Four Backpasses

Our series “Just Look at the Way” tells the stories behind key Scottish moments in European competition, whether important, trivial, aesthetically pleasing or simply funny. The name comes from a favourite phrase of the commentator Jock Brown during his analysis of action replays.

1. Alex McLeish, ABERDEEN 2-1 Real Madrid (aet), 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup final

After surveying with concern the sodden pitch in Gothenburg, Alex McLeish had some advice for his Aberdeen team-mates before they took the field against Real Madrid for the biggest match of their lives.

“I was always big on getting the right studs, checking the surface during the warm-up,” McLeish told Richard Gordon in Glory In Gothenburg. “I told the guys they’d need to make sure they lift the ball because of the water on the pitch.”

But, with Aberdeen leading 1-0 after a goal in which McLeish played no small part, the big defender failed to practise what he’d preached.

When the backpass rule was introduced, it was seen as the removal of a safety blanket for defenders. In fact it arguably stopped many from making themselves look foolish in the way McLeish did here.

No centre-half of the post-backpass-rule era would attempt the pass that McLeish, under little pressure 25 yards out and with options left and right, played to goalkeeper Jim Leighton.

“I hit it blind,” McLeish told Gordon. “Willie [Miller] and I hit it blind back to Jim a million times because of our telepathy, but on that occasion I didn’t carry through the advice I’d given to the other players.”

As the ball stuck in the mud, Santillana nicked in ahead of Leighton, who brought the Real man down for a stonewall penalty that Juanito converted. 1-1: was Aberdeen’s cup dream sinking in the mud?

The scores remained tied at the break, when Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson gave McLeish the famous “hairdryer” treatment. Riled, McLeish played a blinder in the second half and in extra-time, when John Hewitt’s header won the Dons the cup.

“After that one mistake big Alex just got better and better, Ferguson wrote in A Light In The North, “as if the mistake had simply pushed him up a gear, made him more alive and aware.”

2. Graeme Souness, RANGERS 2-0 Dynamo Kiev, 1987/88 European Cup first round, second leg

For such an elegant midfielder, Souness was a tough player to love. The legacy of his much-trumpeted “revolution” at Rangers is arguable, coinciding as it did with the decline in competitiveness of Scottish clubs at home and in Europe.

What is inarguable is that his unrivalled cynicism in the club’s European Cup run in 1987/88 tarnished Scottish football’s reputation abroad.

At Ibrox, in the second leg of a quarter-final against Steaua Bucharest that Rangers would ultimately lose, he went through his full repertoire of the dark arts: first committing a foul of wince-inducing savagery on Iosif Rotariu, then pointing indignantly at his sock to suggest that he was simply gaining retribution for a previous infringement.

“When these pictures went around Europe, many must have been glad to see them go,” Gerald Sinstadt said in the BBC’s review of the football season.

Earlier in the competition Souness’ cynicism had found less violent expression. Rangers had recovered from a 1-0 first-leg defeat to an excellent Dynamo Kiev side and, winning 2-0 at Ibrox, were using goalkeeper Chris Woods to waste time – a tactic with which the home crowd was fully on board.

“And Ibrox rises to a pass-back as if he had scored a goal,” commentator Archie Macpherson says after a pass to Woods from Terry Butcher.

If they enjoyed that, they were in raptures moments later. “By our watch, 30 seconds remaining,” Macpherson says as Woods launches a kick upfield.

Rangers actually are passing the ball well as it finds its way to Souness around 30 yards from the Dynamo goal. But, instead of joining in the game of keep-ball, the player-manager simply turns and thuds the ball all the way back to Woods to gather, a moment of po-faced Presbyterian pragmatism so perfect that it induces a lusty rendition of the Billy Boys from the Ibrox loyal.

It was this kind of abuse of the backpass, which arguably reached its height when Egypt played the Republic of Ireland at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, that prompted the introduction in 1992 of the law that has so improved the game.

Perhaps we should be grateful to Graeme for his gruesome gamesmanship.

3. David Narey, Antwerp 4-0 DUNDEE UTD, 1989/90 UEFA Cup second round, first leg

Nico Claesen’s fourth goal for Antwerp is another that never would have been scored in the post-backpass-rule era. 

Instead of simply clearing keeper Wim de Coninck’s booming kick for a throw-in, David Narey attempts to lob the ball into the hands of United keeper Billy Thomson. But he puts too much on it, Thomson can’t claim the ball above his head and Claesen strokes the ball into an empty net.

The goal put United four down after 47 minutes of the first leg. It’s hard to believe that this team had, in Jim McLean, the same manager and many of the same players that had reached the UEFA Cup final just three seasons before. 

More shambolic defending killed the game in Dundee, with Antwerp going 2-0 up at Tannadice before United salvaged some pride to win 3-2 on the night.

Antwerp were a decent side – the bulk of this team were beaten finalists in the 1992/93 Cup Winners’ Cup – but United played catastrophically and this first leg became a harbinger of the many chastening humpings meted out to Scottish sides in Europe during the 1990s.

4. Cha Du-ri, Rennes 1-1 CELTIC, 2011/12 Europa League group stage

Don’t you wish your full-back was Cha Du-ri? Not many Celtic supporters did when he scored the mother of all European own goals.

Did I say before that no one in the post-backpass-rule era would make gaffes like those of McLeish and Narey? Well, Cha managed it with his inexplicable contribution to Celtic’s bizarre Europa League campaign of 2011/12.

Celtic were only in the group stages by dint of Swiss side Sion’s negligence in fielding ineligible players in their 3-1 aggregate win over the Hoops in the play-off round.

Their trip to Rennes followed a loss away to Atlético Madrid and a draw at home to Udinese, and there had been little cause for alarm as the score stood at 0-0 after 30 minutes.

Then, after a lousy kick-out from Rennes keeper Benoît Costil, Cha sealed his place in Celtic infamy. Thirty yards out and under no pressure, the South Korean simply steered the ball wide of baffled keeper Fraser Forster and into the bottom corner.

“Oh dear! Oh dear!” commentator Derek Rae exclaimed. “That can’t happen, can it? Not at this level.”

But it had. I can vouch for that, having watched in horror in a Glasgow boozer. With me was a German friend. As the camera zoomed in on Cha’s maddening smile, he turned to me and said:

“Oh, that guy! He was at Eintracht Frankfurt!”

“Yeah.”

“Why the hell did you sign him?”

Reader, I could not give him an answer.

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