It was chilling to read Billy McNeill’s bitter recollections of the infamous 1974 European Cup semi-final first leg at Celtic Park against Atletico Madrid. Clearly, that night has left him with indelible psychological scars – and no wonder!
I was there … and 37 years down the line, it remains the single most brutal and cynical display I ever witnessed on a football field. It also stands as a most astonishing monument to mass restraint; because the anger of the seething horde of Celtic fans who witnessed that prolonged public assault, particularly (though, not exclusively) on Jimmy Johnstone, could so easily have boiled over into a riot. That it did not is to their eternal credit.
According to big Billy, the players themselves and it seems, even Glasgow’s finest, in a rare display of solidarity with the Celtic cause, showed a little less self control after the final whistle – again, little wonder, in the face of such extreme provocation.
Traditionally, Spanish football has been and is more noted for artistry than thuggery – and indeed, Atletico demonstrated as much in the ensuing second leg and in the first final, which they so nearly won, to indelibly taint the world’s greatest club competition with the endorsement of their Parkhead butchery. Thankfully, though, they were thwarted by a last-gasp extra time equaliser, before being royally humped 4-0 by a rampant Bayern Munich in the replay.
What could have prompted a potentially talented side’s descent into such black arts?
It seems less than coincidental that the Atletico manager of the time, the Argentinian Juan Carlos Lorenzo, was the very same coach as “masterminded” South American Champions, Racing Club’s 1967 World Club Championship “triumph” over Celtic in the notorious second leg double-header in Buenos Aires and Montevideo on 1st and 5th November that year. There is a school of thought that Racing Club’s violent approach to those matches was ignorantly provoked as much by a desire for naked retribution over Alf Ramsey’s “animals” slur on Lorenzo-led Argentina during the 1966 World Cup in England, as by lofty football ambition. Perhaps, though, it was simply the natural inclination of a team led by a coach whose most basic football instincts and lust for success at any cost were honed in the gutter and would manifest themselves again some seven years later in the east end of Glasgow.
Be that as it may … unforgivably … Lorenzo directly contributed to the two most distasteful episodes of Celtic history in my lifetime, rivalled only by a similar experience against Rapid Vienna ten years later and (though in a totally different context) the supreme disappointment of Milan 1970.
So, it’s all his fault … Lorenzo … I was only kidding about Ramsey!
Subject to the satisfactory outcome of the UEFA / Sion fiasco, it is greatly to be hoped that the ghosts of that awful night in 1974 can be laid to rest once and for all in the forthcoming Europa League group, as much in the manner of the contest as in its outcome.
C’mon the Hoops!!!