It’s easy to forget that St Etienne are France’s most successful football club.
Paris Saint-Germain are the point of reference in French football these days, but by the time the Parisian club were founded in 1970, Saint Etienne had won six league titles. When PSG were just six years old, Sainté played in a European Cup final, losing to Bayern Munich at Hampden Park.
Returning the team to its former glories is nothing more than a pipe dream these days, but there’s no doubting the club’s pedigree.
“There is nowhere else in France like this, St Etienne is similar to Liverpool,” manager Christophe Galtier told Jason Burt in an interview in The Telegraph this week. Galtier is Europe’s second longest-serving manager, behind only Arsene Wenger, so it’s no surprise that he understands the club, its culture and what it means to the town.
Liverpool and St Etienne share a soul in many ways, both on and off the pitch. The club is part of the town, and the fervour of the support at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard shows it. There is an emotion and a passion for the club that you don’t get in many other places. Anfield, on a big European night under the floodlights, is certainly one of them.
St Etienne is an industrial town which traces its modern history to a mining and factory-working community: it is a working class place in a region dominated by a richer, bigger city, Lyon. The rivalry between the two has all the hatred and fire of a Liverpool-Manchester clash, too. It’s possibly even more intense when it comes to football: both St Etienne and Lyon have one club, not two. There’s no diluting the emotion.
Jeremie Janot, a goalkeeper who played nearly 400 times for St Etienne over 16 years at the club, summed it up: “Lyon is a pleasant town with unpleasant people, St Etienne is the opposite”. Incendiary, perhaps, but that’s all part of the lore.
If Liverpool and St Etienne share a soul, though, they share a history, too. The year after Les Verts reached the European Cup final in 1976, they faced the Reds in the quarter final. A late David Fairclough goal in the second leg at Anfield put Liverpool through 3-2 on aggregate, but that doesn’t tell the whole story: the tie was a classic between two of the best sides in Europe, en epic remembered fondly on both sides of the Channel. Liverpool would go on to win the first of their five European Cups that season, and perhaps it is fitting that they beat St Etienne en route.
It’s no accident, then, that Galtier should mention Liverpool when speaking about St Etienne’s tie with Manchester United. The shared soul and the shared history are important to the club, but so too is their European adventure. The 1970s are a long time ago, and the club, the town and the fans crave another European story: another verse to add to the poem. Facing Manchester United will do the job, but only if the emotion of the tie matches the grandeur.
Casting Les Verts as Liverpool in a tie against the Manchester giants will do the job there, too. Dominique Rocheteau is the club’s sporting director, but he is also arguably the best player in their history. Known as l’Ange Vert – the Green Angel – he is the link to the first verse of the poem in the 1970s and the newest verse today, St Etienne’s link to both Liverpool and to Manchester United. The Green Angel and the Red Devils – the kind of struggle which pits brother against brother. In this case Paul and Florentin.
If you think that’s saturating the tie with a little too much narrative, then you’re probably right. But then again how else does a French side like St Etienne hope to beat the richest club in the world? You have to pull an emotion from somewhere and hope it, in turn, pulls you through.
Manchester United have to be wary of that. St Etienne may be France’s most successful club, but United are England’s. Will the three-time European champions take a Europa League round of 32 tie against a lowly French side seriously? One side calls upon a primal emotion pulled from the very depths of their being ahead of this game, the other quite simply wishes they weren’t in the competition at all.
But there is a more pragmatic, on-the-pitch reason why Mourinho should be worried.
Whilst it’s dangerous to play a team that is more up for the fight than you are, it’s even more perilous to take on a team high on form and confidence. After beating Lyon at the Geoffroy Guichard just over a week ago, St Etienne smashed Lorient 4-0 too. Confidence is soaring in a team who are finally scoring goals.
Over the last few years under Galtier, progress has been steady rather than spectacular. Les Verts have the second best defensive record in Ligue 1, conceding only one more than PSG, but their top goalscorer, Romain Hamouma, has only seven goals to his name. It’s been like that for a while: a solid defence is the platform Galtier has built upon, but his philosophy is to keep a clean sheet first and nick a goal second.
That is a bad sign for United. Not only have they been frustrated on numerous occasions this season by teams playing with deep and well-organised defensive lines, but the threat of a confident team on the counter attack is real. Especially in a game jumped up on hype and emotion and dripping with narrative.
St Etienne will be up for this match as though it were a derby. In some ways, they probably even see it as a derby. Former glories count for nothing and will only add to the hype, but couple that with a confident team who are still on a high from their own derby victory only a week ago and you have a nightmare scenario that should have Jose Mourinho awake at night.