In 1960 Glenavon once again qualified for the European Cup this time they were matched against East German club Wismut Karl Marx Stadt but due to British-East German relations at the time both clubs were denied visas to enter each other’s country. Glenavon were not in a position financially to play both legs in a neutral country and therefore had to withdraw from the competition giving the East German side a walkover to the First Round proper.
In 1961 the NI League Title had gone back to Linfield giving them European qualification, Linfield were drawn against East German side Vorwarts Berlin. The first leg was a comprehensive 3-0 home victory for the German side before they were denied entry to the UK. Again due to financial implications Linfield were forced to withdraw from the competition giving Berlin passage to the next round. In the same year Glenavon were the first NI club to participate in the Cup Winner’s Cup, qualifying as the previous season’s Irish Cup winners. Glenavon took on Leicester City losing 7-2 on aggregate.
1962 saw Linfield retain the league and were then drawn against Danish team Esbjerg in the European Cup. A 2-1 defeat at home was followed by a hard fought scoreless draw in Denmark. Portadown played their first European tie in the Cup Winner’s Cup against Yugoslavia’s OFK Beograd in the First Round, it was a 7-4 aggregate win for OFK Beograd despite Portadown’s second leg victory. 1962 was the first time a Northern Irish club took part in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup – Glentoran took on Real Zaragoza but the gap in quality was made obvious by the 8-2 aggregate defeat.
In 1963 Distillery (at this time based in Belfast) made their debut in the European Cup. A 3-3 draw in Belfast was followed by a 5-0 loss in Lisbon inspired by the famous Eusebio. Linfield were the Cup Winner’s Cup entrants and were rewarded with a tie against Turkish giants Fenerbahce in the 2nd Round after a 1st Round bye. Fenerbahce’s 4-1 home victory was enough to see them through despite sweating through a 2-0 defeat away in Belfast. Glentoran returned to the Fairs Cup but could only accept a 7-1 aggregate defeat from Scottish club Partick Thistle.
In 1964 Glentoran won their first league title for over a decade qualifying for a European Cup tie against Panathinaikos. It was a close match up as the sides drew 2-2 in Belfast before Panathinaikos scraped the second leg 3-2 to win on aggregate. This year was Derry City’s first European match up by virtue of their Irish Cup win, a tie in the Cup Winner’s Cup against Steaua Bucuresti. Over two legs the Romania side scored 5 goals without reply to advance.
In 1965 Derry City won their first league title and played in the European Cup. They became the first Irish League side to advance in the competition by beating Norway’s Lyn Oslo 8-6 in the Preliminary Round, Derry then were outclassed in Brussels 9-0 by Anderlecht but withdrew before the home leg as the Irish FA declared their ground was not fit for the competition. Coleraine made an appearance in the Cup Winner’s Cup but were demolished 10-1 by Soviet Union’s Dynamo Kyiv. Glentoran returned to the Fairs Cup to take on Royal Antwerp, the Belgian side’s 1-0 first leg victory helped see them through as they drew the second leg 3-3.
In 1966/67 Linfield eclipsed Derry City’s success and made it to the Quarter Finals of the European Cup! A 9-4 victory over Luxembourg’s Aris in the First Round was followed by a 5-2 victory over Norwegian side Valerenga. The Quarter Final against Bulgaria’s CSKA Red Flag was evenly matched with a 2-2 draw in the first leg but Red Flag managed to secure a 1-0 victory in the second leg in Sofia. In 1966 Glentoran played in the Cup Winner’s Cup for the first time, they were matched with Glasgow giants Rangers. A massive crowd turned out at The Oval for the first leg which ended 1-1 before Rangers secured the 4-0 victory at Ibrox.
In 1967 Glentoran returned to the European Cup for one of their greatest occasions. The Glens took on Eusebio’s Benfica and were knocked out on away goals thanks to a late goal from the Black Pearl himself in the first leg in a 1-1 draw. The second leg was a fantastic performance from Glentoran to hold the European giants to a scoreless draw in Lisbon. North Belfast’s Crusaders made their Europe debut against Valencia in the Cup Winner’s Cup, a tie that ended in a comprehensive 8-2 aggregate defeat for the Crues. Linfield competed in the Fairs Cup for the first time and took on Lokomotive Leipzig – actually managing to complete both legs – the Belfast side were on the end of a 5-2 aggregate defeat.
In 1968 Glentoran took on Anderlecht in the European Cup, a 3-0 first leg defeat in Anderlecht was followed by a well-deserved 2-2 draw in Belfast. Crusaders again played in the Cup Winner’s Cup drawing 2-2 in the first leg with Sweden’s IFK Norrkoping before succumbing to a 4-1 defeat in the second leg. Linfield were the Fairs Cup representatives again this time against Portuguese club Vitoria de Setubal. The Portuguese side were too strong and recorded a 6-1 aggregate victory.
The 1969 European Cup matched Linfield against Yugoslavian powerhouses Red Star Belgrade. The gulf in class was immediately obvious by the 12-2 aggregate victory for the Belgrade club. Ards returned to European football after a long absence with a Cup Winner’s Cup match up against Italy’s Roma. A somewhat surprising 0-0 first leg was followed by a 3-1 win for the Rome side in the second leg. Coleraine and Glentoran both competed in the Fairs Cup in this year. Glentoran lost out 3-1 to eventual winners Arsenal despite winning the second leg. Coleraine beat Luxembourg’s Jueunesse Esch 6-3 thanks to a 4-0 victory in the second leg. This set up a tie with Anderlecht who blew Coleraine away with a 13-4 aggregate win – Anderlecht were the side beaten by Arsenal in the final.
European Competition really ramped up in the 1960s in Northern Ireland in what was a difficult time politically as The Troubles began to erupt. It was this political and social turmoil that was to shape a change in Irish League football in the 70s…