With that reserve performance in mind, manager Willie Cunningham shook up his forward line for the visit of VFB Stuttgart in the second round of the Fairs Cup. Cunningham drafted in 22-year-old Bert Paton who had grabbed a hat-trick in the nine-goal romp. Although Paton had been playing well, his inclusion came as somewhat of a surprise as he had just handed in a transfer request due to a lack of first team opportunities.
Despite the attacking changes, it was left-half Tom Callaghan who grabbed the game’s only goal in the 70th minute with a well-struck drive from the edge of the penalty area. The Daily Mail described the one goal victory as:
“…little consolation for a display in which they outmanoeuvred their robust opponents for almost 85 per cent of the game.”
The crowd that night was 15,000 but league attendances had been alarmingly poor for a team challenging at the right end of the table. In an attempt to improve the situation, Cunningham was interviewed in the Dunfermline Press, urging fans to get out in numbers to back his side. Cunningham stated that anything less than 10,000 could mean that the club were unable to break even.
The second leg of the Stuttgart tie was played a fortnight later and ended in huge controversy amid chaotic scenes in the Dunfermline penalty box. With the match tied at 0-0 and with just seven minutes left to play, Stuttgart forward Holler was dispossessed in the box by Callaghan. Although most observers agreed the tackle was clean, Swiss referee Anton Bucheli thought otherwise and pointed to the spot. As the Dunfermline players protested the decision, Holler approached keeper Jim Herriot and planted a right hook on him, knocking him to the ground where he remained for a full five minutes.
Presumably the officials missed the incident as Holler remained on the park, which meant he had a perfect view of Herriot dusting himself down and diving to his left to save Waldner’s penalty. The match then descended into a kicking match with Callaghan, Edwards and Thomson all on the receiving end of brutal fouls. Dunfermline held on to advance to the third round.
In an interview in the Daily Record, Jim Herriot spoke about the incident and the save:
“Before this I had only saved one penalty, against Cowdenbeath in the Fife Cup. Then as I watched Waldner coming up towards the ball, I saw him move as if he was set to shoot to my left hand side. I took a chance… and somehow my hand touched the ball. Then I was almost strangled by Tom Callaghan.”
The Pars then took their European form into the league. They embarked on a six-match winning streak that included a 2-1 win at Celtic Park at the end of December, while the beginning of 1965 was taken in with two games in two days. Dunfermline were Falkirk’s first footers on New Year’s day, winning 4-0. Dunfermline then played Hearts at home the next day, where a crowd of 20,000 were treated to a 3-2 home win.
Those wins put them joint-second along with Hearts and Hibs and just two points behind Kilmarnock. Killie visited East End Park on the 16 January and Bert Paton headed the winner with just ten minutes remaining. The goal kept Athletic’s 100% home record intact, and the goal-scorer was mobbed by both teammates and fans who swarmed onto the park to celebrate.
That month saw Dunfermline renew their European campaign, paired with Athletic Bilbao in the third round. Bizarrely, due to UEFA coming under pressure to increase the size of the competition, the Fairs Cup had been enlarged to 48 clubs. While a preliminary round had been suggested to narrow the competition down to 32, UEFA instead decided to go with knock-out games until the last six, where two teams would then receive a bye into the semi-finals. As a result of this, victory over Bilbao could, with a favourable draw, see the Fife team into the semi finals.
Hopes were boosted after the first leg. Despite Dunfermline being the better side, they conceded a goal with just three minutes left. Herriot punched a clearance against the head of Thomson with the rebound falling to Yosu, who slipped the ball into the net. The fact that Dunfermline had overcome a four-goal deficit the last time they had encountered Spanish opposition, they travelled home downhearted but confident. Indeed, the local press were so impressed with the performance that they commented that Dunfermline’s progression was “almost certain”, despite the defeat.
After a 6-0 win over Morton in the league, the Dunfermline Press began to speculate that Cunningham’s team were standing on the verge of greatness, claiming that the treble was well within their reach:
“They rose above anything they have done under Cunningham. Morton were systematically taken apart, battered from pillar to post until they were dizzy. The loss of points by Rangers and the slump in Kilmarnock’s fortunes since the New Year have practically ensured that the Scottish League title will be heading east. ”
It seemed an odd boast given Kilmarnock were actually above fourth placed Dunfermline, even if the Pars had two games in hand over the Ayrshire club. Hearts and Hibs were first and second respectively.
The media’s confidence in Athletic was also reflected at some bookmakers, and Dunfermline were installed as 2/1 title favourites. However, the continued success in Europe coupled with Scottish Cup replays meant the fixture list was piling up. Bilbao’s visit to East End Park was Dunfermline’s fifth game in just 11 days; this was followed by an arduous 11 fixtures in March.
On a freezing cold Fife evening, Dunfermline took the game to the Basques from the first whistle, earning the lead after 20 minutes through Alex Smith. As the 16,000 crowd anticipated another rout similar to the Valencia match, they were to be denied only by the brilliance of goalkeeper Jose Iribar and the referee who disallowed a Ferguson effort on 73 minutes. Frustratingly for Dunfermline, they lost the coin toss after the match to decide who would be the home team in the play-off, and they would have to fly out to the San Mamés stadium for a second time.
That wrong call on the flip of a coin proved decisive as Dunfermline lost 2-1 to Bilbao in a match which was refereed by the same official who had been in charge of Dunfermline’s game in Stuttgart, Anton Bucheli. Once again, he would award a dubious penalty against the Fifers after Aguirre went down in the box in the 32nd, despite little contact.
Aguirre took the penalty himself and despite a Bilbao player running into the box and being level with the right-half as he struck the ball, the goal stood. Again, despite being the better side and coming back to level, Dunfermline could not capitalise as Athletico emerged 2-1 victors, the winning goal coming from inside-left Uriarte with just five minutes remaining. Dunfermline, Scotland’s last remaining European participants, were out.
Willie Cunningham summed up the feelings of the travelling party after the match:
“The refereeing was pathetic. My players gave everything they had. I think they played a marvellous game but it just wasn’t good enough in the end.”
Bilbao would be eliminated by Ferencvaros in the next round, who went on to win the final against Juventus in Turin.
Thoughts then focused on to the domestic scene, and a victory over Stirling Albion had put Dunfermline into the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup. A win at Firhill had lifted them temporarily to the top of the league, but a 3-3 draw with Dundee – their first dropped points at home all season – was ominous. It was followed by a 1-0 home loss to Dundee United, which turned out to be disastrous.
The hot and cold form of Dunfermline’s strike force was best illustrated just two days later when Third Lanark were hammered 8-0 at East End Park, with Melrose helping himself to four. The winger would score again in the next match, a deserved 2-0 victory over Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Tynecastle. The Sunday Post commented:
“Dunfermline’s Willie Cunningham leapt high into the air at the full-time whistle. And well he might! For Dunfermline, the wayside team that nobody quite believes in, had done it again.”
Dunfermline’s second final in four years would see them take on Celtic once again, but this time the Fifer’s were far more fancied to lift the trophy.
After having to catch up on their fixtures in the league, three consecutive wins (including a 3-1 victory at home to Rangers) saw Dunfermline sitting second in the league with Kilmarnock, but two points behind Hearts with two games left to play. The chances of winning the title were helped by the fact that Hearts and Kilmarnock would play each other on the final day.
St Johnstone were expected to be swept aside at East End Park, while Hearts had a difficult looking fixture at Pittodrie. However, the home crowd were not expecting to see their team fall a goal down after 24 minutes. Despite a first half equaliser from Alex Ferguson, Athletic could not find the winner. Hearts’ win at Aberdeen meant the title would remain out of reach.
Although that dropped point against St Johnstone has long been blamed for the failure to secure the title, the fact the Pars only took one point from a possible eight from the two Dundee clubs seemed the more likely deciding factor. The treble and double were gone, but there was still the chance to finish off the season with victory at Hampden.
The circumstances leading into the match took an added twist after Celtic had appointed Jock Stein as manager, replacing Jimmy McGrory only a matter of weeks before the final. Cunningham’s team selection for the match was controversial, with top goal-scorer Ferguson left in the stands. Although Celtic had been the favourites four years previously, Dunfermline were considered to be the likely victors this time round. It was an opinion that seemed well-founded when Melrose silenced the huge Celtic support with the first goal after just 15 minutes. Bertie Auld equalised on the half hour mark, but Dunfermline went in at half-time with a goal advantage from Jim McLean, a goal which Jack Harkness in the Sunday Post described as:
“A vicious right foot shot… that was bulging Fallon’s net before anyone realised what it was all about.”
In response to Jock Stein’s power to rally and inspire his team, Celtic came out for the second half in determined fashion. Roared on by the majority of the Hampden crowd, they equalised through Auld for the second time on 51 minutes. The goal seemed to sap Dunfermline’s confidence and they were gradually worn down by a superior Celtic performance in the second period. With nine minutes remaining, Billy McNeil scored a late winner with a well-placed header from a corner.
Four days later, the two sides met again for the final league game of the season at East End Park. In a match which had no relevance to the title, the home side hammered the Parkhead club 5-1 in a performance that had the crowd thinking “if only…”. Kilmarnock’s victory over Hearts in their final game meant Dunfermline had finished third, just a point behind both clubs and with a superior goal average over both teams. A solitary point would have seen the league title making its way to the Kingdom.
Dunfermline’s matches that season had been watched by an aggregate crowd of over 750,000 fans. A season which only two months earlier had promised so much delivered no silverware. There would be no open top bus celebrations through Dunfermline, just great memories of a fantastic, historic season.
If you wish to read further on Dunfermline Athletic’s history, our sources Black and White Magic by Jim Paterson & Douglas Scott and Dunfermline Athletic Football Club: A Centenary History, 1885-1985 by John Hunter are worth your attention.