“There is a time and a place for all new things,” wrote Geoffrey Green in the summer of 1970. The Times’s football correspondent had just watched a tournament finale in which the winners’ football “spoke a delicate, dancing language of its own.” They “stroked the ball around in tight little circles, teasing and at times humbling their foe.” Green, who had been reporting on the game since the 1930s, was impressed with this innovative approach, concluding that “all this is good for football.”

Thoughts turn to the great Brazil side of that year’s World Cup. Yet the time Green mentions was May, not June, and the place not Mexico but Milan. There, Feyenoord defeated Celtic 2-1 in the European Cup final, becoming the first Dutch team to win the tournament and ushering in a period of intense change in football, tactically, aesthetically and commercially. History has credited Ajax with revolutionising the game in the 1970s, but the decade began with Feyenoord. Modern football, it can be argued, starts here.

“The World Cup of 1970 was one of those events that should be left in the bright colours of immediacy, not greyed by an excess of retrospective analysis,” wrote Hugh McIlvanney in the aftermath of its wonderful final. It stands alone. The European Cup of 1970, on the other hand, can be seen as a bridge between football old and new. It was a competition of firsts and lasts, where the archaic (unsophisticated tie-breaks, six-figure crowds) sat alongside the modern (tactical innovation, commercialisation), and one whose course seemed to mirror the societal ascent of continental European sophistication and the decline of post-imperial Britain. 

Celtic, beaten finalists in 1970, had by that point already claimed one of the most significant victories of the era. Three years earlier, Jock Stein’s team famously became the first British winners of the European Cup, destroying Helenio Herrera’s Inter, if not quite the catenaccio system they had come to symbolise. In doing so they also became the first northern European winners of the tournament, which until 1967 had been shared between Spanish, Portuguese and Italian sides. It was a pivotal moment. 

“Everybody at the time looked up to Italy and Spain,” recalled Wim Jansen, a Feyenoord midfielder in the 1970 final. “The moment a club from a different country won the European Cup, I think everybody from these countries started to believe they could win it too.” At the beginning of the 1969-70 European Cup, Celtic had established themselves among the elite of Europe. Feyenoord were on an upward trajectory, having won a league and cup double in 1968-69, but their European campaign that season ended in a first-round defeat to Newcastle United and they were not considered contenders. The club made an ambitious coaching change, however, appointing the enigmatic Ernst Happel as the campaign began.

Both eventual finalists started the tournament strongly. The Dutch champions disposed of KR Reykjavik 16-2 on aggregate, while Celtic defeated Basel 2-0 at home after a goalless draw in Switzerland. The draw for the second round was more interesting, pairing Feyenoord with the holders AC Milan and Celtic with five-time finalists Benfica. Celtic produced a sparkling performance in the first leg at home, winning 3-0 and, as the Glasgow Evening Times put it, securing a place in the quarter-finals “unless the age of miracles is still with us.” It very nearly was. In Lisbon, Benfica levelled the tie at 3-3 in stoppage time. With no further scoring in extra-time, the winner was decided by the toss of a coin in the referee’s office. The task was left to the two great captains: Billy McNeill, the first man from Britain to lift the European Cup, and Mario Coluna, who had played in all five of his club’s previous finals. 

McNeill called “heads” and later described the scene: “The referee failed to catch the coin after he had spun it, and as it fell it hit him on the foot, bounced against the wall, then rolled around the floor on its edge until it went twisting down, and came up heads.” 

Celtic were through but it was hardly a fitting way to decide the winner. Among the dissenters was the club’s own chairman, Sir Robert Kelly, who called it “a most unsatisfactory way to end such a vital tie in any competition.” Kelly had been an opponent of the practice since the 1960s when, as president of the Scottish Football Association, he petitioned Uefa to abandon it. Now he could push for change from the moral high ground. 

It was the last night on which a European Cup tie would be settled by the toss of a coin. Uefa introduced penalty kicks the following season. The first victims of the new system, naturally, were Scottish: in the next Cup Winners’ Cup Aberdeen lost a shootout 5-4 to Honvéd, whose goalkeeper scored the decisive kick.

Feyenoord, meanwhile, reached the quarter-finals with a statement victory over AC Milan. Few gave the Dutch side much hope, partly due to Milan’s 4-1 dismantling of Ajax in the previous season’s final. “I cannot see Feyenoord doing more than putting up a good fight,” wrote Brian Glanville in the Football Post

Milan won 1-0 in the first leg at San Siro but the game was notable for Feyenoord’s strong containing game, with Jansen particularly effective. On his arrival in Rotterdam ahead of the return leg, the Italian coach Nereo Rocco was wary: “The impression we had of the Dutch game is not correct. Ajax played without brains in Madrid [during the 1969 final]. Feyenoord worked very sensibly in Milan.”

They worked very sensibly in Rotterdam too. Jansen cancelled out the deficit after six minutes, looping a cross over the goalkeeper and in off the far post. Then, in the 81st minute, Wim van Hanegem capped a controlling midfield performance by heading the winner. “They dominated us,” said Rocco after the full-time whistle. “We are still wondering why.”

One explanation was to be found in the Intercontinental Cup. Milan had just beaten Estudiantes to lift the trophy, playing the second leg in Buenos Aires only four days before the game in Rotterdam. It was a savage affair, typical of matches between South American and European sides at the time. Milan’s stars were brutally targeted by their Argentinian opponents: Pierino Prati was knocked unconscious and Gianni Rivera stamped in the back, while Néstor Combin’s all-white strip was turned red with blood after he suffered a broken nose and fractured cheekbone. Moreover, the team’s flight back home was delayed because the Argentina-born Combin had been detained by military police for alleged draft-dodging. Not ideal preparation for the match against Feyenoord. “I think we can safely say that it was Estudiantes, as much as Feyenoord, who knocked out the holders,” said Glanville.

The circumstances undoubtedly favoured the Dutch but their victory was not undeserved. Yet a pattern was emerging whereby Feyenoord’s achievements would be explained away, particularly by British observers. The Turinese newspaper La Stampa was more forthcoming. “If the conditions in which Rocco's team faced this meeting were not known, it would have to be said that European football has found a new Real Madrid in Feyenoord.”

The rapid progress of the Dutch game took the rest of Europe by surprise. What did Feyenoord do differently that season? “Nothing much!” said Ellen Mannens, a Dutch journalist and Feyenoord supporter. We met during her research for a book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the European Cup victory (Forever the First) in which she gathered the stories of players and supporters. “Ernst Happel gets a lot of the credit,” said Mannens, “but the players say that the trainer the season before him [Ben Peeters] made them stronger. He put on extra training for strength.”

This physical strength, allied to technical and tactical nous, was the foundation of the Dutch ascendency in the 1970s, and came together successfully for the first time during Feyenoord’s European Cup campaign. In his magnificent examination of football in the Netherlands, Brilliant Orange, David Winner sets out the factors that account for the country’s rapid rise, from professionalisation in 1954 to improved diet and cultural liberalisation. Despite being Dutch champions and representing the country internationally, Feyenoord were still adjusting to the professional arena. 

Mannens tells the story of Joop van Daele, a substitute throughout the run to the final. A versatile defender, Van Daele also worked at the telecom company PTT (making him, quite literally, a utility man). Unfortunately, his playing commitments across Europe exhausted his annual leave so that when Feyenoord were invited to The Hague to celebrate their eventual victory, Van Daele had to work instead. After signing a professional contract in the summer of 1970, the bespectacled defender came off the bench to score the winning goal in the Intercontinental Cup against Estudiantes, losing his specs in the ensuing celebrations. The incident spawned a worrying number of novelty records by Dutch artists.

After eliminating the holders, Feyenoord reached the final without too much fuss; “solid if unspectacular” was how John Motson and John Rowlinson put it in their 1980 book on the history of the European Cup. They defeated Vorwӓrts Berlin in the quarter-final, then Legia Warsaw in the semi-final, using the same formula: a disciplined display in eastern Europe followed by a decisive victory in Rotterdam. 

Feyenoord played a well-balanced 4-3-3 formation with pace, power and guile in the right areas. A strong defence was built around captain Rinus Israel, behind a midfield core of Jansen (“canny and thoughtful” – David Winner), Van Hanegem (“tough-tackling, visionary passing genius”) and Franz Hasil (“a credit to the great traditions of Austrian football” – Hugh McIlvanney). Hasil was brought to the club by his compatriot Happel in the summer of 1969 and proved key in transforming Feyenoord from a competent domestic side to European challengers. The attacking trio was formed by outside forwards Henk Wery and Coen Moulijn (described jointly as “clever and resourceful” by Glanville) and the centre-forward Ove Kindvall, the closest thing to a star name in the side. The Swede was the focal point, an intelligent, prolific goalscorer at club and international level. In the 1969-70 edition of the Ballon d’Or – awarded at the mid-point of the European Cup campaign – Kindvall placed joint-fourth, level with Johan Cruyff. Feyenoord were hardly an undistinguished side that appeared from nowhere.

If Feyenoord’s unglamorous ties in the latter stages caused them to fly under the radar somewhat, the same could not be said of Celtic, who were drawn against Fiorentina in the quarter-finals. Celtic were the only previous winners left in the competition, but they were not favourites. That title belonged to Don Revie’s Leeds United, who had bulldozed SK Lyn Oslo and Ferencváros to reach the last eight, scoring 24 goals and conceding none. Leeds had won England’s First Division the previous year with a record 67 points but also gained a reputation for tough, uncompromising play. During the 1969-70 season, perhaps with the pressure off, Revie sacrificed some of the grit for glamour. He brought in the forward Allan Clarke for a British record £165,000, pairing him with Mick Jones up front, and he allowed Peter Lorimer more freedom to attack. Leeds kept only eight clean sheets all season, compared to 24 the season before, playing with more flair, movement and variety. 

“Britain’s Hopes Rest with Leeds,” proclaimed the Football Post’s headline in its preview of the quarter-final ties. “There is no obvious weakness in the Leeds team,” noted Glanville, who predicted a straightforward victory against their opponents, Standard Liège. His assessment was correct – the Belgians were defeated 1-0 in both legs, Lorimer and Johnny Giles with the goals. Glanville was less optimistic about Celtic’s chances: “Fiorentina must be favoured to beat Celtic, largely because they are so much more reliable in defence.” This forecast was not so accurate. Celtic recorded another stylish 3-0 victory in the first leg, with Glanville later acknowledging that “Celtic struck a blow for football in general, and Scottish football in particular, by thrashing a Fiorentina team cravenly huddled in defence.”

Celtic had taken a significant step toward the semi-finals but their defensive collapse in the previous round reminded observers that qualification was not a formality. Stein prepared his team with this in mind. “We have learned the bitter lesson of Lisbon and Benfica,” he said before the match. “There will be no repeat tonight. If the game calls for fast, attacking football we can play it. If it needs close defence we can also adapt ourselves.” His line-up suggested what that meant in practice. The forward John Hughes was replaced by the 20-year-old defender George Connelly, making his first European start. Connelly – a tall, elegant player, often likened to Franz Beckenbauer – was moved into midfield, forming a trio with Bertie Auld and Bobby Murdoch. 

The plan was to defend further up the field, an approach that surprised seasoned spectators such as John Rafferty of TheScotsman: “This was typical original thinking by Stein for one could not remember previously hearing football tacticians advocate defending in the midfield. And it was strange that it should be so, for military tacticians had for long defended the most suitable line and not the last one.” Stein also instructed his players to hit the ball out of play if they needed to regroup and to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper Evan Williams to slow the pace of the game. Multiple sources report that Tommy Gemmell was, bizarrely, penalised for passing the ball back to Williams too many times.

Celtic stifled the game in midfield and, despite the loss of a goal before half time, frustrated Fiorentina to see out a 3-1 aggregate victory. The Evening Times was impressed that a Scottish side could beat the Italians at their own game, claiming, perhaps hyperbolically, that “Celtic invented a new type of game. They had to defend, but they took it a step further.” The performance in Florence counters popular mythology around Jock Stein’s Celtic: that they were the relentless, swashbuckling upholders of attacking football. They could stink the place out too and still be praised for it. Stein was, above all, a pragmatist. “This is not the situation for genius,” he concluded, “just good common sense.” 

The semi-finalists were confirmed: Leeds, Celtic, Feyenoord and Legia Warsaw. Conspicuous by their absence were Italian, Spanish and Portuguese teams. The 1970 tournament was the first not to feature a single Latin side at this stage and it would take 15 years for one (Juventus, at Heysel) to lift the trophy again. The draw paired the two British sides, generating the first clash between English and Scottish champions in European competition. Leeds were considered heavy favourites by most observers, particularly those in England. Revie’s side were enjoying an excellent season, cruising through the earlier rounds of the European Cup and FA Cup and leading the First Division as winter turned to spring. When the draw was made, the opinion of Ken Jones in the Daily Mirror was representative: “Leeds’s chances of winning the European Cup were strengthened when they drew Celtic in the semi-final… It is hard enough to try and beat Leeds twice in one season never mind twice in a fortnight.”

Anticipation built ahead of the first heavyweight “Battle of Britain” – so did Leeds’s fixture list. Between the second leg against Standard Liège and the first against Celtic, they played five games in 10 days, adding to their own workload by needing two replays to see off Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final. Revie was forced to prioritise either the league or Europe. He chose the latter, sending out a team of reserves against Derby County immediately before the first Celtic tie and coming away with a 4-1 defeat and a £5,000 fine from the Football League for fielding an uncompetitive team. With the exception of Norman Hunter, who was absent through injury, Leeds’s strongest side was kept fresh for the visit of Celtic on April Fools’ Day. 

Don Revie and Jock Stein, two of the greatest managers of the era, were friends as well as adversaries. Yet that didn’t stop the pre-match mind games. Stein sought to play on Leeds’s well-publicised fatigue. “Before the game, he actually commented to me that some of our players were looking tired,” revealed Billy Bremner in Paul Harrison’s biography. “Clever, psychological stuff.” Revie, for his part, kindly offered to resolve a kit clash of his own creation. Both teams normally wore white socks and Revie insisted that Celtic change, despite previously reassuring Stein that it would not cause a problem. He offered a choice of blue or red – not the favourite colours of a Celtic support drawn mostly from Irish Catholic immigrant stock. Stein opted for red, reasoning that the socks would show up orange under the floodlights and give his side the appearance of an Irish tricolour.

The shenanigans strengthened Stein’s creation of a siege mentality. He revelled in his team’s underdog status and even made a virtue of Celtic’s inconsistency. “Leeds know nothing about our team while we know everything about theirs,” he told the Evening Times the night before the game. “It will be a matter of our flexibility against Leeds’s predictability.”

This point was underscored by his selection of George Connelly, a surprise itself, heightened by the youngster’s deployment in an advanced midfield role. The move disconcerted even Connelly, who described it in his autobiography as “a culture shock considering I’d been turning out at centre-half for the reserves.” By the time anybody noticed, he had already given Celtic the lead. 45 seconds after kick-off, a loose ball fell into his path on the edge of the Leeds box and his deflected shot squirmed past Gary Sprake and into the bottom corner. It was the first away goal Celtic had scored in the campaign and the first Leeds had conceded at all.

Leeds never really recovered. The trio of Bobby Murdoch, Bertie Auld and Connelly dominated the midfield (“it is not often Bremner and Giles have to play second fiddle in this way,” wrote Geoffrey Green), controlling the game and limiting Leeds to long balls forward, which were dealt with easily by Billy McNeill (“an immovable lighthouse at the heart of defence.”) The winger Jimmy Johnstone had one of the finest games of his career, relentlessly driving his team forward, “as elusive as a piece of wet soap in a shower bath”. It was another tactical victory for Stein as Celtic took a 1-0 lead back to Glasgow.

The Scottish press could barely contain their glee. Since the draw was made they had seen their game disparaged by colleagues across the border – now was not the time for magnanimity. Celtic “whipped this ‘most professional’ of teams in every phase of the game,” wrote Malcolm Munro in the Evening Times. “They were so impressive in doing so that even the caramel-chewing journalists (they talk as though they are chewing caramels) who cannot see past England and anything English were silenced by Celtic’s treatment of ‘the machine’.” This assessment of Celtic’s performance was largely shared by the English press (those that did not choke on their caramels, presumably) but, as Green cautioned, “they have won the battle, they have yet to win the war.”

The second leg took place at Hampden a fortnight later, having been moved from Celtic Park to meet demand for tickets. An astonishing 136,505 people were in attendance – a record for a continental match that will surely never be broken. The vast majority were silenced after 14 minutes when Bremner strode forward and crashed a shot from 30 yards into the top corner to level the tie. An entertaining, even first-half was played out with no further scoring and the Battle of Britain was deadlocked with 45 minutes to play.

Two decisive moments settled the tie and each can be traced to one of the managers. Celtic started the second-half strongly and equalised quickly through John Hughes, who beat Jack Charlton to head in from Auld’s cross. Stein recalled Hughes, who had missed the first leg, with explicit instructions to go up against Charlton, remembering the problems he caused the Leeds defender in a 1965 match between the Scottish League and English League during which he scored twice.

Revie also made an important tactical modification, designed to limit the impact of Johnstone after his thrilling first-leg performance. Footage exists of his pre-match instructions to Terry Cooper and the returning Norman Hunter, telling them to double-up on the Celtic winger. Revie concludes that Johnstone will be forced to pass square, so Leeds can “pick up the people with less ability.” He was correct about Johnstone – but the plan led to Celtic’s winning goal. Minutes after Hughes’s equaliser, the little forward jinked into the box from the right flank before coming up against Cooper and Hunter, who had raced over from centre-half to support his full-back. Johnstone cut the ball back into the vacant space for his onrushing teammate with “less ability” – in this case one of Celtic’s finest-ever players, Bobby Murdoch – who drove a powerful shot under the substitute keeper David Harvey to put Celtic 3-1 ahead on aggregate. There was no way back for Leeds.

“Rise up in thunderous acclaim this morning and hail the greatest team in Britain,” proclaimed the Daily Express, praising Celtic’s “exhibition of power-packed, confident, skilful football that left Leeds shattered and shaken.” Two key themes emerged from the post-match reaction: the surprisingly comprehensive nature of Celtic’s victory and the sense that the tie was a surrogate final. The fact that the final was still to be played seemed immaterial; Malcolm Munro had a typically forthright opinion on Celtic’s chances: “They’ll win it. THEY’LL SKOOSH IT.”

Not all Celtic supporters were pleased with the Leeds matches, however. The club refused to allow the BBC to broadcast full radio coverage of the second leg, agreeing instead to a television highlights package shortly after full-time. In what was perhaps an unlikely early example of the ‘against modern football’ movement, the Celtic board defended its decision in the club’s in-house publication, the Celtic View: “The Celtic directors have every justification for protecting football from over-exposure on radio and television. It’s a simple economic fact that the people who pay their money at the turnstiles are the lifeblood of the game. The regular football supporters must be considered. There is also plenty of evidence that indiscriminate coverage by radio and television has virtually killed other spectator sports.”

A statement that might be applauded by 21st-century football purists, the directors’ position was of course motivated more by their own economic self-interest than by defending the spirit of the game. Gate receipts were still the main source of income, but it is interesting to note the creeping encroachment of broadcast media. The summer of 1970 would be a tipping point in TV coverage. More live matches than ever (“130 hours of World Cup excitement – will your old set survive?” asked a newspaper advertisement for the electrical goods firm Radio Rentals), colour images and the rise of the panel discussion were all vital developments. The football revolution was being televised. 

Just three years later the satirical paper Foul included a perceptive leader that deserves to be quoted at length: “Because of their subjection to the ratings, [BBC and ITV] feel that football should appear on the screen not as Football, but as Entertainment, a sort of Saturday Night at White Hart Lane. Everything is subordinated to this… Football is often mean, boring, frustrating and punctuated by bouts of petty viciousness and violence. But television, by excising the tiresome aspects, allows no hint of the real thing to seep through. In this way it is doing serious damage to the game it misrepresents. We are now in an era when teenage fans have been brought up on a diet of pre-digested football. They are abandoning the terraces in increasing numbers. Telly, and the fictionalised version of football it portrays, is one of the most potent reasons why.”

The early 1970s marked the beginning of the end for six-figure attendances in the UK. In the first days of 1971, 66 supporters were crushed to death at Ibrox during the traditional New Year derby between Celtic and Rangers. Attendances declined throughout the decade and a demographic shift was underway. Records of witnesses to the Ibrox disaster held at Glasgow City Archives provide occupations and show that the spectators were overwhelmingly skilled or semi-skilled manual workers. Professor Graham Walker, of Queen’s University Belfast, has researched the subject and concluded that “the early 1970s was perhaps the last point at which a particular social stratum… so dominated the culture of football crowds.”

As the 1970 European Cup final approached, the end-of-season run-in of the two finalists could scarcely have been more different. Celtic secured the league title in March and played their last competitive game on 18 April, some two-and-a-half weeks before the final. By way of preparation Stein arranged friendly matches against Fraserburgh and Stenhousemuir, the former to raise funds for victims of a lifeboat disaster in the north-eastern fishing port earlier in the year. These they won by an aggregate score of 15-0. Feyenoord were still involved in a title race with Ajax and travelled to Amsterdam on April 26 knowing a win would put them only three points behind the league leaders. The match changed the shape of the sport.

The Rotterdam side led 3-1 with 20 minutes remaining but a late Cruyff-inspired comeback levelled the game at 3-3 and effectively sealed the title for Ajax. Despite the positive result, the Ajax coach Rinus Michels was displeased with the way his
4-2-4 shape lined up against Feyenoord’s 4-3-3. The problem was neatly summed up in the Algemeen Handelsblad newspaper: “Ajax lost the battle in midfield and with that the golden attacking quartet.” 

“We have to become tougher compared to Feyenoord,” said Michels. “I have to think about a solution.” He did, replicating Feyenoord’s 4-3-3 with the twist of one central defender pushing forward whenever possible. This system would form the basis of Total Football, the success of Ajax and the Dutch national team in the 1970s, and much of the game’s tactical development over the following 50 years. Intriguingly Jock Stein was in attendance, telling the Dutch press that he had learned a lot about Feyenoord but being coy on the details.

Celtic’s preparations were low key, but their supporters travelled to Milan in an expectant mood. Some 20,000 made the trip, despite the threat of strike action by municipal employees which put the match in doubt. They were assisted by a handy travel section in the Celtic View, which included a guide to exotic Italian food (“PIZZA: open tarts baked with any number of fillings”) and a history of Milanese architecture. Those who remained at home could watch the match live on two of Britain’s three TV channels; BBC2’s music show featuring Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry was the alternative. This further example of football elbowing into the television schedule concerned TheTimes, which ran an editorial, “Mad with Football”, expressing fear that coverage of the final represented the thin end of the wedge and the popularity of the sport would cause it to take over before too long.

Feyenoord, meanwhile, could enjoy their underdog status as Celtic had done in 1967. “It’s Lisbon in reverse,” declared the Evening Times. Despite near-unanimous predictions of a comfortable Celtic win, the Feyenoord captain Rinus Israel wrote a rousing column in De Telegraaf on match day, headed “We will fight” and opening with the line: “Let me state one thing: we have the same chance of winning the European Cup as Celtic.” The newspaper also carried extensive details of the festivities planned in Rotterdam in the event of a Feyenoord victory – hardly a sign of a team with an inferiority complex.

Their optimism was justified. Celtic took the lead on the half-hour through Tommy Gemmell (his second European Cup final goal), but Israel quickly equalised. The game went into extra-time and, three minutes from the end, Billy McNeill misjudged a long ball and Ove Kindvall nipped in to score the winner. This was not a case of the underdogs mugging a superior opponent against the run of play, however. “The score was a travesty,” said McNeill. “2-1 in extra time makes it seem close, but we know the real difference was about four goals. It was a whitewash. Everywhere that mattered we got stuffed.”

The match is a striking example of how much the game had changed in the three years since Celtic’s triumph in Lisbon. It both impressed and confused observers. The Glasgow Herald applauded the “surprisingly good Dutch team” and their “revelation of scientific football that shattered Celtic.” The Milanese paper Il Giorno put it more poetically: “They humiliated Celtic with their clever ball control, doing what they liked with the Scottish bulls and twisting and turning like graceful toreadors.” Poor Malcolm Munro was forced to concede that Celtic had been “outclassed, outrun, outthought and outmanoeuvred”, adding, “you cannot play without the ball and Feyenoord saw to it that the Celts got precious little of it. Every man in the team was a master on the ball. Even the defenders were more adept at using it than the most skilful Scots.” If this was not quite the premiere of Total Football, it was perhaps the pilot episode.

In La Stampa, however, Giovanni Arpino had major reservations. Throughout a despondent article headed “A Rough but Modern Football”, he lamented what he saw as a game of power, pace, errors and chaos. “Where are the ghosts of Di Stéfano, Puskás, Piero Rivera, Mazzola, Suárez, the protagonists of a great period in the Champions Cup?” Romance and skill were being replaced by brute force and physicality. The sport he loved was changing before his eyes. The Corriere della Sera took a less sentimental view, drawing comparisons between the Dutch and Italian styles but noting an important difference: “constant movement in midfield.” It seemed Michels was right; it was all about the midfield. 

It is interesting to note the different characterisations of Feyenoord’s style, described variously before the final as 4-2-4, 4-3-3, ‘total defence’ and catenaccio. This suggests either an absence of appropriate vocabulary in the football lexicon or a system more complex than had previously required explanation. Perhaps the most apt description was provided by an A Kane of Hemel Hempstead, who wrote an exasperated letter to the Celtic View: “Feyenoord’s maddening, clinical, almost military, precision of successive forward, diagonal, backward and triangular traceries was more in keeping with a geometrical exercise than a cup final. Irritating to watch to a degree – but it got them the European Cup.”

Reaching the final was a tremendous achievement for Celtic who, as in 1967, did so with an entire squad of Scottish-born players. Yet the game is looked back on with a mixture of embarrassment, anger and regret, the inverse of Lisbon. It is difficult to pinpoint Jock Stein’s approach. His public words before the final were conflicting, sometimes praising his opponents, sometimes being dismissive and concluding with the hackneyed stock phrase of a manager who sees his team as heavy favourites: “Celtic’s biggest opponent tomorrow might be Celtic.” Likewise, the explanations given by the players in autobiographies and interviews are contradictory. Their preparations were either comprehensive or complacent; they knew all about their opponents or they were surprised by them; they were concerned about bonus payments or not even aware of them.

What really happened? I asked Archie Macpherson, the doyen of Scottish football broadcasting. Among many roles in his long career, Macpherson commentated on the 1970 final for the BBC and was Stein’s biographer. Despite the passage of half a century, he vividly recalls the pre-match atmosphere in the Celtic squad: “There was an astonishingly lax attention to preparation. It seemed that they were almost in a holiday camp.” This attitude is unthinkable. Celtic had the opportunity to win a second European Cup and cement the club’s reputation as one of the continent’s elite. Macpherson believes the complacency “stemmed from the fact that Stein made a huge mistake in his assessment of Feyenoord. The word is, from the players themselves, that he was completely taken in by them.” Stein dismissed Celtic’s opponents as old, slow and mentally weak, with Van Hanegem written off as one-footed and one-paced. It set the tone. The decision to drop George Connelly and revert to a two-man midfield, perhaps in anticipation of an easier game than against Leeds, may also have played a part.

“I remember Stein immediately after the game,” recalled Macpherson. “We came back to the hotel and the last man I wanted to meet was Stein on the back of a defeat. I always remember him saying to me: ‘Help yourself to that champagne in the corner.’ He then said something that was nothing to do with football – it was about society. ‘Did you see that support they had? They’re richer than us.’”

Money had clearly been on Stein’s mind. The Celtic squad appointed an agent before the final (“an inveterate Rangers supporter,” adds Macpherson) to manage their extracurricular commercial ventures. These included, according to the Glasgow Herald, “syndication rights, pictures and a souvenir caravan to be parked outside Celtic Park,” as well as rumours of a pop record in the event of a European Cup win. All this is not to say that the Celtic players were distracted by money; the Feyenoord squad had similar wrangles over bonus payments, according to Ellen Mannens. Rather, it represented another stage in the relationship between money and football. 

The historian Dominic Sandbrook points out that, in the 1970s, sport was no longer simply a form of escapism from austerity and the living conditions that Jock Stein was so aware of. It “seemed to be infected by the same aggression, materialism and self-interest that had seeped into so many other corners of national life… In this context not even the most politically indifferent spectator could keep up the illusion that sport was pure escapism, immune to the pressures of the modern world.” Football and capital had always co-existed, of course; the opportunities were simply greater in the era of television and globalisation.

After the dust had settled on the 1969-70 season, Stein was asked by a journalist what imminent major changes he anticipated in the game. He had an interesting answer. One of football’s great innovators, a man who, in the 1950s, travelled to watch the great Hungary national side and the World Cup in Switzerland, who deployed a sweeper while managing Dunfermline Athletic in 1962 and who visited Helenio Herrera to learn about his training and tactics, answered with one word: “sponsorship”. Taken alongside broadcasting, it is difficult to think of a more significant development in the last 50 years. In the 1970 World Cup even the ball itself became property of Adidas.

The key on-field legacy of Feyenoord’s 1970 triumph was the concept of space. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner regularly returns to spatial creativity, architecture and planning when explaining the Dutch attitude towards football. He even names Chapter 14 “Dutch space is different”, the Cruyffian reference in the chapter number underlining its significance. Football became about controlling space: making the pitch big when your team has the ball and small when the opposition has it. Winner sets out the idea of Dutch “total architecture” – a sort of unified theory of urban planning, with room for beauty and improvisation – as the precursor to Total Football, with particular reference to Amsterdam. 

The next phase in football, from 1970 to 1974, is considered the age of Ajax and with some justification – the Amsterdam side transformed the sport whilst winning three successive European Cups. Yet Feyenoord beat their rivals to the Eredivisie title twice during this period, in 1971 and 1974, adding the Uefa Cup the second time. They also supplied more players to the Netherlands 1974 World Cup squad (seven) than any other side (Ajax supplied six). There was just something more lyrical about Ajax that captured the essence of the era; the balletic Cruyff versus the bandy-legged Van Hanegem. In the 1974 World Cup, their joint venture would ‘do a Celtic’, comprehensively beating holders Brazil in the semi-final and entering the final as heavy favourites against West Germany, before throwing away an early lead to lose 2-1. “After the 2-0 against the world champions everyone was so relaxed and content that the next match didn’t seem to matter,” said Cruyff in his autobiography. 

If creative use of space and urban planning was the root of football success, what did this mean for Britain’s European Cup representatives in 1970? Both Leeds and Glasgow were undergoing ‘modernisation’, as high-rise flats and motorways replaced prettier Victorian and Edwardian features. In a 1968 film for the BBC, Sir John Betjeman described the sound of Leeds as “Victorian buildings crashing to the ground.” Glasgow, meanwhile, was caught between two conflicting urban plans, neither of which was fully adopted, and one of which proposed the destruction of the city’s entire historical centre and its iconic, internationally significant buildings. This inconsistent approach was the opposite of ‘total’. Perhaps the best metaphor for Scotland’s footballing fortunes was the construction of Glasgow’s Red Road flats, the tallest residential tower blocks in Europe. The eight towers were built in a wave of modernist optimism between 1964 and 1969, which coincided with the country’s golden period in football. The flats quickly became synonymous with social problems, however, and by the 1980s two of the blocks were declared unfit for habitation. All eight were demolished by 2015. 

British football started the 1970s confidently, as Arsenal and Manchester City brought back the decade’s first Fairs Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. But the 1970 European Cup showed that it still had much to learn from its continental neighbours. Off the field too, the country had fallen behind in almost every measure from productivity and economic growth to earnings, prompting Sandbrook to remark that “by 1970 no serious observer could pretend that Britain still set the standards for the rest of the continent.” 

Britain’s relationship with Europe took one further twist that year. In the summer general election, Edward Heath’s Conservatives emulated Feyenoord, coming from behind in the polls to record a surprise victory against Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. Heath, a dedicated Europhile, immediately opened negotiations for Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, which it would join in 1973. At the 1970 Conservative Party conference, Heath vowed to initiate “a change so radical, a revolution so quiet and yet so total… that it will go far beyond this decade.” Football’s revolution, led quietly by Ernst Happel and Feyenoord, was already underway.