and has become a bigger name with it, although he is now on loan in the Championship again with Nottingham Forest. But it isn’t greatly known that the former Leicester City, Guingamp and Standard Liege player spent three years in RC Lens’ youth team before moving on to Mouscron and then Lesquin before his big move to Guingamp.

Attacking-midfield: Adel Taarabt

Period: 2006-2007

League Games: 1

The penultimate product of the Lens youth system to make this list, Taarabt only played once for his hometown club before embarking on an odyssey across Europe, well, London anyway. Several spells for Tottenham, QPR and Fulham varied wildly in terms of quality and consistency and the loving frustration he used to bring out of Harry Redknapp was most entertaining. After playing for Genoa on loan from Benfica, he is currently in and out of the Portuguese side.

Left-wing: Thorgan Hazard

Period: 2011-2012

League Games: 14

While his more famous brother Eden emerged for Lille, Thorgan did so out of the great Lens academy. He only played one season there until Chelsea snapped him up. Part recognition of his skills, part trying to keep his brother happy. Thorgan never played a minute for the Blues, spending seasons out on loan before securing a move to Borussia Monchengladbach, wearing the No.10 shirt becoming a star in his own right. Hazard has since moved on to Borussia Dortmund and has eight goals and 13 assists in 38 Bundesliga games.

Striker: El Hadji Diouf

Period: 2000-2002

League Games: 54

The enigmatic striker was a dynamic potentially world-class talent in emergence while at Lens. Back-to-back African Footballer of the Year awards in 2001 and 2002, peaking with him leading the Senegalese demolition of World Champions France at the first game of the 2002 World Cup. Moved to Liverpool at the wrong time and his entire career fell to pieces. Money, ego and terrible coaching turned him from a great prospect into a ridiculous has-been journeyman remembered more for spitting and outbursts than great goals.