A look back at Celtic’s participation in a competition that we’ll never be able to win.
It used to be that the European competitions were very clearly defined: you had the European Cup, open only to the league winners and the team that won the previous season’s tournament; the UEFA Cup, which featured the remaining top teams in the domestic leagues and lastly the Cup Winners Cup. As the name suggests, to qualify for this tournament a club needed to either win the main national cup, or be defeated in the final by the team that won the league (entry to the European cup trumped the Cup Winners Cup).
All three of these tournaments were played on a round by round knockout basis. There was no talk of parachutes then – make a mess of your away leg or concede a silly goal at home and you could find yourself knocked out in the first round.
There was also no seeding in any of these competitions. In the first round you could find yourself paired with a team from Luxembourg or a team from Spain. In fact for a while I was fairly sure we had made some pretty powerful enemies in UEFA given that draws we were getting; 1st round of the European Cup 1981 – Juventus, the side that would give the Italian 1982 World Cup winning team its spine with the likes of Zoff, Schiria, Betega etc, they put us out 2-1 over the two legs. Same competition in 1982 1st round – Ajax, a team with Cruijff, Olsen, Lerby, Molby and on the bench two kids called Van Basten and Rijkaard. We managed to win that one 4-3 over the two legs despite drawing 2-2 in Glasgow, but the next round gave us Real Sociedad who were too strong, putting us out 3-2. Dutch champions followed by Spanish champions? That should be quarter final followed by semi final, not 1st round, 2nd round.
The different European competitions also had their own characteristics: the European Cup was obviously the elite and there were very few surprises to be found here. By and large you would have heard of the team you were playing against, but it was clearly the toughest to qualify for and had the majority of the prestige. The UEFA cup was often said to be the hardest one to win, the logic being that while the European Cup had the top teams it also only had one top team from each country. The UEFA cup however could have three or four from England, Spain, Germany and Italy. Add into that mix the fact that the final was played in the same way as the rounds leading up (in other words two games, one home leg, one away) and it was a real challenge.
The Cup Winners Cup was considered the least prestigious (even if UEFA tried to puff it up by saying it had more kudos than the UEFA cup because you had to actually win something to qualify), but it too had its own quirks. This was the tournament where you could find some real surprise packages.
At that time the cup competitions in some countries, most notably Spain and Italy but also in many others, was almost a reserve tournament for the top sides (certainly in the early rounds, if one of them happened to reach the final them you might as well field your first team and win it). This would open the door to lesser clubs getting a shot at Europe and as you read through some of the teams we faced you may genuinely ask yourself “Who?”
Even allowing for the fact that some of the teams will no longer prosper for a variety of reasons, the fall of the Iron Curtain for one saw the demise of police, army and secret police sponsored teams, you have to conclude that the Cup Winners Cup was the most exotic tournament for weird teams. Even countries west of the Berlin Wall where the cup was a serious competition could suddenly throw a curve. For example in 1988 the final of the Cup Winners Cup was between Ajax (who had also won it in 1987) and a little known team from Belgium called Mechelen, who had qualified for a European competition for the first time in their history courtesy of an unexpected cup success. The only reason fans in Scotland may have known about them was because they knocked out our representatives in the competition that year, another surprise package – St Mirren. They didn’t have star players, they weren’t a big club, they wore the same strip as Partick Thistle and they beat Ajax 1-0 in the final. Fairytale.
Similarly Real Madrid managed to reach two Cup Winners Cup finals and lost both, the second one to Aberdeen.
It was all quite elegant really and on the whole pretty exciting. The main drawback to this set up was that bigger clubs didn’t really enjoy the ‘fairytale’ type stories that could suddenly spring up. Actually it happened with incredible frequency, not to a ‘winning the whole tournament’ level, that was quite rare, but to the point where a club such as Bayern Munich could get bounced out of Europe by an overachieving minnow in the third round was a relatively frequent occurrence.
Eventually the bigger clubs got tired of it all and created enough of a stir within UEFA and the TV companies so that we now have league structures that minimise any such risk and guarantee the incomes of the biggest clubs and the biggest leagues. We also only have two tournaments.
The dilution of the old tournament formula began in season 92-93 when the Champions League structure was first introduced in place of quarter and semi finals (why have 8 teams playing 16 matches when you can have the same number teams playing 24 games and generating far more TV money?). Gradually, over the following years the league structure became the main element and the competition was further altered (diluted) by allowing non-champions to enter.
Meanwhile in 1996-97 the UEFA Cup had its USP removed when it staged its last two legged final. Prior to that, in order to maximise the TV income, fixtures were also moved around: Tuesday night was UEFA Cup, Wednesday was Champions League and stuck away on Thursday was the poor old Cup Winners Cup.
In 1999 the Cup Winners Cup was finally abolished. Officially it was merged with the UEFA Cup, but all that meant was that if you won the domestic cup your European invite allowed entry for the UEFA cup.
The most recent change saw the introduction of the league structure into that tournament also, the removal of the straight knock out system finally removing any hint of excitement that continued to linger around.
Truth be told, by the time the Cup Winners Cup was given its fatal injection it had been suffering for some time. Always considered the poor cousin of European competitions, the removal to a Thursday was the death knell, especially when certain leagues (that would be Scotland for one) initially refused to reschedule league fixtures to accommodate the new European schedule, but more on that later.
So what of Celtic in Cup Winners Cup? Well it was the only European tournament we didn’t reach the final of, although this is possibly related to fact that we only participated in it eight times and half of them were in the 80s. Generally our Cup Winners Cup efforts ended in bizarre crash and burn scenarios which included surrendering seemingly impossible leads, being horrifically cheated both on the pitch and in the UEFA offices and, of course, our fallback position when all else fails – suicidal defending (although it must also be pointed out that 5 of our 8 eliminations in this tournament were to teams that would play in the final).
Our first effort came in season 1963-64 and was one of our more successful attempts. As it happened, a team in green and white hoops did lift the trophy that season. Pity it wasn’t us.
Celtic qualified for it as cup runners-up, having lost a cup replay 3-0 to the Huns after we had played out a decent 1-1 draw in the first game but fielded an ‘odd’ team for the second match. Remember, this was the time when Jimmy McGrory held the title of manager but the team would come from the pen of chairman Robert Kelly, often with disastrous consequences.
This particular European run was to be an object and heart breaking lesson in tactics – specifically, how to treat a lead going into a second leg.
We began with a bang, routing FC Basel 10-1 over two legs of the preliminary round, although the backdrop to the game wasn’t exactly perfect. The previous Saturday we had taken just 14 minutes to score goals at home to Third Lanark. Unfortunately we spent the next 76 minutes throwing it all away as the game finished 4-4.
Additionally, the team left without Bobby Murdoch and Jimmy Johnstone, both dropped from the first team squad (Murdoch subsequently requested a transfer – happily not granted – and both were restored to the team for the return leg).
The first leg in Switzerland saw us run out 5-1 winners (John Hughes bagged a hat-trick), while back home we scored the same but kept a clean sheet. Over the two legs we had six different scorers (Hughes, Divers, Lennox, Murdoch, Johnstone and Chalmers). A more than satisfactory start.
Next up were Yugoslav side Dinamo Zagreb as Celtic ventured for the first time behind the Iron Curtain to play a competitive fixture. Again we were at home for the first leg and again we put in a decent performance eventually winning 3-0. Chalmers got two and John Hughes got the other.
But the return leg didn’t go quite so smoothly. The conditions in Yugoslavia were freezing. The ground was so hard that Bobby Murdoch would later remark that the Dinamo players actually had nails protruding from their studs to get a better hold of the ground. The game itself was a hard fought affair with Zagreb scoring twice but conceding a Murdoch goal that helped the Celts through. The home crowd reacted badly to the elimination of their favourites. From the middle of second half they began to shower the away bench with missiles. Sean Fallon was struck on the head by a rock, but no one was seriously injured (and of course in those days UEFA didn’t bother with that kind of thing, whereas these days one rude word and a firework will cost you thousands of pounds).
The quarter final saw us back behind the curtain as we were paired with SK Slovan Bratislava from Czechoslovakia. SK were generally considered to be the best team we faced in the tournament and it took two performances of unusual defensive competence that saw us through as we won both games 1-0. Again we were at home for the first leg and had to rely on a Bobby Murdoch penalty to secure the win, the return leg was decided by a John Hughes goal but the game finished with John Clark injured limping out on the right wing. The re-jigged defence saw Bobby Murdoch filling in at right back.
But the big result from this round was the outcome of the Manchester United v Sporting Lisbon tie. United had won the first leg 4-1 thanks to a Denis Law hat-trick but the return leg in Portugal saw the English team crushed 5-0. Incredibly all five goals were scored before an hour of the game had been played.
Our success in the quarter final possibly lulled us into a false sense of security regarding our defensive strength because in the semi-final Celtic committed absolute suicide.
Again Eastern Europe was our destination, Hungary this time to play MTK Budapest. They had qualified for the semi thanks to a play-off win again Fenerbahce, these being the days before away goals or penalty shoot outs. The extra game seemed have gone in our favour as we hammered them 3-0 at Celtic Park, the goals coming from Jinky and Stevie Chalmers with two, and with that we seemed to be on our way to the final.
Prior to travelling to Budapest the club had already made its arrangements for the May 13th final in Brussels. Flights and hotels were booked and all the wives were primed to go as well.
The Celtic players coming back on to the pitch to the acclaim of the home crowd after the 3:0 victory against MTK Budapest at Celtic Park. Easy, this European football lark.
Then the roof fell in – or more precisely, then Robert Kelly stuck his nose in.
On arrival in Budapest the players, rather than working on how to approach the game, were taken on a sightseeing tour. The team lined up and played the game as if it was a league match away to Cowdenbeath. No consideration was given to the bigger picture of seeing the game out and getting to the final. Bob Kelly had told them prior to the game they had “a duty” to entertain the Hungarian crowd (Kelly was a fixture in the dressing room – it was he who gave the team talk as well as having an unhealthy influence over team selection). Well he certainly sent the home fans away with smiles on their faces.
One crucial factor outwith our control was the inclusion in MTK team of outside right Sandor, who had been injured and had missed the first leg. He was the main MTK threat and a constant thorn in Celtic’s side.
At half time we were a goal down after right back Young had conceded a penalty by saving a goal bound shot with his hands. Rather than play the second half cautiously we continued to play it as a normal game, it the process conceding a further three goals, the last only two minutes from time.
Billy McNeill would later say that team had “no idea of what European football was all about” and that despite rumours that the Austrian referee Wlachojanis had been ‘got at’ by the home team the defeat “was no one’s fault but our own”.
Bob Kelly reckoned the referee was worth a two goal start for MTK, conveniently overlooking that his actions had actually been worth a four goal start.
The upside of this run had been that the crowds had began to return to Celtic Park after a couple of very poor years for the club. Celtic had endured a number of self inflicted wounds (that man Kelly again) with the sales of Bertie Auld and Pat Crerand for behaviour that the chairman deemed unworthy of Celtic. But the emergence of players such as Gemmell, Johnstone Murdoch, Lennox (the Lions basically) had brought back some faith.