The 70s in the Cup winners Cup consisted of only one attempt in season 1975-76. But it was a European run that didn’t have a dull moment and did actually produce a trophy that can still be seen at Celtic Park today.
Our qualification for that year’s tournament was thanks to a 3-1 cup final win over Airdrie, the final match of Billy McNeill’s career, but it wasn’t just our legendary captain that we were missing the following season. That summer had seen Jimmy Johnstone leave for the San Jose Earthquakes while Jim Brogan joined Coventry in a bid to secure first team football and George Connelly officially called it a day.
Yet these departures could quite possibly have been handled by a manager with Jock Stein’s experience and knowledge. At the end of the previous season some journalists had been writing that Stein seemed to be relishing the thought of the challenge ahead. The bigger problem, however, was that we were also without Jock Stein.
During the summer of 1975 the Big Man had been returning from Manchester Airport when he was involved in a head on collision on a notorious stretch of the A74 near Lockerbie. He was taken to hospital unconscious and suffering from injuries so serious they were thought to be life threatening. It would be a year before he could resume as manager of Celtic. In the meantime his assistant Sean Fallon took over.
The first thing he had to deal with was the final act of the George Connolly saga as the big Fifer walked out the door of Celtic Park for the last time. The previous season our first choice central defence had been McNeill and Connolly and now we had lost both.
Celtic were now a major rebuilding job and the man most capable of carrying the work out was lying in an
intensive care unit, it promised to be a long season.
Our first round opponents in the Cup Winners Cup could scarcely have been better chosen for us, they weren’t even a professional team. Valur of Iceland were an amateur side and no match for Celtic, who won 9-0 over the two legs, but the main curiosity of this tie was that it literally pitted brother against brother in the shape of our Johannes Edvaldsson and Valur’s Atli Edvaldsson.
The first game was played in the national stadium in Reykjavík and while that might sound very grand, newspaper reports of the game describe the playing surface as “slippery, badly scarred and bumpy”, but then again we are talking about one of the most active volcanic areas on the planet. You try building a perfect pitch on that.
The game itself saw the Celts run out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Paul Wilson and Roddie MacDonald. It could have been more but our Edvaldsson passed up on a chance of glory on his home patch from the penalty spot, managing to miss twice. First he hit the post but the referee, a Mr Wright from Northern Ireland, felt that the keeper had moved too early and ordered a retake which the keeper easily saved.
It didn’t matter – the second leg at Celtic Park was a 7-0 rout and Shuggie Edvaldsson made his mark this time by getting the first goal. It was 5-0 by half-time, Dalglish, Pat McCluskey (from the penalty spot), Hood and Deans also netting.
The second period saw two further goals, a second for Hood and one from Callaghan. There was also a debut for the 18 year old George McCluskey who replaced Paul Wilson.
After the game the Valur officials presented the club with the Polar Bear trophy, a carved stone ornament depicting a polar bear devouring a seal which is still proudly displayed in the Celtic Park trophy room.
So after a pleasant enough first round it was on to a far more testing and threatening second round as we were drawn against Boa Vista from Portugal. Again the first leg was played away from home, in the city of Oporto, but this wasn’t the most relaxed time in Portugal. The right wing Estado Novo regime which had ruled since 1933 had been overthrown in a military coup known as the Carnation revolution the previous April (it was given that name after civilians began placing the flowers in the barrels of the soldiers’ guns to dissuade them from firing, it was a successful tactic – the entire coup passed off without a shot being fired). However the two years that followed was a period of political and social unrest with the military regularly deployed in civilian areas.
There was a heightened military presence at the stadium for the Celtic game after a bomb had destroyed part of a hotel where many Celtic supporters were staying. So far, so mental. Meanwhile we didn’t have our troubles to seek on the pitch either as injury robbed us of our captain and main creative force Kenny Dalglish.
On arrival in Portugal the team decided to go for a walk down to the beach and got hopelessly lost, eventually deciding that the quickest way to the beach would be to jump though some local gardens. Once on the beach Sean Fallon drew out his tactics on the sand only see them swept away by an incoming tide. Perfect – it almost sounds like a rerun of the Budapest debacle from 1964; but Sean Fallon was no Bob Kelly.He knew the value of a tactically sound plan designed to get a solid result away from home and the message got through as the team produced a disciplined, gritty performance, holding out for a 0-0 draw thanks
in no small part to goalkeeper Peter Latchford who produced a string of important saves and even saved a penalty with only five minutes to go (he later revealed that Sean Fallon had told him to dive to his right, the correct decision, which goes to show that despite tactics in the sand our preparations for these games weren’t as chaotic as some stories suggest).
However that moment of glory led an uncomfortable end to the game for the big Englishman. For the duration of the match the pitch had been ringed by armed soldiers, indicative of the level of unrest prevalent in Portugal at the time. Following on from his penalty save an instruction came from the bench that Latchford should take a more leisurely approach to taking goal kicks in order to run the clock down. When he attempted to carry this advice out he was ‘encouraged’ to hurry by a soldier poking him in the back with the business end of his rifle (presumably this particular private had forgotten his carnation). From that point onwards lightning fast goal kicks were a feature of the game much to the bemusement of the Celtic bench.
Still, we made it to full-time level and in pretty good shape for the second leg.
History was made in the second leg when Celtic lined up for the first time with big black numbers stitched on to the back of the hoops, this desecration being the result of a direct instruction from UEFA.
November in Glasgow felt like a million miles away from the heat of Portugal and the Hoops (with black number desecrations on the back) certainly wasted no time in showing Boavista that while we may not have had armed men round the pitch we were certainly going to produce a fight on it.
In fact Celtic scored after just 35 seconds. Dalglish sent a ball in from the left which the keeper made a complete mess of as he fumbled it and allowed to drop over the line.
That lead was doubled on the 20th minute, again thanks to a defensive error. This time a free kick was only half cleared to Edvaldsson and his low shot found the net.
Boavista struck back before half time with a long range effort that set the tie on edge.
The second half was mostly one way traffic, but the ball simply would not go in. Twice Celtic hit the woodwork, one of them a shot from Danny McGrain, not exactly a renowned goal threat. Finally with only five minutes left Dixie Deans beat the offside trap and coolly lobbed the ball in to guarantee our progress in to the quarter finals.
By the time we played the quarter final the wheels were still on the season, but showing definite signs of wobbling. Our league form had been decent up until the turn of the year, but so had that of Rangers and they won the New Year game to move within a point of Celtic, overtaking us the following week when we could only draw 3-3 at home to Dundee.
The Scottish Cupup had been a disaster; 2-0 up against Motherwell we shipped 3 goals in the second half to meekly surrender the trophy.
The league was still winnable, the Cup Winners Cup had so far been a pretty good experience and the draw for the quarter final gave every cause for optimism as we were paired with Sachsenring Zwickau of East Germany (and if you think that’s a difficult one to fit into a chant bear in mind they had changed it in 1950 when they went under the wonderful name of Betriebbsportgemeinschaft Horch Zwickau – “Gimme a B… Gimme an E…”) , but a heady mixture of illness, self inflicted wounds and questionable refereeing saw us eliminated by a team that could be described, at best, only as competent.
The home leg should have been another Valur. Celtic pretty much parked in their box but found their goalkeeper Jurgen Croy almost unbeatable. He even saved a first half Bobby Lennox penalty.
Only Dalglish managed to get the ball past him, finishing off a Danny McGrain move (he won the ball and took it the length of the pitch before passing inside).
The second half was more of the same and the Germans only made it into the Celtic half twice. Unfortunately they managed to score with one of them.
Just two minutes remained when a clearance reached lone forward Ludwig Blank. His marker – and the only outfield Celtic player anywhere near the halfway line – was the 17 year old Roy Aitken. Blank dummied him one way and bolted away the other. Aitken tried his best to get back (and he was a champion sprinter as a youth) but was still trailing when the ball hit the net.
It was the very definition of a sucker punch.
As if to confirm that the fates were conspiring against us the second leg took place amidst an injury crisis like no other thanks to a flu bug that swept through Celtic Park. In total we were missing five players, including experienced heads such as Lennox and Deans. The threadbare nature of the team can be gauged by the selection of centre back Roddie MacDonald as a makeshift centre forward.
One of the more curious events prior to the game was that Roy Aitken had to be ‘adopted’ by Sean Fallon in order to gain entry to East Germany; at 17 he wasn’t considered an adult by the East German authorities and would only be allowed entry if accompanied by a parent. Fallon even had to report to the authorities how they were treating the youth.
The game itself was played on St Patrick’s day 1976 in the early afternoon. STV actually showed the game live on TV which was a novelty in more than one way for the time. In the mid 70s (and into the early 80s) it was customary for TV stations to close down during the afternoon; after all, who had time to waste in front of the television in the middle of the day?
But the game did not go well. Celtic found themselves a goal down within 3 minutes and, despite dominating the play after that, found the same problem in terms of getting the ball in the net.
The match eventually ended on a controversial note when with only three minutes remaining Roddie MacDonald headed in a Harry Hood corner only to see the referee chalk it off for reasons unclear. Such surprise decisions were not uncommon at the time and some officials seemed quite keen on bribes and the likes.
It was almost an omen for the remainder of the season as the league campaign floundered. In our last seven games we shipped out a total of ten points. Eventually Celtic finished six points behind Rangers and we had to endure our first trophy-less season since 1963-64.
We would win the cup once more in the 70s – the following season when Jock Stein returned and led the club in the 1976-77 double winning season – but by the time we were back in the Cup Winners Cup the 70s had come and gone and we were into the 80s.