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The Spin Of A Coin Benfica v Celtic 26-11-69
THE crowd, which had surged forward like men at a bar making sure of a last drink before closing-time, suddenly split as the green-blazered figure charged through them with the force of a Rugby forward rushing for the line.

THE crowd, which had surged forward like men at a bar making sure of a last drink before closing-time, suddenly split as the green-blazered figure charged through them with the force of a Rugby forward rushing for the line.

It was Celtic manager Jock Stein, pushing out of the referee’s room deep in the concrete bowl of Lisbon’s Stadium of Light on his way to tell his players that their captain, Billy McNeill ,, had won the toss against Benflca, the champions of Portugal . . . Celtic were through to the next round of the European Cup. That was the climax to the most incredible two hours and forty minutes i have ever seen on and off a football field . . . a match which started at 9.45 p.pm . on 26 November 1969 and the result was not determined until 12.25 a.m. the next morning.

Maybe that is part of the magic of the European Cup. No matter how many stamps are put in my passport as reminders of particular trips, there is always the likelihood that something different will happen, something when even the voice of the most experienced observer cannot claim he has seen it all before.

Believe me, something different happened that night! The stark soccer outline of the story was that Celtic had gone to play Benfica in the second round of the European Cup with a handsome three-goal lead. They had surrendered two of these goals by half time, then grimly clung to their one-goal lifeline lead to the next round until the fatal third minute of injury time when Benfica had scored again to equalise ...

Thirty minutes of extra time from two teams who were almost on their knees had produced no goals. So now the action moved off the field into a tiny, grey room off the main passageway of the unimposing entrance hall of a very imposing stadium.

It was the referee's room, and into its tight little space crowded Celtic captain, Billy McNeill, and his manager Jock Stein, Benfica skipper Mario Coluna-the veteran master of football from Mozambique who had been in all of his club's four European Cup finals- the Dutch referee, Lou Van Ravens, and his two linesmen, a representative of the trophy organisers, the European Union, and a Benfica trainer.

The Portuguese club's coach, tubby little Otto Gloria, had retired to the anonymity of his team’s dressing-room, the strain of the proceedings too much even for him. Outside in the main hall, and a corridor which led off it in an L-shape design to the referee’s room, players still with the sweat pouring off them on to their jerseys, offfcials and press-men shoved against each other in a jostling scramble to edge nearer to that tiny room. Perhaps it was as well we did not know what was going on ..

The tension outside was tremendous . . . inside it must have been unbearable. The fate of these two proud teams , both former winners of Europe’s most coveted trophy , was to rest on a Dutch two and a half guilder piece.

There were to be two calls. The first to decide which captain would have the right to call for the actual toss to determine the winners of the tie. Because McNeill had been given the right to guess the spin of the coin at the start of the game, and Coluna at the start of extra time. it was the Celtic captain’s turn again. The coin flipped from the referee’s hand up towards the ceiling of the windowless room, as every head pushed forward to see the result. McNeill had called correctly, heads had been the right choice.

So now the club's European future decided simply on his choice for the second spin of the coin. Billy decided to stick to the call of heads. I have no idea of the mathematical odds on a coin coming down twice the same way. But as it spun upwards for the second time the plot unfolded with a twist worthy of a James Bond thriller, only this time it was so very definitely real life. As McNeill recalled it later:

'The referee failed to catch the coin after he had spun it, and as it fell it hit him on the foot, bounced against a wall, then rolled around the floor on its edge until it went twisting down, and came up heads.’ So the silver mark of Holland’s Queen Juliana blinking up at the anxious observers sealed the fate of both sides - Celtic the ecstacy, for Benfica the agony. I was one of the pack pushing outside, desperately trying to find out the result.

I must admit that I thought the tie would be lost. So much had gone against Celtic that night-some of it manufactured by their own mistakes, some if it by cruel decisions-that I could not believe it would swing their way in the end. But etched on my mind was the first sign I saw that Celtic had won-- a split second before Jock Stein made his dash to his own team’s dressing-room...

It was from David Hay-a reserve that night-who, standing nearest the referee's door , leapt up with his fair hair flying like a beacon in a victory salute, as the Portuguese around him seemed visibly to sag. So we knew the result. But not the waiting fans outside, and the last act of the drama of this fantastic night had yet to come. The crowd received a flash that Benflca had won the toss, so did millions of radio listeners all over Portugal. Alas for them! Their joy was short-lived. Slowly , silently, they drifted away.

There was no need for the guard of steel-helmeted, mounted police-grim-looking men in grey uniforms-lined up around the stadium entrance... The crowd’s feeling was matched by the deep despair I saw when I visited the Benfica dressing-room. Some of their stars were openly weeping. Little Jimmy Johnstone came into their dressing-room to look for Eusebio, spotted captain Coluna and went to him to say: ‘I am sorry it had to end this way, with one of us going out.’ And, after the initial and natural elation a more sober realisation overtook the Celtic party.

Chairman Sir Robert Kelly, who the year before had told me he did not approve of toss-ups or away goals counting double to decide these ties, said they would press for a change in the rule. Sensibly he reasoned: ‘Certainly we would not have said anything about this if we had lost the toss to Benfnca.

But now that we are through, perhaps our words will carry some weight.’ Manager Stein was more blunt.

He confessed later: ‘I was sick enough to pack in my job after we lost three goals. ‘It’s the first time since I arrived at Parkhead that the team had lost by three clear goals. ‘It was a disgrace, carelessness caused it especially as we had got over the worst of any away match in Europe, the first deadly thirty minutes. ‘I was relieved we had won the toss, but I was sick that we had been forced into that position. 'However, later on I realised my first thoughts had not been right...

Celtic had a perfectly good goal chalked off in Glasgow, we had lost the equaliser in Lisbon well after the end of ordinary time.

‘And , by at least scoring three goals in Glasgow, we had earned the right to be in the toss-even if it is an unsatisfactory way to win a game.’ So let’s flashback to that game in Glasgow, with its three goals--and one disallowed-the start of the trail which was to end in that referee’s room in Lisbon. When the draw was made which paired Celtic and Benfica the Parkhead manager had commented happily, as his team were struggling slightly at the time: ‘It's just the kind of challenge they need. A challenge of a team from the very top.’ Benfica chief, Otto Gloria, who had also managed Portugal when they reached the semi-finals of the 1966 World Cup, picked the league match against Ayr United at Somerset Park for his spy mission.

He sat next to Sir Robert Kelly, and with manager Stein in the row behind him in the Ayr directors’ box, saw a magnificent 4-2 victory for Celtic, with two marvellous goals by Bobby Murdoch. His prediction of the result of the European Cup match was to be proved so right . . . ‘I think we will lose in Glasgow and win in Lisbon.’Stein delayed his look at Benhca until the Sunday before the first leg in Glasgow. He flew out with worries: Celtic had stumbled to a shock 2-0 defeat from Hearts at Parkhead the day before. But Benfica also lost, 1-0, in a local derbr with their great rivals Sporting Lisbon. And Otto Gloria summed up the feelings both managers had about their teams’ defeats when he said: ‘I think we lost because we were thinking more about the European Cup match.’ The Celtic manager huried back from Lisbon to take in, on the eve of the big game, at homely little Palmerston Park in Dumfries, a friendly between his reserve side and Queen of the South.

But it was to be a vital test for Willie Wallace, missing for a month from the team because of an S.F.A. suspension, to see if he could leap back into the cauldron of a European Cup tie.

He must have shown his manager enough to take the gamble, for the next night Wallace lined up at centre . . . and also in the side was left-back Tommy Gemmell, back for only his second match since he had been dumpped for the League Cup Final, asked for a transfer, and been banished to the reserves. The lure of Benfica, packed with great names of European soccer -- Eusebio. Coluna, Torres--meant that 80.000, one of Celtic's biggest-ever European attendances, crammed into Parkhead. Thev were not to be disappointed.

Indeed if they had arrived a couple of minutes late they missed one of the most memorable goals of the season. The scorer was Tommy Gemmell, a goal which unreeled in every watching fan the memory of his equaliser against Inter Milan in the European Cup Final in Lisbon two years earlier. It was set up from a free-kick by master-mind Bertie Auld, who chipped the ball neatly into the path of the onrushing full-back. I would love to have known how fast that ball travelled as it blurred its way past Benfica’s bewildered defence, and ’keeper Henrique, into the net Certainly the eye can be deceived. But it did seem faster . than the 69.9 mph. Gemmell recorded when he won the “Sunday Mirror’ Scottish Hotshot competition, for the hardest shot in football.

And it was just too fast for some fans , never mind the Benfica defence. I heard of one man whose neighbour asked him for a cigarette light and as he turned with his lighter to shield the flame he took his eyes off the field, missed the goal, and was so incensed he promptly punched the man who had wanted the light. Just as fascinating was the reaction of Gemmell to the goal. As he swung away around to ‘The jungle’, his arm held high in a salute to the fans, it was difficult to believe here was a man who wanted to leave the club. A controversial decision by Italian referee Concetto Lo Bello ruled out a second goal midway through the first half-which he was unable properly to explain after the game-stopped John Hughes adding to the score.

Then only minutes from half time Willie Wallace repaid his selection with the sort of goal every player dreams about , a goal carved out of a situation where there seems to be no danger... Wallace cut in from the right-wing, where he had won the ball as it broke between him and a Benfica defender, and raced past another two waiting to tackle him, to clip the ball in from an almost impossible angle almost on the bye-line...

The great Eusebio, who had caused a few flurries in the first half, went off injured and did not reappear after the interval. And in 69 minutes when Harry Hood got his head to a cross from Bobby Murdoch for the third goal it seemed all over . . and, that despite some more misses, Celtic were safely through.

But manager Stein said cautiously after the game: ‘It is good to be going to Lisbon three goals to the good , although you can never really get enough goals. Teams have lost such a lead before.’ Then he added exuberantly: ‘But naturally I am confident that we can win through. We have not played so well all season, our fitness surprised even me. “Winning the European Cup used to be just a dream for us...

Now we approach these games thinking that a final victory is always a possibility.’ Truly it had been a night of wonder. The sort of football which, when they turn it on, lifts Celtic away above even good teams, into that over-used but rarely merited accolade . . . a great side. So it was off to Lisbon again, back to the city which will be forever linked in football history with Celtic and the European Cup... The manager tried to set-a no-nonsense attitude . , . ‘It is just another job, important though it may be. It’s not like the last time,’ he said. Well, it was not quite like the last time.

As they trained on the neatly-manicured lawn of the luxury Palacio Hotel in Estoril-where they had warmed up only a few hours before the Final in 1967-the session had to be cut short as it poured with rain, and that had not happened the last time. But there were an awful lot of similarities. The 1967 team, apart from Steve Chalmers, injured and not able to travel, were in the party and the day before the game against Benfica they went back to combine business and pleasure with a training session and a look at the National Stadium, where it had all happened two years before. Yet, although they knew they were there on business, there was always the comforting thought for the Celtic players of that three-goals lead. It seemed as impregnable as France’s famed Second World War defence plan, the Maginot Line, and it was to crumble about as quickly. Before the match Celtic knew that their great rivals, Rangers, had been beaten by the Polish side, Gornik at Ibrox, and were out of the European Cup-Winners Cup. Sadly when they heard the news it provoked cheers frrom some of the Celtic fans who had travelled to Lisbon.

I have not the slightest doubt the same thing would have happened if Rangers had been playing abroad, and Celtic beaten at home. Yet what a comment on the split among the fans in Scottish soccer that not even in a foreign country could they forget the twisted bitterness that passes for rivalry. There was a tense opening half-hour for Celtic, with 80,000 fans roaring Benhca on in the Stadium of Light.

The barrage was intense, John Fallon thwarted them with one great save from Eusebio, the sort of shot which had made him the tellyviewers darling in the 1966 World Cup. However, just when they should have been easing out of the danger period. the first breach in the Celtic defence came in 36 minutes when left winger Simoes, out on the right, crossed and Eusebio flashed a header into the net.

Two minutes later the breach had turned into a near-flood when left-half Graca shot home a somewhat simple second. Soon after that the game flared alarmingly into a near battle as first Auld was fouled, then Johnstone butted by right-back Silva. Incredibly the Dutch referee took no action against anyone, apart from a few fussy finger-waggings. Celtic held out until the haven of half time, then brilliantly bossed by Billy McNeil , managed to collect their goal-shocked senses and in the second half control the game, in fact, Johnstone had a great chance to score. Slowly, oh so slowly, the minutes ticked away right up to the 90 minutes and beyond -- one minute, two minutes, three minutes and still no whistle came from Mr. Van Ravens. Then, as the linesman flagged for full-time, the referee gave a foul to Benfica out on the left, no one was quite sure what was the offence. The ball curled over, substitute Diamantino popped up to get the equaliser , . . and all hell broke loose! The referee headed straight for the dressing-room, spectators raced on to the park, players milled about in a kaleidoscope of confusion.

Had he allowed the goal, which meant extra time, or had he blown for full time before the ball went into the net? I dashed out of my press-box seat and sped down the tunnel to the pitch to find out what was happening on behalf of my morning paper colleagues, speaking on their phones, and unable to tell their offices back in Glasgow what was the final score. Players stopped to ask me what was the decision, there was utter confusion, but the referee had nipped smartly to his dressing-room and when I breathlessly reached it and introduced myself on behalf of the Scottish press he told me: ‘Of course, it was a goal. There will be extra time after a five-minute rest period.

’ There was a nasty scene in the entrance hall when Eusebio, who had been substituted in the second-half, was involved in a near punch-up with some of the Celtic players as, nerves pushed to breaking point, everyone pushed around outside the referee’s room. Now it was extra-time. Celtic brought on Hood and Connelly for Callaghan and Auld . . . but the thirty minutes added on had all the reality of a computer contest.

The teams were so weary they were merely acting out the motions, it became clear that a spin of a coin was going to decide it all in the end. So it proved, yet the drama of that incident-packed night was not confined to the pitch . . . there was just as much affecting the men who were reporting the match... I suppose the average fan imagines that football writers sit in luxurious press boxes, picking up a phone which, when they are abroad, immediately connects them to their office on an interference-free line. Sadly the reality is far removed from that perfect dream . . . and it did not turn out that way in Lisbon. Around two dozen of us were packed shoulder to shoulder, into a press-box pathetically small for such a huge stadium and when the crowd in front rose from their seats, as they did frequently, it completely obscured our view. Men are able to take TV cameras to the moon, but communication between Britain and countries such as Portugal and Spain still can prove an almost unbeatable barrier. Hugh Taylor , of the Daily Record, struggled for the entire first half with a phone on which he could not hear a word his office in Glasgow were saying to him . . . only to return home to find out they had been able to pick up perfectly what he had been saying to them. However the worst blow, which affected the entire press corps-and there were nine of them at the time on the phone to offices in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Manchester and London-came just as the beginning of extra-time . . . when every phone went dead. Apparently the phone company had only contracted the use of the extra phones at the stadium for 90 minutes, someone in the main exchange disconnected all the calls and went home. There is no torture worse for any newspaperman anywhere than to have a story, especially of the magnitude from this match, and not be able to send it.

Back home editions were rolling with only the sketchiest information on the vital spin of the coin for it was over an hour before gradually, one by one, they were reconnected and able to spill out their stories.

I do not know who looked more shattered from the strain when everyone finally made it back to the hotel in Estoril . . . the players who had seen their lead swept away, or the newspapermen who had been left holding phones as useless to them at the vital time as a child's toy.

The only perverse pleasure that came out of the match was that it stilled the criticism there had been in Scotland after the first game that Benhca were a team of tired old men . . the old men jangled their medals in that Stadium of Light.

Yet clearly Celtic should never have been in the position to depend on a toss-up, the second Lisbon story had been so different from the first. Manager Stein put his finger neatly on the thoughts of many the next morning as he looked around the hotel , almost deserted of guests in the off-season, the swimming pool with no swimmers , and said: “It’s so different from the last time. it‘s just another hotel now.’ It showed that in football, as any other walk of life , you can‘t live on memories!!

Playing for Celtic no2 By Rodger Baillie

Submitted By Lizardking Randalstown Hoops


Posted by voc1967 on Sunday 16 February 2020 - 18:40:55 | Comments (0)  |  printer friendly
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