Sunday 25 February 2018

James Lawton: Lisbon Lions dared to dream beyond their boundaries – we won’t see their like again

But 1967 legends' feats should not diminish current side's historic run

A statue of Jock Stein outside Celtic Park as the sun sets and, below, the manager of the Lisbon Lions in 1967. Photo: Reuters
A statue of Jock Stein outside Celtic Park as the sun sets and, below, the manager of the Lisbon Lions in 1967. Photo: Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

Football history can sometimes pose tricky questions, like the difference between the Invincibles of today and the Immortals of the ages. Not in Glasgow, however, as the splendidly consistent Celtic seek to complete an unbeaten domestic season with victory over Aberdeen in today's Scottish Cup final.

The answer is simple and, surely, without challenge. It is the gap which separates a nod of respect and that racing of the blood which you know will never pause until the last of your days.

Celtic manager Jock Stein. Photo: Getty
Celtic manager Jock Stein. Photo: Getty

It is 50 years since the Lisbon Lions of Big Jock Stein overwhelmed one of the powerhouses of Europe, Inter Milan, to win the European Cup. But it might have been yesterday, so vivid and brave was the football of the team of Jimmy Johnstone and Bobby Murdoch, Bertie Auld and Tommy Gemmell.

Stein's men didn't just beat the Inter of Helenio Herrera, the legendary Argentinian coach whose defensive genius had strangled much of the life out of the game with two European Cup wins in the previous three seasons.

Epitaph

They outplayed them, outgrew them. They gave them a moral lesson so profound, so thrilling that no-one at Real Madrid or Benfica, and still less Inter, could begin to raise an eyebrow when Stein delivered a verdict which today still serves as a perfect epitaph for the fallen Johnstone, Murdoch, Gemmell and goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson.

He declared: "We didn't come to make war. We did it with football. Pure, beautiful, inventive football."

And so fast and urgent, they might have been seeking survival in one of the meaner streets of their sometimes turbulent city.

Herrera was the high priest of catenaccio (the locked door of Italian defence) and a heavy favourite to get the better of Stein. But after the first shockwaves reached out from the Estadio Nacional, he was candid about the fears he had taken into the game - especially after his fabled Spanish midfielder Luis Suarez had lost a battle for fitness.

The normally imperious Herrera, who often appeared on the touchline with an elegant overcoat draped casually over his shoulders, admitted: "After we beat Real Madrid (reigning champions after Inter's two straight triumphs), the only team which caused me much concern were Celtic. They were very fast and robust."

They also had a fierce commitment bred in their native city. The only outsider was the flying Bobby Lennox, who came from just 30 miles away on the Ayrshire coast.

It was a victory at the peak of the game they could never quite repeat, coming closest three years later when going down to Feyenoord at Inter's home of San Siro.

But what they would never lose was the name of a team which had for a few unforgettable years joined the elite of football, a fact underlined on that run to San Siro when outplaying a superb Leeds United side moving towards the highest level of their formidable powers.

With the Lisbon triumph, Stein acquired an almost mystical reputation among his peers, not least his great compatriot Bill Shankly.

The founder of Liverpool's winning tradition was so impressed by Stein's achievement, he remonstrated with two American women sitting in the lobby of a five-star Lisbon hotel who paid no attention when the Celtic manager passed by. "Ladies," said Shankly, "do you realise you have just ignored the greatest man in the world?"

Shankly may have mildly exaggerated the status of his hero but it was an assessment which would have found little complaint in the Celtic Park dressing-room, even from the impish, devastating but not always entirely disciplined Johnstone.

Wee Jimmy was frequently mortified by Stein's ability to chart his movements around the city.

On one occasion, he did not have time to sip from his pint before the barman handed him the phone.

It was Stein, saying: "If you know what's good for you get out of there right now."

It wasn't radar, just a network of Celtic loyalist barmen and publicans drawn into the cause by a football manager who knew his values - and his men.

When, nearly 20 years later, Stein died on the touchline at Ninian Park in Cardiff, after suffering a heart-attack while guiding Scotland towards qualification for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico - a feat he had also performed four years earlier - the devastation in Scotland swept beyond all the old tribal Old Firm loyalties.

Such sentiments will no doubt swirl again these next few days as Glasgow celebrates the 50th anniversary of the greatest achievement in the history of the football nation.

Vigorously

They will be voiced most vigorously by five of the seven survivors - Jim Craig, Auld, John Clark, Willie Wallace and Lennox, with centre-half and leader Billy McNeil and match-winner Steve Chalmers suffering from dementia.

The talk will be of a time when a football team reached out and found the very best of itself, won nine consecutive Scottish titles and the supreme prize of the European Cup.

It was an epic achievement at time when competition in Scottish football was so much more intense, when the Invincible description applied to today's Celtic would certainly not have survived a 7-0 massacre by Barcelona and a home defeat to Monchengladbach.

But this isn't to diminish the worthy deeds of the Celtic of Brendan Rodgers. A team can only be the best of its day within its own world and capacity to compete.

The wonder of the Lisbon Lions was that they didn't even recognise such restraints. They stepped beyond all the boundaries set before them. They played football that would never die.

Irish Independent

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