Heads or Tails? Part 2: Celtic in the European Cup, 1969/70

Celtic and Rangers are often described, lazily, as two sides of the same coin. They do however have one thing in common: both relied on the toss of coin to reach a European final. In the second of two-part series, we look at both campaigns.

A Scottish side has appeared in the final of Europe’s premier club competition on only two occasions. The first representatives, of course, were Celtic’s Lisbon Lions of 1967. Had a coin landed differently in that same city two years later, they would remain Scotland’s only finalists.

Celtic were in a strong position heading into the 1969/70 season. The core of the cup-winning team had been retained, and the contribution of the club’s outstanding youth players was growing. Among the emerging prospects were David Hay, George Connelly, Lou Macari and Kenny Dalglish.

Another assault on the “big cup” seemed possible. After easing aside Switzerland’s FC Basel in the first round, Celtic’s second-round tie against Benfica was rather more dramatic. “The most incredible two hours and forty minutes I have ever seen on and off a football field,” according to journalist Rodger Baillie.

At Celtic Park, Tommy Gemmell got his side off to the perfect start, running onto Bertie Auld’s short free-kick and blasting it into the top corner from 25 yards. The strike won the Sunday Mirror’s  “Scottish Hot-Shot” competition for the hardest in football. Praise indeed.

It had been an eventful few weeks for Gemmell. First, he played in goal for the last 12 minutes of the League Cup semi-final against Ayr United following an injury to Ronnie Simpson, keeping a clean sheet as Celtic recorded a tense 2-1 victory.

Then, whilst on Scotland duty, he was sent off for booting West Germany’s Helmut Haller up the jacksie. Jock Stein, who had travelled to Hamburg for the game, was unimpressed with Gemmell’s conduct and dropped him for the League Cup final against St Johnstone. Gemmell responded by “slapping in” (is there any other way to do it?) a transfer request.

Realising his fullback would be needed for Europe, Stein recalled Gemmell in preparation for the Benfica tie and relations improved, although they never fully recovered. “I ran towards the Jungle terracing,” said Gemmell in his autobiography, describing the aftermath of his goal against Benfica, “then turned in the direction of the dugout and made a gesture at Stein that he would not have been able to mistake.”

Willie Wallace quickly doubled Celtic’s lead before Harry Hood sealed a 3-0 victory and, as the Evening Times put it, a place in the quarter-finals “unless the age of miracles is still with us.”  

It very nearly was. In Lisbon, Benfica raced into a two-goal lead before half-time through Eusebio and Graça and, well beyond the 90-minute mark, Diamantino headed in from a free-kick just as the full-time whistle sounded. 

The Dutch referee, Laurens van Ravens, took the ball and left the field immediately. Had he blown up before or after the goal? What was the final score? A full five minutes passed before the official could be tracked down to confirm that the goal had stood and the tie finished 3-3.

Extra-time could not separate the sides. It was now after midnight and the spin of a coin would determine the winner. The officials led the two captains, Billy McNeill and Mário Coluna, into the tiny referee’s office in the bowels of the stadium. McNeill called ‘heads’ and later described the scene:  

“The referee failed to catch the coin after he had spun it, and as it fell it hit him on the foot, bounced against the wall, then rolled around the floor on its edge until it went twisting down, and came up heads.” 

Luck was on Celtic’s side. Or had supernatural forces conspired to eliminate their opponents?

Benfica, you see, were cursed. In 1962, the Portuguese side had just won its second successive European Cup and the manager who led them to these victories, Béla Guttmann, sought a pay rise. When his board refused, Guttmann quit, but not before (allegedly) proclaiming that the club would not win another European trophy for 100 years.

A solid mic drop, and one that has held up so far. Benfica have appeared in eight European finals since and lost them all: five by a one-goal margin, one after extra-time and two after penalty shoot-outs. 

Curse or no curse, Celtic were through. The manner of their “victory” rankled, however. “It was an indictment of the competition that the victors should be so shabbily and arbitrarily decided,” said the great writer Brian Glanville. A dozen or so European ties had been decided by the toss of a coin but, by 1969, it was viewed more and more as an outmoded quirk.

Celtic agreed with Glanville. The club’s chairman, Sir Robert Kelly, had been an opponent of the practice for some time and saw this as an opportune moment to push for change, petitioning UEFA to abandon it.

It was the last night on which a European Cup tie would be settled by the toss of a coin. (The method was also used to separate Galatasaray and Spartak Trnava on the same evening, with the former “winning”.)

UEFA introduced penalty kicks the following season. The first victims of the new system, naturally, were Scottish: in the next Cup Winners’ Cup Aberdeen lost a shoot-out 5-4 to Honvéd, whose goalkeeper scored the decisive kick.

Perhaps emboldened by the intervention of fate, Celtic reached the 1970 European Cup final in impressive fashion. In the quarter-final against Fiorentina they recorded another 3-0 win at home, but proved they had learned the lessons of Lisbon by setting up defensively in Florence, holding on for a 1-0 defeat and 3-1 aggregate victory.

They then faced Leeds United in the semi-final. It was the first “Battle of Britain” in the European Cup and Celtic struck a blow for Scotland, winning at both Elland Road and Hampden Park in two of the most memorable matches in their history. Glanville acknowledged Celtic’s “startling and merited” victory and their “beautifully measured, coordinated, incisive football, defending with strength, counter attacking with bite.”

It was to prove the high point of Celtic’s campaign. In the final in Milan, they were deservedly beaten 2-1 by Feyenoord, who became the first Dutch side to lift the trophy, a win that kick-started a period of intense change in the European game.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we climbed our mountain against Leeds in the semi-final,” said full-back Jim Craig. “We lulled ourselves into thinking that Feyenoord represented the other side of the peak, and that we were coasting downhill.”

Scottish football has arguably continued in that direction ever since. With some isolated exceptions, the era of Scotland’s clubs appearing regularly in the latter stages of European competition was over. 

And what of the coin itself, whose contribution was as important to Celtic as any player in the campaign? Most Scottish reports say it was either a Dutch 2-guilder (which didn’t exist) or 2 ½-guilder, likely on account of referee Van Ravens’s nationality, and this story endured.

There is another theory. In the build-up to the final, the Dutch press sought the opinion of Celtic of the referee, who had seen them up close against Benfica. He also gave his account of the end of that remarkable game. “Lau van Ravens remembers every detail of what happened in his dressing room that night,” reported De Telegraaf. 

The coin, Van Ravens said, was a Bolivian one. It belonged to his linesman on the night, Henk Pijper. A Rotterdammer, Pijper had been given the coin at an international youth tournament in his home city, organised by – you guessed it – Feyenoord.

Luck was with Celtic in Lisbon, but perhaps fate favoured Feyenoord all along.

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