It is no surprise to see the likes of Bordeaux, Lille, Marseille, Auxerre, Lyon and Paris St Germain occupying places at the top of Ligue 1. Yet what few French league watchers expected at this stage of the season was to see unfancied Montpellier push their way into third after regaining their place in the top flight only last term.

The southerners have been sitting comfortably in the top half of the table since matchday four and climbed into the top three on the back of a notable 2-1 win at Lyon in the final round of games before the Christmas break, all in all a fairytale return for a club that believes it is back in its rightful place.

Founded in 1919, Montpellier Herault Sporting Club (MHSC) was thrust into the limelight in 1974 with the arrival of larger-than-life president Louis “Loulou” Nicollin. An outspoken figure, the burly Nicollin is known as much for his business instinct and leadership qualities as he is for his controversial outbursts, the latest of which came after a league match at Auxerre earlier this season and led to him being banned for two months by the national football authorities.

Yet, it is that very passion for the game and his unstinting devotion to French football that have made him a much-loved figure throughout the country. Thanks to significant investment over the years, MHSC has enjoyed relative financial security and internal stability under his stewardship. Joining the professional ranks in 1978, Montpellier enjoyed unprecedented success from the mid-1980s onwards. One of the catalysts for this golden era was feted Cameroonian striker Roger Milla, who scored 41 goals in 102 appearances for the club.

The high point of Montpellier’s rise to prominence came in 1990 when a side containing the likes of Laurent Blanc, Carlos Valderrama and the inimitable Eric Cantona won the French Cup. That triumph was followed by an exciting campaign in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup the next season, with the Frenchmen knocking out PSV Eindhoven and Steaua Bucharest before exiting 3-1 on aggregate to the mighty Manchester United, a tie that featured a notable 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

After going down in 2000 and winning promotion back to the top flight at the first time of asking, the club fell on hard times, finishing bottom of Ligue 1 in 2004 and remaining in the second division for the next five seasons.

To be absolutely honest, my team has surprised me. It has been a while since I’ve worked with a group of players that are so willing to listen.

Montpellier manager Rene Girard

Redemption finally came with the appointment of the voluble Rolland Courbis in 2007, who set about building an entertaining side spearheaded by Colombian striker Victor Hugo Montano. A 2005 signing, Montano struggled initially to make his mark, scoring only 12 goals before Courbis’ arrival. His contribution of 15 goals in 35 matches was crucial to MHSC’s return to Ligue 1 last season, however, with the previously unknown Argentinian playmaker Alberto Costa also making a vital contribution to the promotion push.

No sooner had Courbis guided the club back to the top than he resigned, with Nicollin choosing to replace him with Rene Girard, the former national U-23, U-19 and U-16 coach and one-time right-hand man of ex-France boss Roger Lemerre. Girard’s appointment was a gamble, however. Out of club management for over a decade, he had been sacked from his national coaching position the year before and his sudden return at Montpellier surprised everyone.

Nevertheless, Nicollin’s hunch has proved to be a masterstroke. Girard has quietly put together a talented and experienced side combining outstanding youth-academy products such as Geoffrey Jourdren, Mapou Yangambiwa, Younes Belhanda and Karim Ait-Fana, a sprinkling of veteran Ligue 1 campaigners, including Cyril Jeunechamp, Romain Pitau and Geoffrey Dernis, and unknowns such as Bosnian centre-half Emir Spahic.

The unheralded unit has blended to perfection this term, and a record of ten wins, three draws and only five defeats has allowed them to muscle their way into the French elite. “To be absolutely honest, my team has surprised me,” commented Girard recently. “It has been a while since I’ve worked with a group of players that are so willing to listen. The boys have really impressed me and we fully deserve to be where we are.”

One point behind Lille with a game in hand, the men from Montpellier can move second behind runaway leaders Bordeaux if they win at Monaco on Wednesday. Should they do so, they will go a long way to fulfilling Girard’s wish for the year ahead: “My only hope for 2010 is that we can stay happy for as long as possible.”