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To paraphrase the character Mr. White, portrayed by Tom Hanks in ‘That Thing You Do!’, they were one hit wonders. An old story, but a familiar story. Yet for all of Calais’ financial misdemeanours off the field, for one brief and shining moment in 2000, they were the biggest story in French football.
That was until the national side became European Champions later that summer in Belgium – this was a rich period for French football two years removed from home World Cup glory. Yet that is another story and this is a tale of the underdog, the nearly men, Calais RUFC.
The most surprising aspect of this story is that, in truth, Calais RUFC isn’t really a successful football club at all. They were not any good before then, and have not been since, yet in the first year of the new millennium, the side from the town most famous for people attempting to escape it was enchanting a football mad nation as they reached the zenith of the French Cup.
Photo: France Football
Cup competitions are oddly the great leveller in terms of association football; a knockout competition allows a small side to face a big top tier side sometimes on their own patch. In France, the ties are completed on the same day, which eliminates the moral victory of a ninety minute draw to earn a big payday replay.
An alternative to traditional random cup draws would be to make the higher ranked team play away from home, this may make it a more even playing field – if two teams drawn together play in the same division then the draw remains the same, this could easily be implemented.
However, this would allow an established side to endure and experience surroundings they would not ordinarily be used to: pitches that are not bowling green in colour nor smoothness, fans close to the pitch baying an overpaid professional of his every mistake and open stands which allow the elements to get to the ground and the cold to be absorbed by an abundance of layers and snoods.
It would also be a disservice not to mention the lower tier dressing rooms without heating, where breeze blocks keep the cold in and the heat out followed by the post-game cold showers. Many an elite player would not know what hit them.
In the English FA Cup over the years, many teams have gone on great competition journeys culminating in a valiant semi-final defeat, such as Chesterfield in 1997 and Wycombe Wanderers in 2001.
The most recent non-giant winning the FA Cup was Wigan Athletic triumphing over Manchester City in 2013. Man. City were and remain one of the world’s wealthiest clubs, whereas the Latics were bankrolled by Dave Wilson, famously a man who owned DW Sports stores and built his wealth in the north west of England, buying his home town club and leading them to this amazing Wembley triumph thanks to Ben Watson’s last minute header. Nevertheless, none of these tales of great triumph come close to Calais’.
Calais became a side with their name in lights by defeating two Ligue 1 sides en route to the Stade de France final. For their eventual conquerors Nantes, it was a third Coupe de France trophy which also meant they successfully defended the trophy they won in 1999. The next year, they took the stepping stone of cup glory to rise to an eighth Ligue 1 title in their history, to date this remains their most recent piece of silverware.
Calais’ celebrated run to the final on May 7th, 2000 began to take shape in the round of 16, with a penalty shoot-out victory over AS Cannes. Calais won 4-1 on penalty kicks following a 1-1 stalemate. Ironically, the team of journeymen began a story you could not believe that would have been fit for the silver screen, against the team from the filmic Croisette.
In the quarter finals, again benefitting from a home draw as in the previous round, The Dockers beat their first Ligue 1 opponent, RC Strasbourg 2-1; this team of dock workers, desk clerks and teachers took the professionals to school.
The semi-final, played at the beautiful Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens provided a 3-1 semi-final victory over Bordeaux after extra time, with all the goals coming in the extra period of play. Calais took a 1-0 lead on 99 minutes through Jandau before Lilian Laslandes equalised before The Dockers went crazy with Mathieu Milien regaining the advantage and Mickael Gerard rounding out the victory in the last minute and cementing the place in the final.
Photo: France Football
In that final on the first Saturday of May 2000, they faced FC Nantes Atlantique and in front of a near capacity attendance of 78,586, the underdogs took the lead after 34 minutes through the feet of Jerome Dutitre before the professionals class told in the second half. Antoine Sibierski equalised after 50 minutes before converting an injury time penalty to give Nantes their third Coupe de France and ending the fairytale for Calais, unfortunately leaving them all at sea.
In the 2005/06 season, Calais returned to prominence, making the quarter-finals of their favourite competition. Yet following good form and consistency on the field, it was the lack of direction off the field that would cost them.
In May 2010, they won the regional CFA 2 group A and the possibility of promotion to the Championnat National 2 (France’s fourth tier); however, on June 3rd 2010, the team was placed in liquidation by the Boulogne court and the French Football Federation (FFF) denied the promotion the club had earned. They again won the league the next year, but were again denied promotion owing to the administrative issues of the club.
In 2016/17, they finished the bottom of their group and were relegated thanks in part to a seven point deduction. The FFF gave them an administrative relegation, meaning at best they were to play at a regional level from then.
A sad end to a story of sheer abandonment and unrivalled joy, sometimes the unknown quantity can be married with quality.