Celtic’s visit to Germany for tomorrow night’s Europa League tie against RB Leipzig provoked a Proustian rush of memories for one of the club’s greatest captains, Roy Aitken.
The Bear, as he became known, made his first-team debut in a League Cup quarter-final against Stenhousemuir in September, 1975 and his European debut came at the same stage of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup the following March, by which time he was 17 and studying for his Highers.
Celtic’s opponents were Sachsenring Zwickau,who had trailed to a Kenny Dalglish goal in the first leg before equalising against the run of play two minutes from time.
With Germany partitioned at the time and Zwickau located in the East and under communist rule, entering the country was anything but straightforward. Indeed, the authorities considered Aitken to be a minor and refused to issue him with an entry visa unless the club made him a ward of court.
Celtic effectively had to “adopt” the teenager and caretaker manager Sean Fallon had to report to the feared Volkspolizei, the state police force, each day to provide a report on Aitken’s well-being.
“I was under 18 and still at school so they had to get permission for me to travel,” he explained. “Jock Stein had been involved in a bad car accident earlier that season and he was still in hospital.
“As a result, it was his assistant, Sean Fallon, who had taken charge of the team in Jock’s absence, who had to go to the Consulate every day to sign me in.
“I didn’t have to go, but Sean did. They put him down as a guardian because I was under 18. The whole thing about being at school and getting time off to travel into Europe with Celtic was interesting, even just getting the official letter.
“The good thing was that I had a headmaster who was a Celtic fan. I’d go into school on a Monday morning and, even though we didn’t win anything that year, we were doing quite well.
“He’d invite me into the office and offer a wee cup of tea. He’d have the papers in front of him and start talking about the game at the weekend.
“When you think back, it’s strange; I’ve got great photographs of me walking out of the school with my chemistry books under the arm!
“It was just another adventure at that time – it was always an adventure. Everything was coming so quickly. I’d just left the Boys Club the year before, then it was into the reserves and up to the first team within six months but you just get on with it.”
Aitken’s sojourn to Saxony ended in disappointment. Due to injuries, Fallon was forced to deploy centre-half Roddy McDonald as a striker and the visitors lost 1-0 to Zwickau, who were eliminated by eventual winners Anderlecht in the semi-finals.
He hopes that the current team’s journey to the same region proves to be more profitable but is under no illusions about the difficulty of the task facing Brendan Rodgers and his players.
“It’s a tough game in Leipzig; in fact, it’s a difficult group,” he said. “The home results are the ones which take you through but Brendan will want to try and pick up something.
“On some occasions, nine points can be enough but, looking at this group, they might need to earn a point or two away from home as well.”
Aitken spent 15 seasons in the senior side at Parkhead and his 682 appearances for Celtic are surpassed only by Billy McNeill (822), Alex McNair (684) and Paul McStay (683). He grew up in public while many of his contemporaries shrunk from the spotlight.
“It’s sink or swim with the big clubs,” he said. “It’s up to you to take your chance and many young players I played with at that age couldn’t push on.
“Guys like George McCluskey and Tommy Burns came through with me and went on to have great careers but others didn’t. That’s the challenge; can you do it year in and year out? That’s the challenge for Brendan’s team this year. Can you do it again?”
Aitken grew up watching Stein’s nine-in-a-row teams and played alongside many of those players. With Rodgers attempting to land an eighth successive title, Aitken argues that he can go even further.
“The target for Brendan is to win it this season and then next season but he won’t be thinking about 10-in-a-row,” he said. “The fans sing about it at games and it would be unbelievable.
“Who knows? 11, 12, 13 in a row? At the moment, though, all Brendan will be thinking about is winning the eighth.”