In the early days of the European Cup, Stade de Reims were one of the finest club sides to grace the continent, thrilling crowds across Europe with their free-flowing, attacking play inspired by the members of the great French side which reached the semi-final of the World Cup in 1958.
With the goalscoring prowess of Just Fontaine and the iron defence of Armand Penverne and Roger Marche, Reims were a force to be reckoned with in the mid-fifties, however it was the midfield dynamism of the playmaker Raymond Kopa that made the French side such daunting opposition.
By the time Kopa put Hibs to the sword in the semi-final of the first-ever European Cup in 1956, ‘The Little General’ – as he was nicknamed – was on the verge of a move to Real Madrid and just two years away from being awarded the Ballon d’Or.
Hibs’ participation in the inaugural European Cup had already been groundbreaking. In addition to becoming the first British side to play in Europe, Eddie Turnbull’s opening goal in the first-round victory over West German champions Rot Weiss-Essen made him the first British player to score in continental competition.
At the quarter-final stage, Hibs eliminated Swedish champions Djurgardens IF – with the ‘away’ leg famously played at Firhill due to a frozen pitch in Scandinavia – while Reims claimed an 8-6 aggregate victory over Hungarian side Voros Lobogo to set up a clash between two of the best attacking sides in the competition.
With a capacity crowd expected, the first leg in April 1956 was moved from Reims’ Stade Auguste-Delaune to the Parc des Princes in Paris. However, the change of venue did little to overawe the ‘hosts’, with Kopa pulling the strings from midfield.
By contrast, Hibs looked shellshocked from the start and failed to get into their stride as Michel Leblond headed in a 67th minute opener, before Kopa played in Rene Bliard to add a late second and hand Reims the advantage going into the second leg at Easter Road.
The Hibs faithful turned out in their numbers, with almost 45,000 packed into the stadium but again, to their frustration, the home side were unable to break down their French opponents. With Kopa running the show again, Reims sneaked a 1-0 win, progressing to the final 3-0 on aggregate.
In his autobiography ‘Last Minute Reilly’, Hibs forward Lawrie Reilly said the gap between the sides wasn’t as great as the aggregate scoreline suggested. “Even now, 54 years later I can categorically state that the 3-0 aggregate margin greatly flattered Reims,” he wrote. “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.”
Reims would narrowly lose out to Real Madrid 4-3 in the final. However, Kopa wouldn’t have to wait long to taste European Cup glory, winning three in a row with the Spanish side between 1957 and 1959.
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