Adam White


Adam White

This article also featured on Guardian Sport and GFFN.

Although Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson was unusually packed for the derby visit of newly promoted local rivals Nimes on Sunday afternoon, the Tribune Heidelberg, home to Montpellier ultra group Butte Paillade 91, was missing it’s most prominent incumbent. A banner which bears the group’s name and usually sits proudly above the lower tier had been stolen. However, with ten minutes remaining of what had been a ferocious Montpellier display, striker Gaetan Laborde heading the home side into a 3-0 lead, the missing banner reappeared, but at the other end of La Mosson.

Until this week, La Derby du Languedoc between southern neighbours Montpellier and Nimes had been largely forgotten by those outside the usually Rugby dominated mediterranean region. Fierce rivals traditionally, underlined by the 400 police on hand yesterday, the two clubs had not met in Ligue 1 for 25 years or in any competition for nearly a decade and that competitiveness would reemerge as reports emerged on Thursday that Nimes’ rival supporters group, ‘The Gladiators’, had acquired Butte Paillade 91’s cherished banner.

Tensions between the two groups had been simmering for some time. L’equipe reported this week that Nimes fans were attacked by their Montpellier counterparts as they returned from a Ligue 2 trip to Lorient in May, supposedly a response to Nimes fans breaking into La Mosson last November. Subsequently Nimes fans, other than the 605 sanctioned to attend by authorities, were banned from travelling while those able to attend were given a police escort to La Mosson. Fears of violence outside the ground remained however while a group of Montpellier fans chanting “kill them!” at a training session this week underlines why such security was employed.

Despite the years between derbies of this magnitude, past encounters carry a degree of mythos. Their most famous meeting came in 1996 Coupe de France semi final when notorious Montpellier President Louis Nicollin famously stated he would return home on horseback should his Ligue 1 team lose at then their teir Nimes. Nimes secured a famous 1-0 win and although he did not ride horseback through the streets of Nimes, Nicollin’s comments did inspire a famous French pop song by Ricoune.

Less comically, with Sunday’s derby petering out Montpellier fans attempted to vault hoardings behind the goal in anger as Nimes’ supported tauntingly unveiled a section of the stolen Butte Paillade banner forcing riot police to block Butte Paillade’s advance at the foot of their stand, pepper spray in use. This was the second delay that exceeded 10 minutes as, in celebrating Ambroise Oyongo’s first half opener, BP members had spilled onto the pitch as the fence that separated them from the Mosson pitch collapsed, injuring two. A scene horribly reminiscent of an incident at Amiens last season in which 30 Lille fans were hurt.

Although the Gladiators’ banner theft may seem fairly innocuous at first, its a sign (alongside BP’s reaction) of an increasingly spiteful side of the French game as disturbances caused by ultra groups become increasingly common. While incidents akin to Bastia fans attacking Lyon players as they warmed up before a game in Corsica two years ago are rare, both Marseille and St Etienne have been punished with stand closures in recent months, PSG were punished after their ultras (who have only recently returned the Parc des Princes) tore up their end of Lyon’s Parc OL and as recently as Saturday Angers supporters attacked a coach load of Guingamp fans. The LFP are in danger of allowing such incidents to become endemic.

Warring fans were supposed to mirror equally opposing styles of play at La Mosson. Montpellier, as Michel Der Zakarian sides typically are, remain one of Ligue 1’s more conservative and pragmatic outfits. Their defensive tactics often proving useful against the top teams but resulting in a lack of ideas against weaker ones. Nimes, however, have proved to be the league’s most gung-ho outfit this season, only games involving PSG and Marseille have seen more goals in the first eight weeks, although only bottom side Guingamp have conceded more than ‘The Crocodiles’.

Despite Nimes outplaying Marseille, fighting back from 2-0 down against PSG and somehow overturning a man and two goal deficit to win 4-3 at Angers, Montpellier lead the way in Languedoc. Yesterday’s 3-0 win eventually, after La Mosson’s stadium announcer and several senior Montpellier players pleaded with fans not to continue their aggression for fear of punishment, put Der Zakarian’s charges into a Champions League spot. Nimes, now winless in 6, were surprisingly restrained for much of the encounter by an uncharastically aggressive Montpellier, lead by outstanding midfielder Florent Mollet who dictated for long stretches.

Montpellier were fortunate, their visitors squandering a couple of clear chances, but their bullish display marked an evolution from last season’s over reliance on the counterattack that saw promising European hopes fade in April. Der Zakarian’s marauding wings backs and counter attacks remain but a pair of physical strikers in Laborde and Andy Delort, who tucked home a questionable penalty to make it 2-0, are supported by a genuine number 10 in Mollet, giving Montpellier some much needed cutting edge.

Although Montpellier president Laurent Nicolin insisted that no players were in danger, the LFP Disciplinary Committee meets Monday to discuss sanctions, a heavy fine likely the minimum. Either way, Michel Der Zakarain’s team proved that they have the firepower to produce their best campaign since winning Ligue 1 in 2012, with or without Butte Paillade’s banner.

by Adam White