Celtic play Rangers on Sunday in a title-deciding match at Parkhead. Perhaps we’ve all been…
June 20, 2018, was only ever going to be about one man. This is a man with an unrelenting determination to prove the world wrong and an indisputable ability to defy the odds. He watches conformity stumble towards him, desperate for entry into his world. ‘Not tonight, mate’, comes the steadfast reply. As Cristiano Ronaldo sledgehammered in his fourth goal of the World Cup against Morocco, the world’s attention was surely elsewhere, on Sean Dyche.
On that fateful day, Dyche’s Burnley team were drawn against a side with genuine European pedigree in the Europa League draw. Aberdeen, of course, won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983. They reached the European Cup quarter-finals, knocked out on the away goals rule by Gothenburg – where they had beaten Real Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup final three years previously. They even made it out of the Europa League group stage as recently as 2008, where they avoided defeat against Bayern Munich in the first leg before being edged out 5-1 in the return.
Burnley also have European pedigree, reaching the 1961 European Cup quarter-final only to be narrowly beaten by Hamburg. But the world has moved on since either of the club’s most recent European runs. Britain is being run by blundering Etonians, an egotistical president with a shaky record as a businessman is the president of the United States and Russia stands accused of murdering a high-profile dissenter. The draw has not been met with the sense of anticipation you might expect from the meeting of two clubs with memorable forays on the continent.
Having been asked for comment while presumably enjoying his summer in a local beer garden, Dyche could easily contain his excitement. “Everyone knows it could have been anything, looking at the draw with the amount of different teams from different countries involved. And lo and behold we get someone just up the road.”
Liam Waddington, a Burnley fan and YouTuber who looks slightly more like a computer-generated Fifa player than a real person, took to YouTube to broadcast his jubilation: “I’ve waited fifteen years of my life to play against some other team. I want to go to Slovenia, Macedonia, Kazakhstan. We’re going to fucking Scotland.”
Adjust the number of years and the last word, and Waddington may well have summed up the initial consensus of most Burnley and Aberdeen fans. Since then, however, Aberdeen supporters have embraced the prospect of the shorter than expected Europa League trip. Perhaps they know their history, for there is always a reason for optimism when Scottish teams meet English ones in knockout football.
During a now unimaginable decade when Scottish European runs were more than a return flight to Luxemburg, Dundee were looking to reach a major continental final after defeat at the semi-final stage of the European Cup five years previously. This time the semi-final appearance was in the Fairs Cup, the unofficial predecessor to the UEFA Cup. In an era before the commercial interests established a stranglehold on the game, the competition was created with the most romantic of intentions – to advertise international trade fairs. Ties were originally played between cities, not clubs, and the inaugural competition took three years to complete due to domestic fixture clashes.
By 1968 things had moved on to a more recognisable format. Dundee FC were facing Leeds United FC. Dundee faced the daunting task of facing the side which had knocked out a Hibernian team that had come back from a 4-1 first-leg defeat to Napoli to win 6-4 on aggregate. Leeds then eliminated Rangers and were eager to make it a hat-trick of Scottish scalps. Don Revie’s team came north for a close encounter at Dens Park on May Day, where 30,000 home fans helped inspire right-back, Bobby Wilson, to become the unlikely hero, equalising after a Paul Madeley opener.
The second leg, played two weeks later, though low-scoring, sums up the element of farce which tends to accompany ties between English and Scottish clubs. Three stands of raucous Leeds United fans rose to their feet to welcome their heroes back – construction work had begun on the roof of the Gelderd End and the stand lay empty. Playing their 64th game of the season, Leeds were eventually victorious in a tense match after switching Billy Bremner into more advanced role led to a second half of sustained pressure. It was not a goal-fest, but the tie emphasised the ability of Scottish clubs to mix it with the titans of England.
No discussion of ties between Scottish and English teams would be complete without the Anglo-Scottish Cup, obviously. In an early advert for Summer Football (which is surely shelved in light of this year’s heatwave), the competition took place during the off-season between 1975 and 1981.
The Cup was contested by 16 English teams and eight Scottish ones and before the competition lost some of its gloss the majority came from the top divisions of the respective countries. There were some notable exceptions, including Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1976. Their quarter-final opponents were a recently-promoted Kilmarnock team who would be back in the second tier come the following season.
The squad coming north featured current Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and probably Forest’s greatest ever player, John Robertson. Teammate Larry Lloyd once said of the Scot: “He was slower even than me, but that little fat bastard was a magician.” Commentator Davie Provan and former SFA chief executive Gordon Smith were in the Kilmarnock ranks.
Forest needed extra time in the Rugby Park second leg to edge out Kilmarnock 4-3 on aggregate and eventually won the trophy. Kilmarnock could at least find solace in the next round when Ayrshire rivals Ayr United – who advanced because opponents Newcastle were expelled for fielding a weakened team – were defeated by Forest.
On the surface, the Kilmarnock tie lacked glamour, but the encounter would prove to be somewhat prescient. Forest won promotion that season and the First Division title the next. Then came two European Cups. “Those who said it was a nothing trophy were absolutely crackers,” Clough later told Provided You Don’t Kiss Me author Duncan Hamilton. “We’d won something, and it made all the difference.” On reflection, he added: “Our lot tasted champagne and found that they liked it.”
As Aberdeen look forward to their first-round encounter with English opposition, they need only consult Wikipedia for inspiration. The Aberdeen team in 1981 were in need of inspiration too, having been battered into submission by Liverpool in the second round of the European Cup. Such was Ferguson’s fury on the seven-hour bus journey back from Anfield, he threatened to fine any player that laughed.
The next European mission did not seem any easier. Bobby Robson’s team were the UEFA Cup holders. England stalwarts Terry Butcher and Paul Mariner, as well as Total Football-era Netherlands internationals Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren, were the amongst the opposition.
The Dons displayed signs of a newfound maturity in the first leg, drawing 1-1 at Portman Road. In the second leg, Ferguson’s team showed they could do what all great Ferguson sides could – throttling the opposition at home on a European night. Gordon Strachan converted a penalty before Peter Weir scored two remarkable solo goals to settle the tie with a 3-1 victory.
The tie brought not only drama but a meeting of legendary managers from each country. The pair were even able to conceal their competitive edge by the end of the game. Ferguson later reflected: “Even though they [Ipswich] lost he [Robson] came into the dressing room straight after the game – not an easy thing to do – and told us we could win the cup and not to let him down. Unfortunately, we did, because we lost to Hamburg in the quarter-final.”
The Channel Tunnel was now open, but Leeds fans had no need to look up Eurostar in the yellow pages. In fact, they had no reason to go anywhere. Away supporters were banned from travelling, giving this tie a particularly partisan feel.
Rangers were on their way to nine in a row. Leeds were the final champions of the old First Division. This was the new ‘Battle of Britain’. But the battle began with the firing of blanks. Leeds players trudged off the field in despair in September, having been knocked out on away goals by Stuttgart. It soon emerged, however, that the Germans had exceeded the foreign player limit after substituting Yugoslav defender Jovo Simanic on for eight minutes. A replay was arranged at a virtually empty Camp Nou and Leeds’ rise from the ashes was complete.
Despite their close shave, Leeds perhaps underestimated their task in the first leg in Glasgow. They had good reason to, having been put ahead by Gary McAllister within one minute. Yet, a John Lukic own goal and a strike from Britain’s favourite co-commentator, Ally McCoist, meant the tie was finely balanced ahead of the second leg.
Eric Cantona showed a glimmer of his potential with a tidy half-volley at Elland Road. But it was too late. His strike had already been outshone by that of Mark Hateley, who gave Rangers the early lead before McCoist used his bobbing locks to head home a second on the counter-attack. By the time the season was over, he had scored 49 in 52 appearances.
And so Rangers won the honour of becoming the first British team to appear in the Champions League group stages. That is as far as they would go, despite remaining unbeaten. They were pipped to top spot by eventual champions Marseille.
Perhaps the last Scottish team to truly light up a European competition, Martin O’Neill’s muscular side travelled to Liverpool in need of a win. The tie had been given an imaginative title, ‘The Battle of Britain’ – Celtic’s second such battle after a second-round victory over Blackburn Rovers.
Henrik Larsson’s broken jaw had recovered in time for the first leg, which was lucky because he was screaming to the heavens within 2 minutes of kick-off, having opened the scoring. Things were going well for most Celtic fans at this point, apart from those covered in the grog of El Hadji Diouf, who took it upon himself to make early introductions with his future Old Firm foes. Things then got worse for all of the Celtic fans, as figure of fun Emile Heskey equalised and the first leg finished 1-1.
A week later, the battle recommenced. In what could turn out to be a moment of foreshadowing, a naive Steven Gerrard seemed not to have done his homework on Rangers’ biggest rivals, as he handily jumped over Alan Thomson’s low shot from a 25-yard free-kick. The ball caught Jerzy Dudek unawares and Liverpool seemed stunned into inaction. The tie was decided when John Hartson channelled his inner Gabriel Batistuta to bludgeon home the clincher in the 82nd minute.
So whether the tie is a signal of things to come, lays down a marker to European rivals or provides unaltered drama, let’s hope Aberdeen vs Burnley exceeds Sean Dyche’s expectations.