The finally boiled a pot. The Stade Geoffroy-Guichard is affectionately nicknamed The Cauldron due to its fiery atmosphere, but the nickname took on a sour taste on Sunday night when St-Étienne’s relegation to Ligue 2 was greeted by hordes of flame-wielding fans chasing their players down the tunnel.
After a cataclysmic campaign on and off the pitch, St-Étienne scraped a temporary survival on the final day of the league season thanks to a late equalizer from Romain Hamouma against Nantes. The target took them over Metz in the table and in the relegation final, setting up a two-legged tie against Auxerrewho finished third in Ligue 2.
After dominating the outside stage last Thursday but only coming away with a 1-1 draw, St-Étienne could not get the job ahead of their home fans. With both games ending 1-1, the tie would be decided on penalties. Ryad Boudebouz’s starting point kick was saved and Auxerre scored all five of their penalties to win promotion.
Birama Touré’s winning penalty barely crossed the line as St-Étienne fans ran to the pitch, converging in their thousands towards the tunnel as the players were evacuated quickly. Auxerre had only a second to celebrate their return to Ligue 1 a decade later, before the jubilant players who had flocked to Touré turned around and witnessed the tumult unraveling around them.
Flares were fired at players, seats were burned and riot police intervened with tear gas. Amazon Prime coverage had to be interrupted while commentators struggled with the thick smoke. In a season where French football embarrassed itself from the start, St-Étienne fans left the worst for the last when their anger spilled out of the stands and went from mere protest to something much uglier.
One of the stands was already closed, as a result of flares being thrown on the field in their 4-1 defeat against Monaco last month. That’s it stéphanois would express their frustration is expected, but the violent manner in which their anger has exploded puts them equally guilty, and is symptomatic of a wider, endless problem with stadium events that the French authorities have failed to deal with right this season. Local police reported that 33 people were injured during the night, including two Auxerre players trapped in the chaos.
On paper, a team containing Boudebouz, Wahbi Khazri and Denis Bouanga should not be down. However, a mess on and off the pitch, and a lack of a coherent transfer window, meant that no amount of individual brilliance could drag St-Étienne out of their chaos.
After enjoying a new managerial bounce when he took over from Claude Puel in December, the fiery Pascal Dupraz was unable to gather the soldiers to survive beyond the winter months. Despite the relative richness of technical talent at his disposal, Dupraz was unable to put together anything resembling a winning game plan, instead serving a slant of tasteless, tasteless football without ambition. This, too, was scarcely counterbalanced by any defensive solidity; they conceded 77 goals in their 38 league games.
It was a disgusting season for the St-Étienne defense. Harold Moukoudi has not won any of his 26 Ligue 1 games this season. The captain, Timothée Kolodziejczak, was later removed from the squad after disastrous performances, including own goals against Marseille and Monaco. Former Sevilla and Rennes man Joris Gnagnon arrived as a free agent in November and was unable to mediate the necessary pounds to achieve match qualification, later leaving in May without making a single appearance. The culmination of their defensive problems came in a 6-2 defeat to relegation rivals Lorient in April, a result that nearly sealed their place in the bottom three.
The man-management that characterized Dupraz’s previous great escapes with Toulouse and Évian is no longer a recipe for success on its own. Not surprisingly, his six-month business will not be renewed. He ends his time with Les Verts scoring 20 points, conceded an improvement on Puel’s 12 that saw the team shake bottom at the winter break.
The fall of St-Étienne is a story about boiled frogs. Co-presidents Roland Romeyer and Bernard Caïazzo have seen a resurgence in the club’s reputation as successive bids have been turned down by either, putting the club’s much-needed sale for years. With both men prioritizing their own favorite bidders and not even wanting to invest a lot of money into the club, they fell asleep in financial and sporting terror. In November, a Cambodian prince publicly announced his intention to buy the club, before the club’s legal action over a supposedly fake bank guarantee letter for € 100 million put a swift end to the prospect of a royal takeover.
Following the final whistle on Sunday, the club released a statement announcing that “important news about the club’s future” will be on the way, suggesting a possible sale of the club to US investor David Blitzer, who is already a shareholder in Crystal Palace. Augsburg, Alcorcón and Real Salt Lake. Blitzer and fellow billionaire Josh Harris have made two separate proposals: one if the club remained in Ligue 1 and the other if they were relegated to Ligue 2. After the noise on Sunday night, they reportedly reconsider their interest.
St-Étienne may have better forged their own way back to Ligue 1 while retaining their unique character, rather than becoming another cog in a multi-club possession system. However, Canadian businessman John Chayka’s offer to buy the club, which ruled out a multi-club strategy deal to protect St Étienne’s identity, appears to have been ignored solely because of Caïazzo’s personal relationship with Blitzer.
This leaves the club with a lot of questions but not much time to answer them. With the contracts of 13 first-team players expiring, a manager leaving, and no indication of how the ownership situation will evolve, it will be a new-looking St-Étienne that begins life in the second half in August.
The club can start life in the second tier on negative points and they are likely to play a good part of their home games behind closed doors. Former Troyes manager Laurent Batlles is said to be the favorite for a return to the club, where he ended his playing career in 2012, although his fall with Caïazzo and Romeyer while managing the reserves in 2019 may destroy that move.
Unable to recapture the spark of the Christophe Galtier years, or the solidity they enjoyed under the rule of Jean-Louis Gasset, St-Étienne has been in free fall for the last three years. The club has consistently qualified for Europe until 2017 and has developed 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 World War II. The downfall of two of France’s most famous clubs – which boast 16 league titles between them – was fraught with incompetence and self-interest, but above all a patent satisfaction with mediocrity.
With only two teams promoted from Ligue 2 next season – to help the main flight restructuring to just 18 teams – St-Étienne and Bordeaux were able to see the gates to Ligue 1 close on them for a while. Although they can credibly position themselves as victims of the financial controversy of French football – from Covid-19 to the failed deal on broadcasting rights with Mediapro – the problems are much deeper at both clubs.
The kettle has finally boiled, the frog has jumped out, and now the cleaning begins. The bond between fans, players and owners has been broken almost irreparably, but some unity will be needed if they are to survive what has become Ligue 2’s highest interest campaign for some time. Until then, management will have to avoid moving the pot and putting the club in the safest possible hands during the summer.