The most romantic name in French club football represents the industrial and transport hub of Saint-Étienne. Forever linked with the great side of the 1970s, AS St-Étienne, and the epic 1998 World Cup clash between England and Argentina, this revamped art destination staged another major tournament in 2016.
Perhaps it’s fortunate that the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard staged four draws at the Euros, including England’s dour 0-0 with Slovakia, as its regular tenants were due to embark on another extended international adventure, only a season after the last one.
In 2016-17. AS St-Étienne competed for the fifth consecutive season in the Europa League, reviving memories of classic nights and classic matches against Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United back in the 1970s. The Red Devils would return to the Geoffrey-Guichard the following February, on their way to winning the Europa League.
Geoffroy Guichard was the local entrepreneur behind the Casino supermarket chain, set up in Saint-Étienne. Own-brand goods, loyalty cards, trading stamps, sell-by dates, they all started here. The company started up the sports club in 1912, the football section adopting its green colour scheme and, originally, its name, after World War I.
As a football club, AS St-Étienne are a post-war phenomenon, first winning the title in 1957 and dominating the domestic game from the mid-1960s onwards. At the helm was president Roger Rocher, a former local miner turned industrialist, who had taken over from Geoffroy Guichard’s sport-mad son Pierre in 1961. It was Rocher, a St-Étienne man through and through (‘In football, St-Étienne is the capital, Lyon the suburbs’), who lifted the club to cult status in France, dominating the domestic game long before Marseille or Lyon managed to.
But it was only in the mid-1970s that ‘Les Verts’ began to make progress in Europe. St-Étienne were stopped by Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich two years running, the second time the disputably thick width of the crossbar preventing the French champions from taking the lead in the 1976 European Cup Final in Glasgow.
AS St-Étienne is also where Michel Platini finished his French playing career before joining Juventus, helping Les Verts to a record tenth title but not making a European final. Three years later, Platini’s France did win Euro 84, their captain scoring a hat-trick at the Geoffroy-Guichard against Yugoslavia in their final group game.
Le Chaudron, as it still nicknamed, ‘The Cauldron’, was relit for the 1998 World Cup. It was Platini’s idea that, given the quality of French infrastructure, groups should not be confined region-by-region, but games distributed around France. Thus crowds at Saint-Étienne saw Austria, Chile, Holland, Iran, Mexico, Morocco, Paraguay, Scotland, Spain and Yugoslavia – the World Cup circus pulling out of town after the heartstopping 2-2 draw between England and Argentina, Beckham’s red card, Michael Owen’s wondergoal, David Batty’s penalty and all.
Meanwhile, AS St-Étienne suffered scandal after scandal and attempted comeback after comeback – while local rivals Olympique Lyon were winning seven titles in consecutive seasons. After a League Cup win in 2013, however, AS St-Étienne bounced back, making the Europa League five seasons out of six.
Saint-Étienne’s underused airport is 12km (7.5 miles) north-west of town, with no direct transport links into town. The nearest main airport is Lyon-St-Exupéry 76km (47 miles) away. BlaBlaBus and Flixbus have direct services to Saint-Étienne (journey time 1hr 15min, around €10 single) every 2-3hrs.
Trains from Paris Gare de Lyon require a change at Lyon, overall journey time 3hrs-3hr 30min to St-Étienne Châteaucreux (€60 online). The station is linked to the city centre and stadium by tramway, part of the local stas network, single tickets (changes with buses possible, valid 90min) €1.40.
Radiotaxis St-Étienne (+33 4 77 25 42 42) are a reliable local firm.
Adjoining the supporters’ bar/restaurant of the same name by the stadium, renovated Le Chaudron Vert (23 rue des Trois Glorieuses, +33 4 77 74 23 18) is run by and themed after the club. Simple but comfortable rooms go for €59.
Of the hotels opposite Châteaucreux station, renovated three-star Les Poteaux Carrés takes its name after the square crossbars of the 1976 European Cup Final. Next door, Terminus du Forez has weekend deals and TV football in its restaurant, la loco.
There is plenty of affordable accommodation around the Hôtel de Ville in the city centre. Two-star design-friendly Hôtel Continental on rue François Gillet offers cheap rooms with shared facilities as well as comfortable, mid-range ones. Restored with a panoramic terrace, Hôtel du Cheval Noir stands opposite. Equally central, some of the rooms in the Hôtel de la Tour suffer from years of guests smoking, and those on a budget may be better accommodated at the brighter Furania on rue de la Résistance
Nearby, on rue Louis-Braille, the ResidHotel comprises 76 studios and apartments.
Saint-Étienne is well facilitated for bars. Soggy Bottom along rue de la Résistance stands on the site of an Irish pub of 1998 vintage and also offers live music. Le Saint Patrick on rue des Martyrs de Vingré is another option for match-watching.
On the same street, trendy Café Saint Jacques offers quality drinks, ever-busy tables outside and, for rental, a roof terrace. Makes a point of closing Sundays unless Les Verts are playing, in which case, reserve a place.
Le Smoking Dog on rue Georges Dupré appeals to locals and expats with a fine range of beers and live sounds.
By the Hôtel Continental, L’Elixir concentrates on match action, Benelux beers and lively sounds, while evening-only Barberousse on rue Léon Nautin is where modern-day pirates turn to for rum and fun.
Late-opening Slag Heaps by Bourse du Travail attracts a slightly edgier, slammer-slurping crowd.