Friday 22 March 2019

When the Lions' roar made Europe tremble

Jock Stein's fabled Celtic side crossed a new frontier for football when they won European Cup

The tumultuous reception the team received from the fans on their return to Celtic Park. Photo: Getty Images
The tumultuous reception the team received from the fans on their return to Celtic Park. Photo: Getty Images

Colin Young

Glasgow Celtic became the first British side to lift the European Cup 50 years ago this week, but the story of the Lisbon Lions started 10 years earlier when Celtic player Jock Stein was forced to retire with an ankle injury and started to work with the youth team and reserves.

Stein, who had won the league and cup double with the club, steered many of that side, including Billy McNeill, Bobby Murdoch and John Clark, to considerable success at youth level. The Lisbon Lions all grew up together at Celtic Park and only one member of the squad was not born within 12 miles of the ground. Bobby Lennox was from Saltcoats, 30 miles away on the west coast.

The team lining up before the final in Lisbon. Photo: Getty Images
The team lining up before the final in Lisbon. Photo: Getty Images

Convinced his Protestant faith would hinder his progress as a coach at Celtic, Stein left in 1960 to manage Dunfermline Athletic. When Real Madrid thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 later that year at Hampden Park to win the European Cup, he was in the crowd and was transfixed by the attacking brilliance of the Spanish side, led by Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.

He was not alone. My grandfather Charlie Ross, as he always reminded me, was one of the Glaswegians in the 127,000 who would never forget that day they saw Real Madrid lift "that ugly big trophy", as he called it, for the fifth successive time - each time it had been contested.

When Stein took charge at Dunfermline, they were two points off the bottom of the table. He won his first six games and the club's first Scottish Cup, beating Celtic in a replay.

The following season, after turning down Newcastle and Hibernian, Dunfermline reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners' Cup under Stein and did the same in the Fairs Cup the following year.

The unfortunately low-key presentation Photo: Getty Images
The unfortunately low-key presentation Photo: Getty Images

Stein eventually took over at Hibs in March 1964 but only stayed for a year, and asked Bill Shankly to take control when Celtic started looking for a new manager. Although Stein made significant progress at Easter Road and the Edinburgh club pleaded with him to stay, he wanted the Celtic job. Ronnie Simpson even joined Celtic while he was still Hibs boss and he played a part in Celtic re-signing Bertie Auld from Birmingham City.

So when Wolves came calling following the departure of Stan Cullis, Stein approached Celtic chairman Bob Kelly and set in motion the concept of taking over from Jimmy McGrory - who had been manager for 20 years and won nothing for eight.

Kelly wanted Irishman Sean Fallon to be manager and initially suggested Stein could work as his assistant. Stein, knowing his religion was being used against him, would have none of it. He wanted the opposite arrangement, and so did Fallon. Eventually, Kelly and the board relented and Stein took over in March 1965. He was Celtic's first Protestant manager.

In his youth and reserve sides, Stein had instilled a 4-2-4 system and developed it in his Celtic first team, with the onus on the central two, usually Bertie Auld and Bobby Murdoch, to provide steel and creativity. Strong at the back, led by schoolboy pals McNeill and Clark, the magician in the pack was Jimmy Johnstone, the greatest player in the club's history.

Billy McNeill, immortalised in bronze. Photo: Getty images
Billy McNeill, immortalised in bronze. Photo: Getty images

Celtic had not won a trophy since the 7-1 Cup final win over Rangers in 1957. Stein quickly brought his boys into the team and within two months they won the Scottish Cup with a 3-2 win over his former team Dunfermline, coming from 2-1 behind at half-time and ending that eight-year drought.

Auld recalls: "That was the most important game, because it was his first cup final. We now started to win and from then on the club had tremendous success. Without doubt winning the league was important.

"The cup is exciting, but nine in a row for league titles was absolutely fantastic and it was all down to Big Jock.

"He was tremendous at looking at people's ability and playing them to their strengths."

The 1965 cup success was followed by the 1966 league title in his first full season. They would go on to win nine successive Scottish league titles and 13 cups.

The 1966/'67 season

Four Trophies and a European Cup Run

Stein took the team on a five-week tour of America before the 1966/'67 season. It is a preposterous concept now but, with the freedom and money to do so, the trip proved an invaluable one for Stein and his men. He still instilled his hard work ethic as they travelled, played and trained across the States, but it was done amid some memorable bonding sessions.

Back home, they scored 35 goals on their way to beating Rangers to win the Scottish League Cup in October and the Glasgow Cup the following month. The traditional city-wide tournament was an important competition then because it usually meant meeting Rangers at some stage. They won the Old Firm derby 4-0 at Ibrox in an earlier round and trounced Partick Thistle by the same scoreline in the final.

Celtic's European adventure started in September and they swept aside Swiss team FC Zurich, winning 5-0 on aggregate with Tommy Gemmell scoring three over the two legs, to set up a second-round meeting with Nantes. They won 3-1 in France on St Andrew's Day and repeated that scoreline in front of 41,000 at Celtic Park a week later.

Yugoslavian side FK Vojvodina Nova Sad were Celtic's quarter-final opponents and Stein's men lost 1-0 on their travels when the competition resumed in early March. There were nearly 70,000 crammed into Parkhead for the second leg. Steve Chalmers drew the home side level in the 58th minute before Billy McNeill headed home a last-minute corner to deny the visitors a play-off in Rotterdam. It is claimed to be the loudest roar in the stadium's history. Ronnie Simpson did cartwheels in his penalty area.

Celtic met Dukla Prague on April 12, 1967. They tore the Czechs apart, running away with the home first leg and securing a 3-0 cushion. For the only time in his Celtic career, Stein set out a cautious, one-man attack and his team sat back to defend their lead. Auld said Stein always regretted that tactical change.

Before the Lisbon final, Celtic had the League and Scottish Cup to take care of. Aberdeen were beaten by two goals from Willie Wallace, who had been preferred to Hughes to win the cup at Hampden. That was their third trophy of the season.

Number four came courtesy of the league title, which was decided on an Ibrox cow field by Jimmy Johnstone, who almost single-handedly ensured Celtic travelled to Portugal as Scottish champions and quadruple winners. 'Jinky' was untouchable and scored two wonder goals to earn the point in a 2-2 draw to see off their Old Firm rivals.

It should not be forgotten that this was a serious Rangers team too, including the likes of future Gers stalwarts Sandy Jardine, Ronnie McKinnon, John Greig, Willie Henderson and Willie Johnston. Scott Symon's team played Bayern Munich in the European Cup Winners' Cup final in Nuremberg six days after Celtic's triumph in Lisbon, but lost 1-0.

While few on the green side of the city mourned at the time, it did deny Glasgow a unique European football double.

Celtic lost just twice all season in the league and completed 11 doubles over the 17 teams.

In the crowd that night of the derby title win was Inter coach Helenio Herrera.

Auld says: "It was one of the great games because there is no better derby anywhere in the world than the Old Firm Derby. It was end to end and Herrera was there to see it, and he must have been sat there thinking, 'By the way, what's this we're watching?' He must have got a good idea about the passion and the heart that was in the team at that particular time.

"He must have seen we were a good wee team. It was all about our ability, because we had so many creative players and the most important thing is that we had nine match-winners, nine goalscorers and we had unselfish front-runners who would chase paper on a windy day."

The Lisbon Lions

For the majority of the travelling support, accustomed to holidays in places like the resorts along the west coast of Scotland, Blackpool or Ireland, the long journey from Glasgow to Lisbon was their first trip abroad. Many had to apply for their passports immediately after the semi-final win. Match ticket or no, Celtic fans would travel en masse to the Portuguese capital.

Their opponents Inter Milan had won the previous two European Cups, and three of the last four, based on their rigid Catenaccio defensive play, which had been essentially invented by former Barcelona coach Herrera. It was a counter-attacking style aimed at quelling the opposition's main threats and breaking rapidly. They came into the game as firm favourites and undoubtedly dismissed Celtic, despite Herrera's earlier visit to Glasgow.

The Italian players certainly did, and Stein played on his team's underdog tag. He was aware that the Inter squad and their coaches had stayed in the stadium to watch Celtic's final pre-match training session the Wednesday morning before the game, after conveniently finishing theirs just before Celtic arrived at the Estadio Nacional. Aware that his players had no idea, Stein insisted on nothing more than a kick-about game and some shooting practice. The Italians thought they were watching a party and a bunch of layabouts.

Neither did they have any idea that, later that night, Stein and his men would be scrambling across wasteland at the back of the team hotel, desperately trying to get back after watching an England match at the house of one of Stein's friends who lived nearby. They'd got lost and had to climb over fences to get back in. It was dusk when the players got to bed. However, they were under instructions not to rise until after 10.0am. Craig didn't have the best of starts to the game. He gave away a seventh-minute penalty and Sandro Mazzola tucked his spot-kick beyond Simpson to give the Italians the lead. The full-back-cum-dentist insists to this day it was not a penalty.

"He tells lies," laughs Auld. "He's kidding himself. He must have seen it by now. It's a penalty. And it was the only time they were a threat."

Auld has a point. Celtic were outrageously dominant for the remaining 83 minutes. They had 42 shots on goal to Inter's five and ten corners to none.

"It was all us," says Auld. "You could have thrown two or three balls on the park and they wouldnae have got them off us."

After laying siege to the brilliant Giuliano Sarti's goal without success in a frustrating first half in which they hit the bar, Celtic finally got the vital breakthrough in the 63rd minute when Tommy Gemmell smashed Craig's pass out of the Italian 'keeper's reach from the edge of the 18-yard box.

Then the siege continued and Sarti pulled off a string of superb stops to keep the Scots at bay. "We could see their heads falling," says Auld. "And the great thing was that, even in the heat, we got stronger. You could see their heads drop. Where we were looking for more, they were looking for shelter."

With extra-time looming, and five minutes remaining, Bobby Murdoch's shot was deflected in by Steve Chalmers from close range.

The Celebrations

Billy McNeill must have looked at every single choreographed Champions League final winners' presentations with a heavy heart.

The Celtic captain and his team-mates were denied the customary joint lifting of Europe's biggest prize, thanks mainly to the exuberance of their own supporters, and the sheer incompetence of football authoritarians at that time, not to mention the lack and influence of sponsors.

Instead of a glorified, memorable, one-off picture of the entire team for the players and club to treasure forever, the culmination of that night was a messy affair. Understandably, as soon as German referee Kurt Tschenscher started the first shrill of his final whistle, hundreds of Celtic supporters invaded the pitch. Unable to cope with the numbers, and aware that locating and securing the safety of the 11 green and white hooped players in the massive throng, the officials set out to find McNeill.

Once located, the Celtic captain was thrust into the centre of the main stand and told to hoist the trophy, despite his protestations that he wanted his team by his side. That moment left a bitter taste.

McNeill once said: "We were always a team and a very good team, and I was part of that team, and all of a sudden I am there on my own and I would have been much happier if the whole team had been with me. That was the only disappointment, missing out on the traditional lap of honour."

But the Celtic players, coaching staff and the city of Glasgow more than made amends when they returned to Scotland the following day. The streets were lined to Parkhead and the city was at a standstill as thousands greeted the team at the ground. The team did a lap of honour in a lorry, following a 30-piece accordion band.

The season was not finished for the Celtic players, who played in Alfredo Di Stefano's testimonial for Real Madrid six days after their European Cup triumph. Although only a friendly, Stein prepared his side as if for more cup action, and they promptly beat the former European champions 1-0 in their own backyard. Johnstone was outstanding.

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