It is 45 years ago today that AS Monaco became football champions of France out of nowhere. The team had been promoted to Ligue 1 the summer before and was mainly seen as ‘a certain relegation candidate’ before the start of the season. But in nine months everything changed and on May 2, 1978, Monaco became champion for the third time in its existence. This team is probably the most loved among the older Monaco fans, who are sure to reflect on that unforgettable stunt today.
“It was probably the best year of my career and maybe even of my life,” defender Rolland Courbis once said. “I came to Monaco, was 24, still single, and arrived in a second-hand Peugeot 504 at the club. After one season I drove a Porsche, which I could pay with the championship premium. Everything was beautiful in that year. La Belle Vie. We also started the season without much ambition. If only we didn’t get relegated, it would be good,” remembers the striking former player, who can still often be heard as ‘Coach Courbis’ with his analyses for the radio station RMC-Info.
“It was a very special season because everything worked out well and we were lucky that we had almost no injuries, so we played all the games with a group of sixteen men. Winning the league title was the best moment of my career,” explains the Argentine forward Raoul Noguès.
Courbis and Noguès were two of the five acquisitions in the summer of 1977 to strengthen the promoted team. “Coach Lucien Leduc had actually wanted other players but they were too expensive and he had to do it with us, but it clicked immediately. From the first training camp there was a unity and a camaraderie. We started the competition with five wins in a row and from that moment on we were in the top flight, without seriously thinking that we would last until the end. I think we only understood four games before the end that we could really become champions,” recalls Noguès, who is still living in Monaco.
The big star of the team was striker Delio Onnis, who scored 29 times in that season, but fifteen in the last ten matches when the title came into view. With 299 goals, this Argentine is still Ligue 1’s all-time topscorer (he became the league’s topscorer in five seasons). But the team had more gifted players, such as the virtuoso forward Christian Dalger, the playmaker Jean Petit and goalkeeper Jean-Luc Ettori, who broke through in this season. The defender was stable with the central duo of Gardon-Courbis and with Vanucci and Vitalis as wingbacks. In midfield, Paraguayan Correa was the lock on the door in the service of Petit and Moizan, while the attack was formed by Dalger, Onnis and Noguès.
The circumstances under which Monaco became champions are very special in retrospect. The team played its home games in a stadium with only one real stand between four light poles by the sea, where usually less than two thousand spectators watched.
“You know that when you sign with Monaco, you don’t play in front of a huge crowd. That in itself is not a problem because as a player you are mainly focused on what happens on the field. Of course, encouragement is nice, but in the end it comes down to your own motivation,” says Noguès.
“And we sometimes trained in the stadium but often, to save the grass, we went to fields in the neighboring villages, such as Eze or St. Jean-Cap Ferrat. That was pretty shabby. Sometimes we trained on a jeu-de-boules field under trees or on an open pitch in Peille. The field wasn’t even level there.” Courbis adds: “It was especially relaxing because we didn’t feel any outside pressure. Every morning we gathered at La Régence in the village square of La Turbie to have breakfast. Pain au chocolat, baguette with butter, orange juice and café au lait. We dipped the croissant in the coffee. There were no dietitians in football yet. And then we went to train somewhere.”
Manager Lucien Leduc, who had also managed Monaco’s first two league titles in the sixties, was a father figure. He also released the players because they did everything he asked of them. “Leduc trusted us blindly. He breathed football and involved his wife in everything. It even happened that they went to look after our children when he thought we should relax for an evening. For a coach like that you will do everything he asks from you,” Captain Jean Petit once explained about his relationship with the coach.
The mood around the team remained relaxed but suddenly came the belief that Monaco could become champions. They won the last six games and were not overtaken by defending champions Nantes, who made a fatal mistake of their own.
And then it was May 2, 1978 and Monaco had to beat Bastia at home. The Corsican side also played in the final of the UEFA Cup that week. “We got up to 2-0, but then Bastia came back strong and the Dutch striker John Rep in particular played really well that night. At 2-1 it went exciting. Onnis missed even a penalty kick. And then the referee whistled three times and the game was over. The discharge was enormous. It was the best moment in my football life,” recalls Raoul Noguès.
France was especially surprised. The authoritative weekly France Football called the stunt le gag de l’année (the joke of the year) but the appreciation for the team was also great. “The attractive football has won,” the editor-in-chief wrote. It would be the impetus for the modernisation of AS Monaco. Prince Rainier bought a ground in La Turbie for a training complex and had a stadium built in the new Fontvieille.
Ten thousand Monegasques and residents will never forget that Tuesday night. The team was welcomed that night and honoured in old-timers around the F1 circuit, 45 years ago today.