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Britain's first European Cup representatives

Jon Carter
September 15, 2011
Stade Reims proved too strong for Hibs © Getty Images

While Scottish football has undergone something of a slide on the European stage in recent years, when the inaugural European Cup began in 1955-56, Hibernian were the only British representatives and made it all the way to the semi-finals.

In the early 1950s, a club founded by Irish born football enthusiasts in 1875, and given the Roman name for Ireland, were a force to be reckoned with. Hibernian had won the League championship in 1947-48, 1950-51, and 1951-52, and had attracted great praise for their attacking football.

Their side was based around the talents of legendary forward line 'the Famous Five'. As the tactics of the day dictated, many teams operated with two wingers, an 'inside right', 'inside left' and a centre forward; Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond made up the quintet of arguably the finest frontline that the Scottish game has ever seen.

As the fans' chant of the time went: "Johnstone was braw, Reilly an' aw, but the cocky wee Gordon was the pride of them aw."

All five players scored more than 100 goals for the club, with the north stand at Easter Road now named in their honour. The Independent's obituary to Johnstone in 2001 claimed: ''In those days, Easter Road, the club's ground, had steep terracing slopes which were needed regularly to accommodate crowds of 60,000. The 65,850 who paid to see the Edinburgh derby with Hearts in 1950 - a club record - is testimony to the regard in which Johnstone and his four colleagues were held.''

With a growing reputation in Scotland, Hibs' visionary chairman Harry Swan and (former manager) Willie McCartney recognised the need for global recognition and sought to lead the club forward by organising tours to other areas of the football globe.

Starting small, they organised exhibition games against English clubs such as Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal and beat Matt Busby's United 7-3 in a testimonial for Smith in 1952. A trip to Brazil to take part in the Octagonal Rivadavia Correa Meyer (a version of the World Club Championship, according to the Brazilian FA) in 1953 then gained them more of a media profile as they became the first Scottish side to be asked to play in the country.

Despite the fact that international travel was ''rare, expensive and time consuming'', the champions of Scotland in 1951-52 took a chance and 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 (Hobnailed) "tackity boot", as modelled by the Rangers 'Iron Curtain' team of the day."

They failed to win a game in the competition, losing to Fluminense and Botafogo and drawing with Vasco da Gama to finish bottom of their group, but the trip earned them valuable experience of football on a wider stage. The progression in both profile and equipment was rewarded when, in 1955, the club were given the chance to play in the first European Cup [now the Champions League], as one of the 16 teams.

With the technology of floodlights allowing games to be played on midweek evenings, and cheaper air fares making it possible to travel to games across Europe, the stage was set for the first British club in the competition to make an impression.

Hibs soon added Bobby Johnstone to a forward line already including Gordon Smith, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond © PA Photos

English champions Chelsea had turned down the invitation because the Football League were ''terrified of fixture congestion and foreign contamination'' - pressure from the League's controversial secretary Alan Hardaker ultimately proved too great. While Scottish champions Aberdeen also withdrew because they felt that playing under the floodlights gave the home side an unfair advantage.

Hibs were called as their replacements and took on the job of representing Britain with aplomb. Drawn against West German champions RotWeiss Essen, Hibs won 4-0 in Essen and the return tie in Scotland ended in a 1-1 draw. The legendary Eddie Turnbull, who later managed one of the best Hibs teams ever in the early 70s, said: "That's where I became the first British player to score in Europe. We gassed Rot-Weiss 4-0 although they were not a bad team, with quite a few of the World-Cup winning team of 1954 on their side."

Swedish side Djurgaarden were the next opposition and, despite going behind in the first minute, Hibs came back to beat them 3-1 'away' in Glasgow after their Stockholm stadium had succumbed to the usual Scandinavian freeze. The second leg saw another Turnbull strike enough to secure a 1-0 win and progression to the semi-finals was assured.

Arriving at Stade Reims' 35,000 all-seater stadium was a far cry from the sloping terraces of Easter Road and the stage appeared to overawe the Hibs players. Unable to make the most of their chances, Michel Leblond's 67th minute strike punished the Scots' profligacy and Reims' star Raymond Kopa set up the second for Rene Bliard with seconds left. With too much of a mountain to climb, Kopa's skill killed off Hibs' challenge in the second leg as he led his side to a 1-0 win, but some were not convinced by the French side's domination.

"Even now, 54 years later," says Reilly in his autobiography Last Minute Reilly, "I can categorically state that the 3-0 aggregate margin greatly flattered Reims. They were a very good side but we were definitely better than them. We just missed too many opportunities which we would normally have taken, and we weren't strong enough defensively."

Hibs' European adventure was complete, while Reims came within 11 minutes of beating the great Real Madrid in the final before losing 4-3. In the coming years Scottish football's profile improved further as Bob Shankly's Dundee caused shockwaves in 1962-63 and eventually had a winner of the European Cup in 1966-67 as Celtic beat Inter Milan, but the initial groundwork had been laid by a team from Edinburgh.

What happened next? Hibernian's European exploits continued in the Fairs Cup in the 1960s where they recorded famous wins over Barcelona and Napoli. However after the breakup of the 'Famous Five' they did not lift a trophy until 1972 when under the stewardship of former great Turnbull they won the Scottish League Cup. The club have gone on to play in European competition 16 times since then, although have never managed to make it back to the European Cup again.

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