History

Welcome to the club

With coaching legend Ernst Happel at the helm and a slew of skilful players in their ranks, Club Brugge left many of Europe’s grandest sides reeling in their wake in the 1970s

WORDS Simon Hart

The whole country went mad,” says Georges Leekens, remembering events from more than four decades ago. “We were a very special team. We had a good coach and we kept our feet on the ground. We had a small squad but we did a very good job.” They certainly did. The first – and still the only – Belgian side to reach a European Cup final, the team that Leekens is talking about made serious waves in the 1970s, toppling giants and teaching them to fear the name Club Brugge.

Under the guidance of Ernst Happel, the outfit from the quaint medieval town of Bruges reached not one but two continental show pieces in the space of three seasons: the UEFA Cup final in 1976 and then, two years later, the climax of the European Cup. “We had one problem,” reflects Leekens, a Club Brugge player from 1972 to 1981 and, later, coach during two separate spells. “It was Liverpool – and we got them in the final both times.”

They lost both times too. But memories of nights when the roar of “Allez de blauw en zwart” (“Come on you blues-and-blacks”) filled the Olympiastadion, when Real Madrid, AC Milan and Juventus were sent packing, remain crystal clear. “The mood of winning was infectious,” says Leekens, now 70. “The crowd would get crazy.”

It was a connection strengthened by the players’ regular Monday-night outings to pubs across the Flanders region, where they would spend time with different supporters’ groups. “Two or three of us would go along and drink a beer,” explains Leekens. “That was the spirit of this team: we fought for each other on the pitch and, off the pitch, we were friends. The day after, we’d have double training!”

For Club, as they are known in Belgium, the bandwagon that rolled all the way to Wembley began spluttering into life in the early 1970s. Previously known as RFC Brugeois, the team adopted the Flemish name Club Brugge KV in 1972. In 1975 they left their old home ground of De Klokke and moved into the Olympiastadion (now called the Jan Breydelstadion). Two years earlier, under Dutchman Leo Canjels, they had won a first Belgian title in 53 years. But it was the arrival of an Austrian, Happel, that turned them into a Europeanforce.

Happel had already made Feyenoord the first Dutch winners of the European Cup; he would later take the trophy to Hamburg. Between his arrival in Bruges in January 1974 and departure in December 1978, Club played 14 home fixtures in UEFA competitions, winning 12 and losing just one. On the domestic front there were three league titles and a Belgian Cup. (He even found the time to lead the Netherlands to the 1978 FIFA World Cup final, taking advantage of a pause in his Club duties.) “Happel built a hard-working team with a lot of modern football – very physical, attacking football,” says Leekens. “We had a little bit of the Ajax style and I think the only weakness was that we were sometimes too attacking.”

A tough tackler nicknamed Mac the Knife, Leekens recalls fellow centre-back Eduard Krieger as “an offensive libero”, while full-backs Fons Bastijn and Jos Volders “were always running”. Behind them was “fantastic” Danish goalkeeper Birger Jensen, while ahead lay classy contributors such as controlling midfielder René Vandereycken, stylish left-winger Ulrik Le Fevreand Julien Cools, otherwise known as the Marathon Runner. Up front, fan favourite Raoul Lambert struck 23 European goals for the club.

Happel’s tough love brought the very best out of them. “The guys were afraid of him,” says Leekens. “He was a real leader. He got 200% out of the group. He made every player better and we played for the team. He was very tough in pre-season. He killed us. That was the basis for our good condition: good mentality and hard work. Then we had two or three players who could make the difference.

Ernst Happel (above) led his team past Juventus in the semi-final (above right) to meet Liverpool at Wembley (right)

“I got on well with him because our wives knew each other, but he was harder on me because I was his friend and he didn’t like to show it. He didn’t give you presents; you had to deserve it. He wasn’t a talker. He didn’t overload us with theory – one hour on attack, one hour on defence – but gave you the responsibility to make decisions yourself in the game. He said, ‘Look for the solutions.’”

The bugle call for Club Brugge’s arrival as European contenders was a home tie against Ipswich Town in the UEFA Cup second round in 1975/76. The previous tie had brought the first European fixture in their new home stadium – a 3-0 beating of Lyon – and now they went one better, putting four past Bobby Robson’s men to overturn a 3-0 first-leg loss.

“In Ipswich we didn’t touch the ball; they destroyed us. But at home it was already 3-0 at half-time. Ipswich came along with their cigars, [thinking] ‘Easy.’” Vandereycken scored the decisive fourth three minutes from the end. And Club’s subsequent list of victims is impressive: Roma, AC Milan and Hamburg en route to that 1976 final, then Real Madrid in the following season’s run to the European Cup quarter-finals. Then came that epic journey to Wembley.

That 1977/78 campaign is a chapter that Blauw-Zwart supporter Thierry Van Acker never tires of telling. Now a volunteer contributor to the club’s museum and archives, back in 1978 he was an excited 12-year-old fan. He had already witnessed home wins over KuPS and Panathinaikos (with striker Raoul Lambert pictured above) when Atlético Madrid visited for their quarter-final first leg. That was when goalkeeper Jensen “made us believe everything was possible” with a late penalty save from Marcial to preserve their 2-0 advantage. “I was standing behind the goal,” says Van Acker. “It was 1 March, Jensen’s birthday. Minutes before the game he’d received flowers from his fans and had hung them up in the net.”

A 3-2 loss at the Vincente Calderón, where they shook off a 2-0 half-time deficit to score through Cools and Lambert, ensured safe passage to the semi-finals and a showdown with Juventus. “We were always the better team – but not in the semi-final,” admits Van Acker. Club held out until the 86th minute in Turin before succumbing to a single-goal defeat. That set up another night to savour – a night, says Van Acker, of “fighting spirit and never giving up, and 30,000 spectators screaming their lungs out”. Captain Bastijns cancelled out Juve’s first-leg advantage after only three minutes, reaching Vandereycken’s angled ball into the box ahead of a defender and poking a shot past Dino Zoff.

Club Brugge survived more than one scare – even a loud Juventus penalty appeal at the very end of extra time. By this point they had their decisive goal: a Vandereycken strike after 116 minutes. Jan Sørensen sped to the byline and cut the ball back low across goal for the Belgian international to find the roof of the net.

For Leekens, the victory came at a price. “I got an injury: a ruptured ankle ligament,” he says. He returned for the final with just days to spare, but others were less fortunate. Lambert, the so-called Goal King, had played on with a painkilling injection against Juventus. “His presence means a lot to us psychologically,” said Happel in the lead-up, but the forward failed to recover in time. Missing too was No 10 Paul Courant; he scored a brilliant quarter-final goal against Atlético but was subsequently sidelined with a groin injury.

Happel built a hard-working team. We had a little bit of the Ajax style and I think the only weakness was we were sometimes too attacking

Liverpool’s presence in the final was hardly a positive either, given the outcome of the clubs’ UEFA Cup encounter two years previously: Club had led the first leg 2-0 at Anfield, through Lambert and Cools, but ended the game 3-2 down. “At 2-0 we had a chance to make it three,” says Leekens. His side paid for their adventure, blown away by a rush of goals around the hour – the third, laments Leekens, a “very soft penalty” converted by Kevin Keegan. “They were pushing and pushing and in the end we lost.” The second leg finished 1-1 after Keegan struck again, in response to an early Lambert spot kick.

Two years on, some 25,000 Club Brugge fans set out for Wembley in an armada of ferries from Calais, Zeebrugge and Ostend. Hundreds of coaches rolled into central London, where the fans congregated in Trafalgar Square. Over in France, L’Équipe predicted a difficult evening against the holders for Happel’s underdogs – “Liverpool and Wembley: tough for Brugge” ran the front-page headline – and so it proved. “It was like their attack against our defence, and for 90 minutes that is difficult against class players like Kenny Dalglish,” says Leekens.

After 64 minutes it was Dalglish who got the only goal, dinking the ball over Jensen when fellow Scot Graeme Souness’s cute pass put him in behind the defence. For Club, opportunities were scarce. “We had one big one but Jan Sørensen missed it,” says Leekens. That came ten minutes from the end, when an under hit Alan Hansen back pass left the Dane in a race to the ball with Ray Clemence. Though the goalkeeper saved at his feet, Jan Simoen struck the loose ball beyond him –only to see Phil Thompson block his shot on the line. “They deserved their victory, although we were handicapped by injuries to two players,” was Happel’s post-match verdict.

No Belgian club has come as close to European glory since. Two years later, a Belgium team featuring Vandereycken and Cools suffered similar disappointment in the European Championship final, the former converting his side’s penalty in a 2-1 defeat by West Germany. “We had a good national team, but not the level we have now,” says Leekens, who coached the Red Devils at the 1998 World Cup, and again from 2010 to 2012. “This level now is world class, with Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku.”

If that raises hopes of Belgian success at EURO 2020, Club’s own fortunes in European competition have waned. A Blauw-Zwart player – Daniel Amokachi – is in the record books for hitting the first goal of the inaugural group stage of the Champions League in 1992. Yet, this season included, his old side have still to survive the group stage in seven attempts, though they did reach the Europa League quarter-finals in 2014/15.

Much has changed since 1978. For Leekens there is one crucial factor above all: the club’s inability to retain top Belgian talent ever since players have been able to run down their contracts and leave for free (thanks, coincidentally, to the change in regulations instigated byJean-Marc Bosman, a player from… Belgium). “We didn’t lose players on Bosmans,”says Leekens of that golden period. “We could keep hold of our best players.” And their best, lest we forget, really did take them on quite a ride.

History
Belgian Firsts

Despite the nation’s proud history of producing gifted footballers, it was not until 1988 that a Belgian player first lifted the European Cup: right-back Eric Gerets captained PSV Eindhoven to victory against Benfica on penalties. It was coach Raymond Goethals who next left his mark, leading Marseille to the title against AC Milan in 1993, two years after they had lost the final on spot kicks to Crvena zvezda. Yannick Carrasco became Belgium’s first scorer in a final, for runners-up Atlético Madrid in 2016, before Divock Origi went one better in June this year, finding the net for winners Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur, on a night when goalkeeper Simon Mignolet– now at Club Brugge – watched from the Reds bench.

Belgian players enjoying success with an English team is one thing, but Belgian clubs finding reason to celebrate in England is something else, particularly in London. After Club Brugge lost at Wembley in 1978 (Jan Sorensen is pictured above right in the semi-final, with Gaetano Scirea of Juventus), Anderlecht and Royal Antwerp both suffered heartache in the English capital, the former losing the 1984 UEFA Cup final to Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and their domestic rivals finishing second best to Parma under the old twin towers in the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup decider. With the EURO 2020 final to be played at Wembley in July, could today’s generation of stars provide Belgium with reason for cheer in north London?

The whole country went mad,” says Georges Leekens, remembering events from more than four decades ago. “We were a very special team. We had a good coach and we kept our feet on the ground. We had a small squad but we did a very good job.” They certainly did. The first – and still the only – Belgian side to reach a European Cup final, the team that Leekens is talking about made serious waves in the 1970s, toppling giants and teaching them to fear the name Club Brugge.

Under the guidance of Ernst Happel, the outfit from the quaint medieval town of Bruges reached not one but two continental show pieces in the space of three seasons: the UEFA Cup final in 1976 and then, two years later, the climax of the European Cup. “We had one problem,” reflects Leekens, a Club Brugge player from 1972 to 1981 and, later, coach during two separate spells. “It was Liverpool – and we got them in the final both times.”

They lost both times too. But memories of nights when the roar of “Allez de blauw en zwart” (“Come on you blues-and-blacks”) filled the Olympiastadion, when Real Madrid, AC Milan and Juventus were sent packing, remain crystal clear. “The mood of winning was infectious,” says Leekens, now 70. “The crowd would get crazy.”

It was a connection strengthened by the players’ regular Monday-night outings to pubs across the Flanders region, where they would spend time with different supporters’ groups. “Two or three of us would go along and drink a beer,” explains Leekens. “That was the spirit of this team: we fought for each other on the pitch and, off the pitch, we were friends. The day after, we’d have double training!”

For Club, as they are known in Belgium, the bandwagon that rolled all the way to Wembley began spluttering into life in the early 1970s. Previously known as RFC Brugeois, the team adopted the Flemish name Club Brugge KV in 1972. In 1975 they left their old home ground of De Klokke and moved into the Olympiastadion (now called the Jan Breydelstadion). Two years earlier, under Dutchman Leo Canjels, they had won a first Belgian title in 53 years. But it was the arrival of an Austrian, Happel, that turned them into a Europeanforce.

Happel had already made Feyenoord the first Dutch winners of the European Cup; he would later take the trophy to Hamburg. Between his arrival in Bruges in January 1974 and departure in December 1978, Club played 14 home fixtures in UEFA competitions, winning 12 and losing just one. On the domestic front there were three league titles and a Belgian Cup. (He even found the time to lead the Netherlands to the 1978 FIFA World Cup final, taking advantage of a pause in his Club duties.) “Happel built a hard-working team with a lot of modern football – very physical, attacking football,” says Leekens. “We had a little bit of the Ajax style and I think the only weakness was that we were sometimes too attacking.”

A tough tackler nicknamed Mac the Knife, Leekens recalls fellow centre-back Eduard Krieger as “an offensive libero”, while full-backs Fons Bastijn and Jos Volders “were always running”. Behind them was “fantastic” Danish goalkeeper Birger Jensen, while ahead lay classy contributors such as controlling midfielder René Vandereycken, stylish left-winger Ulrik Le Fevreand Julien Cools, otherwise known as the Marathon Runner. Up front, fan favourite Raoul Lambert struck 23 European goals for the club.

Happel’s tough love brought the very best out of them. “The guys were afraid of him,” says Leekens. “He was a real leader. He got 200% out of the group. He made every player better and we played for the team. He was very tough in pre-season. He killed us. That was the basis for our good condition: good mentality and hard work. Then we had two or three players who could make the difference.

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Ernst Happel (above) led his team past Juventus in the semi-final (above right) to meet Liverpool at Wembley (right)

“I got on well with him because our wives knew each other, but he was harder on me because I was his friend and he didn’t like to show it. He didn’t give you presents; you had to deserve it. He wasn’t a talker. He didn’t overload us with theory – one hour on attack, one hour on defence – but gave you the responsibility to make decisions yourself in the game. He said, ‘Look for the solutions.’”

The bugle call for Club Brugge’s arrival as European contenders was a home tie against Ipswich Town in the UEFA Cup second round in 1975/76. The previous tie had brought the first European fixture in their new home stadium – a 3-0 beating of Lyon – and now they went one better, putting four past Bobby Robson’s men to overturn a 3-0 first-leg loss.

“In Ipswich we didn’t touch the ball; they destroyed us. But at home it was already 3-0 at half-time. Ipswich came along with their cigars, [thinking] ‘Easy.’” Vandereycken scored the decisive fourth three minutes from the end. And Club’s subsequent list of victims is impressive: Roma, AC Milan and Hamburg en route to that 1976 final, then Real Madrid in the following season’s run to the European Cup quarter-finals. Then came that epic journey to Wembley.

That 1977/78 campaign is a chapter that Blauw-Zwart supporter Thierry Van Acker never tires of telling. Now a volunteer contributor to the club’s museum and archives, back in 1978 he was an excited 12-year-old fan. He had already witnessed home wins over KuPS and Panathinaikos (with striker Raoul Lambert pictured above) when Atlético Madrid visited for their quarter-final first leg. That was when goalkeeper Jensen “made us believe everything was possible” with a late penalty save from Marcial to preserve their 2-0 advantage. “I was standing behind the goal,” says Van Acker. “It was 1 March, Jensen’s birthday. Minutes before the game he’d received flowers from his fans and had hung them up in the net.”

A 3-2 loss at the Vincente Calderón, where they shook off a 2-0 half-time deficit to score through Cools and Lambert, ensured safe passage to the semi-finals and a showdown with Juventus. “We were always the better team – but not in the semi-final,” admits Van Acker. Club held out until the 86th minute in Turin before succumbing to a single-goal defeat. That set up another night to savour – a night, says Van Acker, of “fighting spirit and never giving up, and 30,000 spectators screaming their lungs out”. Captain Bastijns cancelled out Juve’s first-leg advantage after only three minutes, reaching Vandereycken’s angled ball into the box ahead of a defender and poking a shot past Dino Zoff.

Club Brugge survived more than one scare – even a loud Juventus penalty appeal at the very end of extra time. By this point they had their decisive goal: a Vandereycken strike after 116 minutes. Jan Sørensen sped to the byline and cut the ball back low across goal for the Belgian international to find the roof of the net.

For Leekens, the victory came at a price. “I got an injury: a ruptured ankle ligament,” he says. He returned for the final with just days to spare, but others were less fortunate. Lambert, the so-called Goal King, had played on with a painkilling injection against Juventus. “His presence means a lot to us psychologically,” said Happel in the lead-up, but the forward failed to recover in time. Missing too was No 10 Paul Courant; he scored a brilliant quarter-final goal against Atlético but was subsequently sidelined with a groin injury.

Happel built a hard-working team. We had a little bit of the Ajax style and I think the only weakness was we were sometimes too attacking

Liverpool’s presence in the final was hardly a positive either, given the outcome of the clubs’ UEFA Cup encounter two years previously: Club had led the first leg 2-0 at Anfield, through Lambert and Cools, but ended the game 3-2 down. “At 2-0 we had a chance to make it three,” says Leekens. His side paid for their adventure, blown away by a rush of goals around the hour – the third, laments Leekens, a “very soft penalty” converted by Kevin Keegan. “They were pushing and pushing and in the end we lost.” The second leg finished 1-1 after Keegan struck again, in response to an early Lambert spot kick.

Two years on, some 25,000 Club Brugge fans set out for Wembley in an armada of ferries from Calais, Zeebrugge and Ostend. Hundreds of coaches rolled into central London, where the fans congregated in Trafalgar Square. Over in France, L’Équipe predicted a difficult evening against the holders for Happel’s underdogs – “Liverpool and Wembley: tough for Brugge” ran the front-page headline – and so it proved. “It was like their attack against our defence, and for 90 minutes that is difficult against class players like Kenny Dalglish,” says Leekens.

After 64 minutes it was Dalglish who got the only goal, dinking the ball over Jensen when fellow Scot Graeme Souness’s cute pass put him in behind the defence. For Club, opportunities were scarce. “We had one big one but Jan Sørensen missed it,” says Leekens. That came ten minutes from the end, when an under hit Alan Hansen back pass left the Dane in a race to the ball with Ray Clemence. Though the goalkeeper saved at his feet, Jan Simoen struck the loose ball beyond him –only to see Phil Thompson block his shot on the line. “They deserved their victory, although we were handicapped by injuries to two players,” was Happel’s post-match verdict.

No Belgian club has come as close to European glory since. Two years later, a Belgium team featuring Vandereycken and Cools suffered similar disappointment in the European Championship final, the former converting his side’s penalty in a 2-1 defeat by West Germany. “We had a good national team, but not the level we have now,” says Leekens, who coached the Red Devils at the 1998 World Cup, and again from 2010 to 2012. “This level now is world class, with Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku.”

If that raises hopes of Belgian success at EURO 2020, Club’s own fortunes in European competition have waned. A Blauw-Zwart player – Daniel Amokachi – is in the record books for hitting the first goal of the inaugural group stage of the Champions League in 1992. Yet, this season included, his old side have still to survive the group stage in seven attempts, though they did reach the Europa League quarter-finals in 2014/15.

Much has changed since 1978. For Leekens there is one crucial factor above all: the club’s inability to retain top Belgian talent ever since players have been able to run down their contracts and leave for free (thanks, coincidentally, to the change in regulations instigated byJean-Marc Bosman, a player from… Belgium). “We didn’t lose players on Bosmans,”says Leekens of that golden period. “We could keep hold of our best players.” And their best, lest we forget, really did take them on quite a ride.

History
Belgian Firsts

Despite the nation’s proud history of producing gifted footballers, it was not until 1988 that a Belgian player first lifted the European Cup: right-back Eric Gerets captained PSV Eindhoven to victory against Benfica on penalties. It was coach Raymond Goethals who next left his mark, leading Marseille to the title against AC Milan in 1993, two years after they had lost the final on spot kicks to Crvena zvezda. Yannick Carrasco became Belgium’s first scorer in a final, for runners-up Atlético Madrid in 2016, before Divock Origi went one better in June this year, finding the net for winners Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur, on a night when goalkeeper Simon Mignolet– now at Club Brugge – watched from the Reds bench.

Belgian players enjoying success with an English team is one thing, but Belgian clubs finding reason to celebrate in England is something else, particularly in London. After Club Brugge lost at Wembley in 1978 (Jan Sorensen is pictured above right in the semi-final, with Gaetano Scirea of Juventus), Anderlecht and Royal Antwerp both suffered heartache in the English capital, the former losing the 1984 UEFA Cup final to Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and their domestic rivals finishing second best to Parma under the old twin towers in the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup decider. With the EURO 2020 final to be played at Wembley in July, could today’s generation of stars provide Belgium with reason for cheer in north London?

The whole country went mad,” says Georges Leekens, remembering events from more than four decades ago. “We were a very special team. We had a good coach and we kept our feet on the ground. We had a small squad but we did a very good job.” They certainly did. The first – and still the only – Belgian side to reach a European Cup final, the team that Leekens is talking about made serious waves in the 1970s, toppling giants and teaching them to fear the name Club Brugge.

Under the guidance of Ernst Happel, the outfit from the quaint medieval town of Bruges reached not one but two continental show pieces in the space of three seasons: the UEFA Cup final in 1976 and then, two years later, the climax of the European Cup. “We had one problem,” reflects Leekens, a Club Brugge player from 1972 to 1981 and, later, coach during two separate spells. “It was Liverpool – and we got them in the final both times.”

They lost both times too. But memories of nights when the roar of “Allez de blauw en zwart” (“Come on you blues-and-blacks”) filled the Olympiastadion, when Real Madrid, AC Milan and Juventus were sent packing, remain crystal clear. “The mood of winning was infectious,” says Leekens, now 70. “The crowd would get crazy.”

It was a connection strengthened by the players’ regular Monday-night outings to pubs across the Flanders region, where they would spend time with different supporters’ groups. “Two or three of us would go along and drink a beer,” explains Leekens. “That was the spirit of this team: we fought for each other on the pitch and, off the pitch, we were friends. The day after, we’d have double training!”

For Club, as they are known in Belgium, the bandwagon that rolled all the way to Wembley began spluttering into life in the early 1970s. Previously known as RFC Brugeois, the team adopted the Flemish name Club Brugge KV in 1972. In 1975 they left their old home ground of De Klokke and moved into the Olympiastadion (now called the Jan Breydelstadion). Two years earlier, under Dutchman Leo Canjels, they had won a first Belgian title in 53 years. But it was the arrival of an Austrian, Happel, that turned them into a Europeanforce.

Happel had already made Feyenoord the first Dutch winners of the European Cup; he would later take the trophy to Hamburg. Between his arrival in Bruges in January 1974 and departure in December 1978, Club played 14 home fixtures in UEFA competitions, winning 12 and losing just one. On the domestic front there were three league titles and a Belgian Cup. (He even found the time to lead the Netherlands to the 1978 FIFA World Cup final, taking advantage of a pause in his Club duties.) “Happel built a hard-working team with a lot of modern football – very physical, attacking football,” says Leekens. “We had a little bit of the Ajax style and I think the only weakness was that we were sometimes too attacking.”

A tough tackler nicknamed Mac the Knife, Leekens recalls fellow centre-back Eduard Krieger as “an offensive libero”, while full-backs Fons Bastijn and Jos Volders “were always running”. Behind them was “fantastic” Danish goalkeeper Birger Jensen, while ahead lay classy contributors such as controlling midfielder René Vandereycken, stylish left-winger Ulrik Le Fevreand Julien Cools, otherwise known as the Marathon Runner. Up front, fan favourite Raoul Lambert struck 23 European goals for the club.

Happel’s tough love brought the very best out of them. “The guys were afraid of him,” says Leekens. “He was a real leader. He got 200% out of the group. He made every player better and we played for the team. He was very tough in pre-season. He killed us. That was the basis for our good condition: good mentality and hard work. Then we had two or three players who could make the difference.

Ernst Happel (above) led his team past Juventus in the semi-final (above right) to meet Liverpool at Wembley (right)

“I got on well with him because our wives knew each other, but he was harder on me because I was his friend and he didn’t like to show it. He didn’t give you presents; you had to deserve it. He wasn’t a talker. He didn’t overload us with theory – one hour on attack, one hour on defence – but gave you the responsibility to make decisions yourself in the game. He said, ‘Look for the solutions.’”

The bugle call for Club Brugge’s arrival as European contenders was a home tie against Ipswich Town in the UEFA Cup second round in 1975/76. The previous tie had brought the first European fixture in their new home stadium – a 3-0 beating of Lyon – and now they went one better, putting four past Bobby Robson’s men to overturn a 3-0 first-leg loss.

“In Ipswich we didn’t touch the ball; they destroyed us. But at home it was already 3-0 at half-time. Ipswich came along with their cigars, [thinking] ‘Easy.’” Vandereycken scored the decisive fourth three minutes from the end. And Club’s subsequent list of victims is impressive: Roma, AC Milan and Hamburg en route to that 1976 final, then Real Madrid in the following season’s run to the European Cup quarter-finals. Then came that epic journey to Wembley.

That 1977/78 campaign is a chapter that Blauw-Zwart supporter Thierry Van Acker never tires of telling. Now a volunteer contributor to the club’s museum and archives, back in 1978 he was an excited 12-year-old fan. He had already witnessed home wins over KuPS and Panathinaikos (with striker Raoul Lambert pictured above) when Atlético Madrid visited for their quarter-final first leg. That was when goalkeeper Jensen “made us believe everything was possible” with a late penalty save from Marcial to preserve their 2-0 advantage. “I was standing behind the goal,” says Van Acker. “It was 1 March, Jensen’s birthday. Minutes before the game he’d received flowers from his fans and had hung them up in the net.”

A 3-2 loss at the Vincente Calderón, where they shook off a 2-0 half-time deficit to score through Cools and Lambert, ensured safe passage to the semi-finals and a showdown with Juventus. “We were always the better team – but not in the semi-final,” admits Van Acker. Club held out until the 86th minute in Turin before succumbing to a single-goal defeat. That set up another night to savour – a night, says Van Acker, of “fighting spirit and never giving up, and 30,000 spectators screaming their lungs out”. Captain Bastijns cancelled out Juve’s first-leg advantage after only three minutes, reaching Vandereycken’s angled ball into the box ahead of a defender and poking a shot past Dino Zoff.

Club Brugge survived more than one scare – even a loud Juventus penalty appeal at the very end of extra time. By this point they had their decisive goal: a Vandereycken strike after 116 minutes. Jan Sørensen sped to the byline and cut the ball back low across goal for the Belgian international to find the roof of the net.

For Leekens, the victory came at a price. “I got an injury: a ruptured ankle ligament,” he says. He returned for the final with just days to spare, but others were less fortunate. Lambert, the so-called Goal King, had played on with a painkilling injection against Juventus. “His presence means a lot to us psychologically,” said Happel in the lead-up, but the forward failed to recover in time. Missing too was No 10 Paul Courant; he scored a brilliant quarter-final goal against Atlético but was subsequently sidelined with a groin injury.

Happel built a hard-working team. We had a little bit of the Ajax style and I think the only weakness was we were sometimes too attacking

Liverpool’s presence in the final was hardly a positive either, given the outcome of the clubs’ UEFA Cup encounter two years previously: Club had led the first leg 2-0 at Anfield, through Lambert and Cools, but ended the game 3-2 down. “At 2-0 we had a chance to make it three,” says Leekens. His side paid for their adventure, blown away by a rush of goals around the hour – the third, laments Leekens, a “very soft penalty” converted by Kevin Keegan. “They were pushing and pushing and in the end we lost.” The second leg finished 1-1 after Keegan struck again, in response to an early Lambert spot kick.

Two years on, some 25,000 Club Brugge fans set out for Wembley in an armada of ferries from Calais, Zeebrugge and Ostend. Hundreds of coaches rolled into central London, where the fans congregated in Trafalgar Square. Over in France, L’Équipe predicted a difficult evening against the holders for Happel’s underdogs – “Liverpool and Wembley: tough for Brugge” ran the front-page headline – and so it proved. “It was like their attack against our defence, and for 90 minutes that is difficult against class players like Kenny Dalglish,” says Leekens.

After 64 minutes it was Dalglish who got the only goal, dinking the ball over Jensen when fellow Scot Graeme Souness’s cute pass put him in behind the defence. For Club, opportunities were scarce. “We had one big one but Jan Sørensen missed it,” says Leekens. That came ten minutes from the end, when an under hit Alan Hansen back pass left the Dane in a race to the ball with Ray Clemence. Though the goalkeeper saved at his feet, Jan Simoen struck the loose ball beyond him –only to see Phil Thompson block his shot on the line. “They deserved their victory, although we were handicapped by injuries to two players,” was Happel’s post-match verdict.

No Belgian club has come as close to European glory since. Two years later, a Belgium team featuring Vandereycken and Cools suffered similar disappointment in the European Championship final, the former converting his side’s penalty in a 2-1 defeat by West Germany. “We had a good national team, but not the level we have now,” says Leekens, who coached the Red Devils at the 1998 World Cup, and again from 2010 to 2012. “This level now is world class, with Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku.”

If that raises hopes of Belgian success at EURO 2020, Club’s own fortunes in European competition have waned. A Blauw-Zwart player – Daniel Amokachi – is in the record books for hitting the first goal of the inaugural group stage of the Champions League in 1992. Yet, this season included, his old side have still to survive the group stage in seven attempts, though they did reach the Europa League quarter-finals in 2014/15.

Much has changed since 1978. For Leekens there is one crucial factor above all: the club’s inability to retain top Belgian talent ever since players have been able to run down their contracts and leave for free (thanks, coincidentally, to the change in regulations instigated byJean-Marc Bosman, a player from… Belgium). “We didn’t lose players on Bosmans,”says Leekens of that golden period. “We could keep hold of our best players.” And their best, lest we forget, really did take them on quite a ride.

History
Belgian Firsts

Despite the nation’s proud history of producing gifted footballers, it was not until 1988 that a Belgian player first lifted the European Cup: right-back Eric Gerets captained PSV Eindhoven to victory against Benfica on penalties. It was coach Raymond Goethals who next left his mark, leading Marseille to the title against AC Milan in 1993, two years after they had lost the final on spot kicks to Crvena zvezda. Yannick Carrasco became Belgium’s first scorer in a final, for runners-up Atlético Madrid in 2016, before Divock Origi went one better in June this year, finding the net for winners Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur, on a night when goalkeeper Simon Mignolet– now at Club Brugge – watched from the Reds bench.

Belgian players enjoying success with an English team is one thing, but Belgian clubs finding reason to celebrate in England is something else, particularly in London. After Club Brugge lost at Wembley in 1978 (Jan Sorensen is pictured above right in the semi-final, with Gaetano Scirea of Juventus), Anderlecht and Royal Antwerp both suffered heartache in the English capital, the former losing the 1984 UEFA Cup final to Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and their domestic rivals finishing second best to Parma under the old twin towers in the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup decider. With the EURO 2020 final to be played at Wembley in July, could today’s generation of stars provide Belgium with reason for cheer in north London?