Pitchside Europe

Revived Reims finally looking forward again

The pictures that adorn the walls at the Stade Auguste-Delaune, serving as reminders of a triumphant past, are all in black and white.

Few clubs in Europe can boast a history as proud as that of Reims, with their six league titles, two French Cups and two appearances in the final of the European Cup.

The glory days of Champagne football are but a distant memory now. You need to be of pensionable age to recall seeing Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa turn out for Albert Batteux's side. Even the days when prolific goalscorers like Delio Onnis and Carlos Bianchi wore the famous red and white are 40 years ago.

But having almost been wiped completely from the French footballing map in the 1990s, Reims are now flourishing again where they belong, in the top flight. Today, supporters can be satisfied with the present and hopeful for the future as well as proud of the past.

Under the stewardship of president Jean-Pierre Caillot and coach Hubert Fournier, Reims have become a model for other provincial clubs in France. Anyone looking for a surprise package in 2014, capable of stealing a European berth just as Nice did last season, could do worse than look to Reims.

They sit eighth halfway through the season, two points adrift of Bordeaux in fourth and level on points with Marseille, the only French club to have gone one step further than Reims and actually become champions of Europe.

Reims began the New Year with a 2-0 defeat to Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome in the French Cup on Sunday, but Fournier's side have already shown themselves to be a match for anyone in Ligue 1 on their day.

Indeed, they stunned OM with a 3-2 league win at the Vélodrome in October, and have also beaten Lille and Lyon this season, while holding Monaco.

Fournier, 46, has continued to improve a side that beat Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 at the Stade Auguste-Delaune in March last year on the way to finishing a respectable 14th in their first top-flight campaign 1978-79.

The next step is to finish in the top half for the first time since 1976, and Fournier's track record as a coach suggests that their upward trajectory will continue.

Formerly a defender with Borussia Moenchengladbach and Lyon amongst others, Fournier was initially an assistant at Reims, back in 2009-10 when they were in the third division. But since becoming coach in his own right he has led them into Ligue 1 and kept them there.

With a squad containing numerous talented young players, notably the right-back Aïssa Mandi and the Polish international midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, and the prospect of a new training centre which will open this year, Fournier is positive about the future. That is why he signed a new contract last month, a two-year extension keeping him at Reims until 2016.

He sees "a team that is making progress and a club that is growing" and adds that "there is still a lot of room for improvement."

In particular, the purists will feel that Fournier's side could play with a little more sparkle, like the wine for which the region is so famous but also like the Reims teams of old.

After winning promotion in 2012, president Caillot promised that the team would carry on the tradition of attacking football, saying that "it is something we have in our genes, it is in our DNA." But Fournier does not have quite the same means as his famous predecessor Batteux.

As a result, Reims averaged less than a goal a game last season, but there are signs that things are changing, witness the aforementioned triumph against OM and a storming second-half showing in beating Ajaccio 4-1 just before Christmas.

Fifty-one years have now passed since Reims last competed in Europe. In February 1963, they went down 2-1 on aggregate to Feyenoord in the European Cup quarter-finals. The Dutch side were undone by Eusébio's Benfica in the next round, but they were an emerging continental force. Reims, in contrast, had begun their slide. Now they are on their way back, and what if they managed to return to Europe in the near future?

Speaking just before the start of last season, captain Mickaël Tacalfred summed up the spirit of the current squad.

"The past is not something that weighs us down. It stimulates us," he said. "This club is part of France's footballing heritage. But we want to write our own page in its history."

Andrew Scott | Follow on Twitter