A Brief History of Scottish Clubs in Europe

celtic champions of europe

The performance of Scottish clubs in European competition has been nothing short of remarkable – particularly taking into consideration the resources available to teams around the continent in comparison with their Scottish counterparts.

While attention might be drawn to Rangers’ humiliating 2017 defeat to Luxembourgian side Progrès Niederkorn and Kilmarnock’s recent Europa League first round upset at the hands of Welsh part-timers Connah’s Quay Nomads, here we will dive deeper into the greatest European adventures of Scotland’s biggest teams in order to chronicle a much richer history than first thought.

1967 European Cup Final – Celtic v Inter Milan

For the football romanticist, the 1966-67 European Cup campaign was everything. From the modern day greats of Real Madrid, Inter and Liverpool to the current anonymity for one-time European challengers such as Torpedo Moscow, Dukla Prague, Linfield and 1860 Munich, it was blessed with a distinctively charming identity. Indeed, the story of Celtic’s ascendancy to European glory in 1967 is nothing short of a fairy tale.

Managed by the immeasurable Jock Stein, captained by the monumental Billy McNeill, Celtic kicked off their European campaign by routinely defeating FC Zürich 5-0 on aggregate with three goals from star left-back Tommy Gemmell over two legs. 59 goals were scored over eight second round ties – Celtic limited French champions Nantes to just two after overcoming Les Canaris by three goals to one in both the home and away legs. The Celts were, however, posed a far greater challenge at the quarter-final stage in the Yugoslavian city of Novi Sad when Milan Stanić provided a narrow victory for Vojvodina with his 70th minute strike.

A nervy affair in the return leg at Celtic Park was settled by a dramatic winning goal from captain Billy McNeill, stepping up to send his Bhoys through to the semi-finals after Stevie Chalmers had brought the sides level on aggregate earlier in the half. Their efforts were acknowledged by an excitable 74,406 crowd who packed out Parkhead for the semi-final against Czech side Dukla Prague. The Scottish champions needed considerably less effort to dispatch Dukla, winning 3-1 on home turf before a drab 0-0 in Prague set up a European Cup Final between Celtic and Internazionale.

The two sides were of complete contrast – Celtic played a fast-paced, attacking game with local heroes, while Helenio Herrera’s Inter practised the fine art of catenaccio which had brought them the title of European champions in 1964 and 1965. As the song goes, a warm Lisbon evening witnessed thousands of Celtic supporters descend upon Estádio Nacional on the back of a five-trophy domestic haul. 

Yet as the media had predicted, the favourites Inter took an early lead with Sandro Mazzola’s 7th minute penalty. The Italian giants were on course to save their season after losing out on the Scudetto days earlier, but their negative approach cost them as Tommy Gemmell equalised for Celtic after the hour mark. With the momentum on their side, the Lisbon Lions hunted down Inter and were rewarded with Stevie Chalmers’ legendary winning goal late in the game to become the first British club to lift the European Cup.

1972 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final – Rangers v Dynamo Moscow

From the Lisbon Lions to the Barcelona Bears – Rangers were desperate to take the limelight away from Glasgow rivals Celtic in the 1970s following a period of sustained green and white dominance at home and abroad. European football served as a welcome distraction from domestic woes.

Rangers’ 1971-72 Cup Winners’ Cup campaign was built on a sizeable chunk of good fortune, but as is commonplace with the greatest Ibrox teams, they made their own luck. After a single goal saw the Gers into the second round, they too travelled to Lisbon – this time to face a formidable Sporting side after a nail-biting finish to Rangers’ 3-2 Ibrox first leg victory over the Portuguese giants.

The away leg finished 4-3 in Sporting’s favour after extra time, prompting a befuddled referee to mistakenly award a penalty shootout after the 120 minutes – which Sporting won – and it wasn’t until the players reached the dressing rooms that Rangers, and the embarrassed ref, realised the whistle should have blown at the end of extra time to signal the Govan side’s victory on away goals.

With the referee’s absurd decision overturned, Rangers faced Torino in the quarter-finals. Both sides operated defensive systems, and it turned out to be a close call. A 1-1 draw in Turin gave the Light Blues the opportunity to reach the semi-finals in front of a vociferous Ibrox crowd, which they fittingly did with a second half goal from Alex MacDonald. A mammoth tie against Bayern Munich lay between Rangers and the final – a particularly daunting opposition given Bayern’s impressive victories over Liverpool and Steaua Bucharest in the lead up to the semi-final. 

The world class Bayern of Müller and Beckenbauer fell foul to Rangers’ defensive block, and a 1-1 draw in Munich was followed up two weeks later by one of the greatest performances in Gers history. Withstanding Bayern pressure, early strikes from Sandy Jardine and Derek Parlane roared Rangers onto the final.

The 1972 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final is regarded as the pinnacle of Rangers Football Club. Facing up against Dynamo Moscow on 24 May 1972, the cathedral of football that is Camp Nou was chosen to host the final with Rangers eager to make their mark on European football. Yet with the arrival of 16,000 Glaswegians to Barcelona, the beauty, tranquillity and sanctity of the great stadium was always unlikely to be upheld. 

Backed by a rowdy support, Rangers’ victory seemed inevitable, and the fans certainly thought so too, invading the pitch after Colin Stein gave Willie Waddell’s side an early lead. The occasion was always against an unfortunate Dynamo who were without two key strikers, and even a late resurgence from the Soviet side wasn’t enough to turn the tide: the game finishing 3-2 to Rangers after a Willie Johnston brace had given the Gers a 3-0 lead.

The cup win was marred by excessive elation from the stands, or rather on the pitch, as Rangers supporters again took to the field to celebrate the club’s first and only European trophy, but the achievement did merit such a celebration – it was the club’s finest hour.

1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final – Aberdeen v Real Madrid

Years after continental success in Glasgow, the Aberdeen side which took part in the 1982-83 European Cup Winners’ Cup became one of the most treasured teams in the history of the grand competition. It was a starting eleven bursting with Scottish talent – a defensive trio of goalkeeper Jim Leighton and central defenders Alex McLeish and skipper Willie Miller marshalled manager Alex Ferguson’s back line, with the quality of Gordon Strachan, Peter Weir and Eric Black sparkling further up the pitch.

Beginning their European adventure with an 11-1 preliminary round trouncing of FC Sion, the Dons were given tougher assignments in the following two rounds by Dinamo Tirana and Lech Poznań respectively, and in spite of passing with flying colours, were huge underdogs for a quarter-final tie against forceful Bayern Munich. The Germans had experienced a relative decline since Rangers had faced Die Roten in 1972, but greatly under-estimated a brave Aberdeen team who escaped Munich with a 0-0 scoreline. 

Boosted by their second leg 3-2 vanquishing of Bayern, the Dandies duly dispatched Waterschei Thor in the semi-finals before the second leg could even take place – Aberdeen had smashed five first leg goals past the Belgians in front of 24,000 at Pittodrie to virtually confirm their place in the final of the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup.

It was in Sweden that the soon-to-be Gothenburg greats took to the field for the first European final in Aberdeen’s history. With Ferguson and Alfredo Di Stéfano in the dugouts, it was a battle for the ages between the fearless Dons and arguably the world’s greatest football team, Real Madrid. 

Ferguson opted to bench forward John Hewitt, who had scored match-winning goals against Bayern Munich and Dinamo Tirana but would have felt his decision was vindicated when number ten Eric Black scrambled the ball into the net after just seven minutes. On a soaked Ullevi pitch, Real Madrid found a way back into the match with Juanito’s 14th minute penalty when an unfortunate Jim Leighton was punished by the muddy conditions, bringing down Santillana in the box. 

An even second half sent the final to extra time, and with the introduction of super-sub Hewitt, a well-worked move culminated in a diving header from Hewitt past a stranded Spanish keeper to send the Reds home with the trophy. Against all odds, the decidedly better team came away victorious as Di Stéfano admitted post-match. The golden era of Scottish football was asserted by this glorious Aberdeen side – the heroic Dandies were kings at home and abroad.

1983 European Super Cup – Hamburger SV v Aberdeen

A competition created to prove Ajax’s dominance on the continent, the Amsterdam side won only two of the Super Cup’s nine previous editions (one of which was later deemed unofficial) before Aberdeen faced German and European champions Hamburg in 1983. The UEFA Super Cup was contested over two legs, rather than the single match format of present day, and Aberdeen played their cards exceptionally well.

Following a similar tactic adopted by many of the great Scottish teams when playing away in Europe, a solid defensive performance at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion in the first tie gave Aberdeen the opportunity to control the second leg on home turf. A deafening home support often made all the difference in European football, but it was the tactical genius of Sir Alex Ferguson and his Dons charges which bested the vastly respected Ernst Happel’s Hamburg eleven on a December evening on Scotland’s north-east coast.

Lining up in a 4-3-3 formation, Aberdeen took the game to Die Rothosen under the floodlights. The Germans failed to clear their lines early in the second half, and with the ball bobbling around the box, Neil Simpson adjusted his footing to send the ball past Uli Stein in the Hamburg net. With the home side in front, the European champions were expected to hit back, but Aberdeen kept the pressure on in order to find a second. After several missed chances, a clever corner kick once again caused problems for Hamburg’s defence, and striker Mark McGhee pounced on a loose ball to consolidate the victory.

It was ‘only’ the European Super Cup, but it was a Scottish side versus Europe’s best; that is until Aberdeen outplayed them, adding a second European title to the Dons’ trophy cabinet in the space of just six months.

Semi-finals and near misses: Other notable campaigns and matches

Aside from the four occasions, Scottish clubs have lifted a European trophy, the country has continued to make its mark in continental club football right up to today. While Celtic’s fall to Feyenoord in the 1969-70 European Cup Final, their extra-time loss to Porto in the 2003 UEFA Cup Final, and the 2008 UEFA Cup runners-up Rangers side headline the ‘best of the rest’ memories from Scotland’s impact on European competitions, clubs outside of Scotland’s traditional big three of Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen have also taken to the European stage with great aplomb.

In Edinburgh, Hearts were close to UEFA Cup success in 1988-89 when their quarter-final first leg 1-0 win over Bayern Munich was undone in Munich two weeks later, while city rivals Hibernian reached the semi-finals of the inaugural European Cup in 1955-56 as they missed out on an epic final against Real Madrid to France’s Stade Reims.

The distinguished Dundee United team of the 1980s came agonisingly close to UEFA Cup glory in 1987, failing to find a winning goal in the home leg against IFK Göteborg. However, the side managed by the late Jim McLean are still regarded as one of the greatest Scottish teams of all time. Down the road from United, rivals Dundee were beaten 5-2 on aggregate by the famed Nereo Rocco A.C. Milan side in the 1962-63 European Cup semi-finals, and in Fife, Dunfermline have a proud Cup Winners’ Cup record with runs to the quarter-finals and semi-finals in the 1960s.