Past masters

Man City were playing in European competition 20 years ago, and Steve Parish remembers the days well

Fenerbahce? Who? There I was, just started working for British Rail in 1968, cheap Continental travel in prospect and Man City in the European Cup (“we’ll frighten Europe”© Malcolm Allison) and who do we play? Some Turkish team no-one’s heard of. Blow that, I thought. I’ll wait for the next round and go to Munich, or Madrid or Lisbon. A year later…

Different competition, the Cup Winners’ Cup, but free travel to Bilbao. Beat Spurs 3-0 in London, overnight to Paris and make it to the Spanish border for Monday night in the youth hostel. Eventually find boarding house in Bilbao. No tickets yet – only a letter from Maine Road saying I can get tickets at the ground before the match.

Wander down to Bilbao’s stadium. No-one around. Suddenly hear English voices. Ascend stairs and interrupt press conference by Ronnie Allen, Bilbao’s English manager. They look at me. “Sorry to interrupt, but how do I get tickets for the match?” Sent off to City’s hotel on the hill over the town. Get three tickets for myself and two mates arriving later. Spend evening at hotel where, rumour had it, Joe Corrigan punched a bloke who offered one criticism too many. This in Joe’s shaky days after the early brilliance when they had to stop him giving away corners by touching over shots that were already going a foot clear of the bar.

Three more BR workers arrive on day of the match without tickets. An hour before the game, I’m brandishing my letter on MCFC headed paper trying to find someone to buy tickets from. Sudden excitement from Bilbao official as I’m directed down a tunnel under the stand. They open a door for me, and I’m in the City dressing room. It’s the red and black shirt and the letter. They think I’m one of the players! Surely the glasses gave it away? Malcolm Allison not fooled. He knows I’m not the sub. “Any tickets, lads?” he asks the team. Half a dozen comps in hand, I beat a hasty retreat.

Tickets not together but locals in the stand are friendly, even after Bilbao lose a 3-1 lead to Tommy Booth and a late own goal. “Manchester City, says a man who shared out his wine at half-time, “bueno equipo mas poco duro” (a good team but a bit hard). City, I thought, duro? Neil Young and Ian Bowyer?

Seal tie with a 3-0 home win, then get past Belgia and Portuguese opponents before Schalke 04 in the semis. A mix up over where I was staying (we lost 1-0) meant I was stranded in a bar in a Dusseldorf suburb at midnight. A couple about to leave took pity and offered me their couch for the evening. Can you imagine it now? Offering a bed to an English football supporter at one o’clock in the morning?

Win the second leg 5-1 so it’s off to Vienna for the Final against Gornik Zabrze of Poland. An all-seater stadium without a roof is no joke. Neil Young scores and the heavens open, but fortunately with only 4,000 there we could all fit under the canopy of the bar. A Lee penalty makes it 2-0 and even a late Gornik goal can’t deprive us of a European trophy at only the second attempt. No-one in England saw it, though, as the FA Cup Final replay kept it off TV.

Next day a journey home through the mountains. I even chatted to a girl from Liechtenstein, and there aren’t many of them. She seem surprised that anyone should want to go halfway across Europe for a football match. Express the hope that some day we might get drawn against the Liechtenstein cup winners. Who says romance is dead?

City got to the semi-final the year after, but an injury-hit team lost 1-0 to Chelsea both home and away. Our next three European seasons were all round-one exits, but in 1978-79 our last European victory to date was a 3-0 thrashing of AC Milan, before we succumbed to Mönchengladbach in the UEFA Cup Quarter-Finals. No doubt one day City will be back in Europe. Faith is not dead either.

From WSC 128 October 1997. What was happening this month