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Saint-Étienne – the cult club facing a tall order to rekindle former glories

St Etienne's Michel Platini in action. Photo: Panoramic / PA. - Credit: Panoramic/Press Association Images

Neil Fredrik Jensen on Saint-Étienne, French football’s nearly men, who came within a whisker of European glory – and inspired a pop group.

Before Paris Saint-Germain bought their way into the elite, French club football had only made an occasional impact on the big stage, despite the country’s pivotal role in the creation of competitions such as the World Cup and European Championship and an impressive international record.

Although Stade de Reims reached two European Cup finals in the 1950s with fine players like Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine, and Olympique de Marseille surprisingly won the competition in 1993, the team that truly epitomised Gallic charm was Saint-Étienne, from the Massif Central – so much so that, years after their peak, a UK pop group named themselves after the club.

Yet most people would struggle to put a pin on the map and spot Saint-Étienne. It’s a name synonymous with the French cycle industry, has often been a Tour de France stage and was once a big coal mining area. But if justice had been done, this provincial city of 170,000 would have been the home of the European champions. The club, affectionately known as Les Verts (the greens), went painfully close to winning the European Cup in 1976.

Although their position as France’s most successful football club is now under threat from Qatar-backed PSG, Saint-Étienne have won more Ligue 1 titles than any other club – 10 – and have lifted the Coupe de France on six occasions.

But most of the club’s honours were secured in the 1960s and 1970s, a golden period for Saint-Étienne in which the club provided the backbone of the French national team with players like Dominique Rocheteau, Gérard Janvion, Christian Lopez, Patrick Battiston and, latterly, Michel Platini.

There was a swagger about Saint-Étienne’s style that drew comparisons with the great Dutch and German teams of the era, football with no small measure of joie de vivre.

Unlike some major European countries, France struggled to produce a capital city football champion, hence in 1970, a group of businessmen formed a new club, Paris Saint-Germain. But why did Saint-Étienne, some 300 miles from Paris, emerge as the nation’s leading club for the best part of a decade?

Good hiring was one reason, notably in securing the services of Albert Batteux, the brains behind the Reims side of the 1950s and the France team of the 1958 World Cup. Batteux took over in 1963, introduced an attacking style and Les Verts won three successive Ligue 1 titles between 1968 and 1970.

Another important element was the club’s successful youth academy, one of a number that sprung up in France in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Saint-Étienne were also one of the first clubs to benefit from bringing players to France from former colonies and in 1967, signed Salif Keïta, a free-scoring forward from Mali. It was a controversial, but inspired move by Batteux that paid dividends.

The on-pitch leader of the team, however, was Robert Herbin, a player compared by many to Leeds United’s Billy Bremner. Recognisable for his red frizzy hair, Herbin was a French international midfielder-cum-defender who was moved to full-back by Batteux. In 1972, Herbin, a great student of the game, became one of football’s youngest coaches when his mentor stepped aside.

Herbin, who was just 33 years old, opted for a style not a million miles away from the approach of the Netherlands and Germany. It was in the spirit of ‘total football’ but with un peu de prudence – in other words, a more cautious adaption.

In 1974, Herbin’s team won the championship and cup double and the following season, the continent saw the first real signs of an emerging force. Saint-Étienne reached the semi-final of the European Cup but were beaten by a Franz Beckenbauer-organised Bayern Munich unit.

Herbin’s squad was shaping nicely, however, founded on a strong defence that included Yugoslav Olympic gold medallist goalkeeper Ivan Curkovic, Lopez and the Argentinian Osvaldo Piazza. In midfield, they had muscle in the form of Dominique Bathenay, while the lively Revelli brothers, Patrick and Hervé, featured in the forward line.

Saint-Étienne became the first French club to get through to the nation via the small screen. Their European exploits were eagerly watched on TV by a country eager for sporting success. And by 1975-76, they had a player who was tailor-made for that type of exposure in Dominique Rocheteau.

Just 20 years of age, he had the looks and panache of a teen idol and the sort of virtuosity that earned him the tag of ‘the French George Best’. Rocheteau was a graceful player who combined pace, dribbling skills and poise. His nickname was as elegant as his style, L’Ange Vert – the Green Angel. Off the pitch he was somewhat unorthodox for a player of his time, keen on art and rock music, notably the US band The Eagles.

In 1975-76, Rocheteau was instrumental in Saint-Étienne reaching the European Cup final in Glasgow to face the winners of the previous two finals, Bayern Munich. He was earmarked as a potential matchwinner.

Les Verts were seen as natural successors to the Dutch masters of recent years, but there was a snag – Rocheteau was recovering from a thigh injury and was doubtful as a starter. That didn’t prevent Herbin’s men from dominating the game for long periods, with Bathenay striking the woodwork with a piledriver and Jacques Santini heading against the crossbar. Even today, Saint-Étienne fans bemoan the fact that Hampden Park’s square posts prevented them from winning the competition.

Typically, Bayern Munich soaked up the pressure and scored in the second half from a free-kick, a goal that proved to be the winner. Rocheteau was only an 83rd minute substitute. Who knows what might have happened if he had been fully fit?

Despite losing that final, Saint-Étienne completed a hat-trick of Ligue 1 title wins in 1976. A year later, they met Liverpool in an epic two-legged European Cup quarter-final – Liverpool won 3-2 on aggregate, but Les Verts won many friends for their performance. It wasn’t until 1981 that they topped the French table again, by which time they had signed the outstanding Platini from Nancy.

This golden period passed and in 1982, the club was engulfed in a financial scandal. Herbin moved on to Lyon in 1983 and Les Verts suffered the first of three relegations in 1984. They also went down in 1996 and 2001 but won promotion back to Ligue 1 in 2004.

Since then, Saint-Étienne have struggled to regain former glories, although the past half dozen seasons have seen them regularly in the top six of Ligue 1. Although attendances at their Stade Geoffroy-Guichard are higher today (average 27,000) than in the 1970s, the club is trailing way behind the mighty PSG. According to French sports newspaper L’Equipe, Saint-Étienne’s playing budget for 2017-18 was 68 million euros. PSG’s was 540 million.

Some stability might help. In 2017-18, the club had three coaches. Óscar Garcia, was appointed in June 2017 but released in November 2017 after a run of poor results. Julien Sablé succeeded him but it was discovered he lacked the necessary qualifications and he was sacked after just a few weeks – the club was fined 25,000 euros for every game he was in charge. And in December 2017, veteran Jean-Louis Gasset was given the job and lifted Saint-Étienne into the top five.

Garcia was let go because he didn’t appreciate the enormity of the job at Saint-Étienne. The club is seen as the proverbial sleeping giant, but the question is, can this one-time behemoth climb back to the top of French football? It’s a tall order for the club that once captivated European football fans. ‘Allez Les Verts’, as they say in the Rue Paul et Pierre Guichard.

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