“I can assure you, those rosary beads from Jimmy Cook were passed around the plane quite often.”
A caper in the 1969/70 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup presented Scotland’s oldest professional club with some of their most resilient European adversaries. Windswept, militaria-laden passport officers flanked by lines of fighter jets; a henchman goalkeeper specialising in lethal pull-and-punch handshakes; a referee who “didn’t see nothing” led to Kilmarnock’s adventurers to a chilly denouement: a game of football’s desperate, wheezing, grasping attempt to break free of its predictable fate.
NEED TO KNOW BASIS
Travel to Switzerland, Bulgaria and Romania no doubt resulted in increasing levels of frustration and confusion for the hard-pressed Rugby Park office staff, each round revealing a yet more mysterious destination.
Kilmarnock’s administrators of the 1960s were well placed to cope – up to a point: their semi-regular transatlantic flights to compete in the US International Soccer League had provided countless logistical challenges. But arranging an itinerary to a remote region of Romania? A headache.
In the boot room, Killie were also well served. Manager Walter McCrae was one of the most forward-thinking strategists in the country, his philosophy inspired by time spent in the company of Helenio Herrera. The scope of his scouting network was restricted, though.
Reconnaissance on FC Zürich, Slavia Sofia and Dinamo Bacău amounted to referring to a well-thumbed Rolodex for the landline numbers of select journalists. Simply put, by striker Ross Mathie, “Walter McCrae had phoned one or two pressmen he knew who had a contact in Switzerland.”
R1: FC ZÜRICH
Mathie’s goals were a regular feature in 1969/70, with 30 in all competitions. He and Jim McLean – don’t forget the vinegary managerial legend’s less well-remembered career as a midfield schemer – established an early lead in Switzerland, perhaps made possible by tactical insights gleaned by McCrae’s snoopers. The advantage was eventually squandered but a 3-2 defeat left the visitors hopeful.
“The two goals were a lifesaver for us. The first tie gave us the opportunity – we had seen them, and they had seen us.”
In that, a conundrum: Zürich also now knew what to expect. Kilmarnock of the late-60s, though, remained a force to be reckoned with. Key personnel from Willie Waddell’s 1965 title-winning squad stood proud and defiant in a still very capable team, including captain Frank Beattie, now 36, fellow defenders Jackie McGrory, Andy King and Billy Dickson, and the feted Tommy McLean. These were players who had faced – and at times seriously irritated – the elite of Europe, most notably Real Madrid in a 2-2 draw.
This encounter with the 1964 European Cup semi-finalists proved to be another classic. The 3-1 second leg win is arguably most noteworthy for a name on the scoresheet. Jackie McGrory didn’t venture forward much in his 450-game career – it wasn’t his job. This, however, was one of those rare occasions. Even more surprising, he scored. And from open play, no less. His only goal in professional football.
R2: SLAVIA SOFIA
The first leg was largely routine. With Kilmarnock 4-0 up late on thanks to a double by the ubiquitous Mathie, and Jimmy Cook and John Gilmour with one apiece, the Bulgarian opponents grabbed one back, leaving just enough for manager McCrae to ponder during a long and uneventful flight to Bulgaria a few days later.
Uneventful, you say? Put that notepad under your seat, Walter.
Goalscorer Mathie recalls, “We hit a thunderstorm. I was sitting next to Jimmy Cook and he had his rosary beads out because, when the lightning flashed, you could see it coming through the window. We were being swayed all over the place.
“The plane was only a few feet from the ground when the pilot took it up again – the gale made it impossible to land for another 30 minutes. I can assure you those rosary beads from Jimmy Cook were passed around the plane quite often!”
Alas, all that was on offer to settle the nerves was one large bottle of Bulgarian wine served by a stewardess with distinctly precarious footing, wrestling a hospital trolley down the aisle.
The 90 minutes was just as much a struggle. “Within ten minutes we were 2-0 down. I remember playing up front that day and there was this massive clock behind the goal we were defending. For the rest of the game, I watched the big hand, tick. tick, and it didn’t seem to be going fast.”
Ultimately, the hosts’ search for a third, decisive goal was in vain, the experienced Scottish defence resolute. And the reward for besting this test of endurance? European midwinter in Ceaușescu’s Romania, halfway between Bran Castle and the Moldavian border. An expedition.
R3: DINAMO BACĂU
The smart ones knew – despite his small and slight frame – not to mess with Jimmy Cook. But for all his on-field tenacity, the winger was more reflective character off the park. “Playing in Europe was both exciting and frightening. It was exciting because we had the opportunity to travel, and everybody liked that. It was frightening because of the unknown nature of the opposition. Here, we had no inclination about what was going to happen.
“Dinamo Bacău was a different proposition entirely – there was nobody below six feet tall. They were tanks. They were ferocious. The full-back marking me was kicking lumps out me all game. Every time I took him on, he would scythe me down.”
Cook, in six years on the Kilmarnock flanks, had the pleasure of being booted by many of the finest persuaders, Billy McNeill and Sandy Jardine among their ranks. If he says the Romanians were tough, they were tough.
Despite Mathie opening the scoring in the first match with his fourth goal in five in the competition, the sturdy visitors dispirited the already bitter near-8,000 souls inside a freezing Rugby Park, Petre Băluţă with an equaliser in the 73rd minute. With away goals at play, 1-1 was a high tariff scoreline yet no significant response was offered by Killie in the final quarter of an hour. A positive result away from home was now essential.
Preparations for the return were dealt a severe blow only three days later. To lose the granite-hewn Frank Beattie, even at veteran stage, would have damaged any back-line in Scotland. A leg injury sustained in an accidental clash with Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone kept him out of football for the best part of 18 months, and all but ended his career. The physicality, nous and inspirational leadership he had provided for 15 years would certainly be missed against battle-ready rivals.
The weakened defence was not the only obstacle to safe passage to the quarter-final. According to Mathie, “The tie should never have been played. I had a cine camera with me and, on the morning of the game, I took shots of a wee boy in the goalmouth ice skating. The pitch was frozen. I’m not making that the excuse, but it was in your mind that foot-wise it wasn’t clever. These days there are so many UEFA officials, but in those days, it was just a matter of turn up and play.”
The welcome of the cowbell-ringing, Cossack hat-wearing home support was friendly, a contrast to the on-field temperature. In the tunnel, Kilmarnock’s bullish striker, Eddie Morrison, renewed his acquaintance with goalkeeper Aristide Ghiţă. “It stemmed from the game at Rugby Park and especially his antics at corners. He punched Eddie and had a right go back and forward with him.
“In Bacău, in the tunnel, the goalie saw him, and he put his hand forward to shake. When Eddie took it, the goalie pulled Eddie towards him and punched him in the jaw. All mayhem broke loose. But the officials didn’t see it because they were at the front.”
That Mathie describes the incident as “shenanigans” says a lot about combat in a different footballing era, and of his own mastery of the international art of diplomacy.
Drama over, game on. Daniel Ene’s goal midway through the first half gave the hosts the breathing space they wanted. Would free-scoring Killie – only three of 17 teams netted more in the 1969/70 Scottish Division One season – be able to overcome the testing conditions?
George Maxwell, at 19, would, in the second half, make only appearance number two of an eventual 387. His abiding memory, some 50 years on? The playing surface. “It was frozen. Legend has it that they used flamethrowers to warm the pitch. It was a top inch of muddy slime and underneath was rock hard. To all intents and purposes, it was unplayable.”
Half time: 1-0. The leaden-footed, slime-booted toilers were getting nowhere. Walter McCrae waved over the substitute for his big moment. What was it about the midfielder that the manager thought could be of use in salvaging the campaign?
“We played a five-a-side on the morning of the game and Walter noticed that I could keep my feet better than most. So I got most of the second half. I did have a shot at goal, and it struck one of our players. But it was going into the top corner … not! There was no flowing football. It was keep your feet as best you can, and get the ball forward.”
‘Young Maxwell: less likely to fall over’, McCrae’s notes may have read.
The physicality of Bacău, coupled with some generous refereeing in the eyes of Cook made the challenge insurmountable. Which brings us to another villainous character, referee István Zsolt.
“At every point, you were feeling somebody in our team could be put off for no apparent reason, but they could kick lumps out you and there was no retribution. The whole thing was … I would use the word disgrace. If there was anybody there from the authorities, Bacău would have been thrown out.”
A second Ene goal left the visitors despairing. Having struggled to muster a shot on target, two goals in the last 15 minutes was not a credible plot twist. Full time: 2-0
FLIGHT FROM BACĂU
Dense, freezing fog foiled Kilmarnock’s plans to make a hasty retreat. The comparatively straightforward internal transfer of the day before was no longer an option. With conditions deeming a return flight from Bacău to Bucharest impossible, the Scots braved the rural countryside of the Carpathians, and a coach trip through Dracula country.
For George Maxwell, the landscape remains vivid: “It was unbelievable in terms of poverty. Just horrendous. Horse-drawn carts and corrugated iron houses.” And still it wasn’t over.
“We were desperate to get home. We got to the airport, but the Romanians said we couldn’t go. The Aer Lingus staff had stayed in Bucharest and were refusing to fly to Bacău. Even when the crew finally arrived, the Romanians didn’t want us to leave. Security came onto the plane with guns. When the pilot did take us up, the plane stayed vertical for ages!”
So egregious was their conduct, news of Bacău’s subsequent 9-1 defeat against Arsenal might well have prompted a few smiles in Ayrshire. And they would feature in European competition just once more. An 11-0 aggregate defeat sustained at the hands of Werder Bremen in the 1992 Cup Winners’ Cup saw the pained Romanians sink beneath the surface and disappear from view, assumed never to be seen again.
By Gordon Gillen @KillieHistories