One of the most painful experiences of being a Celtic supporter must surely be that night in Milan on 6 May 1970 when Celtic lost the European Cup final to Feyenoord.
Yet it was odd that we were so sad. We were the best team in Scotland by a country mile, we had recently beaten the best team in England, – that ought to have been enough to be going on with, but when we were only the second best in Europe, we were plunged into a deep melancholy, punctuated by plaintive cries and anguished moans about what went wrong. Rightly do Tom Campbell and Pat Woods quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
The domestic season had been a good one. We beat St Johnstone in the League Cup final in October and had wrapped up the Scottish League by 28 March. Rangers were simply not there in 1970. But there was Aberdeen.
Celtic lost twice to Aberdeen in that spring. Once was at Celtic Park on 25 March (which might have seen us win the League a little earlier had we won this game). This 1-2 defeat was brushed off as “one of these things” and cynics were not slow to point out that this result would do no harm in attracting a six figure crowd to Hampden for the Scottish Cup final on 11 April. The Scottish Cup final itself was a far more serious matter. The danger signals were up, and they were not heeded.
Two factors prevented us from taking the “long hard look at ourselves” which might have been so beneficial. One was that we were able to hide behind the excuse of blaming it all on the referee. There were at least three major decisions that referee Bobby Davidson got wrong – the worst being a ridiculous penalty kick when the ball hit Bobby Murdoch on the chest – and Jock Stein was not slow in denouncing Mr Davidson, his tirade apparently lasting all the way down the Hampden staircase.
All this was valid, but it still did not explain why we did not get more of a fightback in the second half. At half time, in spite of all that Aberdeen and Davidson had done, the score was still only 1-0. We certainly had more of the play in the second half, but lacked the final ball, the cutting thrust and it was Aberdeen who got another two goals, although Lennox got one between the second and the third goal.In other circumstances, it might have been a humbling experience…but it wasn’t.
This was largely because of the other factor. Four days later came the European Cup semi-final against Leeds United. It was a superb Celtic night – yet in some ways it was the worst thing that could have happened. The deficiencies of the team against Aberdeen could now all be forgotten (or placed entirely at the door of Bobby Davidson) and the sheer hype of the Press in both Scotland and England after the Leeds game which went on (rightly) for days and even weeks afterwards encouraged the belief that the European Cup had already been won. After all, it was only a little known Dutch team from Rotterdam called Feyenoord who awaited us.
The week before the final, Celtic took a team to Fraserburgh to play in a testimonial game for the lifeboat men who had lost their lives in a disaster earlier in the year. This was honourable, and put Celtic in a good light, but years later a story emerged of a bust up or fall out between Jock Stein and some players in the north of Scotland that night. How much was in this, we do not know, but there would be other incidents before and after the big game which indicated that things were not all that well. And the Press had started its tiresome campaign (which would last all next season) to persuade Jock Stein to move on to Manchester United.
The game was lost by complacency – “the serpent of complacency which had entered Paradise” in a brilliant Biblical parallel adduced by Woods and Campbell.
And it was a complacency which enveloped the support as well as the Manager and the players. A few wise heads warned about a few players in the Dutch team, but no, as long as we turned it on as we did against Leeds, there would be no problem. The game was to be played at the San Siro in Milan. Many went (at least as many as had been in Lisbon three years ago) and everyone else turned on the TV in a mood of confident expectation rather than eager excitement.
Three things shocked us. One was that there were as many Dutch supporters there as there were Celtic supporters – we were not expecting that – another was that they made an awful racket with their claxons and horns, something that drowned out the Celtic fans, and the third was, quite candidly and obviously, Feyenoord from an early stage were the better team, faster to the ball, showing more appetite and even when Celtic scored first, we could not remain on top.
The wrong team had probably been chosen, and Connolly was brought on far too late to make any real difference. Celtic’s best chance to win it came early in the extra time period when John Hughes might have scored. Feyenoord’s winner came devastatingly late, when a replay and a second chance seemed to offer us some comfort and hope, but the truth was that Feyenoord deserved to win.
Oh, it hurt! And 1970 was not yet finished with us. A pointless tour of USA which would have been a great triumph if we had been European champions again was undertaken by bored, unhappy players. Results were dreadful. Some left early – not least the Manager who suddenly got up in the middle of a game and went home! (This did little to douse speculation about his future and “Manchester United” appeared with relentless regularity in the Press for the rest of the summer!) Then two players were sent home by the Assistant Manager for bad behaviour, and everyone else simply wanted to go back to Scotland. All in all, it was a dreadfully unhappy time, and yet we were the second best team in Europe! Such were our expectations in 1970!
Saddest day of my Celtic supporting life…. pic.twitter.com/7qLz3VQX6r
— Peter Marshall (@pmarsh226) May 6, 2021