Were part-time Montrose FC really just a whisker away from qualifying for Europe 45 years ago?
The Gable Endies were realistically 90 seconds away from playing in the European Cup Winners’ Cup before they lost out in the cruellest of fashions.
It took Premier League Hearts three matches and 330 minutes to knock Alex Stuart’s second-tier side out of the Scottish Cup.
Three epic games took place back in March 1976
Montrose were leading 2-1 on March 6 1976 in the quarter-final at Links Park in front of 8,200 fans with goals from Malcolm Lowe and Ian Stewart before Graham Shaw scored a last-gasp equaliser for the Jam Tarts in injury time.
Harry Johnston and Les Barr then put Montrose 2-0 up in the replay before Hearts tore into their tiring opponents and fought back to take the game to extra-time.
The two clubs failed to agree on a neutral venue for the second replay after Hearts wanted the game to be played at Easter Road and Montrose asked for Dundee.
The SFA ruled the third game would take place in Perth and if there was a deadlock after two hours they would meet every night until there was a winner.
Montrose went 1-0 up in the third game which went to extra-time before Hearts won the marathon tie 2-1.
Hearts had not been in front against their leg-weary First Division opponents until the extra-time winner.
Had they won Montrose would have played Dumbarton in the semi-final and had already beaten them 6-0 in the league at Boghead just a few weeks earlier.
Instead it was Hearts that won a semi-final replay over Dumbarton where a certain Walter Smith helped them reach the final by scoring an own goal.
Hearts lost 3-1 to Rangers in the Hampden showpiece but qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup as Rangers had already won the league.
Montrose would have been firm favourites
Montrose legend Ian Stewart said the unforgettable season is tinged with sadness at what might have been had the cards fallen differently.
“45 years is a long time but some days it feels like just yesterday,” he said.
“Could we have made Europe?
“The answer is that we all love to dream and having beaten Dumbarton 6-0 at Boghead earlier in the season we would have been firm favourites to make the final.
“Of course it’s a dream but all footballers love to do that.
“Why should we not dream?
“That’s the thing that keeps us going when we get older and look back on what might have been.”
The 1975-76 season was remarkable due to the fact that although there were only 26 league games the Gable Endies actually played 22 cup games that season including the Spring Cup which was introduced to make up more fixtures.
Montrose had already gone one better than a national cup quarter-final earlier in the season, having reached a Hampden semi-final against Rangers in the League Cup.
The Gable Endies led Rangers 1-0 well into the second-half and hit the post before Rangers broke away from the rebound to equalise and went on to win 5-1.
A golden era for everyone associated with Montrose
“This was the first time in living memory that an Angus team had the opportunity to make the finals of two cup competitions,” said Ian.
“The 1975-76 campaign was a golden era and it was so special for the team, the supporters and everyone associated with Montrose FC.
“My memory is one of great achievement but saddened by an opportunity missed and only full-time training saw Hearts take the spoils in the third game.
“Graham Shaw and Jim Jefferies both told me that they thought they were beaten in all three games against us.”
The defeat was bittersweet for Ian who grew up 100 yards from Muirton Park and used to jump over the wall every Saturday to support St Johnstone.
He also played his first senior game for St Johnstone reserves as a trialist against Celtic alongside Alex Ferguson who he would cross swords with later in management.
“I was a St Johnstone fan and I wish I could have played for them,” he said.
“I look back on those days with a mixture of pride and humility because there were so many good families who helped each other when things were really tough.
“People were out of work and watching St Johnstone on a Saturday was what we all looked forward to and this was our chance to dream of better days.
“These were hard days but characters were built and friendships were made which have endured until this day.
“The Montrose team which played that day at Muirton Park reminded me of all these people I had grown up with and who deserved to succeed.
“They were good guys and most of them went on to achieve further success in football and in their everyday life.
“They deserved it.”
Ian got his revenge against Hearts 10 years later
Ian left Links Park in 1978 but would return to manage Montrose from 1983-1990 where he guided the club to the Division Two title in 1984-85.
He even got his revenge on Hearts when his side bundled them out of the League Cup at Tynecastle in 1986.
It brought to an end Hearts’ unbeaten home run which had extended to 15 months following a season where they lost the title to Celtic on the final day.
In that time Hearts had scored in every home match, until the Mo came to town.
“This was an exceptional Hearts team – the best in the last 45 years-plus,” he said.
“The other two Hearts teams I played against and scored against were reasonable teams but not close to the side that Montrose beat at Tynecastle which was a fortress.
“I would have preferred to have been known as a player Hearts but managing that team on that sunny evening at Tynecastle and the celebrations at the Crammond Brig Hotel just outside Edinburgh which went on into the wee small hours were a sight to behold.”
Club historian Steve Doyle believes 1975-76 was the club’s best-ever season even though two championships have since been won.
“In 1973 Alex Stuart retired as a player with Montrose and became the manager,” he said.
“From that point on they steadily made progress from being a low to mid-table Division Two side to eighth place out of 19 teams in the 1973-74 season.
“The following 1974-75 season saw them finish third off the top and gain promotion to the new First Division, and but for a defeat in the very last game, a home game as well, they would have won the championship.
“There were some big names in the First Division so it was going to be a big ask and I bet not many outside of Links Park would have put money on how the season would pan out for the Mo.
“Memories like that last a lifetime and most of the players of that time are still in touch and meet up at reunion days each season – all still very much part of the Montrose FC family.”
Three game saga keeps club historian up at night
Steve said the three game saga against Hearts still keeps him awake at night because the Gable Endies were seconds away from winning the first game at Links Park.
“By the time the replays started both clubs knew who their opponents would be in the semi-final – it would be Division Two side Dumbarton,” he said.
“That gave added incentive to both teams, particularly to Montrose who had just won a league game 6-0 away at Dumbarton.
“Surely they would beat them in the semi-final as well?
“Hence, but for referee Harry Alexander playing so much stoppage time in the first game against Hearts it might well have been Montrose in the final and ending up playing in Europe.
“As it was, Hearts beat Dumbarton, lost to Rangers and they instead played in Europe against Lokomotive Leipzig from East Germany.
“A few ifs and buts in there but you will agree just how close wee Montrose came to that impossible dream.”