Paris (AFP) – Daniel Leclercq, known as the “Druid”, who led Lens to their only French league title in 1998, has died at the age of 70, his former club announced on Friday.

The Voix du Nord newspaper reported he suffered a pulmonary embolism and the French side’s former president Gervais Martel said Leclercq died in Martinique where he lived.

Leclercq, a central defender, played more than 360 games in nine seasons for Lens from 1974 to 1983. He then coached the club for three seasons from 1997 to 1999 leading them to league and league cup trophies. He returned to the Stade Felix-Bollaert as sporting director from 2008 to 2011. 

He was nicknamed the “Druid” for his coaching style as much as for his wispy hair and distinctive posture. 

“A part of Lens has gone,” Martel told AFP. 

“He was first a great player, then as a coach he took us to the highest level. It was unthinkable to be French champion. I don’t know if we’ll ever go through this again. He was constantly demanding. That reassured the players, even if they sometimes feared him.”

Leclercq was from the outskirts of another northern town, Valenciennes where he started his career. 

As a player he had a couple of stints with Marseille, where we helped win a league title in 1971, but as a coach he worked only in the north. 

In addition to Lens, he had two periods in charge of Valenciennes, guiding the club to promotion in his second spell there from 2003 to 2005.

He wrote his legend in 1998 at Lens, the same year France won the World Cup on home soil.

“He was an idol for the fans,” said Martel. 

“When we were champions, he was proud and so happy for them. He often told me: ‘people got their pride back’ when life was difficult with the mines that had closed and many people were unemployed.”

Leclercq managed to get the most out of a squad that included a core of French players who failed to make the World Cup squad – Tony Vairelles, Guillaume Warmuz, Jean-Guy Wallemme and Frederic Dehu – as well as Czech midfielder Vladimir Smicer and Montenegrin striker Anto Drobnjak as key figures.

“The 1990s were a time of tactical, space-reducing football,” goalkeeper Warmuz told AFP. 

“He had the idea of football with panache. It was revolutionary. In January 1998, he asked each one of us in the dressing room if we wanted to be French champions.”

Lens and Metz, another club to have never won the league, broke away from the rest of the field during the campaign. Lens took over first spot when they won at Metz at the end of March and then held on to take the title on goal difference after drawing on the last day at home to Auxerre.

The following season Lens beat Metz to win the League Cup.