Historian Tom Wright looks at Hibernian's invovlement in The European Cup
I am sometimes asked why, if in 1955 the then recently inaugurated European Cup competition was only for sides that had won their respective leagues, how it was that Hibernian had been invited to represent Scotland when Aberdeen were the current champions?
It is not common knowledge that the European Cup, or the Champions League as it is now known, and probably the most important club tournament in the world, owes much of its conception to English arrogance. In 1954 Wolverhampton Wanderers played a couple of friendly matches against continental opposition at their home ground Molineux. The first was a 4-0 defeat of Moscow Spartak but it was the second of these games against the Hungarian side Honved, then considered to be one of the best teams in the world, that really caught the imagination of the public. At that time the English were still reeling from the humiliation of the 6-3 mauling by Hungary at Wembley the previous year, their first-ever defeat by a foreign side on home soil. This was closely followed by an even greater embarrassment when they went down 7-1 in the return game in Budapest just a few months later. The fact that Hungary had reached that year’s World Cup Final in Switzerland, losing only narrowly to West Germany, and that the Magyar side had contained no fewer than six of the team that had faced England at Wembley, including Koscis and Puskas, cut no ice with the English football community. They were badly wounded and the game against Honved was the perfect opportunity to gain revenge for the earlier humiliating defeats.
Intercontinental competition was nothing new and had taken place as early as the opening years of the century. In the late 1920s, teams from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Italy and other mid-European countries had taken part in a competition called the Mitropa Cup. This, however, had been replaced in the late 1940s by the Latin Cup as the top competition in Europe. The Latin Cup had been contested between the champions of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, but because it involved only sides from one area of Europe the idea had not proved universally popular.
Things were different now. An air of post-war optimism was sweeping the continent and the time was right thought Hanot to reinvent the idea of a European League. Backed by L’Equipe, who also sponsored the immensely popular Tour de France, a committee was formed and representatives from selected countries invited to an all-expenses-paid meeting in the French capital on 2 April 1955. There was an initial problem however when FIFA insisted that the new competition would have to be overseen by an official body. They themselves had no wish to be involved but suggested that perhaps the newly formed UEFA might be prepared to take them under its wing. The response from UEFA, however, was also lukewarm, and it was only when Hanot and his committee demonstrated their resolve to continue that UEFA eventually relented and took the proposed new competition under its umbrella. The move, however, would mean exclusion for Hanot and his enterprising committee but a place for the then SFA secretary Sir George Graham who took over as chairman of the new council. When the idea of the competition had first been raised, very few if any of the league championships in the invited countries would have been settled and it was decided that for that season only entry would be by invite based on entertainment appeal and crowd-drawing ability.
Representatives from 18 sides had been invited to the first meeting in Paris, Hibernian of Edinburgh selected to represent Scotland. Hibs were one of three clubs unable to attend the meeting but they agreed by letter that they were keen to be involved. All 15 of the clubs that did attend the meeting would be accepted for the first round draw, and of the three who had agreed their interest by letter, the Easter Road side were accepted as one of the 16 sides that would take part in the inaugural competition. Played on a straight knock out home and away basis instead of the league format favoured by Hanot, the new tournament would be named The European Champions Cup and thereafter contested only between the champions of each country.
Hibernian in action against Rot-Weiss Essen
League champions Chelsea had been invited to represent England and had even been included in the first round draw, which interestingly had not taken place by ballot but by agreement, but would later withdrew on the ‘advice’ of the Football League who perhaps felt that it would be unwise to play too many games in a season. There were some however who thought that English pride had already suffered enough on the European stage without risking further embarrassment and that this was the real reason behind the request for Chelsea’s withdrawal.
Although the Easter Road side had won the championship three times since the war, in Scotland there was not universal acceptance at Hibs inclusion. Aberdeen were the reigning champions, but there are differing views regarding the ‘Dons’ exclusion. Some were of the opinion that the club was highly sceptical of the new competition as were second-placed Rangers, neither wishing to be involved, an opinion shared by the Hibs chairman Harry Swan, while others thought that Aberdeen were angry at being snubbed in favour of Hibs. As far as Aberdeen was concerned however, the lack of floodlights at Pittodrie and the clubs cynical attitude towards the innovation would probably have proved a major obstacle to their taking part. The use of floodlights would have a major part to play part in the success of the new competition, but as late as 1958 Aberdeen were still refusing to appear under the Easter Road lights, thinking that it gave their opponents an unfair advantage. They themselves would not install floodlights at Pittodrie until October 1959.
What is not in doubt, however, is Hibs reputation on the continent. According to that year’s official club handbook:
It is a tribute to the prestige enjoyed by Hibernian in continental football that they should be invited to represent Scotland. Based on last season’s performance other sides may have had equal or stronger claims, but based over the past few seasons no other Scottish side has undertaken so many testing games against crack continentals, or fared so well against them all over Europe, than Hibs.
Regardless, the Easter Road side would enter the inaugural competition as one of the nine teams not to have won their respective championships, reaching the semi-finals only to lose to French side Stade Reims, who themselves would be beaten 4-3 by Real Madrid in the cup final in Paris
Although Hibs had been marvellous ambassadors for Scotland, in later years Gordon Smith would often say that as far as he was concerned, had the new competition come only a few years earlier then he was convinced that the Easter Road side would have won the trophy, perhaps more than once.