Adam White

Rise of the Unicorns

Adam White
Rise of the Unicorns

This article also featured as part of the Ligue 1 Review on Guardian Sport and GFFN.

At first glance, Amiens are not equipped to be a Ligue 1 club. Until the summer their tally of top flight seasons stood at 0 while their pokey Stade de la Licorne draws many parallels with stadia belonging to English fourth or fifth tier sides. Nevertheless, these northern newcomers’ upward trajectory has been close to vertical in recent times. A third place finish in National, France’s third division, was swiftly followed by a stunning charge to a Ligue 2 runners-up berth 12 months later and, despite their status as minnows, Friday’s 1-1 draw with Champions Monaco proves that Christophe Pelissier’s men are looking more and more like the top flight team few though they could ever be.

Not blessed with the tradition nor interest really only prevalent in the lower tiers of the English and German footballing pyramids, France’s Championnat National third division is true footballing backwater. Not even considered fully professional, nearly half of the league’s average gates have dropped into the hundreds this season. Unsurprisingly, stories that parallel the rise, and fall, of clubs like Hull City or Paderborn ascending through the divisions to Ligue 1 in recent times are rare. Amiens are the archetypal National club, provincial and comparatively sparsely supported.

Low expectations and minimal funds have never been problems for manager Christophe Pelissier however in terms of manufacturing results. In 2007, Pelissier took the reins at Luzenac, a club from the sleepy Pyrenees town with a population of little more than 600 playing in CFA2, French football’s sprawling fifth tier. Seven years later, having been close to extinction in that time, Luzenac were bound for Ligue 2.

A murky decision by the strict, often aggressively so, DNCG, French football’s financial watchdog, denied Luzenac a momentous promotion due to concerns over their stadium and they were eventually returned to the CFA ranks despite their second place in National. Along with their professional status, Luzenac lost Pelissier, it was tough to take. “To leave like this after a remarkable season was really hard to bear. The word of mourning may be strong, but we have been deeply affected by this,” said Pelissier.

Pelissier’s achievement in guiding his new club, Amiens - whose badge bares a pair of unicorns - to Ligue 1 managed to outshine his successes with Luzenac. Only securing top flight status with the final kick of last season in a breathless six-way battle for a promotion spot on Ligue 2’s final day back in May, six of the side that started the 3-0 win over last season’s Ligue 1 3rd place finishers Nice in August, their first Ligue 1 victory, also took part in Amiens’ final National fixture. Those unfashionable, often now ageing members of the team, one of their number Emmanuel Bourgaud scoring the decisive goal in May, have become the basis of Amiens’ triumphs since. Both last season and this, defensive solidarity has been key.

Keeper Régis Gurtner, after some shaky early displays, is proving to be assured and commanding stopper every promoted side needs, centre back Khaled Adénon martials a thrifty backline boasting a defensive record superior to that of Lyon, Marseille and St. Étienne to date with 14 goals conceded in 12 games, a creditable total for a promoted side, while captain Thomas Monconduit completes the defensive spine at the base of the midfield. The 26-year-old’s composure, stamina and range of passing routinely a stand out feature of Pelissier’s Ligue 1 incarnation of Amiens as it did in the lower leagues. All three men are veterans of the National promotion campaign.

Although he relies on a handful of Lieutenants, Pelissier has proven he can reinvent and remould his side too, cajoling the best possible output from minimal resources in both talent and finances despite high turnover in some areas of the squad. Then top scorer Jonathan Tinhan was sold to rivals Troyes last winter while Aboubakar Kamara, his successor, moved to Fulham (where he has attempted to reinvent himself as “AK-47”) upon promotion. Teenage midfield powerhouse, and premier asset, Tanguy Ndombélé, joined Lyon this summer while his partner Guessouma Fofana’s disastrous leg break in an August training session has likely seen his season ended.

All four losses could have proven significant potholes and without Pelissier and his staff’s ability to cultivate their squad, Amiens’ meteoric rise could have been reversed. As the Ligue 1 season got underway Amiens, a weak loss to Angers drew worrying parallels with the lowly Troyes of 2015/16 or Arles Avignon in being caught floundering in the deep end of French football’s top flight. Summer signings have proven crucial to the side’s continued success.

South African enforcer Bongani Zungu and stoic centre back Prince Gouano arrived, as is fashionable in France, from Portugal and last season’s fourth placed overachievers Vitoria Guimaraes. But have proved crucial to Amiens aggressive, bulky, counter attacking style. Meanwhile full-back Issa Cissokho, journeyman midfielder Mathieu Bodmer and Lacina Traoré, Monaco’s top scorer as recent as two seasons ago, have added crucial Ligue 1 experience to the dressing room. In Senegalese forward Moussa Konaté who joined from Sion and winger Serge Gakpé who has returned to France after Serie A excursions with Chievo and Genoa, Amiens have signed attacking quality that would fit in to most mid-table Ligue 1 sides.

Yet the headline arrival came in the shape of Gaël Kakuta. Still only 26, Kakuta’s failure to establish himself in England preceded undulating form in Spain before self-imposed exile in China. But for Pelissier, adept at maximising talent, Kakuta has rapidly become the side’s talisman, a standout display in the draw with Monaco on Friday came close to besting the champions after Serge Gakpé’s opener was cancelled out late on by Steven Jovetic.

Not usually conducive to the cohesion and organisation that Pelissier has based his success on, 15 players were eventually added to the Amiens group over the off season and, with few leaving, the oft discussed process of ‘gelling’ has been a surprisingly swift one. As a by-product, and unusually for a promoted side, Amiens have genuine strength in depth, so much so that Pelissier has bemoaned a need to keep each member of his unwieldy squad happy. As a result, competition for places has become key to a hungry and intense Amiens side. Brazilian Chelsea loanee, attacking midfielder, Nathan, fresh from a breakthrough year at Vitesse, has started just once in the cup while Traoré, despite his experience and youth (surprisingly, he’s still 27), can hardly be considered first choice.

Nevertheless, Amiens are still a long way from Ligue 1 survival. Their draw with Monaco still leaves them in the bottom three but 12 points from their first 12 when taking into account that their squad underwent a number of changes should be considered a productive start. The signs are good. They remain a hard-nosed defensive group and their influx of forwards continue to find their feet lead by the reborn Kakuta. The draw with Monaco was their fifth consecutive outing unbeaten, while their play is starting to morph from overtly defensive to being bold on break and confident in their use of the ball. And despite their 19th position, they remain just four points from the top half in a hotly contested bottom half.

Often out muscled and out spent, adversity has been common for Pelissier and his teams throughout his career, their path steep. Due to the shocking scenes at during the recent visit of Lille when a stand collapse injured 30 away fans, Pelissier again found himself preparing for a home game to be played away from home; mirroring his spell with the unfortunate Luzenac. Podium chasing Bordeaux joined Amiens in making the trip to Le Havre last month, supposedly already a mismatch in class and resources.

Against all expectations, the only goal of the game came via Amiens’ battling, unspectacular holding midfielder Guy Ngosso. With satisfying symmetry, it was Ngosso who had led the celebrations as Luzenac celebrated what they thought was a stunning promotion to Ligue 2 three years earlier under Pelissier only for both men to be denied by forces beyond their control. But as Monaco found out on Friday night Amiens are a tight, bold, effective unit and as Pellissier finally takes the applause his inspirational management deserves, his eclectic group of third division veterans, foreign unknowns and forgotten gems could prove to be just the right mix as his Amiens side prepare to surpass expectations once again.

by Adam White 

Image: Julien Bertrand