Saturday’s defeat by Liverpool must rank as Tottenham’s harshest European disappointment since 1962. That year, after a memorable win over Polish side Gornik Zabrze, Spurs suffered a bitter loss in the semi-finals of the continent's premier competition...
If there were an English team who might have won European football’s premier club prize in its earliest days it was the Tottenham side operating under the enlightened on-field leadership of their greatest captain Danny Blanchflower.
Spurs qualified for the 1961-2 European Cup and it all began so well with a thrilling second-leg victory in their preliminary round tie against Polish side Gornik Zabrze.
Cliff Jones was a member of that side and has vivid memories of the match at White Hart Lane.
The Welshman had played with distinction for his country at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, where visiting teams received limited support. But a home tie against foreign opposition in a club competition was of a completely different order. He describes the second leg against Gornik at White Hart Lane as the ‘one match that stood out for me during my time at Spurs’.
The away leg, Tottenham’s debut in Europe, was dramatic enough. Spurs came back from 4-0 down soon after the break to narrow the deficit to 4-2 with Jones’s goal the first by a Tottenham player in Europe.
‘We were in with a shout, but Bill Nicholson wasn’t impressed with us, he wasn’t pleased,’ Jones says. ‘The press, they weren’t pleased with us either, they gave us quite a bit of stick. It was because of this, I think, that for the second leg we were really buzzing, we just couldn’t wait to get out there.
‘As we came out onto the White Hart Lane pitch with the Gornik side the noise from the 62,000 crowd was just incredible. They were amazing, they lifted us.
‘We were looking at the Gornik players and straightaway they were on the back foot. In Gornik the atmosphere hadn’t been great. There was the ground, then there was the running track, and then there was something else – so the crowd was well away from the playing area. But at White Hart Lane the crowd was on top of them and you could see they were in trouble.
‘Right from the off we just got at ’em. Bobby Smith had a shot, the goalkeeper tipped it over the bar and from then on the noise was just one complete roar.
‘I was fortunate to get a hat-trick and I would say I have never experienced an atmosphere like it. The final score was 8-1, 10-5 on aggregate.
‘It was the start of the glory nights as they were called, and that night we played… I don’t think there’s any team who’s been or will ever be – and I’m including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man United – who could have lived with us. That night we would have beaten anybody, I don’t care who they were. We just slaughtered them. And Gornik, they were a top side. The majority of them were Polish internationals. But they just never stood a chance. We overran them.’
Tottenham also swept through the next two rounds, against Feyenoord and Dukla Prague, victories that put them into a semi-final against Benfica, the defending champions.
Two towering contests followed. Benfica won the first leg in Lisbon 3-1 in front of 86,000. Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Smith had goals ruled out for offside. Unconfirmable reports have it that Smith’s was disallowed despite two defenders being posted on the line.
Benfica went 4-1 up on aggregate in the second leg at White Hart Lane, where 64,448 spectators jammed the stands. Spurs then hit back with two goals, the second a Blanchflower penalty, but in a desperate finish in which the post twice saved Benfica and Dave Mackay’s header landed on the crossbar the visitors held out.
Blanchflower observed later of the European Cup that it was hard to imagine ‘a more potent or popular soccer competition’ and described playing in it as ‘the greatest emotional experience of my career’.