Football’s first European Cup was the start of something very big – except that Mr Hardaker didn’t see it that way.


After the war no one epitomised English football’s ‘keep it on the island’ mentality quite like Alan Hardaker, the Football League’s long-standing secretary.

Hardaker started working for the League in 1951 before taking over as full-time secretary in 1957. Previously he had been an ordinary player who aged 23 declined professional terms offered by Hull City in order to start his apprenticeship as a bureaucrat working as secretary to the Lord Mayor of Hull.

As Football League secretary Hardaker displayed his unattractive brand of conservatism with his comment to a national newspaper that having to deal with ‘wogs and dagos’ was the reason he opposed English clubs entering international competitions.

Largely as a result of this attitude Chelsea, the 1954-55 English league champions, were persuaded not to enter the inaugural European Cup in 1955.

Some years later Brian Mears, the Chelsea chairman from 1969-81, said he was not sure why the club spurned the competition having been nominated by the French sports newspaper l’Equipe, along with 15 other European sides, to represent the cream of the Continent’s clubs.

‘The club probably just chickened out of something few people knew enough about,’ Mears added.

Why they chickened out was almost certainly the result of Mears’s father, Joe, the Chelsea chairman from 1940-66, having been leant on by Hardaker, who was xenophobic and myopic in equal measure.

Gwardia Warszawa of Poland took Chelsea’s place to the satisfaction of little Englanders and to the detriment of the English game’s prospects of keeping up with foreign competition.

Nor, on reflection, can the Chelsea club and players have been happy to miss out on the financial benefit, especially the players whose wages at this time were capped at £15 a week.

The resounding success of the first European Cup, won in style by Real Madrid, instantly instated the Spanish champions as the continent’s most glamorous club and ensured the competition’s future. In fact Real would go on to win for five years in a row.

Despite this Hardaker and his ilk still wanted nothing to do with it. But Manchester United, the new English champions, refused to be bullied into following Chelsea’s example. They went ahead and entered the 1956-57 competition, a decision that was rewarded by a thrilling run to the semi-finals where they lost to Real.

It was not until ten years after this that Celtic, directed by their impressive manager Jock Stein, became the first British club to reach a European Cup final – a feat they celebrated with a spectacular victory.

Stein had the vision to stray beyond the traditional British way of playing. He worked on ideas such as zonal marking, before the name existed, but above all he stressed the importance of players expressing themselves outside the confines of any particular system.

Stein assembled a team of players who came from within 30 miles of the club’s Glasgow ground. And after Celtic’s exhilarating 2-1 win in Lisbon over the cynically efficient Italian side Inter Milan in the 1967 final, their manager said: ‘We did it playing football, pure, beautiful, inventive football.’

A year later, a George Best-inspired Manchester United, directed by another exceptional Scotttish manager, Matt Busby, succeeded Celtic as European Cup winners, thrashing the continent’s former masters Benfica 4-1 at Wembley.

And by now even Alan Hardaker must have recognised some merit in the competition.


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.