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16 October 2014

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Hibernian reach the first European Cup semi-finals 1956

Gordon Smith


In the early days of European competitions, from the 1950s to late 1960s, clubs like Hibernian, Dundee and Dunfermline Athletic competed at the highest level building a formidable reputation for the Scottish game.

These clubs were pioneers gaining valuable playing and managerial experience and it was their early triumphs that would lead the way to the later successes of Celtic (European Cup winners in 1967) and Rangers (Cup-Winners' Cup winners in 1972).

Under Bob Shankly, Dundee reached the semi-final of the European Cup, defeating Cologne, Sporting Lisbon and Anderlecht before falling to the eventual winners AC Milan in 1963, and Dunfermline Athletic were to reach the semi-final of the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1969 three years before Rangers won it.

Rangers themselves had been to the semi-final of the European Cup in season 1959-60 and the final of the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1961. But until 1967 Celtic had never been to the latter stages of a European competition.

Key to Scotland's early success was the vision of Hibs Chairman Harry Swan and (former manager) Willie McCartney, who were very forward-looking in taking a club on tours and competitions which others saw as a waste of time, the energy of manager Bob Shankly at Dundee, and the individual skill of Gordon Smith.

Hibernian were the first British club to enter European competition in season 1955/6 (the following year Matt Busby would follow Hibs' lead with Manchester United as the first English club into Europe) and three years before that had graced the Maracana Stadium in Brazil.

In 1953 Hibs were invited to play in Brazil, not as a touring team but to take part in a competition, labelled by the Brazilian FA as a World Club Championship, called the Octagonal Rivadavia Correa Meyer. Hibs qualified as Champions of Scotland for 1951-52 season, but the main reason they were asked to compete was their reputation at the time. This is borne out when remembering that no other Scottish teams have ever been asked to play in Brazil.

According to the Hibs fanzine, Mass Hibsteria: "Hibs took three sets of boots: the usual football boot of the day, a lighter 'shoe' with studs, which they had bought whilst touring Germany, and an even lighter rubber-soled shoe. They also took three sets of strips of varying materials. This is in stark contrast to the preparation of the Scotland National team of the time who still favoured the "tackity boot", as modelled by the Rangers 'Iron Curtain' team of the day."

Travel broadens the mind, and mixing with the powerhouse of world football would have good knock-on effects for the Scottish game, but in these days international travel was rare, expensive and time consuming, and European club competitions were in their infancy.

The feasibility of European football was dependent on two key factors: the new technology of floodlights, which allowed midweek and evening football, and the growing affordability of air travel.

Inevitably this spirit of international exchange, travel and tourism went hand in hand with the urge for big money-making spectacles. Although this is something taken for granted today it was quite revolutionary for its time and was part of a process of the growing phenomena of 'leisure time'. The very idea of evening games, on a Wednesday night, against foreign opposition was an exotic and radical prospect.

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