In 1466, 14-year-old Leonardo da Vinci became apprenticed to Andrea di Cione who owned the finest bottega in all of Florence. There, he perfected his métier and became qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke six years later, before going on to become the artist widely accredited to epitomise the Renaissance humanist ideal.
In the 15th century Saint-Étienne was a teeming, bustling market town which became prominent for arms manufacturing; indeed, the centre was fortified by four arresting, august walls which overtopped the landscape of the River Loire’s banks. Five hundred years later, Robert Herbin was a student of a different fine art: football. A youth academy product of OGC Nice, he moved to AS Saint-Étienne in 1957 after failing to break into the first-team at the Stade Municipal du Ray. He was an artist himself and his beautiful, wondrous art was showcased on the pitch of the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
The walls of the 1930-built stadium are less imposing than the city’s palisade, but it is a resplendent home for the Sainté zealots nonetheless. There, they recced over a period of unprecedented success for close to two decades, starting in 1960. Herbin, a fine midfielder-turned-manager with bright-red afro hair remains emblematic of this great period. He was a regular for France whilst starring in a side which won five Ligue 1 titles and three Coupe de France honours between 1962 and 1970. He was a versatile and athletic figurehead who scored 26 goals from the centre of the midfield during the 1965-66 Ligue 1 season alone.
By 1972 he, the apprentice, was chosen for the job of manager, replacing Albert Batteux, just as da Vinci had been given a workshop by his father. Aged just 33, Herbin was tasked with continuing the club’s monopoly over French domestic football and to seek to establish success in Europe amongst the tyranny of Real Madrid, Ajax and Bayern Munich’s unrelenting dominance.
One of his first decisions as manager was to sign defender Gérard Janvion from CS Case-Pilote of Martinique, an insular region of France located in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea. Born in the region’s capital, Fort-de France, he moved to the Massif Central to play for Herbin’s side for the 1972-73 season. He would go on to stay at the club for close to a decade, making more than 300 appearances and representing France at the 1978 and 1982 editions of the World Cup.
Having finished sixth in Ligue 1 in Batteux’s final season in charge, Herbin delivered a fourth-placed finish in 1972-73 despite the sale of Malian striker Salif Keita, who had scored 125 goals in 149 games, to Valencia. The competition was headlined by the goalscoring exploits of Olympique Marseille’s Yugoslavian forward Josip Skoblar, who scored 44 goals in 36 league matches during the 1970-71 season and a further 56 across the next two seasons. He is still regarded as a bastion of goalscoring greatness on France’s south coast, but the Olympiens were powerless to stop Nantes winning the league title by five points.
If Saint-Étienne were to climb the league table the following year, Herbin needed to sign a prolific Skoblar-esque figure. Hervé Revelli had joined the club aged 18 from Gardanne, then went on to score 126 goals in 189 league matches between 1964 and 1971. He won four league titles and was missed when he moved to Nice in the French Riviera. Herbin’s search for a striker was thorough, and the likes of Bernard Lacombe, Néstor Combin and Fleury di Nallo were all considered, but ultimately the answer to his dilemma was hidden in plain sight: a return to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard for Revelli, who had scored 22 league goals for Nice that season, was agreed in the summer of 1973. He would partner his brother, Patrick, in attack.
Between 1476 and 1478, after he was acquitted of sodomy with three other men, da Vinci went anonymous. When he reappeared, he described how he rested inside a cave. There, he took refuge just inside its opening; he wanted to find himself, amidst tranquillity and peace but feared what was inside the deep, caliginous chasm ahead. He had left his father’s house and his workshop to do so and was feared dead. However he returned to Milan, under the instructions of Lorenzo de’ Medici, to gift an exquisite silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.
Saint-Étienne spent time away from the very top of their capabilities too. Herbin presided over small changes to the squad, including the signing of Janvion, the return of Revelli and promotions to the first-team from the youth setup for Dominique Bathenay and Jacques Santini, but instigated a change in the way the team played; the 1973-74 season was a just reward. The style he utilised as a manager was not dissimilar to the Dutch Total Football that was in vogue. His team pressed high, albeit with a little more prudence than Johan Cruyff and co., and pounced quickly on the counter-attack utilising the chemistry of the Revelli brothers in the forward areas.
In a time before wholesale squad rotation, the first team remained largely similar for much of Herbin’s tenure. Yugoslavian international and Olympic Gold medallist Ivan Ćurković was an excellent goalkeeper and his nation’s answer to their Tito-Stalin rival of the Soviet Union, Lev Yashin. In front of him was Pierre Repellini and Gérard Farison, as solid defensively on either side of Cristian Lopez and Oswaldo Piazza in the back four as they were dangerous in the transition.
Janvion had been moved to the centre of the park from defence to play in a role similar to the one his manager performed under Batteux. Jean-Michel Larqué, who had debuted for the club in 1965, played in the centre of the midfield and would become the only player in vert to feature in four consecutive Ligue 1 successes and a European final. The Revelli brothers were aided by Bathenay’s forward runs in attack. ASSE won the Ligue 1 title with an eight points margin ahead of Nantes, then went on to claim that season’s Coupe de France too with a 2-1 win against AS Monaco at the Parc des Princes. The artist Herbin and his eleven brushes had painted the capital green once again.
The following season Marseille, led by the goals of Brazilian Paulo Cesar Lima, posed the closest threat to a second league title in succession for Herbin’s side, but the Ligue 1 trophy was garlanded with green ribbons once again. The Stade Geoffrey-Guichard’s diehards got good value for their admission that season with their team scoring the most goals (70) and conceding the least (39). Another Coupe de France success duly followed with a 2-1 win over RC Lens in the final thanks to second-half goals from Piazza and Larqué.
Batteux had overseen domestic success at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard; Herbin desired, and required, continental success too. For the 1974-75 season he signed Yves Triantafyllos from Racing Club Joinville to add to the depth his squad required to maintain a challenge on all fronts. This time his side would reach the semi-finals of the European Cup, a run which included overturning a 4-1 first-leg deficit against Hajduk Split and a narrow victory against Ruch Chorzów of Poland. The semi-final against Bayern Munich was a step too far, however: their fast, counter-attacking style was not effective against the Franz Beckenbauer-inspired Germans, despite the unique relationship between the Revellis and Triantafyllos. Udo Lattek’s side defended in deep positions and scored two second-leg goals before beating Leeds United in the final at the Parc des Princes.
During Herbin’s first three seasons in charge, little-known young winger Dominique Rocheteau made just a handful of appearances. He would come to prominence during the 1975-76 season after Triantafyllos moved on to join Nantes. Rocheteau emerged during a time of the ‘Maverick’ era in England, in which idiosyncratic virtuosos inspired by George Best came to the fore. Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh and Charlie George were synonymous with grace and poise on the pitch, but each was a unique, infectious character off it too. Rocheteau was much the same: he was nicknamed ‘L’Ange Vert’ (The Green Angel), and his passion for dribbling past his marker was matched only by his obsession with the rock and roll scene on America’s West Coast.
From a domestic point of view the 1975-76 season was relatively difficult. Herbin’s side, aided by Rocheteau’s 11 goals, drew nearly half of their fixtures and won the Ligue 1 title by just three points from Nice. Coupe de France hopes ended in the early stages with a 2-0 defeat to Troyes AF. The European Cup was Herbin’s priority, however. His side overcame Rangers 4-1 on aggregate, then edged past Dynamo Kiev 3-2 over two legs to progress to the semi-finals. There, they defeated PSV Eindhoven by a single goal over 180 minutes to set up a return to Hampden Park in the final to face a familiar foe: Bayern Munich.
Saint-Étienne’s weakness was their travails against the toughest of opponents. In Ligue 1 they could afford to play below their best and still win with as threats to their league crown came and went. Bayern Munich was a very different prospect and Saint Etienne’s cause was not helped by the loss of Rocheteau who hobbled off the pitch injured after only seven minutes.
Bathenay struck the woodwork and Herbin’s side squandered other good chances, but against an opponent which featured big occasion players like Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Gerd Müller, missed chances were always going to be costly. Inevitably, on the hour mark Franz Roth turned, dribbled into the area and fired his shot high to Ćurković’s right to score the only goal of the game and seal a third European title in succession for Lattek’s Roten.
The Sainté fans were left to rue the squared goalposts which they believed to be the reason for their team’s loss. It was their best chance of European success, and the inevitable decline in the excellence shown over the previous three Ligue 1 seasons was clear for all to see. Goals in the 1976-77 campaign were an issue: Nantes, who finished as champions scored 80 goals while Saint-Étienne’s largely unchanged squad finished fifth and managed only 55 – the second-lowest total in the top half of the table.
In Europe Piazza scored the winning goals in a succession of 1-0 aggregate wins against CSKA Sofia and PSV to set up a tie with Liverpool, the English champions and UEFA Cup holders, in the last eight. In the first leg, Bathenay sealed a narrow home win for Herbin’s side to set up an exciting, pivotal return fixture at Anfield. On Merseyside, Kevin Keegan scored inside two minutes to level the aggregate score, but with the away-goals rule in mind Saint-Étienne remained calm and composed and continued with their high-pressing game. Reward was forthcoming when Bathenay scored a long-distance stunner which dipped over Ray Clemence. Herbin and his team just had to hold their nerve for the remainder of the second half.
Perhaps the knowledge that Real Madrid’s early elimination, which handed Saint-Étienne a great chance to progress far in the tournament, added to their anxiety. Boosted by a rapturous, boisterous Anfield crowd, Bob Paisley’s Reds scored twice in the last half hour through Ray Kennedy and David Fairclough to progress to a semi-final tie against FC Zürich and eventual victory in the competition. Saint-Etienne was left with another Coupe de France title which was scant reward for a season that could have delivered so much more.
The Anfield defeat signalled the end of a golden age for Saint-Étienne and the following season the team finished a modest seventh place in Ligue 1. Herbin and Da Vinci’s careers were not entirely similar. At the start of the Second Italian War in 1499, along with his partners, Da Vinci fled Milan for Venice after Sforza had been overthrown. As a scare tactic, the invading French soldiers were seen using one of his prized works, the Gran Cavallo, as target practice. There, he was employed as a military architect, to devise ways of defending the city from naval attack. He adapted his craft, improvised and survived the battle, and rejoined the Guild of Saint Luke in 1503 before designing and painting a winsome mural of The Battle of Anghiari for Florence’s Signoria.
Herbin and Saint-Étienne could have learned something from da Vinci’s career: if he had continued to paint and create sculptures in Milan, he would have been killed by the invading French troops. Saint-Étienne’s chances of European success twice came under threat, and twice they failed to adjust their strategy. Michel Platini inspired a Ligue 1 title in 1981, but, after he left for Juventus, Herbin departed in 1983 and relegation to Ligue 2 a year later followed.