Having borne witness to nearly 90 years of footballing history, serenely standing to attention in front of throngs of supporters frequently more than 100,000 strong, the old goalposts of Hampden Park have been claimed by those with more cause than most to curse the three great planks of wood.

The sentinels that stood unmoved from the iconic Glasgow venue from 1903 right up until 1987 might have been forgotten about by the great Real Madrid side that crushed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the momentous European Cup final of 1960, the Celtic outfit that shocked Leeds United 2-1 in the semi-finals of the same competition a decade later or even the many Scotland players who experienced the Hampden roar while playing for their country, but they are destined to remain in the lore of a modestly sized French city forever.

“The square goalposts” have become a defining icon not just of AS Saint-Étienne, but of the city itself. Les Poteaux Carrés, as they are known in French, symbolise one of the great hard-luck stories of the nation’s sporting history – one that has made an indelible mark on the town of around 180,000 people, still affixed to the psyche of the citizens 40 years later.

With a grimy, industrial reputation, Saint-Étienne has had its share of social problems in the past. Unemployment spiralled as the city’s coal mines and forges were closed and though it is now being reinvented as a centre of innovation, by the mid-1970s what had been the area’s chief industries supported only a few thousand workers. The factory chimneys that spewed out thick black smoke, leaving patches of coal dust on the football field – giving the stadium’s local nickname of ‘The Cauldron’ all the more credence – had become scarce and would soon disappear altogether.

During this difficult time for the city, the football club acted as a source of intense pride. ASSE made Saint-Étienne the French capital of football, not simply by virtue of their dominance – seven league titles were claimed between 1967 and 1976 – but because they were genuinely loved throughout the country.

The club’s zenith arrived on 12 May 1976, when they faced Bayern Munich in the European Cup final at Hampden. It was also the last major showpiece in which the goal frame was constructed with square posts and bar – a twist of fate that would prove decisive.

For several seasons the side led by Robert Herbin, a former France international with a shock of permed ginger hair, had been building towards such a breakthrough. When he took over aged 33, the recently retired holding midfielder was compelled to place his faith in the club’s unparalleled youth system, which wrought the future Bleus Gérard Janvion, Dominique Bathenay, Christian Sarramagna and, most notably, Dominique Rocheteau, ‘the Green Angel’. 

This combination of patient coach and talented, young players thrived, although it took time to germinate. Double winners domestically in 1974, Sainté repeated the feat a year later but found the Bavarians just too strong for them in the semi-finals as they made their first truly significant foray into the European Cup.

It was, however, a necessary step to build the foundation of what was to follow. Sainté became a team renowned for their thrilling comebacks, salvaging a two-legged victory over Hajduk Split after losing the first match 4-1 and then defeating the Polish champions Ruch Chorzów having trailed 3-0 following a disastrous beginning to the tie. 

Progressing one stage further a year later was to prove equally dramatic. Copenhagen and Rangers were seen off relatively comfortably in the opening two rounds, but Dynamo Kyiv were more stubborn opponents in the quarter-finals. In the USSR, Sainté succumbed 2-0 to the European Super Cup holders, but it was in the return match that the legend of les Verts is said to have been truly born1.

Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was packed with close to 38,000 for the encounter and those who were there spoke of the sense of anticipation that hung in the air that March evening in 1976. After 64 scoreless minutes, the turning point arrived. Oleh Blokhin failed to show his customary ruthlessness as he tried to beat one man too many after a thrilling slalom and 10 seconds later play flashed to the other end, where Hervé Revelli was not so forgiving as he bobbled a shot into the corner.

“He wanted to ridicule me, but I stopped him,” remembered Christian Lopez, who made the critical challenge on Blokhin and set in motion a comeback still vividly recalled.

From that juncture, the home side’s momentum was irresistible. Eight minutes after the opener, Jean-Michel Larqué found the target with a fierce free-kick from inside the D and in extra-time Patrick Revelli’s close control set up Rocheteau for a simple finish.

“At Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, we would take teams by the throat and not let go,” Rocheteau told L’Équipe in 2005. For visiting teams, the venue truly could prove L’Enfer Vert – ‘The Green Hell’.

That evening Sainté played a high-risk style of football, dashing forward at every opportunity but leaving themselves susceptible on the counter. It made for an intense and utterly captivating spectacle, which, in combination with the team’s charismatic approach, France loved. 

The semi-final, a tie that finished 1-0 over two legs against PSV, showed the resilient side to Herbin’s men. Larqué’s free-kick at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was the moment that pushed the French into the final, but the goalkeeper Ivan Ćurković’s distinguished display in the second leg was the decisive factor as les Verts suffered for their progress.

With the domestic title still far from secure – Sainté had played only 30 of their 38 league matches in a campaign that would run until mid-June – the biggest game in French football history loomed. The support the club enjoyed domestically ran to such fervour that when they travelled to away matches they were often supported by ‘home’ fans and when Herbin and his side arrived in Glasgow they found that strange malady had afflicted the Scots, too.

Having defeated Rangers the previous autumn proved to be a source of strength for the French, as their 4-1 aggregate success was greatly admired by those locals they were to visit once again. President Roger Rocher had admitted after the 2-0 second-leg victory at Ibrox that he felt the occasion was “the greatest achievement in the history of the club” at the time. 

The midfielder Christian Synaeghel, a France international, also indicated his emotion at the scale of the victory when he said: “To win on British soil improves you as a man. I was nervous in Glasgow, but I wasn’t scared.”

“I was ready for a world of hell,” Gérard Farison confessed. “In 1968, in Glasgow against Celtic, I was on the bench and what I saw was almost demonic. I had expected an atmosphere far more explosive, but I wasn’t disappointed that we prevented it!”

The Scottish press, meanwhile, held the Loire club’s intelligent and inventive style, which comprehensively outmanoeuvred the more physical hosts, in the highest of esteem. “The French gazelles were simply too good,” the Scotsman said, while the Herald lamented: “The blitz that was anticipated did not come from the expected side.”

Little over six months later, they would be fawning over les Verts once more, albeit in defeat, which would be branded “a larceny”. 

Sainté approached the final as outsiders. Not only were Bayern the two-time defending champions, but the Frenchmen were hampered by selection problems. Farison was suspended and could not take his usual place in the defence, Synaeghel, who had been such a titan in midfield in their previous visit to Glasgow, was injured, while the most damaging loss of all was Rocheteau, fit enough only for a place on the bench after a relapse of an injury problem sustained in the second leg of the semi-final in training shortly before the final.

The French, though, could rely on a healthy travelling support, estimated to be in the region of 30,000, which brought colour and noise to the slopes of Hampden. “It was the French who won the heart of Glasgow yesterday – and gave the city a joyous day of festivities,” the Glasgow Herald reported the following day in an article headlined ‘Vert-igo’. “The dancing, singing, flag-waving crowds turned the Buchanan Street precinct into a turbulent sea of green.

“It was the gayest, noisiest, most fun-filled sportsday the town has ever seen.”

Mick Jagger played a gig in Glasgow on the same evening and when he announced the result, it was greeted by jeers from the crowd, who favoured the French. 

Fortune initially smiled upon the French as Gerd Müller saw what appeared to be a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out for a dubious offside call, yet this would be more than counterbalanced by events later in the first half. 

Bathenay, one of nine Saint-Étienne starters who had progressed through the club’s youth ranks, would be the first to suffer, in the 32nd minute. After stylishly riding a couple of challenges, he unleashed a left-footed strike from 25 yards, the movement of which carried the ball away from Sepp Maier. With the German’s hand flailing at thin air, the midfielder saw his effort dip and collide with the bottom part of the crossbar, denying him a memorable opening goal. Hervé Revelli probably should have done more from the rebound than simply head into the grateful goalkeeper’s hands – but that is not often discussed in France.

Six minutes before the interval, a similar portion of the bar was to thwart Jacques Santini. After moving unchecked well into the Bayern half, he pushed a pass left to Christian Sarramagna. The winger advanced, then delayed a fraction before delivering a studious cross, which was bound for the head of Santini. The midfielder had accelerated to escape the defence and was still unmarked when he reached the edge of the six-yard box to head forcefully against the horizontal. Maier was again comprehensively beaten.

With an hour approaching, the underdogs had more than held their own, yet the millimetres that came between them and the opening goal were to prove decisive. Müller was again their bane as he attempted to spin past Osvaldo Piazza on the edge of the box only to be impeded by the Argentine. From the free-kick, the ball was teed up for Roth, whose drive found a path through a fractured wall and sizzled into the right side of the net.

The defence of Franz Beckenbauer and Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck worked thereafter to frustrate the French, who had another tantalising whiff of what might have been when they threw on Rocheteau for the last seven minutes in a desperate attempt to salvage the match. Twice the Green Angel threatened, enough to suggest that 90 minutes of him at full fitness might have brought a different outcome, but his efforts were in vain.

“Bayern stole the cup from the French,” the Sun proclaimed the following day, while Marca took a similar line in Spain: “It was not the best team that won.”

While such sentiments were limited in the German camp, Beckenbauer did admit, “Of the three opponents we have faced in the finals, it was Saint-Étienne who caused us the most problems. Equally, they were superior to Real Madrid, whom we defeated in the semi-finals.”

The view of the victorious coach Dettmar Cramer was also one of pragmatism. “There are moments in which the laws of football are those of efficiency and not those of quality. Before being convincing, you must first win,” ran his explanation, which could hardly have been more at odds with the romanticism that Saint-Étienne had inspired.

In football, no one is meant to remember the runners-up, yet that was not to be the case in France. Indeed, rarely can losers have enjoyed such a momentous return as Saint-Étienne did the following day when they touched down in Paris.

While Bayern sat down to a simple celebration dinner following their subsequent league match, les Verts were greeted with a fervour not previously reserved for football teams. Paraded in front of 100,000 people down the Champs-Élysées in Paris, the Loire side were treated to a welcome of champions. Publicly, they obliged, with mobbed players signing autographs for swarms of fans, yet after the event Larqué admitted the squad had reservations: “The parade on the Champs after the defeat… we weren’t really very at ease with it.”

Herbin, meanwhile, was appreciative of the challenge that was to follow the near miss. “I became quickly aware that it would be difficult to have another chance. Certain players were being solicited by other clubs and the squad could not go on together forever,” said the measured coach, whose unflustered demeanour on the touchline earned him the moniker of ‘The Sphinx’.

Indeed, the club had reached its peak and had given the nation a taste for the perdant magnifique, ‘the romantic loser’, a notion perhaps best encapsulated when the France of Michel Platini – who at the time was preparing to move to Juventus from Saint-Étienne – were so unjustly eliminated from the 1982 World Cup by Germany.

In the years immediately after Hampden, Sainté struggled to regain their magic on the field, but they lost none of their mystique in the eyes of the French public, who remained faithful to them, despite two mediocre league finishes. 

Bathenay struck one of the club’s all-time great goals, one long remembered in France, as they exited the European Cup at the hands of Kevin Keegan’s Liverpool – the third season in succession that Herbin’s outfit would be unstuck by the eventual champions. There was Coupe de France success, too, in both 1977 and 1978.

But it was not enough for Rocher, who was ambitious to taste the success of before and demanded that the club change tack. The focus on youth was abandoned and instead an ambitious transfer policy was installed against the advice of Herbin, and some of the era’s great names arrived.

Among those stars were the Netherlands great Johnny Rep, the France defender Patrick Battiston and, most famously of all, the legendary playmaker Michel Platini. 

Big names did not equate to big prizes, though, and while the league title was regained in 1980-81 thanks to a 2-1 victory over Girondins de Bordeaux, significant European progress would elude Sainté. Tension grew within the club, as Herbin’s faith in the youth system remained staunch, while the charismatic Rocher proved equally stubborn, though his desire for success proved to undermine the club.

“The problem when I was playing for the club was that Saint-Étienne had lost its hunger,” Platini said in 1999. “Most of its players were in decline. The coach, Robert Herbin, didn’t really want me to come because the team until then had been made up of players from its academy. It was easier for him to assert his authority over such players.

“The club have probably began to realise its reserves had run dry, so it began to buy outside players.

“I enjoyed being there and like the president, Roger Rocher … he was an extremely important figure in football, but he ended up losing it; he became a megalomaniac.”

Even the fans did not necessarily take to the star names. Platini was never feted among the support as fervently as a committed worker such as the centre-back Oswaldo Piazza, who better typified the local mentality despite being imported from Argentina.

Rocher or ‘The Man with the Pipe’, as he was fondly known due to his persistent smoking, had the foresight to lead the club through its golden era and saw it take significant steps towards modernity. Advertising on the jersey was introduced and on 14 September 1977, the first club shop in France was opened.

It was also a day, however, that the dark side of that footballing era first struck the town. Before the visit of Manchester United in the last 16 of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, hooliganism was unknown at Le Chaudron, yet during that evening’s match 33 fans were injured, five seriously. In comparison to the scandal that was soon to explode, though, this was a mere footnote.

On 1 April 1982, a metaphorical earthquake struck Saint-Étienne’s Forez training base as reports started to emerge in the press that Rocher was in trouble. As the president saw his whole empire begin to crumble around him, ASSE, who were on course for a league and cup double, stumbled towards the finishing line amid the hullaballoo and ended the season trophyless.

Nearly a decade later, in June 1990, the most notorious scandal in French footballing history concluded with Rocher sentenced to four years’ jail time, with 30 months suspended, and a fine of 200,000 French francs having been found guilty of embezzlement.

Coming so close to his ultimate footballing goal proved his downfall. His desire to chase figures such as Platini was fatal.

It was discovered that when the move was made, the No. 10 had demanded a net salary of 1 million francs per annum – around 25 times his wages at Nancy. Officially, he received this sum as a gross payment, but it was discovered that he was also being handed his tax liabilities in cash, which came from a slush fund Rocher had started to build immediately after the Glasgow defeat.

Platini was one of eight France internationals found guilty of fraud and had to pay back large sums in tax. 

The fallout was profound. Rocher, of course, was immediately forced to resign as the scandal broke and the fortunes of the club plummeted. Having come so close to a double in 1982, it would be over three decades later that Sainté finally claimed another major trophy, when they defeated Rennes 1-0 in the Coupe de la Ligue final in 2013 – an unthinkable wait for a team that once dominated French football. 

As Sainté started to regain something of their former stature under the leadership of Bernard Caïazzo and Roland Romeyer, plans were conceived to form a memorial to the side’s golden age. This would take the form of a museum to the club – the first of its kind in France – located in the bowels of Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. The centrepiece was to be an ambitious one, the one artifact that best symbolised the glory days of the team: Saint-Étienne wanted the square goalposts.

Uprooted from Hampden 25 years earlier, the posts themselves had something of an interesting back story to them, too. In 1988 they had been put up for auction and were purchased, along with the unique deep stanchions and nets, for £6,200 by a Glasgow-born publican, Bill Campbell, who ran The Farmers Boy in Kidderminster. “I originally bought them to stop them falling into the wrong hands,” he told the Herald in 1995. “There were people who wanted to break them up into ornaments.”

The curio proved something of a tourist attraction, with Scotland great and Ballon d’Or winner Denis Law even paying a visit.  

It was not until 1995 that they were returned north on a loan basis as the Scottish Football Association was constructing a museum of its own at the newly redeveloped Hampden. However, they would ultimately come to reside in a basement and though they were visited by a remarkable number of Saint-Étienne fans, to the wider public they became little more than a forgotten relic.

Overnight on Thursday, 24 October 2013, the precious cargo slipped quietly out of Glasgow on the back of a lorry to make a 1,000-mile two-day journey to its spiritual home in Saint-Étienne, where the club’s museum was to open two months later.

Sold for €20,000, the old goalposts at Hampden Park can surely lay claim to being one of the most expensive of their type in history.

“These posts, which everyone speaks of, are a symbol of the final, which was a defeat but also a victory. It was a classic that created an emotional bond between the French and the club, which you can still feel today,” Roland Romeyer, co-president of Saint-Etienne, explained. 

“The European epics of 1976 came with widespread media coverage as the premier channel of the time decided to broadcast Saint-Étienne’s fixtures,” Pascal Charroin, a lecturer in sport, told France TV. “Add to that the dramatic twists that les Verts became synonymous with and suddenly, for their away league games, there were more supporters for ASSE than there were for the home team. It was those supporters who gave the passion for les Verts to their children.”

Accordingly, the goal frame is the star attraction of Saint-Étienne’s museum, which must surely be one of the most stylish and classy of its kind, despite its relatively small size. 

“The square posts fall almost into the religious domain: they are a relic,” the sports historian Paul Dietschy said as the museum was opened. 

One supporter, Julien Pradel, said, “When my father goes to see the museum, when he sees the square posts, he will cry, I’m sure.”

Now 76 and out of the game for more than two decades, Herbin continues to offer his opinions on les Verts on a regular basis in local paper Le Progrès. After his beloved side narrowly avoided Coupe de France elimination at the hands of amateurs Raon-L’Étape in January 2016, he said, “The Gods of football protected us. It was a little miracle.”

How Saint-Étienne could have used that fortune 40 years earlier. Or simply round goalposts.