The best of the league consisted of 7 clubs. The final table provides misleading ‘clarity’ – the obvious weak teams were relegated and at the top there was also ‘a perfect order’, placing every club neatly according to predictable and traditional strength. The details are hidden somewhat, but could be easily traced. There is nothing wrong with the final table, of course, but the details repeal why.
Velez (Mostar) finished 7th with 35 points, but worse goal-difference than their immediate rivals.
Not bad, Velez were lovely underdogs in the 1970s. Yet, the peak of the squad was perhaps a year or two back and now they were reaching the crucial moment of starting a new team. At their best, Velez was not really able to challenge the big Croat and Belgrade clubs – the were strong enough to be among the best 4 or 5, but not strong enough to win a title. The fate of smaller clubs… Now they seemingly moved down a tiny bit and unless making changes they were in danger. Yet, they were still stronger than most of the league.
The club just before Velez was their opposite: Sloboda (Tuzla), a smaller than Velez Bosnian club, was bravely going up since 1969 when they emerged from the second division. Perhaps 1877-78 was their finest season so far – they had experience and balance, reaching their peak.
Led by the local legend Mustafa Hukic, still 27 years old, the modest boys from the mining town of Tuzla soared, but… to a point. No matter what, they were small club, having no chance of keeping their best players and recruiting stars from elsewhere was unthinkable. Their best was pretty much the region between 4-8 place. With luck, they could stay there for a few more years – after all, the real danger for them was fame: once their top players were noted, they were to be snapped either from the big clubs, or just go abroad. It was good running for the moment and had to be enjoyed also for the moment.
Another similar to Sloboda club was also rising: the Croatian NK Rijeka. They finished 5th, two points ahead of Sloboda and Velez, tied with Dinamo (Zagreb), but with worse goal-difference. Tiny detail… inevitably making the difference between big and small. Rijeka played well, they reached their finest ever time, but were the third strongest Croatian club and therefore unable to build and preserve extraordinary squad. It was admirable that they were able to meddle with the big clubs, but it was also clear that Rijeka was not to win the championship.
Rijeka played well in the championship, but it was not all – they had a much better moment to enjoy.
Dinamo (Zagreb) finished 4th. Same points like NK Rijeka – 37 – but better goal-difference.
Another club on the rise, but not yet at its peak. Dinamo struggled in the previous years, suffering a decline, which still kept them above most of the league members, but nothing much. Eventually Dinamo got a new talented generation of players and started its recovery after 1975. So far, the team was not ripe yet for success, but steadily going up. Fourth place was fair – they were not ready yet.
Hajduk (Split) however was going the opposite way. Bronze medals for them this year, but it was dangerous moment. The team reached its peak about 1975 and that was that – for the first time since 1970 Hajduk was not in the race for the title. The inertia was strong and they left Dinamo, Rijeka, Sloboda, and Velez behind, but… not far behind.
The trouble was that it was almost impossible to detect a problem. Hajduk was similar to Borussia (Moenchengladbach), PSV Eindhoven, Saint Etienne, and Leeds United – strong, exciting clubs, with sound policy, avoiding the trap of letting a great squad become too old and collapse. They constantly and carefully reshaped year after year, seemingly getting more and more solid. There was no way to envision a problem, they stayed on top for years, but… somehow never fulfilled their rich potential on international level. Hajduk, at its peak, was unable to go really far in the European tournaments, and now it stuck – a squad full of national team players, individually ranking very high. None was old – the oldest one, Jurica Jerkovic, was 28. The age clouded the problem – the boys appeared still young enough, even younger ones were coming every year, and on the surface it looked like they still had time to really soar. But the team as a team was getting old – most of the players were around for years. The signal was ominous: Hajduk finished third, but did not play any role in the contest for the title – the second placed team had 10 points more. Hajduk was actually fighting for better position with Dinamo, Rijeka, Sloboda, and Velez. Perilous season, in a way.
So, at the end the championship was contested, in a way, by the Belgrade giants. The rivalry was hot as ever, but the opponents were in very different situations, mirroring the group just bellow them. Crvena zvezda successfully changed generations without real pain. The new team was based on Vladimir Petrovic, who moved to midfield position. Bogicevic was still in the squad, but ready to abroad. The rest was talented group – Sestic, Zec, Muslin, Filipovic, Jovanovic, Savic. May be not as great individually as the previous squad, but impressive nevertheless. It was a squad nearing its peak, but was not there yet and it showed – they finished second, leaving the rest of the league far, far behind – 10 points more than 3rd placed Hajduk – but in the same time trailed 5 points behind the champions.
This squad was on the brink of their greatest season, but not there yet. Of course, second place is almost a disaster for a club like Crvena zvezda, especially when their archenemy was first, but the future was theirs. A novelty: Crvena zvezda played with Admiral kit – very unusual choice for East European club. Those were the years when the British firm tried to expand beyond Great Britain, however reluctantly and may be even late.
Confident and very familiar champions – 8th title for Partizan (Belgrade).
On the surface, dominant leaders – 5 points ahead of the nearest pursuer, 22 wins and only 2 losses, 55:19 goal-difference. Second best attack, unrivaled defense. Supreme… were they? Partizan in the 1970s was not great – they stayed on top, won the odd title, but were never impressive. A look of their players perhaps explains why: Partizan did not have first-rate stars. It was mostly composed of players who ranked second or third at their respective positions. Yes, national team players, but not regulars. Unlike Crvena zvezda, combining their own production with young talent from elsewhere, and Hajduk, depending almost exclusively on their own junior system, Partizan recruited mostly established stars from other clubs – and since they were either old, or not exactly first-rate stars, Partizan was solid, but not great. This year they had the veteran striker Santrac, who came back from foreign spell pretty much to finish his career; the goalkeeper Petar Borota, Hatunic… one too old, the other two never became regulars in the national team and it was clear by now they will never be. The three made their names playing for other clubs, typical for Partizan. The won a title, but to a point it was mostly because of lack of opposition – a solid and experienced squad easily filled the vacuum. As they did a few years back, when Crvena zvezda was shaky and in the midst of generational change.
Top row, from left: Arsenovic, Hatunic, Stojkovic, Zalad, Dzordzevic, Pejovic, Masic
Middle: Jovic, Golac, Dzuric, Borota, Prekazi, Grubjesic, Jesic
Sitting: Trifunovic, Kunovac, Polak, Santrac, Klincarski, Vukotic, Zavisic.
Whatever the weaknesses of Partizan, champions are champions. It was especially nice to see Slobodan Santrac winning a title at the twilight of his career – he played for small OFK Beograd in his best years and naturally a title was outside the club’s reach.