The European Cup is the mythical beast that only the giants can slay, however there was often the odd surprise package that could spring up and cause eruptions of bewilderment all over the continent. One of the most famous of these was Dundee, who in 1962/1963, came close to being the first British team to lift “Ole Big Ears” and what a story it was.
The European cup, from its inception in 1955 until Celtic broke through and became the first northern European side to win the competition in 1967, was governed by a hegemony of Latin European teams. Real Madrid, Benfica, AC Milan and Inter Milan dominated the early years of the competition. Unlike the Champions League today, the European Cup always offered a chance of there being a shock winner, teams such as Stade de Reims and Eintracht Frankfurt made the final and came up against arguably one of the finest club sides to play the game in that famous Madrid side of De Stefano and Puskas et al.
Many would argue a team from outside Glasgow shouldn’t be anywhere near the fabled European Cup, but Scottish football was a totally different entity back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Of course there were still periods of prolonged success for the Old Firm, but teams such as Hearts, Hibs, Dundee and even Kilmarnock won the domestic title in an era in which trophies were usually equally distributed.
Dundee won the 1961-1962 Scottish Championship under the tutelage of a certain Bob Shankly (achieving success before Bill managed to build a dynasty at Liverpool) and therefore became the Scottish representatives in the following seasons European Cup. Rangers and Hibs had both reached the semi-finals of the competition since its inauguration in 1955. The hopes for Dundee weren’t as lofty, not only were they paired against one of the favourites in German champions Cologne, but they had endured a miserable start to the season. Losing 5 of their first 7 games wasn’t championship winning form and there were fears this would manifest into a poor European performance.
What would follow next would go beyond any Dundee fans wildest dreams, and ranks as one of the finest results a Scottish team has ever achieved in continental competition. Cologne were managed by the Yugoslavian Zlatko Čajkovski who boldly exclaimed that “Cologne will win as our defensive football is decadent” their squad was crammed full of internationals, including Hans Schafer who won the World Cup for West Germany in 1954.
A crowd of 25000 at Dens Park that evening made the atmosphere boisterous and one that would hope unnerve the Germans. And boy did it work, at half time the boys in blue were leading by 5 goals to nil. The Germans underestimated just how good this championship winning Dundee squad were. Cologne emerged for the second half down to ten men as the keeper Ewart did not reappear after a collision in the first half.
The match eventually finished 8-1 to Dundee, to not only beat but to humiliate Cologne was an incredible achievement, those who were there that night witnessed history and it was a match many Dundonians will never forget.
Surely a 7 goal aggregate advantage would be impossible to claw back? Cologne nearly completed the great escape as they won the second leg 4-0. They had plenty of chances to score more and set up a nervy ending however Dundee stood firm. The draw for the second round was made and Dundee had another tricky tie to negotiate against the Portuguese champions Sporting Lisbon.
If the games against Cologne were an advert for free flowing, attacking football, then the first leg in Lisbon was the antithesis of this. A one nil win for the Portuguese champions to take to Dundee offered them a more than decent opportunity to progress to the quarter finals.
Dens Park was packed to rafters, 32,000 animated supporters cheering on their team, unaware that it could be their last chance of seeing European Cup action at Dens!
They need not worry, Alan Gilzean scored a hat trick to put the Portuguese champions to the sword in what was another fabled night under the floodlights as the team won 4-2 on aggregate and moved on the quarter finals to face the Anderlecht, the Belgian Champions.
The first leg was played at Heysel; the tie was moved from Anderlecht’s own ground in order to accommodate as much fans as possible. The 64,000 supporters, which included only 200 Dundonians, was the highest for a football match in Belgian football history, it didn’t seem to affect the Dundee players on the pitch however. Racing into a 2-0 advantage curtesy of who other than Mr Gilzean, this was as close to perfection as it got. The eventual 4-1 victory sent out shockwaves to the rest of the competition and proved that Dundee’s previous results weren’t a flash in the pan.
Anderlecht needed something special in the second leg and even though they led at halftime to give themselves a glimmer of hope, Dundee scored twice in the last 15 minutes to ensure they won both legs. The Courier even described Gordon Smiths winner as “a gem that will be recalled for many a day”.
Dundee, against the odds, had reached the European Cup semi-finals, a magnificent achievement for a club of Dundee’s stature and testament to the work that Shankly and his squad had done to reach this stage. With the added bonus of the final being held at Wembley, the onus was on for one last push.
A.C. Milan would be the opponents in the semi-final. The Rossoneri were not a fledgling side, since the start of the 50s they had won the Serie A title five times. Managed by the Italian Genius Nereo Rocco and containing players of such calibre such as Trapattoni, Maldini and Rivera, they were the heirs to the European Cup throne.
Dundee had built a reputation that was making waves over the continent and had earned them the right not to be fazed by their illustrious Italian opponents; their imperious form in reaching this stage had given them a confidence boost amongst a poor domestic season. Retaining the title was always going to be an uphill task from the offset, the European run was a welcome distraction.
The terrible winter had not helped the teams cause on the run up to the first leg though, with many games being postponed over January and February, the matches were beginning to catch up with the squad and weary legs were setting in.
The first leg took place at the San Siro and a bumper crowd of over 70, 000 flocked in for the match. After three minutes Dundee’s worst fears were realised when they conceded, many a team would have collapsed amongst the intimidating atmosphere, Dundee bounced back superbly however.
A perfect cross by Andy Penman allowed Alan Cousin to head an equaliser and give new impetus to Dundee’s performance going in to the second half. In what was the most important second half of football in Dundee’s season, and arguably their history leading up to this point, they wilted under the unnerving pressure of the Italians.
Four A.C. Milan goals effectively put Dundee’s hopes of a place in the final beyond reach, with the final score finishing 5-1 to the Italians. With the tie seemingly beyond any doubt, Dundee performed excellently back at Dens Park for the second leg.
Shankly had named an unchanged side for the tie and the team opened up at a frantic pace. Putting the Italians on the back burner from the off, Dundee were playing for pride, but they wanted victory to end the campaign on a high.
Gilzean finally broke through just before half time with a header past the Milan keeper Ghezzi to establish a slender advantage for Dundee at the interval. The infamous catenaccio system was being utilised to full effect by the Italians and they were depending deeper and deeper as the match wore on. Tackles were also flying in and Smith and Gilzean in particular, had both taken a battering over the two legs.
After the match, journalist Tommy Gallacher labelled it “one of the most bitter and bruising battles ever seen at Dens Park” although their European adventure had ended in disappointment; it was one heck of journey!
Dundee’s last foray into European competition was 17 years ago, being knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Perugia in 2003. European football has been hard to come by for the team since with numerous off the field issues and a yo-yo existence between the top two divisions.
The run to the European cup semi-finals will live long in the memory of many a Dundee fan of a certain vintage, with stories and anecdotes from the away trips and matches being passed down through generations.
For one glorious season, Dundee football club were part of European footballing royalty.