Issue 5: The Victory That Got Away?

On their way to becoming the legendary Lisbon Lions, Jock Stein’s Celtic took on a plucky Yugoslavian side who nearly derailed the Hoops’ trophy winning campaign. Jelena Đureinović from Issue 5 of Póg Mo Goal Magazine.

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On their march to the 1966/67 European Cup final the local lads from Glasgow lost just one match. They were defeated in the first leg of the quarter-final by FC Vojvodina from Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. In the return game, however, Billy McNeil’s header in the last minute sent Vojvodina home, while Celtic continued all the way to Portugal.

The Bhoys left the quarter-finals with the impression of the town of Novi Sad as “a dump,” as Tommy Gemmel called it, while Vojvodina’s Radivoj Radosav went home with the ball from Celtic Park which he took while everyone else was busy feeling shocked in the last seconds of the game.

Those years were equally as extraordinary for Vojvodina as for Celtic. The local boys were of a similar background to the Scottish players, knowing each other from youth squads, bringing the first Yugoslav championship to Novi Sad and then becoming one of the best eight teams in Europe.

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Although it was not the first time a Yugoslav club had success in the European Cup – Partizan from Belgrade reaching the final against Real Madrid just a year before – it was the first time a club outside of the Yugoslav ‘Big Four’ had won the title. It took Vojvodina more than 20 years to achieve it again.

This first champion generation was special. They weren’t all born within 30 miles of the stadium like the Lisbon Lions, but it was close. The players either came from Vojvodina youth squads or joined from the clubs in the province. The work of two people was especially important – technical director Vujadin Boškov and coach Branko Stanković.

Boškov was born in Begeč, a village just outside Novi Sad, and played 512 games in the Vojvodina jersey. He was a character resembling Jock Stein, turning the club into Yugoslav champions in his first year in charge. Introducing new training methods and professionalising the game, Stanković was also enormously significant for the achievements of the team.

Although the players first opposed him, finding him too strict and demanding, once they saw the first successes and the money and fame which followed, he became, as midfielder Ivica Brzić explained, “a god for them.” They were soon convinced that all the kilometres run in the snow were in their interest and would pay off.

Having defeated Atlético Madrid, the Yugoslavs were full of confidence prior to facing Celtic. They thought they could take on the world. The draw for the quarter-final had been made on 15 December 1966, pairing the Glasgow side with the winner of the Atlético-Vojvodina tie.

The two teams knew little about each other with the lack of many live television matches in those days. While most of the Celtic players were unfamiliar to the Vojvodina squad, they had heard of Jimmy Johnstone. Stein went to see Vojvodina play against Atlético in Madrid and he felt Celtic had a hard tie before them commenting: “Remember, Partizan Belgrade reached the European Cup final last season and no one had heard of them either. This team beat Partizan to the Yugoslavia league title.”

On the other hand, the players’ first reaction was, as Tommy Gemmell recollected in his memoirs, “Where is that?” before realising they had avoided Inter Milan and Real Madrid. The Bhoys were happy to draw Vojvodina who were not a big name in European football and had only just become champions for the first time in the club’s history.

The first leg was played in Novi Sad under the brand-new floodlights the club had bought especially for the occasion, selling their best striker Silvester Takač to afford them. Takač had meant the same to Vojvodina as Johnstone to Celtic. The crowd of around 25,000 people was the club’s largest ever, something they could only dream about today. Among the spectators were the entire teams and management from both Partizan and Red Star.

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Besides saying goodbye to Takač, Vojvodina acquired additional funds for the floodlighting system from the play-off against Atlético. Boškov had made a deal to play in Spain instead of a neutral venue as it was supposed to be in exchange for half of Atlético’s earnings from the gate.

The team spent an additional week in Madrid, training and sightseeing including taking in the Madrid derby at the Santiago Bernabéu among 100,000 people. The floodlights, later sometimes called “Takač’s eyes”, were tested in Novi Sad two days before the game when around 3,000 people gathered to watch both Celtic and Vojvodina train.

Although many had been skeptical about the pitch and lights in Novi Sad, including Stein who wanted to postpone the match thinking two pylons were not sufficient for a European Cup game, the new floodlights surprised everyone. Jim Craig said they were wonderful and the brightest he had ever seen.

However, Celtic players were not very excited about Novi Sad itself. Gemmell complained there were no large fancy buildings or cathedrals, which wasn’t true. But the squad were staying in Hotel Park nowhere near the old town and fortress which were also not visible on the way to the stadium.

He didn’t really like the arena either comparing it to Motherwell’s ground. He also didn’t like the audience. Despite coming from Glasgow, Bobby Lennox complained about the weather in Novi Sad as dull and depressing and the town being grey – embodying grey mediocrity.

At the same time, he admitted the players didn’t really get to know places when on away trips. A short walk and getting a few souvenirs was all they ever managed.

The truth is that the Celtic players were not excited about going to Eastern Europe in general. In his memoir, Lennox complained about long flights and “dodgy food and accommodation” in the Soviet Union, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Lennoxwas even surprised about hearing Mellow Yellow by Glasgow-born Donovan playing before the game in Novi Sad, saying it was “hippy-dippy music of the sort you did not expect to hear in communist eastern Europe.”

Without some key players – Takač sold to Rennes and Vasa Pušibrk and Dobriboje Trivić suspended – Vojvodina triumphed 1-0 in the first leg and celebrated with their fans in scenes never before witnessed in the city’s football history. Celtic, however, were not shaken by the result believing they could make up for it at home.

Between the two quarter-final games, Vojvodina lost away at Vardar in Skoplje, denting their hopes in the Yugoslav league. Meanwhile Celtic dished out a 5-0 hammering to St Mirren. Both teams had reasons to be optimistic about the second leg. Vojvodina could field a better team than the first game and they had that one goal advantage. But Celtic would be playing at their home stadium in front of their own supporters.

The Vojvodina players were not excited about Glasgow – the weather was horrible, and it had been raining constantly for days. Boškov didn’t like the pitch because it was “bald” in several places while some patches were even covered with sand. He said it was much worse than he had expected.

Some journalists from Yugoslavia called Glasgow the ugliest and gloomiest city in the world. However, they all fell in love with the atmosphere at Celtic Park. The stadium was sold out. Before the game, journalist Branislav Bošković wrote: “Ticket, ticket, and only ticket – that has been the obsession of the Scottish and the word which is nervously, impatiently and excitedly repeated everywhere for three days, since we came here. If there was a 150,000 capacity, the stadium would still be completely packed.”

In the game itself, Vojvodina wasted several scoring chances and the first half ended goalless. Then, in the 58th minute, Celtic’s Stevie Chalmers scored to level the tie on aggregate. With full time closing, a play-off in the Netherlands seemed certain. Jock Stein yelled at Sean Fallon: “It’s going to be bloody Rotterdam.” At the same time in Novi Sad, the club and supporters were preparing to celebrate should Vojvodina win the tie outright.

With the match about to end, Jimmy Johnstone shaped to take a corner kick. Chalmers remembered: “I made a little run and just happened to get in Pantelić’s way, by accident, when he came to meet the ball. That put the goalkeeper off his stride, but I was keener to see how Billy might head the ball than how well Pantelić might be able to catch it.”

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Vojvodina’s Pušibrk also described the closing moments: “Our goalkeeper was basically about to catch the ball, but he was afraid not to concede a penalty to Chalmers, so he took a step back and that’s how we conceded a second goal. I knew that it was a foul right away and we protested to the referee, but when Celtic scored the goal, the atmosphere became wild and everything was over.”

Billy McNeill had jumped to score with his head. There was just enough time left to restart from the centre circle before the game ended. Celtic had won 2-1 on aggregate. As the stadium went crazy and Vojvodina players stood shocked, someone kicked the ball to Radivoj Radosav. With no one paying attention, he took it with him to the changing room. And then he took it home to Novi Sad. Now a university professor in his seventies, he still has the ball from Glasgow as a souvenir and reminder of those times.

The reports in Yugoslav newspapers were very emotional. They called what happened “a football tragedy.” The referee Hans Carlsson was blamed for making a mistake while Stein said he hadn’t seen any foul. Carlsson later explained that he’d made the game one minute longer because of injuries to two Celtic players in the second half. “Both teams fought correctly. I can understand Vojvodina players being devastated because this time, luck was on the side of Celtic,” he added.

The legendary Yugoslav sports journalist Radivoje Marković had been in Celtic Park as a commentator for Radio Belgrade, which aired the second half of the game. In his view, to call it a tragedy was an understatement. “Vojvodina waited for this moment for five decades and it is unlikely that they will again reach the very top of European football. This is the game that will be written in the club’s annals for its saddest five minutes.”

Many still believe that Vojvodina would have beaten Celtic and maybe even won the European Cup if only Takač had still played with them. At the very least, they could have secured passage to the semi-finals if they had their best players for the first leg in Novi Sad.

Either way, the 1967 European Cup is remembered as a legendary season for Celtic and the Lisbon Lions story is one that will never be forgotten. For Vojvodina and their supporters, however, this will always be the victory that got away.

Jelena Đureinović is a historian of Yugoslavia who currently resides in Hamburg, Germany. Twitter: @DureinovicJ

Keisuke Yamada is founder and designer of City Boys FC, an amateur futsal team and creative football brand based in Sendai and Tokyo, Japan. www.cityboysfc.com

This article appears in Issue 5 of Póg Mo Goal Magazine, 64 pages of excellent feature  writing, beautiful photography and illustrations from contributors across the globe.

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