In the European Cup of 1971/72, Celtic had been drawn against BK 1903 of Copenhagen in the first round and found them quite difficult opponents. Whether the Danes rose to the challenge or we were slightly off-form was debatable but in any case we were beaten 2-1 in the first leg in Copenhagen and won 3-0 in the return to put us through 4-2 on aggregate.
In Round Two, the name of another so-called ‘minnow’ was paired with Celtic. Sleima Wanderers, the champions of Malta, had reached this stage by knocking out AI Akranes of Iceland and had to be respected. On the night of 20th October 1971, though, a crowd of 29,000 at Parkhead saw Celtic put in a fine show to beat Sliema 5-0, the goals coming from Harry Hood (2), Tam Gemmell, Jim Brogan and Lou Macari.
The return leg in Malta was two weeks later and for some reason, Jock Stein decided that we would travel to the Mediterranean island on Sunday 31st October rather than the usual Monday trip. And when the players did gather at Celtic Park on that Sunday morning to be bussed to Renfrew Airport, we were all quite surprised to see that we had been joined by a new colleague.
On the previous day, Jock Stein had made an offer for Motherwell’s striker John ‘Dixie’ Deans and the Steelmen’s directors had accepted the bid. As the deal – and the player’s registration – would only go through after the weekend, Dixie could not play in the match against Sliema but Jock Stein decided that it would be a good idea to bring him on the trip, where he could get to know his new team-mates.
On the evening of this day in 1971, a slightly apprehensive Celtic side ran out on the pitch in Sliema for the return leg. Our nervousness was nothing to do with our opponents, it was the pitch that was not to our liking. Sandy in some bits, bare and hard in other areas, it was frankly not a suitable surface for European competition. And losing a goal to Sliema in the first minute hardly helped our morale.
However, we all buckled down and put in a shift, scoring a couple of goals ( Harry Hood 42 mins ; Bobby Lennox 55 mins) which gave us a 2-1 win, putting us through 7-1 on aggregate.
NB The Celtic team on the night was Williams, Craig, Gemmell, Dalglish, McNeill, Connelly, Callaghan, Macari, Hood, Davidson and Lennox. It proved to be Tommy Gemmell’s final match for Celtic. Just over a month later, on 17th December 1971, Tam was transferred to Notts Forest.
NB2 While this period was an excellent time to be a first-team player, it was not such a good one for every young player trying to break into the big time. A 17-year-old called Stevie Hancock signed for Celtic in 1970 after three junior caps and a Junior Player of the Year award while with Newtongrange Star. In the match in Malta mentioned above, Stevie came on to make his Celtic debut as replacement for Victor Davidson. Unfortunately, though, talented player as he was, it proved to be Stevie’s only first-team appearance and he left Celtic in 1974 to embark on an 8-year odyssey involving Sheffield Wednesday, Hearts, Meadowbank Thistle, Stenhousemiur and Forfar Athletic.