Spurs in the European Cup: A look back to where it all started

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

Before each of our Champions League fixtures this season I will take the chance to look back on a classic match from our previous endeavours in Europe’s premier competition and where better to begin than where it all started 55 years ago, almost exactly to the day

This week sees a historic match in Tottenham Hotspur’s history, the first Champions League game for five years and, of course, the first home match at Wembley Stadium. At times like this it leads me to reflect on times past, and I’m sure Erik Lamela will be doing the same as it was a home fixture versus AS Monaco in last season’s Europa League group stage that he scored his first hat-trick for the club. The assumption is he was rested from the starting XI on Saturday at Stoke City with this match in mind, so may get the chance to repeat the feat.

Fixtures between the Lillywhites and Les Rouges et Blancs are relatively few in our respective histories, the clubs more closely linked by two famous transfers: Glenn Hoddle from Spurs to ASM in 1987 and Jurgen Klinsmann in the opposite direction seven years later. I’m sure both Glenn and Jurgen will look back on those transfers and consider them among the best decisions they ever made. Our previous competitive matches at the “new” Wembley are largely best forgotten too; a League Cup triumph set against two cup final defeats and two particularly painful FA Cup semi-final losses. Instead, we are better served to remember the very first tie Tottenham played in Europe

13th September 1961: Gornik Zabrze 4 – Tottenham Hotspur 2

The background to Tottenham’s first match in European competition is worth noting. The European Cup was still fairly in its infancy and English teams had yet to master the competition, largely falling short to the Spanish, Germans and Italians. This was still the era, of course, of Real Madrid’s dominance, just ended the previous season by Barcelona, who in turn lost to Bela Guttmann’s Benfica. Manchester United were twice semi-finalists and in the previous two seasons Wolverhampton Wanderers and Burnley had made the quarter-finals, though this was in fact just the second round.

Polish champions Gornik Zabrze weren’t expected to pose too much of a threat, at this time Poland were somewhat behind other Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia in their football development. The club had been formed thirteen years previously, the town of Zarbze being part of Germany until 1945. The club developed rapidly, however, and claimed their third national title in five seasons in 1961. Still, Poland was far from producing the kind of players that would take them to two third-place finishes in the World Cup in the 1970s.

The match was in fact a preliminary round, and as such provided an early season distraction for Tottenham. Spurs had made an indifferent start to their title defence. Seven league fixtures had resulted in three wins, two draws and two defeats, in stark contrast to the opening eleven consecutive victories of the previous campaign. The halo of invincibility was very much faltering. With Dave Mackay rested, the previous Saturday Tottenham lost 1-0 away to Manchester United, not quite the confidence boost the team would’ve wanted going into the unknown of European competition for the first time. Tottenham Hotspur had been one of the earliest pioneers of overseas tours in the first decade of the 20th century, helping to spread the football gospel through Europe and South America, but this was the first competitive match for the club outside of the British Isles.

A reported crowd of 70,000, all but a handful supporting Zabrze, made for an intimidating atmosphere. The name Gornik is a nod to the mining background of Zabrze and the hosts gave Spurs a model of a coal train as a memento before the match. They gave very little else as the Mighty Spurs were stunned by the unfamiliar conditions and the quality of the Polish play, finding themselves four goals down within an hour. The starting eleven was the fabled team that had completed the Double just for months earlier and their reputation preceded them, as good a side as Zabrze were they also raised their game for what was arguably the biggest match in the club’s history to that point. The visitors regrouped and goals by wingers Cliff Jones and Terry Dyson got Spurs back into the tie.

20th September 1961: Tottenham Hostpur 8 – Gornik Zabrze 1

Returning home, Tottenham beat Wolves 1-0 at White Hart Lane, but all the talk amongst the crowd was about the following Wednesday and the anticipation was rewarded with one of the most satisfying nights in the club’s history. An early Danny Blanchflower penalty calmed the nerves of the players and the 56,000 crowd alike and from then on Tottenham recreated the sort of football that had seen them sweep all before them the previous season. Zabrze’s bottle went and in the face of a confident Tottenham team, bedecked in all white at the insistence of Bill Nicholson who wanted to recreate the aura of the magnificent Real Madrid, they collapsed. Jones hit a hat-trick, Bobby Smith scored two, with John White and Dyson also getting on the scoresheet for a resounding 8-1 victory.

(Europe, it seemed, brought the best out of Dyson. Not known as a consistent scorer in the league (certainly when compared to the standards of Jones) the diminutive winger also scored in both legs of the next round, making it four games in a row in which he found the net. Injury then forced him out for most of the rest of the season so he missed the remaining matches in Spurs’ inaugural European campaign. Still niggled by injuries and stifled by the form of Terry Medwin he also missed most of the 1962-63 season, just regaining his place in the side in time for the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against OFK Belgrade on 24th April. Unsurprisingly he made the most of it, netting in a 3-1 win. He couldn’t repeat the trick in the return leg but, of course, he was to score two goals and claim the man of the match award in the final against Atletico Madrid. Unbelievably, he scored yet again as Spurs were drawn against Manchester United in their first defence of the trophy in 1963-64. That made it eight from eight, and while he couldn’t find the net as Spurs crashed out in the return leg, he retains one of the most enviable records for Tottenham in Europe.)

From 4-0 down to a 10-5 aggregate victory is typical of Tottenham Hotspur’s history, never straightforward but always with a sense of style and romance. This is the basis of all the glory, glory nights since. With new surroundings and relatively cheap ticket prices, it should be an electric atmosphere on Wednesday night to match that on 20th September 1961. Another hat-trick from a winger (and Lamela has form, remember) and an 8-1 victory would do us very nicely indeed.

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