Miners vs silk-wearers: Why Lyon vs Saint-Etienne is more than a game

They used to say Saint-Etienne was a suburb of Lyon, but their team ruled the roost. Then the big-city boys came good... In 2006, FourFourTwo's Matt Spiro investigated the most British derby in France...

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The Saint-Etienne fans are presenting a bold front as they hop off their buses and are frogmarched into the Virage Sud of the Stade Gerland by a gaggle of riot police.

France’s biggest local derby is two hours away and the Stephanois announce their arrival at the home of the newly-crowned champions with a series of hostile anti-Lyon chants. Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s smug president, comes in for the most vehement abuse, closely followed by turncoat goalkeeper Gregory Coupet who made the unforgivable trip of 38 miles from Saint-Etienne to Lyon 10 years ago. 

“Bring out Coupet’s missus, bring us the little whore,” goad a posse of green-clad supporters, before chanting their support for Fabien Barthez, Coupet’s World Cup rival. A policeman has to intervene when one supporter wearing an AC Milan shirt with ‘Inzaghi’ on the back breaks menacingly from the pack and starts to taunt passers-by with shouts of “Milano! Milano!”

Yet for all their bravado, the Saint-Etienne boys aren’t a particularly scary sight. They have defiance in their voices but it is with great trepidation that they shuffle into enemy territory on this rainy April evening. It’s going to be a long night and they know it.

Five-star Lyon

Celebrating our fifth title with a firework display in front of the Saint-Etienne fans is a dream come true. Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that

- Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas

Filippo Inzaghi and AC Milan may have ended Lyon’s Champions League dreams at the quarter-final stage for the third year running, but in France nobody can stop Gerard Houllier’s team. When FourFourTwo visits at the fag-end of another dominant season, they’ve just clinched the title for a record fifth consecutive year – eclipsing Les Verts and Marseille who won four in a row – and tonight represents the first opportunity to celebrate with the fans.

“Celebrating our fifth title with a firework display in front of the Saint-Etienne supporters is a dream come true,” chortles Aulas. “Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that." 

Lyon president Aulas: Not one to let go

Lyon president Aulas: Not one to let go

The driving force behind Lyon’s dramatic transformation, Aulas indulges in loose and often pompous talk which has aggravated relations between the clubs considerably in recent times. Indeed it was his careless ‘slip of the tongue’ in 2000 that ultimately led to Les Verts being relegated (more of which later). He remains Saint-Etienne’s enemy No.1.

There was a time, as Aulas no doubt recalls, when Saint-Etienne were the undisputed kings of French football. But le club mythique, as they are still called in the media, have been in disarray for much of the past two decades. This week has been no exception. 

Le club mythique, as the media still call Saint-Etienne, have been in disarray for two decades

A calamitous run has seen them plummet from third place in January to the bottom half of the table, prompting coach Elie Baup to offer his resignation. Speculation that goalkeeper Jeremie Janot has also purchased a Milan shirt and is planning to wear it in the derby brings some light relief to their long-suffering supporters. 

Lyon’s failure to break through in Europe is all Saint-Etienne have to cling to these days, but luckily for them it is an issue that rankles enormously. “For his own sake Janot had better not come wearing a Milan shirt,” Houllier warns.

Not that the former Liverpool boss has any objection when his own players ask if they can paint their faces and dye their hair for this special occasion. The champions look more like a circus act than a crack football unit when they run out to a heroes’ ovation. Sylvain Wiltord resembles a spaceman with his big, bald head plastered in white paint, Coupet’s flowing red locks are fetching (if a little girly), and the blue-and-red war stripes on Cris’ cheeks make the giant Brazilian more terrifying than ever. 

Party time: Lyon celebrate a fifth successive Ligue 1 title

Saint-Etienne clearly struggle to see the funny side as their tough-tackling captain Julien Sable rakes his studs down the back of Juninho Pernambucano’s leg in the first minute. “I hope I didn’t smudge your make-up,” Sable reportedly utters as he helps the Brazilian midfielder to his feet.

But Sable’s crude lunge turns out to be all the resistance the visitors offer. They barely see the ball for the next 89 minutes as Lyon ping it around with style and verve. It finishes 4-0 – Lyon’s biggest derby win since 1962. 

“So much for the AC Milan shirt. The only disguise Janot brought with him today was his invisible man outfit,” laughs one local journalist.

As if witnessing Lyon’s demonstration was not painful enough, the away fans are locked in for an hour of celebrations: samba dancing, champagne spraying and a highly impressive firework display are all on the menu. Some try to make a quiet exit but are forced back in by heavy-handed riot police only too happy to let fly with the tear gas.

Spluttering, crying and seething, the Stephanois have plenty of time to reflect as they look down on the joyous scenes. How, they must be wondering, have their bourgeois neighbours, who weren’t even that interested in football 10 years ago, wrested the regional power so dramatically away from their beloved club? And how are they possibly going to get revenge for tonight’s humiliation? 

NEXT: "For the first 20 minutes nobody pays attention to the ball, they just fight"