The 1966-67 European Cup campaign finally saw the Iberian-Italian stranglehold broken as Celtic famously stormed to an unlikely victory, in doing so becoming the first British club to lift the coveted trophy. But beyond this incredible effort by Jock Stein’s side was a tournament that mattered on so many levels, from the progress of unheralded Bulgarian and Irish sides to reach heights they had hitherto merely dreamed of, to the first sighting outside of the Netherlands of a certain Johan Cruyff and his subsequent role in Ajax’s shock win over Liverpool.
Few tournaments had so many twists and turns on the long road to the final in Lisbon where Celtic would defeat Inter Milan. One such twist came with Linfield’s shock run to the quarter-finals – due in part to the lottery of the competition at the time, but also to the relative strength of the Northern Ireland champions with emerging stars such as Bryan Hamilton in their side. The team also included Sammy Pavis who scored 237 times in 260 games for the Blues over five seasons., with this remarkable total including 63 during the title-winning 65-66 season, while he would bag more than 50 in each of the following two seasons. Pavis was partnered upfront by Phil Scott who played 400 times for the club and scored 220 goals between 1958 and 1973. Arthur Thomas was a Liverpudlian who found himself in the province when few English players ventured westwards on the ferry.
The highly promising Hamilton was cutting his teeth at Windsor Park and the midfielder would follow George Best on the well-travelled route to England, firstly to Ipswich Town and then Everton. He would play 50 times for Northern Ireland. The efforts in the competition of Linfield goalkeeper Iam McFaul attracted the attention of Newcastle United to where he made a hasty transfer before the quarter-final tie.
The Blues suffered an inauspicious start to the campaign by conceding a goal in the very first minute away at Luxembourg minnows Aris Bonnevoie. Undeterred, Linfield fought back to carve out a 3-1 lead through goals from Scott, Pavis and Hamilton, only for Aris to respond once again and force a draw to leave the fixture delicately poised at 3-3.
Any fears about those late goals were soon dispelled at the Windsor Park second leg as Linfield recorded an easy 6-1 win; Scott getting two, Pavis one and Thomas a hat-trick. The 9-4 aggregate win set them on the way to Norway to face Valerenga at the Bislett Stadion in Oslo.
As had happened in Luxembourg, Linfield fell behind to an early goal before hitting back with four first-half goals: Scott equalised with a volley, Pavis put the visitors ahead, Thomas scored a penalty and Hamilton grabbed the fourth. With no more goals in the second-half the score line finished 4-1 to record was the first away win by an Irish League side in Europe.
The return leg at Windsor Park was something of an anti-climax by comparison, a 1-1 draw with Thomas scoring for the Blues. It mattered little: bore or no bore, Linfield were through to the quarter-finals where they would meet the Bulgarian champions CSKA Sofia. That might have represented unprecedented (and some might say highly fortunate) progress, but without having faced a big name and having drawn only a modest home attendance for the Valerenga second leg, the club reckoned it was about £1,000 out of pocket from its European run – a fortune at the time.
Meanwhile CSKA Sofia was making very steady progress of its own in what would represent the strongest showing in Europe’s premier competition then, and since, by a Bulgarian side. An expected comfortable win over Malta’s Sliema Wanderers in the preliminary round with an aggregate score of 6-1 was followed by a tougher tie against Greece’s Olympiakos. The nation’s army team – then called CSKA Red Flag – did the damage in Sofia by winning 3-1, good enough to render a 1-0 second-leg defeat inconsequential. CSKA’s next away tie brought a heavier defeat, losing 3-0 in Zabrze to Gornik, but again their fine home form saw them through having defeated the Poles 4-0 in the first leg.
Like Linfield, CSKA were fortunate to have avoided any of the big hitters in the competition so far but the draw wasn’t so favourable for Spain’s two entrants. Domestic champions Atletico Madrid were beaten in extra time of a play-off against the Yugoslavs of Vojvodina, while holders and city rivals Real were drawn against their intense rivals Inter Milan, the random nature of the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey draw format being truly exposed. Real, six times winners in just over a decade, up against the champions of 1964 and 1965. In a repeat of the 1964 final in which the Italians won 3-1, Real were again frustrated by Inter’s catenaccio tactics, losing by a single goal in Milan, and by two in the Bernebeu.
Ajax Punish England’s finest
Should Liverpool and Linfield have been paired together there would have been no contest and the Irish would have been happy with a big crowd in Belfast, but the draw was no respecter of reputations and the Belfast club could brag that they went further in the competition than England’s champions.
Liverpool were desperate to advance further than their heart-breaking semi-final appearance in 1965 and try to become the first British side to lift the European Cup. Neither them nor any other English club had ever considered that the feat could be achieved by a team from north of the border. If they were to succeed, Liverpool had to overcome Ajax Amsterdam in the second round after seeing off Romanian champs Petrolul Ploesti in the opening round.
The Dutch hadn’t quite mastered European club football as yet as indicated by Celtic’s 7-0 destruction of Go Ahead Eagles in the Cup Winners’ Cup a year previously. But Ajax under Rinus Michels was forging a reputation as a forward-thinking side with pioneering tactics and a brilliant 19-year-old called Johan Cruyff, who would end up as the Eredivisie’s top scorer that season.
Bill Shankly was concerned at the blanket of thick fog that hung over the Olympic Stadion for the first leg, but despite no-one being able to see to the other end of the pitch, the game kicked off anyway. And so did the Dutch with Cees de Wolf scoring after just three minutes. Soon after Cruyff doubled the lead and with that Shankly stormed onto the pitch to talk to his players, an illegal act unseen by the referee due to the dense fog. Shankly’s intervention had no impact: Klaas Nuninga scored twice and it would finish 5-1 to Ajax at the half-way mark and at full-time. It wasn’t just the fog that undid the English side, rather the burgeoning total football philosophy that seemed to bloom that night.
Any thoughts of an unlikely comeback at Anfield were soon scuppered when Cruyff struck twice and, though it ended 2-2 on the night, Liverpool were out. But as the Liverpool fanzine The Anfield Wrap notes, the Ajax humiliation was the spark that lit a bonfire.
“Underneath the bluster, he [Shankly] was rattled. His Liverpool didn’t get taken apart like that. His Liverpool could not be outplayed and out-thought. His Liverpool were unbeatable. “The repercussions from that night in Amsterdam were vast. Shankly had seen the future and it was murder …. It affected his thinking, his ideas on the game, his entire approach. Where once he had been suspicious of the European game, he began to open up more, embracing the possession-centred, inter-changing, pass and move philosophy that Ajax excelled at. And, eventually, Liverpool became the masters … look closely and you can trace a clear line of evolution from the Dutch fog to the glory of Rome 11 years later.”
For all their dazzling display against Liverpool, Ajax would be turfed out in the next round by unfancied Dukla Prague, the Czechs taking the second leg 2-1 at home after a 1-1 draw in Holland. The result proved that Czech football could make its mark on the club stage as well as at World Cups. The world would need to wait a little longer to see the majestic Cruyff lift major honours.
The business end
In early March 1967, Linfield were looking forward to their unlikely quarter-final tie against CSKA Red Flag. On paper this draw seemed the best hope for the Irishmen to progress, but the Bulgarians had several international stars, including Dimitar Penev and Jordan Filipov, and the national team had been a fixture at the past two World Cups.
Without star keeper McFaul, Linfield had to find a replacement quickly and unfortunately the first leg in Belfast may have come too soon for Tommy Moffatt. Only two minutes had gone when a speculative 30-yard shot from Vasil Romanov sailed past the stranded goalkeeper. The Blues hit back – Hamilton and Tommy Shields both scored to put Linfield ahead before Romanov again scored in the second half from long range to level the score at 2-2.
In the return at the People’s Army Stadium in Sofia, the Blues defended solidly and had some chances of their own, so overall would have been pleased with a scoreless first half. Moffatt redeemed his first leg display with a string of fine saves. But just nine minutes into the second half, Bulgarian international Dimitar Yakimov put CSKA ahead, and ultimately into the semi-finals.
The Belfast Telegraph wrote of the Windsor Park side’s heroic efforts: “This was a magnificent rearguard action from Linfield against a team which outclassed them in skill and fitness. Just think what history would have been made if those soft goals had not been conceded in the first leg at Windsor Park.”
Linfield defender and coach Tommy Leishman recalls the tie against “a very good side” which was rattled by the Blues’ battling display.
“I remember Phil Scott hitting the woodwork against them so I think we were unlucky to go out in the end. Iam McFall’s transfer to Newcastle before the quarter-final was a massive blow as he was an excellent goalkeeper. It was a tremendous experience though and I don’t think we realised at the time what a fantastic achievement it was for a part-time side.”
The carrot for the victors was a semi-final tie against Inter Milan, a fixture the Linfield treasurer would have praying had come about. Forward Arthur Thomas notched five goals in total over the campaign, only one behind tournament top scorer Paul van Himst of Anderlecht.
The Road To Lisbon
As for the eventual champions, Celtic were showing their potential with a challenging, though thoroughly deserved victory over Vojvodina at the same Quarter Final stage, two strikes in Glasgow cancelling out the Yugoslav’s single goal in Novi Sad.
It has often been said in the many retrospective tales of that dazzling campaign that Vojvodina was the strongest side Celtic faced, including Inter. Like Celtic they had nurtured talented youth players with a number representing their nation at various age group levels.
It may have seemed somewhat fanciful that Yugoslavia was dubbed the Brazil of Europe, but there was no escaping its footballing quality – Partizan Belgrade had reached the final of the European Cup in 1966 and Vojvodina had beaten them to the national title. Celtic were well matched, but a late Billy McNeill header in Glasgow was enough to send the Celts into the semi-finals. It wouldn’t get any easier for Celtic against Dukla Prague.
One goal from Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone and two from Willie Wallace carved out a 3-1 win in the first leg at Parkhead before a nervy goalless encounter in Prague took Celtic into the unchartered waters of a European Cup Final. On the other side of the draw Inter were strong favourites against CSKA, but it wasn’t all motorways and green lights for the Italians. The Bulgarians’ defensive game was just as drilled as the Italian’s (in)famous catenaccio system and it helped them to an honourable 1-1 draw in the San Siro, this despite having Kiril Rajkov sent off after just half an hour for punching Luis Suarez.
In Sofia, Giacinto Facchetti, just as he did in Milan, put Inter ahead, only for Nikolay Radlev to equalise on 77 minutes. A third deciding match was required. Some carrots were dangled and the Bulgarians consented to having the match played in Bologna. There, the Italians ground out a 1-0 win courtesy of an early Cappellini goal to finally eliminate the battling Bulgarians.
The Italians were virtually crowned champions even before their final in Lisbon, but Jock Stein’s side defied all expectations, winning 2-1, and setting a range of records in the process. One of those cannot be beaten: the first British team to win Europe’s premier club competition.