Football writers draw on the language of battle so regularly to colour their narrative that describing a game in which two teams slugged it out on the pitch does not seem so unusual. But as Tottenham Hotspur prepare for the first of this season’s Europa League knockout stage ties against Olympique Lyonnaise, memories of the previous encounter between the two sides prompts pugilism-infused prose.
On 29 November 1967, Spurs’s skipper Alan Mullery was sent off after the tie exploded into an eight minute battle on the pitch as players from both sides, joined by dozens of fans who had vaulted the low fences and raced onto the green canvas, swapped punches and lashed out with boots. Each time the match officials quelled combat in one spot, another sporadic battle would flare up elsewhere. At half-time, as the players left the arena, violence flared again the tunnel, with Spurs manage Bill Nicholson forced to step in to separate players, suffering an elbow to the eye for his trouble.
It’s not the usual story of Spurs in Europe, a relationship described as one of football’s great romances. The game came at the end of a period in which Nicholson’s side had cemented the tradition of glory so famously summed up in the words of the great Danny Blanchflower. After winning the first domestic modern double in 1961, Spurs entered a European Cup that had been regarded with suspicion by English football’s insular authorities carrying the hopes of a new, ambitious generation. Nicholson was one of the first managers, along with Matt Busby, to realise that the European Cup was the supreme test by which all domestic champions would be judged. Tottenham’s first foray in to Europe came courtesy of a side dubbed ’the team of the century’ by English press and public alike, although Real Madrid, with five consecutive European Cup wins between 1955 and 1960, would surely beg to differ with that description. It seemed the argument would be settled in the final of the 1962 competition as Spurs and the Spanish giants progressed towards a final showdown in Amsterdam, but in a titanic semi-final encounter still described in awed tones by those lucky enough to see it, Spurs were edged out by the holders Benfica, then managed by the great Bela Guttman and driven on the pitch by the genius of Eusebio.
The Portuguese side would go on to retain the trophy, but Spurs had got the taste for Europe, and the following season became the first British side to win a European trophy by tearing highly-fancied Atletico Madrid apart on a memorable night in Rotterdam which brought the Cup-Winners’ Cup trophy to White Hart Lane. The following season, Tottenham’s attempt to retain the trophy failed at the first hurdle, with Nicholson’s first great team bowing out of Europe after a 4-3 aggregate defeat by newly-ascendant Manchester United. It was another classic tie, but the defat and the broken leg suffered by the talismanic Dave Mackay seemed to signal the end of an era. Yet within four years, Nicholson had forged his second great side and, led by the indomitable Mackay who had survived two leg breaks, Spurs were back in the Cup-Winners Cup after beating Chelsea in Wembley’s first Cockney Cup Final.
Spurs strolled through a first leg tie against Hajduk Split on the Dalmation coast, before surviving a late comeback and a partial power cut in the home leg to win the tie 6-3 on aggregate. Which brought Nicholson’s team to the Stade de Gerland on that explosive November night.
Lyon had experienced their first taste of success in the early 1960s, with manager Lucien Jasseron steering a team that included Jean Djorkaeff, father of Youri, to some respectable league finishes and ultimately French Cup success in 1964. But a slump in the league led to Jasseron’s departure in 1966, and in 1967 his successor, Louis Hon, helped Les Gones to a second Coupe de France title. So Lyon were attempting to forge a second successful side as Spurs were on the way to establishing the third incarnation of success under Nicholson.
A hint of the uncompromising approach Spurs were to encounter may have been gleaned from a cursory look at Lyon’s history, for the Lyonnais have roots in a robust expression of independence. By 1831, the many thousands of silkworkers in the city – known by the derogatory term canuts, most likely derived from the French word for spool – had preserved a system of craft independence and family-based collectivism into the modern industrial era. This prompted Fernand Rude, in his account of the Lyon uprising of 1831, to describe the Lyonnais as “dreamers inclined to mysticism and outbreaks of violence”. As the rate for weaving was driven down and poverty took hold, agitation for a minimum rate, known as the tarif, grew. The weavers launched the world’s first workers’ newspaper, L’Echo de la Fabrique, and established a workers’ commission. Their collective action forced the city authorities to accept the tariff, but on 10 November the silk manufacturers rejected it. Demonstrations ensued and, on 20 November, the National Guard opened fire on one such gathering. The attack brought more workers onto the streets. The crowds brandished black flags – a symbol of mourning here but later adopted by the anarchist movement – upon which the words ‘Live Working or Die Fighting’ were emblazoned.
The militia were pelted with cobblestones as the silkworkers sought to drive them out of the city. The authorities responded by sending in regular troops, but many of the workers had enrolled in the militia and now used their basic military training to fuel a full-scale insurgency which saw the brief establishment of a people’s republic in the city. The revolt petered out after a few days and the city was reoccupied, but the weavers had secured significant concessions. The uprising was one of the first flickerings of working class republicanism, and from those November days can be traced the development of much socialist and anarchist thinking. The silkworkers’ slogan Live Working or Die Fighting became a clarion call in the global struggle for workers’ rights.
It would be entirely wrong to ascribe motives as noble as those that drove the silkworkers’ uprising to the fight that broke out in a mere football match, and I do not seek to here. But football sparks the passions it does in part because of the connection between team and place, the understanding of what makes us and where we come from as people. So perhaps, in the robust response of OL’s players to what they saw as overly tough tackling from the visitors on that November night, there was a echo of those November days in 1830 when Lyon had announced itself to the world.
Whether or not the tackling was too tough or just, as the Daily Mail’s Brian James saw it, “delivered with no more than ordinary firmness” it is difficult to say. No footage exists of the game – the idea of a European tie with no live TV coverage seems almost as long ago as the days of the nascent workers’ republic – and so we’re left with English newspaper coverage and the memories of Alan Mullery. The Czech referee certainly didn’t think Spurs exhibited “ordinary firmness”. He booked the entire Spurs defence, plus the forwards Terry Venables and Cliff Jones, in the first 15 minutes. The Spurs players, in turn, were wound up by constant body-checking and shirt-pulling. Jimmy Robertson tumbled to the turf after a challenge 20 yards from the ball. Jimmy Greaves and Alan Gilzean were punched in the face. On 33 minutes, the tie exploded.
Mullery tackled the Lyon forward Andre Guy. The pair hit the ground and, as they picked themselves up, Guy kicked Mullery full in the face. Mullery punched him in retaliation, by which time players from both sides had rushed in to defend their team-mates. Punches and kicks were traded as packs of players chased and tussled all over the pitch. Dozens of fans poured on to join the fray. The officials rushed from battle to battle, but the violence continued for a full eight minutes. When order was restored. Mullery – the blood still trickling from his face – and Guy were ordered off. The game continued, the ugly mood prevailing.
As the players went down the tunnel at half-time, fighting broke out again. Mullery remembers that Guy “went off first, dashed around the corner and hid. He then pounced and laid into me. Bill Nicholson had to pull us apart. Our manager slung me into our dressing room but four yards away there was virtually a free-for-all with a 10-a-side punch-up as that fellow Guy stood outside our dressing room door shouting abuse”. The normall-measured Nicholson was so incensed after the game, which Spurs lost 1-0 after Fleury di Nallo scored on 75 minutes, that he told his players “we will tear this team apart” in the second leg.
It was not to be. In the return at White Hart Lane, Nicholson was left to fume at the “diabolical” defending of his own team. Spurs had gone into a 2-0 lead thanks to Jimmy Greaves, but despite scoring two more had conceded three to go out on away goals. It was the last game in Europe for the great Spurs teams of the 1960s. Nicholson built a third successful side in the early 1970s, making Spurs the first British side to win two different European trophies when his team beat Wolves in the first all-English European final in the 1972 UEFA Cup. Lyon went out of the 1967 Cup-Winners Cup to Hamburger SV after an epic three-game quarter-final – play-offs, not penalties, settled things in those days – and would win the Coupe de France for a third time in 1973, the year after Spurs lifted the inaugural UEFA Cup.
In 1974, Spurs reached the UEFA Cup final again, but lost to Feynoord in Rotterdam on a night in which terrace violence shamed English football, leading to a lifetime ban from European competition for Spurs. That was later rescinded, but Spurs did not test the ban much for the best part of 10 years, until Keith Burkinshaw’s team re-ignited the European tradition in the early 1980s. The club flirted with disaster, survived, and then positively embraced mediocrity for much of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s only in recent years that the glory has returned, with thrilling football and a sustained assault on English football’s be-all and end-all of a top four finish. A first season in Europe’s premier competition since 1962 saw the 2010 vintage evoke memories of what makes Spurs and Europe so special.
Lyon have taken a different route. In 1987, businessman Jean-Michel Aulus bought Lyon with the aim of making it an established side at the top table of French football. He achieved his aim rather better than businessman Irving Scholar did at Spurs. Aulus recruited one Raymond Domenech to manage Lyon, and the future national coach achieved promotion at the first attempt. The club has not looked back, with successive managers including Jean Tigana establishing it as one of the richest and most successful in France. Lyon is France’s team of the 21st century, with seven successive league titles to its name, and three Champions League quarter-finals.
So this first meeting between the clubs for 46 years throws up some interesting contrasts. It’s easy to see the roles reversed with Lyon the side with the European pedigree, a history in full-colour rather than sepia-tinted, while Spurs are seeking to establish themselves at the top end of football’s new order. Yet Lyon’s dominance of French football came to an end in 2009, and the club’s appearance in the Europa League is a step down. And Spurs seem, under first the swashbuckling traditionalist Harry Redknapp and now the progressive modernist Andre Villas-Boas, to be on an upward trajectory. Over almost half a century, the ebb and flow in the fortunes of the two clubs could perhaps be taken as evidence that football is not as predictable as it often seems to have become.
Martin Cloake, along with Adam Powley and designer Doug Cheeseman, is the author of The Glory Glory Nights: The Official History of Tottenham Hotspur in Europe. The book is available from Vision Sports Publishing. Martin is an author and journalist who blogs at blog.martincloake.com
Thanks to Bjørn Giesenbauer for the picture.