When Hibs led Britain into Europe
Easter Road club first from UK to play in European competition in 1955.
It is often asked why Hibernian were invited to take part in the inaugural European Cup competition in 1955 when Aberdeen were the reigning Scottish champions.
In 1954, Wolverhampton Wanderers had played a couple of friendly matches against continental opposition at their home ground, Molineux. The first was a 4-0 defeat of Moscow Spartak but it was the second of these games against the Hungarian side Honved, then considered to be one of the best club sides in the world, that really caught the imagination of the public. England were still reeling from the humiliation of the 6-3 mauling by Hungary at Wembley the previous year, their first-ever defeat by a foreign side on home soil, followed by an even greater embarrassment in losing 7-1 in the return game in Budapest a few months later. The fact that Hungary had reached that year’s World Cup Final in Switzerland, losing only narrowly to West Germany, and that the Magyar side contained no fewer than six of the side that had faced England at Wembley, including Koscis and Puskas, cut no ice with the English football community. They were badly wounded and the game against Honved was the perfect opportunity to gain revenge for the earlier defeats.
Played under the recently installed Molineux floodlights on 13 December, 1954, and shown live on TV, Wolves eventually emerged victorious, winning 3-2. In the dressing room after the game the Wolves manager, Stan Cullis, himself a former England international centre-half of the no-nonsense variety, who had once been heard to remark that “our forwards are not encouraged to parade their ability in an ostentatious fashion”, introduced his triumphant players to the assembled press reporters: “There they are, the champions of the world”. Exaggerated or not, the next morning the country awoke to newspaper headlines such as Hail Wolves, champions of the world and Wolves can now rightly proclaim themselves to be champions of the world.
Meanwhile in Paris, Gabriel Hanot, a former French international who carried much influence in the game and was now editor of the influential daily sports paper, L’Equipe, wondered how a team could consider themselves world champions after playing only two games, both of them at home, and there and then decided to attempt to remedy the situation.
Intercontinental competition was nothing new and had taken place as early as the opening years of last century. In the late 1920s, teams from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Italy and other mid European countries had taken part in a competition called the Mitropa Cup. This had been replaced in the late 1940s by the Latin Cup as the top competition in Europe. This tournament was contested between the champions of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal but, because it involved only sides from one area of Europe, the idea had not proved universally popular. Things were different now. An air of post-war optimism was sweeping the continent and Hanot thought the time was right to reinvent the idea of a European League.
Backed by L’Equipe who also sponsored the immensely popular Tour de France, a committee was formed and representatives from selected countries invited to an all-expenses paid meeting in the French capital on 2 April, 1955.
There was an initial problem, however, when Fifa insisted that the new competition would have to be overseen by an official body. They themselves had no wish to become involved but suggested that, perhaps, Uefa, which had been founded only the previous year, might be prepared to take the competition under its wing. The response from Uefa, however, was also lukewarm, and it was only when Hanot and his committee demonstrated their resolve to continue that Uefa finally relented and took the proposed new competition under its control.
Unfortunately this would mean exclusion for Hanot and his enterprising committee but a place for the Scottish League secretary, Sir George Graham, who took over as chairman of the new organising council.
When the idea for the new competition had first been raised, very few, if any, of the league championships in the invited countries would already have been settled and it was decided that for that year only entry would be by invite based on entertainment appeal and crowd-drawing ability.
Representatives from 18 sides had been invited to the first meeting in Paris, Hibernian of Edinburgh selected to represent Scotland. All 15 clubs who attended the meeting would be accepted for the first-round draw and, of the three who agreed their interest by letter, Hibs were accepted as one of the 16 sides who would take part in the inaugural competition. Played on a straight knockout home-and- away basis instead of the league format that had been favoured by Hanot, the new tournament would be named The European Champions Cup, and thereafter contested only between the champions of each country. Champions Chelsea had been invited to represent England and had even been included in the first-round draw, but later withdrew from the competition on the advice of the Football League who perhaps felt that it would be unwise to play too many games in a season. There were some however who felt that English pride had already suffered enough on the European stage without risking further embarrassment, and that this was the real reason behind the request for Chelsea’s withdrawal.
Although the Edinburgh side had won the championship three times since the war, in Scotland there was not universal acceptance of Hibs’ inclusion. Aberdeen were the reigning champions, but there are differing views regarding the Dons’ exclusion.
Some were of the opinion that the club was highly sceptical of the new competition, as were second-placed Rangers, neither wishing to be involved, an opinion shared by the Hibs chairman Harry Swan, while others thought that Aberdeen were angry at being snubbed in favour of Hibs. As far as Aberdeen were concerned, the lack of floodlights at Pittodrie and the clubs cynical attitude towards the innovation would perhaps have proved a major obstacle to their taking part. The use of floodlights had played a major part in the success of the new competition, but, as late as 1959, Aberdeen were still refusing to play under the Easter Road lights saying that it gave their opponents an unfair advantage.
What is not in doubt, however, is Hibs reputation on the continent. The entry in that year’s official Hibs Handbook states: “It is a tribute to the prestige enjoyed by Hibernian in continental football that they should be invited to represent Scotland. Based on last season’s performance other sides may have had equal or stronger claims, but based over the past few seasons no other Scottish side has undertaken so many testing games against crack continentals, or fared so well against them all over Europe, than the Hibs.”
In a newspaper article many years later, Swan would recall that the idea of a European tournament had first been broached during the 1954 World Cup Finals in Switzerland. During the competition he had apparently been asked if he thought that Sir George Graham would be in favour of helping to form a European Association to combat what was then seen as the rising influence of the Eastern Bloc on Fifa, but no more would be heard about the subject until Swan was contacted by Hanot the following year.
Regardless, the Easter Road side entered the inaugural competition, one of nine teams not to have won their respective championships. In defeating the West German side Rot Weiss of Essen 5-1 over two legs, Eddie Turnbull became the first British player to score a goal in a competitive European competition in the away game in Germany that was watched by over 1,000 soldiers from the British Army of the Rhine who, regardless of any hometown allegiances, were determined to provide vocal backing for the Scottish side. The Hibs side that evening was Younger, Higgins and Paterson, Thomson, Plenderleith and Preston, Smith, Turnbull, Reilly, Combe and Ormond.
Just days before the return game in Edinburgh, Gordon Smith and Tommy Younger were selected to represent Scotland against a Danish combination XI in Copenhagen – said to have been the first ever to be played under floodlights in that country. Reilly was called into the squad as a late replacement for the injured Paddy Buckley of Aberdeen but, as it would turn out, Reilly himself would be injured during training and did not play. The main problem as far as Hibs were concerned however was that all three would be delayed by fog in London and would not arrive back in Edinburgh until midway through the second half of the game against Rot Weiss. Reilly’s place would be taken by a young Jock Buchanan, who celebrated his inclusion in the Hibs side by scoring the equalising goal in the 1-1 draw to become the first ever British player to score in a home European Cup game.
Replacing Younger in the side that evening was young reserve goalkeeper Bill Adams. Signed only at the beginning of the season from Ormiston Primrose, it would be Adams one and only outing for the first team before being freed at the end of the season. After a 4-1 aggregate victory over the Swedish side Djurgarden in the next round, the away leg played at Firhill in Glasgow because the pitches in Sweden were ice-bound, Hibs reached the semi-finals only to lose to French side Stade de Reims – including the illustrious Raymond Kopa.
Reims themselves would be defeated 4-3 by Real Madrid in the final in Paris, the first of five consecutive victories in the competition for the Spanish side.
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