When PSV Eindhoven secured the treble of Dutch League, Dutch Cup and European Cup in May 1988, it was typical of a brief period of unprecedented egalitarianism in the European game.
As surprising as it may look some 27 years later in an era of G-14 “Super Clubs”, the Dutch side’s European victory followed Champion Clubs’ Cup wins by Steaua Bucharest in 1986 and Porto in 1987.
The 1987/88 season was also the third of a five season ban endured by English clubs following the disaster at the Heysel Stadium before the 1985 final in Brussels.
This was especially unfortunate for Everton once more who would, under normal circumstances, have been England’s representatives for the 1987/88 season, just as they would have been in 1985/86 when Steaua Bucharest walked away with the trophy.
As with Steaua in 1986, and with Porto the following year, the absence of English opposition significantly levelled the playing field in Europe’s blue riband competition.
This was the country, after all, that had produced seven champions during the eight seasons that spanned 1977 to 1984, and had also seen Joe Fagan’s Liverpool team collect runners-up medals after the tragic Heysel encounter in 1985.
In 1988, none of today’s so-called “super clubs” was in the ascendency. Barcelona were still some four years away from winning the trophy for the first time, the Juventus of the Platini years were already on the wane, whereas Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan were only just beginning their ascent to the top.
Real Madrid would continually vie with Barcelona for Spanish domestic dominance but had not won the European Cup since 1966, while Manchester United had only recently acquired the services of a manager from Govan who was far from satisfied with the idea that the odd decent run in the FA Cup represented a successful season.
If Spanish clubs had not achieved a European Cup victory since 1966, then the Italian top-tier of Serie A had only produced one winner since 1969, and that came during the dark night in Brussels in 1985.
From Germany, the Hamburg of Ernst Happel had aged and broken up, while Bayern Munich had been to the final in 1982 and 1987 and lost on each occasion. For the Bavarians, then, there was still no return to the Beckenbauer-Muller-Maier glory days of the mid-seventies.
In England, two of the present-day big hitters were in a parlous state, far from being able to mount any sort of domestic, let alone European challenge. Manchester City had finished ninth in the old Second Division in 1987/88, while fellow modern-day plutocrats Chelsea were relegated from the First Division in the same season.
In this period, though, the genuine English challenge would have come from Merseyside, with Howard Kendall’s Everton and Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, who just appeared to go from strength to strength. As The Guardian’s Paul Wilson has speculated:
It is worth remembering too that but for the tragic events surrounding the 1985 final in Brussels, and the subsequent ban on English clubs in Europe post-Heysel, the dominance Liverpool had achieved by the mid-eighties could easily have seen the trophy return to Merseyside on one or two more occasions. Uninterrupted by events away from the pitch, Liverpool might be up there with Madrid and Milan by now.
All in all, the European landscape was significantly different than the one we see today. As for how Everton and Liverpool would have shaped up during this period, we shall simply never know.
Into this lacuna, however, came one of the most technically accomplished and underrated sides ever to have won the European Cup: the PSV Eindhoven of Guus Hiddink. As if to prove the merit of the victory, several members of the same 1988 vintage went on to lift the European Championship trophy with Holland later that summer.
In addition, Hiddink’s men cleaned up at home as the Dutch Cup followed the Eredivisie shield into the PSV trophy cabinet alongside Old Big Ears.
Guus Hiddink had taken over as PSV manager in March 1987, having been assistant manager prior to that point. Then 41, it was the PSV job that put his name on the map and would go on to make him one of the continent’s most sought after coaches.
He was also a brave one, too. At the end of the previous season he had sold the club’s star Ruud Gullit to AC Milan for a then Dutch record of 17 million Guilders. The pre-season ahead of the 1987/88 campaign did not appear to promise much as PSV looked out of sorts. Guus Hiddink, though, held his nerve.
The PSV treble winning side was built around defensive solidity, team spirit and adroit technical flexibility. Hans van Breukelen kept goal, in front of right-back and captain Eric Gerets. In the middle were centre-halves Ronald Koeman and the Dane Ivan Nielsen, while another Dane, Jan Heintze, held the left-back berth.
Yet another Dane, Soren Lerby, was at central midfield, where he was paired with Edward Linskens. On the left side was Berry van Aerle, while at right midfield was the impressive Gerald Vanenburg. Two tall, rangy forwards came in the form of Wim Kieft and Hans Gilhaus.
Still part of the squad at the age of 37, and appearing intermittently during the season, was a link with the golden age of Totaal Voetbal itself. Willy van der Kerkhof would retire at the end of the campaign, when he would call time on 15 years with the Eindhoven club.
Domestically, PSV retained their league title with relative ease, beating Ajax to the Eredivisie shield by six points. Losing only two games throughout the campaign, they also notched an impressive 99 goals. In the Dutch Cup, PSV romped through to the final where they met Roda JC in the final on 12th May. The eventual victory came courtesy of an Eric Gerets brace as Hiddink’s team won 3-2 after extra time.
The road to the European Cup final in Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion on 25th May was relatively painless, too. Only in the second-leg of the first round against Galatasary did PSV encounter any real edginess, and that was with the benefit of a 3-0 first leg victory behind them.
In the second round, Rapid Vienna were beaten 4-1 on aggregate, while in the quarter-final the French champions Bordeaux were dispatched 1-1 on the away goals rule.
For the semi-final with Real Madrid it was the away goals rule that paved the way once more, as the 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu was enough to send PSV Eindhoven through to their first and only European Cup Final.
Playing cagily and sitting tight at home in the second leg, PSV advanced on to Stuttgart for a date with another European legend, this time one from Lisbon: S.L. Benfica, where, in Eusebio, a genuine icon of the game, would sit in their dug-out as co-trainer
When the crowning glory of PSV’s season was finally achieved, that too came in less than spectacular fashion. Donning an all-white change strip for the big occasion against the two-time champions, Guus Hiddink’s outfit finally went beyond extra-time on this occasion to lift the trophy 6-5 after a penalty shoot-out.
Five of the Dutch players in the team were not done yet, though. In Munich’s Olympiastadion one month later, a 14 year-old wound was healed when the Oranje lifted the European Championship trophy after defeating the Soviet Union 2-0.
The Milan-based trio of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten usually take the plaudits but the team had a strong Eindhoven core running through it – Hans van Breukelen, Ronald Koeman, Berry van Aerle, Gerald Vanenburg and Wim Kieft all played their part, in turn picking up their fourth medal of the season.
For the manager, Guus Hiddink, the 1987/88 season propelled him as a coach and provided the first instance of his being able to maximise his players’ potential to gain tangible reward. Time and again he would go on to upset the odds. Twenty years later he was still springing surprises and laying tactical traps, as his Russian side outwitted Marco Van Basten’s Holland at the 2008 European Championship quarter-final stage.
Moreover, 1988 saw unfancied, unheralded teams clean up in European competition. Bayer Leverkusen took the UEFA cup, while Belgian side Mechelen defeated Ajax to win the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Just as PSV could overcome the odds and defeat the Real Madrid of Butrageuno and Hugo Sanchez to reach the final, so other teams who operated without mega budgets could compete on a more level playing field too.
Without the Bosman rule and the advent of ‘feeder’ clubs, sides were more able to develop their own talent at youth level in the knowledge that those same players would represent them later on. Big money transfers still occurred, of course, as the cases of Gullit and Koeman at PSV proved, but the development of youth did not come at the expense of the wealthy draining away developing talent to fortify their own large squads.
Perhaps one statistic, above all, illuminates the degree to which European football has swung toward the concept of player acquisition for the few, rich “hyper” clubs. When PSV secured their treble in 1988, they were the third team to do so, joining the exalted company of Celtic in 1967 and Ajax in 1972.
When Manchester United completed their own in 1999, it seemed to prove that this was a feat of endurance, skill, luck, tenacity and, yes, romance. Moreover, it looked to be a once in a generation accomplishment as United’s was only the fourth in 32 years, or 43 years if we go back to the European Cup’s inception.
Since then, however, four more trebles have been achieved since 2009. Astonishingly, where it took 43 years to produce the first four Treble winners, four more have occurred in the last six years.
The names, of course, are familiar ones – Barcelona achieved the feat in 2009 and 2015, Inter did it in 2010, while Bayern Munich bested even the Beckenbauer vintage in 2013 with a clean sweep.
PSV Eindhoven’s 1988 Treble seems an awfully long time ago now, not least since it represented a period when the big medals could go to those outside of a narrow clique.
By the standards of the day, of course, PSV were a relatively prosperous club, having being founded and sponsored by the electronics company Philips. But this was as nothing when compared with the wealth disparities of today and the ability of the few to cream off the best talent.