“Dundee would have been European champions if we’d got to the final, because nobody would have beaten us at Wembley. That’s what Shankly said.”
Former Scotland manager – and then Dundee defender – Craig Brown laughs at such apparent absurdity. A team now languishing in the Scottish second tier potentially becoming only the third side in eight seasons to claim that title after Real Madrid and Benfica? Aye, very good.
And yet, 57 years ago, Bob Shankly’s side rampaged through their only European Cup campaign. A campaign in which the champions of Germany, Portugal and Belgium were each given hidings, before their feted Italian equivalents ended Dundee’s run at the semi-final stage.
AC Milan put five past them at the San Siro in a match stewarded by a referee who had received “extravagant gifts” from the hosts and was later banned on bribery charges. But the return fixture, in front of more than 35,000 at Dens a week later, can perhaps be considered as one of the best wins ever earned by a Scottish club.
This was a team of Maldini, Trappatoni, Rivera and Altafini. A team that would go on to deny Benfica a third consecutive title three weeks later. A team that fused fine football with ferocity. But Alan Gilzean scored the solitary goal on Tayside before being dismissed for meting out justice of his own after losing patience at Milan’s brutality.
Missing Milan because of Motherwell reserves
Brown watched that game from the bench, as he did every match in the competition. Part of the 14-man squad on each occasion, he never made the starting XI in a time before substitutes were permitted. The closest he came was that game in Milan.
“Bobby Cox got injured a few days before and Shankly wanted me to replace him, but I did myself a mischief that same day and wasn’t fit enough,” he says. “Imagine that, missing the chance to play in a European Cup semi-final because you got injured against Motherwell reserves.”
Such ruefulness should not be mistaken for bitterness, though. Brown cherishes the memories of that European run and his four years at Dundee. He was Shankly’s first signing and the last player sold by the brother of Bill, and was invariably addressed as ‘Christ, Craig’ given the manager’s tendency to bemoan his abilities.
“I knew I was on the way out when he put me at the end of the front row on the team photo,” he recalls. “He always put the good players in the middle and, as I sat down, he said ‘a pair of scissors will get rid of you’.”
Spying over fences & keeper on the wing
Gilzean was never anywhere other than the middle. A key performer in Dundee’s title-winning team, he grew in stature in that European run, scoring nine goals and eventually earning a move to Tottenham, where strike partner Jimmy Greaves described him as “possibly the best footballer I’ve ever played with”.
The totemic frontman started with a hat-trick against Cologne as the German champions – among the favourites for the competition – were given eight on an astonishing night at a raucous Dens.
Brown calls it as “as momentous a game as I can remember” and recalls the Cologne scout having spent a week in Dundee “peeking over fences taking pictures” before reporting back that the Scottish champions were there for the taking. “We were a wee bit in awe,” he concedes. “But Gilzean was incredible and the team were exceptional.”
Dundee “pressed before pressing was invented”, according to Brown, spearing the ball into the Germans’ half before fighting for it there. “It was basic, but they just couldn’t handle it,” he says. The Scots were eight up after 66 minutes before Cologne pulled one back, an outcome that poisoned the atmosphere for the return leg.
The Germans tried all the usual capers to unsettle their visitors before a contest in which Brown says “anything went”. Goalkeeper Bert Slater was kicked in the head – “accidentally, apparently, but they knew getting rid of him was their best chance” – and midfielder Andy Penman had to replace him, with a bloody and clearly concussed Slater stationed on the wing having been unable to decipher how many fingers Shankly was holding up.
“We lost 4-0 in the end but the performance was excellent,” Brown says. “Shankly was furious, though, and wouldn’t let us go to the after-match dinner.”
Silver cigarette lighter & a cigar box
Sporting Lisbon were next, Dundee recovering from a 1-0 defeat in Lisbon to thrash the Portuguese 4-1 at Dens. Gilzean scored another three that night, and added two more in the first leg of the quarter-final win over Anderlecht.
That tie came in early March, after a two-month spell in which Dundee hardly played amid a particularly harsh spell of winter weather. By then, any hopes of retaining their title had withered, leaving their focus fully on Europe and a side who had taken care of a Real Madrid side featuring Alfredo di Stefano, Paco Gento and Ferenc Puskas in the first round.
“We were terrific in Belgium,” Brown says of another 4-1 victory. “Two things stick out from that game. We had to fly from Edinburgh, to London, to Paris, then Brussels to get there, and I remember being given a silver cigarette lighter and a cigar box as a gift at the after-match dinner. So much for being athletes.”
A 2-1 win at Dens finished the tie and set up a meeting with Milan. The Italians had done for English champions Ipswich in the last eight and contained some of the finest players in the world at that time.
“Milan had a mystique about them,” says Brown. “You knew the names. The jersey. The colours. They were a big deal. Had it been any other team…”
Sad endings & singing in Pitlochry
The San Siro was heaving for the first leg, with the Spanish referee delaying the kick-off to allow the 90,000 crowd in and heightening the Dundee nerves.
“Shankly complained about that,” Brown recalls. “He also complained about the Italian photographers blinding Bert Slater with their camera flashes whenever a cross came in.”
But the official – Vicente Antonio Caballero – was not for listening. It took just three minutes for Milan to score, and although Alan Cousin’s goal took the sides in level at the break, the hosts added four more after the break.
“They put the boot in, which surprised us because they didn’t need to do that, and the referee was very much a homer,” Brown says.
That result effectively killed the second leg and Dundee’s hopes of reaching Wembley, but that’s not to say that game at Dens was tame. Milan were the beneficiaries of more lenient refereeing, with bespectacled Belgian Lucien van Nufell disallowing an Andy Penman effort and denying Dundee a spot kick when Gordon Smith was punched in the penalty area.
Brown recalls Gilzean and Smith being “kicked off the park” before the former finally lashed out in frustration. “He was crestfallen afterwards and Shankly gave him pelters for it, even though he was one of his favourites,” he says. “It was a sad way for such a great run to end.”
Milan would go on to beat Benfica in the final, while Dundee would miss out on European football the following year after ending their league title defence with a ninth-place finish in the Scottish top flight.
Indeed, the only thing they had to show for that campaign was a pop single released by Brown and five of his team-mates under the name ‘Hammy & The Hamsters’ that topped the Scottish charts.
“We’d go out once a week to a cafe-bar and we had this wee group,” Brown explains. “When we went away as a team to Crieff or Pitlochry or wherever, we used to have to make our own entertainment so we’d meet up and have a sing song. Alex Hamilton played the piano and the rest of us sang. The old dears in the hotel loved it.
“Things like that made it such a great time to be at Dundee and I just wish we could have made it even better by getting to Wembley and winning that European Cup.”
Each day in May, BBC Scotland will celebrate the anniversary of one memorable moment in Scottish football.