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, the city of 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: his beautiful, wondrous art was showcased on the pitch of the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
The walls of the stadium, built in 1930, 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 whose bright-red afro transcended over those around him, remains emblematic of a period of great success.
He was a regular for France, whilst starring in a side which won five Ligue 1 titles and three Coupe de France honours between 1961-62 and 1969-70. He was a versatile and athletic figurehead, who scored 26 goals in the 1965-66 Ligue 1 season from the centre of the midfield.
By 1972, he, the apprentice, was erudite sufficiently to be chosen for the recondite job of manager, replacing Albert Batteux, just as da Vinci had been given a workshop by his father. He was tasked with continuing the club’s monopoly over French domestic football and to establish success in Europe amongst the tyranny of Real Madrid, Ajax and Bayern Munich’s unrelenting paramountcy, aged only 33.
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 over 300 appearances, and represent 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. This was 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 had scored 44 goals in 36 league matches in 1970-71 and 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 an inimitable Skoblar-esque figure. Hervé Revelli, after signing for the club aged 18 from Gardanne, had scored 126 goals in 189 league matches between 1964 and 1971. He won four league titles, before moving to Nice; whilst in the French Riviera, he was sorely missed.
Herbin’s search for a striker was thorough, and the likes of Bernard Lacombe, Néstor Combin and Fleury di Nallo were all surely considered, but, in the end, the answer to his dilemma was hidden in plain in sight: a return to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard for Revelli, who had scored 22 league goals for Nice in 1972-73, 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 reposed inside a cave. There, he took refuge just inside its opening; he wanted to find himself, amidst tranquility 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 aptitude, 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 too dissimilar to the Dutch’s Total Football that was to follow. His team pressed high, albeit with a little more prudence than Johan Cruyff and co., and pounced quickly on the counter-attack with the salient chemistry of the Revelli brothers in forward areas.
During a time before wholesale squad rotation, the 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, behind Pierre Repellini and Gérard Farison, who were as solid defensively on either side of Cristian Lopez and Oswaldo Piazza in the back four as they were dangerous in the transition.
In front of them, Janvion had been moved from the defence to the midfield in a role similar to his manager’s 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.
They won the Ligue 1 title by eight points, ahead of Nantes, before claiming the season’s Coupe de France with a 2-1 win against AS Monaco at Parc des Princes; artist Herbin and his eleven brushes had painted the capital in vert once again.
The following season, Nantes fell away to fifth as Marseille, led by the goals of Brazilian Paulo Cesar Lima, posed the closest threat to a second league title in as many years for Herbin’s side, but the Ligue 1 trophy was garlanded with green ribbons once again. The Stade Geoffrey-Guichard’s proponents had got their money’s worth: their team had scored the most goals (70), and conceded the least (39), across the season. Another Coupe de France, after a 2-1 win over RC Lens in the final, duly followed, after second-half goals from Piazza and Larqué.
Batteux had overseen national success at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard; Herbin desired, and required, continental success in 1974-75. He signed Yves Triantafyllos in the summer of 1974 from Racing Club Joinville, to add to the depth to his squad required to maintain a fervid challenge on all fronts.
His side reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, after overturning a 4-1 first-leg deficit against Hajduk Split before a narrow victory against Ruch Chorzów of Poland, but a tie against Bayern Munich was a step too far. 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 de Princes.
In Herbin’s first three seasons in charge, little-known winger Dominique Rocheteau had made a handful of appearances. He came to prominence in 1975-76, after Triantafyllos had ended his year-long return to sign for Nantes. He came during a time of the ‘Maverick’ era, in which, in England, idiosyncratic virtuosos followed the footsteps of George Best and came to the fore. He even overshadowed Marseille’s signing of Jairzinho, one of Brazil’s stars of their 1970 World Cup success.
Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh and Charlie George were synonymous of grace and poise on the pitch, but they were unique, infectious characters 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 with ease was matched only by his avidity of the rock and roll scene on America’s West Coast.
From a domestic point of view, 1975-76 was relatively difficult. Herbin’s side, aided by Rocheteau’s 11 goals, won the Ligue 1 title by only three points ahead of Nice, having drawn 15 of their 38 fixtures, and crashed out of the Coupe de France in the early stages after a 2-0 defeat to Troyes AF. The European Cup, however, was Herbin’s priority. His side overcame Rangers 4-1 on aggregate, before edging past Dynamo Kiev 3-2 over two legs to progress to the semi-finals. There, they defeated PSV Eindhoven 1-0 over 180 minutes, to set up a return to Hampden Park in the final to face a familiar foe: Bayern Munich.
Saint-Étienne’s debility was their enervaton against the toughest of opponents. In Ligue 1, they could afford to play to less than their nonpareil ability – and perhaps even rotate the team – and win, as antagonists to their league crown came and went. Bayern, however, were a different prospect. Indeed, they were not helped by the absence of Rocheteau, who hobbled off the pitch injured after only seven minutes.
Bathenay struck the woodwork, before Herbin’s side squandered other good chances. Against a side including Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Gerd Müller, though, missed chances were always going to be deplored and, on the hour, Franz Roth sealed the inevitable: he turned, dribbled into the area and fired his shot high to Ćurković’s right to seal a third European title in succession for Lattek’s Roten with the only goal of the game.
The defeat hit Herbin’s outfit, and their fans, hard. The Sainté fans were left to rue the squared goalposts, which were, they believed, the reason for their side’s loss. It was their best chance of European success, and the inevitable forfeiture of the aplomb shown in 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 victors, scored 80 goals, whilst Lens and SC Bastia scored 73 and 82 times respectively to make up the European qualification places. Saint-Étienne meanwhile, even with a largely unchanged squad, managed only 55 – the second-lowest total in the top half – as they finished fifth.
Success in Europe was always feasible, though. 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 holders of the English First Division and UEFA Cup titles, 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, under the watchful gaze of 6,000 bestial travelling Sainté, 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; they were rewarded when Bathenay scored a long-distance stunner which dipped past Ray Clemence. Herbin and his team 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 perturbation. With increased pressure to win, inside a rapturous, obstreperous Anfield, Bob Paisley’s Reds scored twice in the final 30 minutes, through Ray Kennedy and David Fairclough, to progress to a semi-final tie against FC Zürich. They would beat the Swiss side 6-1 over two legs, before defeating Borussia Mönchengladbach in the final at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. The season’s Coupe de France title was no longer a meritorious award for a side that had promised so much.
Herbin and co. must have watched Emlyn Hughes lifting Liverpool’s first European Cup, wondering what might have been. The defeat had signalled the end of a golden age for Saint-Étienne, as they could finish only seventh in 1977-78. Liverpool are, rightly, decorated for their success in the 1970s and 1980s; nobody remembers the nearly men.
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 their deserved European triumph twice came under threat, and twice they failed to attune their approach. 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.