Ever since 4th March 1981, when Ipswich Town produced what is probably the club’s greatest ever performance, winning 4-1 in St Etienne, I have wanted to see a game at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard; it would be a pilgrimage to the scene of Ipswich Town’s finest hour. St Etienne is famous for its fanatical supporters and seeing and hearing them on the television since just added to the draw of the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
Today, thirty-six and a half years on I have stopped off on my way back from the south of France. Our hotel is close to the centre of town opposite the wonderful brick and metal-framed St Etienne-Châteaucreux railway station.
From there it is 1.40 euro tram ride on Ligne 1 to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. It is a little after one o’clock and there are several green-shirted St Etienne supporters on the modern, green tram which glides through narrow central streets into broad squares of fountains, trees and majestic buildings. Why are French provincial cities so much more attractive and inviting than our own? St Etienne isn’t even that big, with a population of the town itself being about 150,000; vistas of the green hills outside the town are visible along some city streets. It’s an industrial town built up on coal mines and manufacturing like Sunderland or Salford but that’s where the comparison ends.
At the tram stop on Rue Bergsson, conveniently named Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, we alight and make the walk along Boulevard Roger Rocher towards the corner of the stadium which looms in the distance like a sleek grey box. We approach through car parking shaded by plane trees and past stalls selling club shirts, food and beer. There are several approaches to the stadium each with its own collection of food stalls.
People stand about in the sunshine, talking, eating, drinking, being French. I buy a hot dog for 3 euros, it’s one of those where the frankfurter is slotted into a hole in the centre of a baguette; I have mustard with it.
A man gives out 24 page, A4 sized, colour programmes named “100% St Etienne”, they are absolutely free; there are more advertisements for restaurants (eight) within its pages than for any other type of business. The club shop is close by the stadium and I take a look inside; it’s very, very big and very busy with a huge range of St Etienne branded goods which includes watering cans, locally brewed beer in 33cl and what look like 3 litre bottles, and wine.
Last year the club celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its one European Cup Final appearance, when the team containing Jacques Santini and Dominic Rocheteau lost in Glasgow by a single goal to the Bayern Munich of Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, Gerd Muller and Uli Hoeness; a book commemorating the event is on sale for 25 euros; I don’t buy it.
Back outside I join a short queue through one of the many automated turnstiles and after a cursory patting down by a very smiley gentleman I enter the ‘Chaudron’ (Cauldron) as it is known. Our seats are way, way, way up in the stand and the succession of flights of stairs seems to go on and on forever. Eventually I find my seat in the very back row of the third tier. The view is spectacular, but it’s a long way from the pitch and a massive steel girder obscures any view of a good half of the stand at the far end of the ground, although that’s okay if you’re just here to look at the football and not the architecture. But even with an interrupted view, it is a mightily impressive stadium; fundamentally it is a traditional arrangement of four individual stands around the pitch, but they have been unified by the placing of a massive steel box over the top of them with irregularly shaped cut outs in the faces of the box. It is a simple idea and it works brilliantly, creating an imposing building, the outside of which doesn’t give a clue as to what the inside is like; it could easily be a factory viewed from the outside, which is wholly appropriate for St Etienne. The retention of the traditional four stands on each side of pitch successfully avoids the risk of this being a bland, anonymous bowl of a stadium.
The Stade Geoffroy-Guichard is a stage and the supporters behind each goal are every bit as much performers as the players. Already there are thousands inside the stadium and from high up at the back of the stand I look down upon those still yet to enter. Across the open space below me a crocodile of fans stride towards the turnstiles; they seem to be all part of a single group. The ultras beneath us in the stand two tiers below sing “Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey Hey Hey, St Etienne”; very 1970’s. The teams will soon be on the pitch but there is a strange looking man with long silver hair in the centre circle, he is accompanied by four young women in short skirts or hot pants.
He has a radio microphone and he is going to sing. A truly bizarre couple of minutes ensues in which the silver haired man struts about, the women dance and everyone seems to have a great time joining in with a truly awful Eurovision style song that would have been considered a bit naff even forty years ago. I recall having seen a picture of a man with the fashion sense of Jimmy Savile in the club shop, but I had dismissed it as something I’d rather not know about. Well you would wouldn’t you?
Fortunately the teams now enter the field to great fanfare with banners and anthems and hullabaloo and the memory of the poor man’s Johnny Halliday is soon lost beneath more pleasant sensations as the game begins, St Etienne (les Verts) wearing their distinctive green shirts and socks with white shorts, whilst Rennes sport all-red. St Etienne start well and is it any wonder with a crowd of 31,000 roaring them on. It’s a warm day and at the far end of the stadium virtually a whole stand of ultras is shirtless. Below, the ultras are urged on and orchestrated by blokes with megaphones. At most French grounds I have been to there might be two blokes sharing one megaphone; today at one time I see as many as five each stood up high facing the supporters with his own megaphone. There seem to be parties going on down there with outbreaks of frenzied pogoing in the centre, but in general just expressing a great communal support for their team. The ultras at each end of the stadium call to one another in song, it’s like some sort of very noisy religious service and it’s haunting, beautiful even. But then, French is the language of song. A young bloke in the seat but one next to me clearly longs to be down amongst the ultras as he bawls and shouts fiercely and joins in with songs which turn into solos, because he is so far from the main congregation. Children turn round to look at him and his girlfriend seems quite proud. Much of the crowd noise is independent of events on the pitch, it just happens constantly, an avant garde soundtrack of incidental drums and chants. Nevertheless, the stream of sound wobbles from time to time as referee Monsieur Miguelgorry does something like booking Assane Dioussé after four minutes Kevin Theophile-Catherine after thirty-one and Saidy Janko three minutes later.
As all the bookings might suggest, it’s an entertaining game on the pitch as well as off, and St Etienne are giving us all something to shout about, but they haven’t scored and it’s nearly half-time. The Rennes players seem unable to stand up when a St Etienne player is near and this explains the bookings and, typically for cheating bastards, it is Rennes who score therefore. Les Verts’ Ola Selnaes is far too easily knocked off the ball just outside his own penalty area and Rennes’ Benjamin Bourigeaud insolently chips the ball over the wonderfully, stereotypically gallic goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier and into the net. Forty odd Rennes fans are filled with a belief that it was worth travelling the best part of 750 kilometres to be here.
The St Etienne supporters telepathically share their disappointment so they don’t have to stop urging their team on vocally. The game heads on into the four minutes time added on by Monsieur Miguelgorry because of all the recumbent Rennes players lying prone on the turf. Justice is served however as in the second minute of this additional time a corner to St Etienne is headed across goal by captain Loic Perrin and Gabriel Silva hooks a splendid, athletic volley into the roof of the Rennes net. The ultras surge to the front of the stand and we are all consumed in the extreme, noisy, joyfulness of the moment. It somehow feels like St Etienne have scored twice in one go.
Half-time comes and I look around a bit. I am impressed by the signs for the toilets which feature a very stylish, well dressed and attractive looking couple; after they’ve emptied their bladders I’d be happy to spend time with either of them.
The second half begins and the ultras sing something containing the words ‘Ally Ally O’ and it reminds me of Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan in A Taste of Honey and a time when Britain made films as artful as the French. But my reverie is disturbed eight minutes in to the new half as a cross and a perceived shove sees another Rennes player in a crumpled mess and a penalty kick later Rennes lead 2-1 through Wahbi Khazri. Monsieur Miguelgarry bought it again. How we boo those Breton bastards and their superior acting skills. But life and football and the match carry on and St Etienne and their fans continue to excite and eventually their pressure pays off as the Stade Rennais goalkeeper Tomas Koubek appears to snatch at the ankles of Lois Diony and Jonathan Bamba equalises with another penalty kick. The noise of drums and chants doesn’t let up and although Stephane Ruffier has to make a brilliant diving reaction save, pushing the ball away off a post, St Etienne continue to dominate. With less than ten minutes to go Kevin Monnet-Paquet’s header is clawed away from the top corner by Tomas Koubek sailing across his goal like a runaway kite in shorts and football shirt. In the final minute Monsieur Miguelgarry cements his place in the hearts of the St Etienne fans as a grosse merde as he sends off Gabriel Silva whilst another Oscar deserving Breton lies prostrate on the grass.
The game ends in a draw and it has been bloody marvellous, even though I had wanted St Etienne to win. I have fulfilled my wish to see St Etienne play a match at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard and now I can’t wait to come back and see another one. This was a real football match, better than anything I have ever witnessed in England; the football wasn’t of the highest quality, although good enough, and these aren’t the world’s best players, but the supporters are the very, very best. I will return. Allez les Verts!