A look back at Olympique Lyonnais’ first ever visit to Britain, in October 1961.
Match Date: Wednesday 4th October 1961, K.O. 19:15.
Venue: Hillsborough, Sheffield.
Competition: Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (First Round, Second Leg)
Nineteen Sixty One had already been a momentous year. John F Kennedy had been inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States, Yuri Gagarin had become the first person in space, a wall had sprung up across Berlin and, in early October, Olympique Lyonnais arrived in Sheffield for their first ever match on British soil.
Back home, France could see light at the end of the tunnel as seven years of war in Algeria approached its denouement with a cease-fire negotiated by President Charles de Gaulle. In Britain, Harold Macmillan was in Number 10 and a cultural revolution was underway as the country drew a veil over the post-war austerity period and embraced the Swinging Sixties.
The first ever episode of Songs of Praise was broadcast on BBC1 on the Sunday evening prior to Lyon’s arrival in England, but the travelling party would have found a very different type of music sweeping the county. Ricky Valance was at number one in the charts with ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, having displaced The Shadows and ‘Apache’ from top spot, and would in turn be unseated by Roy Orbison with ‘Only the Lonely’. Earlier that year, a young band called The Beatles had started to tour.
In the sporting world, Jacques Anquetil had just won the second of his five Tours de France, Benfica had become the first club other than Real Madrid to win the European Cup, and Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham had become the first team to complete the English League and FA Cup double since the turn of the century. Sir Stanley Rous was elected President of FIFA just six days before this match took place.
There could hardly have been a bigger difference in pedigree between the two clubs. Formed in 1950, Lyon had only been around for eleven years and had just eight seasons in the top flight under their belt, with a highest finish of eighth, when they set foot in England for the first time. Their opponents, Sheffield Wednesday, were just six years shy of their centenary and had been English champions on four occasions, most recently in 1930.
Lyon had only finished fifteenth in Division 1 the previous season, but were invited to represent France in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup alongside Racing Club de Strasbourg, who had themselves only finished fourth in Division 2. The tournament, which was in its fourth edition, had been conceived as a competition between European cities that host trade fairs and consequently didn’t necessarily incorporate the highest placed teams from each country.
However, Sheffield Wednesday would have qualified for Europe on merit had it been based on final league positions alone, as they had been runners-up to the all-conquering Spurs team in the English First Division. This tie was Sheffield Wednesday’s very first taste of European competition. Lyon had been in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup twice previously, in 1958-59 and in 1960-61, but they had gone out at the first hurdle on both occasions.
Both clubs had changed manager during the previous summer. Wednesday’s Harry Catterick had jumped ship to Everton on the back of his success with The Owls, to be replaced by Vic Buckingham, who had returned to his homeland following his first stint with Ajax. Lyon had replaced Gabriel Robert with Manuel Fernández, who had previously been player-manager with the Saint-Etienne reserves.
The Form Book
Lyon had won the first leg of the tie 4-2 at the Stade de Gerland three weeks earlier. A goal from Angel Rambert followed by a brace from Eugène N’Jo Léa had put Lyon 3-0 up at half time, but Wednesday fought back in the second period with goals from Young and Ellis before Nestor Combin struck in the last minute to give Lyon a two goal advantage to take to England.
Lyon’s league form had been fairly inconsistent thus far, with five wins and four defeats in their opening nine Division 1 games, but they posed a potent attacking threat, having scored in every match, and had won two on the bounce going into this return leg. They won 2-1 away at Le Havre on the Sunday prior to their visit to Sheffield.
Sheffield Wednesday were having an average start to the season, having won four, drawn two and lost four of their opening ten games, but they were without a win in five going into the Lyon match and had been thrashed 4-1 at home by Ipswich Town on the Saturday before they faced the French outfit.
The programme was thin pamphlet, priced at ‘tuppence’, which introduced the visiting team as ‘Olympique Lyons’ on the front cover and used the anglicised ‘Lyons’ version of the city name throughout. The centre spread displayed the expected line-ups for both teams opposite a column greeting the visitors and giving a bit of background information on the Fairs Cup competition. The back page article provided an overview of the Lyon team and French football in general.
Lyon were welcomed as the first French visitors to Hillsborough, with the ground having previously hosted a dozen friendlies against opposition from elsewhere on the continent. The expected crowd of around 50,000 was urged ‘to help roar Wednesday to success‘ as the author reminded those in attendance that Lyon held a two goal lead and ‘will not surrender without putting up a bonny fight‘.
On the back page, the author remarked on ‘how little we know about French football‘ before summarising some major French contributions to world football development. With regards to the domestic game in the country, he posited that ‘in France professional players are numbered in hundreds compared to Britain’s thousands‘ and ‘the majority of people in this part of England never knew of the existence of Olympique Lyonnais‘ before the draw was made.
On the match itself, the author was expecting ‘a really menacing challenge‘ from Lyon and the programme identified four players to watch out for from the visiting squad, with the star man said to be Eugène N’Jo Léa. N’Jo Léa was described as ‘a 33-year-old coloured centre-forward‘ in the vernacular of the day. Unfortunately neither he nor the youngster Di Nallo (who was also singled out) would feature in this match.
The Lyon wingers also got an honourable mention with Robert Salen being described as ‘a little fellow‘ with ‘tremendous speed‘ and having ‘a perfect understanding‘ with the ‘South American‘ Angel Rambert on the opposite flank.
There were a couple of misprints in the team sheet section. Lyon striker Nestor Combin’s name was printed as ‘Combir’ and the referee was listed as ‘A Croffsman’ rather than Arthur Crossman from Edinburgh.
Lyon struck an early blow under the floodlights at Hillsborough with a goal from Salen after only six minutes to put them 5-2 ahead on aggregate, leaving Sheffield Wednesday with a mountain to climb. Spurred into action, the Owls hit back almost immediately through a flicked header from Fantham. Griffin got their second before a penalty converted by McAnearney mid-way through the first half levelled the tie at 5-5 on aggregate with the momentum very much behind the home side.
Lyon managed to steady the ship and it was still nicely poised at the interval, with Wednesday leading 3-1 on the night but nothing to choose between the two teams overall. It stayed that way through much of the second period until man-of-the-match Colin Dobson scored a fourth for the Owls and precipitated a lively finale. Djorkaeff replied for Lyon three minutes later to make it six apiece on aggregate and it looked as though a play-off match might be required to separate the teams.
However, Sheffield Wednesday striker Johnny Fantham, who had won his first (and only) England cap six days earlier in a World Cup Qualifier against Luxembourg at Highbury, had other ideas. He headed home his second of the game with just five minutes left on the clock to make it 5-2 on the night and complete the turn-around for a 7-6 aggregate victory. The Lyon team felt there had been an infringement and contested the winner, but their protests fell on deaf ears and they were consigned to another first round exit from the competition.
Sheffield Wednesday went on to beat holders Roma 4-1 on aggregate in the second round before succumbing 3-4 on aggregate to eventual runners-up Barcelona in the quarter-finals. Both Lyon and Sheffield Wednesday were absent from European competition the following season, but were back on the scene in 1963-64 when Lyon made it to the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup and Wednesday to the second round of the Fairs Cup.
Lyon featured in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup on one further occasion, in the 1968-69 season, when they reached the second round, before the competition itself was discontinued at the end of the 1970-71 edition and replaced by the UEFA Cup. A short-lived UEFA Cup campaign in 1992-93 and a foray into the Intertoto Cup in 1995 are Sheffield Wednesday’s only other experiences of European competition, so their run to the Fairs Cup quarter-finals following this win over Lyon actually represents their best ever performance in Europe.
Lyon’s league form deteriorated following their trip to Hillsborough and they ended up finishing sixteenth of twenty teams in Division 1, avoiding relegation by three points. Manager Manuel Fernández was replaced by Lucien Jasseron at the end of the season. Sheffield Wednesday improved slightly and eventually finished in sixth place in the league table, ten points behind champions Ipswich Town.
The paths of Lyon and Sheffield Wednesday have yet to cross again since this match and Lyon didn’t return to Yorkshire for almost 57 years, until a pre-season friendly against Huddersfield in 2018.
The Sheffield Wednesday team that evening contained several players of note. Perhaps foremost among them was goalkeeper Ron Springett, who won thirty-three caps for England and was in the 1966 World Cup winning squad, belatedly receiving his winner’s medal in 2009.
Three players from the line-up – Alan Finney, Don Megson and Johnny Fantham – are in the top ten of all-time appearances for Wednesday and Fantham is the club’s top post-war goal-scorer. Don Megson’s son Gary would also play for (and manage) the club.
In addition to Springett and Fantham, Peter Swan and Tony Kay also won full England caps during their careers. However, the latter pair would soon become infamous for their involvement in a betting scandal that saw them serve time in prison. In December 1962 they agreed to ‘throw’ a match and placed money on Sheffield Wednesday losing against Ipswich, which they subsequently did, 2-0. They were sentenced to four months in custody when their scheme was uncovered in 1964 and also received life bans from football (later reduced to seven years on appeal).
The Lyon line-up contained two future club managers in Aimé Mignot, who would coach the club for seven and a half years between 1968 and 1976, and Marcel Le Borgne, who would have a short spell at the helm in 1988. Jean Djorkaeff was a future Saint-Étienne manager.
Naturalised Argentinians Nestor Combin and Angel Rambert both won international caps for France, as did Djorkaeff, who is the father of future France World Cup and European Championship winner Youri Djorkaeff. Rambert’s son Sebastián was also a professional footballer and he represented Argentina internationally in the 1990s.
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Marcel Le Borgne
Goals: Salen (6′), Fantham (9′), Griffin (14′), McAnearney (20′ pen), Dobson (78′), Djorkaeff (81′), Fantham (85′)
Referee: Arthur Crossman