When Celtic smashed Sporting in the UEFA Cup

If the tale of Celtic in Europe in the 60s and 70s is one of overachievement, the tale of Celtic in the 80s is one of underachievement and rotten luck.

Having been a genuine European superpower from the mid-60s to the late 70s, the Bhoys’ fall to also-rans came rather swiftly. From 1980 to 2001, Celtic’s interest in European competition failed to last beyond Christmas.

This was rather understandable in the 90s, when mismanagement almost put the club out of business. The Hoops’ financial struggles were exacerbated by the financial recklessness across the city, which made Rangers the dominant force in the Scottish game.


But Celtic had a decent side in the early 80s. At the beginning of the decade, the squad featured defensive stalwarts Danny McGrain and Roy Aitken, mercurial playmaker Tommy Burns, midfield powerhouse Murdo Macleod, classy winger Davie Proven and talented striker Frank McGarvey.

It formed a solid backbone to the team and two of the greatest Scottish talents of their generation – Charlie Nicholas and Paul McStay – would soon come through the ranks to add more quality.

However, it was New Firm rivals Aberdeen and Dundee United who claimed the most memorable European performances during this period. The Dons famously defeated Real Madrid in the 1983 Cup Winners Cup final, having put Bayern Munich out of the competition in the quarter final.

And United came within a whisker of reaching the European Cup final in 1984, losing 3-2 on aggregate to Roma in a semi-final still clouded by allegations of corruption.

Sometimes, the Hoops simply suffered from bad luck in the draw. In 1981’s 1st round, they were drawn to face a Juventus side featuring several of the players who would become Italy’s world champions the following year as well as future Celtic manager Liam Brady.

The Scottish champions won 1-0 in Glasgow before succumbing to a 2-0 defeat in Turin, ending their campaign before the clocks went back.

The draw wasn’t much kinder the following year as the Bhoys found Ajax standing between them and a continental adventure that would reach deep into autumn.

This Ajax was not at the level of the sublime three-time European Cup winners of the early 70s but they did feature a 35-year-old Johan Cruyff and three of the key members of the excellent Denmark team of the time – Jesper Olsen, Jan Molby and Soren Lerby.

The Bhoys overcame this challenge with a memorable 2-1 win in Amsterdam, having drawn 2-2 in Glasgow. But the reward for this victory was to face Spanish champions Real Sociedad in the second round.

The Hoops should really have done better but a late collapse in Spain saw them slip to a 2-0 defeat and conceding early in Glasgow killed the tie, eventually won 3-2 on aggregate by the Spaniards.

Dundee United’s Premier League triumph in 1983 meant that the Hoops would be playing in the UEFA Cup that year but it set the stage for arguably the most memorable Parkhead European night until Martin O’Neill’s arrival on the scene at the start of the millennium.

The Hoops reached the second round with the minimum of fuss, dismissing Danes Aarhus 5-1 on aggregate. The 4-1 victory in Denmark saw the best of this Celtic side’s flair and goalscoring potential.

Sporting Lisbon were next up for what would be a challenging but winnable clash. Future Parkhead boss Dr Jozef Venglos was in charge of the Portuguese side, who carried the deadly attacking threat of Rui Jordao and had future star Paulo Futre on the bench.


In another insipid away performance, much in line with recent history, the Hoops slumped to a 2-0 defeat as Jordao helped himself to a brace. The setting of Lisbon had failed to inspire the new generation of Celts and another very early European exit beckoned.

But Hoops fans were in for something special when they travelled to the east end of Glasgow for the second leg on a chilly November evening.

It was apparent that the fans hadn’t given up hope of progress as almost 40,000 made their way to the ramshackle old stadium, still over a decade away from its Fergus McCann-made makeover.

As the teams took the field, the decibel level lifted to heights rarely heard on match days and the players were energised.

Rather bizarrely, it was Sporting who took to the field in green-and-white hoops, while the Bhoys wore their lime green away shirt.

As a positive omen, this shirt had been seen for the first time in the impressive away victory in Aarhus and there was a definite sense that victory was in the air.

From the kickoff, it was all Celtic and Burns opened the scoring when he escaped the Sporting defence and headed in McGarvey’s cross after 18 minutes.

The Hoops continued to make the running as half-time approached but the fans were always conscious that a single goal from the visitors would require them to score another three.

If there was a chance that the Celtic faithful was becoming anxious, it was blown away just before the break as the Bhoys’ dominance finally got its reward.

In the 43rd minute, centre back Tom McAdam took advantage of a goalkeeping error to smash the ball home from close range. A 19-year-old Brian McClair then properly announced his arrival as a Celtic player by running through the defence and sliding home the third goal on the stroke of half-time.

The crowd was in a beautiful frenzy after goal number three and a delirious home support revelled in their side’s first-half brilliance during the break. It had been a completely dominant display over a side that had won the Portuguese league and cup double just 18 months previously.

Sporting had looked shell-shocked throughout the first half and not at all at home, despite the kit that they were wearing.

Nevertheless, despite the blow of losing two goals at such a crucial time, Dr Jo had the opportunity to calm his players down and remind them that just one goal without reply was still all that his team needed to go through.

With Celtic in such rampant form, the comeback didn’t look likely but the longer the game went on without a killer fourth, the more unsettled the crowd would become. One lapse in concentration could cost the Hoops the tie, while bagging a fourth goal would all but seal it.

Looking at the Celtic line-up that day, it was clear that the side was more suited to attack than defence and Macleod pounced on a loose ball in the box to add the fourth with 58 minutes on the clock. The crowd’s relief turned into ecstasy as Burns lung-bursting run set up McGarvey for the fifth just a minute later.

The final whistle blew and the Portuguese visitors had been well and truly blown away on a special Parkhead night. Older fans suggested that the atmosphere had been a throwback to the glory days, while younger supporters had been witness to a spectacle that would remain with them for years to come.

Looking at the Celtic team, it seemed to have the potential for something special. While the defence was not top class, the attacking talent was certainly there in abundance when the best XI was on the park.

There was also a good blend of youth and experience, and McClair was beginning to fill the considerable gap created by Nicholas’ departure for Arsenal earlier in the year.

Unfortunately, there would be no European football after Christmas that season as Celtic once again ran into a formidable opponent in the third round.


Nottingham Forest had evolved in the years since they were twice European champions – 1979 and 1980 – and they were no longer title challengers in England.

But they were still led by the maverick genius of Brian Cough and he masterminded a 2-1 second leg victory at a sell-out Celtic Park, after the Hoops had been the better side in a 0-0 draw at the City Ground.

Despite the 67,000 fans at the stadium that night, the atmosphere had felt strangely flat in contrast to the electrifying energy with just over half that number in the house for the Sporting Lisbon clash.

Perhaps the fans had been too expectant against the English side, whereas they knew that their noise was needed to help the side overcome a first-leg deficit when they faced the Portuguese.

It was a disappointing end to a campaign after one beautiful night in November had suggested that the sky was the limit.

Another promising European Cup Winner’s Cup run was ended by the Rapid Vienna scandal the following year and the outcome of that shameful (for Rapid and UEFA) episode was still being felt when the Hoops lost to Atletico Madrid behind closed doors in the same tournament in 1985.

The Hoops made it back in the European Cup in 1986 and it was really the last time some of the core of the 1983 side had a chance to achieve something memorable.

Celtic eased past Shamrock Rovers in the first round with a 3-0 aggregate victory. But, with considerably easier options still in the draw, the Bhoys would be up against Cup Winner’s Cup holders Dynamo Kiev in the second round.

Bonner, McGrain, Burns, Aitken, Macleod, McStay and McClair were survivors of the famous 5-0 victory but Burns was taken out of the game by an era-defining cynical challenge when he had looked like Celtic’s danger man early in the first leg.

Two late goals in Kiev gave the Ukrainians a 4-2 aggregate victory and McGrain soon retired, while McClair and Macleod left for pastures new the following summer.

And so began Celtic’s gradual slide into European obscurity, to be awoken 15 years later, when a stunning 3-1 victory at Ajax in a Champions League qualifier signalled that the Hoops were a force to be reckoned with again.

Some more glory nights at Parkhead soon followed but those who were there for the Sportlng Lisbon clash might argue that the atmosphere on that night was a match for anything we have seen since.

The Author

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy is an independent football writer based in Bangkok. He was formerly a freelance sports sub-editor with UK newspapers, including the Sunday Express and Metro. He now writes regularly for ESPN's South East Asia blog about Thai football and writes a monthly column for Hat-Trick magazine in Thailand.

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