Winning the Scottish League title for the first time in 1965 guaranteed Killie a place among the elite group of champions in the European Cup.
In those far-off days, there were no group stages, non-champions participating nor seedings – it was an all-in draw, knockout competition. Killie entered at the Preliminary Round with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Benfica, Feyenoord and Werder Bremen but the draw sent them on one of the most bizarre journeys ever undertaken by the club – they were to play 17 Nentori Tirana of Albania.
Albania is still one of the most closed societies in Europe but, in the 1960s, this small country of just over three million people was ruled by Maoist dictator Enver Hoxha and it was desperately poor with a population lacking basic freedoms. Actor/ director/ writer Peter Ustinov travelled to Albania in 1966 and his amusing account concludes thus: “Never, apart from Haiti, have we sensed people more despised by their own leaders. Albania is Haiti with slogans.” (The Atlantic Monthly, November 1966)
Named after the date of Albania’s liberation from the Nazis (17th November 1944), 17 Nentori were surprising (and rather unpopular) champions – the league was supposed to be carved up between the military-backed Partizani and Dinamo, the secret service team. So much so that, having won the title in 1966/67, 17 Nentori were stripped of the title which was awarded to Dinamo!
In these days of charter flights, it seems incredible that the Kilmarnock party travelled by three scheduled flights from Glasgow to Tirana via London and Rome!
It was in the Kombëtar Qemal Stafa Stadium in Tirana that Kilmarnock played their first ever match in the European Cup on 8 September 1965. Looking at contemporary photographs, the stadium was a modest oval bowl with one large open terrace opposite the grandstand. The reports spoke of the fierce afternoon heat and a heavy pitch so a goalless draw had to be seen as a satisfactory outcome.
So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I turned up at Rugby Park on 29 September for the return match. I think the anticipation was that Killie would hand out an Eintracht-style thrashing to the so-called “mystery men” from Albania. In reality, it was anything but a formality with Killie unable to break through until a 77th minute goal by the late Bertie Black. Job done!
Killie’s next round opponents could not be a greater contrast – save that they also lived under an authoritarian dictatorship! – as they were drawn with the undisputed giants of European football, Real Madrid.
Madrid had dominated the competition winning the first five competitions. By 1965 they were on the wane, however, with their legends aging visibly. The legendary Hungarian “Galloping Major” Ferenc Puskas was 38 (and his waist measurement was probably greater!), the centre-back Jose Santamaria 36 and the dazzling left-winger Francisco Gento a little younger at 31 but newer stars such as Amancio, Pirri,Velázquez, Sanchís and Grosso added fresh blood.
Sadly, to my eternal regret, I wasn’t at the first-leg at Rugby Park on, ironically, 17th November (the anniversary of Albania's liberation for those expecting a test) for a reason which I cannot explain. I expect the mood among Killie fans on the night was primarily sheer excitement at the prospect of seeing the visitors, with few – if any – giving Killie a chance of prevailing over two legs. Prospects were hindered by the absence of both centre-backs, Jackie McGrory and Frank Beattie, arguably the keystones of Killie’s recent success, for both legs. McGrory was ineligible, having delayed re-signing for the club, while Beattie was injured.
It was Killie though who drew first blood after twenty minutes through a penalty-kick by eighteen-year-old Tommy McLean after a foul on Jackie McInally. I expect there was a few veteran Killie fans who would have happily died and gone to heaven there and then!
Unfortunately, the lead lasted only four minutes, Martinez netting the equaliser.
In the second half, Amancio put Madrid ahead but Killie were not to be thwarted; just before the hour mark, Ronnie Hamilton’s cross was met by McInally who headed into the net.
What a famous night in the old club’s history! The greatest team of that era in European football had come to Rugby Park and been held by wee Killie.
I have never been to the Kombëtar Qemal Stafa Stadium in Tirana but I have been to the Santiago Bernebeu in Madrid and I doubt that there could be a greater contrast for Killie on their travels!
In the 1960s, mass air travel was unheard of in Europe and the cost was prohibitive for most people so there would not have been a travelling army of Killie fans in the Bernebeu on 1 December. For those who were there, I can imagine it was experience of a lifetime.
I hope they sang out loud and proud after Brian McIlroy almost unbelievably put Killie ahead on the night and in the tie in the 27th minute. Their singing would have been short-lived as Madrid, fielding an all-Spanish XI for the first time in years, scored twice in the following four minutes!
That was not the end of the story though as McInally missed an open goal and McLean’s penalty-kick was saved by Betancort, the first miss of his career, at 1-4. Madrid punished this profligacy and triumphed by 5-1.
While eliminated, Killie were not embarrassed. After all, Feyenoord had lost 0-5 in Madrid in the Preliminary Round and Madrid went on to win their sixth European Cup, beating Partizan Belgrade in the final.
8 September 1965 – 17 Nentori Tirana 0 Kilmarnock 0 (Att. 30,000)
29 September 1965 – Kilmarnock 1 (0) 17 Nentori Tirana 0 (0) (Att.15,717)
17 November 1965 – Kilmarnock 2 (1) Real Madrid 2 (1) (Att. 24,325)
Scorers: McLean (Pen), McInally
1 December 1965 – Real Madrid 5 (3) Kilmarnock 1 (1) (Att. 35,000)