Sat, May 17, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Celtic rekindle flame of Scottish soccer in Europe

UEFA CUP Its been 23 years since the former heavyweights of Europe have contested a European final, but the Glasgow club's time has come again

REUTERS , GLASGOW

Celtic's meeting with FC Porto in the UEFA Cup final will rekindle memories of a golden era when the Scottish champions were among the genuine heavyweights of European football.

Under former Scotland manager Jock Stein the Glasgow club employed flair and panache to become the first British side to win the European Cup in 1967. Uniquely, in modern times, they managed the feat with 11 home-grown players.

Luck had not been with them three years earlier when in only their second foray into Europe they lost 4-3 to MTK Budapest in the semi-finals of the 1964 Cup Winners' Cup.

A year later, Stein succeeded Jimmy McGrory as manager and Celtic, who had won their first Scottish league title in 12 years, were narrowly eliminated 2-1 on aggregate by Liverpool from the 1966 Cup Winners' Cup.

But nothing could stop them in 1967 as they enjoyed the greatest year in their 115-year history. The league title, league cup, Glasgow Cup and Scottish Cup all fell to Stein's side before they faced Inter Milan in the European Cup final.

Celtic fell behind in Lisbon to the defensive-minded Italians but goals from Tommy Gemmell and Stevie Chalmers handed European football's biggest prize to a side committed to attack.

Inter manager Helenio Herrera said: "I take my hat off to Celtic. They deserved to win. Their performance was one of courage and daring. The European Cup is in good hands."

Celtic would wait another three years before reaching the final of the 1970 European Cup -- where they lost 2-1 to Dutch side Feyenoord after extra time in Milan.

For many Celtic fans, though, the real final came a round earlier when their side ousted English champions Leeds United.

A crowd of 133,961 -- still the largest to witness a European club match -- watched the second leg of the all-British semi-final at Hampden Park.

In 1972, Celtic, by now the dominant force in Scotland, lost a European Cup semi-final on penalties to old foes Inter and two years later were beaten 2-0 on aggregate at the same stage by Atletico Madrid.

The club's slide from prominence, particularly in the early 1990s when they were within hours of sliding into bankruptcy, has blunted their ability to make a real impression over the past 30 years.

Celtic beat finalists Rapid Vienna in the 1985 Cup Winners' Cup but lost to the Austrian side after crowd trouble at the home leg forced a replay.

There was also the embarrassment of a 5-1 defeat to Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax in the 1991 UEFA Cup.

Many Celtic fans feared they would never again see their team in a European final but under current manager Martin O'Neill they possess a side who are fiercely competitive.

Defeat by French side Bordeaux in the 2000 UEFA Cup was no disgrace, while Valencia won only on penalties in last year's UEFA Cup after the Scots had scalped Ajax Amsterdam, FC Porto, Rosenborg Trondheim and Juventus in their 2001 European Cup campaign.

The progress has continued this season and culminated with them overcoming FK Sudva, Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, VfB Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista to reach their first European final since 1970.

Wednesday's UEFA Cup final may not replicate the golden era of Stein's 'Lisbon Lions' but it will still be an occasion to relish after so many years in the wilderness.

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