Football in the sixties was going through something of a revolution. The advent of less expensive and more efficient air travel had opened up the possibilities of continental competition and by 1961, clubs all over Europe had the opportunity to participate in three continental tournaments: the European Cup; the Inter City Fairs Cup; and the newly established European Cup Winners Cup. It would be during this time that Scottish football enjoyed arguably its most successful period, with Celtic’s European Cup heroics and Rangers’ involvement in two continental finals.
Amid the expansion and innovation, there was something of a quiet metamorphosis occurring in West Fife. Dunfermline Athletic’s leap forward in the sixties is something of a forgotten story in Scottish football, but in terms of sustained success – home and abroad – it is almost unparalleled in the country outwith the Old Firm.
At the start of the decade, Dunfermline were in a depressingly familiar situation. They seemed to be too good for the second tier, but not quite good enough for the top league. In the 1959-60 season they were sitting second bottom of the old First Division – the final straw for manager Andy Dickson came in February 1960 after an embarrassing 3-2 home defeat by Stenhousemuir in the Scottish Cup. The club had not won a match in four months and now had no manager; Dunfermline appeared to be sliding inexorably towards one of its regular periods in the doldrums.
The manager’s job was advertised in the local press. Although it generated many applicants, the board had set it sights on a man who had not even applied for the position. Jock Stein, Celtic’s 37-year-old chief coach, was invited to a local solicitor’s office for a chat about the role. After some persuasion from those within Celtic Park, he eventually accepted the invitation.
Hindsight is often described as a wonderful thing, but foresight is undoubtedly a much richer quality. Had Stein’s interviewers that day had any inclination as to what he would achieve at the club, they would have unquestionably appointed him there and then. Instead, they gave him a voucher for a local restaurant, the Carousel, to cover the cost of his tea while they discussed his various merits.
Stein had obviously done enough to impress that day as he was appointed Dunfermline boss on the 14 March 1960. As he took charge of a team which looked destined for relegation with just six matches remaining, he attempted to keep expectations grounded, announcing to the press:
“I have no magic wand but I will do everything in my power to save them from relegation.”
Not even the most fervent Dunfermline supporter could have imagined at the time what this appointment would mean to the club. The sixties would become Dunfermline’s golden period, a decade which saw the club grow from a team who was regularly overshadowed by its rivals in the Kingdom to one of Britain’s biggest clubs. Success was not just contained to the domestic scene; Dunfermline’s most spectacular victories happened in the newly formed European competitions. Some of the continent’s most famous teams would be humbled in Fife, as well as a couple of England’s most formidable clubs. Stein may not have been in the manager’s chair for all of those, but his appointment was undoubtedly the catalyst of success, changing Dunfermline’s history forever.
Dunfermline’s change in fortunes could not have been more instantaneous. Stein led the side to victory in all of their remaining six games, the first being a surprising 3-2 victory over his previous club Celtic. Safety was ensured and he began rebuilding the team for the new season. Recognising the team had been defensively fragile, Stein brought in Northern Ireland international Willie Cunningham from Leicester City. Cunningham provided much-needed stability, while also using his experience to assist the young players who Stein knew a provincial club had to bring through if it were to live within its means.
Stein identified survival as the main objective in his first full season, stating the cups were not vital to the club. If that was the case, then he had a rather unusual way of demonstrating it with the club reaching the Scottish Cup final against Celtic in an enduring tournament which involved visits to Berwick, Stranraer and Aberdeen.
Dunfermline had beaten St. Mirren in a semi-final replay and went on to win the cup the same way, defeating Jimmy McGrory’s Celtic 2-0 after a 0-0 draw. The official man of the match was Pars goalkeeper Eddie Connachan, who was carried shoulder-high around the Hampden turf by his team-mates after the final whistle. Dunfermline had won their first trophy in their first final, watched by an attendance of over 200,000 over the two games.
Years after the event Jock Stein would describe how much the victory meant to him:
“I have great memories of winning the European Cup with Celtic, but after that no memory is greater than winning the Scottish Cup with Dunfermline.”
After winning the cup, Dunfermline became Scotland’s fourth representatives in European competition, behind Hibernian, Hearts and Rangers (who lost in the final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1961-62 to Fiorentina over two legs).
Jock Stein’s precocious talent was recognised by Hibernian and he left to join the Edinburgh club the end of the 1963-64 season. However, he did not leave before he led Dunfermline to some incredible victories, most notably in 1962 when his side eliminated Everton in the first round of the Inter City Fairs Cup. The Merseysiders assembled the most expensive team in British history at the time, at a cost of £250,000; Dunfermline, meanwhile, had made just two close season signings that summer, including Tommy Callaghan, who was transferred from Lochore Welfare for just £20.
The next round saw them paired with Valencia. On one of East End Park’s most memorable evenings, Dunfermline managed to turn around a 4-0 first leg deficit into a 6-2 victory. Tied together 6-6 on aggregate (and in the days before away goals and penalty shoot outs) Dunfermline lost 1-0 in the play-off in Lisbon.
Despite Stein’s defection, Dunfermline arguably enjoyed their greatest ever season immediately after he left. The board of directors were perceptive to continue the winning mentality that Stein had brought to the club, so Willie Cunningham was given the manager’s role. The 34-year-old had been one of Stein’s most important signings and was regarded as instrumental in those early successes.
Cunningham’s first task was to bring more goals to the team to compliment the attractive football for which the club had become famous for. To achieve this, he brought three new forwards to the club: John Kilgannon arrived from Ayr United; John McLaughlin was purchased from English Third Division side Millwall for £2,500; and Alex Ferguson was prized away from St Johnstone in a swap deal for Dan McLindon.
Although Cunningham hoped to improve on Dunfermline’s previous finish of fith place in the league, he told the Dunfermline Press his initial priority was to navigate through the sectional round of the League Cup which kicked off the season at the beginning of August:
“I believe if we get off to a good start in the League Cup then it will enable us to settle quickly in the league.”
He could hardly have wished for a better start, with the Pars finishing top of a pool which included Third Lanark, Airdrie and Hibs. Encouragingly, the new signings featured heavily in those six fixtures, with all three of them finding the net as Athletic scored 14 goals in the mini-league.
Dunfermline had reached the quarter-finals of the League Cup for the first time in six years, and their reward was a tie against Rangers. However, confidence was high as the Pars had already played at Ibrox on their only league game of the season to that point, drawing 0-0 after a stand-out performance from goalkeeper Jim Herriot (who went on to be capped by Scotland and enjoyed a successful career with Birmingham City).
A disappointing first leg performance at home in front of 20,000 supporters saw the tie all but dead and buried as Rangers took a 3-0 lead back to Ibrox. Although Dunfermline improved in the second leg, they went out 5-2 on aggregate.
Despite that setback, the league campaign started promisingly. The first home match took place just a day after the opening of the Forth Road Bridge, but the Queen chose not to extend her stay in Fife to take in the Dunfermline Falkirk “derby” match. It was probably to her disappointment, as Her Royal Highness missed an extraordinary performance from winger Harry Melrose, who scored all five goals in Athletic’s 5-1 win. Melrose had been a mainstay of the Pars side after moving from Rangers in 1958 and would score over 100 goals for the club in almost 300 appearances.
September saw another remarkable goal-scoring feat as the team put seven past a hapless Clyde side, with Ferguson helping himself to a hat-trick. Their first defeat came at the end of the month against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park but despite this, they found themselves fourth at the start of October, just four points behind Killie at the top.
October also saw Dunfermline begin their Inter City Fairs cup campaign against Swedish side Oergryte. The Swedes had five internationals in their side, including ex-Real Madrid player Agne Simonsson (even if his appearances at the Santiago Bernabeu had been limited due to him being behind Alfredo Di Stefano in the pecking order). Dunfermline survived a few frights in the home first leg, going behind twice, but McLaughlin and Sinclair scored two each in a 4-2 victory. A goalless second leg in the Ullevi Stadium saw the Pars through. Alex Ferguson would return to the same arena two decades later as his Aberdeen side upset the odds to defeat Real Madrid in the final of the Cup Winners Cup.
Dunfermline’s league form at home was exceptional but their record on the road was a cause for concern. Three defeats in a short space of time took the wind from their sails, firstly at Greenock and then on successive trips to Tayside. A 3-1 defeat to Dundee was bad enough but a 2-0 reverse to relegation threatened Dundee United was even less forgivable. Ironically, this was on the same day that Dunfermline’s reserves put nine goals past United’s second XI at East End Park.