The day is the 27th July 2007 and Montpellier HSC are about to embark on their fourth consecutive season in the second tier of French football. A picturesque city on the Mediterranean coast where rugby tends to dominate the back pages, Montpellier historically have never been a big club. They spent the majority of their early years battling debt and financial troubles and as recently as 1969 the club was forced to forfeit their professional status and play in the amateur leagues. Little did the fans know that in less than five years, the club would produce one of the most remarkable and unprecedented campaigns in the 84-year history of France’s top division.
In 1974, after decades of upheaval, name changes and financial uncertainty, self-made entrepreneur Louis Nicollin was installed as club president. Nicollin guided Montpellier through the divisions and after returning to Ligue 1 in 1987, he sought instant success by acquiring a host of key names. Flamboyant Colombian Carlos Valderrama arrived on the south coast to complement Cameroonian cult hero Roger Milla, and maverick Eric Cantona was signed on loan in 1989. At the start of the 1989/90 season Montpellier, led by academy product Laurent Blanc, boasted an impressive starting lineup, although they were still some way off the top sides in France.
The 1989/90 season proved to be an eventful one. Eric Cantona, no stranger to controversy, threw his boots at teammate Jean-Claude Lemoult’s face during a fight and was banned from the ground for ten days. Numerous players demanded his sacking, however, he held on to his place in the team and later in the season guided Montpellier to the Coupe de France final with a Van Basten-esque volley. Montpellier were one game away from their first major trophy since 1929. In a cagey affair, Montpellier triumphed 2-1 in extra time against RC Paris in the final. The streets of Montpellier were lined blue and orange in an unexpected and heroic triumph.
As is so often the case, Montpellier’s success did not go unnoticed by the rest of the footballing world, and by 1991 all of their star names had left. Eric Cantona returned to Marseille from his season-long loan after the cup triumph, and in the next year, Montpellier lost their leader Laurent Blanc and tenacious playmaker Carlos Valderrama to wealthier clubs. Louis Nicollin had to build his team again.
Further success was hard to come by for Montpellier, and after relegation into Ligue 2 in 2004, Nicollin adopted a new strategy for his club. No longer could they hope to buy big names, so Montpellier focused on shrewd signings and youth development. As they could not compete financially with neighbouring rivals Marseille and Toulouse, Nicollin principled his club on hard work, indomitable spirit, and home-grown talent. These policies still ring true today. Of the 24 players in Montpellier’s current squad, 15 are French, and all but one originate from Francophone countries. This is a source of pride for the locals and it enables Montpellier to have some of the best teamwork and fluidity of all clubs in France.
At the start of the 2011/12 season, it seemed as if another unspectacular season in Ligue 1 was on the cards for Montpellier. Having been taken over by the Qatar Investment Authority, favourites and the newly rich PSG had hired Champions League winning coach Carlo Ancelotti and splashed out £82 million on new players in the summer, forking out £37 million on Javier Pastore alone. In contrast, Montpellier had spent a mere £1.6 million in the same transfer window.
What followed was the stuff of dreams for the South coast club. An astonishing run left Montpellier top of the league with three games remaining, holding onto a three-point cushion over PSG. Olivier Giroud, the club’s top earner on £15,000 a week, was on course for the golden boot, and academy graduates Younes Belhanda and Rémy Cabella had taken the league by storm. Montpellier were on the brink of the unthinkable. To enforce Montpellier’s position as firm underdogs and get behind his club, Louis Nicollin promised to dye his hair orange and blue if Montpellier lifted the title. After successfully negotiating tricky games away to Rennes and at home to defending champions Lille, they knew that avoiding defeat in their final game versus Auxerre would give them the title. Montpellier fell behind mid-way through the first half and despite equalising minutes later through John Utaka the situation became unbearable as the game was halted. With Auxerre already condemned to relegation, their fans had shown their discontent by hurling flares and missiles onto the pitch. PSG’s game was already over, and Montpellier knew that conceding a goal would lose them the title. They kept their nerve, and Utaka’s second goal of the game in the 76th minute meant that they had claimed their first ever Ligue 1 title.
Just four years later and only three players who started that historic match against Auxerre remain. Montpellier’s star performers were cherry-picked by Europe’s top clubs in the following years, and now Louis Nicollin is faced with the prospect of building his squad all over again.
So what next for Montpellier? With PSG accruing 96 points last season and finishing 34 points clear of second place, perhaps another title challenge isn’t feasible. It’s left for them to build another team for the future, focusing on their key principles of hard work and team spirit. Could this crop of youngsters push for a place in Europe this year? Who knows?