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The European purple patch: Scottish success in the late 1980s

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23rd March 1986 Glenrothes-born David Speedie had just scored the ‘perfect’ hat trick in a Wembley final. In the Full Members Cup, created to replace European football in England after the post-Heysel ban, a Chelsea side with five Scots in the starting line-up triumphed 5-4. This represented a low point in English football.

In contrast football north of the border was in the ascendancy, with a strong possibility of a Super League involving at least one Scottish club. Grounds like Ibrox, Pittodrie and Parkhead were highly regarded, and seen as superior to many in England.

In Europe, Scottish clubs were on the rise. 30 years on from the Heysel ban, it is timely to review the European purple patch of Scottish football in the late 1980s.

In 1983, a 42-year-old Alex Ferguson had won the Cup Winners’ Cup and Super Cup with Aberdeen. In his last full season, he led them to the 1986 European Cup quarter-final, beating Akranes (Iceland) and Servette (Switzerland) en route a tie with IFK Gothenburg, managed by Gunder Bengtsson.

The Reds’ team was built around the formidable defensive triangle of Jim Leighton, Willie Miller and Alex McLeish. For Ferguson, this was a painful early experience of the competition, with the Swedes nicking a 2-2 draw at Pittodrie to go through on away goals. Agonisingly Aberdeen had led 2-1 until Johnny Ekstrom struck in the 89th minute.

It’s fair to say that Gothenburg were something of a bogey team for both Scottish clubs and Ferguson at the time, with United torn apart by them at the Ullevi stadium in November 1994.

Together with Aberdeen, Dundee United formed the ‘New Firm’ of Scottish football. Their manager at the time, Jim McLean, is regarded as one of the best of the period, having guided the Tangerines to several top three finishes.

Perhaps the best achievement of the period was their appearance in the 1987 UEFA cup final. Up to this point, they had conceded just one goal in the whole competition, against Barcelona in the Nou Camp. The Catalans were a team of superstars managed by ‘El Tel’ Venables, with Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker spearheading their attack. Only a year previously they had reached the European Cup final, losing to Steaua Bucharest on penalties.

United went to the Nou camp with a 1-0 lead, but were expected to lose the tie, and fell behind to a goal by Caldere. Somehow, they managed two goals in the last five minutes, scoring through John Clark and Iain Ferguson.

Until Bayern Munich’s recent 7-0 aggregate victory over Barcelona in 2013, Dundee United were the last team to beat Barcelona in both legs of a European tie. In fact they were regarded as the Catalans bogey team, having beaten them in 1966 and earlier in 1980s.

Like Aberdeen, the Tangerines came a cropper against IFK Gothenburg over two legs, losing 2-1 on aggregate. Despite the result, the Tannadice fans were awarded the inaugural FIFA Fair Play award for their behaviour in the defeat.

Under Graeme Souness, Rangers matched Aberdeen’s run, reaching the quarter-finals in 1988. They faced three sides from the Eastern bloc, at a time when these were very much the teams to beat. En route to a last eight tie with Steaua Bucharest, they beat Dynamo Kiev 2-1 and Gornik Zabzre (of Poland) 4-1. The Romanian champions, managed by Anghel Iordanescu, won 2-0 in Bucharest before Rangers responded with a 2-1 win at Ibrox. Steaua took a shock lead when a simple ball over the top was cheekily chipped over Chris Woods by Marius Lacatus. Rangers responded with a header from Gough and a penalty from Ally McCoist. To date this is the furthest that Rangers have got in the European Cup, barring their run to the Champions League group stage in 1992/3, when they were on the brink of qualifying for the final.

The wave of Scottish success was concluded by Hearts’ appearance in the UEFA Cup quarters. Managed by Alex Macdonald, they had famously come within seven minutes of winning the league in 1985/86. They qualified by virtue of second place in 1987/88, and started their European campaign at St Patricks’ Richmond Stadium on 7 September 1988. A 2-0 win was followed by the same score line at Tynecastle, and Hearts were on their way.

A narrow 1-0 win over Austria Wien was followed by a 4-2 win over Velez Mostar (of Yugoslavia), where smoke-bombs and fireworks made for a hostile atmosphere.

Next up they faced Bayern Munich, managed by a certain Jupp Heynckes. Incredibly, Hearts won 1-0 on a ragged Tynecastle pitch, in front of a raucous crowd of 26, 294. Iain Ferguson, who had a knack of scoring big goals, ensured they took a slim lead to Bavaria with a 55th minute goal. Bayern’s quality eventually told, and they won 2-0 in Germany.

Hearts’ best performance since was reaching the UEFA Cup second round, and a third qualifying round defeat in the Champions League in 2006/07.

There is an irony that in this golden era, there was no European trophy to show for these heroics, compared to the 1960s and 1970s. Several runs ended in the first or second rounds, and the major absentee from this success was Celtic. Not only did they have little success on the European stage, but they also had to play a game against Atletico Madrid behind closed doors after crowd trouble against Rapid Vienna.

Times have changed – Hearts and Rangers are now outside the top-flight, having gone through tumultuous recent times. Only relatively recently did Celtic (2003) and Rangers (2008) reach UEFA Cup finals, and unfortunately no Scottish club has left a serious mark on the Champions League in its current form – Celtic’s magnificent victory over Barcelona excepted.

Due to a gradual chipping away at the Scottish UEFA co-efficient ranking, there are now fewer spaces in Europe for Scottish teams. It’s no longer enough to come in the top three, and teams need to navigate a hazardous set of pre-qualifiers. There is now no European Cup Winners’ Cup, and the Europa League is a sprawling beast of a competition.

Between the dominance of Europe by England in the early 1980s, and the development of the Champions League in 1992/3, this was something of a golden period for Scottish clubs. This perhaps represented the end of a longer period stretching back to the late-1950s, when Hibernian had reached the European Cup semi-finals.

To some extent this was a ‘perfect storm’ where several factors combined to give Scottish teams opportunity on the continent.

There was a power vacuum after the post-Heysel ban, and Scottish teams seemed well-suited to playing two-legged knock-out football. There was also a fusion of great Scottish managers and players. Dundee United, Aberdeen, Rangers and Hearts found themselves at the centre of a European football narrative, in the way that English clubs experienced in their peak years of 1977-1985 and 2005-2009.

30 years on from Heysel, and 29 on from Speedie’s Wembley hat-trick, the late 1980s has to go down as a purple patch for Scottish clubs.

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