Aidan Smith: When Hibs blazed trail in Europe

A formidable forward line of, from left, Gordon Smith, Eddie Turnbull, Lawrie Reilly, Bobby Combe and Willie Ormond. Picture: Daily Record
A formidable forward line of, from left, Gordon Smith, Eddie Turnbull, Lawrie Reilly, Bobby Combe and Willie Ormond. Picture: Daily Record
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IN A few hours’ time we’ll hear the first hosannah encouraging us to give praise to another Champions League. Unfortunately, as the overblown hymn rings out to begin the opening night of group games, we in Scotland will once again be standing on the metaphorical upturned shoogly crate, peering over the wall and wishing we were a part of the greatest club competition in the world.

This year’s exclusion will be felt more poignantly than normal among Celtic fans when they see that their play-off conquerors Malmö have been pitted against the A-list glamour of Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain and also because they’ve just been commemorating the death of Jock Stein, the mastermind of Lisbon.

If there’s consolation to be had it’s that the Champions League often promises more than it delivers. A lot of the early games can be boring. The same teams keep getting drawn together – this will be the third time in four years that Arsenal have met Bayern Munich and the fourth time since 2009 that the Gunners have found themselves in the same group as Olympiacos. Excitement only comes in February when the tournament goes knockout, but even then there’s a certain predictability about it, with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all seeming to have reserved their places in the semi-finals.

This year, though, we can also find consolation is history. It was 60 years ago yesterday that Scotland blazed a trail through continental football. As every Hibernian fan would be only too happy to tell you, their club were the first from Britain to compete in the European Cup, forerunner to the Champions League.

It was, when you examine the detail, an awfully long time ago. “Too many wogs and dagoes” – this was what Alan Hardaker thought of the inaugural competition, and the secretary of England’s Football League was able to force 1954-55 champions Chelsea to snub it. The champs of Scotland that season were actually Aberdeen but they also declined to take part. This sounds incredible now, but the Dons had a thing about the night; they didn’t like evening games. More specifically, they refused to play under floodlights, believing that because of their non-standardised and therefore occasionally erratic nature at the time, they could give the home team an unfair advantage.

The first European Cup was by invitation, with not all the participants being national champions, so Hibs, who only finished ’54-’55 in fifth place, might seem like the biggest and scruffiest gatecrashers football has known. But French sports paper L’Equipe, who sent out the little embossed cards, wanted clubs with a pro-European attitude and crowd appeal and Harry Swan’s swashbuckling team fitted 
the bill.

Although Bobby Johnstone had left for Manchester City, four of the Famous Five, who’d scored the goals in three championship triumphs, remained. The club regularly ventured abroad for tours and competitions which other more insular teams viewed as a waste of time, and not just around Europe. They seemed to have had a standing invite to compete in the Brazilian FA’s Octagonal Rivadavia Correa Meyer, a precursor to the world club championship, and in 1953 they finally played in the Maracana.

Two years later, Eddie Turnbull became the first British player to score in European competition. He netted two in the 4-0 win away to West German champions Rot-Weiss Essen in the first round, Lawrie Reilly and Willie Ormond scoring the others. Essen, like Hibs, were much-travelled, having just returned from a tour of Argentina and Uruguay, and their star was Helmut Rahn, Der Boss, scorer of the national team’s World Cup-winning goal the previous year.

It was a fine victory in the mud for Hibs but, in contrast to today, when the written media buy into the Champions League with exhaustive coverage of the tournament – and the English pundits have just had to hastily revise their opinions of Chelsea’s chances of winning this year – John R. Mackay’s book The Hibees reports that no national papers were present.

A draw in the Easter Road return saw Hibs through to meet Djurgarden of Sweden, although with their football having closed for the winter, the Swedes had to play their home leg at a neutral venue, which for Leith’s men of the world meant a trip to darkest Maryhill. Partick Thistle’s Firhill bore witness to a 3-1 victory and there must have been some curious locals in the 21,962 crowd, intrigued by the exotica. Nevertheless, the Celtic programme for a match the same night saw fit to note: “Already interest in these floodlit evening games is on the wane.” Not only the Dons, it seems, were scared of the dark.

The semi-finals – it was a quick competition in those days – paired Hibs with Raymond Kopa’s Stade Reims. Again the away leg was to be vaguely neutral, although Reims wisely opted against Firhill and hosted Turnbull and the rest of the Still Notable Four in Paris. Voted the third greatest French footballer behind Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, Kopa inspired his side to a 2-0 win and was hugely influential at a packed Easter Road as well, where Reims were battered for 90 minutes as they managed to sneak a breakaway goal.

Reilly, for one, always claimed the better team lost. In the final, Reims came within 11 minutes of beating Real Madrid. Never mind the ever-elusive Scottish Cup, the biggest ifs, buts and maybes in Hibee history – if you believe in continental football like these proud conquistadors did – concern that very first European Cup and whether they could have delayed Real’s domination of it for at least one year.