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Rewind: Spurs challenge for the European Cup

A 4-0 win over Young Boys on Wednesday night saw Tottenham return to the pinnacle of continental football, some 49 years after their previous venture into the European Cup. In 1962, Spurs would reach the semi-finals, only to fall to Eusebio's Benfica. But the club's exploits under legendary manager Bill Nicholson would establish a tradition of "those glory, glory nights" at White Hart Lane...

Before Liverpool's five European triumphs, crowned by the glory of Istanbul; before Manchester United's famous defeat of Benfica, which came ten years after the Munich air crash; before even Celtic's maiden triumph on behalf of Britain thanks to the Lisbon Lions of 1967, there was another side setting the continent alight with a famous campaign in the European Cup. Few expected then that it would be nearly half a century before Tottenham would return to the elite.

Inspired by talismanic Yorkshireman Nicholson, Spurs became the first club since Aston Villa in 1897 to secure the Double in 1960-61 season, accumulating a record-equalling 66 points and playing some entertaining football as they secured their participation in the European Cup. A reputation for flair was established - with attacking players such as Les Allen, John White and Bobby Smith in full flight - while in Danny Blanchflower and Dave Mackay, Spurs boasted two of the most formidable midfielders in English football. Their rapport was crucial to the club's exploits as they embarked on their debut contintental campaign.

In an interview with the Daily Express on August 14, 1961, Nicholson said: "Now that we have the Charity Shield to place between the FA Cup and the Football League Challenge Cup, the boardroom looks nice and tidy. We are not being big-headed when we say we have done the cup and league Double, but we must have a new target - to win the European Cup. It has not been done before by any team from this country. Neither has any team from Britain yet reached the final - a state of affairs we mean to change." His confidence was not misplaced: 'the Super Spurs' had just beaten England 3-2.

But the club's first foray into the competition was to begin in inauspicious circumstances. In a preliminary round that witnessed aggregate scorelines such as 11-2 and 15-2 - an era when European competitors were not as evenly matched as they are in these more globalised days - it was unsurprising that Spurs were drawn into a high-scoring contest. The shock came in the fact that they were defeated 4-2 in Poland by Gornik Zabrze.

A Spurs team with little experience of the European game found themselves 4-0 down behind the Iron Curtain, leaving themselves open to the counter-attack due to their attacking approach. Cliff Jones and Terry Dyson gave Spurs a fighting chance, but the poor nature of the performance sparked some intense introspection from the English press, who were accustomed to disappointment on the European scene. The Daily Mirror's headline of 'Just Mothers' Babes!' summed up the prevailing perspective of a Tottenham team beset by naivety.

It was an assessment given further credence by Nicholson, who admitted: "We were convinced that we had nothing to worry about unduly. We were a very good side and we knew it. What we did not know was how to play in Europe. We did not know how to play games over two legs. We had tried hard to play our normal attacking football. We threw caution to the wind and paid the price."

Captain Blanchflower was not so prone to humble self-reflection though and confidently promised Tottenham fans that "We'll wipe out that two-goal deficit at White Hart Lane." Wipe it out they duly did, and in some style too. Setting the template for famous European nights to come, Spurs ripped into a Gornik side that had trained in Hyde Park prior to the game. Les Allen - father of Clive - hit the woodwork within 30 seconds, Blanchflower scored a penalty after nine minutes and Welshman Cliff Jones rattled in a superb hat-trick. Bobby Smith made it 5-0 at half-time and Spurs eventually ran out 8-1 winners as Smith, again, Terry Dyson and John White completed a rout. The Super Spurs had arrived on the European scene.

By the time Spurs faced Feyenoord in the second round in November, Nicholson was exploring the possibility of signing the hugely prolific former Chelsea striker Jimmy Greaves from AC Milan. On the pitch the side demonstrated a more mature approach and secured an impressive 3-1 advantage following the first leg in the Netherlands, leading the Mirror to describe how Spurs did so "in the style which English clubs have previously only dreamed of producing in this great competition." As the newspaper noted, it was the first away victory from an English side "since the pre-Munich days of Manchester United." But Nicholson, ever the perfectionist, "wasn't completely satisfied" and felt Spurs could have added to a brace from Frank Saul and another from Dyson.

The likely signing of Greaves overshadowed the advent of the second leg, which saw Spurs draw 1-1 at White Hart Lane. Dyson scored again, but the highlight of an uninspiring Spurs performance was the stout heroism of Mackay, who was forced off inside 15 minutes with concussion but returned after a 23-minute period of recuperation. The slightly shambolic nature of the night was underlined prior to kick-off when the match officials unsuccessfully requested a 30-minute delay to the kick-off, claiming they had been given incorrect directions to the ground by Spurs.

Greaves was purchased in December - a timely transfer given Bobby Smith's drop in form in domestic football - but the new man was absent for a trip to Communist Czechoslovakia for a quarter-final tie against Dukla Prague. A tempestuous airplane ride did not bode well and although Nicholson's preparations were immaculate - the manager even transported his own tea bags for the journey - they laboured in adverse conditions against the Czech army side. Still, a 1-0 defeat on an ice-cold pitch, overlain by a flurry of snow, was far from a disastrous result. That much was proved in the return leg.

No less than 64,000 raucous supporters were packed into White Hart Lane and after battling a blizzard - with snow and ice contributing to conditions described as "very dodgy" by Nicholson - Spurs ran out 4-1 winners thanks to braces from Smith and Mackay. A jubilant Blanchflower said: "It was a night that demanded hard play - a night for the bold and the brave. The Czechs are nice people, but they play soft football. They couldn't adjust themselves to the conditions and didn't seem aware of defence at times."

In the semi-final draw in Paris, Spurs were paired with reigning champions Benfica - or as the Mirror put it, the "fighting cockerels of London against the glorious eagles of Lisbon." Though Eusebio was just 19, the Portuguese forward was already recognised as one of Europe's finest talents and Nicholson happily admitted "it's the worst draw possible." Some hope came in the shape of Greaves, who by now was eligible for the European Cup.

On March 21, Tottenham arrived at a thunderous Stadium of Light and, amid a cacophony of noise, could not prevent Benfica - coached by the great Bela Guttman - from winning 3-1 in the first leg. Nicholson's men were described as 'The Splendid Losers' by the Express and while Mackay impressed when attempting to keep Eusebio quiet, much to the fury of the home supporters, both Greaves and Smith saw goals disallowed by suspect offside decisions. It was a disappointing loss, but not one that was felt to be insurmountable given Spurs' plucky performance in Portugal.

Confidence in the Spurs ranks grew when Benfica prepared for the game with a 1-1 draw against Porto, and Guttman appeared to be wary of his opponents. He said: "I don't mind what the weather or pitch is like. If I had a choice I wouldn't trouble to choose the weather - I would choose different opponents than Tottenham." The Hungarian-born coach took further issue with the pitch at White Hart Lane, complaining it had been excessively watered. Meanwhile Eusebio, a teenager with the world at his feet, was in more relaxed mood, taking in trips to the West End and Buckingham Palace before his charm offensive concluded with a kickabout at a school in Clerkenwell.

On April 5 the battle recommenced. Benfica struck an early blow when Jose Arguas scored after only 15 minutes, but roared on by their adoring supporters, Spurs began to turn on the style in a remarkable hour of football. Smith collected a pass from John White to make it 4-2 on aggregate after 35 minutes and Blanchflower added a second from the penalty spot. Greaves had a goal disallowed, Smith struck the post, Mackay clipped the crossbar and Germano appeared to handle on the line, but Spurs could not summon up a third goal to level the scores on aggregate. They were beaten.

While the final result proved to be an ultimately futile 2-1 win, it was appreciated all the same by proud Spurs supporters who witnessed a thrilling conclusion to a memorable campaign. The vociferous White Hart Lane crowd certainly left its mark on Guttman, who said: "Whatever my lads did last night, there was no encouragement. The lot last night were worse than partisan - they were downright prejudiced."

Spurs were not ready to let the aggregate defeat hang heavy on their shoulders, and chairman Fred Wale demonstrated the growing confidence of the club when saying: "I think you know that we are a club who don't boast much, but we are going to be alright next season, and then we're going to win the European Cup. It's the only thing that really matters to us, and now we've been so far we've got to win it one day."

But what Nicholson, Blanchflower, Greaves, Wale and the rest could never have suspected was that for the next half a century, Spurs would never again match the feats of those "glory, glory nights".

What happened next? Benfica defeated Real Madrid in the final to win their second European Cup in a row, with Eusebio scoring twice. Nicholson would ensure Spurs became the first British side to win a European trophy when capturing the Cup Winners' Cup of 1963, but although he won another FA Cup, two League Cups and the UEFA Cup of 1972, he would never return to challenge for the European Cup.


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