As St Étienne fans poured on the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard pitch, the fury and frustration became almost suffocating. From Romain Hamouma’s catastrophic early corner which led to Memphis Depay’s cool opener, to Nabil Fékir holding his shirt up for rival fans after the fifth, which incited the pitch invasion, the 5-0 mauling executed by bitter rivals Lyon equalled arguably the worst night in St Étienne’s 99-year history.
Three months have since passed and Les Verts have only fallen further into the abyss. Summer managerial arrival Ôscar Garcia, his tenure promising if not revelatory, proved to be sizable collateral damage following the derby defeat, resigning soon afterwards. A lack of successful transfer dealings in the summer transfer window was also a key factor in a breakdown in communication between the board and Garcia.
Novice Julien Sablé’s appointment as Garcia’s replacement proved to be a disastrous one. Although a promising youth coach, the 37-year-old’s lack of credentials cost the club in league fines for fielding an unqualified coach and in points, with no wins during his time at the helm. Step forward the wizened Jean-Louis Gasset who was then installed firstly as an assistant to guide Sablé, a job he deftly performed as Lauren Blanc’s long-time collaborator, before taking over from the former St Étienne player as Head Coach during the winter break.
Such was the club’s lack of confidence and direction, floundering near the foot of the table having been Europa League regulars during the 8-year spell of Garcia’s predecessor Christophe Galtier, that neither man experienced anything close to the fabled ‘new manager bounce’ and, following the Lyon humiliation, only won once in next ten.
Relegation was a genuine concern as Ligue 1 ventured into 2018. 64-year-old Gasset, however, is starting to prove his insight and experience are still of use at this level as a brace of determined wins have hoisted Les Verts into 12th, above the throng of scrambling clubs in a breathless bottom half. The imposing display that saw off Amiens 2-0 on Saturday followed a similarly stubborn comeback triumph over Caen.
Gasset has finally been able to cajole a sense of togetherness in his side as their previously limp, porous performances have gradually become organised and purposeful. Reigniting a sense of belief in his team should be seen as no small achievement, given that the mood around the club had morphed from simply downcast to the outright toxic.
St Étienne’s supporter groups have regularly found themselves to be the subject of sanctions while a statement on the OL loss from a leading group described players as “without desire, without pride and especially without courage.” The atmosphere they engender at the home ground is glorious, but an increasing belligerence has recently only served to heighten a sense of chaos. Meanwhile, the lack of investment in Les Verts has been a long running issue and the club, under their current ownership, cannot hope to match the spending power of the top six.
Given the lack of funds available to the club to improve their situation, their January transfer window activity is all the more impressive. Les Verts have contented themselves with being a little more opportunistic, perhaps even taking risks, in the January window, but the brace of wins go some way to already proving their worth.
‘Nouvelle Tendance’ or ‘New Movement’ has been emblazoned on the club’s Twitter profile under the faces of new arrivals Yann M’Vila, Mathieu Debuchy, Neven Subotic and Paul-Georges Ntep. Despite the famous names, St Étienne spent less than €1m in overall transfer fees on these individuals. Although all talented performers, each have either suffered horrendous injury luck or dramatic falls from grace in recent years. Such circumstances allowed Debuchy and M’Vila to join for nothing, with Sainté paying a minor fee to Dortmund for Subotic, while Ntep joined on loan from Wolfsburg.
Despite his heroic displays as part of Jürgen Klopp’s title-winning, Champions’ League final-making Dortmund team, centre back Subotic’s form has disintegrated since, to the point where he was often not making the bench at the Signal Iduna Park. Winger Ntep was on fringes of the French squad and close to a move to Liverpool while at Rennes, often unplayable in Ligue 1, injuries halted his development before an unsuccessful switch to Germany.
Holding midfielder M’Vila, a former regular for Les Bleus, has struggled with disciplinary and attitude issues throughout his career which resulted in exile to Russia either side of an ill-fated run at Sunderland. Meanwhile, fellow former international Debuchy’s career has failed to recover from his own long-term injury and the emergence of Hector Bellerin at Arsenal.
Including iconic captain Loïc Perrin’s conspicuous lack of international caps, goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier’s self-imposed exile from the national team and summer loanee Rémy Cabella, out of favour at Marseille, and Gasset’s current incarnation of Les Verts has the feeling of a band of misfits, nearly men who, despite their undoubted ability, have seen expectations drop and reputations diminish. Les Verts’ disparate group, however, has already started to gel.
Their wins over Caen and Amiens were well deserved, both Ntep and Debuchy adding goals, Subotic providing stability at the back alongside Perrin, while M’Vila has brought the necessary presence and stature in midfield that a succession of predecessors have not.
Crucially, St Étienne, now unable to rely on Galtier’s talent for squeezing the best out of an average talent pool, can boast a wealth of experience that will be pivotal if they are to remain in the division and survive one of their worst seasons in decades. Despite the progress made under Gasset in his first month in charge, his stay at the club has always felt like a stop-gap measure and whether his ‘New Movement’ of misfits can maintain their levels of performance free of serious injury or personality clashes and prove to be anything more than that, will define this grand old club’s fragile future.
by Adam White