Feyenoord!…Tonight we face the Dutch for the first time competitively since a night in Milan in 1970! It’s a different world especially in football since those halcyon days of the early ‘70’s!
We were European giants whereas the Dutch were an unknown quality probably the reverse of 3 years previously when we were the unknown against the illustrious Italian giants Inter. I was 16 back in those far off days, working in a city centre bar as the conflict overwhelmed us all in Belfast.
I had been at the Benfica game in November (my first game) when we hammered the Eagles of Lisbon 3-0 in front of 76,000, then Fiorentina in March 3-0 again 75,000 and of course the semi v ‘Super’ Leeds at Hampden with a record 136,505 crowd driving the Celts on to a 2-1 victory!
I was enjoying this European gig and planned to head to Milan for the final but that was easier said than done.
First of all my pay was £5 a week and flights were crazy when you think that Michael O’Leary can get us to Milan for €20 now! But dreams are what makes life an interesting journey. We had an eclectic cohort drinking in the bar just off the city centre. It was close to the Republican Markets area so a big cohort were from that area but we also had a trendy cohort who frequented the upstairs lounge which had photos of Al Capone on the walls and fake Thompson sup machine guns, as Billy Connolly would say, ‘ffs this is Belfast they sell Bomber jackets in the shops’!!
But the most interesting cohort drank in the wee snugs in the back bar, they were all older shipyard workers and always spent Friday evenings on pay day there for a few pints of ‘Single X’, a Belfast delicacy of cheap Guinness!
The most amazing fact about these guys was that they were all Linfield and Rangers fans but I never once sensed a bigot among them! Once they heard I wanted to go to Milan they said they would have a whip round to help with the flight! It was a lovely gesture which I’ve always appreciated but between the jigs and reels I didn’t make it to the final but that didn’t reflect negatively on the generosity from those old guys who probably are all passed long ago!
As for the final itself we all know the story, we went in overwhelmingly favourites but didn’t turn up on the night not only on the pitch but on the terraces as well? Well we turned up as always 20,000 in Hoops but the Dutch drowned us out with their bloody horns which was all you could hear! Celtic played as bad as possible but almost made it to a replay which we would never have played as bad again.
But it wasn’t to be, big Gemmell opened the scoring and became part of a unique cohort to score in 2 finals. Feyenoord equalised through Rinus Israel and while out played the Celts held on until almost the end of extra time when Ove Kindval scored the winner.
To be honest we didn’t deserve to win but if 5 or 6 players have an off day it can happen. The Dutch victory put them on the European map and Cruyff and Ajax won the next three titles, it was the era of ‘total football’! Eight months later I did see Feyenoord play as Celtic played them in a friendly at Hampden and I witnessed this ‘total football’ in the flesh. It was awesome stuff instead of mad British football booting the ball up the field it was modern football but back in the 70’s? The big keeper out to Wim Van Hanegan, he passed it square to his left back, forward then to Wim Jansen who broke the 10 for the Bears years later!
It was intricate football and beautiful to watch and Ajax would show that for the next 3 years. 53 years have passed since that night in Milan and both Scottish and Dutch football have suffered in the modern era, being from small countries. The big five countries have tapped into serious financial sponging and we just can’t compete. It’s unfair but it is what it is.
Tonight we play Feyenoord, we have a chance, I was at the Republic v Holland game last week in Dublin, we had a chance, the Dutch are not world beaters now! Same as this group in this season’s Champions League, I suggest it’s the easiest group if that’s not a contradiction in Europe but there’s none of the super heavyweights and we can take nine points from the three home games and maybe something away starting to night with a point?
Hopefully Brendan Rodgers learned from his last time here, you can’t play in Europe like you’re playing Ross County, it’s a different ball game. Bring it on, as I began my Celtic experience with Benfica, Fiorentina and Leeds, European football has been my forte, I still feel the same, it’s where we belong!