More than three decades after Michel Platini helped inspire Saint-Etienne to the last of their 10 league titles, France’s most popular football club finally lifted silverware again on Saturday and are hoping their League Cup triumph can herald a glorious new chapter in their remarkable history.
It had been a long, long time coming for Les Verts. The League Cup showdown with Rennes was their first final of any sort since losing to Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup in 1982 and a chance to win a first major trophy since 1981. The League Cup did not even exist as a competition back then. There was a lot of pressure on Christophe Galtier's side, but they coped with it admirably as a first-half goal from Brazilian striker Brandão handed them a 1-0 win.
Brandão's experience of such an occasion was crucial. After all, it was he who scored the only goal of the game for Marseille in last season's League Cup final against Lyon. At the ripe old age of 32, he was also the only player in Sainté's starting line-up who was even alive the last time the club won anything.
His goal decided a contest that was far from a classic, with Rennes struggling for form just now and also struggling to cope with the pressure that comes with their own trophy drought stretching back to 1971. They rarely looked like equalising after falling behind, but this was still a wonderful occasion.
The Stade de France is not often a pleasant place to visit on the occasion of an international match, but this time the atmosphere was fantastic. The ground was a magnificent sight, a sea of green and red, but mainly green, with the majority of the 80,000 crowd supporting Les Verts. The outpouring of emotion at full-time was a sight to behold, and some journalists in the press box, hardly trying to hide their allegiances, struggled to hold back tears.
Many of these supporters had not seen their team win anything, except perhaps for a couple of second division titles. Among the players, it was a particularly special occasion for captain Loïc Perrin, a genuine Saint-Etienne fan whose father grew up watching the team in their glory days.
Between 1957 and 1981, Sainté won 10 league crowns, six French Cups and reached a European Cup final. Since then, while bitter rivals Lyon emerged to win seven straight titles in the last decade, they have had three separate spells in the second tier and were heading back there when current coach Christophe Galtier took over in December 2009.
He has emphatically turned around their fortunes and now the club has a new generation of heroes to go with the likes of Johnny Rep and Salif Keita, past greats who attended Saturday's final.
"It is wonderful to see so many people so happy," Galtier said after the game. "There was a lot of pressure on the players but we have managed to put a new trophy in the cabinet, a trophy the club has never won before.
"When I arrived at the club, I didn't think we could come this far. I hope this is the start of a successful era."
If that is to be the case, they will have to fight to keep their best players. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the forward who has scored 19 goals this season and set up Brandão's winner with a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot cross, looks likely to leave. But there is enough talent elsewhere in the ranks, and the club have already shown themselves to be capable of spending wisely.
The team celebrated with a victory parade watched by many thousands in Saint-Etienne on Sunday, although in between there was something of a shock for Aubameyang, who returned home after the game to discover that his house had been burgled and three of his cars had been stolen, including his prized possession, a gold Aston Martin (which was found in the city on Sunday).
The League Cup victory means they are guaranteed Europa League football next season, but Champions League qualification remains possible.
“The League Cup belongs to the past now,” said Brandão on Sunday, his focus on the challenges ahead. Sainté have not lost any of their 13 Ligue 1 games in 2013 and can move to within two points of third-placed Lyon by beating Ajaccio on Wednesday.
They then travel to face OL in the Rhône derby next Sunday, but must also play Marseille and Lille in their final two games of the campaign. A top-three berth may just prove beyond them, but regardless of where they finish, this will go down as Saint-Etienne's finest season in a generation.
Andy Scott - on Twitter @andpscott
- Sports & Recreation
- League Cup
- Christophe Galtier