Day Celtic took a baby Bear behind the Iron Curtain: Roy Aitken reflects on swapping school tie for starting shirt in Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final
- A flu epidemic ahead of a trip to Germany saw Roy Aitken get his Celtic chance
- It was 1976 and Aitken, then a school boy, but was part of the squad that went
- Celtic took on Sachsenring Zwickau in a Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final match
- The current Celtic side are back in Germany on Thursday to take on RB Leipzig
In 1976, anyone intent on adopting a bear would have been met with a quizzical look. With a visit from the RSPCA likely to follow in short order.
Yet as Celtic prepared for their one and only sojourn to East Germany, a flu epidemic and a spate of injuries left stand-in manager Sean Fallon with little option but to go hunting.
To be clear, Roy Aitken was the bear in question. Although, given the 17-year-old from Adrossan was still at school, perhaps he was more of a cub at that stage.
Celtic’s Roy Aitken reflected with Sportsmail on swapping school for a 1976 trip to Germany
Sachsenring Zwickau would have made for a good Scrabble score but were not considered to be insurmountable opponents as Celtic embarked on a Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final tie on the back of wins against Valur and Boavista.
A 1-1 draw in the first leg at Celtic Park was compounded by the postponement of league matches with Ayr United and Rangers as a virus swept the country. As Fallon organised a bounce game against the reserves, further injuries to Andy Lynch, Bobby Lennox and Dixie Deans left him with only 14 bodies for the return trip.
An increasingly drastic situation required drastic measures. Aitken had only made his debut as a 16-year-old in the League Cup against Stenhousemuir the previous September but would swap his school tie for a starting jersey if Fallon could get his way.
A flu epidemic swept the country and the club and forced Celtic to turn to the then 17-year-old
‘I was under 18 and still at school, so they had to get permission for me to travel,’ Aitken recalled.
‘Jock (Stein) had a bad (car) accident that year and was in hospital, so it was Sean who had to go to the consulate every day to sign me in. I didn’t have to go, but Sean did. They put the club down as the guardian because I was under 18.’
Even for those players who had been part of the club’s remarkable success in Europe in the late 60s and early 70s, a trip behind the Iron Curtain to the city of Karl Marx Stadt, now known as Chemnitz, was intriguing.
For a teenager from Ayrshire, it represented the perfect excuse to break off from studying for his Highers.
‘The whole thing about being at school and getting time off to travel into Europe with Celtic was interesting,’ Aitken added.
‘The good thing was that I had a headmaster who was a Celtic fan. I’d go into school on a Monday morning and, even though we didn’t win anything that year, we were doing quite well.
‘He’d come into the office and offer a wee cup of tea. He’d have the papers in front of him and start talking about the game at the weekend.
The Celtic legend was this week inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame at Hampden
‘I’ve got great pictures walking out of the school with the chemistry books under the arm. It was just another adventure at that time. It was always an adventure. Everything was coming so quickly.’
That first taste of European football was to end in disappointment, though.
With the game being beamed live back to Scotland at 2pm, Ludwig Blank – a headline writer’s dream if ever there was one – struck the only goal after three minutes. Although to this day, Roddie MacDonald – an auxiliary centre-forward – remains mystified as to why his late header was disallowed.
Some 42 years on, and with the Berlin Wall long since gone, the current Celtic side are back in eastern Germany – but this time illness and injury are less of a concern than the side they will face.
Founded in 2009 after the takeover of fifth-tier Markranstädt, RB Leipzig have usurped Bayern Munich as the side most German fans love to hate.
This stems partly from their flagrant disregard of the country’s 50-plus-1 ownership ‘rule’ but also from their success.
Only promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016, they finished second in their first season and sixth last term.
It would take a brave man to wager that Celtic will record just their third-ever victory in an away group-stage match in Europe tomorrow.
The club’s latest trip to Germany sees Celtic go head-to-head with a talented RB Leipzig outfit
But, with or without Scott Brown, Brendan Rodgers’ side are unquestionably in far better fettle than when they parachuted into the competition.
Saturday’s pulsating win over Hibs, added to victories over Aberdeen and St Johnstone, have screwed down the volume on talk of an inexorable decline.
‘I didn’t doubt they’d motor again,’ Aitken said. ‘If they had a little dip, criticism comes your way. That’s normal. You set your own standards and they set theirs so high. Invincibles one year, a second Treble the second year.
‘People are going into this season wondering if they can do it again and, if there’s a little dip, everyone is on the manager’s case. It’s part of football, but on a lot of occasions it’s unfair and Brendan made a great comment when he said to judge them in May. At the end of the season.
‘Jock Stein said the same thing. So did Billy McNeill. You are not judged at this stage of a season. It’s when the trophies are handed out and they have proven themselves season in and season out.’
Given how poor Rodgers’ side were as they crashed to a 3-1 defeat in Salzburg at the start of the month, sweeping judgments *will* be made on Celtic’s ability to compete in Europe’s secondary competition if an all-too familiar story plays out again.
Scott Brown will miss Celtic’s decisive Europa League clash with RB Leipzig on Thursday
With the Austrians favourites to win the group and Rosenborg struggling thus far, the double header with the Germans is likely to prove definitive.
‘It’s a tough game in Leipzig,’ Aitken said. ‘It’s a difficult group.
‘Brendan will want to try and pick up points. The home results are normally the ones that get you there.
‘On some occasions, nine points can be enough but, looking at this group, it might need a point or two away. But that’ll be tough.’
There have been times during Celtic’s run to seven straight titles when European football felt like a tasty morsel taking away the bland taste of the domestic game. Not now.
While Rodgers will naturally demand that his players are in contention when the knock-out stages of the Europa comes around, winning a reinvigorated Premiership is very much the be-all and end-all.
Hearts, Hibs, Livingston and Kilmarnock have relished upsetting the natural order so far. Rangers and Aberdeen have work to do to ensure normality is resumed. It all feels very like an era when Scotland’s flagship competition was not a contradiction in terms.
Aitken insists he had no doubts that Brendan Rodgers’ side would eventually kick into gear
‘Other people will argue,’ added Aitken, ‘but I think the 1980s was as strong as Scottish football has ever been in the sense you had Jim McLean and Alex Ferguson at Dundee United and Aberdeen and they were terrific teams.
‘Alex MacDonald and Sandy Jardine’s Hearts team came along. Rangers were in there competing, so were ourselves at Celtic. It was a great period. This is also a bit of competition.’
One that stirs the appetite of the man who charged into enemy territory in his pomp to the cry of ‘Feed the Bear’.
‘There’s been a little bit of stick getting handed out,’ said Aitken. ‘But it’s still early in the season. They’ve scored ten goals in the past two games. Suddenly everyone has gone quiet again.’
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