Sunday, 6 June 2021

Winning the League by 0.04 of a Goal (Revised Piece As Seen In Late Tackle Magazine)

The following piece recently featured in Late Tackle magazine (Issue 73 April/May 2021) and is an updated/amended version of an article I wrote, and posted on this blog, at the beginning of last year.

All the odds were stacked against Kilmarnock or so it seemed. To pip Heart of Midlothian to the Scottish Football League Division One title, they had beat their title rivals away from home by at least a 2-0 scoreline without conceding. This was thanks to the Edinburgh club's superior goal average, used at the time to separate teams level on points, as Hearts went into the final match of season two points ahead of Killie in an era when teams were still awarded only two points for a win. For Hearts, what would be a third top flight title in eight seasons seemed almost a given, for Kilmarnock, a first ever league title seemed improbable. But could the unlikely happen? Might the boys from Ayrshire actually make history?

Kilmarnock's rise to prominence in the 1960s did not come through acquiring top names. Managed by Willie Waddell who took charge in 1957, the club that started the decade having never won a league championship were a team of mostly Scottish born players with many of their squad one club players but very few of them internationals. Few went on to become big names at the larger clubs, with Tommy McLean who made his Killie debut, aged 17, in 1964 probably the only exception. McLean went on to win a host of titles and cups at Glasgow Rangers including the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1972 and a domestic treble in 1975-76. Players such as defenders Jackie McGrory and Andy King, however, never played for anyone else and both would play a vital role in the club's success without ever being snapped up by bigger name rivals. McGrory, an ever present in the team who between August 1962-December 1964 did not miss a single game, was by some considered the finest ever centre half to have played for the club whilst King would go on to play 21 times for Kilmarnock in European competitions to this day still a club record.

Despite the lack of big names Kilmarnock did, however, develop a solid defensive team who for much of the early to mid 60s were conceding on average barely more than a goal a game and several seasons conceded fewer than anyone else in the whole division. This strong defensive unit certainly paid dividends as the club started the decade with four second placed finishes in five seasons with the first of those seeing Killie finish one solitary point behind champions Rangers. Kilmarnock over this period could have easily been given the tag of nearly men and to emphasise this point over that same period they also lost 3 cup finals, one Scottish Cup final and two League Cup deciders. One can assume, then, that those involved with the club were rather keen to shake off the bridesmaid tag when the 1964-65 season got underway.

Kilmarnock started their 64-65 league campaign in tremendous style with six straight wins and, opening with a 3-1 home win over Third Lanark, Killie did not lose a league match until December 12 when they were beaten 5-1 away at Greenock Morton. Kilmarnock found themselves with only one league defeat to their name come Christmas with 12 wins and four draws from their opening 17 games. Once again defence had been the key - Kilmarnock had only conceded 14 goals in those opening 17 matches and five of them had come in one match. If they were going to finally swap the runners up position for a league championship then this season would surely have to be the one. 

McGrory, King, and Matt Watson were mainstays in that formidable defence but up front Ronnie Hamilton had also been a key player too, scoring ten goals before the Christmas festivities began. Jackie MacInally had also scored seven with others such as Jim McFadzean chipping in as well. Hamilton would never have as big a long term impact at the club as some of the others, and indeed he was sold part way through the following season, but his goals in the first half of 64-65 were priceless.

Kilmarnock, however, had not been the only team in fine form. Before losing 3-1 to none other than Kilmarnock themselves in their final match before Christmas, Hearts had also been unbeaten all season up to that point and despite that defeat, they were still joint top. Dunfermline Athletic and Hibernian were not far behind but would eventually fade away. Rangers and Glasgow Celtic, meanwhile, were both well off the pace and indeed 1964-65 would end up being to date the only season in the whole history of Scottish football that both Old Firm clubs have finished outside the top four. 

Although things had been going swimmingly for Kilmarnock their excellent form would not last as after New Year's Day the club lost four out of their next five league games. For the pessimist, dreams of title perhaps might have seemed to be slipping away from them, however, Hearts lost twice in two days at the beginning of January so although they would lead the table come the end of the month it was not as big a lead as it could have been. 

After three straight wins followed their two defeats, Hearts then dropped more points with a draw against Rangers in mid February sandwiched between defeats to St Mirren and Dundee, the latter a humiliating 7-1 home loss. Kilmarnock were now just a couple of points behind them having started winning again. 

Following that astonishing loss to Dundee, Hearts then managed five straight victories before a draw and then another win took them into the final game of the season. For Kilmarnock, meanwhile, seven victories out of six preluded their final match meaning they found themselves still two points behind a table topping Hearts side going into that final weekend of the season.

It was either Ayrshire or the maroon half of Edinburgh where the title was heading. Kilmarnock or Hearts for the championship and who were their respective opponents on the final day of the season? None other than each other! Yes, a massive title decider was on the cards! 

A win for Killie away in Edinburgh would see the pair level on points but Hearts' superior goal average meant Kilmarnock would need to win the game at least 2-0 and not concede to secure the title. Dividing goals scored by goals conceded in what was known as goal average meant a 3-1 or 4-2 win for Kilmarnock would see Hearts clinch the title but a 2-0 scoreline for the visitors would secure the title for themselves. With the mathematics seemingly far more complicated than under the current widely used system of goal difference it made KIlmarnock's task arguably even harder than it would at first sight nowadays seem. For many, it looked like Kille had no chance at all!

28 April 1965 was Kilmarnock's day of destiny but the build up to the game was unusually low key. McLean who lived closer to Edinburgh than Kilmarnock was able to make his own way to the game and was told to arrive only one hour before kick-off - this for arguably the biggest game in the club's history! 

More than 36,000 spectators were present at Hearts' Tynecastle home and Kilmarnock looking for those vital two goals found themselves ahead in the 26th minute to the dismay of most of those fans. McLean found Davie Sneddon at the far post and Sneddon was able to head the ball home. Boom, 1-0 Killie. 1-0 rather quickly became 2-0 and the visitors were in dreamland. Brian McIlroy received a pass from Bertie Black on the edge of the box, and despite Hearts appealing for offside, smashed a brilliant left footed drive into the far corner of the net.

2-0 was the half-time score and both teams were on the offensive in the second period, but Hearts only needed one goal and Killie could not afford to concede. Ronald Jenson hit the post for the home side early on and the tension was palpable. McLean came close to grabbing a third for Killie but it wasn't to be whilst for the home side an Alan Gordon effort that almost went in is still talked about today. In truth, however, Bobby Ferguson in the Killie goal made a fantastic save to keep Gordon's effort out. That was the last real chance of the game as Killie's defence held firm and the match finished 2-0. Kilmarnock had done it! The home side were despondent but the visitors were jubilant. Willie Waddell raced onto the pitch and was jumping for joy amongst his ecstatic players. Kilmarnock had won their first ever league title and managed it against all the odds - or in goal average terms by 0.04 of a goal!

Thousands of locals lined the streets of Kilmarnock as the team coach made it's way back to the club's Rugby Park ground and the town turned into one big party. The team had finally shaken off their runners up tag but long term the success would not continue.

The following season Kilmarnock lost 7-3 to Real Madrid in the first round of the European Cup and never building on that league championship success would not win the title again, in fact, nine seasons after that triumph they would end up being relegated! Although relegation was just a blip and the club have mostly been a top flight side in the years since, they have not exactly been a very successful one. The club followed up their lone title win with a third placed finish next time around but would fail to manage that feat again until 2019 more than 50 years later and even then found themselves 20 points behind Champions Celtic. 

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Halb Vier and the Turning Season

Writing features for this blog/website takes time as does the research and coming up with the ideas for features. Plus I have a boring full-time job away from writing about football. 

Anyway, as it's been a few weeks since my last piece and you may have to wait a little while longer for my next piece I offer you (above) this excellent interview/discussion with Michael Wagg about East German football and his book The Turning Season. In said book, Wagg revisits all the clubs from 1989-90 East German Oberliga, then East Germany's top flight before reunification. The book is an excellent read and this talk with him courtesy of Radio GDR is well worth a listen.

Finally, if you haven't seen already, issue six of Halb Vier is now out and features yours truly. Halb Vier is a UK-based English language fanzine all about German football and my writing has just made its first appearance in their pages. You can buy a copy here

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

1. FC Saarbrücken: A Season in French Football and a Foray Into the European Cup

Winning promotion from Germany's fourth tier Regionalliga Südwest is a far cry from defeating AC Milan in the San Siro or putting four without reply past Real Madrid. But a period of close to a decade shortly after the Second World War saw 1. FC Saarbrücken go from top of the French second division to runners up in the German Championship whilst on the European stage representing a footballing nation that no longer exists. 

A while back I wrote about the German state of Saarland, its forgotten national team, and their, ultimately failed, qualifying campaign for the 1954 World Cup. Sat on the border with France, over the centuries Saarland has had a complicated history in terms of who has ruled it. For a period after World War II it was, not for the first time, governed by France, albeit it this time with a heavy dose of autonomy - hence its own national team. That national team was, of course, short-lived as the state rejoined what was now West Germany in 1957 having been under German rule for much of the previous century. But whilst the story of the Saarland national team is very much an interesting one, I would not have written about it otherwise, the story of local club side 1. FC Saarbrücken during this period is also fascinating too. Particularly of note, amongst other things, are one season played out in the French Second Division and a European Cup tie with AC Milan.

1. FC Saarbrücken represented Saarland in the very first European Cup in 1955-56 despite having not been able to become champions of their own country as such. Although Saarland did briefly have its own national football league it only lasted until 1951 and Saarbrücken considered themselves too good for such a league so never joined. Instead, Saarbrücken created their own invitational competition where they would face off against varying sides from Europe and even a few from further afield. However, by the time they played in Europe's new club competition Saarbrücken had joined the West German league system having been part of German football before/during the war and even having reached the final of the German Championship in 1943. Things could have been very different for Saarbrücken on the domestic front, however, as initially after the war they had spent a season playing in France when new customs borders at first made travel to Germany difficult and if other clubs had not vetoed the idea they would have happily made the transition permanent. 

The club had joined French football for the start of the 1948-49 season as a guest side with Gilbert Grandval, French high commissioner for the Saar Protectorate, having supposedly been very keen on the idea. Although Saarbrücken had been given a place in France's second tier Ligue 2 it had been agreed that as a guest side their results would not count in terms of points. Nonetheless, Saarbrücken, who over the course of the season travelled some 23,000km across France to their away games, made the most of their opportunity and had their results have counted would have finished the season top of the division. 

Even though as a guest side Saarbrücken's results counted for nothing the newspapers usually printed a complete, albeit unofficial, table in which the Saarlanders were always sat at the top. Saarbrücken, or FC Sarrebruck as French called them, were very much a high scoring team that season, not just winning but usually winning by large margins. Their results that campaign included a 10-1 win, a 9-0 victory, several triumphs of 7-1, one 7-4 win, and numerous scorelines of 6-0, 6-1, and 5-1 all in their favour. Top scorer in the league that season was Herbert Binkert who, unsurprisingly, played for Saarbrücken, and the forward managed 41 goals across the whole campaign. 

Sat in first place, Saarbrücken would have finished the season on 59 points had their results counted but since they did not it was Racing Club de Lens on 53 points who would be listed as the official champions. Regardless, in any normal season Saarbrücken would have been champions of the French second tier and to emphasise their dominance at the end of the season they faced Coupe de France winners Racing Club de Paris and defeated them 4-1.

Saarbrücken's foray into French football was short lived, however, and did not last beyond that first season. A proposal from Jules Rimet, then president of both the French Football Federation (FFF) and FIFA, for Saarbrücken to officially join the French league system was rejected at the end of the campaign. 299 delegates voted in favour but 609 were against with teams from the border regions of Alsace and Lorraine, who had been forced to participate in the German leagues during Nazi occupation, particularly hostile. The vote resulted in Rimet, who had been president since 1919, resigning from his position within the FFF which sent shockwaves throughout French football.

Without a league to call home, over the next few years Saarbrücken would face varying sides from all over Europe and beyond in both that aforementioned competition they set up, known as the Internationaler Saarland Pokal, and the numerous other friendly matches they played. In the inaugural Pokal tournament, Saarbrücken defeated Stade Rennais in the final with a reported two million francs in prize money given to them as winners. A second tournament was played the following year and Saarbrücken lost 2-0 Brazillian side Atlético Mineiro in the final in what was a rare defeat for the club. Other notable matches during this period included defeating a Catalan XI comprised of mostly FC Barcelona players 2-1, a 4-1 victory over that year's FA Cup runners-up Liverpool, and 4-0 away victories over Spanish sides Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid. In front of over 50,000 spectators, the victory over a Madrid side who had not lost at home for 12 years, and who would go on to win each of the first five European Cup finals, was described as well deserved by many in the Spanish press. Saarbrücken midfielder Werner Otto, meanwhile, called that Madrid victory "a sensation" whilst after the win, Jules Rimet referred to Saarbrücken as "the most interesting football team in Europe".

Saarbrücken's exile from domestic football did not last too long, however, as they along with the rest of Saarland's clubs were back playing in the German leagues by the 1951-52 season. Saarbrücken really made the most of this return too by winning the Oberliga Südwest in their first season back and then making it all the way to the final of the pre-Bundesliga German Championship. In the final, they, unfortunately, lost 3-2 to VfB Stuttgart in front of around 85,000 spectators at the Südweststadion in Ludwigshafen. Yet although they may have lost, more than 100,000 people lined the streets for their return home and such a strong showing across the season showed that earlier results against the likes of Real Madrid were anything but flukes. Having said that the club's form would dip in the coming years.

Saarland's status as an independent nation, in football terms at least, meant that Saarbrücken despite being back in the German fold could still represent Saarland on the international stage and they officially did so by participating in the inaugural European Cup in the 1955-56 season. By this point, however, Saarbrücken had found themselves playing second fiddle to 1. FC Kaiserslautern and others in the Oberliga Südwest. Because of this decline on the pitch, they were by most people considered underdogs when drawn against a formidable AC Milan side in the first round of that fledgling European competition. The cause of Saarbrücken's decline is unclear but it must be pointed out that a few of their star names from the beginning of the decade were in the twilight of their careers by the time they faced Milan.

"They had this fantastic Swedish attack with Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm. The best attack in Europe," recalled Herbert Binkert. Both Nordahl and Liedholm had won gold medals with a very strong Sweden side at the 1948 Olympics when it was still strictly amateur before later turning professional and moving to Italy.

Nordahl, it turned out, would not play in the first leg of the tie which took place on 1 November 1955 at Milan's San Siro stadium, and neither would Binkert either. Despite taking the lead through forward Peter Krieger after just five minutes, Saarbrücken soon found themselves 3-1 down and facing a mammoth task. Waldemar Philippi who had 18 Saarland caps to his name, missing only one of their 19 official internationals, pulled one back before the break, however, and the visitors, perhaps, started to believe. That belief clearly paid off as strikes two minutes apart saw Saarbrücken in front just after the halfway point of the second-half. Karl Schirra and Herbert Martin were the men on the scoresheet, the latter himself had 17 caps for the national side. 

"Maybe [Milan] underestimated us a little," Otto recalled, and when Saarbrücken held on for a 4-3 win it was considered by many a shock result.

Saarbrücken's then coach Hans Tauchert would a few years later take over at, then German champions, Borussia Dortmund and reach the European Cup quarter finals only to be knocked out by none other than AC Milan. Their home match was the first leg on that occasion and Dortmund managed a 1-1 draw, a result that would see Saarbrücken through to the next round. But could they actually pull off a similar result or would the Italians be out for revenge after the San Siro defeat?

Although Otto felt Milan may have underestimated Saarbrücken in the first leg, Binkert, who as with Nordahl would actually play in the second three weeks later, felt they hadn't made the same mistake twice, recalling: "The Milanese no longer made the mistake of underestimating us, " before adding "Milan were simply stronger in their play in the second leg."

The city was at fever pitch for that second leg but sadly for Saarbrücken, it wasn't to be. Although the match was tied at the break with the hosts having come from one down to draw level through Binkert the second-half would be dominated by the visitors. Three further goals saw Milan win the match 4-1 with the first of those three being an own goal from Theodor Puff. After that own goal, Saarbrücken seemingly collapsed and despite all the hard work in the first leg they had sadly lost the tie 7-5.

With Saarland losing its footballing independence shortly afterwards due to the state, of course, becoming under full West German control, and Saarbrücken unfortunately never managing to become West German champions, the club never got the opportunity to play in the European Cup again. Saarbrücken joined the Bundesliga for its inaugural season in 1963-64 but finished rock bottom of the division. They did also manage a couple of seasons back in the Bundesliga in the late 1970s and were promoted back to the top flight again for one lone campaign in 1992. The club have spent most of their recent history in the lower reaches of German football but promotion from the Regionalliga Südwest in 2019-20 means they now play in the 3. Liga just two divisions below the top table. They also came to prominence in that 2019-20 campaign by reaching the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal where they sadly lost 3-0 to Bayer Leverkusen.

The odd cup run aside the modern day club may not seem much, but in those early years after the war it's fair to say 1. FC Saarbrücken had a very interesting time of it and hence can claim to have a rather unique history that most other clubs of their stature could only dream of!

Sunday, 9 May 2021


I am currently working on my next article/feature and it is another fascinating foray into the past. But in the meantime whilst you wait for me to post my latest piece, feel free to watch this episode of the former cult Channel 4 show Gazzetta Football Italia from 2 June 2001.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

The Side From Vienna Who Became Champions of Germany

They were, at the time, one of the best sides in all of Germany and found themselves 3-0 up. But what is most remarkable about the final of the 1941 German football championship is not that Schalke 04 went on to lose the match 4-3, but that their opponents were not actually from Germany itself.

What constitutes as Germany may nowadays seem rather straightforward but this has not always been the case. particularly before and during the war. Whilst the state, and former military power, of Prussia, which nowadays covers many different countries in eastern Europe, played a large role in Germany's history in the first half of the 20th century, there were many other countries annexed by Germany over the course of the second world war, for example. In short, what could once have been classed as Germany, or part of a greater Germany, covered a much larger area than the modern-day nation now does. Not only that but in the early years of the DFB (German football association), Germany's football authorities actively sought out members amongst ethnically German clubs from outside of the country. This changed when Germany joined FIFA but, to emphasise the significance of it, the very first German Championship saw a team from the city of Prague, capital of modern-day Czech Republic, finish runners up. 

But whilst DFC Prag were hammered 7-2 in the final, almost 40 years later there was another side from outside Germany that went one better. As a Jewish but also, of course, ethnically German club, the Jewish bit meant DFC Prag sadly did not survive the Nazi regime. But two years after DFC Prag's demise it was a team from the Hütteldorfer district of Vienna in recently annexed Austria who in 1941, in the midst of World War II, managed the feat of becoming the first, and to date only, club from outside Germany to be crowned German football champions.

SK Rapid Wien had made history in January 1939 when they became the first team from outside Germany to win the German Cup, then known as the Tschammerpokal. It was only the competitions fourth year of existence and the first year of Austrian participation when the side from Vienna defeated FSV Frankfurt 3-1 in the final. On March 12 of the previous year, German troops had marched into Austria to annex the German-speaking nation and see it become part of Hitler's Third Reich and so all Austrian sides now became part of German football. In that final FSV had led after 17 minutes and it wasn't till 10 minutes from time that the Viennese drew level but two further goals saw Rapid make history. Even greater success was to follow, however.

Pre Bundesliga, Germany had no top flight as such and was split into regional leagues with the winners of each league qualifying for the end of season German Championship that determined who would be the country's champions. Rapid played in what was known as the Gauliga Ostmark, Ostmark being the name the Nazi's gave for Austria once under their control, and in 1904-41 they finished top of the division losing only twice in an 18 game campaign.

For the German football championship, Rapid would take part in a four team group for which the winners would progress to the semi-finals. Rapid faced TSV 1860 München, Stuttgarter Kickers, and VfL Neckarau both home and away and lost only once. They finished top of the group ahead of an 1860 side that had beaten them in Munich. In the semi-finals, Rapid defeated Dresdner SC 2-1 to reach the final where they would face Schalke 04 in front of 95,000 spectators at a sold-out Olympiastadion in Berlin. Interestingly the match would end up taking place on the day that Hitler's German troops began their offensive in the Soviet Union for the very first time.

SK Rapid Wien in 1941 were probably not a team full of big name stars, and certainly not names many fans today would recognise. A year later a 17-year-old Ernst Happel would make his debut for the club but although Happel would become famous throughout the world of football as an all-time great, albeit more so for his managerial career, the same cannot really be said for those in the squad of 1940-41. Having said that the squad did include numerous Austrian internationals so were hardly a terrible side either, and their results that season showed that anyway. Rapid were very much an attacking team, Franz Binder was top scorer and would end up scoring 38 goals across the whole season with the team as a whole scoring on average almost four and a half goals a game. Binder would be Rapid's star man in the final too.

Rapid's final opponents Schalke 04 had won the two previous championships and several of their players were big name stars at the time with Ernst Kuzorra and Fritz Szepan, in particular, to this day considered two of the greatest Schalke, and indeed German, players of all time. Funnily enough, the pair also happened to be brothers-in-law. The club's success of recent times made them clear favourites for the final and when the match got underway they soon found themselves in the driving seat.

Schalke were facing Austrian opposition in the final for the second time in three seasons with Rapid, no doubt, hoping to fare better than SK Admira Wien had two years earlier when they lost 9-0 to the side from Gelsenkirchen. Within eight minutes, however, Schalke were 2-0 up and it looked as if Rapid might fare no better than their fellow Viennese side had in 1939.

Goals from forwards Heinz Hinz and Hermann Eppenhoff very quickly put Schalke two goals ahead and although Schalke were the better side, the scoreline remained 2-0 at the break with Binder having missed a penalty for Rapid. Any positives for the losing side were soon destroyed, however, when Hinz grabbed his second just before the hour mark. With Schalke now three goals up the contest seemed all but over and their fans were desperate for more. "9-0, 9-0!" the Schalke fans began to sing but if they sensed more blood then they were to be sadly mistaken. In fact, for Schalke things would actually take a real turn for the worse in scenes none of their supporters could have imagined.  

"Bad start - good end." was how prominent Viennese newspaper at the time Das Kleine Volksblatt described the match from a Rapid point of view and they were basically spot on. The 'good end' began when Georg Schors pulled a goal back for the Austrians two minutes after Schalke's third and it ended with Rapid 4-3 up.

It is claimed that once their third went in Schalke thought it was game over to the point that they never took their opponents seriously for the rest of the match, at least not until it was too late I guess. But true or not, don't let that diminish the achievements of Franz Binder because from 3-1 onwards it really was the Binder show. 

"Binder was once again wearing the best shooting boots" stated Das Kleine Volksblatt and he certainly used them to great effect. 3-1 very quickly became 3-2 when he fired home a free-kick on 62 minutes whilst four minutes later he made amends for his first-half penalty miss by drawing the sides level from the spot. Incredibly within the space of six minutes, Rapid had eradicated their three goal deficit and were now level at 3-3 in a game that only minutes earlier had seemed completely lost.

Two goals from Binder had helped turn the game on its head but he wasn't done yet. Five minutes after he'd drawn the sides level Binder completed his hat-trick to put Rapid in front and he did it in style. It was another free-kick that gave the Austrians the lead as Binder hammered the ball into the upper left corner - a beautiful strike. From 3-0 down Rapid now led 4-3, having achieved this feat in less than 15 minutes, and Schalke were shell shocked. Das Kleine Blatt summed it up cleverly with their headline "Berlin experiences a Rapid quarter of an hour"

Schalke never recovered from going behind and despite there being almost 20 minutes left, the side who went into the final as overwhelming favourites could not find an equaliser. Against all the odds SK Rapid Wien had become champions of the Third Reich. Having been given no chance before kick-off and having found themselves 3-0 down after 58 minutes, Rapid had achieved the seemingly impossible and done it in incredible fashion.

"The masses streamed into the field and the victorious [team from] Hütteldorfer could hardly resist the onslaught and the congratulations" declared newspaper Österreichische Volks-Zeitung after joyous supporters had run onto the pitch at full-time.

Rapid Wien have won many Austrian league titles in the years since, but becoming champions of Germany? Well, that one was unique! Austria's oldest club First Vienna, who interestingly use the English spelling of the city name, won the Tschammerpokal in 1943 but never again would a side from Austria, or indeed anywhere outside modern-day Germany, win a major German trophy. Of those two Austrian sides victorious in German football, however, SK Rapid Wien are the only ones to actually have won the German championship and what is the equivalent of the modern-day Bundesliga. They were a side from Austria that was crowned champions of Germany, a feat that will surely never be achieved by anyone ever again.