Celtic v Real Madrid: recalling their last meeting in the European Cup

For two great clubs trying to restore their glory days in European football, the 1979-80 European Cup had been a struggle for both Celtic and Real Madrid. The Scottish champions, managed by Billy McNeill, trailed Partizan Tirana 2-0 in the first round before scoring four goals in 11 minutes to win the tie 4-2. And they were far from convincing in a 3-2 aggregate win over Dundalk in the second round.

Their win over the Irish champions took Celtic through to their first European Cup quarter-final since 1974, where they would meet the mighty Real Madrid. The Spanish giants were far from the intimidating prospect they had been in the 1960s. In fact, Vujadin Boskov was the latest manager trying to win a seventh European Cup for the club, their previous success coming in 1966.

Real eased past Levski Sofia in the first round, winning 3-0 on aggregate, but they were only narrow winners against Porto in the second round. They were trailing 2-0 in the first leg until a vital away goal from English winger Laurie Cunningham turned the tie in their favour. A 1-0 win back home in Madrid was enough to take them through on away goals.

Cunningham was happy to be facing Celtic in the last eight. “We are well pleased with this draw,” he said. Boskov agreed, noting that Celtic were technically inferior to his team. “It is vital we win without losing a goal,” said McNeill before the first leg of the quarter-final. “The game gives us a chance to find out how good we really are.”

For long periods of the first half it looked as if Cunningham, Boskov and the previews would be spot on. The visitors dominated from the off. Writing in the Guardian, Patrick Barclay noted that Celtic went “in at half-time to all appearance hopelessly outplayed by a side whose quality in attack evoked memories of the era when Real Madrid dominated European football.” Vicente del Bosque, Uli Stielike, Santillana, Cunningham and Juanito were running the show.

But the home team held firm, aided by some fine saves from English keeper Peter Latchford. Denying Cunningham and Santillana in the first half, Latchford was relieved when the former struck two further efforts just wide. Bobby Lennox, a Lisbon Lion from 1967, spurned Celtic’s best chance of the half.

The second half was a different story. After denying George McCluskey early on, Real Madrid keeper Mariano García Remón was at fault for Celtic’s opening goal in the 52nd minute. Remón failed to hold on to a driven shot from Alan Sneddon and McCluskey nipped in to gave Celtic the lead. The crowd, which was recorded at 67,000 but probably much larger, went wild.

McCluskey’s goal gave Celtic belief and the volume increased in the ground. Centre-back Tom McAdam had a header cleared off the line and McCluskey was denied a second after a very close offside. With just 13 minutes left, a headed goal from an unlikely source sent Celtic into dream territory.

Sneddon was involved again. He flighted a cross from the right invitingly between two Real defenders and the diminutive winger Johnny Doyle headed in. Attacking the ball with pace, Doyle gave Remón no chance. He wheeled away in delight, every inch the Celtic fan who was living the dream of playing for the club he loved.

Remón denied Murdo MacLeod and Danny McGrain as Celtic went in search of a barely believable third goal. Yet the 2-0 win was beyond most expectations. “Celtic achieved one of the most remarkable results of even their extensive European history,” wrote Barclay as fans started to dream about a place in the last four. Although, despite their two-goal advantage from the first leg, Barclay reckoned they were up against it, writing: “On balance, Real must be favourites to go through.”

McNeill and Latchford both agreed that the first half an hour in Madrid would be crucial, with the Celtic manager hoping the anticipated crowd of 110,000 would grow impatient if the away team could frustrate their opponents. Real came out fighting and a number of their robust challenges left Celtic players writhing in agony. But all seemed to be going to plan for Celtic as the first half progressed. McCluskey missed a decent chance early on, and Latchford pulled off fine saves from Juanito and Del Bosque. Celtic’s determined midfielders were limiting Real’s threat and, as half-time neared, it seemed the storm had been weathered.

Everything changed in the 44th minute. Latchford failed to collect a corner – some reports hinting at a foul on the keeper – and Santillana poked home from close range, completely changing the atmosphere in the stadium and giving Real a huge boost as the half ended. Del Bosque began to dominate midfield, with Cunningham increasingly a threat from the wing. Celtic tried their best to hold back the tide but Real levelled the tie in the 56th minute, Santillana heading down Cunningham’s cross to Stielike, who fired home from 10 yards out.

Celtic gradually regained their composure and had a good shout for a penalty turned down. But, with just four minutes remaining, an unmarked Juanito headed past Latchford to end Celtic’s hopes in the European Cup. Having won the first leg 2-0, Celtic were out, beaten 3-2 on aggregate.

Real were now just 180 minutes away from a final that would be played at their own Bernabéu stadium. A 2-0 win over Hamburg in the first leg of the semi-final edged Real closer but, as they had learned from the Celtic experience, an early lead is no guarantee of success. Boskov’s team capitulated in the second leg, losing 5-1. Their European Cup drought would continue for another 18 years.

Yet, any sporting disappointment felt by Celtic or Real Madrid should be put into perspective when looking back at the scorer of Celtic’s second goal in that famous win in Glasgow. Doyle had grown up as a Celtic fan, earned his dream move to the club in 1976 and gone on to win two league titles and two Scottish Cups.

Sadly, there would be a tragic ending. While fixing a plug in his loft in October 1981 –just a year after he had scored against Real Madrid – Doyle was electrocuted and died. He was just 30 years old. “John was a truly great Celt and would want to be remembered as such,” said the club’s chairman, Desmond White. “Celtic was his life,” wrote Jim Reynolds in the Glasgow Herald.

Celtic went on to win the league in 1981-82 and dedicated the trophy to Doyle. On the day the title was clinched against St Mirren, his name was sung from the terraces. The Celtic band Charlie and the Bhoys recorded a tribute to Doyle, which included a section recalling that famous goal: “In Europe 1980, he made a gallant bid. He capped a great performance, against Real Madrid. He rose with two defenders, to win the ball so clean. With Sabido and Camacho, was the man who loved the green.” The song and title were fitting tributes to a player who died too young.