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MISERY IN MILAN: CELTIC LEGEND RECALLS THE CLUB’S BIGGEST UPSET

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FIFTY years ago today, Celtic were beaten 2-1 in extra-time by Feyenoord to miss the opportunity of winning the European Cup for the second time in three years.

May 6 1970 is a black date in the club’s history. And one player who suffered more than most was John Hughes – the man affectionately known as ‘Yogi’ to the Hoops support. The juggernaut forward is the club’s seventh-highest goalscorer with 189 strikes, but he was out of luck in the biggest game of his career at the San Siro stadium half-a-century ago.

Hughes, now 77, devoted a chapter to the match in his autobiography, ‘Yogi Bare’, which was co-authored by his good friend and editor Alex Gordon.

In a Scotzine EXCLUSIVE, we present an edited extract of how Yogi recalled the misery in Milan.

FOR decades I have been haunted by THAT miss. I have been so tormented by a lost opportunity against Feyenoord in the 1970 European Cup Final defeat that I have stubbornly and steadfastly refused to watch film of the incident. The anguish of that moment is something I never want to relive.

Nothing or no-one will ever persuade me to revisit it and it’s painful even thinking about that particular instant in time which possibly went a long way to ending my career at Celtic.

God only knows how often I’ve been informed Jock Stein never forgave me for failing to score at the start of extra-time with the game balanced at 1-1 on that fateful evening on May 6 at the San Siro Stadium in Milan. I’ve lost count of the times it has been suggested my apparent penalty box malfunction hastened my departure from Celtic.

True or false? Honestly, I haven’t a clue. Big Jock was an unforgiving character, that’s for sure, but would he have booted me out of the door because of a perceived momentarily lapse? Only one person can answer the question with any degree of certainty and he’s not here anymore, so we will never know. That’s the truth of the matter.

OUT OF LUCK…John Hughes fires in the shot that came so close to winning the European Cup in 1970.

Okay, here’s what I do remember of the incident that has been my personal albatross for so many years. The game had just kicked off for the extra half-hour when I anticipated a crossfield pass coming from the left. I intercepted it about thirty-five yards out and raced between two Dutch defenders towards goal. I charged into the penalty area and took a slightly heavy touch as their goalkeeper Eddy Pieters Graafland raced from his line.

I connected with my right foot to flick the ball to his right as he spread himself to his left. My heart missed a beat, I was sure the ball was heading for the net. He stretched out his right leg, my effort took a deflection, but was still heading for its destination until a defender appeared from nowhere to block it. Even then it looked as though it might go over the line because he mis-hit his clearance and the keeper had to scramble backwards to throw himself full length to hold the ball right on the line.

I’ve been informed the action was all over in six seconds, such a short passage of time that may have altered not just my football career, but my entire life.

And yet it could – and should – have been so different.

For weeks before the game Celtic fans were asking me for a prediction. We had just racked up home and away semi-final triumphs over Leeds United, the best team on the planet, according to the English media. It was daubed the ‘Final before the Final’ because no-one really bothered about what was happening in the other semi-final encounter between Feyenoord and Polish outfit Legia Warsaw. The outcome of those ties didn’t matter because the winners in Milan would most assuredly come from our titanic tussles with Don Revie’s outfit. And, of course, we walloped them 3-1 on aggregate.

TWO VERSUS ONE….John Hughes is outnumbered as he takes on Wim Jansen and Wim van Hanagem.

‘So, Yogi, what’s going to be the score?’ I was asked umpteen times by supporters, getting ready to celebrate Celtic’s second European Cup victory in three years.

‘Oh, I think it’ll be 3-0 or 4-0,’ I would answer regularly with the utmost confidence. I couldn’t foresee any eventuality other than Celtic lifting that coveted silverware in the picturesque Italian city. I wasn’t alone. Jock Stein clearly thought so, too. You haven’t been required to read between the lines to get the notion that the Celtic manager and I didn’t always quite see eye to eye, so please take my word for it that this is not a personal attack on Jock.

However, he had to take his share of the blame for the shambles in the San Siro. It’s no secret Jock enjoyed the spotlight and the glory that went with being an extremely successful manager. No-one can ever take that away from him. What he achieved at Celtic after returning in 1965, quite rightly, made him a club legend. That is not up for debate and he deserves undying credit. But there is a fine line between being praised and being pilloried in this game. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been there. One minute a hero, the next a zero. That’s what they say, isn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s all too accurate.

Big Jock planned meticulously for the European Cup Final against Inter Milan in Lisbon three years earlier. He went into every detail in the most immaculate and minute manner. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was left to chance before that historic meeting. The players were told what and when to eat, how many minutes they were allowed to be exposed to the sun, when they could sit by the pool, the best time to take a walk and do some exercise. He left absolutely nothing to chance.

HOOPY DAYS…John Hughes (second left) and his Celtic team-mates celebrate the opening goal by Tommy Gemmell.

His mindset was completely different for the match against Feyenoord. It was evident to us all that he believed the trophy was as good as in the bag. That sort of attitude, bordering on arrogance, can get through to the players. He dismissed many of our Dutch opponents. We were informed Wim van Hanagem was a ‘poor man’s Jim Baxter’ with no pace and wouldn’t be able to keep up with play after half-an-hour or so. Swedish striker Ove Kindvall was dismissed as being ‘too slow’. Their skipper and central defender Rinus Israel was ‘cumbersome’ and Bertie Auld was continually reassured his midfield opponent Wim Jansen wouldn’t give him any trouble.

Midfielder Franz Hasil was ‘an ordinary player’ and was only in the team because he was an Austrian like his manager Ernst Happel. Basically, he went all the way through the team, destroying the profile and shredding the reputations of the rival players. If he was attempting to inject super self-assurance into the Celtic players he was doing a fabulous job. Most of us had already worked out how we would spend our win bonus. Poor Feyenoord, they were wasting their time turning up for the spectacle.

Someone must have overlooked the fact they had dumped AC Milan, then the European Cup holders, in the second round. They lost 1-0 in the San Siro in the first leg, but Wim Jansen brought it back to level pegging when he netted in the sixth minute in Holland. Wim van Hanagem, who, apparently, would be knackered after half-an-hour, got the winner eight minutes from time.

BLOCKED…Billy McNeill sees a shot cleared by a desperate Dutch defender.

That was the same AC Milan team who had knocked out Celtic the previous season after winning 1-0 in Glasgow before going on to hammer Ajax 4-1 in the Final. It was clear, then, that the Dutch side would not be appearing in the Final to merely make up the numbers. Evidently, they were no dummies. As we were to discover to our cost.

Honestly, I still find it agonising to reminisce about that European Cup Final. It meant so much to the club, the supporters, the players and to me on a personal level. I was desperate to get my hands on one of those medals the Lisbon Lions were so proud to display at every opportunity. I wanted a share of that. It’s not a well-known fact, but Big Jock reassured me I would play against Feyenoord long before the game. That was most unusual for our manager, but he was fully aware what missing Lisbon had meant to me. I appreciated that.

So, what went so drastically wrong? Were we that bad? Or were Feyenoord that good? It would be churlish of me to belittle the efforts of the Dutchmen. Unlike us, they had clearly done their homework. Their astute manager Ernst Happel worked out a strategy that would nullify Jinky. Sadly, it worked only too well and Big Jock never came up with a Plan B.

That’s not unfair criticism of our boss. Normally, he would have something up his sleeve, but not on this occasion. Again, it’s so easy to be wise after the event, but I have to say I was not the only one who was mystified by his team formation for the San Siro game.

THAT SINKING FEELING…Tommy Gemmell retrieves the ball from the net as Feyenoord celebrate the winner.

George Connelly had been immense against Leeds United. He sat in a midline of three alongside the more experienced Bobby Murdoch and Bertie Auld and it had worked a treat. Jock, for reasons known only to himself, changed the system. Big George found himself on the substitutes’ bench and Bobby and Bertie were left to fend for themselves in the middle of the park. They had been world class against Inter Milan in Lisbon three years earlier, but this was an entirely different ball game.

Curiously, though, Celtic should have been two goals ahead by the half-hour mark. It has been ignored that Bobby Lennox drilled a drive past Graafland after coming in from the left. In real time, it looked well offside, but I have been assured by some pressmen, after sifting through TV footage, that it was onside. In fact, I’ve been told Bobby was played on by THREE defenders. Of course, we did get one that counted in the thirtieth minute when Murdoch, with a lovely little back heel, touched a free-kick to Tommy Gemmell coming in from about twenty-five yards and he blazed a first-time right-foot drive low into the net.

We weren’t playing well, but we were in the lead. Not for long, alas. Our defence got in a flap when they couldn’t defend a right-wing free-kick two minutes later. Caesar, normally imperious in the air, got under the ball and misdirected his clearance up instead of out of the box. Unfortunately, he moved off the lurking Rinus Israel to try to atone. A Dutch player got there first, knocked it straight back into the territory just vacated by our captain and Israel, completely unmarked, nodded the ball into the opposite corner with Evan, for once, stranded. If only we had managed to hold our lead until half-time. It wasn’t to be and you could see Feyenoord’s players visibly pumped up after their equaliser. They realised anything was possible in this encounter.

NET LOSS…Evan Williams is crestfallen in extra-time.

It was 1-1 at half-time and we had a chance to regroup and have a rethink. I can’t recall too much being said during the interval. Certainly, despite toiling, we didn’t do anything drastic with our permutation that I was aware of. Jim Brogan had been struggling from the first minute after sustaining a foot injury, but he was allowed to carry on.

We had Connelly on the bench and he could have come on to partner McNeill in the middle of the defence, a position in which he had performed before. Big George did eventually come on in the seventy-seventh minute, but it was for Bertie, who had struggled, too, under the wave of attacks from our opponents.

The second-half pretty much followed the pattern of the first. Then it went to extra-time and the moment that has left me frustrated and irritated for far too long. We were only four minutes from a replay when Feyenoord, deservedly it must be said, got the winner.

DOWNHEARTED…John Hughes can’t disguise his emotions at full-time.

Bobby Murdoch, true sportsman that he is, could have booted the ball for miles when referee Concetto Lo Bello awarded Feyenoord a free-kick about thirty-five yards into our half. Bobby was chasing the ball when the match official blew. He could have done one of two things; give it a nudge further downfield and let the Dutch retrieve it; or simply allow it to run on.

Bobby stopped the ball and kicked it back to our opponents. They couldn’t believe their good fortune. Their player put it down, looked up and saw Kindvall lurking behind Caesar. Because of Bobby’s sportsmanship we didn’t get a chance to erect a defensive wall and the ball was pitched forward. Caesar didn’t have time to think as the cross sailed over his head.

He stuck up a hand, stunned the ball and it dropped perfectly behind him for the inrushing Kindvall who lifted it over Evan as he tried to snatch it off his toes. The referee had allowed advantage, but I’ve little doubt he would have awarded a penalty-kick if the Feyenoord player had missed.

Equally, I have no hesitation in saying we would have beaten the Dutch in the replay. They caught us cold and we just weren’t prepared for their tactics or the sheer quality of their players. That may sound ungallant because they were well worthy of their triumph on the night. There can be no argument there.

However, if we had been given a second chance I must say I genuinely believe we would have taken it. Feyenoord would have seen the real Celtic and not that strange pale imitation that turned up in Milan that night.

As I prepared to leave the San Siro Stadium, I saw Wim van Hanagem posing for pictures with ecstatic Feyenoord fans outside the ground. He was drawing on a huge cigar. The bugger still wasn’t out of puff.

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About Author

Editor

Acclaimed author Alex Gordon wrote the biography of Scotland international legend Denis Law, entitled 'King and Country'. He is a former columnist with World Soccer magazine and Scottish correspondent of respected European journal L'Equipe.

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