The close-season of 1962 provided some much-needed hope and promise for the long-suffering supporters of Celtic.
Despite a semi-final defeat by St Mirren in the Scottish Cup, where the legendary Willie Fernie had come back to haunt Celts, just five days after the Hoops had won 5-0 at Love Street in the League, and a disappointing League Cup campaign, where subsequently-relegated St Johnstone won both games against the Bhoys to emerge successful from their section, Celtic had just enjoyed their best League campaign in years.
The Hoops finished in third spot, eight points behind title-winners Dundee and five adrift of runners-up Rangers, despite scoring more goals and conceding fewer than the new Champions. Indeed, McGrory’s young side, with future Lions, McNeill, Clark, Chalmers and Hughes now established as first-team regulars and Crerand at his imperial peak before a transfer to Old Trafford, had actually beaten Dundee in March, as a young Lennox made his debut.
Nevertheless, the third-place League finish enabled participation in Europe for the first time, with a slot in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, where the rookie Celts were given the stiffest-possible test, drawn against holders Valencia, in the First Round.
Also there, representing Scotland, were Jock Stein’s current and future teams, Dunfermline, who had finished fourth, three points behind Celtic, and Hibernian, who had come in a distant eighth. Presumably, in those days, competition entry was by invitation or application, otherwise, logically, 5th-placed Kilmarnock should have participated, rather than the Edinburgh side.
Dundee had qualified for the European Cup and Rangers, having won both domestic cups, for the Cup-Winners’ Cup. There was no European entry to be gained specifically by the winning of the League Cup at that time. Partick Thistle, a decade later, would be the first Scottish club to benefit from that rule change.
Valencia were an exceptional side, having won the tournament for the first time ‘the previous season’, beating Barcelona 7-3 on aggregate, thanks mainly to a six-goal performance in the Mestalla, where they were particularly formidable.
The two-legged final was actually played within five days in September 1962, just two weeks before Celtic visited Valencia for the first game of the following season’s competition!
Whilst this final was playing out, Celtic warmed-up for the task against Real Madrid at Celtic Park, losing 3-1 in a charity game for the Blue & White Challenge Cup, before taking a lap of honour in front of 72,000 fans, ecstatic at how well their young side had performed against the five-time European champions!
So it was, then, that on the evening of Wednesday 26 September 1962, Celtic lined up in the imposing Mestalla for our first-ever European tie, as follows:
Fallon: MacKay and Kennedy: Crerand, McNeill and O’Neill: Chalmers, Jackson, Carroll, Gallacher and Byrne.
The holders started well, in front of 25,000 spectators on a wet night, left-winger Coll scoring twice in the opening half-hour, as the roof threatened to cave in on the young Hoops.
Celtic striker Bobby Carroll then wrote his name into the history books, with our first-ever European goal, his shot from Mike Jackson’s cutback beating the keeper before going in off defender Mestre. Valencia schemer Guillot then notched a double either side of half-time, before Carroll completed his own brace with fifteen minutes remaining from another Jackson pass, the first leg thus ending 4-2 to the Spaniards.
One month later, on Wednesday 24 October, 45,000 turned out for the return match at Celtic Park. Typical of the times, where consistent team selection was a stranger, Celtic made some surprising changes to their first-leg line-up, scorer Carroll dropped as was Jackson, the man who made both goals, with McNeill and Kennedy injured. In came McNamee, Clark, Divers and Bobby Craig, the latter having only arrived in Glasgow hours before the game, following his £15,000 transfer from Blackburn Rovers.
The first-half ended goalless, John Clark missing a glorious chance to bring Celtic right back into the tie, blazing his spot-kick high over, after Divers had been upended by Mestre.
This missed opportunity would prove costly, as the unfortunate Verdu knocked a Byrne corner passed Zamora early in the second-half, for what would have been a tie-equalising goal.
The football gods then frowned on the Hoops, first Guillot beat Fallon again to score before the invisible Waldo made his only contribution, firing home from the edge of the box to put the tie beyond doubt. Pat Crerand’s left-foot leveller with five minutes remaining salvaged an unbeaten home start, but sadly, Celtic were out of Europe. You can watch the highlights of this game below.
Bizarrely, all three Scottish clubs involved would face the Spanish giants in successive rounds.
Dunfermline beat English champions-elect Everton, 2-1 on aggregate, thanks to a late goal from Harry Melrose, before succumbing 1-0 to Valencia in a play-off in Lisbon, having recovered from a 4-0 defeat in the Mestalla to memorably win 6-2 at East End Park (in the days before away goals counted double).
Hibernian beat Staevnet (a Copenhagen select side), 7-2 on aggregate, then overcame an Utrecht XI by 3-1, before they too faced the Spaniards, suffering a heavy 5-0 Quarter-final defeat in Valencia, before restoring some pride with a 2-1 victory at Easter Road.
Valencia then beat Roma 3-1 in the Semi-finals, three late goals in the first leg essentially killing the tie, to set up a Final meeting with Yugoslavia’s Dinamo Zagreb, a 2-1 away victory followed by a comfortable 2-0 win at the Mestalla, enabling them to successfully retain their title.
And they would go all the way to a third successive Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Final the following season, before losing 2-1 to fellow-Spaniards Real Zaragoza in the Camp Nou.
In the meantime, the Bhoys had enjoyed their first taste of European competition. Over the next few years, this would become an epic journey, which would change the course of Celtic’s history forever.
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