The modern-day European Champions League is one filled with glitz and glamour and big bucks, but its earlier incarnation – the European Cup – was a much more humble affair. This is especially true of its very early days before the monopolisation of super teams, when clubs went into the unknown and forged history for themselves. This can be seen with the likes of the early Manchester United teams, such as the ill-fated Busby Babes and the 1968 team of Best, Law, and Charlton, as well as Celtic’s “Lisbon Lions.” However, there are many cup runs that are now largely forgotten. Burnley’s European Cup stint in the 1960-61 season is one of these.

Unlike other teams – such as Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool – Burnley did not grow to become a super-club. But yet they earned their place in the European Cup, as all teams did in that era, by winning the English domestic league. Led by manager Harry Potts, Burnley fought out a close battle with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, with the final table after 42 games reading:

  1. Burnley – 55 points
  2. Wolverhampton Wanderers – 54 points
  3. Tottenham Hotspur – 53 points

It was Burnley’s first title since 1921 and the progress was built on a modernising strategy: the building of a new training facility and a focus on youth. Potts progressed the team on the pitch in the late 1950s, steeling them for the tough championship winning season; what was all the remarkable was how out of the 18 players utilised, only two were bought as transfers. Leading figures included Jimmy McIlroy and top scorer John Connelly (20 goals).

The 1960-61 European Cup was the sixth edition: Spanish giants Real Madrid had won each preceding tournament. Luck was with Burnley in the first draw of the competition: they received a bye from the preliminary round due to being drawn first from the pot for western European teams. This meant they did not actually start playing in the competition until November 1960. Their opponents in the first round were Stade Reims, who themselves had hammered Luxembourg team Jeunesse Esch 11-1 on aggregate in the preliminary round. At that time Stade Reims was one of the strongest teams in France and had won several titles; furthermore, they had already distinguished themselves in the European Cup by progressing to the finals in 1956 and 1959. It was clear that Burnley had an up-hill task in terms of emulating the earlier feats of the Busby Babes in progressing further in the competition.

The first leg was played at Turf Moor on 16th November 1960 in front of an attendance of over 37,000. Burnley dominated the first half and scored twice: McIlroy in the 25th minute, and then Jimmy Robson added the second five minutes before half-time. It placed Burnley in a strong position, especially the clean-sheet to cancel out the chance of a precious away-goal for the French side. The second leg was played at the end of November, with Robson again scoring in the first half to move the aggregate score to 3-0. Burnley were in a seemingly comfortable position, but the second half saw an onslaught from the wounded French team, who scored three goals. However, Burnley remained safe, especially with Connolly’s goal to gift another away-goal and to move the overall score to 4-3.

After Christmas, the competition resumed in the middle of January 1961. Burnley now faced the strong German champions Hamburg, with the first leg played at Turf Moor (in front of an enlarged crowd of 46,000). Enjoying home advantage, the left-winger Brian Pilkington scored early on in the 8th minute to give Burnley a delicate lead at the break. In the second half the Germans appeared to collapse: Pilkington scored a second in the 60th minute, and this was soon followed by another goal from Robson. 3-0 up and seemingly flying, Burnley became careless by conceding two minutes after nabbing their third. The score finished 3-1, but the consolidation goal gave the Germans some confidence.

Burnley spent the next two months concentrating on the English league before the return tie in Germany at the Volksparkstadion in the middle of March. The German crowd were baying for blood, with some estimates placing the figure of spectators as high as 70,000. Hamburg set out to claw back goals, managing to nab a first in the 8th minute, and then a second just before half-time. The score now was 3 a-piece, with Hamburg holding onto the crucial away-goal. However, 45 minutes remained in which Burnley held the prospect of scoring their own vital away goal (or goals). Ten minutes after the re-start Gordon Harris scored for Burnley, pushing the balance in the favour of Potts and his men. But, as had happened back at Turf Moor, Burnley were unable to hold onto this lead; within a minute Dorfel for Hamburg scored, placing the tie now completing on an equal footing at 4-4. Seemingly tiring, Burnley were unable to prevent another Hamburg goal twenty minutes later. The game ended 4-1 – the aggregate score 5-4 – and like that, Burnley were out of the European Cup.

Hamburg would go on to play Barcelona in the final: the two ties were not enough to separate them, with the Germans losing a special play-off tie. Barcelona went to the final, where they, in turn, lost to overall winners Benfica 3-2 at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern, West Germany.

What became of Potts and his team? In 1961 they finished second in the league and finalists in the FA Cup, but from there Burnley suffered decline. McIlroy was sold in 1963 to provide money for the club; although Potts remained throughout the decade, even managing a return to Europe in the form of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (what became the UEFA Cup) in 1966-67. It was to be Burnley’s last pop at European competition until the 21st Century under Sean Dyche in 2018; unluckily, the club were not able to successfully navigate themselves throughout all of the qualifying rounds. Considering this decades long gap out of Europe, it makes Potts’ achievements in 1960-61 all the more remarkable.