Celtic v Feyenoord: How Jock Stein was outfoxed in his second European Cup final

Evan Williams, goalkeeper who shone against Feyenoord, recalls ‘Lisbon in reverse’
Dejected Celtic players look on as Feyenoord celebrate the winning goal in extra timeDejected Celtic players look on as Feyenoord celebrate the winning goal in extra time
Dejected Celtic players look on as Feyenoord celebrate the winning goal in extra time

If Celtic’s European Cup triumph of 1967 was like the club being catapulted into an Oz-like technicolour land of wonder, their appearance in the 1970 final was akin to them being battered about in the monochrome Kansas as the roof came off.

“It is Lisbon in reverse” said Glasgow’s Evening Times of the pairing with the “unknown” Feyenoord. Prophetically, as it turned out. The headline ran on the afternoon of the final at the San Siro, 50 years ago today. It proved an occasion in which the underdog Dutch side eviscerated a big beast just as comprehensively as Jock Stein’s men had Internazionale in the Portuguese capital three years earlier. In both deciders, the 2-1 margin of victory flattered the vanquished as the victors gave their country a first success in the big cup.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I saw Billy [McNeill, Celtic captain] on a TV programme once talking about the game and admitting we could have lost 10-1. It was that sort of night,” said Evan Williams, whose goalkeeping display almost spared Celtic. “When you have parts that don’t function, the machine can completely break down. That is how it was against Feyenoord.”

Williams, now 76, is, though, remarkably free of bitterness and recrimination over a final in which not only was a European Cup at stake, so,too, was Celtic and Stein’s aura, and a golden opportunity to cement their greatness in that era.

Certain factors could be forwarded for that fact. Williams was the one Celtic player who emerged with his reputation enhanced. It was, according to him, his best game across his five years with the club he had taken a 50 per cent wage cut to join from Wolverhampton Wanderers the previous year. “Celtic was in my blood,” said the man from Dumbarton. His blood stirred in the San Siro as he fashioned a string of saves to keep alive hopes of Celtic sneaking a replay from an encounter in which they were led a merry, midfield-orchestrated dance. Never mind that the fatal concession of a second goal came only three minutes from the end of extra-time.

More than that, Williams has just too much respect for the Lions that embraced him on his arrival at Celtic Park, and the legendary manager that moulded them, to point any fingers.

Milan was the antithesis of Lisbon

Tommy Gemmell (3) celebrates after scoring the opening goal for CelticTommy Gemmell (3) celebrates after scoring the opening goal for Celtic
Tommy Gemmell (3) celebrates after scoring the opening goal for Celtic

Williams, the only player not on Celtic’s books in 1967 who started the club’s second European Cup final inside three years, didn’t have the personal experience to compare and contrast the two occasions.

He doesn’t care to dwell too much on just how much Milan was the antithesis of Lisbon for the club and their support. In the former, Stein was the man who outfoxed master tactician Helenio Herrera. Ernst Happel turned those tables in 1970. Lisbon was sun-soaked and the trip of a lifetime for almost 20,000 Celtic supporters. To be drowned out by the horn-blowing, more numerous, Feyenoord faithful in rainswept San Siro, they had to endure logistical nightmares created by general strikes in Italy that had placed question marks over the final’s staging. Celtic, the brimming innocents of 1967, were rendered the all-too-satisfied expectants in 1970 by an unfancied Rotterdam club that put them in their place – with at least one part-time player in their ranks.

How so much could go so wrong for Stein and his players is the stuff of legend and conjecture. Members of the squad swear blind he did not appreciate the threat posed by Feyenoord in still basking over the glorious lancing of Leeds United in the semis the previous month in what was talked up as the final before the final. It is said that the preparations for the meeting with Feyenoord – which came two and a half weeks after Celtic’s previous competitive match – were all wrong.

Celebrated journalist Archie Macpherson has claimed the mood around Celtic’s hotel retreat 30 miles from Milan was “like a holiday camp”.

Manager Jock Stein reflects on his side's defeatManager Jock Stein reflects on his side's defeat
Manager Jock Stein reflects on his side's defeat
Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The players themselves have been accused of being distracted by the appointment of an agent to ensure they could cash in on endorsements from becoming only the third team to twice win the European Cup. A press conference had been set up to announce a series of commercial ventures – one of which was rumoured to be a record. And then there was the decision of Stein to deploy a 4-2-4 formation against the 4-3-3 configuration utilised by Happel. A system that is considered to have been the prototype for the Dutch total football style that led to the Netherlands becoming the dominant footballing nation in the early 1970s, Ajax taking up the baton from Feyenoord to claim three consecutive European Cups from 1971 to 1973.

Absence of George Connelly from starting XI was glaring omission

“I couldn’t say a bad word about Jock, he was a different man from any manager I ever played under, and I only played for 14 clubs in my career,” Williams said. “But he was human and he made mistakes, like any other human. He wasn’t invincible, and neither were the players despite such as Tommy [Gemmell] and Billy being utter titans. You have bad days at the office, and the team had one against Feyenoord.”

There was an element of bad practice in Celtic being unable to prevent their opponents dictating the tempo and flow of the final with their passing triangles. They did so with Wim Jansen – who would later be the Celtic manager to preserve the Lions’ run of nine league titles by stopping Rangers’ bid for ten-in-a-row in 1998 – ferreting to feed Wim van Hanegem and Franz Hasil. In doing so, they left Celtic’s central two of Bobby Murdoch and Bertie Auld outnumbered and chasing shadows. The glaring omission was not having the burgeoning talent of George Connelly alongside them, in a role he performed so potently against Leeds. Connelly started on the bench and only appeared 77 minutes in as a replacement for Auld, despite the fact centre-back Jim Brogan had been left limping after taking a knock in the early minutes.

These opening stages set the tone, despite Gemmell giving Celtic a 30th minute-lead to become one of a select band of players to net in two European Cup finals.

“I think then that we thought everything would slip into place, that we were on the way, but it just didn’t happen,” Williams said, Rinus Israel equalising within two minutes.

The keeper does believe that Celtic’s lay-off before the final, which resulted in them playing friendlies against Fraserburgh (this match a benefit for the victims of a lifeboat disaster) and Stenhousemuir, may have played a part in their sluggishness.

“We had wound down and there are times you just can’t wind back up,” he said. Stein lamented in the aftermath that “you can’t win with 80 per cent of the team” but he played his part in lulling them into a false sense of security with his declaration that he knew “everything” about Feyenoord, and reputedly describing van Hanegem as “a poor man’s Jim Baxter”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Wim was a very good player but he [van Hanegem] won it for them,” said Williams. “You would think ‘he cannae run’ with those bow legs, but his control of the ball and his strength were something else.”

Bond with Feyenoord

Williams doesn’t believe that the squad allowed themselves to be distracted by any potential financial spin-offs, though. “I know we had an agent, Ian Pebbles, but I kept out of that, and don’t know what happened there. If there was something to be had, I trusted Jock to get it for us.”

Indeed, it is said that Feyenoord players were also involved in a bonus dispute before the final, into which Williams was given an insight when sent a book commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the Rotterdam club’s crowning glory. “I have someone who speaks a bit of Dutch and it says in it that for winning, they were given colour TV sets.”

Williams should have been in the port city today to share in Feyenoord’s celebrations of the European Cup success. Jansen, through his former Celtic assistant and Williams’ nearby neighbour Murdo MacLeod, had extended him an invitation for an occasion cancelled in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic global lockdown.

He can wager what would have been said to him during that meet-up, though, because he knows how close he came to saving the day for an out-of-touch Celtic after Feyenoord passed up chances. That was until a ball over the top found McNeill losing his balance as he fell backward in seeking to get his head on it, instead slapping the ball with both hands. Advantage was played, though, to allow Ove Kindvall to nip in and claim the decisive strike. “Billy might have caused the goal, but I couldn’t say to him, ‘whit you daein’?” He was Billy. I shouted to him ‘leave it leave it’ as I came out, but it wasn’t about blaming anyone. I still work at hospitality at Celtic Park and every couple of months a group of Feyenoord fans come over for games because there are good associations between the two clubs. They are always ribbing me that they don’t want to chat because I almost cost their club the European Cup.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Joy Yates

Editorial Director

Related topics:



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.