There are few football clubs, my beloved Kilmarnock aside, that hold a place as close to my heart as Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace. As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent a year abroad studying in the French city of Strasbourg. Prior to heading out to that idyllic pocket of eastern France, I decided to purchase a season ticket for the 2016/2017 season at the brutalist Stade de la Meinau, home to Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace. At the time, Strasbourg were sitting top of the Championnat National – the third tier of French football – with only a handful of games remaining in the 2015/2016 season and promotion to Ligue 2 well within sight. Strasbourg duly sealed promotion on the final day with a 2-2 draw at home to Dunkirk: I would be watching Ligue 2 the following season.
Love at first sight / Le coup de foudre
By the time I arrived in Strasbourg, the Ligue 2 season had already begun in earnest. My first taste of football at the Meinau was therefore a Monday night clash against Troyes in early September.
I can still remember walking to the ground, in the south side of the city and about fifteen minutes on foot from my accommodation, on a balmy Alsacian evening. I had no idea what to expect in terms of quality and did not recognise any of the names in either of the starting line-ups. It is perhaps telling that, after conducting some pre-match research, the only, admittedly tedious, link that I could find to familiarity was that then-Strasbourg striker Stéphane Bahoken had previously spent a fruitless spell on loan at Danny Lennon’s St Mirren.
I nevertheless felt a familiar sense of unbridled anticipation as the concrete cathedral that is the Stade de la Meinau crept into view. There was something quite unassuming about the exterior of the stadium, more befitting of Soviet Russia than an Alsace renowned for its warming Franco-German architecture, the bustle of fans spilling through the gates at the front of the stadium, the strategically-positioned stalls selling traditional “tarte flambées”, and the heavily-vandalised staircases leading up to the interior of the stadium, that made me almost instantly fall in love with Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace.
That first game would end in an enjoyable 2-0 victory for Strasbourg. Bahoken handed Strasbourg an early lead before Dimitri Liénard sealed all three points in the final minute after rounding Troyes goalkeeper Mamadou Samassa and converting into an empty net from a tight angle. I left the stadium looking forward to the rest of the season, confident that I had made the right decision to buy a season ticket. The tireless efforts of the Strasbourg ultras behind the goal to my right had created a tremendous atmosphere for the full 90 minutes. The dulcet tones of the stadium announcer would soon become like music to my ears, a welcome and bellowing reminder that ‘Le Racing’ had scored yet another goal. In terms of the football itself, Strasbourg’s gleeful style of play was evidently going to be a joy to watch: defensively naïve, but scintillating going forward. Indeed, manager Thierry Laurey’s apparent disregard for the art of defending would ultimately see Strasbourg finish the season with both the highest number of goals scored and one of the highest number of goals conceded of any of the sides in the top half of the division.
Memorable games in a memorable season
The win over Troyes would set the tone for the rest of what was a truly memorable season following ‘Le Racing’. It would of course be impossible for me to detail each and every game and do those games justice. There are however two particular matches that stand out for me.
By the middle of December, Strasbourg had picked up 26 points and sat just 3 points behind a Lens side who were occupying 3rd place. The visit of Lens to the Meinau on 10 December therefore represented somewhat of a six-pointer in the race for promotion to Ligue 1. As the teams walked out to a deafening cauldron of noise, there was an air of expectation amongst the Strasbourg fans. That expectation quickly proved to be well-founded as Strasbourg raced into a two goal lead inside the opening half-hour. First, Jeremy Grimm volleyed home expertly after a loose ball fell kindly to the Alsace native at the edge of the box. The wonderful and often frustratingly unpredictable Bahoken, banishing his cauchemardesque Paisley past once and for all, then doubled the lead as he converted into an empty net following a pinpoint cross from Baptiste Guillaume.
Strasbourg eventually ran out 3-1 winners and in so doing recorded arguably one of the biggest wins of their season. Captain Ernest Seka had his side coasting towards three huge points with a bullet header before Spanish striker Christian Lòpez grabbed a late consolation for Lens. The referee’s full time whistle was greeted with a euphoric roar: les strasbourgeois were starting to believe that promotion to France’s top tier at the first time of asking was more than possible.
Fast forward to the middle of March and ‘Le Racing’ were still keeping up with the rest of the pack in the hunt for promotion, despite a recent dip in form. On 11 March, league leaders Stade Brestois rolled up to the Meinau hoping to continue their impressive season. What followed however was a total dismantlement of a side that had hitherto boasted one of the best defences in the division. Strasbourg mercilessly pillaged a Brest side that would ultimately miss out on promotion by a solitary point, registering a 4-1 victory that sent out a clear message to the rest of the league. A brace from Baptiste Guillaume, a majestic free-kick from Liènard and a simple tap-in from Moroccan international Khalid Boutaïb had the Meinau absolutely rocking and the ultras in even finer voice.
Strasbourg came in to that game against Brest following a disappointing run that had seen them win only one of their previous four games in all competitions. They walked off the park however with renewed confidence at a crucial point in the season. Some would allow me to describe the game as a defining moment in Strasbourg’s bid for promotion.
After their emphatic victory against Brest, Strasbourg would go on to accrue 21 points from the remaining nine games. Following a nervy 2-1 victory over Bourg-en-Bresse on the final day of the season, Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace were crowned Ligue 2 champions sealing back-to-back promotions. I should highlight that this was a fourth promotion in six years for a loveable Strasbourg side who would now be competing in Ligue 1 with the likes of Monaco, PSG, Lyon and Marseille.
A wonderful club for a wonderful city
Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace are, quite simply, a wonderful club befitting of a wonderful city. At the end of my year abroad, it was difficult to say goodbye to the endearing city and its historic football team. I have since returned to Strasbourg several times. On two of those occasions, I managed to take in a Strasbourg game at the Meinau. I watched Strasbourg battle to a hard-earned 1-1 draw against a Nice side featuring the inexplicable Mario Balotelli in the 2017/2018 season. I then saw Strasbourg somehow contrive to throw away three points in the dying minutes of the game as they drew 1-1 with Saint-Etienne earlier this season.
While it took a remarkable Dimitri Liénard-inspired comeback against Lyon to guarantee their Ligue 1 survival at the end of the 2017/2018 season, Strasbourg have made significant progress in the league this season and currently sit 10th in the table. Most notably, ‘Le Racing’ recorded a 5-1 win over Thierry Henry’s shambolic Monaco side and drew twice with the billionaires of PSG. They also won the Coupe de la Ligue in March, beating Guingamp on penalties at Lille’s Stade Pierre Mauroy. There is still of course the occasional hiccup, such as the recent 3-1 loss at home to Montpellier. What is evident however is that Strasbourg are becoming increasingly at ease with their Ligue 1 status. If you ask les strasbourgeois, they’ll tell you without hesitation that its exactly where they belong.