Wednesday 30 October 2019

Dukla Praha in the Sixties: Four League Titles in a Row, a European Cup Semi Final, and a European Footballer of the Year, All for the Club Nobody Loved

For a large part of the 1960s, Dukla Praha were a dominant force in Czechoslovakian football. As well as several domestic titles the club regularly competed against the continent's elite in the European Cup and even reached the semi finals in 1967. There was also success in the short lived International Soccer League, a competition which saw sides from Europe and South America face off against each other during the off season. Despite this success, however, as a club run by the much disliked Czechoslovak Army, Dukla were mostly unloved in their homeland. It seemed no matter how many titles they won they would never regularly draw the huge crowds that some of their rivals did.

Formed as ATK Praha in 1948 and based in the Praha 6 district of the Czechoslovakian capital Prague, being run by the army allowed them to be thrust straight into the top division and acquire the country's best players. In 1953 the club was renamed Dukla Praha in honour of those killed during the Battle of Dukla Pass in 1944, a conflict fought between the Soviet Red Army and Nazi forces on the border between Poland and what is now Slovakia. Alexej Čepička who would later become Minister of Defence was largely behind this creation of what was a club intended to dominate Czechoslovakian football, and although it was for an all too brief period they did for a time do exactly that.

1953 was the year Dukla won their first ever league title with further titles following in 1956 and 58, but it was the 1960s when the club really took off and made a name for itself. Dukla entered the decade in a brand new stadium and a run of four successive league titles started in 1961 with a league and cup double under new head coach Jaroslav Vejvoda. Dukla's 21 year old forward Rudolf Kučera was the league's joint top scorer scoring 17 goals over the course of the 22 game season as Dukla won the championship finishing seven points ahead of their nearest rivals. To complete the double they beat Dynamo Žilina 3-0 in the cup final. The first of those four titles was the only one to include a cup triumph and that seven point margin was Dukla's largest over those four seasons. Dukla did, however, consistently score more goals than anyone else during that period, and in fact, in 1961-62 they scored a whopping 81 goals in 26 games, just over three a game. 

Being the team of the communist regime was something that helped Dukla sign the country's best players with other clubs instructed to offer up their top stars for the Dukla cause. Dukla had a star studded squad with no fewer than seven of their players in the Czechoslovakia squad that reached the 1962 World Cup final in Chile. Undoubtedly the clubs star player during this period was Josef Masopust, the son of a miner and the fourth of six children. Masopust made 386 appearances for Dukla between 1952 and 1968 and would go on to be crowned European Footballer of the Year in 1962, becoming the first ever Eastern European player to win the coveted award. In the World Cup final, he scored to put Czechoslovakia in front against Brazil but sadly for the Czech's, though, they lost 3-1. 

Named by Pelé as one of his top 125 greatest living footballers in March 2004, Masopust was comfortable using either foot and was considered a fantastic passer of the ball with excellent control and sublime vision. Despite featuring often in a defensive role he scored 79 times for Dukla and found the net 10 times for the national team. In 1968 he left to become player coach at Crossing Molenbeek in Belgium. 

Taking a central role in midfield or defence (and occasionally on the left) for Czechoslovakia, Masopust played alongside fellow Dukla defender Ladislav Novák who was captain of the national team in 1962. Another Dukla player considered to have played an important role in Chile was defender Svatopluk Pluskal who along with Novak was playing in his third World Cup. The trio played in all six World Cup matches whilst fellow Dukla stars Josef Jelínek and Jozef Adamec played in five and three matches respectively.

Winning league titles meant Dukla would appear in the European Cup, and starting in 1961-62 they would find themselves knocked out at the quarter final stage of the competition three seasons running. 

Having beaten Bulgaria's CDNA Sofia and Switzerland's Servette 6-5 and 5-4 on aggregate respectively, they faced in the first of those quarter finals Tottenham Hotspur. Managed by the respected Bill Nicholson, Tottenham like Dukla had themselves completed the double the previous season. Spurs had won the First Division and the FA Cup to become the first team in England to complete a twentieth century double.
Dukla entertained Tottenham on a snow covered pitch on Valentines Day 1962 and a larger than usual home crowd for the somewhat unpopular club saw them run out 1-0 winners thanks to Kučera who slotted home late on. Kučera would score in total 11 goals in fourteen European Cup appearances. He had already scored twice in the second leg against Sevette in the previous round and one in each of the two games with CDNA and this took his total to five in that season's competition. In the second leg where the cold weather across the continent also saw a snow covered pitch at White Hart Lane, Bobby Smith and Dave Mackay scored twice each as Tottenham won the match 4-1 and progressed through to the semi finals at Dukla's expense. The Czech's were no match for the North London side and Mackay's first to make it 2-0 saw him control the ball beautifully before lifting the ball home on the half volley, a goal worthy of winning any tie.

Straightforward aggregate victories over Vorwärts Berlin and Esbjerg IB of East Germany and Denmark respectively saw Dukla face SL Benfica in the following season's quarter finals. Benfica were reigning European champions having defeated Real Madrid in the previous seasons final, that after overcoming Dukla's quarter final conquerors Spurs in the semis. Benfica had in their ranks the great Eusébio at the time considered one of the best players on the planet but it was a midfielder called Mário Coluna who was the star of the show in the first leg at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. Coluna scored twice in the second half to seal a 2-1 win for the hosts with Dukla's Josef Vacenovský scoring in between those two goals. The second leg in Prague ended in a 0-0 draw to send Dukla crashing out at the same stage again.

Having beaten Malta's Valletta 8-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round of the 1963-64 European Cup, Dukla then lost the first leg away at Górnik Zabrze in round one before a 4-1 second leg victory saw them progress 4-3 on aggregate and reach the quarter finals again. This time Dukla would face Borussia Dortmund. Dukla were hammered 4-0 at home in the first leg and went 1-0 down away from home in the second, but pulled three back to lose 5-3 on aggregate. Out at the quarter final stage yet again.

After those three quarter finals, Dukla in 1964-65 lost 6-2 on aggregate to a very strong Real Madrid side in the first round. This came after having drawn 4-4 with Górnik Zabrze over two legs in the preliminary round where they progressed via a coin toss after drawing a third match 0-0.

As well as forays into Europe through the European Cup, Dukla also competed in a shortlived competition in the USA called the International Soccer League (ISL). The ISL saw various European clubs join teams from South America during the off season to participate in a series of league matches against each other followed by a championship final. In America, Dukla would impress the crowds and make a real name for themselves.

Entering in the competition's second season in 1961, Dukla beat the likes of Monaco, Crvena Zvezda, Espanyol, and Rapid Wien to finish top of one of two groups with six wins and a draw before a championship final in which they defeated Everton of England. The competition featured different sides each year until it was disbanded in 1965, but as winners in '61 Dukla were invited to return the following year and face off against that season's champions in a match called the American Challenge Cup. Dukla went on to win the Challenge Cup three years running defeating amongst others West Ham United.

After four league titles in a row, Dukla finished eighth in 1964-65. By this point, some of the club's star players were starting to leave. Jozef Adamec, for example, had actually left as early as 1963 and Rudolf Kučera's career was ended through injury the same year whilst Svatopluk Pluskal and Ladislav Novák were both on their way out three years after. Although there had been several new arrivals many felt the team did not have the quality it had previously when some of its earlier stars were in their prime. Some even claimed the club had lost their ability to poach the leagues best players. Was this the decline of Dukla? In the long run yes, in the short term no. 1965-66 would see another league and cup double for the men from Praha 6 and then another European adventure, one that would turn out to be their best to date.

Whilst Prague's big two Slavia and Sparta set a league record with an attendance of 50,105 when they faced each other at Sparta's Stadion Letná it was Dukla who were league champions come the end of the season. This despite head coach Vejvoda leaving halfway through the campaign. Incredibly all three of those Prague sides finished the season level on points but Dukla had the best head to head record in matches between the three and that statistic was used to award them the title. Dukla then completed the league and cup double by beating Tatran Prešov over two legs in the cup final.

Despite all their success, Dukla always struggled to draw in the crowds. Being the team of the regime and a club who had pretty much stolen all the other sides' best players was a large part of the reason they were disliked by many. Even when they were winning league titles their attendances were sometimes amongst the lowest in the league, whilst at best they were half what their two main Prague rivals were getting. The only time they could manage to draw large crowds was for big European nights when the people of Prague would happily turn up to watch some of Europe's top stars. This was certainly the case in the 1966-67 season when Dukla made it all the way to the semi finals of the European Cup.

In the first round of the 1966-67 European Cup with a new head coach in the form of Bohumil Musil, Esbjerg, a club Dukla had faced four years earlier were defeated 6-0 on aggregate. Masopust opened the scoring when Dukla beat Anderlecht of Belgium 4-1 at home in the first leg of their second round tie. Two goals from Josef Nedorost who had joined the club as a sixteen year old in 1959 and one from Ivan Mráz who'd joined the club earlier that year completed the thumping victory. Nedorost and Mráz were both on the scoresheet in the second leg as Dukla won 2-1 away from home to reach the quarter finals where they would face Ajax of Amsterdam.

Dutch football would come to prominence in the coming years but Ajax who would go on to win the European Cup three seasons running in the near future were still seen as a bit of an unknown quantity when they faced Bill Shankley's Liverpool in the previous round. The Amsterdammers, however, stunned a strong English side by beating them 7-3 on aggregate. After a 5-1 defeat in Amsterdam, Shankley had believed the result to be a fluke and blamed heavy fog on the night. Ajax, though, showed the result was no fluke by drawing 2-2 at Anfield in the second leg. 
Bearing in mind events in the previous round with Liverpool, in facing Ajax, Dukla must have expected a very tough task ahead of them. Dukla more than held their own though and it wasn't until 50 minutes when they eventually went behind. The goal came from Sjaak Swart who slotted home from close range. The emphatic Ajax victory that some may have envisaged, however, did not materialise, one player made sure of that. As well as scoring in both legs against Anderlecht, Mráz had also scored in the second leg against Esbjerg and would also score in that first leg of the quarter finals. 11 minutes after Ajax had taken the lead Mráz got his goal to draw the sides level when he smashed home from the right hand side of the box.

As mentioned, Dukla's lack of support was well known, less than 2000 turned had up to watch them at home in the first round. However, as football fans in Prague liked to watch the big name European clubs and their stars that figure had increased to 7917 when Anderlecht visited in round two and was then more than doubled again when 18419 were present for the quarter final second leg against Ajax. 

Again all the goals came in the second half and again Swart gave Ajax the lead, this time scoring with 56 minutes on the clock. Dukla equalised from the penalty spot seven minutes later to level the tie whilst on 87 minutes Frits Soetekouw, trying to clear the ball ended hitting it back over his head and lobbing his own keeper for an unusual own goal that won the tie for Dukla. Dukla Praha had made it through to the semi finals of the European Cup.
In the semi finals, Dukla faced Glasgow Celtic of Scotland. Over 74000 spectators crammed into Celtic Park for the first leg and although Dukla had chances early on it was the home side that opened the scoring. The goal came from Jimmy Johnstone who volleyed the ball home on 27 minutes, this coming after an earlier Celtic goal had been disallowed. Dukla would hit back before the break, however. Stanislav Štrunc, another Dukla player signed in more recent times, picked up the ball on the edge of the box in the 45th minute and dribbled it forward before knocking it past the 'keeper to draw the sides level. In the second half, Celtic were on top form. A long ball forward towards the Dukla goal saw them unable to properly head clear and the ball fell to Willie Wallace inside the box who volleyed home to put the Glaswegians back in front. 2-1. That second goal came on 59 minutes and seven minutes later 2-1 became 3-1. A raucous crowd were shouting 'Celtic! Celtic!' at the moment Bertie Auld took an indirect free-kick and knocked the ball across to Wilie Wallace. Wallace fired home to send the crowd wild. Celtic dominated the match but despite further chances could not find the net again and the game finished 3-1. 

'A contrast in styles where Czech technique was overpowered by the work and ceaseless effort of a well-drilled Celtic team,' wrote Geoffrey Green in The Times newspaper. It was clear Dukla would have a huge task on their hands in the second leg if they wanted to make the final. Having said that not everyone had been impressed by Celtic. Many years later Masopust, then well into his seventies, sparked fury amongst surviving members of that Celtic side by saying in an interview he thought Celtic's second and third goals were 'lucky'. 

19157 were in attendance for the second leg, again a figure far in excess of what a poorly supported Dukla team were used to for domestic matches. Those football fans in Prague who turned up would no memorable match, however, as a 0-0 draw saw the competitions eventual winners Celtic through to the European Cup final and Dukla knocked out the competition. Distraught at the final whistle Masopust sulked and refused to shake any Celtic players hands only to later come into the visitors' dressing room and apologise. It had been a tough tie for Masopust but he might have been a bit aggrieved at Green, again writing in The Times, saying he was a 'spent force'.

Sadly, another thrilling European run came to an earlier end than those in Prague would have liked, but this time they had gone one further than they ever had previously as they finally made it past the quarter finals.

That semi final defeat brought an end to Dukla's dominance at home and also to any hint that there might be any success in Europe. Whatever the army's influence, the club never managed to dominate in the way other state run clubs would go on to do such as Dynamo Berlin in East Germany. Although Dukla won the Czechoslovak Cup again in 1969 they were defeated in the first round of the following season's UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. The club did not win a league title again until 1976-77 and apart from a couple of unsuccessful UEFA Cup appearances they had rarely ventured onto the European stage. This was a far cry from the team that supplied so many players to the Czechoslovak squad that reached the 1962 World Cup final or the slightly changed side that reached to the European Cup semi finals some five years later.

There were further league titles in 1978-79 and 1981-82, and three further Czechoslovak Cup triumphs in the 1980s, whilst in the 1985-86 season they managed to make a European semi final for the second time in their history, this time in the Cup Winners' Cup. Sadly Dukla were again on the losing side, this time losing 4-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kyiv. After the break up of Czechoslovakia, very few football fans were interested in following a club essentially considered a communist relic and Dukla really began to struggle. After a merger in the mid 1990s, the club for a little while actually disappeared from football, but a since revived club found their way back to the Czech Republic's top tier where last season they were relegated after a dismal season.  

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Magical Mechelen and the Cup Winners' Cup Heroes of '88

'Ajax is a washing powder,' they chanted, mocking the opposition by using the fact that they shared their name with a household washing detergent. KV Mechelen had just beaten one of the continent's biggest names in a European final and boy were they loving it. It was a remarkable feat for the team from a small Belgian town with around 60,000 inhabitants situated between Brussels and Antwerp. Even more so when you considered that the club had entered European competition for the very first time in their history just some eight months earlier.

1986-87 had been an impressive season for Mechelen. Having finished eleventh in the Belgian First Division the previous year no one had expected much different but a stunning set of results saw them face Club Brugge away from home in the final day of the season with a chance of winning the title. Club Brugge won 3-1, however, and it was Anderlecht who were crowned champions. For a club who only four years earlier had won the Second Division championship, it was nonetheless still a remarkable achievement and not only that but they still had a domestic cup final to look forward to.

Mechelen's route to the Belgian Cup final was easier than would often be the case and facing KSK Beveren who would finish fifth in the top flight that year had been their only real test. Their opponents in the final RFC de Liège, meanwhile, had beaten three top flight rivals in Anderlecht and the two Bruges clubs Cercle and Club Brugge en route to the final. Mechelen had never won the cup before but in the final they took the lead on 30 minutes as Piet den Boer slotted a low drive home from a through ball. There were chances aplenty for both sides but no further goals and KV Mechelen had won the cup. 

Whilst the Mechelen players were sat in the dressing room celebrating and drinking champagne out of the cup they'd just been presented they could not have anticipated the further success that would follow for the small town club. For those involved with KV Mechelen, the following season would end up being even more special than the one that had just finished. That Belgian Cup triumph brought European football to Mechelen for the first time in the club's history in the form of a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup place and oh how they made the most of it.

That 1986-87 league campaign had seen Mechelen concede fewer goals than anyone else in the division and this was in part down to Belgium's number one goalkeeper Michel Preud'homme who had joined the club in 1986. That season Preud'homme won the First Division 'golden shoe' player of the year award and would go on to keep clean sheets in each of the club's first five European matches. He was one of many signings made thanks to chairman John Cordier and the money he'd made from telecoms. Experienced German manager Ernest Kunnecke had joined from Basel in 1985 and along with Cordier, he brought in players such as defender Graeme Rutjes and midfielder Erwin Koeman (brother of the more famous Ronald) from Dutch sides Excelsior Rotterdam and FC Groningen respectively. The team was slowly beginning to take shape ready for the successes that would follow but there would more signings to complete the line up. Kunnecke, however, was not around for what would follow, he would not oversee the European run or even the Belgian Cup triumph.

Kunnecke had been sacked after the eleventh placed 1985-86 finish and was replaced by Aad de Mos a young manager who had already won the Dutch Eredivisie title twice with Ajax before they got rid of him in 1985. It was de Mos who brought in Preud'homme and the goalkeeper was joined the same year by Belgian international defender Lei Clijsters from Thor Waterschei (they later merged with KFC Winterslag to become KRC Genk). A mainstay in the clubs defence, Clijsters would captain the club and help Preud'homme keep those clean sheets. Also joining was Marc Emmers a midfielder signed also from Thor Waterschei and Wim Hofkens who arrived from Beerschot. A year later in 1987, meanwhile, Israeli Eli Ohana was signed from Beitar Jerusalem and was joined by Pascal de Wilde who left KRC Harelbeke. Alongside forward Den Boer who'd been at the club since 1982 these new arrivals under Kunnecke and De Mos would play a key role in the 1987-88 Cup Winners' Cup campaign.

Yes, if anyone thought the 1986-87 second placed finish and cup success was a fluke they were to be very much mistaken. Midway through following 1987-88 season Mechelen had won 13 of the 19 league games they'd played before the new year and found themselves second behind Royal Antwerp whilst in Europe, they'd made it through to the quarter finals of the Cup Winners' Cup. The route to the quarter finals saw trips to Bucharest and Scotland and also saw the first four of those five clean sheets. 

Den Boer scored in both legs of the Cup Winner's Cup first round tie as Mechelen defeated Dinamo Bucureşti 3-0 on aggregate. There had been a full house of over 12000 spectators in attendance at Mechelen's Achter de Kazerne ground for the club's first ever European match where Den Boer's first goal of the tie as described one newspaper was a 'Bang To Kill An Elephant'. Den Boer latched onto a long range header to smash the ball home inside the box. That goal settled the opening match which saw the visitors end the game with ten men. A 2-0 second leg victory away in Bucharest ended with exuberant supporters celebrating winning their maiden European tie by getting drunk on beer and champagne on the flight home. Some fans it seems may have spent a large amount of time with their heads stuck in a toilet bowl. For the first of those two second leg goals, a scuffed shot from Hofkens had somehow found the net with the goal scored from just outside the box after the defence failed to clear. The second was a diving header from Den Boer just inside the box which looped over the keeper almost like a chipped shot. 

In round Two St Mirren of Scotland were the opposition and one member of the Mechelen backroom staff arrived in Scotland wearing a kilt much to the delight of the locals. St Mirren were defeated 2-0 on aggregate with Ohana scoring both goals away from home in the second leg after a disappointing goalless draw at home. He fired home from twelve yards out for his first having swerved around several defenders whilst moving the ball into the box and he tapped home after Mechelen had hit the post to claim his second. What was worn underneath the kilt remains disputed.

Mechelen were still going strong in the First Division when Dinamo Minsk visited in March for the quarter final first leg and a late goal from De Wilde saw the home side win 1-0. De Wilde smashed the ball home from a good twelve yards out after the Minsk defence failed to clear the ball properly. In contrast to Mechelen's compact ground, some 50000 spectators were present in a cold and rather snowy Minsk for the second leg. Ohana put Mechelen 2-0 up on aggregate in sub zero temperatures. A long ball found him and when the keeper came out to try and collect the orange ball from his feet he hit it over him to find the net. Although the home side pulled one back it wasn't enough to stop Mechelen and they held on to make their way through to the semi finals. The fairytale continued.

In six matches Mechelen had conceded only once and that came from a long range effort whilst they'd scored twice as many on the road as they had at home. They were proving to be a fearless team who could win even in hostile environments such as those often found in Eastern Europe and they did so against some of the continent's tougher opposition. Quarter Final opponents Dinamo Minsk, for example, finished fifth in the 1987 Soviet Top League and were runners up in the Soviet Cup that year. Several of their players were also part of the Soviet Union squad that would reach the Euro 88 final in Munich. Earlier opponents Dinamo Bucureşti, meanwhile, had finished runners up in Romania's Divizia A to very strong city rivals in the form of a Steaua side who had defeated FC Barcelona in the European Cup final only two years previous.

Coppa Italia runners up Atalanta took the place of winners Napoli in that season's Cup Winners' Cup as Napoli having done the double entered the European Cup instead. Atalanta as well as losing the cup final were also relegated and faced Mechelen in the semi finals as a second tier Serie B side. A bumper crowd of over 12000 were again in attendance for the first leg at Mechelen in what was arguably the biggest game in the club's history. Ohana made it 1-0 after 5 minutes scoring on the half volley after a mêlée inside the box but a minute later Swede Glenn Stromberg scored a precious away goal to make it 1-1. Den Boer, scorer of so many goals, made it 2-1 Mechelen, however, firing home on 82 minutes. A shot from an indirect free-kick was punched away by the keeper and after the scramble in the box that followed Den Boer scored what turned out to be the winner.

In the Bergamo for the second leg, De Mos and several players managed to get stuck in a hotel lift for over an hour and reportedly De Mos thought it may have been done on purpose to disrupt his team's preparations. In the match at a packed Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, a questionable penalty decision saw the home side score from the spot six minutes before half-time much to the delight of most of the 40000 in attendance. The referee had claimed handball and was quickly surrounded by Preud'homme and others, all to no avail. The hosts were winning the tie on the away goals rule but Mechelen would never give up that easily, however. In the second half, a free-kick into the box was headed clear only as far as Rutjes who turned and scored a stunning goal on the volley from fifteen yards out. A goal that drew the visitors level, saw their players celebrating wildly, and put them back in the driving seat. Later, a beautiful through ball saw Emmers turn, swerve past one defender, and make it 2-1 to Mechelen with a straight low drive from the edge of the box that found it's way into the corner of the net. That second goal came with ten minutes to go and was enough to secure Mechelen's place in the final.

Celebrations at the end of the match were if anything a little muted, I don't think it had quite sunk in. Little unfancied Mecehelen had somehow made it to a European final. Win, lose, or draw, that final was bound to end up the most famous moment in the club's history. Their opponents meanwhile would be AFC Ajax of Amsterdam, a team who were regulars in European competition, had won the European Cup three years running a decade and a half earlier, and had actually won the Cup Winners' Cup final itself the previous season. Ajax who were massive favourites for the final were also, remember, the former club of Mechelen manager de Mos. 
The Stade de la Meinau in Strasbourg was to be the venue for the final and some 12000 Mechelen fans crossed the border into France to watch their team. Back in domestic football, Mechelen still had an outside chance of pipping Club Brugge to the First Division title but it was difficult for this sleepy Belgian town to think of anything other than that historic European final bearing down upon them.

Emmers, through on goal, is brought down by Danny Blind on 16 minutes, Blind is sent off, Ajax are down to ten men. The game was still at 0-0, there was still 74 minutes to go, but what a monumental moment for Mechelen it was. If no one gave the Belgians a chance before kick-off then due to thar straight red card they surely had at least half a chance now! Blind was one of Ajax's star players and to lose him without a replacement would be tough. The Amsterdammers, mind, were still a top side and Mechelen would still have at least some sort of fight on their hands even if they did now feel like they were in a great position.

Despite the sending off Ajax looked the better side for large parts of what was left of the first half but Mechelen had the best chance to score, however, when a downward header from De Wilde was saved by Stanley Menzo in the Ajax goal. And then in the second half, the goal came...  Ohana after teasing and taunting Ajax's Frank Verlaat crossed the ball into the box where a Den Boer downward header put the Belgians in front after 53 minutes. KV Mechelen 1-0 AFC Ajax. A goal that stunned Europe. The supporters in the stands were going berserk but the players had to hold their nerve, the game was far from over.

1-0 down, Ajax had chances, a free-kick swung into the box saw a John Bosman header saved by Preud'Homme whilst an excellent strike again from Bossman was hit brilliantly on the volley just inside the box to force another outstanding save from Preud'Homme. At times it felt like Mechelen were struggling to hang onto their lead, but then Mechelen themselves also had further chances too with an Ohana header saved in between those two Ajax near misses. Aron Winter had a late header saved for Ajax and the Dutch side who'd earlier brought a 17 year old Dennis Bergkamp to try and save the game found themselves on the losing side when the full-time whistle blew.

Aad de Mos ran onto the pitch, he was jumping for joy and hugging his players. In the stands, exuberant Mechelen supporters were going crazy. The unimaginable had happened and Mechelen, underdogs all the way through the competition, had somehow reached the final and beaten the mighty Ajax. Captain Clijsters kissed the Cup Winners' Cup trophy and lifted it high into the air, if anyone had any doubts prior to that moment they could no longer be mistaken, they were not dreaming, KV Mechelen had won a European trophy! 

Those Mechelen supporters going wild in the stands would later be celebrating all the way home. Goalscorer Den Boer's father was spotted on a train from Strasbourg back to Belgium and was promptly doused in champagne as fans turned the carriages into one big party. No doubt they were all still singing that washing powder chant too... The party continued when the players got back to Mechelen, the town square was rammed with celebrating fans and the players joined them with the trophy. This quiet Belgian town had been well and truly brought to life, their football team - the 1988 Cup Winners' Cup champions!

Winning the Cup Winners' Cup, however, was not the end of the Mechelen story. The club unluckily finished second in the First Division again with but would have a go at both competitions again the following season with the outcomes essentially reversed. They would also defeat European Cup winners PSV Eindhoven to win the UEFA Super Cup.

In round two of the 1988-89 Cup Winners' Cup, Mechelen who had entered the competition as holders faced Belgian rivals Anderlecht who had entered as Belgian Cup winners. Mechelen played the first leg at home and the visitors went down to ten men early on but despite the man advantage, it wasn't until 89 minutes when Mechelen found the net. 19 year old Marc Wilmots recently signed from Sint-Truiden scored to give the hosts a slender 1-0 lead going into the second leg at Anderlecht's Constant Vanden Stock home. Goals from Koeman and Ohana saw Mechelen win that second leg and if they hadn't already thought it then Anderlecht a club for many years the dominant force in Belgian football surely now assumed they had a real contender for their crown as the country's number one. Things are not always as they seem, however.

Mechelen would eventually go on to lose to Sampdoria in the semi finals and with chairman Cordier who had bankrolled the clubs success finding himself in financial trouble things would begin to turn sour and Mechelen would never actually have the dominance Anderlecht and others might have feared. However, before their demise, they did have one last moment of glory up their sleeves...

Having finished second in the First Division two seasons running Mechelen were determined to go one better and despite losing to nearest challengers Anderlecht in their sixth from last game the then league leaders held their nerve to win their first league title for 41 years finishing four points ahead of Anderlecht. John Bosman, on the opposing side in Strasbourg, had been signed at the beginning of the season and scored 18 league goals that term. But it was Mechelen's defence that had the biggest impact once again as they conceded fewer league goals than anyone else in the league, this for the third campaign running. Mechelen conceded only 20 times all season and although third placed RFC de Liège (some 11 points behind in league still using two points for a win) conceded on only 22 occasions, the next best defence after those two was Anderlecht's who had let in 36. The stature of the club's defence was emphasised by the fact that goalkeeper Preud'homme having won the First Division player of the season award two seasons previously won it again for a second time to make it three in a row for the club with defender Lei Clijsters having picked up the accolade for the year in between.

The following season in their to date one and only European Cup campaign Mechelen lost to Milan in the quarter finals, a result which arguably signalled an end to the short lived glory years. Mechelen would hang around at the top end of the table for a few more seasons but never really challenging for honours and eventually they began to struggle. Things hit rock bottom when the club were finally relegated in 1997. 

Manager De Mos joined rivals Anderlecht in 1989, they were a club who unlike Mechelen remained a force to be reckoned with. Rutjes left to join De Mos there in 1990 and Emmers also joined the club two years later. Emmers arrival at Anderlecht, however, came just after de Mos had left the club having helped them finish runners up in the Cup Winner's Cup, win one league title, and one Belgian Cup during a three year spell with Brussels based side. Den Boer left for Bordeaux in 1989, whilst in 1990 Koeman joined PSV before becoming a successful head coach at several clubs and then in recent years acting as his brother's assistant at Southampton and Everton. 1990 also saw Ohana join Braga in Portugal. De Wilde, drink driving, was seriously injured in a car crash in 1991. After he recovered and completing a short jail term he ended up playing in France and then the Belgian lower leagues before retiring. Clijsters retired a year after leaving the club in 1992, his daughter Kim would go on to become a world no.1 four time Grand Slam winning tennis champion, but sadly Clijsters Snr died in 2009 after a long battle with cancer and only saw his daughter win one of those titles. Preud'homme the other key player remained Belgian's number one keeper for many years and hung about at Mechelen until 1994 when he also joined a Portguese side in Benfica before himself going into management. 

Mechelen had out of nowhere suddenly rose to the top of Belgian football and strutted their way to European glory. But as quickly as they rose they soon started to fall back down and in the years since the best they've been able to describe themselves is as also rans. The club did, however, for the second time in their history win the Belgian Cup earlier this year, doing so from the second tier where they finished as champions and gained promotion back to the top flight for the current 2019-20 season. Mechelen fans can only dream that the long road back to the top starts here!