The Lisbon Lions: Celtic’s most worthy heroes

The Lisbon Lions: Celtic’s most worthy heroes

IT’S 28 SEPTEMBER 1966 and a crowd of over 47,000 have filled Celtic Park to watch the Bhoys in the first leg of the First Round of the European Cup. Celtic are playing FC Zürich and will go on to win 2-0 with goals from Tommy Gemmell and Joe McBride. They would put another three past László Kubala’s Zürich side without conceding in the return fixture. A resounding victory over two legs to Jock Stein’s Celtic was to be the start of a European journey that would go down in the annals of history.

The team that Jock Stein inherited when he took over in 1965 was full of local lads – players that he had worked with in the youth set-up and ones who were out of favour prior to his arrival. Fourteen of the 15 men that would go on to play Inter Milan in Lisbon on May 25, 1967, came from within ten miles of Celtic Park. Stein signed one player, the 15th, Bobby Lennox from Hearts, who came from only 30 miles away in Saltcoats. They would go on to be the first British and non-Latin side to win the European Cup, and the first and last Scottish team to do so.

They continued to advance in the tournament and dominate domestically, winning every trophy possible. Stein loved attacking football and wanted his sides to overwhelm their opponents with aggressive and direct football. Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone, the star of this Celtic team under Stein, famously described Celtic’s style of play as “like the Dutch, but speeded up”. Jock Stein’s counterpart in that final couldn’t have been more different.

Helenio Herrera’s side, El Grande Inter, played a style of football labelled Catenaccio, translated in English as ‘Door Bolt’. Fans of modern-day football despise when teams go on the defensive, but this was the football of eleven men behind the ball, of scoring early, shutting and bolting that door and rarely conceding. While remembered as a negative and highly defensive style of play, Herrera’s catenaccio allowed for wing-backs that counter attacked quickly. It allowed central players to break forward and score crucial goals – like the brilliant Giacinto Facchetti – even though they were primarily defensive players.

This Inter team had superstar status worldwide and they controlled Italian football. It was to be their third final in four years and one that they were favourites to win. Celtic had exceeded expectations in reaching the final, but they weren’t ones to be overawed by the occasion.


• • “They were the stars; they were the European Cup holders, the Club World Cup holders. And we were the wee guys from Saltcoats, Kirkintilloch and Hamilton, who were gonna play against the giants of the world.” Bobby Lennox  • •


A mass exodus from Glasgow had followed the Bhoys down to Lisbon, with all the flights selling out and people reportedly cramming into vans, coaches and old bangers of cars, before making the long 30-hour drive. People left themselves skint for years to come, just so they could travel to see their team.

One of the more ludicrous stories involves a gentleman who decided to re-mortgage his house and ended up divorced before eventually making it back. With 15,000 making the trip, the locals were won over by the Celtic faithful; many chose to support the underdog over Inter. Celtic, in the end, were well supported, and it was a shock for the players when they emerged onto the pitch for the first time. The match was to be a highly tactical encounter, one of attack versus defence and a battle that Jock Stein, a man who loved psychological battles, would relish.


• • “The next thing we were up the steps and suddenly the green and white scarves went up. It was wonderful.” Bobby Lennox • •


Upon arriving in Lisbon, the team trained and prepared as normal. Stein wouldn’t allow his players to go out in the sun during the day to keep them free of sunburn. Famously, before one of their training sessions they were told that Inter had swapped their scheduled session in order to watch Celtic. This was the beginning of the mind games; the Inter players were reportedly sat there laughing and joking, so Stein told his players that they wouldn’t be showing them anything. He made them all play in different positions and advised that they keep giving the ball away.

Stevie Chalmers said that they had more fun than the spectating Inter players, but Stein was not about to allow Inter to unsettle his players pre game. Two days before kick-off, he called Herrera’s bluff and announced the team that would play in the final. He said at the press conference:

‘’I am going to tell Herrera how Celtic will be the first team to bring the European Cup back to Britain, but it will not help him in any manner, shape or form; we are going to attack as we have never attacked before.’’

Teams didn’t enjoy playing Inter; it was a side full of great players, superstars of world football, and one that was incredibly difficult to break down. They were hugely successful and Herrera’s time at the club would be Inter’s most prolific historically. As a result of this success, they were afforded respect and time on the ball by many of their opponents. Teams would be concerned about conceding first; once Inter went ahead, they would sit back and grind out the result. Celtic, however, would not show them the same respect and in the final pushed Inter back in their own half for most of the game.

The routine before the game would be to train and then stay in their hotel rooms relaxing. The night before the final, they went to watch England play and on the morning of the game, most of the players visited church. While driving to the stadium, the players said that nerves weren’t present – instead they sat at the back of the bus singing Celtic songs and fought through traffic to arrive at the game fifty minutes before kick-off.

In the tunnel, standing next to the Italian side, Bertie Auld started singing ‘The Celtic Song’ with his team-mates joining in. They exited the tunnel still singing, much to the bemusement of the Inter Milan players. Though Celtic were underdogs in this game, they were already becoming a major force in Scotland and would go on to win so much in the Jock Stein era that attendances reportedly dropped for other teams. Yet, put next to the mystical giants of Internazionale, they were still only 15 local lads from Glasgow – and that’s what made their victory in this final so surprising to the rest of the world. Captain Billy McNeil neatly summed this up in his thoughts before the kick off as he exchanged flags with Inter captain Picchi: “Am looking at these Italians standing there, their blue and black outfits, their tanned faces, good looks and I turned round and looked at our mob and said ‘They must think this is a pub team they’re playing’.”

The first half started brightly with both sides going back and forth at a relatively slow tempo in the Mediterranean heat. Celtic knew that Inter would try to control possession in the early stages of the game in order to force an early goal. While Celtic pushed forward and challenged Giuliano Sarti in the Inter goal, they were pressured all the time, as Inter and their defensive style man-marked heavily.

In the seventh minute, the unthinkable happened for the Glaswegians as Jim Craig caught Renato Cappellini in the box. The Celtic players were furious; they didn’t believe it was a foul. The referee correctly awarded a penalty to Inter and the great Sandro Mazzola stepped up and duly buried it. The almighty had just become the impossible in so many eyes. Inter rarely conceded.

To their credit, however, Celtic didn’t simply carry on in the same vein; they raised the tempo and went all out. Having already conceded, they had nothing to lose and a defensive Inter Milan side would be shocked at the sustained level of attacking and creative football. It was an era where British teams attacked with flair and invention, a marked difference to the tepid performances of the elite nowadays.

With Inter resorting to time-wasting as early as the 14th minute, they were allowed no respite. Celtic had pushed full-backs Tommy Gemmell and Billy McNeil so high up the pitch that they pegged the Italians back. Star man Jimmy Johnstone was a nightmare for the Inter defence all game, regularly dribbling past multiple players and testing Sarti in the goal. After Inter had retreated into their 11-man defence, they rarely threatened, forcing Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson into making only two saves all game. Celtic, on the other hand, would have 39 shots on goal, 13 of which were saved by Simpson’s counterpart Sarti, and another two that would hit the crossbar.

To little avail, however, they would end the first half still trailing and came in bemoaning the referee’s decision to award a penalty. Stein, who loved nothing more than man-management in tricky situations, would take this opportunity to tell them to stop dwelling on the referee’s decisions and to go back out there, focused and ready to win.


• • “Even when they went one up, they couldn’t change their play, they were so defensive. And that was the thing about that Celtic side. We had flair that no one else had seen.” Bertie Auld • •


The start of the second half provided much of the same with Celtic dominating possession and Inter sitting deep behind the ball. Starting to believe that it wasn’t going to be their day, luck turned in their favour as Tommy Gemmell struck the equaliser in the 63rd minute, pushed so high up the pitch that he asked for a cut back on the edge of the area, unleashing a powerful shot towards the goal.

Grabbing the equaliser provided the turning point in the game; Celtic now believed that the game was theirs to take with Inter rarely threatening with the ball. Legendary commentator, Kenneth Wolstenholme, in attendance that day, said “Inter will have to come at them now”, but it was Celtic who kept up the attack. This Inter side had been so focused on defending their lead that they had nothing left to give in order to get a winner.

With the Nerazzurri shocked at the energy that Celtic had, the stage was set for Chalmers to tap in McNeill’s goal-bound effort in the 84th minute. Johnstone summed his performance in those dying minutes, dribbling aimlessly with the ball into the corner to run down the clock. Immediately surrounded by three Inter players, he dropped his shoulder twice and sped past them all into the box for a shot on goal. Inter’s greatest player, Facchetti, would later rate Johnstone as one of the finest players he ever came up against.

Six minutes later, there would be madness inside the Estádio Nacional as the Celtic faithful would storm onto the field, digging up turf and taking shirts, boots, or whatever they could grab off the players’ backs as mementos. Such was the commotion that captain Billy McNeill had to leave the stadium and enter through a back entrance in order to get to the press box to lift the trophy.

The rest of the Celtic squad stayed in their dressing room and were all given their medals later that night in a bar before flying back to Glasgow. They arrived back home at 1am, later than many of them would return from the pub according to Bobby Lennox’s wife. The final had flown by, but Celtic came home as the ‘Lisbon Lions’ and European Champions – their fifth and final trophy of a historic season. Celtic’s defeat of Inter would prove to be the catalyst for a move away from defensive football, which had grown so popular through its success with Inter and Italian football. Portuguese newspaper, Mundo Deportivo, summarised the night’s events the day after the game:

‘’It was inevitable. Sooner or later the Inter of Herrera, of negative football, the Inter of Catenaccio, of marginal results, had to pay for their refusal to play entertaining football.’’

This defeat at the hands of Celtic would mark the beginning of the end of Herrera’s time at Inter. The following season would be trophy-less for the Nerazzurri and he would step down, bringing to a close his hugely successful but highly divisive time at the club. A man who knew when he was beaten, he congratulated Celtic after the final whistle and called their success “a victory for sport”.

Unsurprisingly, the Celtic team would become legends of the game: in Stein’s 13 years at the club, they would win ten Scottish League trophies, eight Scottish Cups, six Scottish League Cups and Ol’ Big Ears. They would go on to reach the final of the European Cup again in 1970 – losing to Feyenoord – and are still the only Scottish side to do so. Bill Shankly, great friend and sparring partner of Stein, would tell his compatriot: “Jock, you’re immortal now.”

Alongside Stein, it is the team of 15 local lads who would also become immortal. Forever engraved in footballing history, club legend and fan folklore, these players weren’t the superstar celebrities of the modern game. They were normal men, known on a personal level by the community they served, and they related to the supporters in a way that most modern footballers will rarely accomplish.

Herrera was right, this was a victory for sport, and it’s difficult to imagine something like it ever happening again. As the 15,000 slowly left Lisbon and made their way back to Parkhead, the Bhoys were unveiling the trophy to Glasgow and a sold out Celtic Park, emerging as one of the most deserving Champions of Europe in history.

By Adam Kay. Follow @Adam_Kay1

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