Monday, July 5, 2010

One man hardly can make fundamental changes – real changes appear when reforms are done on lower levels than the national team. Saint Etienne was the club starting the revolutionary change in French football. Now, Saint Etienne were not some newcomers: the club dominated the French league after 1966, briefly losing ground to Olympique Marseille and Nantes in the beginning of the 1970s. It was the time when the new wind started blowing – Robert Herbin, who spent the whole of his playing career in the club, was appointed coach. True, he was close to the club’s President, but still it was revolutionary move – Herbin stopped playing in 1972, becoming immediately head coach. He was 33 years old when he replaced Albert Batteux. Battex, 53 years at the time, had a huge reputation – he coached the legendary Stade de Reims. Which was in the 1950s… telling that reputation alone is not enough: Batteux, as good as he was, was a coach of the 50s, not the 70s. No wonder the old stars with whom Batteux won the Saint Etienne’s titles of the 60s disappeared – Herbin had no use for his teammates and introduced youngsters from the club’s youth system, like Janvion. This was the first change: paying attention to the youth system, building and using homegrown players. Of course, the club was buying players from elsewhere too, but carefully – only to strengthen the team, and whoever did not fit was quickly sold no matter how big his name was. The chemistry between club brass, squad, and Herbin was obviously perfect: he was allowed to do what he thought right and his age made him agreeable to all players – with the veterans he used to play not long ago (he appeared in 383 matches, scoring 78 goals – not bad for a defensive midfielder, moved to left back in 1969. He also played 23 games for France, scoring 3 goals.) At 33, he was not very distant from the young boys and he was hip too – growing his famous red hair long after retirement from playing. Retirement? He was still in good shape for the pitch in 1974-75 season, when he played 1 match and scored his last goal. Unlike many old coaches, Herbin was able to practice the drills with the team – always bringing players’ respect. He even did not pose with suit for team’s photos – he was generally dressed in shorts and team shirt, like a player, not like a boss. 1973-74 season was his second – Saint Etienne won a double!
Champions and Cup winners. Soon everybody in Europe will know these guys very well.
Top, left to right: Repellini, Merchadier, Piazza, Synaeghel, Farison, Curkovic.
Bottom: Patrick Revelli, Larque, Herve Revelli, Bereta.
The great Saint Etienne of the 1970s is practically made already – the two great foreigners Curkovic (Yugoslavia) and Piazza (Argentina) plus 9 French national players. Most remained in the first eleven for years, Repellini and Merchadier eventually becoming substitutes. Bereta was the first sold away – but replaced by younger and better winger. After building this squad, Herbin only refined it by smart transfers. There was no need of drastic measures for ten years. In 1974 Saint Etienne were not yet the awesome team they would be in the next year or two, but they were new. The old was good enough to provide a Cup finalist – RC Lens were sharp contrast. Only a year before they played in the Second Division – something quite typical for the French clubs and French football. No consistency – one great season, then mediocrity and relegation, then coming back on top, and so on, and on. RC Lens were and are one of the prime examples. Fancy this – a Cup final just a year after struggling for winning Second Division.
Top, left to right: Lhote, Gregorczyk, Lemerre, Hopquin, Marie, Lannoy.
Bottom: Faber, Mankowski, Arghuridis, Bousdira, Elie. No big names here, although a few will be remembered fondly in France. Sturdy professionals, but run of the mill anyway. The best known here – statistically, that is – are the foreigners Ryszard Gregorczyk (real name Grzegorczyk, unpronounceable in French, so slightly changed) and Eugeniusz Faber, both Polish and former national players. And perhaps this is showing the difference between Saint Etienne and the rest of French clubs: Gregorczyk and Faber were old and well behind their best years. There was no future in them; there was no way to build a team around them. The foreign players of Saint Etienne were entirely different – Curkovic was not young, but still was good for about ten years. Piazza was young – his best years were yet to come. Unlike the Poles, the foreigners in Saint Etienne were real part of the team’s future, not just ephemeral presence for a season or two. The French football revolution had began thanks to Robert Herbin – the results will arrive years later. Almost ten year later Saint Etienne was still champion and Robert Herbin’s curly hair was still long, although only one player – Curkovic (in sky blue jersey)– remained from the original squad above. Yes, Platini is in the photo – second from left, second row. Herbin – sitting last on the right still looks like one of the boys.