Hibernian: the club that led Britain into the European Cup

Hibernian: the club that led Britain into the European Cup

Although the European Cup is the pre-eminent competition for club football, and participation in it is regarded akin to a ‘coming out party’ as a top club for any who secures it, British clubs’ relationship with European competition was not always anything like fully committed.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the game knows that Glasgow Celtic were the first British team to win the European Cup when the Lisbon Lions, inspired by the legendary Jock Stein, recovered after falling behind to a Sandro Mazzola penalty to win the trophy against Internazionale with goals from Tommy Gemmill and Steve Chalmers.

Equally famously, at Wembley the following year, Matt Busby led his Manchester United team to a glorious 4-1 victory over Benfica with a brace of goals from Bobby Charlton, one from a teenage Brian Kidd, and a memorable coup de grace from George Best, rounding the goalkeeper before rolling the ball into an empty net.

Indeed, United had become England’s first ever combatants in the competition in the 1956/57 edition after the previous season’s English champions Chelsea had been pressured not to compete by a truculent Football Association, keen to keep its affiliated clubs above such nefarious activity.

United, therefore, took their bow as England’s first representatives in the nascent European Cup. They were however not Britain’s first club to take part in UEFA’s competition. Much as being the first British winners, that honour fell to a Scottish club. It wasn’t Celtic, however, or even Rangers. The club that led British football into European competition was Edinburgh’s Hibernian.

The Easter Road club had enjoyed a purple patch of success in the late forties and early fifties securing a trio of Scottish titles in 1948, 1951 and then successfully defending the championship the following year. Statistics of titles may not tell the whole story, however. Hibs had been a forward-thinking club under the innovative guidance of chairman Harry Swan and former manager Willie McCarthy.

Being ahead of the curve, floodlights had been installed at Easter Road in 1954 and were officially inaugurated in October of that year when cross-city rivals Hearts were invited to play a friendly under the halogen bulbs and in front of a bumper crowd, keen to view the new spectacle. The lights were a roaring success and saw further friendlies arranged, including one against Manchester United, that Hibs triumphed in by eights goals to three. As well as raising the profile of the club, the lights were to have another benefit a couple of years down the line.

Such positive thinking had seen an energetic commitment to take on foreign tours, involve the club in attractive friendlies and enter competitions shunned by clubs with more parochial outlooks. For example, in 1953 the club was invited to – and duly took part in – a competition organised by the Brazilian FA, designed to be a World Cub Championship, but since it had not been sanctioned as such by FIFA, it instead bore the somewhat clumsy label of the Octagonal Rivadavia Correa Meyer. Try fitting that one into a terrace chant.

Hibernian were champions of Scotland, at the time having just secured their third title in five years, but that alone would not have secured an invitation. It was the reputation the club had built not only due to their openness to travel, but also to the fact that they were widely seen at the time as one of the most entertaining club sides in Europe due to their dynamic forward play, particularly with regard to their ‘Famous Five’.

This was no Enid Blyton quintet, though. There were no heaps of tomatoes or lashings of ginger beer for Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond. There were, however, heaps of goals and lashings of exciting attacking football wherever the five forwards played.

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Back in the 1950s, the accepted tactical wisdom was to play five forward players, rather than just one or two. Two played out wide, ‘with whitewash on their boots’ to provide the crosses. A strong centre-forward led the line and two clever ball players at inside forward, one either side of the lone target, provided support. Some may dispute it of course, but in researching this article I’ve come across more than one estimation of these five players that put them as the best of any Scottish club of the era.

In the tricky Gordon Smith, Hibs had an outstanding talent. As well as forming a key part of the club’s front line, “cocky wee Gordon was the pride of them all”, as the terrace chant went. Smith would also star 18 times for Scotland, but it was with the Edinburgh club that he made his name, scoring over 170 goals and netting no less than 17 hat-tricks. Smith would later move on to Dundee, where the Dens Park club would build on Hibernian’s pioneering European adventure.

With all of this going for them, it was perhaps no surprise that Hibernian were invited to compete in the first European Cup, despite only finishing fifth in the league during the previous season. Unlike the later tournaments, an invitation to compete in the inaugural event was not strictly dependent on league positions. It was important for UEFA that the first attempt at a club European Championship was successful, capturing the imagination of fans across Europe and support of the national associations. If it hadn’t done so, the first tournament could quite easily have also been the last one.

Eighteen clubs were invited to participate. The key qualifications being that they were attractive enough to generate interest across Europe and, crucially, that their home grounds had floodlights installed to facilitate midweek evening games. As with Chelsea south of the border, reigning Scottish champions Aberdeen declined the invite, leaving an opportunity for a Scottish club with an open perspective, floodlights and an attractive style of play. Hibernian ticked all of the boxes and became the first British club to take part in the nascent UEFA-sanctioned European competition.

In the first round, they were drawn to play against German club Rot-Weiss Essen and on 14 September 1956 travelled to the Georg-Meiches Stadion in Germany to raise the curtain on British participation in what would become the greatest club competition on the planet. The crowd in Essen may not quite have got caught up in the moment, however. Only around 5,000 turned out to see their team take on the Scots, a number bolstered by approximately 1,000 Scottish soldiers who were stationed in Germany.

The game was played in heavy rain – common to the Scots – and the inclement weather quickly turned the pitch into a muddy morass; hardly ideal for the slick Hibernian forwards. In what was a fairly close fought confrontation early on, the deadlock was eventually broken ten minutes ahead of the break when Eddie Turnbull netted with a powerful shot past goalkeeper, Fritz Herkenrath to give Hibernian the lead. The Germans tried to hit back quickly but right winger Roehrig shot wide from a decent opening.

Just before the referee brought their first half to a close, Turnbull scored a second that broke the home side’s resistance. Dancing through the German defence, unhampered by the wet conditions, he rounded a couple of defenders before slotting the ball home. It was a tremendous solo effort.

Now with a lead of some comfort, Hibs turned on the style and a superb ball by the ebullient put Lawrie Reilly clear to run through the home defence from the halfway line before coolly dispatching past Herkenrath. Willie Ormond placed the cherry on the top of the icing on the Edinburgh club’s cake just before the end to give the visitors a four-goal lead and render the second leg in Edinburgh the merest of formalities.

Turnbull, who would later return to manage the club, said: “We gassed Rot-Weiss 4-0 although they were not a bad team, with quite a few of their World Cup-winning team of 1954 on their side.”

Four weeks later, the Germans visited Easter Road for Hibernian’s first competitive game under their new lights and to introduce the European Cup to these shores. If there had been any slight hopes in German hearts of an unlikely comeback, they were summarily dismissed by Jock Buchanan’s early goal to stretch Hibs’ advantage. Although with the club for seven years, Buchanan’s first team appearances were limited, first by the excellence of Reilly, and then by the developing, mercurial Joe Baker.

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A prolific goalscorer for Hibs’ reserve team, his career never really hit the heights that it should perhaps have done. After leaving the Easter Road club in search of first-team opportunities, Buchanan first travelled to Kirkcaldy to play for Raith Rovers and then to South Wales and Newport County. Neither move brought great success, with perhaps his best years being squandered in Hibernian’s second XI. He will always have the distinction, however, of being the first British player to score at home in the European Cup.

Fritz Abromeit equalised just after the break to offer the smallest fig leaf of pride, but Hibernian had successfully come through the first round in front of a 30,000 Easter Road crowd and could look forward to the quarter-finals of the European Cup.

The draw for the last eight saw the Scottish club paired with Djurgårdens IF of Sweden. Following a similar pattern to that of Hibs, a 4-1 away victory in Warsaw against Gwardia had led to a comfortable home draw for the Swedes, and they entered the last eight of the competition with a player on the crest of his form.

Striker John ‘Jompa’ Eriksson had scored a 15-minute hat-trick in Poland to kill off the tie almost before it had begun. He was a potent weapon. The Swedes entered the least eight with confidence – as did Hibernian. A great contest was in prospect.

The first leg was scheduled for the Stockholm club to play at home on 23 November 1956. Facing a particularly cold spell – and this being well before the advent of undersoil heating – their pitch in the Johanneshov area of the Swedish capital was frozen and unplayable. After negotiations, it was agreed to transfer the game to Partick Thistle’s Fir Park, giving Hibernian virtually two home legs.

Despite being in unfamiliar surroundings for what should have been a home game advantage, Djurgårdens appeared anything but dismayed by their surroundings and an Eklund goal in the first minute put them ahead. It took Hibernian 15 minutes or so to find their feet after the rare setback, but just before the 20-minute mark, Bobby Combe ventured forward to score the equaliser. The sides went in at the break level at 1-1.

It was probably favouring Hibernian if anyone, but not long after the restart Jimmy Mulkerrin reprised the role of Jock Buchanan in the previous round, becoming the irregular starter who scores on the European stage to put Hibs ahead. Three minutes from time, Olsson had the misfortune to score past his own goalkeeper to send the Scots into the home leg with another comfortable lead.

On 28 November the second leg was played out, and a goal from Eddie Turnbull midway through the second-half eased any concerns the Easter Road fans may have had. In the first European Cup tournament, Hibernian had reached the last four, and in truth hardy been greatly tested. Eriksson hadn’t been a factor. Could this be a glorious first run at the European title?

Although much less of a force in modern times, Stade Reims were very much one of the leading lights of French football in the 1950s. French Champions in 1949, 1953, 1955, 1958, 1960 and 1962, they would present a real barrier to Hibernian’s aspirations in the semi-finals. A comfortable passage for the French club against Aarhus of Denmark had led to a goal-laden quarter-final against Vörös Lobogó of Budapest; the Hungarians eventually going down 8-6 on aggregate. The French team also had their country’s top player, Raymond Kopa, amongst their ranks.

After the winter break in proceedings, the first leg of the semi-final took place in the Parc des Princes in Paris. Unlike their previous two encounters, this time the Hibernian players would be playing in front of a hostile and packed stadium. Over 35,000 had come to watch the French champions take on the Scots.

Order  |  European Cup

Nevertheless, Hibs gave as good as they got for much of the game with chances at either end occurring, but mostly sporadically. Half-time came and went without a break in the deadlock, with things looking like a denouement back at Easter Road the most likely outcome. Until, that is, midway through the second half, when Michel Leblond put the home side ahead.

Should Hibs redouble their efforts to score and grab an equaliser or rest on the one-goal deficit, confident in their ability to overcome their opponents back in Scotland? Whether intentional or not, it seemed the latter was on the verge of being achieved when in the last couple of minutes René Bilard scored the second goal and gave the Scots a real mountain to climb.

The goal was a dagger to Scottish aspirations. Whereas a one-goal deficit appeared redeemable, the second strike felt fatal. With Kopa pulling the strings for the French club, Hibernian would be prey to a counter-attack and a deciding third goal.

On 18 April, a packed Easter Road, containing nearly 45,000 spectators, welcomed Stade Reims to Scotland. Howled on by the partisan crowd, the home team attacked with vigour but were always cautious to keep a watchful eye on the back door. Just one goal would prise open the opportunity, but as half-time came and went, despite the efforts of Hibernian’s forwards, the French lead remained intact.

A dozen minutes after the break, as the home team’s attacks became understandably less disciplined, with time ticking away, from a rare French sortie up-field Léon Glovacki scored to kill off home hopes. It had been an exemplary away performance by Stade Reims; first quelling the home team’s ardour and then working an opportunity to score the decisive goal.

Reims would go through to the final, eventually losing out 4-3 to Real Madrid in a fittingly epic game back on their own pitch in Paris. The final, and the games leading up to it, had given UEFA competition the launch it required, and Hibernian’s contribution to the success of the tournament had been considerable.

Hibernian would qualify for the UEFA Cup in 1961 and a glorious run saw them defeat Lausanne and the mighty Barcelona, before facing Roma in the semi-final. A pair of drawn games against the Italians meant a playoff to decide who would advance to the final.

In an inexplicable collapse of from, the Edinburgh side capitulated 6-0. In 1964, legendary manager Jock Stein arrived at Easter Road. To the great chagrin of the Easter Road fans, at this time Hearts were playing in Europe, but the team Stein had taken over had failed to qualify. Undaunted, he managed to arrange a friendly at Easter Road against the might of Real Madrid and Hibs defeated the European aristocrats 2-0 on a momentous evening.

There would be other European ventures for Hibernian, but perhaps none as great as when they flew the British standard proudly – and with no little success – into European competition for the first time.

Fans of Celtic, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Chelsea should perhaps spare a thought for the far-sighted decision taken by the Easter Road club when others had been dissuaded from taking on the challenge. Without that pioneering spirit, fans of those six clubs may not have had the opportunity to enjoy the greatest nights in their clubs’ histories.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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