Saturday, 8 June 2019

The Death Match

The Death Match

Watching the excellent TV series ‘Chernobyl’ reminded me of a European tie Celtic took part in just a few months after the catastrophe at the nuclear plant in the Ukraine. Celtic’s epic title win at Love Street in May 1986 gave them another crack at the European cup in the days before UEFA and the Champions League cartel turned it into a rich man’s club. The Hoops got the better of a hard working Shamrock Rovers side winning both legs more comfortably than the 3-0 aggregate score-line suggests and were paired with Dynamo Kiev in the next round. The Soviet side had the bulk of the USSR national team in their ranks and no one was in any doubt about the size of the task facing Celtic. The Hoops approached the tie at Celtic Park with some confidence though; they were playing well and had plenty of goal threats in the team. Dynamo arrived in Glasgow in October 1986 with that air of quiet confidence good teams have. All was set for an epic encounter.

Dynamo Kiev’s history is a proud one; they were the first team in the Soviet league to break the dominance of the big Moscow clubs and have produced some fine teams over the years. Celtic of course tangled with them twice in the 1960s and found them a tough nut to crack. Dynamo found themselves well known in the late 1930s for playing good football although the war interrupted their development. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 saw the city of Kiev occupied by the Nazis and after the initial trauma of the battle for the city, football resumed albeit on an amateur basis. The Nazis, always keen for a propaganda coup, challenged Dynamo to a match the following year and they obliged playing under the name of START; an acronym for ‘City of Kiev All-Stars.’ The context of the game, played as it was against a backdrop of occupation and oppression was startling. The USSR looked to be heading for certain defeat as the Nazi juggernaut crushed all before it. In a ravine called Babi Yar in Kiev, the Nazis murdered 33,000 Jews in September 1941. They crushed any opposition with brutality and the people in occupied cities like Kiev lived a very precarious life indeed. The Kiev players who prepared to take on the Wehrmacht side in August 1942 must have known that they were playing a dangerous game indeed but they were determined to show their occupiers that they could play the game.

A German army side, containing several former professional players, was heavily defeated and the angry Germans demanded a return game. This time Kiev battered them 6-0. The Hungarian Army team (allies of the Germans) were defeated before the Luftwaffe team was beaten 5-1. The Germans tried again but lost 8-0 in a game the Soviets would later call the 'death match' and for good reason. The Gestapo arrested several Kiev players and they were so brutally tortured before that one of them died. The others were sent to nearby Syrets labour camp where conditions were appalling. Indeed following a Partisan attack on the Germans the following year, the Nazis decided to shoot a third of the camps prisoners in reprisal. Among those murdered were three of the Kiev side which had beaten the various German teams. The story of Dynamo Kiev and their matches with the German during the war inspired the film ‘Escape to Victory,’ although Hollywood gave the tale a distinctly western flavour.

So it was that Celtic lined up to play a fine Dynamo Kiev team in the autumn of 1986. The early exchanges in the match at Celtic Park watched by 49,000 fans demonstrated that Dynamo was indeed a fine side but also that they had a cynical streak and toughness. Some of their tackling was brutal and one challenge on Tommy Burns in particular was enough to put him out of the game for six months. The visitors took the lead in the first half but Celtic rallied and roared on by a packed Jungle managed to equalise and set up a second leg in Kiev which they travelled to in hope rather than expectation. They knew the high standard of the opposition and the freezing conditions they would meet in Ukraine but they’d give it a go. They also knew that the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which had emitted so much radiation was barely 60 miles from the city but UEFA insisted the game was to be played.

100,000 fans packed the Kiev stadium as Celtic trooped out in their yellow away strip. When the superb Oleg Blokhin scored in 12 minutes it looked like it was going to be a long night but Celtic rallied and pushed the home side back. They created a few chances and silenced the home fans for long spells and when McStay’s fine shot hit the post and rebounded into the goalkeeper’s arms you wondered if it was going to be one of those nights. Celtic never gave up though and when Mark McGhee equalised early in the second half, the Ukrainian side didn’t look so composed as their huge support whistled mutinously. However, Celtic being Celtic, they made crucial errors at the back which made their task harder, 18 year old Derek Whyte had a night to forget and allowed Kiev to score a second in the 72nd minute. The game now hung in the balance and another Celtic goal would see them progress on away goals. The match turned with Celtic throwing everything Kiev and the Soviets time wasting in their own stadium. Another dreadful defensive blunder gifted Kiev a goal in the last minute. A 3-1 defeat hardly describes a brave Celtic performance that night which so nearly put a fine Kiev side out of Europe. Celtic in the 80s was a team capable of attacking brilliance at times but successful teams in Europe need a defence which is equally adept and alas too often Celtic’s wasn’t. It was a sore one to take but that's football and as Kiev's own war time history demonstrates, there are worse things than losing a game.

Kiev would go on to reach the last 4 of that season’s European Cup before narrowly losing to a fine Porto side which eventually won the trophy. For Celtic that 1986-87 season was to be a watershed too. The Arrival of Graham Souness at Ibrox heralded a revival in Rangers fortunes and Celtic let a big lead slip as Rangers won their first title in 9 years. The Hoops would of course famously rally for their centenary season but things had to change as the board looked unable to raise the finances necessary to rebuild the team and indeed the stadium.

There were some difficult times ahead for the Celtic faithful which would last until the arrival of an innocuous looking wee man sporting a bunnet and some big plans.

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