I do appreciate all this rather pales into insignificance in the context of tomorrow’s game and what looks like the impending confirmation of the takeover. But perhaps it will provide a diversion as we wait for the main events, especially as the outcome of the final round of games in National, France’s third division, attracted some attention given the end-result.
To recap, in this ridiculously tight division of 17 teams (usually 18 but with one, Bastia, missing this season) with one game left Red Star were confirmed as champions with one of Grenoble or Beziers taking the second promotion spot, the other going into a play-off against the team finishing third-bottom of the second division. At the other end Creteil had been relegated some time ago, they’d just been joined by Marseilles Consolat, but then any one of eight teams – including Lyon Duchere, my adopted French team - could have taken the final relegation place. No need for nail-biting if the team going into the final game in that last relegation place, Entente SSG (otherwise called Sannois Saint-Gratien), lost their game, away at Grenoble, who still needed a result if they were to hold onto second place and automatic promotion.
Duchere, who sat in 12th place on 39 points, went into the last game knowing that a win at home to Chambly and they were safe for sure. A draw would probably be enough, given all the other teams involved, but a defeat and they’d be relying on at least one of the three teams below them to lose to stay up. Chambly themselves, on 40 points, were not guaranteed safety.
So nobody was especially surprised by the cagey start to the game, with a bumper crowd of 572 (just over double this season’s average attendance, the lowest of the league) having taken advantage of free admission for the game. But Duchere were looking more threatening going forward and nerves were eased after 12 mins as they took the lead. A cross from the right to the far post was headed back into the middle. There didn’t seem to be a real threat, but the appropriately named Jackson Mendes – who had indeed been running down the wing for us – managed to get enough on his header and to divert the ball into exactly the right spot, into the corner of the net just under the bar.
After that Duchere had a purple patch and four or five good opportunities to add to the lead and ensure a reasonable cushion. They didn’t take any of them, and did have a reminder of the danger they were still in as just before the break Chambly hit the post with a header from a cross of their own. No matter, La Duch were still winning and with half-time came the opportunity to see how the other results were shaping up.
Staring out from the mobile screen was Grenoble 1 Entente 2. Wow. Surely it wouldn’t end like that, but what did it mean for the placings? Grenoble’s rivals for the second promotion spot, Beziers, were at home to Les Herbiers. Remember them? The team that had won the previous week, to allow them we all thought to enjoy the French Cup Final on Tuesday evening against PSG without fear for their place in the third division. Plenty of deserved attention as a village of 15,000 took 15,700 to the game. There was no miracle, PSG winning 2-0, but plenty of plaudits for Les Herbiers’ plucky performance and wonderful cup run. But it wasn’t exactly ideal preparation for another game on Friday evening, especially given the opposition. So no surprise that Beziers were 1-0 to the good. Although Pau were also losing (at home to champions Red Star), with Cholet a goal to the good at home to Creteil and Concarneau winning away at Laval, remarkably Les Herbiers had dropped into the final relegation place.
Tough on them for sure but by no means done and dusted. Surely Grenoble – who had actually scored first in their game - wouldn’t actually lose at home to Entente. Still 45 minutes to go.
For Duchere, and Chambly, this meant that their game took on a rather different complexion. For Chambly, as long as Les Herbiers lost they were safe. For Duchere, as long as Les Herbiers lost a draw was good enough to survive, but a defeat and I really don’t know; they would end up on the same number of points as Les Herbiers – and simple goal difference doesn’t seem to cover placings in this division. So although they game didn’t descend into a players’ deal not to try to score, both teams were content to keep things as they were – as long as the picture elsewhere didn’t change.
There were more goals. Early in the second half Les Herbiers conceded another at Beziers, making them increasingly dependent on Grenoble turning it around. But incredibly it was Entente who scored again, to go 1-3 up at Grenoble. Then Les Herbiers’ chances of anything from their game all but disappeared as they went 3-0 down. With around 20 minutes left Les Herbiers did actually get one back but there was to be no comeback. Nevertheless, their hopes of survival were boosted as Grenoble scored a second with a little less than 10 minutes of normal time to go. At the time it looked as though one more goal for Grenoble and they would get automatic promotion and Entente would drop back into the bottom three/four, Les Herbiers surviving. To add to the drama, Creteil had equalised at Cholet and if they scored a winner it would be Cholet who went down; Pau had managed an equaliser at home to Red Star, taking them a point above the bottom teams; and Concarneau had been pegged back to 1-1 at Laval, leaving them on the same points as Pau.
Heaven only knows what the atmosphere was like at Grenoble for those final 10 minutes. We at Duchere were enjoying following the scores – but not with indifference. If Chambly had equalised – and they did have one or two chances, as did Duchere – it would only require one more for them and it could after all be La Duch facing the drop. But that was not to happen. Both teams settled for what they had and were able to celebrate survival when the final whistle blew.
As it happened there were no more important goals – although Beziers added a fourth to add to Les Herbiers’ misery. Entente somehow held on to their 2-3 lead and took the three points, lifting themselves to 11th place on 40 points, the same as Pau (10th), Chambly (12th) and Concarneau (13th). Cholet held on to their home point to finish on the same number of points (39) as Les Herbiers but placed above them in 14th. And Les Herbiers, having enjoyed the attention and glory of a cup final and with a celebration at their ground planned for Saturday, found themselves relegated.
Duchere? Would you believe that the win lifted them to sixth place in the league. Anyone in the future looking at the final league placings would have no idea that going into the final stages of the last game they could still have been relegated. The celebrations at the end in front of the home fans were genuine and well-deserved. Last season had been Duchere’s first in this league and they enjoyed it, coming close to securing promotion at the first time of asking. This time around it had been tough, very tough. It would have been easy to have fallen away and gone back down; instead in recent weeks they pulled out wins away at Grenoble and Laval and a draw at Red Star, plus that vital home victory over Boulogne. They displayed character and resolve and can look back on the campaign with pride as they plan for next season.
Les Herbiers? No doubt it hurt last night and today. But I suspect that when they’ve had the chance to reflect if they’d had a choice between a cup final and relegation versus staying up they may well have gone for the former. They can tell their grandchildren about the day they took on the mighty PSG long after a relegation has been forgotten.
Us? Needless to say another Jackson goal (or three) tomorrow would be very welcome.