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Classic Teams #1 – St Étienne (1970-76)

Nowhere is defeat celebrated more passionately than in St Étienne. Although 16 major trophies were won between the late fifties and 1981, Les Verts’ golden age is defined by a series of glorious failures. The most mythical of all coming in a 1976 European Cup final loss to Bayern Munich thanks, St Étienne fans argue, to a legendary Glasgow goal frame. While that team, led by ‘The Green Angel’ Dominique Rocheteau, may be lacking a true denouement, their influence on French football, in the lean times of the 1970s, became pivotal.

The symbol of the great St Étienne team, the club’s golden age as a whole and the 1976 1-0 European Cup final loss to Bayern at Hampden Park are: Les Poteaux Carrés. The Square Posts. Intense in their pressing and fluid in style, Robert Herbin’s St Étienne side may be the greatest team not to win the European Cup and they were cruelly denied that honour in May 1976 as, at 0-0, Dominique Bathenay’s shot and later Jacques Santini’s header both struck the square planks of wood that made up post and bar. Two efforts that, Les Verts’ supporters insist, would have resulted in goals had the posts been rounded.

Although Franz Beckenbauer’s Munich were two-time defending champions, the consensus in both the French and Scottish press was that the better team lost and St Étienne returned home to be paraded along the Champs-Élysées in front of tens of thousands as if they were European champions. Since, Les Poteaux Carrés have taken on an almost religious significance for the former mining town of St Étienne in South-Eastern France. Swaggering and industrious in equal measure, St Étienne captured French hearts during a string of improbable European comebacks in the early seventies while claiming nine league titles in thirteen seasons between 1963 and 1976.

That great green dynasty however has its origins nearly two decades before Hampden’s square posts intervened and can be broadly separated into two eras: Robert Herbin the player and Robert Herbin the coach. Despite not winning a league title since 1981, or indeed finishing in the top three in that time, Les Verts’ ten championships remains a French record. A milestone for which the club were awarded the silver star that now crowns their badge. Herbin was party to nine of those ten league wins, five as a player and four as manager, across his quarter of a century stay at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard from 1957 to 1983.

A promising youth talent at Cavigal Nice in the mid-fifties, Herbin was subject to an array of advances from across France but it was St Étienne who secured his signature in July 1957 thanks to an intervention from Herbin’s mother. Herbin’s father had preferred OGC Nice. Champions for the first time earlier that year, St Étienne were already atop the French game, as the 18-year-old Herbin arrived in Loire complete with a thick mop of auburn hair that would later morph into his distinctive wispy ginger afro.

Herbin, who eventually became captain, would later signal the acceleration of that success, winning two further cups in the next five seasons, although he would have to wait for his first league title, something he initially did not imagine doing. “When I set foot in Saint-Étienne in ‘57 with my cardboard suitcase,” Herbin told Le Progrès, “I thought that I would not stay two years. It was not the city of today. If I stayed, it was because the club had ambitions.”

Across two spells as coach in the mid-fifties and mid-sixties, Jean Snella would nurture the younger Herbin, then a tough but technically-gifted defensive midfielder. “We had a father-son relationship,” Herbin later said of Snella who became a mentor and would continue to counsel Herbin into his coaching career. Although Snella would lead Les Verts to their second title, incredibly doing so as a promoted club in 1963/64 after one season in the second tier, it would be the legendary French coach Albert Batteux who would propel Herbin and St Étienne forward.

It was Batteux who masterminded the dominant Stade de Reims side of the fifties featuring Raymond Kopa, latterly part of Real Madrid’s European cup winning teams, and Just Fontaine, whose record haul of 13 goals carried France, then also managed by Batteux, to third place at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Their run was only halted by eventual champions Brazil and a second half hat-trick from a 17-year-old Pelé.

Batteux’s Reims, the first great dynasty of French football to which Herbin’s St Étienne are emotional successors, won five league titles between 1953 and 1962. Only twice did Reims finish outside the top three in that spell, adding a Coupe de France win in 1958 and appearing in the 1956 and 1959 European Cup finals, losing to Madrid on both occasions. Having left Reims, and resurfacing unsuccessfully at relegated Grenoble, it was Batteux who would lead the first great St Étienne era.

Dropping Herbin back into defence, allowing the now experienced campaigner to organise play from the back, proved a turning point for both club and player as Batteux’s Champagne football took hold. Powerful Malian goalscorer Salif Keita was added to complement the unpredictability of forward Rachid Mekhloufi as ASSE won three consecutive titles under Batteux, between 1968 and 1970, capturing a brace of French cups along the way.

Despite the majority of the club’s iconic moments coming under his stewardship as coach in the seventies, Herbin continues to rate Batteux’s St Étienne of Keita, Mekhloufi and himself as Les Verts’ zenith. “She is beautiful, this team. Superb. I loved it.” Herbin explained to Le Progrès. “We were imbued with this idea of ​​winning again and again.” Batteux however was unable to replicate the European success he enjoyed with Reims, only managing a pair of European Cup last sixteen ties in five attempts for Les Verts. Although, a narrow 2-1 aggregate defeat in the 1967/68 campaign to Eusebio’s eventual finalists Benfica wouldn’t be the last time ASSE were ousted early-on by one of the continent’s greatest.

The start of the next decade would prove pivotal for Herbin and Les Verts as the two great eras of St Étienne’s golden age stood shoulder to shoulder. One ready to fall, the other on the rise. As Batteux claimed his final league title in 1970, Les Verts’ youth team too were triumphant in the prestigious Gambardella Cup. A team that encapsulated an explosive generation of talent and bred the core of the next great St Étienne team. The senior squad meanwhile were starting to be picked off by Marseille, who won the next two league titles as ASSE slumped to sixth by 1972.

French internationals Herbin’s defensive partner Bernard Bosquier and goalkeeper Georges Carnus were poached by OM in 1971 at the end of their contracts and after a prolific record of 142 goals in 186 league games for the club, Keita also eventually joined Marseille. Frustrated over the departures, which resulted in a breakdown of his relationship with club president Roger Rocher, Batteux quit in the summer of 1972 as Herbin announced his retirement at just 33.

Herbin later explained that a violent tackle from Nobby Stiles during the 1966 World Cup had nearly ended his career and his performances hadn’t been the same. “I did my rehabilitation and I was able to play again but I was diminished,” Herbin said. “Today, when I see [Montpellier defender Vitorino Hilton] who plays at 40, I tell myself that I would have done the same until 40, maybe even 45! I envy him but on the other hand, I was lucky not to be disabled.”

Rocher however, needing a new coach who understood what St Étienne meant to the city and the type of football that had to be played, shocked Herbin in appointing his completely untested captain as Batteux’s successor. Herbin would come to form one third of St Étienne’s ruling brains trust that would spearhead a revolution of the club and squad. Businessman Rocher led the way as one of the more hands-on presidents that French football has seen, sometimes sitting alongside Herbin during games. Famous for his swept back white hair and ubiquitous pipe smoking, it was Rocher who would identify the European Cup as the club’s next great frontier, once describing the competition as “one of the most beautiful inventions of man.”

Situated in an industrial working-class town, Rocher wanted Les Verts to identify with its supporters, many of whom were coal miners, and “wet the shirt”. It became a tradition for new signings either to visit the coal mines or, later, the miners’ museum, the Puits Couriot in Saint-Étienne, to help them understand the city they would now be living in and what it meant to play for St Étienne. Deeper into his ASSE career as a player, Herbin too visited the mines – local paper Le Progrès detailing the expedition with a series of captivating photographs.

Herbin agreed with his president. “The people who come to the Geoffroy Guichard are tough,” Herbin is quoted in The Blizzard, “because they have to fight to survive. Football is not just an outlet for them. They also want to recognise themselves in the team.” Nevertheless, lacking in any experience, Herbin humbly returned to mentor Snella for advice on his new role, admitting “I am a beginner.”

While Herbin says “I used the football of Batteux and Snella because their conception of the game was mine also,” Les Verts’ style started to evolve. Where the champagne football of Batteux was seen as a little lightweight, Herbin added the ferocity and intensity Roger wanted. “You have to take their breath away, grab them by the throat, play faster.” Herbin later explained to L’Équipe. The new coach was also intent on having the fittest team possible. So much so that forward Yves Triantafyllos, who described training as like “going to work in a factory” left the club, while Michel Platini, who joined Les Verts in 1979, vomited during early training sessions, such was the intensity of Herbin’s regime.

Initially central to Rocher’s plan was youth. The club’s 1970 Gambardella cup final winning team would provide four of the eleven that would start the square posts final with Bayern six years later including Santini, forward Patrick Rivelli as well as Herbin’s replacement at centre back Christian Lopez. All three went on to play for France. Nine of the eleven that started against Bayern came through the youth ranks at St Étienne. The presence of all, however, was down to Pierre Garonnaire.

A former St Étienne defender from the 1930 and 40s, Pierre Garonnaire is the godfather of modern scouting in France and led Les Verts’ recruitment for nearly 40 years, having been initially appointed by Snella in 1950. Incredibly working as a volunteer for several seasons, Garonnaire established a network of informants on players, trawled lower league and youth football across France and even surreptitiously videoed upcoming opposition. It was Garonnaire who discovered Herbin, making four visits to Nice in order to persuade him and his family Les Verts was the right destination.

Garo, as he was known, became a key adviser to Herbin and Rocher and formed the final part of their triumvirate, he too was occasionally seen on the sidelines during games and even harangued players. It was Garonnaire who recommended Herbin as coach to Rocher and showed his eye for a player beyond France in discovering Yugoslavian keeper Ivan Curkovic and marauding Argentine centre back Osvaldo Piazza who added the experience to Herbin’s youthful side.

With Keita, Mekhloufi, Carnus, Bosquier and now Herbin all removed from the team, the next generation were given the chance to flourish. Herbin’s first four seasons as coach would be his most successful, winning the double-double of league and Coupe de France in 73-74 and 74-75 as well as the French title for a third consecutive season in 1976. St Étienne were so dominant, that Herbin could afford to return for one final send-off as a player on the final day of the 74-75 season, three years after retiring. With the league already secured, Herbin scored a penalty in the five-goal mauling of Troyes.

With target man Hervé Revelli still leading the attack – the France international had been top scorer in each of the four title wins in the late sixties repeated the feat for Herbin’s first three as manager – the Herbin reign would then be graced by an angel. Forward Dominique Rocheteau, l’Ange Vert or The Green Angel, was promoted into the Sainté first team at 18 in 1972, but it wasn’t until the 1975-76 season that he found his place in the side. Pacey, skillful and a clinical finisher with a hard-nosed panache, Rocheteau quickly became Herbin’s fulcrum as they charged to the 1976 European cup final. Going on to act in film and television, Rocheteau’s boyish smile and thick dark curls combined with his ruthless on-field swagger gave him, and St Étienne, rare star quality.

Sainté quickly became dynamic and aggressive as well as free-wheeling and creative, partly thanks to Herbin’s father. Herbin Senior played trombone in the Nice orchestra – his remedy to Herbin junior’s injury at the 1966 World Cup was Mahler’s symphony number two, ‘The Resurrection’ – and he practiced his scales to perfection each morning, thus instilling in his young son the need for refinement and repetition. “I am technically demanding.” Herbin told Le Progrès“I took an example from [my father] with repetitive sessions, to perfect yourself. Actions must be repeated a thousand times to make them perfect and to be able use them at the right times.”

The new Sainté were unstoppable in France and dangerous on the continent, especially at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard where a furnace-like atmosphere lent the ground its nickname: Le Chaudron, or The Cauldron. Hajduk Split were the first European side to experience Le Chaudron’s power, having seemingly ended Les Verts’ hopes with a 4-1 mauling in modern day Croatia, ASSE went one better with a 5-1 victory in the return leg to win the 2nd round tie 6-5 on aggregate on a typically boisterous night at the Geoffroy-Guichard. Triantafyllos netted an extra time winner.

Hervé Revelli would be the hero in the following round, with a late penalty as ASSE overcame a 3-2 first leg loss in Poland to beat Ruch Chorzow 2-0, 4-3 on aggregate. A tight semi-final defeat to reigning champions Bayern Munich, a year before the Square Posts incident at Hampden, would end Herbin’s glorious first European cup campaign as coach. Although, despite this being the first of a series of excruciating aggregate losses, Les Verts’ unbeaten home run would incredibly extend to more than four years.

Le Chaudron’s most famous night was yet to come however. Famed Ukrainian forward Oleg Blokhin and influential coach Valery Lobanovsky had led Dynamo Kiev to the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975 and were favourites for their last eight tie with Les Verts the following campaign. A 2-0 Kiev win in an icy Simferopol seemingly put the game beyond Herbin’s charges but Les Verts swept to a famous 3-0 victory in the return leg, the tie hinging on a ludicrous passage of play that led to Revelli’s opener.

Blohkin led a swift Dynamo counter into the St Étienne half. The Ukrainian burnt past Gerard Janvion who tumbled to the turf as he turned in an attempt to keep up, Lopez – who tried to bring Blokhin down – to was also side-stepped, leaving the Kiev forward clean through on goal with strike partner Volodymyr Onyshchenko completely free in support on the edge of the area. But as Lopez raced back, in what many saw as a moment of arrogance, Blokhin inexplicably checked his run to try and beat the defender again, allowing Lopez to hook the ball away from Blokhin and start Les Verts’ own counter amid roars of delight from the Geoffroy-Guichard crowd.

Fourteen seconds and some indecisive Kiev defending later, Revelli latched onto Sarramagna’s looped pass to slip home for 1-0 and Rocheteau’s extra time third would eventually put ASSE into the semi-finals for the second year running. As Rocher later stated, “at the Geoffroy-Guichard nothing is impossible.” Despite the pandemonium that surrounded him that night, and many others besides, Herbin famously remained largely emotionless on the bench. His watchful gaze and calm persona led to him being referred to as ‘The Sphinx’ by the French press.

PSV Eindhoven were narrowly beaten by a single goal at Le Chaudron over two legs of the semi-final and it was on to Glasgow. Aside from Santini and Bathenay’s misfortunate in striking the angular goal frame at Hampden, Les Verts were unable to call on Rocheteau from the start of the 1976 final. Injury limited The Green Angel to just seven minutes from the bench while midfielder Christian Synaeghel was also unavailable and left-back Gerard Farison was suspended. Nevertheless, Franz Beckenbauer would later concede that the victory over St Étienne was the toughest across Bayern’s three European titles.

Eventual winners Liverpool would famously be the next great side to vanquish St Étienne hopes the following season 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals. A 3-1 second leg win was enough for the hosts at Anfield although Rocheteau’s late penalty appeal, waved away by the officials, remains a source of frustration for St Étienne fans. “I played for eight years at Liverpool and it was by far the best match I have ever participated in,” Liverpool’s John Toshack explained to L’Équipe, reeling off the Les Verts starting eleven. “Because of the atmosphere, but also because we had managed to beat a fantastic Saint-Étienne team.”

The St Étienne of Herbin and Rocheteau were a rare, perhaps the only, real sign of hope in a fallow period for French football. After the Batteux and Fontaine inspired run to the World Cup semi-finals in 1958, Les Bleus only qualified for one of the next four World Cups and failed to make it beyond the group stages again until Spain 1982. France won just once in six games, a 3-1 dead rubber victory over Hungary in 1978.

By 1984 however, France were European champions and made the semi-finals of the World Cup in 1982 and 1986 as disciples of both Batteux and Herbin started to become influential in the French game, while players nurtured at the club contributed to Les Bleus’ rejuvenation. Of the eleven French players used in the 1976 European cup final by Herbin, ten played for France amassing 214 caps between them. Santini being the only exception, although he would later manage Les Bleus between 2002 and 2004 having won Ligue 1 as coach of Lyon in 2002.

Six of the 22-man squad that reached the 1982 World Cup semi-finals were drawn directly from Les Verts including Janvion, Lopez, Jean Castaneda and Jean-François Larios, who were all ASSE youth products. As was Rocheteau, then of PSG. While Platini, Patrick Battiston and Philippe Mahut all also played under Herbin at St Étienne. Aimé Jacquet meanwhile, coach of France 1998 world cup winners, spent 13 years at St Étienne under Snella, Batteux and Herbin between 1960 and 1973, later claiming a trio of league titles as coach of Bordeaux in the eighties.

Les Verts’ golden era eventually faltered however. In a desperate search for European success, Rocher switched tact to focus on established star signings. Michel Platini joined the club in 1979 and eventually replaced Rocheteau who left for PSG as season later, Netherlands winger Johnny Rep (who Herbin states was the most difficult player to manage during decade as coach) also arrived that same summer, while French international defender Battiston signed in 1980.

Although Sainté would go on to win the club’s last league title in 1981, Platini and Rep contributing 34 goals between them, further European glory was not forthcoming and Herbin and Garonnaire were left to defend what they saw as the club’s identity from Rocher, youth development no longer being central to his and the club’s ethos. Rocher and Herbin’s relationship eventually became unworkable and Herbin ended his seminal stint as coach in 1983.

Herbin however later recounted that the pair remained amicable. “A few years later, we met before a match at the Geoffroy-Guichard and we embraced. I don’t hold anything against him at all. I was demanding, too.” Rocher meanwhile was forced to also quit the club in 1990 having been found guilty of embezzlement, fined 200,000 francs and sentenced to four years in prison after using a slush fund to aid player wages. Platini and several others were forced to repay large sums in tax.

St Étienne fans nevertheless still hold Rocher in high regard. A 2018 Le Progrès online poll voted the former president most worthy of a statue outside Le Chaudron, ahead of the 1976 side and Herbin. Garonnaire meanwhile remained in charge of recruitment until 1989 and passed away in the summer of 1998, just days before France won their first World Cup.

His near 26-year association with Les Verts at and end, Herbin incredibly resurfaced almost immediately at St Étienne’s perennial rivals Lyon (unthinkable now), but he was unable to replicate his successes and left after two seasons before returning to St Étienne, via Saudi Arabia, in 1987 for a far less glorious three-year spell. Recently passing 80, Herbin lives with his dogs in the hills above St Étienne and remains a prominent public figure due to his regular columns in Le Progrès, assessing the fortunes of the current Les Verts side and even contributing his own player game ratings.

The Sphinx remains stoic and even unsentimental, telling Le Progrès “I didn’t keep anything, not even a jersey or a cup. I gave away everything.” The only obvious reminder of Herbin’s successes is a small picture of the 1976 final with Bayern sitting on his mantelpiece. Les Poteaux Carrés continues to be a source of regret and sorrow for the aging Herbin, still outraged by the award of the free-kick which led to the Bayern winner, Herbin states that “this defeat, I could not digest it. I’ve never watched the match back… It deeply affected me. The wound is not healed. I dream about it.”

Having stood undisturbed at Hampden Park for 84 years, Les Poteaux Carrés were finally replaced in 1987. Initially bought by Kidderminster publican Bill Campbell, a Glaswegian, to “stop them falling into the wrong hands,” because there “were people who wanted to break them up into ornaments,” St Étienne eventually paid €20,000 to bring The Square Posts ‘home’ to Le Chaudron in 2013. Although they have since been disassembled, the crossbar remained in-situ as the main attraction of Musée des Verts, France’s first dedicated footballing museum. The Poteaux Carrés restaurant in downtown Saint-Étienne also has a piece of one of the posts.

Although the Ajax, Liverpool and Bayern Munich teams of the 1970s are rightly lauded as the decade’s standard bearers, the St Étienne of Herbin, Rocher, Garonnaire and Rocheteau revitalised and forever changed French football. Without Les Verts’ golden generation and the players, coaches and fans inspired by their exploits, the history of French football may be quite different. As it is, France and Les Verts supporters in particular are forever grateful for a series of glorious failures and the shimmering memory of the magnificent team in green. Just imagine if the posts had been round.

A.W.

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