Amiens, waiting 116 years for a first promotion to Ligue 1

I don’t follow my road; my road follows me.

This is one of the most popular quotes by Samuel Ferguson, explorer and main character from Jules Verne’s “Five weeks in a balloon”. Back in summer 2014, the road of Christophe Pélissier was one of a successful coach, almost predestined for many. After a modest footballing career as a midfielder and a couple of spells on the bench, never making the leap from amateur football, he had shaped Luzenac during seven years, steering that side from a tiny town with 500 inhabitants to new heights, as they reached Ligue 2.

It took Pélissier only a few seconds, though, to realise everything had changed.

Luzenac’s stadium didn’t meet the second-tier standards, which, coupled with some administrative issues, led the French Football Association not only to reject their promotion, but also their permanence in the National. The Occitan side were forced to dismantle their team, starting over from the seventh division. Even their most popular executive Fabien Barthez quitted.

Such a sudden verdict could have been enough to nip Pélissier’s career in the bud, as the coach admitted he had “a feeling of void”. In that moment, like never before, he felt like he was going astray, although his great determination would push him to complete the course that in the space of a few weeks would make him the first manager from his region to get a pro coaching licence without having played in professional football.

The next January, though, Amiens came to knock at his door. Pélissier probably couldn’t see it, but his road had kept following him.

The Frenchman took the offer of a then-third-tier side whose history was littered with contradictions.
Founded in 1901, amongst the oldest French football teams, Amiens Athletic Club enjoyed a promising start before turning down the chance of joining the professional world, which got underway in 1932. The club changed their mind the following season, too late to take part in the top-flight, a dream Amiens will be chasing for more than 80 years. In fact, the Picardian outfit never left amateur football between 1952 and 1990, only to lose their professional status once again in 2014 — according to French rules, teams missing out on Ligue 2 for more than two seasons can’t be considered professional clubs.
Renowned for its working-class spirit, two hockey teams, swimmer Jeremy Stravius and Jules Verne himself, who spent a part of his life there, Amiens has always struggled to build its footballing reputation. In spite of being the most illustrious representative of the sport in their region, Amiens Sporting Club (after a change of name) had never reached the Ligue 1, boasting a loss in the 2001 Coupe de France final against Strasbourg as one of the major achievements of their history.

In 2009, the takeover of current chairman Bernard Joannin didn’t lead to the expected change and the club remained in the French third division, except for a single season in Ligue 2 ended with a straight relegation. However, Joannin’s ambitions became evident in 2014 as he made huge efforts to maintain Amiens football academy (which between 2005 and 2007 would feature future Sevilla star Steve N’Zonzi) after the loss of their professional status.

As well as returning to professionalism, the club had to shake off the label of “unknown” team. To achieve this goal, a coach like Christophe Pélissier, who was looking for revenge inside and outside the pitch, looked like their man.

As the new coach joined the team in January 2015, he indicated “accuracy, respect, ambition and pleasure of playing” as the four pillars of his football idea that he had perfected during his seven-year spell in Luzenac, converting a group of amateur players into overachievers capable of reaching Ligue 2. Pélissier would manage to repeat such a leap to the French second-tier in his first season at the helm of Amiens in 2016. Despite the promotion, in Haute-de-France anyone knew that the joy for this triumph could have only been temporary: 

Almost everyone, including magazine France Football, considered Amiens one of most likely candidates for relegation to third division,

Courrier Picard sports reporter Rachid Touazi told MondoFutbol.com. 

Despite one of the lowest Ligue 2 budgets and a roster formed by many players who gained promotion to second division, Pélissier was able to shape an ambitious and determined team, holding a candle to more traditional and experienced clubs.

The team consisted of many footballers who were looking to revitalise their career after disappointing spells, like captain Thomas Montconduit, Aboubakar Kamara, Régis Gurtner as well as some academy players like Tanguy Ndombélé, scouted by Italian and English teams,

added Touazi.
After a surprising season during which Amiens impressed for their continuity and earned many points in the closing minutes of the matches beating direct rivals like Lens and Stade Brestois, they found themselves second, competing for promotion, with 90 minutes to play. Six teams for two spots. There was one more detail: amongst them, Amiens were the only club that had never played in Ligue 1. In the last match “Les Licornes” were drawing 1-1 with Stade de Reims and this result seemed to be yet another disappointment for SC Amiens fans and players, another bitter verdict for coach Pélissier.

However, in the space of those few seconds that in 2014 had taken him everything away, the manager saw his most beautiful dream become reality.

A last-gasp goal by Bourgaud has given Amiens the first promotion to Ligue 1 in their history. That’s the revenge of a manager and a whole city, recently mentioned for being the birthplace of French president Emmanuel Macron (who is an Olympique de Marseille fan). Maybe this surprising result could help Amiens to put itself on the map not just for presidential reasons, but also for football. “In Ligue 1 the club’s aim is to avoid relegation,” Touazi said. However, the French journalist doesn’t rule out the possibility of another surprising season.

If they play fearless and without complexes as they did in Ligue 2, they could be a breakthrough team.

In the meantime, some Amiens residents are worried about the traffic that Ligue 1 matches could cause in town. However it’s more than a fair price to host the likes of Psg and Monaco, dreaming of another winning late minute goal.

Cover photo ©Getty Images
Christophe Pélissier ©DDM
Amiens-Strasburgo, Coupe de France 2001 ©Ch Liewig/FEP/Panorami
Christophe Pélissier after Reims-Amiens ©Presse Sports