The Lisbon Lions

European cup final Thursday 25th May 1967

The National Stadium in Cardiff, plays host to this year’s Champions League final, where the cream the globe’s footballing talent will be on show for this end of season prestige event. This jewel in UEFA’s crown will see players from Europe, South America and beyond competing for the ultimate prize in club football. Teams made up of players from the four corners of the globe are commonplace nowadays, however there is a story from football’s past which saw a team of men who were all born within 30 miles of their team’s ground in the East end of Glasgow, take on Europe’s elite and return home not just with the European cup, but with their names written in the history books.

Glasgow Celtic under the stewardship of the late, great, Jock Stein, went to Lisbon in May 1967 and faced an Inter Milan side who had won 2 of the previous 3 European cup finals. Celtic had earned their place in the final playing a brand of attacking football which was at times breathtaking. Stein had an unshakeable belief in playing football on the front foot, indeed it was in his DNA to play in such a way. In the opposing dugout was Argentinean, Helenio Herrera, architect of catennaccio (Italian for door bolt). A cynical form of defensive football based on stifling creativity. Negative and unattractive to the eye, fascism in a football formation.

The styles of the two managers could not be further apart, the Argentinean’s pragmatism against Steins’ belief in the game’s most romantic possibilities. Jock Stein was having an Indian summer of a career at Celtic. Until joining the club aged 27 in 1951, he had worked underground as a miner in his home town of Burnbank. Working day in day out, shoulder to shoulder, with men who knew the real value of teamwork. More than that, the nature of their worked taught them that it could really be a matter of life and death if each man did not look out for his fellow collier. On leaving the pits, Stein would affectionally admit that he would never be around better men than when he was underground. Those simple principals of camaraderie, team work and looking out for your fellow shaped professional football career, especially management. After a playing career cut short by an ankle injury, he retired in the 1955/56 season, returning a year later to take charge of the youth team. This included future Captain Billie McNeill and players John Clarke and Jim Conway.

Jock would give this trio of youngsters a lift to and from training in the car the club had given him in recognition of his appointment. During these car journeys Jock and his young charges would talk for hours on all aspects of the game and occasionally enjoy a fish supper. The histories of both Celtic and Rangers football clubs are inseparable from Religion, and in 1960 Stein was informed by the clubs’ chairman Sir Robert Kelly, he had gone as far as he would go at the club and was dismissed.

The Scots are however, a pragmatic people and five trophy less years later, the club asked him to return. Stein had enjoyed spells at both Dunfermline and Hibernian and relished a return to Parkhead. A number of players Stein had mentored in the youth team were starting to make a name for themselves in the first team including the man who would lift the trophy two years later in Lisbon, Billie McNeill. McNeill the son of a Black Watch soldier was nicknamed Caesar by his team mates and had the air of authority which made him a natural leader of men. Another player who would play a key role in the 1967 final Bertie Auld a former Celtic youth team player, who had returned to the club from Birmingham for £15,000. A tenacious granite hard player Auld would epitomise the character of Stein’s teams and would indeed go on to win 9 titles in a row with this legendary side. If Auld and McNeill offered resilience and street fighter toughness, the player who would bring magic to the team was mercurial winger Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone. A player who could move across the ground with effortless ease, avoiding defenders. In one European game against the French champions Nantes, the player charged with trying to stifle Johnstone’s creativity remarked that marking him was akin to “trying to pin an ocean wave onto the beach”. Such was Johnson’s ability, Sean Fallon, Stein’s assistant during these glory years would admit that the ginger wizard was Jock’s favourite player and watching old film of the player, it’s hard not to concur.

Stevie Chalmers the player who would score the winning goal on that hot balmy night in Portugal’s capital, almost never made the game at all. In 1955 aged twenty, he contracted the dreaded disease T.B meningitis and was given just three weeks to live. At that time this terrible disease could boast a 100% fatality rate. Chalmers saviour was a doctor called Peter McKenzie, ironically a Rangers supporter, who had devised a radical “miracle cure” and proceeded to work tirelessly to save the life of the future Celtic match winner. After recovering from his illness, the impeccably mannered Chalmers wrote to the doctor thanking him for saving his life. He signed off by saying “my success is your success, thank you”. In his first season back at the club (1965-66) Stein and his Celtic team achieved a league and cup double. Winning the league title in 1966 gave Celtic a passport to the holy grail of the European Cup. Like most forward thinking managers at the time, including Stein’s friend and fellow countryman Sir Matt Busby, whose Manchester United team would capture the trophy the following year, Jock knew the future of competition lay on the shores of Europe. The European cup offered modern managers the opportunity to lock horns with the cream of Europe.

The following season they won the league title again, clinching the honour at the home of their fiercest rivals, Rangers. In the crowd that day was the manager of their opponents in the forthcoming final in Lisbon, Herrera. Celtic took their attacking free flowing football into the European cup competition, winning many friends and admirers on the way. Listed below is Celtics route to the final:

1st round               Zurich (Switzerland                             5-0 on aggregate

2nd round              Nantes (France)                                 6-2 on aggregate

Quarter final          FK Vojvodina (Serbia)                         6-2 on aggregate

Semi final              Dukla Prague (Czechoslavakia) 3-1 on aggregate

A total of 20 goals scored with only 5 conceded, make impressive reading and gave Celtic the appearance of a team strong in all aspects of the game from defence to attack. These are the days before budget flights when European travel was truly an Adventure and Celtic’s fanatical fans faced the logistics of travelling to the final in Lisbon. Around 10,000 members of the Glasgow branch of the Tartan expeditionary force set off for the 2,000 mile trip to the final through France, Switzerland and Franco’s Spain. The fans cars were bedecked in the green and white of their beloved team and they set off with a dream in their hearts and no small measure of Glasgow swagger. The sight of these convoys of Celtic supporters must have been a sight to behold. On arrival in Portugal, the Celtic supporters gave the appearance of an army of Occupation. The 10,000 who had travelled certainly made their presence felt amongst the inhabitants of Lisbon and they made many friends amongst the locals. Stein had left no stone unturned in the preparation of his team and indeed Celtic brought their own food to their hotel including square sausage and chops. He also instructed his team to protect their pale skin, which unaccustomed to Mediterranean sunshine was more used to the unremitting wind which whipped off the Clyde. As kick off arrived at the Stadio Nacional, back home Glasgow was a ghost town, as the inhabitants from the east end of town sat down to witness the most important game in the club’s history. The two teams took the field and an expectant crowd held its breath. Could Inter, with their film star looks, capture their third European cup, or would Celtic become the first non-Latin team to lift the prestigious trophy. From The kick off, Celtic pushed forward with pace, intelligence and élan. At times their footwork gave them the appearance of a medal winning Latin American formation dance team. Their movement across the immaculately prepared pitch looked like a murmuration of starlings, weaving patterns between the lines of their Italian opponents.

Despite having the upper hand in the opening exchanges, disaster struck in the 7th minute. Cappellini surged into the box with Celtic defender Jim Craig in pursuit. Craig made the slightest of contact, and the streetwise Italian saw his opportunity to buy a penalty. As the Inter man went to ground the German referee, Kurt Tschenscher, pointed to the spot. Everyone in the crowd dressed in green and white looked to the heavens in despair as Mazola stepped up to convert the spot kick. This was the worst possible start for not just Celtic but for the game as spectacle, as the Italians went straight into their ultra defensive formation and stuck eleven men behind the ball. Celtic were not daunted by Inter’s tactics and continued to press forward in pursuit of an equaliser. The men in green and white created chance after chance but Inter’s goalkeeper Sarti  was performing heroics as custodian of the Italian champion’s goal. The half time whistle blew and as both teams left the field. Jock Stein was well known for how well he could motivate his men and this half-time team talk would be the most important of his career. He knew full well his team was the better side and he encouraged his charges to continue in the same vein for the second half. As the two teams re-emerged, the Celtic supporters wondered what the next 45 minutes would bring and whispered a prayer. Celtic’s reward for their attacking football came in the 63rd minute as Tommy Gemmell’s shot from the edge of the box finally breached Sarti’s goal. Delirium ensued as 10,000 Glaswegians made the noise of 10 times their number. Now the Italians game plan had to change and this gave Celtic the upper hand. The smell of blood was in the nostrils of the Scotsmen and they continued to drive forward. As the game entered the last ten minutes, Celtic was the team most likely to get the winner. And their efforts were rewarded in the 84th minute when Stevie Chalmers, the man who had once been given three weeks to live, turned the ball into Inter’s goal to give Celtic a deserved lead. The Scottish contingent in the crowd took delirium into another dimension and celebrated being on the edge of one of the greatest ever results in the history of this wonderful game. Stein watched from the sidelines in the same way as a hawk watches its quarry as the final moments of this enthralling encounter played out in front of his eyes. This man who had worked in the dark bowels of the earth alongside men who believed in the power of teamwork had taken his team to the brink of history. The German referee put the whistle to his lips and signaled the end of the match. Celtic supporters ran onto the turf and hugged and kissed their team. Tears ran down the faces of granite tough men as the enormity of their achievement began to sink in and in the haze of the Mediterranean evening. Grown men kissed the turf of the Stadio Nacional. From now on the turf here will be prefixed with the word hallowed.

Captain Billie McNeill and his team ascended the stairs to the elevated balcony which gave a stunning panoramic view of the stadium and was presented with the iconic trophy. Holding it aloft, McNeill had the air of the conquering hero. All hail Caesar. When emerged from the changing room he was greeted by his fellow countryman and manager of English giants Liverpool, Bill Shankly. Also there was fellow Scot and sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney. As the two managers embraced, Shankly uttered the simple words “John you’re immortal now”. Simple, true and well deserved. Celtic Football Club’s capturing of the ultimate prize in European club competition surely ranks as the greatest achievement in British sport. I know that Brian Clough won the competition twice after gaining promotion with Forest from the second division and Bob Paisley went one further taking the trophy to Anfield a record 3 times. However to win this competition as a club from a relatively small country with 11 players who came from within 30 miles of the ground, going up against a club who had already captured the honour twice, is something quite remarkable.

For everyone who saw that game whether from the terraces of the Stadio Nacionale or a public bar in Saucihall Street, the memory of this sporting achievement will live long in the memory.

11 players and a visionary manager went to Lisbon as men and came back as Lions.

Darren Bray & Paul Marsh