Thursday , July 7 2022

In a shameful season for fans, St-Étienne saved the worst for last | St Etienne

The cauldron finally boiled over. The Stade Geoffroy-Guichard is affectionately nicknamed Le Chaudron for its fiery atmosphere, but the moniker took on a sour flavour on Sunday night as St-Étienne’s relegation to Ligue 2 was greeted by hordes of flare-wielding fans chasing their players down the tunnel.

After a cataclysmic campaign on and off the pitch, St-Étienne scraped temporary survival on the final day of the league season thanks to a late equaliser from Romain Hamouma against Nantes. The goal took them above Metz in the table and into the relegation playoff, setting up a two-legged tie against Auxerre, who had finished third in Ligue 2.

After dominating last Thursday’s away leg but only coming away with a 1-1 draw, St-Étienne were unable to rise to the task in front of their home fans. With both games ending 1-1, the tie would be decided on penalties. Ryad Boudebouz’s opening spot-kick was saved and Auxerre scored all five of their penalties to earn promotion.

Birama Touré’s winning penalty had barely crossed the line when St-Étienne fans ran on to the pitch, converging in their thousands towards the tunnel as the players were evacuated quickly. Auxerre only had a split second to celebrate their return to Ligue 1 after a decade away, before the jubilant players who had flocked to Touré turned around and witnessed the mayhem unravel around them.

Flares were fired at players, seats were burned and riot police intervened with tear gas. Amazon Prime’s coverage had to be interrupted as the commentators struggled with the thick smoke. In a season where French football has embarrassed itself from the very start, St-Étienne fans left the worst for last as their anger spilled out of the stands and went from mere protest to something much uglier.

One of the stands had already been closed off, as a result of flares being thrown on to the pitch in their 4-1 defeat to Monaco last month. That the stéphanois would express their frustration is expected, but the violent manner in which their anger exploded puts them equally at fault, and is symptomatic of a wider, unending problem with stadium incidents that the French authorities have failed to address properly this season. Local police reported that 33 people were injured on the night, including two Auxerre players caught up in the chaos.

Auxerre keeper Donovan Léon makes a crucial save in the penalty shootout.
The Auxerre keeper Donovan Léon makes a crucial save in the penalty shootout. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images

On paper, a team containing Boudebouz, Wahbi Khazri and Denis Bouanga should not be going down. However, upheaval on and off the pitch, and a lack of a coherent transfer window, has meant that no amount of individual brilliance could drag St-Étienne out of their mess.

After enjoying a new-manager bounce when he took over from Claude Puel in December, the fiery Pascal Dupraz could not rally the troops to survival past the winter months. Despite the relative wealth of technical talent at his disposal, Dupraz was unable to cobble together anything resembling a winning gameplan, instead serving up a slop of insipid, tasteless football devoid of ambition. This was hardly counterbalanced by any sort of defensive solidity either; they conceded 77 goals in their 38 league games.

It has been an abject season for the St-Étienne defence. Harold Moukoudi has not won any of his 26 Ligue 1 games this season. The captain, Timothée Kolodziejczak, was eventually removed from the squad after catastrophic performances, including own goals against Marseille and Monaco. The former Sevilla and Rennes man Joris Gnagnon arrived as a free agent in November and was unable to shed the necessary pounds to reach match fitness, eventually leaving in May without making a single appearance. The culmination of their defensive woes came in a 6-2 defeat to relegation rivals Lorient in April, a result that all but sealed their place in the bottom three.

The man-management that characterised Dupraz’s previous great escapes with Toulouse and Évian is no longer a recipe for success on its own. Unsurprisingly, his six-month deal will not be renewed. He ends his time with Les Verts having won 20 points, admittedly an improvement on Puel’s 12 that saw the team rock bottom at the winter break.

St-Étienne’s downfall is a story of boiled frogs. The co-presidents Roland Romeyer and Bernard Caïazzo have overseen a backsliding in the club’s standing as successive bids were pushed away by either one or the other, putting the club’s much-needed sale on standby for years. With both men prioritising their own favoured bidders and neither willing to invest much money into the club, they have sleepwalked into financial and sporting dismay. In November, a Cambodian prince publicly announced his intention to buy the club, before the club’s legal action over an allegedly fake bank guarantee letter for €100m put a swift end to the prospect of a royal takeover.

After the final whistle on Sunday, the club released a statement announcing that “important news concerning the future of the club” would be on its way, hinting about the possible sale of the club to the American investor David Blitzer, who is already part-owner of Crystal Palace, Augsburg, Alcorcón and Real Salt Lake. Blitzer and his fellow billionaire Josh Harris had made two distinct proposals: one if the club remained in Ligue 1 and the other if they were relegated to Ligue 2. After the bedlam on Sunday night, they are reportedly reconsidering their interest.

St-Étienne may be better off forging their own path back to Ligue 1 by maintaining their unique character, rather than becoming another cog of a multi-club ownership system. However, the proposal from the Canadian businessman John Chayka to buy the club, which ruled out pursuing a multi-club strategy to protect the identity of St Étienne, appears to have been disregarded purely owing to Caïazzo’s personal relationship with Blitzer.

A St-Étienne fan sits on the pitch after the playoff.
A St-Étienne fan sits on the pitch after the playoff. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images

This leaves the club with a lot of questions but not much time to answer them. With 13 first-team players’ contracts expiring, a manager set to leave, and no indication how the ownership situation will develop, it will be a new-look St-Étienne that starts life in the second tier in August.

The club may begin life in the second tier on negative points and they will probably play a good chunk of their home games behind closed doors. The former Troyes manager Laurent Batlles is said to be the favourite for a return to the club where he finished his playing career in 2012, although his falling out with Caïazzo and Romeyer while managing the reserves in 2019 may scupper that move.

Unable to recapture the spark of the Christophe Galtier years, or the solidity they enjoyed under Jean-Louis Gasset’s reign, St-Étienne have been in freefall for the past three years. The club were consistently qualifying for Europe until 2017 and developing some of the continent’s most exciting talents. Now, they are back in Ligue 2 for the first time in 16 years.

Ligue 1 will be without St-Étienne and Bordeaux next season for the first time since before the second world war. The downfall of two of France’s most storied clubs – who boast 16 league titles between them – has been fraught with incompetence and self-interest, but most of all a patent satisfaction with mediocrity.

With only two teams being promoted from Ligue 2 next season – to help the top flight restructure to just 18 teams – St-Étienne and Bordeaux could see the gates to Ligue 1 close on them for some time. Although they can credibly position themselves as victims of French football’s financial strife – from Covid-19 to the failed broadcasting rights deal with Mediapro – the problems run far deeper at both clubs.

The cauldron has finally boiled over, the frog has leapt out, and now begins the clean-up. The link between fans, players and owners has been broken almost beyond repair, but some sort of unity will be needed if they are to survive what is shaping up to be the highest-stakes Ligue 2 campaign for a while. Until then, the management will need to avoid stirring the pot and put the club in the safest possible hands over the summer.



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