Memories of European nights in Glasgow don’t usually involve Partick Thistle. But 25 years ago this month, the Firhill club embarked on what proved a memorable Intertoto Cup campaign.
Here, BBC Scotland tells the story of a widely-forgotten pre-season European adventure, and why it still matters so much to so many from the west end of Glasgow.
‘Intertoto Cup? Aye, why not’
The Intertoto Cup ran from 1961 to 2008 and was taken over by Uefa the same year as Thistle’s unlikely debut. Dubbed ‘The Cup for the Cupless’, it was largely perceived as worthless by British sides, despite offering back-door entry to major European competition.
Not only did Thistle go without silverware in the 1994-95 season, they flirted with relegation before finishing eighth in the 10-team top flight. So how exactly did they end up in Europe?
Thistle fan David Forrest, of the ‘Draw, Lose or Draw’ podcast, remembers a “bizarre” selection process.
“Qualification went to the highest placed non-European qualifier, so it should have been Hibs in third, but they declined,” he says. “Celtic were fourth, but they won the Scottish Cup, so went into the Cup Winners’ Cup. Then Falkirk, Hearts and Kilmarnock all declined.
“So when Thistle were eventually offered, we said ‘Aye, why not?’ We know we are never getting into the Champions League, so the Intertoto Cup suits us.”
Despite the apathy of British clubs, it was a competition not short of quality. And with Uefa Cup qualification the prize for the two winning finalists, many European sides took it seriously.
Eventual winners Bordeaux and Strasbourg boasted several future World Cup winners, including Christophe Dugarry, Bixente Lizarazu, Frank Leboeuf and a certain Zinedine Zidane.
But before all that, it was Thistle who dared to dream.
‘Chairman went to formal dinner in his trackie’
Drawn in a group alongside LASK Linz, Metz, NK Zagreb and Keflavik, Thistle’s excitement was building. But concerns lingered – and would prove prophetic – that starting the campaign in June, then having a month-long gap before the new Scottish campaign, would harm their domestic ambitions.
The club’s first European fixture in more than two decades was away to Austrians LASK. The journey descended into farce before the squad had even departed Britain.
“The team had to switch at London, but when they arrived in Germany, they realised the luggage was left behind. Suits, strips, the lot,” Forrest says.
“Gerry Collins, the assistant manager, had to sit in the airport in Germany while everyone else travelled on. The chairman was invited to a formal dinner and had to go in his trackie.
“It’s a very Thistle thing to happen. Your first European away day in over 20 years and you’ve lost the kit.”
Things then went from bad to worse as John Lambie’s side found themselves 2-0 down after just six minutes. However, goals from Rod McDonald and Derek McWilliams rescued a credible point.
The club’s 32-year wait for a European victory ended a week later at a sun-drenched Firhill.
Iceland’s Keflavik were the visitors and the tie prompted significant local demand, with Thistle fan Stephen Mulrine estimating a 6,000 crowd and noting “large queues outside as the match kicked off”.
With Player of the Year Ian Cameron’s future in limbo amid contract talks, the hosts had to call on Tom Smith as his replacement.
There were doubts over Smith’s fitness, given he had reportedly just returned from two weeks of partying in Magaluf. But the stand-in showed no signs of a hangover, however, as his double added to Craig’s equaliser to complete a 3-1 comeback win.
A French Firhill & trip of a lifetime
With four points in the bag, Thistle faced their toughest test against a talented Metz outfit featuring Robert Pires.
A jolly in northern France was too good an opportunity to turn down for the Firhill faithful, leading to a sea of red and yellow swarming across the English Channel.
Metz’ quality shone through in a 1-0 win, but Thistle put up a valiant effort and almost snatched a draw when McWilliams struck a post.
The result paled into insignificance as away fans turned the Stade Saint-Symphorien into a French Firhill full of colour and atmosphere. They were applauded by the home support at the end and embraced by the city as a whole.
“In years to come it will not be the result that the Thistle fans will talk about, rather the incredible scenes that took place before and after the game,” the Scottish club’s match programme noted.
“Put simply, you had to be there. The Intertoto Cup has had its critics, but you will not find even one of the Thistle support who travelled to France – and in some cases had to endure extreme discomfort when their bus broke down, not once but twice – having a bad word to say about it.”
Going into the final game at home to NK Zagreb, Lambie’s men still had an outside chance of qualification. However, that evaporated as the Croats took a 2-0 lead before Harry Curran netted a late consolation.
Manager Lambie left in the wake of the Intertoto campaign and Thistle went on to finish second bottom of the Premier Division, resulting in relegation after play-off defeat by Dundee United.
But that pain was tempered by the jubilant memories made 10 months prior.
“The same way every Celtic fan says they were at Seville for the Uefa Cup final, Metz is very much Thistle’s Seville,” Forrest says. “If you were there, it is the ultimate badge of honour.”