Saturday 21 October 2017

How roar of victory at Lisbon Lions' triumph incurred a mother's wrath

Fifty years ago, Celtic were the kings of Europe. Tom Rowley looks back

Celtic’s Billy McNeill accepts the European Cup trophy from the president of Portugal after the Scottish side’s 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in Lisbon in 1967 Photos: Getty
Celtic’s Billy McNeill accepts the European Cup trophy from the president of Portugal after the Scottish side’s 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in Lisbon in 1967 Photos: Getty

Tom Rowley

For a while, my mother nursed her wrath and then she let rip. She fixed me with a withering stare and warned: "Never, ever again mix football and religion and disgrace us like you did today."

She was on a roll, her festering anger unleashing. "When I think," she said, "of the look on the priest's face when he heard that mad roar. I think he thought the devil himself was cornered in our kitchen."

It was the evening of May 25, 1967 - 50 years ago today. On that day, two memorable events collided in my young life. It was a time in rural Ireland when the Church preached and we listened and obeyed. But not always any more, a thin thread of resistance was growing thicker.

On that sunny but breezy afternoon in the village of Parke, near Castlebar, in Co Mayo, the annual May Procession was set to wind its way along a climbing country road from the Catholic church to our house, where an altar for the celebration of Mass had been erected at the front door. Roughly a thousand miles away, on an afternoon of simmering heat, in the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon, Glasgow Celtic were attempting to become the first British side to win the most prestigious prize in club football, the European Cup - now the Champions League - as they took on the highly fancied and much revered Inter Milan. And that, as they say, was when the trouble started.

The big problem was that both events were taking place at the same time. I was a fanatical Celtic supporter, as were - and still are - tens of thousands of Irish people. And I was determined to see the game live on our recently rented black and white television at all costs.

For days before, I had petitioned my mother seeking a special dispensation to get away to watch it. I explained how Celtic were practically an Irish club. They had been started by Marist Brother Andrew Kerins, better known as Brother Walfrid, from the village of Ballymote in Co Sligo in the 1880s to help the poor Catholic Irish emigrants in the slums of Glasgow cling to shreds of their national identity. Everything about the club had a strong Irish tinge, from the shamrock crest on their green and white jerseys to the Irish songs sung at their games. The mother was having none of it. So I played what I thought naively at age 12 was my trump card - the Pope.

Then, as now, Celtic were the predominantly Catholic club in Glasgow and, across the city, Rangers were always regarded as the Protestant side. I told the mother that when Celtic beat Rangers in the bitter, head-to-head Old Firm games, it was said that the Pope was a happy man that night. I was convinced that would swing it for me. The mother was aghast. I was told in no uncertain terms to leave the Pope out of it.

With official channels of appeal exhausted, more devious routes were now needed. If my plan worked, I would get to see most of the game and everybody else would be convinced I was at the procession. So I made sure I was to the fore outside the church as the procession assembled. Four members of the Men's Catholic Solidarity hoisted the poles that held aloft a richly embroidered canopy. Under this, the priest stood. Girls in their First Communion dresses each held a wicker basket full of fresh petals. Their role was to step backwards ahead of the priest, carpeting the road with blossoms. Alongside, an altar boy gently swung the thurible, wisps of incense gently twirling up and drifting on the wind.

As the procession slowly moved along, the first hymn, 'Hail Queen of Heaven', soared from the large gathering. I shuffled along, then quietly slipped behind a wall, crossed three open fields, jumped over a barbed wire fence and slipped in the back door of our house and got the television sizzling into life. By the time the procession reached our front door, it was half-time and Celtic were losing 1-0. I slipped out the back door, around the side of the house and was absorbed into the crowd. I nudged my way to the front, making sure that I was seen by the mother singing 'Oh Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the angels and Queen of the May'. Then I sneaked back inside, knowing I must keep my volume and that of the TV very low. When Tommy Gemmell scored the equaliser I sprang around the kitchen in a wild, but silent, dance.

Then the ceremony and the game were both reaching a finale. The faithful outside launched into another rendition of 'Queen of the May', followed by silence as the priest prepared to give his final blessing. With just minutes remaining, Celtic scored - Stevie Chalmers deflecting in a rasping daisy cutter from Bobby Murdoch. To this day, I will never understand why I let out such a loud, raw, roar of delight.

The great and enduring sporting legend of Celtic's Lisbon Lions was born that May afternoon. I name their names so that wherever the spirit of Celtic is talked about they will be remembered: Ronnie Simpson, Jim Craig, Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Murdoch, Billy McNeill (captain), John Clark, Jimmy Johnstone, Willie Wallace, Stevie Chalmers, Bertie Auld, Bobby Lennox, Jock Stein (manager) and Sean Fallon (assistant manager).

As for me, for a few hours that evening I was banished to my room. Later, the mother softened, but still made sure she had the last word. With a smile cracking her sternness, she said: "I'll tell you one thing - if the Pope hears about what happened here today, he'll not be a happy man this or any other night." And then she rippled with laughter.

Irish Independent

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