Sixty years ago this week, Hibs became the first British club to play in Europe – little realising their match against then German champions Rot-Weiss Essen would herald the behemoth of today’s Champions League.
Over the next couple of nights, 32 teams will begin their bid to make further progress via the group stages in this year’s competition, which now allows up to five clubs from any one country to compete, not just the champions. And that is about the only resemblance the current set-up has to the inaugural European Cup of 1955 when 16 clubs were invited to take part. Hibs were one of them – Chelsea declined to compete – although they had only finished in fifth position in the Scottish Championship the previous year.
The Easter Road club, however, were well known throughout Europe due to regular summer tours and, like the other participants, enjoyed the floodlights necessary to play midweek games in the new competition, the brainchild of former French internationalist Gabriel Hanot and backed by the respected French sports paper L’Equipe, of which he was then editor.
And, while today’s Champions League throws up images of grounds such as the Bernabeu, the Nou Camp, the Emirates and Old Trafford, Harry Swan’s Hibs found Essen’s Stadion Georg Melches “rather ramshackle” with dressing-rooms described as no bigger than a broom cupboard and a small grandstand seating fewer than 2000 fans. The playing surface, though, was excellent, not far behind Wembley in standard, although incessant rain made the pitch extremely heavy and treacherous, helping dissuade local fans from turning out for such a historic occasion with barely 5000 inside the ground.
However, just ten years after the end of the Second World War, 1000 soldiers from the British Army on the Rhine were in attendance, abandoning for the night any hometown allegiance to provide vocal backing for the Scottish side.
The war years, though, were still very much a vivid memory as Hibs striker Lawrie Reilly recalled in his autobiography while team-mate Eddie Turnbull had endured the horrors of the Arctic Convoys in which more than 3000 men lost their lives in the waters between Scotland and Russia. Those thoughts were very much in mind, as Reilly explained. “There was no lack of motivation in our ranks as it was only ten years since the end of World War Two. We were quite happy to accept that the war was over and that we had to make a new beginning.
“It was difficult, though, to forget about the loved ones that some of us had lost in the two conflicts with Germany. Eddie Turnbull had served in the navy and my own uncle, my dad’s brother Laurence, whom I had been named after, had been killed in World War One.
“So we may not have been bearing old grudges, but we were harbouring poignant memories and were, shall we say, very keen indeed to win and win well.”
Hibs did exactly that, turning on the style to breach the home defence time and again, with only poor finishing and good goalkeeping by German internationalist Fritz Herkenrath kept them at bay. Reilly recalled: “Players like Gordon Smith, Eddie, Willie Ormond and me began looking at each and saying ‘We’re better than this team, why are we holding back?’”
Turnbull created history by becoming the first British player to score in the European Cup before adding a second just before half-time and then supplying the pass for Reilly to run through the Essen defence from the halfway line to make it three with Ormond sealing the win with eight minutes remaining. Even then Hibs weren’t finished, Smith unleashing a shot which looked to have added a fifth, only for the referee to blow his whistle before the ball hit the net.
Hibs’ achievement, though, created a bigger fuss in the German press than it did at home, one of their national papers declaring “Last night the Hibernian team from Scotland gave the greatest display by a British team in Germany since the war.”
Reilly’s own reaction was rather more modest, the striker saying: “We players felt a quiet satisfaction at a job exceedingly well done and a blow well and truly struck for the prestige of Scottish football. I am sure that our supporters shared that feeling with us.”
Unlike the modern format, a month elapsed before the second leg in Edinburgh, Reilly, Smith and Tommy Younger all missing after thick fog delayed their flight home from Copenhagen where they had been playing for the Scottish League against Denmark.
Hibs, though, managed fine without them, drawing 1-1 with 19-year-old Bill Adam taking over in goal for Younger in what was his first and only appearance for the Capital club.
Swedish side Djurgardens were next up for Hibs, both ties, astonishingly, played in Scotland, with the Swedish season having closed down for its winter break. A 3-1 win at Firhill persuaded 31,500 to turn up for the second leg at Easter Road and they weren’t disappointed. Turnbull’s penalty enough to give them another victory and set up a semi-final against French champions Reims. The European Cup had obviously caught the imagination of the Edinburgh public with 45,000 inside the ground despite the first leg having been lost 2-0.
The French scored again but, Reilly insisted, the margin flattered Reims, saying: “They were a very good side, but we were definitely better than them. We just missed too many opportunities and we weren’t strong enough defensively.”
Reims went on to lose the final to Real Madrid, the first of five successive European Cup wins for the Spanish giants, leaving Reilly to reflect: “Would we have beaten Madrid if we had reached the final? We might well have done. We would definitely have beaten them if this competition had been played in 1951 rather than 1956.”
• THE EVENING NEWS MATCH REPORT FROM SEPTEMBER 15, 1955
Hibs Outplay The German Champions
Showing better team work the Hibernians hit a resounding blow for Scottish football by beating Rot-Weiss, the German champions, 4-0 in the first leg of their European Cup tie at Essen last night.
Thousands of British soldiers went wild with delight as the Easter Road side piled on the goals, and they got a great reception at the finish. Rain made the ground heavy, but the conditions did not seem to trouble the Hibernians, and there was hardly a moment when they were not on top. The home defence was particularly weak. Again and again the Scots broke through and only poor finishing prevented them from piling on the goals.
Hibernians opened the scoring in the thirty-fifth minute when TURNBULL beat Fritz Herkenrath, the Rot-Weiss international goalkeeper, with a low shot into the corner of the net. Just previously, Herkenrath had pushed a hard shot from Ormond over the crossbar.
Ten minutes later, TURNBULL again scored after a fine solo effort in which he beat several defenders. Turnbull also had a hand in Hibernians’ third goal, scored seven minutes after the interval by REILLY, who netted from close range after a pass from the inside right. In sixty-eight minutes, Reilly came close to scoring again when he crashed the ball inches over the bar from right in front of goal.
ORMOND scored Hibernians’ fourth goal in the eighty-second minute, with the German defence again well out of position.
Rot-Weiss - Herkenrath, Jaenisch and Sastrau; Hoeching, Wewers and Roettger; Roehrig, Vordenbaumen, Arbotmeit, Sauer and Steffens.
Hibernians - Younger; Higgins and Paterson; Thompson, Plenderleith and Preston; Smith, Turnbull, Reilly, Combe and Ormond.