Mixed results in Europe lead to questions
26 July ~ In last night's Europa League games St Johnstone recorded a seminal victory at the very same time as Hibs were suffering the worst Scottish defeat in the history of continental football. The surprisingly good co-existing with the shockingly negligent remains the key characteristic of the Scottish game. Just as Mark Lawrenson harrumphs the word “technology” to explain how he’d fix refereeing inconsistences, so the term “Scandinavia” is tossed into debates on how Scottish football can cure itself. But mumblings about summer football and embracing financial limitations are lent credence by recent European results.
Denmark’s Aalborg took four points off Celtic in the 2008-09 Champions League group stages. Before humiliating Hibs last night, Malmo dispatched Rangers in the 2011-12 Champions League qualifiers. Celtic overcame both HJK Helsinki of Finland and Helsinborgs of Sweden last summer but will meet the reigning Swedish champions, Elfsborg, in next week’s tricky third round qualifier.
The Scandinavian model obviously works well enough but rather than find its level and tick along comfortably like the Nordic version, Scottish football prefers permanent hysteria. We can’t sustain success so we yo-yo between the joyous and the humiliating.
St Johnstone, who have never won a major Scottish honour, last night eliminated 22-time Norwegian champions Rosenborg. After choosing the erstwhile Champions League stronghold of Trondheim to record their first ever European away win, the Perth side held on for a draw at McDiarmid Park. All this in Tommy Wright’s first two competitive games as manager.
A Easter Road, the first British ground to host European Cup football, there was a minute’s applause to mark the recent death of Lawrie Reilly, the last surviving member of the “Famous Five”. That forward line of the 1940s and 50s sent Hibernian into Europe already steeped in history, reaching the semis of both the 1955-56 European Cup and 1960-61 Fairs Cup. Malmo, leading 2-0 from last week’s first leg in Sweden, were four up at half-time. The 7-0 result on the night is the biggest single leg defeat for a Scottish club in Europe. The aggregate score was worse even than Rangers’ 12-4 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1959-60 Champions Cup, a record for a European semi-final.
Malmo may be the only Scandinavian club to reach the European Cup final and one of IFK Gothenburg’s two UEFA Cup final victories came against Dundee United in 1987. But, aware as we are of Nordic strengths, Scottish clubs have won more European trophies than all Scandinavia’s combined. What made Hibernian’s record thrashing so painful was that Europe’s giants have been visiting Scotland for almost 60 years without ever racking up a 7-0.
Losing only one representative before the third round of Europa and Champions League qualifiers is moderately pleasing for a country which, just two seasons ago, saw all its clubs knocked out of Europe before September. So the one club that was eliminated this week almost had to go down in flames. Conversely, Rangers followed up that humiliating 1960 defeat to Eintracht by reaching the following season’s Cup-Winners Cup final. En route they recorded the biggest quarter-final win in the history of European competition, against Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Kurt Hamrin scored the winning goal against Rangers in that final, just as his fellow Swedish international Ove Kindvall would do against Celtic in the 1970 European Cup final, but these Swedes were playing for Italian and Dutch clubs respectively. Aberdeen won the 1983 Cup-Winners Cup final in Gothenburg and Henrik Larsson would score for Celtic in the 2003 UEFA Cup final. Scotland’s clubs always stay just ahead of Scandinavia’s. So when we lose to them we have to make it memorable. Alex Anderson