Let’s start with the stat, the one that has come to define this group of young men who won the European Cup for Celtic against all the odds fifty years ago and saw them forever immortalised as lions.
From Jock Stein’s fifteen-man squad who travelled to Lisbon in May 1967 to become the first British side to lift the famous trophy all but one was born within ten miles of Celtic Park. The other – the ‘foreigner’ – was Bobby Lennox born thirty miles away in Saltcoats, Ayeshire.
Given their momentous achievement that day it’s a statistic that never fails to amaze. Step away from it for a minute or more and it amazes anew. This was a peculiarly parochial conquering of the continent’s finest from boys who had progressed from the same local streets and parks to a club whose floodlights shone in the near-distance, but while it has come to represent a bygone age when such things were possible it’s worth noting that it was an incredible feat even back then. A year earlier Real Madrid’s magnificent Ye-yé team had lifted the trophy with four Madrilenians while twelve months after Celtic shook the football world, Manchester United fulfilled the Busby Babe legacy boasting three players who grew up a bus ride from Old Trafford.
This then was as unique and remarkable a phenomenon in the days of baggy shorts and hardened leather footballs as it is today, yet it’s perhaps too easy to marvel at the localised nature of the side to the distraction of what a fine side it actually was. Perfectly balanced in attributes and always attack-minded – they were once compared to the Dutch artists that came a decade later only speeded up – Stein had forged a team propelled by an indomitable spirit who were ingrained with the typical Glaswegian traits of grit and devilment. The former largely came in the form of Bobby Murdoch, the gruff, no-nonsense mainstay who later moulded a young Graeme Souness into his own image at Middlesbrough. The devilment usually derived from Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone’s wing wizardly, whose mischief with the ball epitomised the joy and invention that coursed through this sublime eleven. Add Tommy Gemmill, John Clark, Billy ‘Cesar’ McNeil (later voted Celtic’s all-time greatest captain), and the aforementioned Lennox into the mix and here was a vintage Hoops team destined to enjoy an elevated spot in the club’s pantheon of greats even had they lost their first round clash with Zurich.
They didn’t of course, instead battering the Swiss 5-0 over both legs before comfortably dispensing with Nantes. Serbian side FC Vojvodina proved to be an unexpectedly difficult hurdle in the quarters but, once navigated, a Willie Wallace brace in their semi-final home leg against Dukla Prague was enough to see them progress to the biggest stage of their lives.
Was it an easy passage to Lisbon? It’s certainly fair to say they were fortunate to avoid Ajax, Real Madrid and 1860 Munich along the way but now, standing between a team of pasty-faced Glasgow bhoys and greatness was Inter: mighty, formidable Inter.
Helenio Herrera’s Nerazzurri were seeking a third European Cup in four years to further extend on an era of domination that was primarily founded on catenaccio defending, a brutal, sterile tactic the arch-strategist Herrera was widely credited with inventing. With the additional benefit of having President Angelo Morrati’s oil billions to invest in Italy’s best talent ‘Grande Inter’ were as successful as they were dour to watch.
As the final at Estadio Nacional approached, few gave Celtic any hope at all but they were forgetting the considerable aptitude of their legendary boss Stein whose genius lay not only in the constructing and man-management of fabulous sides but in seeing the whole picture. Realising the importance of perception ‘Big Jock’ went into a PR hyper-drive whipping up a storm of positive press around his side to ensure they became the neutral’s favourites.
“We will attack like we’ve never attacked before,” he baritoned on repeat while additionally making sure the team hotel was an open house for journalists and supporters alike. Inter meanwhile played their part as villains to perfection, locking themselves away behind closed doors prior to the game.
Stein’s ploy worked a treat as Thursday May 25th 1967 saw the national stadium packed to the rafters with a sea of green and white and plenty of Portuguese adopted Scots for the day lustily cheering on his side all thanks to an avalanche of glowing press.
As kick-off approached he pulled off his final act of wiliness, purposely sitting in the dug-out that Herrera had ear-marked for himself and refusing to budge to the delight of his players who creased up laughing.
The psychological war was won and all nerves had evaporated. Now there was just the small matter of blitzing a seemingly impregnable force with style and attacking glee.
Conceding an early goal was always the worst case scenario as it would allow Inter to revert to their favoured catenaccio (literally translated as ‘padlock’), constructing a highly-organised wall of blue and black that had been breached only 22 times in Serie A that season. Yet Sandro Mazzola’s penalty only encouraged the Hoops further as the ensuing 83 minutes became a glorified training ground exercise of attack vs defence; the beautiful vs the ugly. A total of 41 attempts on goal followed – including two that rattled the Inter crossbar – as Celtic lay siege with Johnstone jinking, Murdoch patrolling in his element of battle, and Lennox superb throughout. An equaliser on the hour by Gemmill didn’t change the game’s narrative with the Scots continuing their charge at the stoic numbers of Inter but an 83rd minute goal deflected in by Steve Chalmers certainly did. By then though it was all too late and Celtic had pulled off the near-impossible.
As Billy McNeil was ushered under armed guard through the swarming, celebratory pitch invasion in order to re-emerge in the stands and lift the trophy Herrera knew the game – his game; a disciplined neutralising of adventure that equated to anti-football – was up. “Although we lost, this match was a victory for sport,” he said with admirable magnanimity in the aftermath. The hated, reluctantly respected iron rule of La Grande Inter was over.
“John, you’re immortal now,” Bill Shankly is reported to have said to his long-time friend as an evening of revelry began. And he was, and is; the manager who not only orchestrated one of the most memorable nights in British football’s illustrious history but also the man who reminded the world that the game is nothing without heart, excitement and dare. Ultimately that always wins out.
Fifty years ago this month eleven local heroes became Lisbon Lions. What they taught us that night still thrills us to this very day.