Scots in Europe - A Tale of Decline

13.07.2017 20:06:28
Rangers fans celebrate

In the month in which arguably the most shocking exit by a Scottish club in European competition has been witnessed, following Rangers ignominious loss to Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg, it’s  worth recalling happier times for our teams on the continent, and there are plenty to choose from.

It should be remembered that the Ibrox club actually contested a European final as recently as 2008, while their cross-city rivals Celtic achieved a similar feat just five years previously, the real glory days though, were a few decades before, so let’s look at some of the most notable examples;

1966/67 – Stein’s Lions upset the odds in magical season

Most memorable for the much lauded European Cup triumph by Celtic in Lisbon, the performances of a few of our other representatives that season, mark it out as the zenith of Scottish football to date, and most probably for all-time. The Celts, transformed under the guidance of Jock Stein in the space of just a couple of seasons, became not only the first Scottish and British, but also the first non-Latin side to lift the Champions Cup, doing it in some style to boot. Their 2-1 comeback victory over the ultra-defensive Italians of Inter Milan was scintillating, and typified the swagger and confidence that our sides enjoyed during that period. Just six days after their Old Firm neighbours’ triumph, Rangers had the chance to make it a double for Scotland in Europe, as they took on the giants of Bayern Munich in the Cup Winners Cup Final in Nuremberg. Sadly, they came up just short, losing by the odd goal in a keenly contested affair, but with provincial clubs like Kilmarnock and Dundee United also displaying real prowess in their own Euro campaigns, our standing on the continent was never higher. Killie were semi-finalists in the Fairs Cup, despatching some notable names on the way, while United enjoyed the first of their famous home and away victories over Barcelona, before succumbing to Juventus. With the national team savouring a Wembley victory over World Champions England as well, the contrast between our fortunes from then to now, is stark.

1971/72 – Gers lift Euro honour with victory in Barca

Proving that five years previously was no flash in the pan, this time it was Rangers turn to enjoy their finest hour abroad, while Celtic came within a penalty shoot-out of reaching their third European Cup final in six seasons. The Gers headed for the Camp Nou for the final of the Cup Winners Cup against Moscow Dynamo, having taken care of such notable names as Bayern Munich and Torino on the way, and emerged from a dramatic encounter with the spoils, following a 3-2 win. A pitch invasion by supporters before the final whistle was sadly to deny the Light Blues the chance to defend the trophy as they were presented with a two year ban, reduced to one on appeal, but their place in the history books was secured with this outstanding achievement. Meanwhile, Inter gained some revenge on Celtic for ’67, progressing to the final of the Champions Cup on penalties, after two goalless matches, with each of the other three Tartan representatives in Europe also picking up memorable results. Most notably, Dundee triumphed against Cologne before narrowly losing out to AC Milan, and St Johnstone had an equally eye-catching aggregate triumph over Hamburg, with Aberdeen too good for Celta Vigo prior to finding Italian giants Juventus too big a hurdle.

1982/83 – Fergie leads Dons to unlikely triumphs

While Celtic and Rangers fans may cling to the distant hope that their glory days abroad could return, given the size and stature of the clubs, for Aberdeen, surely the achievements of the early 80’s under a certain Alex Ferguson, will never be repeated. Given their current standing at the pinnacle of European football once again, the scoreline of Real Madrid 1 Aberdeen 2 still seems fanciful over three decades later, and while the Spanish giants weren’t the force in 1983 that they had been previously, or indeed since, the Dons victory in Gothenburg was magnificent. With a nod of John Hewitt’s head in extra time, the Reds secured their place in Scottish football folklore, and backed their amazing success by becoming the only Scottish side to win two Euro trophies, adding the Super Cup at the start of the following season, with an aggregate victory over Hamburg. While not being backed up by their fellow Scots exploits to quite the degree of our previous examples, Celtic, Rangers and Dundee United did enjoy progression in Europe over the likes of Ajax, Dortmund and PSV in the same campaign, a repeat of which currently would seem as unlikely as it was commonplace during more successful times.

Also in season 83/84, both the Dons and United made Euro semi-finals, with the Tangerines going one better in 86/87, losing in the UEFA Cup Final over two legs to Gothenburg, having added another Barcelona scalp on the way to make it four matches and four wins against the Catalan giants, completing perhaps the most remarkable Scottish statistic of all in European competition.

Granted, the landscape of European club competition football has been altered markedly over the decades, but a quick glance at Scotland’s club coefficient since they first entered in the fifties, demonstrates the contrasts in fortunes. Although the calculations were done differently, it’s safe to say that Scotland’s clubs frequently rated higher than many of the super nations of today, ranking third in four separate years of the 1960’s, and only dropping out of the top ten countries for the first time in 1976. By 1983, they were back at sixth, fourth a year later, and remained in the top ten until the mediocrity of the early 90’s crept in, with a hitherto new low of 26 reached in 1998. The early-mid noughties brought an improvement, skirting in or around the top ten again for a few years, but 2018 is set to see us stoop to an all-time low of around 27, below the likes of Kazakhstan and Cyprus, proof positive if it were needed, that our best days are almost definitely behind us.

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