Saint Etienne And The Square Root Of Failure

The slightly decrepit, rudimentary wooden construction stands, perhaps a little apologetically, behind security ropes, affording it just the merest of protection from those reaching to place their hands on. Those wishing to touch do so ghoulishly, perhaps in vain hope of catharsis, for these sharp, unforgiving edges represent the dashing of a dream; the punctuation of halcyon days.

‘Les poteaux carres’ – the square posts – is what the French call them. To us, they are the famous old goalposts from Hampden Park; sturdy, white, deep swooping stanchions and, crucially, four-sided. Nowadays, the painted woodwork stands as a monument to failure and misfortune, not at their home stadium in Glasgow, but in the museum of A.S. St. Etienne deep in the Massif Central region of France for whom they were procured in 2013. You may well ask – why?

The famous square Hampden goalposts. 1976 European Cup Final

In the early 1970s, before the English monopolised the European Cup for the best part of a decade, several continental sides emerged vying for all out domination: first came Ajax Amsterdam with their nobly-intentioned, aesthetically-pleasing Totaal Voetbal. Once Johan Cruyff packed his bags for Barcelona, a red machine from Bavaria usurped the Dutch and swept all before them. Bayern Munich – Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and the rest – spurred onto greatness by domestic rivalry with Borussia Mönchengladbach matched Ajax’s achievement of winning three consecutive European Cups with a side that provided the nucleus of West Germany’s triumphant 1972 European Championship and 1974 World Cup squads. Die Fohlen themselves began earning a well-deserved lofty reputation at roughly the same time as Bob Paisley slipped effortlessly into the space vacated by Bill Shankly’s earlier than expected retirement at Liverpool and set about trumping the lot of them.

In the background lurked a hitherto unheralded team from the French provinces called St. Etienne.

Their accomplishments domestically were nevertheless impressive; four titles in a row between 1967 and 1970 with league and cup doubles counted among two of those vintage seasons. Yet, French clubs – including St. Etienne themselves – had repeatedly failed to make a mark on the European Cup. Between Stade de Reims’ final defeat in 1959 and the 1974/75 campaign, not one French club made it past the quarter final stage (St. Etienne finally reaching the semis in 1975). Their collective record in the other European club competitions was equally, if not more underwhelming.

Saint Etienne 1969-70

It was the architect of Reims’ outstanding team of the 50s and 60s – Albert Batteux – who put St. Etienne on the path to continental renown when he arrived at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in 1967 as the successor to Jean Snella. Batteux remains to this day the most successful manager in French football history, winning nine championships and three Coupe de France as well as taking Reims to two European Cup finals and France to third place at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden off the back of Juste Fontaine’s record 13 goal haul.

While Les Verts had dominated at home up to 1970, two trophyless seasons and a lack of any impression in Europe eventually did for the seemingly impregnable Batteux; French club football may have been a relatively sleepy backwater at the time but St. Etienne president Roger Rocher (more on him later) and his colleagues could be just as ruthless as any of their continental counterparts.

The man charged with taking St. Etienne back to the top of the French game and to make them a more visible presence in European competition likely came as a bit of a surprise to most. Robert Herbin was a former France international who had spent 15 hugely successful years in the St. Etienne midfield and defence; a cornerstone of the Championship winning sides of Snella and Batteux. At just 33, it was his first managerial role. All eyes would be on him – not least for his instantly recognisable shock of frizzy red hair – as he tried to restore Les Verts to their former position of pre-eminence.

Although he had the remnants of the old guard – who he himself had played alongside in the late 60s glory days – still around to help him, Herbin began to farm the club’s youth system in order to freshen the team up. Retained were the Revelli brothers – Patrick and Hervé – and captain Jean-Michel Larqué. All were key components, not least Hervé Revelli, the team’s great goalscorer who had left for Nice in 1971. Herbin and his directors moved quickly to bring him back to St. Etienne to spearhead an attack now boasting younger talents such as Christian Sarramagna and Dominique Rocheteau. Also breaking through under the new manager were other future France stars Christian Lopez, Gerard Janvion and Dominique Bathenay.

A fourth place in Herbin’s debut season at the helm showed distinct progress from the end of the Batteux reign. Once Hervé Revelli was reunited with his old team, St. Etienne instantly began to look like recapturing past glories. The 73/74 title was secured with eight points to spare while the Coupe de France was added with a 2-1 win over AS Monaco.

The following campaign followed in much the same vain – a double double. A nine-point cushion in Ligue 1 supplemented by another Cup victory, this time over RC Lens. That 74/75 season also witnessed St. Etienne make their first notable impression on the European Cup. A fairly routine passage was steered past Sporting CP of Lisbon in the first round before the first of two epic comeback ties demonstrated both the quality and resilience of the resurgent French champions.

Round two threw the Yugoslav side Hajduk Split into St. Etienne’s path, and after the first leg in the Croatian city, it appeared that the French record in Europe was unlikely to get any better. Hajduk swept into a seemingly insurmountable 4-1 lead ahead of the second leg. However, that reckoned without the newly found recovery powers of Herbin’s side. On the hour mark, Les Verts were level 1-1 on the night but trailing 5-2 on aggregate. Bathenay scored to give the home fans the faintest whiff of hope; then, 10 minutes later, diminutive striker Georges Bereta slotted home from the penalty spot. Game on. With time ebbing away Yves Triantafyllos pulled St. Etienne level on the evening and overall. In an extra time period nobody could have foreseen the tie requiring, Triantafyllos inserted himself into the headlines yet again, scoring the fifth and decisive goal. It was easily his greatest contribution to the club in his sole season on their books.

This was a display of character that was simply not expected from a French side of the day. It would not be the first time they needed it. Next up they faced Ruch Chorzow of Poland in the quarter-finals. Any game behind the Iron Curtain held a degree of mystery and danger. Eastern European sides were usually very technical, well-drilled and cohesive – a representation of Communism in sporting form. St. Etienne were again defeated in the first leg, 3-2, but even this was a victory of sorts, having been 3-0 down with a third of the game remaining. Back at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard – or the cauldron as locals called it – the comeback was completed; Janvion and Herve Revelli on the scoresheet in a 2-0 win.

Finally, all the years of home rule under Batteux and subsequently Herbin were bearing fruit on the wider stage. This younger generation were made of stern stuff and their qualities were being recognised at international level; several being called up to the quickly improving France team that would evolve and compete with great credit at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and then come achingly close to winning it in 1982 in Spain.

With a final at the Parc des Princes in their nation’s capital beckoning, the considerable hurdle of hat trick seeking Bayern Munich presented itself in the semi-final. In 1975, it was a bridge too far for the youthfully exuberant St. Etienne who drew the first leg 0-0 at home before going down 2-0 in the Olympiastadion. Consolation, however, came in the pleasing form of yet another league and cup double to add to the myriad honours collected over the previous seven or eight years.

KB of Copenhagen were dispatched with ease in the opening round of the following season’s European Cup before Scottish champions Rangers loomed large. The Revelli brothers and Rocheteau were to the fore to put the increasingly confident St. Etienne into a second successive quarter final. Again, their resolve was thoroughly tested by Dynamo Kiev and the great Oleg Blokhin. A 2-0 deficit was overturned on home soil in the second leg; Rocheteau succeeding Triantafyllos as the extra time saviour.

The semi-final paired St. Etienne with PSV Eindhoven – the factory club of Dutch electrical giants Philips – who were slowly emerging from behind the considerable shadows of both Ajax and Feyenoord. Neither side showed much spark over the two legs of friction; a single goal separated them putting St. Etienne into the final to face their vanquishers of 12 months earlier – the mighty Bayern.

It had been an awfully long wait for the French to have a finalist in the European Cup once again, 17 years to be precise, and the task couldn’t have been much harder. Beckenbauer, Muller, Maier, Rummenigge, Schwarzenbeck, Uli Hoeness; their best days may well have behind them with teams such as Liverpool, Borussia Moenchengladbach and St. Etienne themselves catching up rapidly, yet there was one last hurrah to be savoured and they weren’t about to hand over the big-eared silver pot to these provincial French upstarts easily.

The final was held in Glasgow – the second visit to the great industrial city by the Clyde for St. Etienne in that season’s renewal of the competition having turfed Rangers out early on. Hampden Park had played host to the final to end all finals 16 years earlier when the great Real Madrid bewitched Eintracht Frankfurt in a 7-3 victory. It was – alongside Wembley – just about as famous and hallowed a ground in football as it got. Its wide terraces swept masses of anonymous, eager faces from pitchside to almost as far back as the tiny windows of the upper floor tenements of Mount Florida that nestled back-to-back against it. In 1960, over 127,000 somehow shoehorned their way in to take the once in a lifetime opportunity to see Puskas, Gento and Di Stefano, and while neither Bayern Munich and St. Etienne had the same romanticism and allure of that incomparable Madrid side, a more than respectable 54,670 turned out to watch the biggest game in the European club calendar.

It was something of a David vs. Goliath occasion; Bayern’s presence, power and experience made them overwhelming favourites to squash the young upstarts from the French hinterland. To have underestimated St. Etienne would, however, have been mighty foolish. This was a team bursting with pace and enthusiasm that could turn defence into rapier-like counter attack in an instant with daring wing play and incisive rapid fire passing.

Bayern settled into the game quickly, Der Bomber having a perfectly legal goal wrongly chalked off for offside after a superb run and through ball by Bernd Dürnberger. St. Etienne were stung into action and began to thrust and parry at the holders. An opening goal for the French looked inevitable, but then fate – and geometry – intervened. On 34 minutes, Dominique Bathenay let fly from 25 yards but saw his thunderbolt slap off the face of the crossbar and back into play, the rebound headed straight into the grateful arms of Sepp Maier, the Bayern custodian. Five minutes later, with Les Verts dominant, future Tottenham and France manager Jacques Santini leapt high at the near post to connect beautifully with a cross from the left only to see his bullet header also cannon back of the flat face of the Hampden bar.

The angle at which both efforts bounced down into the penalty area suggest that the ball caught the edge of the square shaped goalposts, leaving the players and fans of St. Etienne cursing to this day the fact that they weren’t round like there were in most other stadiums. Had they been, the result of both attempts – and therefore the final match result – could have been very different.

Bayern knew they had escaped, and in the second half took full advantage. Osvaldo Piazza brought Müller down within the range of free kick expert Franz Roth. Beckenbauer casually rolled the free kick square for the midfielder to smash the ball past the St. Etienne wall and into the bottom right hand corner of Ivan Ćurković’s net. For Roth it was a valuable goal in a second successive European Cup final having scored the opener in the win over Leeds United the previous year.

Herbin’s side reacted well to adversity and pressed Bayern further and further back. Several chances to score a more than deserved equaliser came and went. However, time and luck were not with the French club that night. The final whistle not only brought tears to the eyes of several wearing the bright green shirt, but it also condemned them to a footnote in the competition’s history; the Bayern players’ hugs demonstrating just exactly how significant their third European Cup was and a measure of the challenge they had overcome – not that this was any comfort to those connected to St. Etienne.

Despite the defeat, Les Verts returned home as if they were conquering heroes having won a whole raft of new admirers both at home and around Europe for their dazzling play and hard luck story. Their heightened profile was evident the following year when they were drawn to play Liverpool in the European Cup. The Reds were now the hottest ticket in town, yet when the intriguing quarter-final came out of the hat, the English press knew the peril that lay in store for Bob Paisley’s charges.

A 1-0 slender home leg lead was all St. Etienne had to take to Merseyside. What transpired has often been called the greatest European night ever at Anfield (recent events against Borussia Dortmund notwithstanding). Liverpool, aided by the massed ranks on the Kop – swaying, singing, sucking the ball into the net – fought back to win the tie 3-2 on aggregate on their way to a first European Cup crown. Given the quality of the opposition, it was undoubtedly a pivotal night in the history of Liverpool FC, but it was yet another case of ‘so near, yet so far’ from the ultimate prize for St. Etienne.

In truth, the team was never quite the same again. Another (and to date, final) French championship was won in 1981 when a certain Michel Platini was well on the way to creating his own legend, yet within two years, Robert Herbin had left for local rivals Lyon, Platini for Juventus, and – in portents of things to come at Marseille 10 years later with Bernard Tapie – president Roger Rocher had been thrown in jail for running an illegal 25million franc slush fund. All of this culminated in St. Etienne’s downfall and dismal relegation in 1984. They were quick to bounce back but things have never been as good as they were in the good old days of the 60s and 70s, the club having yo-yo’d between the first and second divisions ever since without a sniff of major honours.

For those of a certain age, those dashing blades in the emerald green jerseys represent a very different time, one when the balance of European power shifted back and forth on a regular basis and the unfamiliarity with foreign teams and players still held an exotic mystery. For the town of St. Etienne, they might not have a replica version of the European Cup to exhibit to the world, but the simple wooden planks taking pride of place in the club’s museum are testament to just how close they came to achieving the impossible dream.


Mark was the founder of the FBA nominated Football Pink site. You can find him these days on Twitter @thatmarkgodfrey

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