Robert Herbin, Saint-Etienne and the Square Posts (Issue 3)

This article is taken from Issue 3 of The Modern Footballer. In one of five historical features, Adam White takes a look the most famous defeat in French football history.

Nowhere is defeat celebrated more passionately than in Saint-Étienne. Despite winning 15 major trophies between 1962 and 1981, Les Verts’ golden age is defined by the 1976 European Cup final loss to Bayern Munich. A defeat fans attribute to Hampden Park’s goal frame. At 0-0, Dominique Bathenay and Jacques Santini struck the square planks that made up post and bar; efforts that Les Verts’ supporters insist would have resulted in goals had the posts been rounded. Les Poteaux Carrés now carry almost religious significance in Saint-Étienne, having become the symbol of one of France’s greatest, and most important, teams.

Saint-Étienne’s golden era is defined by Robert Herbin, his 25 year association with Les Verts encompassed nine titles; five as a player and four as manager. Renowned for a wispy auburn afro and his nickname, The Sphinx, due to a watchful touchline presence amid the furore that accompanied a series of improbable European Cup fightbacks, Herbin - and his team - won the hearts of a nation deprived of footballing success. 

Although Herbin joined Jean Snella’s champions in 1957, a lengthy stay seemed unlikely. “I thought that I would not stay two years,” Herbin told Le Progrès, “I stayed because the club had ambition.” Although Snella, Herbin’s mentor and “father figure”, brought two further championships, it would be the 1967 appointment of Albert Batteux that would truly propel Herbin and Saint-Étienne forward. Batteux’s Champagne football took France to the 1958 World Cup semi-finals and Stade de Reims to five championships and two European Cup finals between 1953 and 1962.

Once a battling midfielder, Batteux dropped Herbin into defence, allowing the now experienced campaigner to organise from the back. Powerful Malian goalscorer Salif Keita joined unpredictable forward Rachid Mekhloufi in attack as ASSE won three championships and two French cups between 1968 and 1970, an era Herbin still sees as the club’s true zenith. “She is beautiful, this team. Superb. I loved it.” he said.

Nevertheless, Batteux was unable to replicate Reims’ European successes while Marseille began to take charge domestically, tempting some of Batteux’s stars away and winning the 1971 and 1972 titles. Frustrated over player sales, Batteux quit in ‘72 as ASSE slumped to sixth as his relationship with club president Roger Rocher soured.

Herbin swiftly retired at just 33, later explaining that a tackle from England’s Nobby Stiles during the 1966 World Cup severely affected his performances. “I was able to play again but I was diminished,” Herbin explained. “When I see [Montpellier’s Vitorino Hilton] who plays at 40, I tell myself that I would have done the same. I envy him but I was lucky not to be disabled.”

With Batteux’s style of football often branded as lightweight, Rocher wanted his new Les Verts to identify with supporters, many being local coal miners, and ‘wet the shirt’. Few understood Saint-Étienne like Herbin and, despite his inexperience, Rocher appointed Herbin as manager and Les Verts’ style started to shift. "You have to take their breath away, grab them by the throat, play faster," Herbin told L’Équipe. Intent on improving fitness, forward Yves Triantafyllos described the new coach’s gruelling training as like working “in a factory” while the same intensity caused Michel Platini to vomit during early sessions after joining in 1979.

Youth was central to Rocher’s plan and Saint-Étienne’s 1970 Gambardella youth cup winners would provide four of the square posts starting eleven, while five more also came through Saint-Étienne’s youth ranks. All eleven were discovered by Pierre Garonnaire. Garonnaire, the godfather of French scouting, became part of the club’s “Brains Trust” alongside Rocher and Herbin, leading the club’s recruitment for an astonishing four decades. Establishing a network of informants on players, trawling youth football across France and even surreptitiously videoing opposition, it was Garonnaire who initially discovered Herbin the player and later recommended him for coach.

Three league titles and two French cups were won by Herbin’s new young team in his first four years as manager, but Les Verts would yet be graced by an angel. Dominique Rocheteau, The Green Angel, rose to prominence in 1975 as a pacey, skillful and clinical forward with a hard-nosed panache and quickly became Herbin’s fulcrum. Latterly an actor, Rocheteau’s boyish smile, dark curls and ruthless swagger provided rare star quality.

Herbin’s dynamic and aggressive but free-wheeling and creative side went unbeaten at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard for more than four years where a furnace-like atmosphere led to its ‘Cauldron’ moniker. European first leg deficits to Hajduk Split and Ruch Chorzów were overcome on typically boisterous nights at The Cauldron in the 1974/75 season, perennial top scorer Hervé Revelli the hero. But Le Chaudron’s peak was yet to come.

Oleg Blokhin had led Dynamo Kiev to the 1975 Cup Winners’ Cup title and, with a 2-0 lead, Blokhin and Kiev favourites ahead of the last eight second leg in Saint-Étienne. Sainté nevertheless swept to a famous 3-0 victory which pivoted on a ludicrous passage of play.

Blokhin, clean through on goal having floored defender Gérard Janvion and burnt past Christian Lopez, inexplicably checked his run as if to beat Lopez again. Lopez however hooked the ball away as The Cauldron roared. Fourteen seconds and some indecisive Kiev defending later, Revelli latched onto Christian Sarramagna’s looped pass to slide home the opener. Rocheteau’s extra time third put ASSE into the semis. As Rocher once said, "at the Geoffroy-Guichard nothing is impossible."

Aside from Santini and Bathenay’s misfortune in striking Hampden’s angular goal frame, Les Verts suffered with a number of absentees against Bayern. Rocheteau could only make a late cameo after injury. Nevertheless, Franz Beckenbauer would concede that the 1-0 win was the toughest across Bayern’s three consecutive European final triumphs.

After the 1958 edition, France only qualified for one of the following four World Cups, but Herbin’s Saint-Étienne provided rare cause for hope. Six of the squad that reached the 1982 semi-finals in Spain were drawn from Les Verts. Others, like Rocheteau (then at PSG) were ASSE youth products while Platini and Patrick Battiston also played under Herbin. Aimé Jacquet, France’s 1998 World Cup winning coach, spent 13 years at Saint-Étienne too - Batteux and Herbin his mentors.

Sainté’s dynasty, however, would eventually crumble. Rocher brought in more established names; Platini, Battiston and the Netherlands’ Johnny Rep. Although ASSE would win the 1981 title, further European glory proved evasive. In staunchly defending the club’s youth policy, Herbin’s relationship with Rocher disintegrated and The Sphinx departed the club in 1983 and sadly died in April 2020. Saint-Étienne have since renamed their training ground and academy in his honour.

Rocher left in 1990 having been found guilty of embezzlement after using a slush fund to support player wages, but Saint-Étienne fans nevertheless still champion Rocher, voting him most worthy of a statue outside Le Chaudron in a 2018 Le Progrès poll.

Having incredibly resurfaced at rivals Lyon before returning unsuccessfully to Saint-Étienne in 1987, The Sphinx remained unsentimental, telling Le Progrès: “I didn't keep anything, not even a jersey or a cup,” nevertheless Les Poteaux Carrés endured a source of regret. “I’ve never watched the match back... The wound is not healed. I dream about it." Having stood undisturbed for 84 years, Les Poteaux Carrés of Hampden Park were finally replaced in 1987 and Saint-Étienne paid €20,000 to eventually bring them ‘home’ to France in 2013.

Although Ajax, Liverpool and Bayern are rightly lauded as the decade's standard bares, without Herbin’s Saint-Étienne, and those they inspired, French football history may be quite different. Although European success eluded them, Les Verts’ supporters are forever grateful for the most glorious of failures and the shimmering memory of a magnificent team in green. Just imagine if the posts had been round.