When little guys dream big: How a small town club from Luxembourg went to the ball in Europe

All the best stories follow a similar line. Firstly, there’s this little guy, unknown, quiet, but dedicated, never upsetting anyone, simply getting on with his ever-so-simple understated life. Deep down though, locked away in the secret secluded corner of his mind, where amazing hopes can survive untouched by the harsh cruelty of reality, he has his dream. He dreams about the day when everyone will know his name, recognise him, respect him and smile; when they’ll celebrate his achievements, and nod approvingly at him; when he becomes a big guy. It’s never going to happen of course, he’s sure of that, but he has his dream to keep him warm on the cold and lonely nights, and he keeps wishing.

Then, there’s this big guy. He’s OK. Quite often not a bad sort of chap really, but he’s hogged all the glory for himself, and when the little guy tangles with the big guy, the outcome is only going one way, isn’t it? Both the little guy and the big guy want to be on the big stage where all the brightest lights shine. Even if he gets there, the little guy knows he may not get a starring role. He may only appear briefly, but if he can just beat the big guy, he would have his ticket to the ball, get to mix with the big players, his wish would come true. It would be something no one could ever take away from. For a while at least, he’ll have become a big guy as well.

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Sadly, of course, dreams are mere whims of fancy. They’re rarely meant to be played out in real life. Never tested in real life. Never seen in real life. That little guy can wish all he likes, but to quote Lev Grossman, “If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.” Dreams are for stories, as novelist Grossman would confirm, and that’s where they stay. Well, perhaps. Sometimes, just sometimes, wishing can make it so, dreams get into stories, and stories get into real life, and the little guy does become the big guy. Sometimes, just like the stories that so often begin with, “Once upon a time…” the little guy gets to go to the ball. Don’t believe me? Well read on.

It’s not Freedonia from the Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup’ fame or even the Duchy of Grand Fenwick from ‘The Mouse that Roared’. However, in European footballing terms, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is just about as quiet and unassuming as it gets, and the clubs that compete in the lower reaches of the league structure are, for the most part, pretty much the archetypal little guys. That doesn’t mean they don’t have dreams of entering the big stage though, of getting to the ball and being amongst the stars. This is the story of one of those little guys, who lived the dream, whose wish came true. He got past the big guy, got to the ball and for a moment, frozen in time, he was a big guy. So, here we go. Once up on a time…

Hautcharage is a small town in the commune of Bascharage, tucked away in south-western Luxembourg, around two kilometres from the Belgian border. In 1970, its population was varyingly calculated at either 300 or 800, depending on whether you’re more convinced by German or Swiss figures in such matters. Regardless of whether you prefer Germanic efficiency or Swiss precision, it’s pretty safe to say that the real figure wasn’t threatening to break into four figures. With such a small population, it’s hardly surprising that, up to that same year, the town’s most famous sporting son was Henri Kellen, who appeared in the Luxembourg cycling team at the 1948 Olympics – without threatening the medal positions however. In 1971, all that changed.

F.C. Jeunesse Hautcharage were the local football team in the town. ‘Were’ being the operative word here, as will become clear later. The club were, very much in the way of our eponymous little guy, toddling along in the regionalised third tier of the Luxembourg league structure, unknown, quiet but dedicated, never upsetting anyone, simply getting on with its ever-so-simple understated life. Fiery ambition was hardly to the fore, and the players were very much amateurs, at a time when so many other clubs, even within the sleepy lower reaches of Luxembourgian football, had blurred that definition somewhat. At F.C. Jeunesse Hautcharage though, there were no payments, no appearance money, no bonuses and certainly no secret folded bank notes secreted in football boots to evade the taxman’s all-seeing glare.

Neither was there anything so grand as a kit man. Players were compelled to wash their own kits, and mend any damaged ones themselves. Replacements were not readily available, and even in the local regional league, there was often no organised travel arrangements for away fixtures. It wasn’t a team of butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers but, with four brothers, a one-armed winger and two players over 40 years of age as regular starters, plus the odd schoolboy or two on the bench, this was grassroots football at its very roots. This is the little guy. Well, the first one in our tale, anyway.

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The 1970-71 season would be particularly memorable for our little guy, F.C. Jeunesse Hautcharage. As it progressed, and they headed for the dizzying heights of promotion into Luxembourg’s second tier, their success in the league was echoed in the Luxembourg Cup, and they found themselves facing a semi-final tie against Union Luxembourg.

Based in the capital, Union had won the cup for the previous two seasons and had gone through the domestic season, to date, without losing a single game. Despite Jeunesse Hautcharage’s league successes, this relatively big guy was expecting a fairly comfortable passage on to the final to defend their crown once more. Union though, went the way of Goliath, felled by a stone from David’s sling.

The team from the village with less than a thousand inhabitants brushed aside the cup holders in a strangely one-sided game to become the first club from the third tier of the Luxembourg league structure ever to reach the domestic cup final. Now, you may think that’s a neat enough scenario for our little guy, but the story is far from finished.

Luxembourg’s second city, Esch-sur-Alzette, lies a dozen kilometres or so to the south of Hautcharage, and the football club based there is known as Jeunesse Esch. Although smaller than the capital, the population of Esch-sur-Alzette still dwarfs that of its neighbour, totalling some 35,000 or so. In terms of Luxembourg football, this is another big guy, and who Jeunesse Hautcharage were slated to play against in the final.

As well as coming from a relatively big town, Jeunesse Esch were also big guys in terms of success on the pitch. In the decade between 1967 and 1977, they won the Luxembourg National League on seven occasions, and were runners-up once. They had been champions in the year before Union dethroned them, and collecting the Luxembourg Cup would offer some compensation for the loss of their title. Although the triumph of Jeunesse Hautcharage had captured the romance of the competition in the country, with even country’s Grand Duke intrigued enough to attend the final, that little guy from 12 kilometres up the road were hardly going to present much of an obstacle, were they?

Whatever chances our little guy had of upsetting the odds took an early blow when one of their best players Rumelingen was forced off the field with injury. Despite the loss, Jeunesse Hautcharage carried their performance forward from the semi-final and for much of the game were the better team. It had certainly been against the run of play when Jeunesse Esch went in to half time with a goal lead. Unperturbed by the setback, they continued to press forward and received their rewards, when Klein equalised with as many minutes left on the clock as there were kilometres between the two towns.

With no further scoring by the end of the scheduled 90 minutes, the game went into extra-time. With the senior club being more experienced in such matters, and having five full Luxembourg international players in their ranks compared to Jeunesse Hautcharage’s grand total of zero, they would now surely step forward and exert their superiority.

Our little guy though had another stone to sling. In the 30 minutes of extra-time, they appeared both fitter and more resolute. The big guy wilted and, with Kisch being the dominant figure at 41 years of age, Jeunesse Hautcharage netted a further three goals to lift the trophy. Pretty impressive, eh? Hang on though. That’s not the end by a long way.

After the triumph, it quickly became clear just how important the club’s league success, in achieving promotion to Luxembourg’s second tier, had really been. UEFA had proclaimed in their somewhat typically vainglorious way, that only clubs from the first or second tier of each country’s league structure could compete in their competitions.

Had Jeunesse Hautcharage’s success in the cup not been mirrored in the league, they would have been ineligible for European competition. As it was though, when the draw was made for the 1971-72 European Cup Winners Cup, alongside the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Dynamo Moscow, Liverpool, Rangers, Red Star Belgrade and Torino was our little guy, now a big guy, on the big stage. Confounding Lev Grossman, Jeunesse Hautcharage had wished hard enough, and made it so.

They didn’t end up facing any of those clubs though. Instead, they were invited to go to the ball accompanied by probably the plum draw of all. The club from the town of less than a thousand inhabitants would play the European Cup Winners Cup holders, Chelsea. The West London club had defeated Real Madrid in the previous year’s final, pulling off their very own ‘little guy beats big guy’ success in their first year in European competition.

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Invitations to fancy balls come with a price tag though. Although travel to London wouldn’t be difficult to arrange, at least compared to any possible journeys to Moscow or Belgrade, there was still the problem of cost. For a club run on strictly amateur terms, with little or no income, the perils of paying for a party of players, staff and officials to travel to London, even without accomodation costs appeared prohibitive, and all of that was aside from the costs of ensuring their little ground was up to the required standard for the home leg. For a while, the invite to the ball sat on the mantelpiece, as our little guy sat and stared at it wistfully. So near and yet still just out of reach. Sadly, a withdrawal from the competition seemed inevitable. Fate and the little guy, eh? What are you going to do?

Well, just as Cinderella had her Fairy Godmother turn up at the last minute, Jeunesse Hautcharage had someone prepared to sprinkle a little magic dust and send our own Cinders to the ball. In nearby Bascharage, a local brewery stepped up to the plate and agreed to sponsor the trip to London. Cheers! A wonderfully magnanimous gesture, but also probably one that insured that the brewery’s beers were consumed in celebration for many a year afterwards.

What of the home leg, though? It seems the local mayor, either through reasons of civic pride, or with an eye on elections, was carried along and offered the club a grant of around £1,200 for the required temporary floodlights to be supplied and, with an electrician or two among the Hautcharage squad, there was plenty of expertise to get the system up and running. Cinderella, you shall go to the ball!

It may have been merely for press consumption, but Chelsea manager Dave Sexton appeared keen to show due respect to his prospective opponents. Ahead of the first leg, to be played out in Luxembourg, he announced that he would apply the same procedure as to any upcoming opposition, and send scouts to assess the club, their players and tactics. Others were far less courteous, and some in the press even decried the right of the little village club to play in such competitions. Fortunately, not much of that comment found its way to Hautcharage, and the elements that did were treated with appropriate disdain. The club had earned the right to be there. This was their day, and no one was going to spoil it for them.

On 14 September, at the Municipal stadium under the temporary floodlights with a brass band playing to encourage the home team along, German referee Ferdinand Biwersi blew his whistle and Jeunesse Hautcharage of the Luxembourg league’s second tier, a village of less than a thousand inhabitants kicked off against Chelsea, holders of the European Cup Winners Cup.

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The home team’s starting eleven comprised Lucien Fusulier, Fernand Felten, Eddy Welscher, Romain Schoder, Jean-Pierre Poos, Jean-Pierre Welscher, Rene Frantzen, Guy Thill, Andre Schrobiltgen, Lucien Welscher and Romain Kaiser. There’s no coincidence in the fact that three of the eleven are named Welscher. They were all brothers, and Eddy, Jean-Pierre and Lucien were joined by another sibling, when Raymond Welscher replaced Felten just turned the hour mark. Thill was the player born with only one arm, two were over 40 and one wore spectacles. Could this motley collection of enthusiastic amateurs overcome Chelsea?

Two minutes into the game, as Peter Osgood controlled a cross a shoot past Fusulier, the answer was clear for all to see. Six goals clear at half time, they eased down in the second period adding just two more strikes as the brass band played on regardless. It wasn’t like the band playing as the titanic sank, but the Jeunesse Hautcharage ship had hit its own iceberg. Later Sexton, ever diplomatic, opined that he was “pleased to have got eight goals away from home.” Osgood, who netted a hat trick in the game added that the team “were impressed in Luxembourg by the way the players stuck to their jobs and accepted the 8-0 thrashing with real dignity.”

In the return leg, all four Welscher brothers started the game and Thill would be joined by his familial member Jean-Marie after 70 minutes. By that time, however, Chelsea were nine goals clear and they’d add a further four to bring up the Baker’s Dozen by full-time. The aggregate total of 21-0 was the single biggest victory margin in European club competition, and is still to be surpassed.

Although surely a torrid experience for the Hautcharage players at the time, there’s perhaps an eternal magic for those who trod the turf in those games. For the Welscher brothers, the Thills, every over-age and every under-age player who competed on those evenings, nothing can take away the fact that they, the little guy, the club that no-one outside – and perhaps even many inside – of Luxembourg knew anything about had gone to the ball.

Could such a feat by the club ever be repeated? In 1997, that question was answered when Jeunesse Hautcharage merged with local rivals Union Sportive Bascharage to form UN Käerjéng 97. It meant that the team, who took the club into European competition would forever be remembered as the sporting heroes of the small town of Hautcharage. Everyone there knows their names, recognises them, respects them and smiles. They celebrate their achievements, and nod approvingly at them. The little guys who hit the big time. You’d think that would be the end of the story, and for Jeunesse Hautcharage it was. There’s a neat twist in the tail of this tale though.

‘Chelsea goal kings of Europe’, lauded the Daily Mirror the day after the 13-goal romp. Chelsea had skated through the opening phase of their defence of the trophy and, when in the next round, they were paired with little-known Swedish club, Åtvidabergs, they would have been confident of coasting into the quarterfinals. This little guy, however, although perhaps unknown and unheralded in England, were really not that little. They had been runners-up in the Allsvenskan – the top tier of Swedish football – and lifted the Svenska Cupen across the previous two years. They would also be national champions in both 1972 and 1973, and had acquired the services of teenage striker Ralf Edström, who would go on to perform outstandingly for Sweden in the 1974 World Cup.

Whether there was any residual overconfidence from the previous round, an inflated belief in the press reports that were already looking towards who the Blues would face in the last eight, or merely a bad night at the office, the visit to Sweden for the first leg on a cold night in mid-October hardly went to plan. Manager, Sven-Agne Larsson, had his team well organised and Sexton’s players failed to break down the Swedes, coming away with a goalless draw. A shot against the bar being the nearest they came to a goal on a muddy, cloying pitch. Although it meant any victory at home – surely not something beyond Chelsea in front of their own fans – would take them through, that haunting nag of not collecting an away goal gnawing at the back of their minds would come back to haunt them.

Slightly more than 10,000 fans had packed into Åtvidabergs’ Kopparvallen stadium for the first-leg, but back at Stamford Bridge, a crowd of nearly 30,000 gathered, expecting another goal fest. After a frustrating first 45 minutes, however, the mood of expectant celebration had turned to one of irritated tension, as the resolute Swedes defended with purpose and vigour. Fortunately, just after the restart, Alan Hudson put the home team ahead and, if it wasn’t to be a thumping victory, the fans reconciled themselves that any win would do.

You remember David and that slingshot though? Roland Sandberg had arrived at Åtvidabergs from Kalmar FF in January 1970, and on 67 minutes, he wrote his name into the annals of the club’s history when he scored the equaliser. That absent away goal from the first leg would prove decisive as Chelsea blustered and bustled, but couldn’t find another way through the Swedish defence. At the end of the game, the big guy, who had beaten the little guy who had become a big guy by beating two other big guys, had fallen to a little guy. And, given that, it’s probably as well that it’s where we end this tale.

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At such times, it is traditional to say, “And they all lived happily ever after,” of course. But not so much in this case. As mentioned, Jeunesse Hautcharage would even cease to exist a couple of decades later. Sven-Agne Larsson would leave Åtvidabergs after a single season, and Roland Sandberg left to join 1.FC Kaiserslautern in July 1973. Åtvidabergs would never win another top tier trophy, and also endure relegation to the Superettan, Sweden’s second tier. In West London, after apparent rifts with Osgood and Hudson, both who were sold, Sexton endured a troubled start to the 1974-75 season and was sacked. Chelsea would be relegated at the end of the season.

In today’s hard-nosed money-orientated football, romance is often subsumed by the irresistible force of finance, and stories of mice that roared are increasingly hard to find. At such times though, there’s a delicious exception in stories like this, and if they ever disappear totally, the game will surely be the poorer for it. Long should the little guy reign. I’m wishing hard enough for it to be so.

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