Next season Ligue 1 will see a first return since 2008 of Racing Club Strasbourg-Alsace thanks to another hard-earned promotion, the club’s fourth in six years since entering liquidation in 2011 and starting again down in the fifth tier.
This is a club with a turbulent history: more than 50 top-flight French seasons and 50 European ties under its belt, but perpetually undermined by chronic mis-mismanagement.
RC Strasbourg is one of an elite group of six French clubs to have won all three domestic trophies though, the pinnacle of its fragmented 111-year history arriving in 1979 with a championship win that is still seen today as one of the biggest surprises in the history of the French league.
The seeds of that success were sown three years earlier amidst the chaos of another self-induced financial mess. RC Strasbourg suffered relegation to Ligue 2 in 1976 (their second relegation of the 70s) and offloaded anyone with monetary value, players that included international midfielder Jean-Noël Huck. A commitment to build a team based exclusively on local youth and amateur players was an enforced decision, albeit one that quickly proved to be the happiest of accidents.
An estimable team based around a seasoned defence that included Jacky Duguépéroux, Léonard Specht and Raymond Domenech came together and inspired Strasbourg to promotion and an immediate return to the top tier in 1977. The catalyst to push on from this promising base came with the appointment of former player and fan favourite Gilbert Gress as coach that same summer.
Gress had just taken his first steps in management in Switzerland and returned to France brimming with ideas about how he wanted his new charges to play. This was an era in which French football was tactically conservative: every player had a defined role and was not expected to break out of the tactical box he had been put in.
Gress’s ideas were informed by the Dutch ‘total football’ system and the progressive football he had seen during his playing days in West Germany with Stuttgart. He worked hard to drill his Strasbourg charges into becoming a flexible team that pressed opponents hard all over the pitch, while encouraging full-backs to push forward and create width.
In his first season Gress’s progressive methods drove his Strasbourg team to the heights of third place in Ligue 1, although this stark upswing in fortune still flew under the radar of the broader French game. Mirroring what Nottingham Forest did in England, Monaco became the 1978 French champions as a newly-promoted team and gathered all the plaudits. And for all the advancement the Alsace club had made, this was a team stocked with high-professional if low-celebrity individuals – goalkeeper Dominique Dropsy was its only national team representative at the 1978 World Cup.
Gress’s no-stars model remained as fixed as his personnel for the 1978-79 season with the solitary newcomer to the team being the Chadian forward Nabatingue Toko. Strasbourg started strongly and duly led the table from beginning to end. Journeyman forward Albert Gemmrich enjoyed the best season of his career scoring 17 league goals, though the team was markedly less free-scoring than their more glamorous title rivals Nantes and Saint-Etienne. The title success was unapologetically built around a solid defence and further cemented by an impregnable record at home where they remained unbeaten.
Even when a potential opportunity to win the double was lost with a surprise Coupe de France semi-final defeat to part-time Auxerre, nothing could dampen the raucous celebrations that greeted the team on its return upon finally securing the title at Lyon.
Unused to major success, it’s no surprise there was little in the way of vision and sensible planning about how the club should move forward. A new president arrived and wanted star names to match what he perceived to be the club’s new stellar image. An unsuccessful attempt was made to sign Johan Neeskens before the Argentinian striker Carlos Bianchi arrived from PSG instead.
Bianchi was an exceptional striker and one of France’s historically most prolific scorers, but he was a penalty box predator who only came alive when his team had the ball – the antithesis of Gress’s title-winning team’s style. With major decisions being taken over his head, the coach knew the writing was on the wall. He took the team to a respectable fifth-placed finish in 1980 then left to work with Club Brugge.
Strasbourg would never finish as high in the table again. By the mid 1980s the club was back in the relegation zone having reverted to its typecast role in the French game – not good enough for Ligue 1 but too good for Ligue 2. Relegated five times before their title win and five times subsequently, the mission statement for Racing Club Strasbourg – Alsace on their return next season is simple: stay up!