It was September 14, 1977 when the English disease truly crossed the Channel. Gone were the black stains of industry on the playing surface of Saint-Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, replaced by the red of blood as Manchester United supporters imported hooliganism for the first time to France.
This was the golden era of Les Verts, when they were the giants of French football and stood among the very best in Europe. Little more than a year prior, they had infamously been denied European Cup glory by the square goalframe at Hampden Park, which they struck twice in a 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich. Fans still protest that if the crossbar and posts had been round, they would have won.
But while the signing of the great Michel Platini was still to come two years in the future, Sainte’s best days were behind them. A run of three successive French titles had been ended a year earlier, and in the first round of the Cup Winners’ Cup, the first and only time they played the competition, they were pitted against Manchester United.
On the field, United played on the counter, riding their luck as the home side missed a slew of chances but equally having three goals disallowed of their own before Gordon Hill gave them the lead with 12 minutes left. Poor defending allowed Christian Synaeghel to level almost immediately, with the game finishing square.
The story of the night, though, had already been played out in the terraces before kick off.
It was meant to be a historic day for Saint-Etienne, who had opened their first club shop beside the ground, still a rarity in those days, which were far more innocent of commercialism than the game today. However, the date continues to resonate for very different reasons.
There had been warnings the evening before. A “small group” of United fans had caused mayhem in the town the previous night, smashing windows, destroying a hotel lobby and looting a shop, but the real trouble was to follow prior to the match inside Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
Around an hour before kick off, 500 Manchester United fans gathered behind one of the goals. “Armed with bottles, sticks and knives they went for the supporters of the French team,” The Times reported.
“Insults gave way to violence, then confrontation”, Saint-Etienne’s history records.
Gripped by panic, the home fans sought refuge by climbing the grills surrounding the field, which broke under the sheer weight of bodies against them and led to more supporters piling onto the pitch.
It was in the midst of this solid iron twisting and breaking that the majority of the 33 injuries, including five serious, occurred. Local reports at the time indicated that it was fortunate fans were nimble enough to climb the grills, else there may have been multiple deaths.
In came the riot troops from the police’s CRS branch, and to cries of “Allez les Bleus” coming from sections of the home support, and dislodged the offending English fans and their third charge.
When the pictures of the terraces appeared in the press the following day, they looked like a battlefield.
"The red storm has given an evil air to Les Verts’ supporters," ran one newspaper headline the following day, while Le Progres reported: “The English fans have brought war to the stadiums.”
While hooliganism in England at that time was rife, and becoming even more commonplace, there was still an innocence in France that shocked witnesses at the time. Leeds fans had caused trouble in Paris prior to the European Cup final of 1975, but this was the first time it had an effect on their fans.
“We might be punished for not having surrounded the English with a police cordon and barbed wire,” president Roger Rocher, one of the great characters of French football, proclaimed. “They were the worst hooligans I have ever seen. This ground had been without a blemish until these gangsters came here and started drinking.”
Indeed, Rocher’s fear that his side could be criticised was partially correct as UK Sports Minister Dennis Howell hit out at “a lot of deficiencies on the home club’s side”. Nevertheless, CRS troops were present at the ground – something totally unprecedented in Saint-Etienne at the time.
UEFA, however, sided with the French outfit and initially expelled United from the competition, much to the disgust of their players.
“It’s too ridiculous for words,” goalkeeper Alex Stepney told the BBC. “As far as I’m concerned as a player for United, United fans have nothing at all to do with me. We went over there and gave an advert for football, both teams. I mean, we’re getting condemned for something we haven’t done.”
Even for Saint-Etienne, this was not a satisfactory conclusion, with legendary coach Robert Herbin, who was noted for his ginger afro, stating: “Winning the tie in the boardroom doesn’t interest me. Manchester’s players don’t deserve that.”
After an appeal by the English side, though, they were allowed to play the second leg at a neutral venue, so long as there were no further incidents. London was overlooked due to the threat of violence, while Aberdeen and Belfast were even considered before Plymouth ultimately got the nod.
It was at Home Park that United dispatched their French opponents 2-0, but while that defeat hurt, it was the incidents two weeks earlier that had left the real scars.