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Graham McColl's last Celtic book was well received here at NTV Mansions so we were looking forward to his latest work. Happily it does not disappoint. While it never quite reaches the heights of The Head Bhoys, a historical record of all of the club's managers (see review), 'Celtic in Europe' is still another worthy addition to the Celtic bookshelf.
As the title suggests it recounts the history of the club in European competition from its first Fairs Cup tie against Valencia in 1962 right up to last season's events in Seville, and what a chequered history it has been.
The early chapters have a quaint charm about them. European football was still in its infancy, of course, and the idea of flying across the continent to fulfil fixtures was a novelty for the players, never mind supporters. Through his interviews with those who travelled with the club - players and backroom staff - McColl gives us a view of how, under the benevolent dictatorship of Bob Kelly, the players were treated like a cross between an unofficial diplomatic mission and a boy scout troop on a foreign exchange tour.
The Corinthian spirit of demonstrating to Johnny Foreigner how sporting our chaps could be while teaching the continentals a thing or two about playing the game makes for an amusing contrast with the ruthless pursuit of Champions League points by any means so prevalent in the modern game. Whereas the players on these excursions abroad might have preferred to concentrate on the important match to be played on the Wednesday evening and maybe even talk about the opposition tactics with Jimmy McGrory, the directors would have them gladhanding local dignitaries and taking them on sightseeing trips.
On one particular such extracurricular activity in Zagreb John Hughes and John Divers eschewed the return cable car trip down a mountain in favour of a winding mountain track. As darkness gathered they found themselves hopelessly lost and hearing gunfire from local bear hunters. They had to be rescued by the police.
Apart from anecdotes from the players and staff who were there, McColl places each of Celtic's important European ties in its proper context within the competition and also adds enough local detail to enhance the mind-broadening aspects of travel; the politics of the Warsaw Pact countries at the time, for example, or the legendary status of opposition players with their own fans.
Although Celtic had performed remarkably well in the Cup Winners Cup in season 63-64 - managing to reach a semi-final and contriving to lose in a way we wouldn't see again until some of the catastrophic flopfests of the 80s - it was with the arrival of Jock Stein that the club began to scale previously undreamed of heights. However, McColl does not allow the success of the 60s to unbalance his coverage of that period to the exclusion of other decades, so there is almost as much about the final in Milan as there is about Lisbon.
Indeed, with contributions from goalkeeper Evan Williams, John Hughes, Billy McNeill and Jimmy Johnstone, the chapter on Milan is one of the most interesting in the book. The Leeds United semi-final is given its due place but it is not allowed to overshadow the Feyenoord match. And, by the way, I think we should campaign to have that game replayed; the ref should have awarded Feyenoord a penalty before they scored their second. Williams would have saved it and we would have won the replay!
Celtic were still very much at the forefront of the European Cup in the early 70s - two semi-finals and a quarter-final in the first four years of the decade - and McColl seems to go along with Billy McNeill's analysis of what happened next. Caesar doesn't flinch for putting the blame for the club's subsequent lack of progress (to put it mildly) where it belongs: 'At the time when we won the European Cup, that's when we should have been more forward thinking... buy players who were better than the ones we had and who would have complemented the squad. Had they done that I honestly think we could have had more European success than we had.' Plus ca change. Big Billy's thoughts should be framed and presented to Brian Quinn and Dermot Desmond.
There were no great portents of doom following the Atletico Madrid debacle of '74 (if there are any youngsters out there who wonder why their middle-aged relatives turn into a scaled down version of the Incredible Hulk whenever this mob appear on Sky's Spanish Football show they should be referred to chapter 8 - 'The Mean Machine') which might have suggested things would not continue to go on as they had been as far as Celtic in Europe was concerned. Little did we know that our surprising exit to Olympiakos Piraeus in the autumn of that year was the harbinger of nearly 30 years of almost unremitting failure, relieved only by the occasional disaster and the odd fiasco.
In the former category belong the defeats at the likes of Zwickau, Innsbruck, Krakow, Timisoara... the list goes on. Into the latter must definitely be placed the Cup Winners Cup tie against Rapid Vienna in 1984.
It's clear that McColl would like to put this one in his Room 101 as well, although the romantic Austrian capital city itself seems to have captured a special place in the author's heart: 'Prissy, prim-faced locals presented the frostiest of welcomes to outsiders... almost as if there were a pent-up resentment all around at some stifled identity, some unfinished business for which foreigners were held responsible. Vienna, after all, is the city that housed the young Adolf Hitler in his formative years, the city that played host to one of the most repressive fascist governments of the 1930s and whose streets... rang out with the enthusiastic applause of Viennese citizens as they greeted the Nazi soldiers as they began their 'occupation'... Kurt Waldheim was not the only Austrian to have been living an outwardly respectable life in the Vienna of the late 1980s and harboured a secret Nazi past. The city was teeming with such individuals... It was into this maelstrom of duplicity, discontent and resentment that Celtic flew innocently expecting a fair football match.'
See what I mean about local colour? McColl has actually interviewed Hans Krankl for the book to get his take on events. Incredibly, he remains absolutely unrepent ant. Not even so much as, 'It was a long time ago and I was only obeying orders.' He has the selective amnesia, right enough. He can't recall Paul McStay calling him a cheat but he does stress that, 'I was not a cheat. I did not throw a whisky bottle on to the head of a Rapid Vienna player.' Quite, Jimmy, and neither did anybody else.*
McColl concludes this chapter on the Rapid game with another postcard from Austria: 'Mozart gave his best years to Vienna and was rewarded with duplicity, maltreatment, premature death and burial in a pauper's grave. Celtic's brush with the Viennese had less tragic consequences but the Rapid reaction had buried Celtic's best chance of winning a European trophy in the 1980s (Rapid went on to lose to Everton in the final). The hangover caused to Celtic by that empty bottle of spirits would rage for years afterwards.'
It certainly did, and it was a hangover that reached Shane McGowan proportions when the Hoops were mercilessly dismantled by Neuchatel Xamax. Not surprisingly, Liam Brady and Peter Grant have slightly differing views on why it all went pear-shaped that night.
Thankfully the author has more positive matters to recount in the concluding chapters of the book as he rounds off the history of Celtic in Europe with the events of Seville last May.
It's a fitting way to conclude a really well written account of Celtic's forty year history of participation in European competitions. Celtic in Europe will revive half-forgotten memories for the generations that were lucky enough to watch the club grow in stature during the 60s and 70s and it will probably re-traumatise everybody who had managed to suppress all thoughts of the 80s and 90s.
It should be compulsory reading for anybody who takes for granted the rehabilitation of Celtic as a club able to hold its own against the best on the continent under Martin O'Neill. At least they'll know where all our baggage came from.
If you didn't get it from Santa give yourself a treat in the January sales.
* Translator's note: 'Hans' is the German equivalent of James, hence Jimmy Krankl.