By next Wednesday evening, uniquely, five British clubs could be in the last eight of the European Champions’ Cup. There is still, as they say, a lot of football to be played, but I suppose even the possibility remains testament to the strength at the top of the British club game. Mind you, only a small handful of native British footballers will be marking the occasion by actually participating. In these second-leg ties, important home advantage lies with four of the Brit five. On Tuesday, Liverpool await Barcelona at Anfield in the pick of the games; on the same night in London, Chelsea play Porto; on Wednesday, Arsenal and Manchester United are each at home, respectively to PSV Eindhoven and Lille, while Scottish champions Celtic travel to the daunting San Siro where, after a scoreless match in Glasgow, the strutters of Milan are presuming to put on a festive party.
A defeat by 1-0 in Holland has Arsenal’s continuing campaign also hanging by a delicate thread: how hot and cold they blow. Chelsea and Manchester United each returned with a precious away goal 10 days ago and both expect next week to build on that prized advantage. Liverpool, of course, brought back two priceless goals from Barcelona after a rare victory for any Nou Camp visitors; for all that they should beware, for I doubt the Cup holders will be so flighty or so fretfully insecure for two consecutive ties. Should Barcelona score early on Tuesday it could set up one of those ravishingly operatic European nights at Anfield in which calm control and defensive sobriety fly out of the window.
I am ancient enough to have been legging round Europe even before that first string of heady Liverpool runs three decades ago. I cut my teeth with Sir Matt Busby’s European expeditions with Manchester United in the 1960s. We celebrate this spring the two-score anniversary of a British club’s first European Cup victory, in 1967 by Celtic’s imperishables, (followed, the year after, by United), but also the half-century birthday of Busby’s trailblazers of 1957 — his ‘Babes’ who were to be so wretchedly dismantled in the air crash at Munich a year later. Busby entered that team when the fledgling competition was in only its second year. Begun in the 1955–56 season, English champs, Chelsea, had feebly refused to enter on the instructions of the haughtily insular Football League — so the first British club ‘in Europe’ was Edinburgh’s Hibernian, who played six matches and reached the semi-finals of that auspicious inaugural tournament.
Following United and Liverpool in Europe has seared some fabled flashbacks into the mind all right, but for more tranquil recollection I relish warm, stored memories of the less frantic intensities of the more junior and leisurely Uefa Cup. With Ipswich Town, for instance, who annually qualified all through the 1970s; here truly was ‘a bunch of lovely lads’ to travel with: Bobby Robson, charming, cheery and wise, was manager, and bonny brewer John Cobbold the club chairman. Mr John’s sole strict target for Bobby each new season was simply to qualify for the Uefa Cup: ‘Well, how else can we stock up on our duty-frees?’ His dowager mater Lady Blanche was club president. When Ipswich made the final in 1978 at Wembley, in the royal box’s pre-match ante-room a bootlicking FA flunkey at once toadied up to mother and son: ‘Could I introduce you to Mrs Thatcher?’ Replied Lady B: ‘Frankly, my dear, we’d far prefer two very large gin-and-tonics.’