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Saturday 16 December 2017

James Lawton: Memories of Stein's golden age evoked on night Bhoys soared to a higher plane

James Lawton

James Lawton

Talk about love and glory in the ruins of Scottish football and, for a little while at least, it is surely one of the most exhilarating sensations since Jock Stein gathered together men of the quality of Bobby Lennox, Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Murdoch and Bertie Auld.

He gathered that team from the environs of Glasgow, made it the expression of everything the city liked to believe about itself and he brought down the fabled football magician Helenio Herrera of Internazionale in the European Cup final of 1967.

It wasn't a football victory so much as a moral statement about courage and competitive integrity.

Neil Lennon cannot even dream of such a benchmark, even after the superb triumph over Lionel Messi's Barcelona -- he cannot hope for a civic pride so fierce that a Glaswegian bar owner thought nothing of reporting that one of his best customers was on his premises rather than the Celtic training ground.

The phone was passed to the errant Johnstone, whose blood ran cold when he identified instantly his manager's voice at the other end of the line.


No, it is only realistic to accept that when pop icon Rod Stewart wipes away the last of his tears, Lennon will still be fighting the formidable odds that were so brilliantly, and ferociously, overturned with victory over Barcelona this week.

Yet at the 125th anniversary of Celtic, Lennon has unquestionably earned a noble place amid the legends of Parkhead.

If the aura of Stein (right) is still unique in the annals of the football of these islands -- his most fervent admirer, Bill Shankly, once interrupted the conversation of two American women tourists in the lobby of a Lisbon hotel to tell them: "Ladies, you don't seem to realise one of the greatest men in the world has just walked by" -- Lennon can claim that no one could have done more to rekindle an astonishing era.

John Giles is another tireless witness of the brilliance of Stein and the legacy he put in place. A great Leeds United were approaching the apex of their powers -- albeit with a crippling pile-up of fixtures -- when Celtic swept them out of the 1969-70 European Cup home and away in the semi-finals.

"That Celtic team," Giles recalled many years later, "had an incredible force -- they were fine players and Stein had persuaded them they could do anything."

Lennon might have less overwhelming evidence to support such an exhortation when he urges on Wednesday's heroes Victor Wanyama, from Kenya, and Tony Watt, an 18-year-old from Coatbridge, which is 10 miles east of the city and still likes to be known as the Iron Burgh for its contribution to the Industrial Revolution.

Beating Barcelona may not quite provide such historical momentum, but then on a day when another famous Scottish football club, Hearts, made a public appeal for help in fighting the kind of financial devastation that has driven Rangers into the wilderness, Lennon's fighting instincts, his ability to stick relentlessly to a cause, certainly soared into a special category.

It is one where you place evidence of the most superior will and commitment.

If Scotland has become a wasteland of old football dreams, if the dwindling of its ability to produce some of the world's most naturally gifted and intuitive players has reached the point where the admirable, but essentially functional, Darren Fletcher of Manchester United is widely regarded as the nation's outstanding performer, Lennon's band of largely foreign players -- he has eight Scots in a first-team pool of 32 -- have indeed raised a banner.

The reaction in Parkhead was extraordinary, and it is one which the combative Lennon is naturally hell-bent to cultivate.

There is, however, an impressive balance between hope and caution in the reaction of an Ulsterman who some time ago learned that he is occupying a place where perspective is a prize beyond gold.

He says of Celtic's hopes of reaching the promised land of Champions League action in the knock-out rounds: "This gives us a real chance, a much better one than we could have hoped for before the second game with Barca.

"We face two difficult games (against Benfica in Lisbon and Spartak Moscow at home). The expectation levels will now rise, but we have given ourselves a good platform and our fans deserve that. They are very special."

The heroic teenager Watt said: "I just saw Victor Valdes. I thought, 'put it to the side of him and it might go in.' It's probably the best moment of my life."

If, in the next few years, old men seek to re-paint his horizons, they should do it only with admiration in their voices.


What Stein's men did in Lisbon belongs in another age, it is a feat beyond today's imagination in the grievous situation of Scottish football, but Lennon's crew have no reason to stint their celebrations. Celtic's pride and their glory is that on one extraordinary night they evoked the memory of that old peerless performance in Lisbon in the most inspiring and practical way.

They beat the team which, give or take a few missing faces in defence, many believe is the greatest of all time and if this was to steal a moment, quite brilliantly, it was also to set new levels of ambition and hope in a theatre of action where such assets had come to reach almost a point of oblivion.

Lennon's Celtic may never rank with Stein's, but the honour they achieved is surely secure.

They played to their limits, they overcame a team of mesmerising quality and they evoked memories of the most glorious passage in the history of Scottish football.

It was an act of extreme courage and, who knows, it might just prove to be about the future as much as the past.

Irish Independent

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