Slovan Bratislava 3 – QPR 3: UEFA Cup 2nd Round 1st Leg – 20th October 1976
If there was ever to be a vote held to address the above question then there would be several games that without a doubt would be contenders. The 4-1 win at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day 1992, the 5-1 victory at the just crowned Division One Champions, Derby County in August 1975, maybe the wins at Anfield in March 1991 and Goodison Park two years later. However, none of those opposition sides featured seven members of an international team that had won the UEFA European Championships four months previously, beating the reigning World Cup holders, West Germany in the final and Holland in the semi-final.
That club side were Slovan Bratislava of what was then Czechoslovakia, now part of Slovakia. The Czechoslovak national side had won the UEFA European Championship precisely four months to the day before Rangers played at the Slovana Stadium, Bratislava with Slovan players Jozef Čapkovič, Koloman Gögh, Marián Masný, Anton Ondruš, Ján Pivarník and Ján Švehlík having all played for the Czech national side in the final in Belgrade.
Rangers’ line-up in Bratislava for the 4.30pm kick-off at the Stadion Slovana na Tehelnom poli (translation ‘Brickfield’) was :
Parkes, Clement, Gillard, Hollins, McLintock, Webb, Thomas, Leach, Masson, Bowles, Givens.
Subs: Richardson, Shanks, Eastoe, Abbott and Cunningham.
Attendance: 40,000 (approximately 50 visiting fans)
So what made the Rangers performance so special and in whose opinion was it such an epic game ? The hugely respected football correspondent of the London Evening Standard, Bernard Joy, a former Arsenal player who was the last amateur player to play for the full England international team back in 1936, stated in his match report:
‘QPR’s performance ranks among the finest I have seen from an English side in away ties since European competitions started in 1955 – it ranked with Manchester United against Benfica (1966), Chelsea in Sofia (1970) and Spurs against AC Milan (1972). It is perhaps unfair to single out one individual in what was a magnificent team performance, a 3-3 draw against one of the best Continental sides, but Bowles has followed up two hat-tricks against Brann of Norway at a time when England’s attack is in the doldrums. It was the refusal of both teams to accept losing the initiative which made it such a gripping spectacle and promises so much for the return. Individual performances will live in the memory in addition to those of Bowles and Thomas. Don Masson ran the show from midfield, Frank McLintock, 37 in December was fantastic. But, above all, it was a team performance with every man giving his all.’
Although this was only Rangers’ third game in Europe, Dave Sexton was of course an old hand and throughout his time as Manager regularly travelled abroad to watch club sides, especially to Germany and the Netherlands. Friendlies had also been arranged in the previous year against many of the leading European sides to prepare for days like this in Bratislava.
In his match report in ‘The Times’, Norman de Mesquita wrote: ‘The Queen’s Park Rangers Manager, Dave Sexton, has probably seen more European football than most of his counterparts in the Football League; so it is hardly surprising that his team, although short of European experience, are able to play just the right style of football to do well in their first season in Europe.’
After the match the Slovan coach, Michael Vican, was quoted as saying: “Rangers do not play like other English teams” and singled out Stan Bowles and Dave Thomas for special praise. The players had travelled to Bratislava via plane to Vienna and then by coach for the short 50 mile drive to the stadium. However, for the supporters it was a gruelling two-day coach journey from London via Frankfurt and Vienna.
Initially the club did not have firm plans to organise travel due to the difficult location of the game (remember this was the era of the Iron Curtain) with a note in the programme versus Norwich City on 5th October, asking fans who had any interest in travelling to mention this at the Pools Office. Alan Barnes recalls that he specifically asked Keith Friend, the Supporters Club Chairman, to run a coach rather than book plane seats due to Alan’s fear of flying ! Whether this did influence the selected mode of transport is unknown, but a 50-seater coach was eventually booked, departing from London at 8am on Monday 18th October. Two accounts of the journey can be found in issue 6 of the Supporters Club magazine, ‘The Superhoop’, written by Barbara Jones and Peter Barkus.
The first overnight stop, after the ferry via Zeebrugge, was at the Scala Hotel in Frankfurt. At 9am the next day, the coach set off on the next leg of the journey via Wurzburg and Munich. After dark the Austrian border was crossed and the coach drove on past Salzburg and Linz, arriving in Vienna at 9.45pm. Overnight accommodation was in a rather eccentric hotel nicknamed ‘Faulty Towers’ by the Rangers fans, located some way out of the centre of Vienna. The coach set off on the final leg of the journey early the next morning. However, crossing the Iron Curtain into Czechoslovakia presented problems. The border guards took all the passengers’ passports, but someone was given the wrong passport back. A fan complained and all the passports were then taken back again. It took two hours all told to cross the border. Everyone then had to exchange £12.00 into Czech currency before heading to the hotel and then onto the game.
Joe English recalls that the coach driver was a regular driver for the Supporters Club called Fred Grimshaw, who was always a lot of fun. Sadly he died just a few months later. He tried to stop a mugger in Soho and it turned out that he had a heart condition. He had a heart attack and died. Bratislava was fairly basic and two Rangers fans nearly did get arrested. They were kicking a tin can around in one of the Squares near the hotel and the police turned up with dogs. Both of them left the scene very rapidly !
(Joe English in front of the hotel in Bratislava)
Joe English recollects that the Slovan fans were very keen to swap souvenirs. There was a very nice badge produced locally especially for the game which is now very rare and seldom seen.
Alan Barnes’s recollections of Bratislava are that it was very dull, very Eastern European. In his book ‘Stan the Man’, Stan Bowles recalls Bratislava as being colder than Carlisle ! It was a strong Rangers team that lined up for the game, with only Gerry Francis missing due to a trapped nerve in his back that had been causing him problems since the start of the season. Ironically it was a picture of Gerry that graced the front cover of the programme. Mick Leach took Gerry’s place in the starting line-up.
Slovan took the lead after 12 minutes with Novotny scoring from a header after a great build up from Marian Masny. Rangers responded brilliantly though and Stan Bowles equalised in the 23rd minute after heading in the rebound from a Don Givens shot that had hit the bar. Rangers were playing some wonderful football and went 2-1 up six minutes later with a Don Givens headed goal from a cross by Dave Thomas. In 1st half injury time, Don Masson put Stan Bowles clear, but Bowles’s shot unluckily hit the post and Rangers went in to the half-time break 2-1 in front.
In the 55th minute, Masny created another goal with Jan Haraslin heading home from his cross. Ten minutes later, Slovan went in front from an Anton Ondrus goal after he dribbled around Phil Parkes to slot the ball home. However, Rangers were not giving up and, after a fine run by Dave Thomas, Stan Bowles scored his second and Rangers third with a goal curled just inside the post with his left foot.
After the game both Frank McLintock and Dave Clement were quoted as saying that it was the best performance that they could ever recall from Rangers sides that they were members of.
My own memories of the game in Bratislava are in contrast to those of Joe and Alan. I was 13 years old and ran half-a-mile home from school hoping that between BBC Radio 2, LBC and the BBC World Service we’d find something being broadcast on the game, even if it were only regular score updates. I entered the house to find my Dad shouting: “It’s the commentary game on BBC Radio London !” and we sat down in the kitchen with my brother to start what would become our standard radio listening routine as Rangers played their away ties in the UEFA Cup that season. I believe Norman de Mesquita was the commentator, much better known for his ice hockey and cricket commentaries than football, who also wrote the match report for ‘The Times’ published the next day.
The 3-3 result was an indication that the superb Rangers team of the previous season, who had struggled a little in the league during the first two months of the 76/77 season, were still very much a force to be reckoned with. This was confirmed the next day when the goals were shown by the BBC on ‘John Craven’s Newsround’, black and white footage from Czech television. I have never seen the goals shown since, but they’re probably gathering dust in the BBC archives somewhere. Maybe a 1976/77 UEFA Cup DVD is a suitable follow up for the Club Shop to produce after last season’s 1975/76 season DVD compilation ?
After the game the fans in Bratislava were treated to a free dinner and they took great delight in celebrating a classic Rangers performance. The next day there was time for some shopping in Bratislava before the coach headed back to Vienna with only a one hour wait this time at the border. One of the Rangers fans, a guy called Oscar, decided that he had had enough of the coach journey and asked to be dropped off at Vienna Airport. He got out and bought himself a flight ticket home !
The overnight stop was again in Frankfurt and then on the Friday morning the final leg back to London commenced with the coach arriving at Loftus Road at midnight with many fans not getting home until the early hours of Saturday morning, just in time for the home game versus Sunderland !
Before the Sunderland match, there was a tannoy announcement thanking all of the fans who had travelled to Bratislava. In the current era, a Premiership team who had played in Europe would almost certainly have their match switched to the Sunday. Thirty five years ago there was none of that and, despite a gruelling trip Rangers beat Sunderland 2-0 with a terrific second goal from Stan Bowles.
So Rangers had achieved an excellent result against one of the best teams in Europe. England had played the Czechs in the same Bratislava venue one year previously on 30th October 1975 and lost the match 1-2, twenty four hours after the initial game was abandoned due to fog after 16 minutes. Channon had put England ahead, but Nehoda equalised seconds before half-time with Gallis getting the winner early in the second half. Ian Gillard and two Czech players were booked with the Czech substitute goalkeeper Vencel (another Slovan player) remonstrating with the referee from the substitute’s bench and being shown a red card and told to go to the dressing room during what was England’s first defeat under Don Revie. Just one week before the UEFA Cup tie, Don Masson had played for Scotland in their 0-2 defeat in Prague in a World Cup qualifying game against the Czechs.
One additional point to emphasise in closing is that the UEFA Cup of this era was completed for by the very best sides in each country’s league top division as only one side, the League Champions, qualified for the European Cup – a far cry from the Champions League/Europa League format of more recent years with some teams qualifying on the basis of fair play awards etc.
I’d like to thank Vladimir Zalda, Alan Barnes and Chris Hewitt for their assistance in the research undertaken for this article. Special thanks goes to Joe English, not only for his recollections of the game, but also for sharing with us his souvenirs and photos from the trip.