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The Best of British
Despite humble and honourable beginnings off the pitch, on the field Celtic quickly became one of Scottish footballs superpowers. Colossal giants, rather than giant killers.
But it is in those rare moments as underdog that the Bhoys really seem to revel. Whether facing up to the establishment in the form of Rangers or battling Inter Milan in Lisbon, Celtic’s finest moments have come when the the Bhoys have been expected to accept there supposed inferiority.
In 1970 every team was supposedly inferior to Don Revie’s Leeds United. The English champions combined brute force and brilliance to become the most feared team in Europe. So when Celtic were paired with the Elland Road club in the semi-final of the European Cup the outcome seemed inevitable.
Following the draw the English media were quick to pour scorn on the hopes of the Hoops. The club’s recent European exploits were forgotten as the press went into nationalistic overdrive. Celtic might be dominant in the second-rate Scottish league, they sneered, but they will quickly come unstuck against superior English opposition.
In truth even most experts north of the border agreed that the Elland Road club would be firm favourites. After all Leeds had cruised into the semi-final scoring an amazing 24 goals in the process. Celtic’s progress had been much tighter, and the idea the Glasgow side could halt the Yorkshire juggernaut – chasing a League, FA Cup and European Cup treble - was unthinkable.
Leeds would be at home for the first-leg. Celtic were officially allocated 6,000 tickets but it was eventually estimated that of the 45,500 crowd some 13,000 were Celtic supporters. The atmosphere was fearsome. A deafening roar greeted the teams onto a floodlit and threadbare pitch.
Those who had under-estimated Celtic had to wait just 40 seconds for the Bhoys’ retort. From the kick-off a series of passes saw Celtic quickly progress to the edge of their opponents’ box. The ball finally landed at the feet of the surprisingly advanced George Connelly whose shot would nestle in the net. Elland Road – indeed England – were stunned. The ‘invincible’ Leeds were losing.
If the Yorkshire crowd and the English media were anticipating a rousing comeback they were to be bitterly disappointed. Celtic were simply too good. They dominated proceedings. Jimmy Johnstone gave a masterclass as he toyed with United’s international full-back Terry Cooper. Contrary to all pre-match predictions it was the English side who were struggling with the step up in class.
When the home side finally applied some pressure in the second-half their efforts were thwarted by a defence expertly marshalled by Billy McNeill. A 1-0 first-leg lead was the least Celtic deserved but they returned to Glasgow with a quiet satisfaction.
To cope with the anticipated huge demand to see the return leg Celtic had switched the game from Parkhead to Hampden. Even though Leeds returned half of their 6,000 allocation a record European Cup crowd of 136,500 would pack Hampden.
The crowd would be stunned into momentary silence after just 14 minutes when Billy Bremner – a boyhood Celtic fan – crashed home an unstoppable long range shot. It was ill deserved but Leeds were level and Hampden eerily silent. The silence lasted but moments and the noise from the stadium’s slopes soon swelled once more as Celtic roared back into action. Leeds held on grimly until the respite offered by half-time.
If Leeds’ equaliser had given them a renewed confidence it would be shattered soon after the restart. Celtic began the second-half with a renewed energy and from the opening minutes it was a question of not ‘if’, but ‘when’ Leeds would crumble.
The answer came on 47 minutes when a Davie Hay short corner to Bertie Auld saw the midfielder swing the ball into the box for John Hughes to glance home. Hampden was bedlam. Celtic now went for the kill. Jimmy Johnstone was again torturing the Leeds defence. Increasingly exasperated by the skills of the winger Leeds attempted to crowd out the wee man. This created space for Bobby Murdoch to exploit on the inside, and when the midfielder came bursting through Jinky simply laid the ball off for Murdoch to send a thunderous drive into the net. Leeds were outclassed and out of the European Cup.
Celtic would play out the remainder of the game with confidence and style, serenaded by 130,000 fans in full voice.
Not since Lisbon had Celtic displayed such contempt for reputations. Stein’s men had delivered another football masterclass. Even the English conceded that Celtic had dominated, were the far better side. The manager had never sought the approval of the English. He didn’t need them to tell him how good his team was. But there was no doubting these victories, those performances, were very, very sweet.
As the Big Man said himself: “It wasn’t bad, was it?”
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