27 forgotten British underdog shocks in Europe

You can hardly call Chelsea or Manchester City an underdog, now can you?

Both the West Londoners and Eastlanders have, in recent years, come to represent something entirely modern in football: the idea of buying success. And though it's very much arguable that both these clubs have been built on superb organisation, their foundations are rich. Very rich.

Still, no one really expected this pair in the Champions League final. Guardiola's City have made a fun hobby of perfecting the continental catastrophe, outside of domestic dominance; Chelsea, meanwhile, were in disarray pre-Tuchel and staring down the barrel of no Europe at all next season. 

You want to see an underdog? We've got some real underdogs for you. Let Nick Miller and Paul Simpson guide you through some of the most stunning surprise stories of British football abroad.

1. Aston Villa 1-0 Bayern Munich

European Cup | May 26, 1982

The familiar narrative of this European Cup final upset dwells on three heroic Villans: goalkeeper Nigel Spink, who replaced the injured Jimmy Rimmer after just 10 minutes and made three fine saves in only his second first-team appearance; Tony Barton, the unassuming assistant who stepped up when Ron Saunders quit as manager only three months before the final; and Tony Morley, who deceived Klaus Augenthaler with, in the words of the Birmingham Mail, “a disco-dancer’s hip wiggle” to cross for Peter Withe’s shinned winner.

Yet Bayern were the better side on the night: inspired by Augenthaler, Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, they shredded Villa’s defence for a solid 30 minutes, only for Spink – and defender Allan Evans, who cleared a shot off the line – to stand firm.

2. Barcelona 1-2 Dundee United

UEFA Cup | March 18, 1987

Tangerines manager Jim McLean had a simple explanation for his team’s quarter-final win over Terry Venables’ Barcelona at the Camp Nou: “Paul Sturrock tore them apart.”

Club legend Sturrock won the free-kick from which defender John Clark powered the ball into Los Cules’ net, then crossed for Iain Ferguson to head in the winner. McLean’s men had looked just as commanding in the first leg, winning 1-0 at Tannadice Park with an early goal from 20-year-old Kevin Gallacher. Barcelona’s record against Dundee United? Played four, lost four.

3. Aberdeen 2-1 Real Madrid (aet)

Cup Winners’ Cup | May 11, 1983

Real Madrid had won six European Cups and 20 Liga titles. Aberdeen had won the Scottish First Division twice and never gone beyond the third round of any European competition. 

Yet, under the inspiring leadership of a 41-year-old Alex Ferguson (“If a cup had to go flying, it went flying,” recalled captain Willie Miller), the Dons beat European royalty to a trophy that Los Blancos would never win. Eric Black and Juanito traded early goals in the final, before a glancing extra-time header from substitute John Hewitt settled matters.

They remain the last Scottish side to lift a European trophy. “We’re going to do it for you,” predicted seven of Aberdeen’s squad, including Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan, in the European Song released for the final. Ferguson’s car must have been in the garage the day that was recorded.

4. Portsmouth 2-2 Milan

UEFA Cup | November 27, 2008

Tony Adams would be very few people’s idea of a wildly successful manager, and his spell at Portsmouth had little to recommend it. But he did preside over one memorable occasion, when FA Cup winners Pompey faced Milan in the UEFA Cup group stage.

Portsmouth, at the beginning of their spiral to near-extinction, thought they’d sealed an implausible win with goals from Younes Kaboul and Nwankwo Kanu – alas, Ronaldinho pulled one back and, two minutes into stoppage time at Fratton Park, Pippo Inzaghi found an equaliser.

“The boys are feeling flat,” said Adams. “They thought they’d done it.” Pompey won one of their four group games and went out, then bust, then down.

5. Hibernian 3-2 Barcelona

Inter-Cities Fairs Cup | February 22, 1961

Three months earlier, Barcelona had achieved what nobody else could, knocking Real Madrid out of the European Cup. But in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – an invitational tournament then – they were bested by Hibs from the Scottish First Division’s nether regions.

The first leg at the Camp Nou was an absurd affair, Barça salvaging a 4-4 draw, but they had no such luck in Edinburgh. Joe Baker gave Hibs the lead, then the Catalans went ahead through Eulogio Martinez and Sandor Kocsis, before Tommy Preston levelled. With five minutes to go, Bobby Kinloch converted a penalty to seal a remarkable win. Barça reacted by chasing the referee down the tunnel. Hark at them!

6. Glentoran 1-1 Benfica

European Cup | September 13, 1967

Most of the 25,000-strong crowd who turned up at Glentoran’s Oval had come to see one man: Eusebio. Yet the Irish League champions led inside 10 minutes, player-manager John Colrain scoring from the spot. When Albert Finlay saved a Jaime Graca penalty, the Belfast crowd dared to dream. But four minutes from time, Eusebio – who frequently went drinking in the city – let rip a shot that “hit the back of the net like a rocket leaving a launchpad”, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

The second leg finished 0-0, and while Benfica would reach their fifth European Cup final in eight years, the Glens – only the second team in competition history to keep a clean sheet at the Estadio da Luz, 19 others having failed – were unlucky to exit on away goals in the rule’s first season.

7. Barry Town 3-1 Porto

Champions League | August 1, 2001

You don’t get much more underdoggy than an 8-0 first-leg deficit. Barry Town were the first Welsh side ever to win a Champions League tie when they beat Azerbaijan’s Shamkir in the first qualifying round, but they were thrashed in Porto just a week later.

More slaughter was expected in the return leg and Porto soon went 1-0 up, but goals from Lee Phillips, Mike Flynn and Gary Lloyd secured a famous win. While Porto were much-changed, they still sent out Jorge Costa, Ricardo Carvalho and Helder Postiga, who now have some 210 caps between them. Barry won the battle and lost the war, but what a battle it was.

8. Hearts 1-0 Bayern Munich

UEFA Cup | February 28, 1989

Sometimes, heroes win ugly. The Jambos’ historic home victory over a Bayern Munich side that had scored 18 goals en route to this quarter-final came through some combative defending and Dave McPherson brilliantly marshalling Hearts’ back four.

Ten minutes after half-time, Tosh McKinlay rolled a free-kick to the club’s record signing, Iain Ferguson – he of Dundee United’s winner against Barcelona – and with the Bayern wall crumbling in front of him, he blasted an unstoppable strike into the corner. Die Roten won 2-0 back in Munich, but this is still one of Hearts’ greatest victories.

9. Leeds United 2-1 Barcelona

European Cup | April 9, 1975

Billy Bremner and Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke scored for Jimmy Armfield’s Leeds in this semi-final first leg, but Paul Madeley was named man of the match for subduing Johan Cruyff, reigning European Footballer of the Year. The one time the Dutch genius did elude Madeley, Barça won a free-kick from which Juan Manuel Asensi scored, cancelling out Bremner’s opener. Madeley made amends by starting the move for Clarke’s winner.

Even though Rinus Michel’s side starred Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Charly Rexach, Bremner said: “I was not impressed by Barcelona at all. We build up these continental teams too much.” So there.

10. Derby County 4-1 Real Madrid

European Cup | October 22, 1975

Understandably, it still bothers Charlie George that he scored four goals against Real Madrid in a European Cup tie and still lost. 

His first-leg hat-trick at the Baseball Ground was notable for a superb arrowed volley, but the strike he remembers the most came at the Bernabeu – unsurprising, given that his running whack into the top corner came while wearing a boot he had borrowed from the suspended Bruce Rioch, after a crunching tackle by centre-half Vicente del Bosque tore George’s own in half. And still the wonder-strike didn’t help: the Rams lost the second leg 5-1 after extra time.

11. Newcastle United 3-2 Barcelona

Champions League | September 17, 1997

Tino Asprilla’s 22-minute hat-trick against Barcelona made the Colombian such an idol on Tyneside that supporters used to pay just to sit in his favourite taxi seat. Yet the unsung St James’ Park hero that evening was Keith Gillespie – derided as “un cojo”, or “lame”, by Louis van Gaal’s assistant Gerard van der Lem – for his crosses that set up two of Tino’s goals for a Magpies XI that was missing the injured Alan Shearer (but clearly not all that much).

Asprilla’s repeated cartwheel celebrations must have stung Van Gaal – whose defeated team included Luis Figo, Luis Enrique and Rivaldo – as the Dutchman then made his translator Jose Mourinho the new opposition analyst. Whatever happened to him, eh?

12. Bangor City 2-0 Napoli

Cup Winners’ Cup | September 5, 1962

Unsettled by a heavy Farrar Road pitch, Napoli went behind to the Welsh Senior Cup winners after 43 minutes, when 19-year-old Roy Matthews headed home a Reg Hunter cross to spark a pitch invasion.

Seven minutes after the interval, Ken Birch’s penalty made sure Bangor were the first Welsh club to win a tie in Europe. Napoli responded with a 3-1 win in Italy. If the away goals rule had been in place back then, Jimmy McAllister’s 71st-minute strike would’ve taken Bangor through. Instead, Napoli won the play-off 2-1 at Highbury. Harsh.

13. Saint-Etienne 1-4 Ipswich Town

UEFA Cup | March 4, 1981

When Bobby Robson’s men arrived at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard for this quarter-final first leg, they wondered if they were late as the ground was full – two hours before kick-off. Led by Johnny Rep, Michel Platini and Patrick Battiston, Saint-Etienne were confident after winning 5-0 at Hamburg, but Ipswich weren’t even fazed by Les Verts’ 16th-minute opener.

Russell Osman’s industrial challenge knocked Platini off his game, but it was Paul Mariner who inflicted most of the damage, scoring twice. “Football can do that to you,” sighed a philosophic Platini. “It can make you feel like a clown one minute and a champion the next.” No comment on which he is right now...

14. Burnley 3-1 Hamburg

European Cup | January 18, 1961

The pitch was a quagmire and the noise inside Turf Moor fit “to waken the dead”, according to commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme, yet Burnley played some cultured football in this European Cup quarter-final against a Hamburg side captained by Uwe Seeler.

Brian Pilkington’s brace – the second goal following a superb solo run – and a strike from James Robson seemed to wrap up the tie, only for Gert Dorfel to grab an ultimately crucial goal two minutes later. Hamburg won the return leg 4-1, with the visitors hitting the post in the last minute. Asked if Burnley had suffered any injuries, McIlroy replied: “No – just 11 broken hearts.”

15. Blackburn Rovers 4-1 Rosenborg

Champions League | December 6, 1995

The defining image of Blackburn Rovers’ Champions League campaign is a spot of throat-grappling between David Batty and Graeme Le Saux at Spartak Moscow. That’s hard on Mike Newell, who scored three goals in nine minutes against Rosenborg for the fastest hat-trick in the competition’s history (until Bafetimbi Gomis’ 2011 treble for Lyon away at Dinamo Zagreb). 

At least Newell’s was a perfect hat-trick, scoring with both feet as well as his head. “It didn’t do much good,” he later huffed. “We were already out.”

16. Fulham 4-1 Juventus

Europa League | March 18, 2010

“Nine times out of 10 it won’t make it, but you’ve got to take the risk”. Clint Dempsey’s creed certainly paid off against Juventus. Beaten 3-1 in Turin, Roy Hodgson’s Fulham were 1-0 down after two minutes at Craven Cottage and the Old Lady’s lead was looking insurmountable.

However, Bobby Zamora outmuscled Fabio Cannavaro to score, before the Ballon d’Or-winning defender was shown a controversial red card for fouling Zoltan Gera. Gera netted twice to level the tie, and as extra-time loomed, Dempsey dinked a delightful chip home to send his team into the last eight en route to the final. On Fulham’s greatest night, victory was sealed by their greatest goal.

17. Cardiff City 1-0 Real Madrid

Cup Winners’ Cup | March 10, 1971

European competitions create some unlikely heroes. Step forward, the Bluebirds’ Real Madrid conquerors: Brian Clark, picked only as Alan Warboys was ineligible, and 17-year-old wideman Nigel Rees, who bamboozled two defenders and crossed for Clark to head home and send 47,500 fans at Ninian Park into ecstasy. But three years earlier Cardiff had been 10 minutes away from the Cup Winners’ Cup final and this time, in the last eight, they again paid for profligacy.

City created enough chances to see off a side featuring European Cup winners Pirri, Ignacio Zoco and Amancio, but took only a slender lead to Madrid, where they lost 2-0. Still, they left Spain with a gold watch and a Real Madrid shirt each. Bonus.

18. Southampton 4-0 Marseille

Cup Winners’ Cup | September 15, 1976

Saints’ shock FA Cup final victory over Manchester United earned the Second Division outfit a Cup Winners’ Cup clash with Marseille. The first leg was done and dusted after 35 minutes as Malcolm Waldron, Mick Channon and Peter Osgood scored in a frantic four-minute spell.

Ian Turner saved a retaken Marseille penalty, then Channon made it 4-0 from the spot. Marseille won 2-1 in a second leg marred by a players’ brawl, and Lawrie McMenemy’s Saints progressed to the last eight, where they lost to holders Anderlecht.

19. Sheffield Wednesday 4-0 Roma

Inter-Cities Fairs Cup | November 29, 1961

Astutely managed by Vic Buckingham – once of Ajax, later coaching Barcelona and Sevilla – the English league runners-up ran amok in the second round, beating holders Roma 4-0 at Hillsborough through Gerald Young’s hat-trick (Young, who later moved into central defence, scored 13 league goals in 14 years at the club).

The Owls then beat Barcelona 3-2 in the first leg of the quarters. “Koscis, Evaristo, Villaverda, Verges, Garay: half a million pounds of talent,” wrote the Sheffield Star, “brushed aside by a hurricane called Sheffield Wednesday.” The euphoria didn’t last: they lost 4-3 on aggregate.

20. Bolton Wanderers 1-0 Atletico Madrid

UEFA Cup | February 14, 2008

Bolton had already clocked up a few plucky underdog points by drawing 2-2 with Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, but a Last 32 showdown with Atletico Madrid appeared daunting to say the least. Progression seemed especially unlikely as manager Gary Megson regarded the UEFA Cup as mere distraction from the more important business of joylessly grinding out league results.

Despite Megson’s best efforts, however, the Trotters won 1-0 thanks to an El-Hadji Diouf goal in a Valentine’s Day game that saw a teenage Sergio Aguero sent off for spitting at Matt Taylor. In the second leg, Bolton held on for a 0-0 draw at the Vicente Calderon despite fielding a weakened team. Not that anyone in England saw it – neither match was shown on TV.

21. Inter Milan 1-2 Birmingham City

Inter-Cities Fairs Cup | April 19, 1961

Few outside St Andrew’s remember this, but Birmingham City were the first British club ever to contest a European final, losing the 1960 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Final to Barcelona 4-1 after drawing the home leg 0-0. To reach another, 12 months later, the Blues had to promise the FA that they would improve their disciplinary record – five of their players had been sent off in Fairs Cup games the previous year.

Ignoring chants of “English bastards” from Inter fans at the San Siro semi-final, Birmingham won 2-1 thanks to the inspired scheming of Jimmy Bloomfield. The next English side to beat Inter on their own patch would be Arsenal more than 40 years later.

22. Dundee 8-1 Cologne

European Cup | September 5, 1962

Although Alan Gilzean scored a hat-trick in the Dark Blues’ 8-5 aggregate victory, the real hero was goalkeeper Bert Slater, who’d joined Bob Shankly’s Dundee from brother Bill’s Liverpool. Despite having 10 West German internationals Cologne lost 8-1, bewildered by Dundee’s slick passing and movement. Keeper Fritz Ewert was knocked out in an early collision and, in a time before substitutes, replaced in goal by right-back Toni Regh.

In Cologne, revenge was brutal. Slater was kicked in the head, but when German medics tried to usher him into an ambulance, he jumped off the stretcher and ran into the dressing room, his noggin bleeding all of the way. Inside-right Andy Penman then went in goal, and a heavily-bandaged Slater returned to play on the right wing – until Cologne pulled a few goals back, whereupon he went back in goal.

Amid the madness – Dundee had police dogs as protection from furious fans – the victory was no fluke: they beat Sporting and Anderlecht to reach the semis, only losing to eventual winners Milan.

23. Bayern Munich 1-2 Norwich 

UEFA Cup | October 20, 1993

“Jeremy Goss – just look at that!” John Motson perfectly summed up the moment when the Norwich midfielder’s stunning 20-yard volley made a bystander of Bayern Munich keeper Raimond Aumann, who had been targeted as Die Roten’s weak link by Canaries manager Mike Walker.

A weak defensive header from 32-year-old Lothar Matthaus fell for Goss to wallop home the opener, before Mark Bowen made it 2-0 on the half-hour mark. Although Matthaus started many attacks and Christian Nerlinger found the net, Norwich became the first English team to beat Bayern in Munich.

24. Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 Inter Milan

Champions League | November 2, 2010

Spurs were delighted just to be playing in the Champions League; Inter were defending it. But, two weeks after they’d been served notice of his threat as Tottenham came back from 4-0 down to lose only 4-3, Inter were torn asunder by a rampant Spurs and their force of nature called Gareth Bale.

The Welshman set up goals for Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko and, having already roasted him in a San Siro hat-trick, gave Maicon a harrowing night from which his reputation never recovered. “Taxi for Maicon,” sang the Spurs fans. Bale had arrived.

25. Middlesbrough 4-2 Steaua Bucharest

UEFA Cup | April 27, 2006

After 25 minutes of this semi-final second leg at the Riverside, Boro were 2-0 down on the night, 3-0 behind on aggregate and had lost captain Gareth Southgate to injury. So, Steve McClaren went for broke and brought on striker Massimo Maccarone. It took eight minutes for the Italian to score. But Boro still needed three goals in 57 minutes, and winger Stewart Downing duly obliged with a hat-trick of assists as Mark Viduka and Chris Riggott put Boro 3-2 up.

As supporters chanted, “We only need one more”, Downing picked up the ball on the left and crossed for Maccarone to net with a last-minute header. After such heroics, it seemed the UEFA Cup was Boro’s, but Sevilla – who else? – outclassed them in the final.

26. Cologne 0-1 Nottingham Forest

European Cup | April 25, 1979

Forest were underdogs throughout their first European Cup-winning campaign, but before the home leg of their semi-final, assistant manager Peter Taylor informed the players that Cologne, their opponents, were useless. Ninety minutes later Forest barely emerged with a 3-3 draw, and the Germans were so confident of progressing that they made travel plans for the Munich showpiece.

No team had reached the final when a win in the away leg was required, but Forest defended stoutly before Ian Bowyer’s header gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. “Two seasons before, we had been in the Second Division,” Bowyer later recalled. “This was just unheard of.”

27. Wrexham 1-0 Porto

Cup Winners’ Cup | September 19, 1984

Wrexham weren’t so much underdogs in the Cup Winners’ Cup as barely canine at all, not least because they qualified despite losing the Welsh Cup final – winners Shrewsbury Town were ineligible because they were English. In the first round, Wrexham were drawn against Porto and snatched a 1-0 win in the home leg thanks to Jim Steel’s effort. Even so, everyone assumed that wouldn’t matter because the second leg would be a walkover.

When Porto went 3-0 up inside 38 minutes, obituaries were drafted, and despite full-back Jake King scoring twice before the break, the visitors’ efforts seemed futile when Paulo Futre fired the hosts back in front. But then in the 89th minute, a young Barry Horne threw up a leg and looped the ball home: Wrexham were through on away goals to face Roma. Woof!

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