In this article @eurobhoys explores the formation of Europe’s footballing club competitions, and where and when did Celtic’s journey into Europe begin?
The concept of football’s European Cup was gathering pace by spring 1955 after years of much deliberation from UEFA. South America already had a ‘champions of champions’ type format at this time, and the chief European football wigs were to eventually replicate the idea and implemented a similar format among the elite club sides on the continent.
For Celtic, a decade would pass before they would dine at the top table. Many may assume this was due to Celtic’s shortcomings in the Scottish league in this era, but that wasn’t exclusively the case in the early years of the competition.
The French football publication ‘L’quipe’ had the mandate to ‘screen’ clubs for participation in the newly formed competition. They looked at certain prerequisite criteria such as a club’s style of play and marketing appeal. They even considered the finer details of the club having operating floodlights at their home ground. At this time midweek fixtures were rare, and with ties proposed in times of darkness in the winter months, floodlights would need to be a requirement.
Aberdeen, Scottish league champions of 54/55, would get an initial call. However, the Dons’ board felt the physical toll of travelling combined with the transatlantic outlays involved would disrupt their competitiveness on the domestic scene. The truth was that most Scottish clubs did not see the draw in such a competition and did not see the longer term value from competing in it – including Celtic. Thus, it was fifth placed Hibs from season 54/55 that would be the UK’s first participant in the European Cup. In a sixteen team knock out format the Leith side would reach the semi finals , eventually succumbing to Stade Reims of France.
From season 1956/57 onwards Scottish Champions would enter the competition and there was soon a realisation of the prestige involved. There were mixed fortunes in the early years for Scottish sides, but Rangers and Dundee did make semi final appearances in 1960 and 1963 respectively to add to Hibs’ maiden run to the last four, those years previously.
It was to be Real Madrid and Benfica who dominated the early years of the competition.
In 1965/66 Celtic would finally regrip the Scottish Championship trophy under Jock Stein after 12 baron years and would get a chance to get a feel for European cup football in season 66/67…
Two other competitions evolved to compliment the European cup and to further promote the cross-continental styles of the game further.
The Inter cities fairs cup or more commonly the ‘Fairs cup’ was also inaugurated in 1955. The concept was to have a tournament which permitted entry from clubs who held strong trade relations across Europe and who hailed from cities who held regular ‘trade fairs’ – hence the naming of the competition.
Remarkably the first version of the competition spanned 3 years, with Barcelona ‘XI’ becoming the first winner. Nations could only field one club from one city, and is why in the history books you’ll also see ‘London XI’ feature heavily in opening edition of the tournament.
Barcelona lift the 1958 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup
Entrance to the early running’s of the Fairs cup was also not reliant on League position, but simply on the distinction of being from a fair trade city. This would change in 1968 when qualification was then to be determined on domestic league position. If you were to be runner up to your domestic champion, a pathway to the Fairs cup emerged.
The competition would not be recognised by UEFA until 1971. The fair trade committee ran the event which was mentored by FIFA officials, however it was not until 1971 when the tournament changed to what we commonly know now as the UEFA cup or more recently of course, the Europa League in it’s current guise.
The first Scottish entrant to the Fairs cup were Hibs in season 1960/61. With Hearts in the European cup after their title win in 1960, Hibs were to represent Auld Reekie in the Fairs cup. A second European semi final appearance was added to their history as they lost in a playoff to eventual winners AS Roma after nothing could separate the sides over two legs. The Hibees were 3-1 up in the second leg in Italy and seemingly sailing into a final clash with Birmingham City, however their lead was pegged back late on. They were then subsequently hammered in the playoff decider by 6 goals to nil. Roma marched on and secured the big prize in the final. A certain Bertie Auld would be collecting a runners-up medal in the blue of Birmingham. Not a colour of jersey which suited wee Bertie!
The Fairs Cup would of course be Celtic’s vehicle into making their European debut in season 62/63.
Celtic line up ready to face Valencia
In 1960/61 a third continental competition was introduced – the Cup Winner’s Cup. The Cup Winners Cup was, as it reads, an opportunity for the domestic cup winner in each of the recognised UEFA footballing nations to enter a knockout format. In the early 60’s not many nations considered their respective domestic cup to hold such importance – Scotland of course being an exception where the domestic cup has always been fiercely contested and viewed as a significant badge of honour throughout the decades since it’s creation in the late 19th century.
Not all UEFA recognised nations had a domestic cup in the early 1960’s and in the first edition of the competition only eight sides participated in the main draw. Rangers would navigate their way to the final only to be defeated over two legs by Fiorentina.
By the late 1960’s almost all UEFA nations would put forward a domestic cup winner to compete in the Cup Winner’s cup, which would be recognised across the next thirty years as the second most prestigious competition in European club football.
Celtic’s first foray into the Cup Winners Cup would come by default, entering as losing cup finalists after Rangers had already secured European Cup football on the back of their title win in in 1963.
Celtic would finish third in the Scottish League in 1961/62 and earn qualification to the Fairs Cup for the first time. Dundee’s championship win had secured their passage into the European Cup, whilst Rangers would compete in the Cup Winners Cup. This paved the way for Celtic’s first shot at continental football.
Celtic’s first continental examination could not be much harder. Spanish giants Valencia who were the holders of the trophy were to provide Celtic’s first European opposition. It would prove to be tough love in the Estadio Luis Casanova as the hoops went down 4-2 on the 26th September 1962.
Going into the fixture there was much debate about what Celtic’s strongest team actually was, with Jimmy McGrory tinkering with his line up. It has been a challenging start to domestic matters, with four defeats already in the league ahead of the flight to Spain. Aberdeen were victorious over the Hoops on the weekend prior to the Fairs Cup fixture, and McGrory would make sweeping changes. Bobby Murdoch, John Divers, Charlie Gallagher and more surprisingly Frank Haffey were omitted after the loss to Aberdeen. John Fallon would therefore guard the Celtic net in Valencia and become Celtic’s first European ‘keeper. The score line was to read 4-2 to the Spaniards, however there are stories of two stone wall penalties denied and a perfect goal from Stevie Chalmers chalked off with a dubious offside call.
Valencia entered into a 2-0 lead after 25 minutes, Coll with a brace to earn the distinction of being the first man to Score against Celtic in Europe. Celtic were to pull one back before the break to give themselves a lifeline, however this hope was short lived as Los Che were to add a third before the interval.
The identity of Celtic’s first European goal scorer carries some dubiety. Mestre of Valencia would divert a Bobby Carroll effort into the net and was officially listed as an own goal by official sources. Valencia added a fourth on 51 minutes and a rout was feared from then on in. However, between Chalmers harshly disallowed effort and this time a clear goal from Carroll, Celtic rallied and got back on the plane with a result to work with in the return leg in Glasgow’s east end.
Celtic had put together a better run of results ahead of the return leg a month later. Genuine hope was raised in being able to overturn the two goal deficit when John Clark stood over a spot kick 17 minutes in. John Divers was upended in the box and Celtic had a fighting chance to gain some momentum. The resulting kick was to sail agonisingly over the bar to the despair of Clark and the 45,000 onlooking Celtic support. Valencia held on to go in 0-0 at the break which came as a relief to the Spaniards, as the Celts piled on the pressure.
That pressure was to reap reward three minutes after the break as Celtic edged ahead. Alec Bryne swung a ball towards the Valencia box which was inadvertently knocked into his own net by Verdu. The momentum was with Celtic and the comeback job was very much on. However, the wind was taken out the sails of the Celts when Guillot netted on the hour mark before Waldo gave the holders the lead on the night ten minutes from time. Paddy Crerand would become the first Celt to score a home goal in Europe five minutes from the end. A bold effort, but the Celts would exit by 6-4 on aggregate on their European bow.
The Return leg
Media commentators reflected on the 90 minutes and there was a feeling that Valencia should have been there for the taking. Booby Craig had been acquired from Blackburn Rovers the day of the game and had taken to the field within 2 hours of signing. This was criticised in some quarters as it was seen to bring a disruption to the attack.
Remarkably, Valencia would go onto eliminate both Dunfermline and Hibs from the competition on their way to retaining the Fairs Cup. An aggregate victory of 4-1 over Dinamo Zagreb handed the Spaniards their successive triumphs in the competition.
Celtic will never have faced a tougher first round test in European competition than the might of Valencia in 1962/63. The players had the taste for this type of occasion and this early lesson would stand the Hoops in good stead as the club became revitalised in the mid to late 60’S after years of mediocrity.
*Images courtesy of The Celtic Wiki
*Video courtesy of Willie Collow