Trust Curator Tom Wright details Hibernian’s European campaign during season 1972/73, which included a very challenging experience in Albania.
Since a pioneering venture into European football in 1955, Hibernian Football Club had played many games on the continent, but it is certain that they had never faced anything quite like the conditions experienced in Albania in 1972.
During the summer of 1971, Eddie Turnbull had replaced Dave Ewing as manager at Easter Road and within a few short months he had transformed Hibs into one of the most entertaining sides in the country, one that was more than capable of challenging for major honours and by reaching the Scottish Cup Final that season, the club had qualified for the Cup Winners Cup competition for the very first time.
In the first round, Hibs had been drawn against Sporting Lisbon, the first game in Portugal. In a performance later described by Eddie Turnbull as the best display ever by a Hibs side on the continent, a goal scored by Arthur Duncan in the 2-1 defeat would give the Easter Road side a real chance in Edinburgh, and so it was to prove. In the return game a first half goal by the visitors had equalised an earlier strike by Alan Gordon to give the Portuguese side an overall lead, but they would be swept away in a devastating second half performance by the home side, with five goals inside a 14 minute period, the eventual 6-1 victory earning Hibs a place in the next round.
The emphatic win had set up a game against the ‘unknown’ Albanian side FC Besa, but the issue had been complicated after the Danish side Fremad Amager, Besa’s opponents in the previous round, had protested to the authorities about their reception in Albania. The protest would eventually be thrown out, but Fremad’s complaint would merely be a foreboding of the events experienced later by the Edinburgh side in the Albanian Capital Tirana.
In the first game at Easter Road, Hibs quickly got into their stride. With 21 goals scored in the previous three games, the home fans in the 20,000 crowd were in for yet another treat. Against a side that was poor in every sense of the word, the visitors wearing washed out strips and boots that looked like they had been made in the 1950s, Hibs were two ahead at the interval. Yet another five goals inside what was described as a ‘breathtaking 12 minute spell’ in the second-half against a side that was clearly out of its depth at this level gave Hibs an eventual 7-1 victory, already even with the second leg in Albania still to come, a place in the next round.
After the one-sided victory, the return leg in Albania had been described in one newspaper as a holiday bonus. It would turn out to be no holiday, but a journey into the unknown, and nothing in the world could have prepared them for what lay ahead. The Hibs party made its way to Turnhouse Airport in good spirits, completely unaware of the nightmare that lay ahead.
Their troubles began at the airport when their flight was delayed and things went rapidly downhill from there. Eventually landing at the military airport outside Tirana several hours late, the players had been alarmed to see both sides of the runway liberally lined with anti-aircraft guns and tanks. Hibs had come well prepared for the trip by bringing not only their own food, but a chef ‘borrowed’ from the North British Hotel in Princes Street. However, they were initially refused permission to load the food onto the coaches that were to take them to the hotel and it was only after a long and bitter argument that permission was eventually granted.
On the journey to the hotel, no one in the party had ever seen anything quite like it, it was almost like being back in the dark ages. The extremely wide roads, lined by extremely poor housing were completely empty except for the occasional official limousine, donkeys and scruffily dressed pedestrians, long queues forming outside the poorly stocked shops, the pavements lined with begging kids wearing clothes only one step removed from rags.
Arriving at the hotel to be allocated basic shabby rooms with unsanitary toilets that rarely worked, the food issue again became a problem when the Hibs chef was refused permission to use the kitchen, with the staff insisting that only local food was to be consumed. The players however soon found the greasy local dishes impossible to stomach and it was only after yet another lengthy argument that permission was eventually granted and in the morning the players all tucked into a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs.
A warning that no one was allowed to leave the hotel without an official ‘guide’ proved unnecessary as there was nowhere to go or anything of interest to see in the desperately poor city. The Scottish press however, were each required to pay the equivalent of £4 per day for a guide whether used or not. Luckily, the club had the foresight to bring along a selection of games and the problem of keeping the players amused was overcome with long hours spent playing cards, dominoes and bingo.
Cars were not allowed in the city except for those belonging to officials in the Chinese backed communist country and there were no personal televisions, only those in hotels, factories and what were quaintly described as social clubs. It was obvious from the start that a deliberate effort was being made to make Hibs stay as awkward and as uncomfortable as possible, and in the morning the party was refused transport to take the players to training. Yet again it was only after yet another lengthy argument that a vehicle was eventually laid on, the Scottish press however that had travelled with the party from Edinburgh refused permission to accompany the players.
Part of the Danish sides earlier protest was that despite being informed that the game itself was to take place in the National stadium in Tirana, it had been moved almost at the last minute to Durres over 25 miles away, a similar situation now facing the Edinburgh side. With the airport at Tirana closing each evening at half past four and Hibs unwilling to remain in the country a minute longer than necessary, a request that the kick-off be moved forward to enable the party to return to Edinburgh immediately after the game was needless to say refused, and the party was forced to spend another night in Albania.
The following morning, the players arrived in Durres to find a threadbare, badly rutted pitch complete with goalposts of dubious dimensions, conditions that would have disgraced a council park, the worst according to many that they had ever experienced, the low concrete wall lining the playing area only a few inches from the touchlines an obvious danger to the players.
As expected, in front of over 17,000 excitable home fans Hibs completely dominated the entire 90 minutes. Besa were keen but it was obvious from the start that they were fighting an uphill battle, and despite some ‘mystifying’ referee’s decisions, Hibs really should have been a couple of goals ahead at the interval. Somewhat surprisingly, Besa took the lead against the run of play midway through the second half only for Alan Gordon to equalise a few minutes later. Goalkeeper Bobby Robertson, signed only at the beginning of the season, was called upon to make his European debut midway through the half when Herriot was forced to leave the field with a badly gashed knee. Robertson made several good saves near the end as Besa redoubled their efforts to secure a victory in front of their own fans, but by this time as far as the Hibs players were concerned they just wanted the final whistle and the flight home.
At the post match reception the attitude of the hosts had thawed somewhat but that would not prevent Hibs from sending a strong letter of protest to the authorities complaining about the abysmal behaviour of the Albanian side and the obvious series of obstructions designed to make Hibs stay as uncomfortable as possible, with particular reference made to the condition of the pitch.
Mind games had always been an excepted part of playing on the continent, but the behaviour of the Albanians had been well over and above anything experienced before by any of the Hibs party and manager Turnbull later thanked the players for their patience in putting up with what had been a dreadful experience.
Unfortunately what had truly been a trip to hell and back was not quite over, the aircraft carrying Hibs back to Edinburgh the following day diverted to Glasgow because of high winds, with the journey to the capital completed by coach. Celtic’s defeat in the European Cup the previous day however now left Hibs as Scotland’s sole representatives in European competition. Unfortunately, with the supporters already starting to make tentative arrangements for the final in Greece, Hajduk Split would defeat Hibs in the next round.
Despite the defeat in Split, with both the League and Drybrough Cups won it had been a truly momentous season for the club and its supporters, an exciting few months culminating in the now famous 7-0 victory over Edinburgh rivals Hearts on New Year’s Day 1973. However, one thing is certain; no one who was there will ever forget the experience in Albania.
Written by Tom Wright