Kevin Graham with A Celtic State of Mind – The Story Of The Jersey: Bobby Lennox v Fiorentina 1970

On Monday 16th March 1970, Celtic flew from Prestwick to historic Pisa with the aim of reaching their second European Cup semi-final within three years. To do so they would need to become the first British side to beat an Italian side over two legs in European competition. Celtic themselves had been defeated at this stage of the competition the previous season when A.C Milan won 1-0 at Parkhead to go through and eventually win the trophy beating Ajax 4-1 in the final.

As the coach drove the eighteen-man squad from Pisa to the city of Florence, a long journey that took longer than the flight from Scotland, Jock Stein reminded his players of the plan to be adopted in the Stadio Communale when defending their 3-0 lead from the first leg. Previously, he had summoned the squad away from their families and Sunday routine to Parkhead where for twenty minutes he spoke about his plan and what he expected from the players who would have returned home with nothing but his words singing in their ears.

The memory of surrendering a three-goal lead against Benfica in Lisbon was still fresh in the memory as Stein told the press, “We went over the Benfica game where we lost a three-goal lead, and discussed it in relation to our present task. The players know my plan but we must wait until we settle down before I name those who will carry it out.”

This was a change of routine for the legendary Celtic manager to discuss tactics with his team four days before the game. The experience in Portugal was obviously one he didn’t want to be repeated. Stein was showing the utmost confidence in his youngsters. George Connelly, Lou Macari, Vic Davidson and David Cattanach were part of the squad with Stein even saying that Connelly and Macari were likely to feature. Stein’s confidence in the youngsters wasn’t misplaced.

Listen to PAUL ELLIOTT with A Celtic State of Mind here:

ACF Fiorentina was a side smarting after the first leg. Their Argentine manager, Bruno Pesaola, had spent an hour locked in the Parkhead dressing room explaining the hammering to furious directors. Their president Nello Baglini had been the man behind the policy of introducing youngsters to the ‘La Viola’ first team. Pesaola was appointed in 1968 after a successful spell at Napoli whom he had led from Serie B then had successive top-five league finishes, only narrowly missing out on the Scudetto in 1967/68 before he left that summer.

The Argentine won the main prize the following season with seven players who were part of the Florence club’s famous ‘Fiorentina Babies’ side that had won the Coppa Italia in 1966. Pesaola was bullish and predicted pre-season that he would win the European Cup and retain the Scudetto. They failed to do both, and arguably the club hasn’t reached these heights since.

Fiorentina had a decent European pedigree appearing in the second European Cup final in 1957, being defeated by Real Madrid 2-0. They won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961 beating Rangers in the two-legged final (though, the competition wasn’t organised by UEFA that season and was only officially recognised after the Italian Football Federation complained in 1963) and reached and lost 1962 final to Atlético Madrid (this one, organised and recognised by UEFA).

After the first leg, Pesaola gushed over the performance of Bertie Auld like all of the 77,240 that were in attendance. “Auld was the master tonight. He was the great midfield player for Celtic.” As the Italian press, surprisingly, criticised the manager for being too defensive. Pesaola’s teams had a reputation for being more expressive than other Italian sides. Their star man, Luciano Chiarugi, was expected to return to the Fiorentina side after missing the first leg. Nicknamed ‘Cavallo Pazzo (Crazy horse)’, he was explosive in both pace and personality and would add some needed ambition to the Florence club’s cause. Pesaola needed something to ignite the Fiorentina fans who apparently, had all but given up on their team’s chances, as only 35,544 turned up to the 60,000 capacity Stadio Communale for the game against Celtic.

As you picture both teams taking to the field for the 10 p.m. kick-off, Fiorentina in their unique purple kits (with a large Italian flag shield being shadowed by the city’s red fleur-de-lis emblem on their chest) to take on Celtic, recognised instantly in their classic green-and-white hoops, and with both teams’ players dwarfed by a 230-foot tower built into the stadium and topped with a Fiorentina flag, it’s hard not to wonder at the innocent, romantic nature of European competition in the 1970s and the unbridled adventure of a sporting occasion.

This has been lost over the years as UEFA bow to commercial pressures by destroying the innocence of their competitions for TV and sponsorship money. Fans surely need to be reminded of this ideal in amongst all the present-day packaging, hype and money. The simple visceral emotion of your team playing in a different culture, against virtually unknown opposition and in stadiums painted with colour and vibrance alien to your domestic game should be a pleasure that is easy to remember and cherish. To do so is like stripping glossy paint from a window sill and finding a beautiful wood underneath that’s been hidden for years.

Stein’s game plan was to contain the game in the midfield. To do this, he brought in George Connelly and the changing of the guard was on show as Davie Hay was also in the team showing a quiet authority beyond his years. After the game, Stein would tell the assembled journalists: “Look at the game young David Hay played last night against Fiorentina – it was fantastic. Then we moved in George Connelly who has not had a first-team game all season. The incentive is there at Parkhead for everyone. No one can say he is an out-and-out first-team player. Every player on our books is a potential first-team man. That is the way that I have always planned it and that’s the way it is.”

The manager had an incredible talent pool coming through from the reserves but on the night in the late Florence evening it was the veterans of Lisbon 1967 who shone just as brightly as the unwrapping of the Quality Street Gang. Billy McNeill was as large as the tower high above the stadium, doing what a true leader does. Jimmy Johnstone was known as a fly-like maverick who entertained for fun but he took one for the team where his hard work and adherence to the game plan was lauded afterwards. Tommy Gemmell had the task of shackling Luciano Chiarugi, a battle of unwavering individuality and wills to win. Then, Bertie Auld and Bobby Murdoch had to control the midfield.

“Murdoch is the Papa of the team, the rest are the sons around him,” gushed Pesaola after the game. He had watched his side take the lead in the 37th minute through Chiarugi but unlike in Lisbon a few weeks before, Celtic had learned and listened to what Jock had told them as they never panicked, continuing to control the game until the final whistle. ‘La Viola’ became increasing deflated as the game wore on. Celtic’s better physically and mental conditioning left Pesaola prowling the touchline frantically chain-smoking and trying to rouse his players. It failed and he knew he had another meeting with furious directors to deal with. Stein in the other dug-out was relaxed and already thinking of the future. The club had already done the same by pre-booking Hampden and printing tickets for a game they hadn’t yet qualified for.

Before the draw for the semi-final in Rome, Stein said: “Now I’ll settle for Feyenoord in the semi-finals and then look for a final against Leeds in Milan,” and this was a view backed up by the press. Everybody saw the Dutch as the weakest of the last four. A view I personally find troubling especially from a Celtic camp once involved in the fairytale of Lisbon and who should have realised that anything was possible. Predictably, as the balls were picked from the crystal goblets and we were paired with Leeds United, the press boldly stated that the winners of this tie would be European Champions.

How wrong they would be!

Kevin Graham

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