15th September 1968
It would have quite amusing in other circumstances but the day after a defeat in an Old Firm match was not the time. The place was my local church on Sunday morning, where I received what could only be described as a ‘going-over’. The questions were relentless.
Why did Jock Stein pick that team? Was everyone fit? Had the players been more concerned with the European Cup tie coming up four days later? And, best of all, did they not realise that we were expecting a win?
All very relevant queries, of course, (except for that last one) but the big problem as regards my answers was that I had not been playing in that match. I had been in the Reserve side which won at Ibrox, so I could only shrug my shoulders when the questions were being asked and I made a point of getting home as promptly as possible. I thought that I had reached safety but, glory be, Dad had been reading the reports in the press, which all seemed to indicate that Celtic had not been up to the task and he started to ask me questions about the match too! Was there no peace in this world? I spent most of the day indoors.
16th September 1968
We all reported early at Celtic Park on the Monday morning for the trip to France. It had turned out to be a fascinating European Cup thus far. The Celtic Board, of course, had refused to travel to play our original opponents – Ferencvaros of Hungary – in protest at the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Other countries then followed Celtic’s lead and some Eastern Bloc countries also boycotted the competition in protest.
The rearranged draw had paired Celtic with French Champions St Etienne and someone had been dispatched to see them in action. The players travelling were the eleven who had started against Rangers – minus Tam Gemmell with a knee injury – plus myself, Stevie Chalmers, John Fallon, Charlie Gallagher, Joe McBride, Lou Macari and John Gorman. The European rules had been changed so that each team was now allowed to have 16 players stripped and ready to play, with two substitutes allowed any time in the game.
Our flight left Prestwick right on time and arrived equally promptly at our destination. Then we were bussed to our hotel and allocated our rooms. I was in for a new experience. My usual room-mate was Tam Gemmell but with him missing out on the trip, I was paired up with Joe McBride. It was quite a reunion. “Sursum Corda” he said when the Boss read the pairing out. Everyone looked at Joe wondering what he was talking about but he was only stating the school motto of St Gerard’s in Govan, which he and I had both attended. It meant ‘Lift up Your Hearts’ – not the worst idea two days before a major match.
After leaving our bags in our rooms, we came downstairs for a cup of tea, then got ready for something that I always looked forward to – ‘Neilly’s Walk’. Our coach Neilly Mochan always took us for a little stroll at a time like that, merely to get the leg muscles loosened up after the flight. On paper, appeared a good idea and I suppose it was in practice as well but the problem was that Neilly never spent any time assessing the highways and byways of whatever city we were in, so his walks could be adventurous, unpredictable or even sometimes dangerous. However, they did get the trip off to an interesting start!
Later in the evening, we trained at St Etienne’s ground -the Stade Geoffrey Guichard – and found it excellent. If we did not play all that well against the French champions, then you could not blame the pitch.
17th September 1968
Jock Stein had given some quotes to the reporters before we left Prestwick and I was told by one of the reporters accompanying us what he had said. The biggest problem was the fitness of Bobby Lennox and the Boss’s comment was – “It is still too early to say whether or not he will play on Wednesday. His knee is still giving a bit of trouble but we will do everything possible to have him fit. He will have treatment as soon as we arrive in St Etienne and, if necessary, we will work on the knee almost non-stop until the 8.30pm kick-off time”.
The day before a match like that can drag a bit. You have breakfast at the usual time, then a shorter walk with Neilly, followed by lunch and a session just lounging round the hotel before heading off for another training session, which took place in the late afternoon, still under the floodlights but not at the time of the match, which would have meant us having dinner at far too late a time. And, as usually happens on away trips, the fans started to arrive at the hotel and you could see from his face that the Boss was not happy. So, we were moved away to a private room where he could give us some info on how St Etienne went about their business, their personnel, the system, the most dangerous players plus what he expected us to do. It was pretty intense and the players listened intently.
One unusual feature of the evening was that he told us the team, which always makes those named in the side feel good and gives those left out an excuse to moan a bit. And they did!
Day of the Match 18th September 1968
Breakfast, another of Neilly’s walks – a fairly short one this time – lunch, then back to bed for a few hours. That was the usual pre-match routine anywhere we went and it was much the same in St Etienne.
Eventually, the time came for us to leave for the stadium and I, for one, was really looking forward to the match. We had been told in the briefing that the French Champions played without a left-winger, so the plan was for me to attack their left side as often as possible from the start of the match and once they were tiring, Jinky would take them on, having played through the middle up to that point.
Durkovic, Bosquier, Jacquet
Fereu, Herbin, Revelli, Keita, Bereta.
Brogan, McNeill, Clark
Johnstone, Connelly, Wallace, Lennox, Hughes
Subs: Fallon, Gorman, Gallagher, McBride, Macari
When the teams lined up, I noticed that they had a player in the outside-left position. Once play began, I was impressed by his pace and ability, as well as put off by the fact that he was short and stocky – just what you don’t want when you are 6 feet I inch with long legs! However, I assumed that he had just lined up in that position and would soon move somewhere else; I could not have been more wrong. He was a left-winger…and a very good one too!
We started well enough but were soon hit by a blow in the 24th minute when the Mali international Salif Keita – known in France as the ‘Black Flash’ – scored with a shot following a corner. And 14 minutes later, we were really up against it when Revelli scored a second as he got his head to a corner, although our defence was adamant that Ronnie had been impeded.
Apart from the goals, we had held the French team quite well but did not look too impressive ourselves. Due to injury, the team had been quite dramatically changed from what most people would regard as its best eleven but we were also having one of those nights when we were less impressive than usual. Our wide men, Jinky and Yogi, were well held. And an incident at the interval did not help matters.
We were no sooner in the dressing-room than the Boss rounded on me and said “you have not got forward once in that first half”. I was furious and just about to reply when, probably fortunately, another player spoke up and said to him quite strongly “you told us that they did not play with a left-winger and Cairney has had his hands full with a real star-turn. No wonder he has not got forward”.
As the player in question was not one noted either for raising his voice or challenging the manager, the Boss was very taken aback but soon calmed down a bit and gave a little pep-talk about what he wanted in the second half.
In actual fact, once the second half began, either we raised our game a bit or they dropped off a little, as the play suddenly became very much end-to-end and we had a couple of near misses. We also were on the receiving end of some doubtful decisions by the Portuguese referee Senor Oliviera. However, at the final whistle, it was still …….
St Etienne 2 Celtic 0
It would be fair to say that nobody in the travelling party was in a good mood. The Boss was obviously not pleased with the performance; the backroom team went about their business in silence, a sure sign that they were not happy; the players were annoyed that for some reason, we were unable to come up with the goods when it mattered; and the 350 Celtic fans who had travelled to the match were in despair.
When we got back to the hotel, we were provided with some food, which was taken in near silence and soon we were all heading for bed.
And the following day, the headline in the papers pointed out that another disaster was looming –
Celtic In Danger Of Another First Round Defeat
On the same night, Dunfermline beat Apoel Nicosia 10-0 in the Cup Winners’ Cup; while in the Fairs Cup, Rangers defeated Vojvodina 2-0, Morton lost 0-5 to Chelsea and Hibs won 3-0 against Olimpija Ljubljana away.