Celtic v Leeds: 136,000 reasons why this was the ultimate Battle of Britain

Davie Hay and Eddie Gray on an epic clash between managerial giants Stein and Revie

Bobby Murdoch jumps for joy after his goal gave Celtic the lead at Hampden.

ince the inception of European club competitions, clubs from Scotland and England have been drawn against each other 35 times.

It has become almost obligatory for the label “Battle of Britain” to be applied to those ties. While some have been far less deserving of such breathless build-up than others, one clash of the titans from football’s oldest national rivalry still stands out above all the rest.

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It was 50 years ago today that Elland Road played host to the first leg of an epic European Cup semi-final showdown between Don Revie’s outstanding Leeds United side and Jock Stein’s prolifically successful Celtic team.

Celtic manager Jock Stein congratulates his captain Billy McNeill after the win at Hampden.

From the moment George Connelly stunned the English champions with what proved to be the only goal at Elland Road after just 40 seconds, it was a contest which lived up to all of the hype – and then some.

Celtic emerged triumphant after an extraordinary night at Hampden two weeks later, second-half goals from John Hughes and Bobby Murdoch sealing the deal after Leeds captain Billy Bremner had silenced a European record crowd of over 136,000 by levelling the aggregate score.

“As a club game, I don’t think there will ever be a bigger one from the aspect of the hype surrounding it, the quality of the players on both sides, the size of the crowd and the atmosphere,” reflects Eddie Gray, the boyhood Celtic fan who left Glasgow as a 16-year-old to become one of the greatest players in Leeds’ history.

“There have been other ties between Scottish and English teams, of course, but that one transcends the lot.

Celtic celebrate George Connelly's away goal at Elland Road.

“Although we lost the tie, it was a privilege to be part of it. Whenever I go up to Celtic Park these days, and meet guys like Bertie Auld, John Clark and Bobby Lennox, we still talk about those games. It’s hard to believe it was 50 years ago.”

For Leeds, the first leg was their eighth game in 19 days as their quest for a treble of European Cup, FA Cup and the retention of the English title took its toll. Two replays of the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United caused the congestion, prompting Revie to field a reserve side in a 4-1 league defeat at Derby only two days before they faced Celtic.

“We got caught up in too many fixtures at the time, there’s no doubt about that,” says Gray. “That’s what did us in, really, in terms of not winning anything that season after being in contention for everything.”

In contrast, Celtic were in a relaxed and confident mood, having clinched their fifth successive Scottish league title with a 0-0 draw against Hearts at Tynecastle on the Saturday before they travelled by train to their Harrogate base ahead of the first leg.

“That Celtic team never went into any game feeling inferior,” says Davie Hay, pictured left, then a 22-year-old emerging star for Stein’s team whose displays at right-back in both legs against Leeds further enhanced his growing reputation.

“That had been instilled in us by big Jock. You were confident in your own ability, without being overconfident. Leeds were considered favourites going into the tie but we never saw it that way.

“Leeds were the outstanding team in England at the time, no question. Every player in their team was an international and I was fortunate enough to go on to play alongside a few of them with Scotland in later years.

“I had a good partnership in midfield with Billy Bremner in the side which got to the World Cup Finals in 1974.

“Big Geordie scored early doors at Elland Road, which was perfect for us, but it was a really competitive match - neither side dominated for really lengthy spells.

“We hadn’t gone down there to defend, that wasn’t our style. It was quite an open game, there was none of the caginess you might expect in the first leg of a European semi-final. I think that was down to the Auld Enemy rivalry – even though there were several Scots in the Leeds team!”.

When the second leg came around, both teams had played in their national cup finals on the previous Saturday – Celtic suffering a shock 3-1 defeat against Aberdeen, while Leeds drew 2-2 with Chelsea at Wembley after extra time.

Revie continued to make confident noises about his team’s chances of overturning the deficit in Glasgow, the match having been switched from Celtic Park to Hampden to maximise the attendance, and his optimism seemed to have substance when Bremner rattled in a 14th- minute opener from 20 yards.

“What a goal – top corner, an absolute beauty from wee Billy,” says Hay. “There was never such a silence in a football stadium as when that went in.

“But – and this is hard to explain – even when that went in, I still knew we were going to win that night. You can’t not win when you have 136,000 people behind you. You either rise to that occasion or you fold.

“ Playing under that pressure was part and parcel of playing for Celtic. You had to deal with those situations.

“The second leg was like a boxing match. Leeds got the first knockdown with that goal but we got up and kept pummelling them for the rest of the game.”

A raucous Hampden reached fever pitch when Hughes headed home an Auld cross to make it 1-1, before the decibel levels went off the chart as Murdoch drilled home a low shot from Johnstone’s pass.

“That night at Hampden, Bobby and Jimmy were both terrific,” Gray, pictured above, adds. “They made the difference. Wee Jimmy was absolutely flying and our defence couldn’t handle him. Over the two games, Celtic were deserved winners. We had a few chances at Elland Road and could easily have taken a lead into the second leg but Celtic defended well when they had to.

“The noise at Hampden was deafening. Even sitting in the dressing room before kick-off, it was literally vibrating with the noise. I remember looking across at big Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter, two hardy lads who could handle anything, and even they were raising their eyebrows.

“It was a sore one for us to lose but it says it all that people still talk about it 50 years on. Those were two fantastic teams with two brilliant managers.

“Big Jock and Don Revie were at the forefront of the managerial game, in terms of the tactical knowledge that everyone speaks about these days with guys like Guardiola and Klopp.

“People talk about managerial geniuses today but those two back then knew the game inside out. The preparation was meticulous, every player knew their job.

“Big Jock was a tactical genius, no doubt, but he also had a great strength of getting inside players’ heads and getting the best out of them.

“That’s better than all the tactical nous in the world, if you can get the best out of good players. I don’t think any other manager could have got the best out of Jimmy Johnstone for example, even though the wee man was a world-class player.”

Gray returned to being a Celtic supporter for the final in May but was left disappointed, if not totally surprised, when they lost 2-1 to Feyenoord in Milan.

“It was like a final before the final when we played Celtic and I think that affected them when they went on to lose to 
Feyenoord,” he says. “Everyone believed they would be European champions again when they beat us. My family were all Celtic-daft. My younger brother, Frank, was in the throes of coming down to join Leeds at the time but he was in the ground supporting Celtic that night at Hampden.

“I remember going back to my mum’s house in Castlemilk after we beat them in a pre-season friendly at Hampden in 1968 and Frank wouldn’t talk to me!

“It was always my dad’s ambition for one of the boys to play for Celtic. He was disappointed when I went to Leeds at 16 and even more so when Frank joined me, because Frank had been on the ground staff at Celtic Park. But my son, Stuart, went on to wear the hoops, so that was great for the family.

“I had a great career with Leeds and no regrets at all. And although it was disappointing to lose that semi-final against Celtic, it’s still one of the highlights of my time in football. I still have Tam 
Gemmell’s shirt from the game at Hampden in my house. It’s a fantastic memory.”

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