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Why St.Etienne feels like an authentic, exciting European tie in a competition that has become an afterthought

For most people, much of our world view is shaped during our formative years. Our attitudes towards and perceptions of others develop during childhood, a realisation which doesn’t fully manifest itself until we have children of our own and realise that what we do and say in those first eighteen years and the values we instil will shape the rest of their lives. Footballing perceptions are no different. My global impression of the game is shaped by the matches I watched and literature I devoured during my childhood. For me, Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest will always feel like top division teams, whilst I still sometimes have difficulty comprehending United as a global super-club, rather than a big domestic fish with a glorious history perpetually underperforming, but for semi-regular cup runs. Perhaps we have re-entered a period where the latter is true once again, but even a return to relative mediocrity does not change the dramatic evolution the club has undergone in the last 25+ years, from jaded domestic behemoth to global brand.

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My earliest memories of football are hazy recollections of the 1982 World Cup, whilst I can vaguely remember watching United on television from about 1983, although at the age of seven my engagement with any one thing rarely lasted as long as 90 minutes. I really began to immerse myself in football the following year, when I was bought the 1984 Encyclopedia of European Football, an enormous tome covering every aspect of the game on this continent. I treasured the book for years and was drawn to a section which detailed the thirty most important clubs in the game over the previous two decades. With our exposure to games in mainland Europe at almost zero, the names and shirts felt exotic and intriguing. That season I recall watching United on TV in the Cup Winners Cup against Barcelona and Juve and remember the away games appearing as if they were being played on the moon, against men with alien names, the action described by commentators who sounded as if they were broadcasting from another celestial object. Or the bottom of a swimming pool. Their voices were crackly and distorted, the picture equally degraded.

In my Encyclopedia I was drawn to two teams. One was Eastern Europeans Dynamo Dresden. Clubs from behind the Iron Curtain held an extra allure for me as a child, simply because they came from what seemed like a different world, an alien, closed society. The other was Saint Etienne, the only entry with green shirts, European Cup finalists in 1976 and the former home of possibly the greatest footballer in the world at that time, Michel Platini. I hadn’t heard of many continental footballers, but after his single-handed ruination of Euro 1984 he was the one who appeared regularly in my weekly Shoot magazine. Saint Etienne were described as, at their recent peak, a team of footballing artisans, playing in front of the most passionate fans in France in one of the most atmospheric stadia in the game. Shoot produced European league tables in each issue and I always checked Ligue 1 for their progress. They never matched the glittering recent history described in my book. I would learn later that after the loss of Platini the club experienced financial scandal and eventually fell into Ligue 2, an experience they would repeat fourteen years later.

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A few years later I was given another enormous footballing bible, this time an exhaustive history of Manchester United. I devoured it and took great interest in every tie that the club had played in Europe. I discovered that in 1977 United and Saint Etienne had actually met. United, a year after the French side had reached that European Cup final and less than eighteen months after promotion from the second division, had beaten Les Verts 3-1 on aggregate in the Cup Winners’ Cup First Round. The tie was an oddity for a number of reasons. United had initially been expelled from the competition after fan violence in the first leg, but were later reinstated and told they could play the second ‘home’ leg a minimum of 200 miles from Old Trafford. Randomly, the club chose Home Park, Plymouth, and 31,634 fans watched Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell score to ease The Reds through to Round 2, where they were beaten by FC Porto. Watching those ties on YouTube today feels as exotic as my earliest memories of European football and my youth instilled in me the idea that Saint Etienne are giants of the French game and one of the most romantic names in European football, even if recent history demonstrates nothing of the sort.

That formative programming meant that when United drew Les Verts in the Europa League I was far more excited at the prospect than many. Probably most. During a period when my club is exiled from the upper echelons of the European game, in a competition which most now think of as an annoyance, here was a classic old continental tie, a romantic reunification, to be played out in two great, historic arenas. At the time of the draw many on social media considered the tie to have been a ‘soft’ draw, against a side who were then seventh in Ligue 1, but ASSE are now fifth, a team on the move, with a ground in the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard which can be as atmospheric and unwelcoming for visiting teams as any in Northern Europe. Lyon and new signing Memphis Depay were blown away in the derby game ten days ago by a home side driven on by a cauldron of noise.

Any United fan who thinks this tie will be easy may well be in for a nasty surprise. Jose Mourinho has some tough decisions to make with an incredibly busy schedule encompassing four competitions ahead. Can he afford to weaken his team for the first leg at Old Trafford, knowing the whirlwind that could meet his side in the return in South Eastern France? History suggests that the Portuguese struggles with the concept of not addressing every game with something approaching maximum effort, as United’s run to the League Cup final has demonstrated. The problem he has is that regardless of any first leg advantage, the return at the Geoffrey-Guichard is unlikely to be a comfortable experience. The return, however, is to be played just four days before the League Cup final. Can he afford to take a risk? With Champions League football far from a certainty next year can he consciously push a second route into the competition to the bottom of his list of priorities?

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Whatever happens, this feels like a proper European tie, one to savour and a great trip for the United fans who travel to France. It evokes memories of 1977 and of my Encyclopedia of European Football. Despite the ease of travel and relatively short journey time to Saint Etienne, this is an old-school draw and United will need to be close to their best to make it through to the last sixteen. If they fail it would be hard to be bitter. It is a rare experience feeling a tinge of pleasure for the fans of a team that vanquish my own but, as there was after Athletic Bilbao’s 2012 aggregate win, this would likely be the case should Mourinho’s side fall to defeat over two legs. There has been little to shout about for supporters of Les Verts for over thirty years, the club never coming close to matching the feats of its peak, achievements I devoured in my formative years. In my mind Saint Etienne are a big club and this is a proper European tie. United are unlikely to get an easy ride, against a team and fan base who would view victory as one of the most important and notable achievements in their recent history.

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