REMEMBERING THE LISBON LIONS

25 May 1967 - the greatest day in Celtic's history.

For those of you watching in blue and white this is what the European Cup looks like. So reads the banner, regularly displayed by fans at Celtic Park, which references a time when commentators announced the colours of each team’s strip for those with black and white televisions whilst also drawing the attention of visiting Rangers fans to, arguably, the single greatest Scottish sporting achievement of all time.

Forty five years ago today Celtic Football Club, from the East End of Glasgow, reached the final of the European Cup, the precursor to the modern day Champions League, meeting Milan giants Internazionale in the Estádio Nacional in the Portuguese capital. The crowd in Lisbon that day may have considered a Celtic victory a possibility but that was in contrast to the pervading view across Europe that Inter would give Celtic a footballing lesson. As it happened the opposite occurred and Celtic became the first Scottish, first British and even first non-Latin winner of the European Cup which prior to this match had only ever been won by Real Madrid, Benfica, Inter Milan and AC Milan.

Celtic had gone into the game as underdogs partly because of Inter’s previous two European Cup successes but also because the Inter manager of the day, Helanio Herrera, was considered one of the greatest managers on earth at the time. Under Herrera Inter were famous for playing a very defensive style of counter attacking football christened the “Catenaccio”. Catenaccio translates as “Door Bolt” from Italian to English and so this tactic was seen as shutting the door in the opponent’s face having already taken a lead in the match. Herrera’s tactics had been responsible for turning the side into European Cup winners in 1964 and 1965 and it was widely held that if Inter took the lead they were almost impossible to beat. As a result of these immense successes in the European Cup and in winning successive Italian league titles in 1965 and 1966 the Inter Milan players were household names across Europe, whilst the Celtic players were largely anonymous to their European audience.

Despite the stellar makeup of the Inter sidethe Celtic players were able to match them on the field. In the tunnel, feeling perhaps self-conscious about their pasty white skin and more diminutive stature, the Celtic players stood silently showing clear signs of nerves. Jimmy Johnstone later said, “I thought we'd get a right gubbin'. I can see them yet standing alongside us in the tunnel waiting to go out on the pitch: Facchetti, Domenghini, Mazzola, Cappellini, all six-footers wi' Ambre Solaire suntans, Colgate smiles and slicked-back hair. Each and every wan o' them looked like yon film star Cesar Romero. They even smelt beautiful.”

Whilst some Celtic players were nervous Bertie Auld, the tough tackling midfield ball winner, helped to dispel those nerves by singing a rendition of “The Celtic Song” as the teams stood side by side. The other players joined in and the incident has become Celtic folkloregoing down in the history books as an unforgettable part of an unforgettable day for the football club.

Whilst the players may have allowed the occasion, their first European final, to intimidate them there was no way that Celtic were ever going to allow the Inter players to cause them fear. Growing up in 1950’s Glasgow was a tough task in itself and the entire Celtic eleven that day were born within or close to the city. It is widely recognised that Celtic’s European Cup win sets a record for proximity that will likely never be beaten with all players born and raised within a 30 mile radius of Parkhead, the home of Celtic FC.

When the eleven Scots took to the field, mindful of the success of Inter’s defensive style, they would have hoped to have made a good start and to prevent Inter from taking a lead however on the day it took just seven minutes for Italian Sandro Mazzola to convert a penalty past Scottish footballer of the year for 1967 Ronnie Simpson in the Celtic goal. The penalty had been given away by full back Jim Craig for a foul on Cappellini however Craig remains adamant to this day that he did not foul the Italian claiming in an interview years later that, “I knew their player was good on his left side and anticipated he was going to put the ball across to that foot. So, I ran across his path and there was contact. But there was no way in the world I expected the referee to award a penalty.”

Regardless of the validity of the penalty claim the fact was that Celtic had fallen behind to a side famous for maintaining slender leads for long periods. Over the remaining 38 minutes of the first half Celtic would press and attack in waves however the Inter defence forced them to shoot from far out and as a consequence Celtic went in at half time a goal down.

In the second half Celtic maintained their pressure and their attacking play. The official match statistics for the final record that Inter Milan managed just five shots to Celtic’s forty two clearly highlighting where the balance of power lay for most of the match. Celtic took sixty three minutes to breach the meanest defence in Europe and when they did it was through a thunderous drive from the left back Tommy Gemmell. For the next twenty one minutes the game was balanced in score but far from even in terms of play. Celtic continued to press and the crowd sensed a Celtic victory with Inter unable to change their style adequately to cope with the pressure.

It was not only the fans who sensed a Celtic win. Inter Milan defender Tarcisio Burgnich would later recall in the book Inverting the Pyramid – a History of Football Tacticsby Jonathan Wilson, "I remember at one point Picchi turned to the goalkeeper and said 'Giuliano, let it go, just let it go. Sooner or later they'll get the winner'. I never thought I would hear those words. I never imagined my captain would tell our keeper to throw in the towel. But that shows how destroyed we were at that point.”

Picchi and his colleagues were put out of their misery in the 84th minute when a Bobby Murdoch shot was turned into the net by striker Stevie Chalmers, without doubt the single most important goal ever scored for the club. In a glorious history which has spread to what is about to become 125 years Lisbon stands alongside winning nine titles in a row and the run to two other European Finals, the 1970 European Cup and 2003 UEFA Cup, as Celtic’s proudest and most illustrious achievements. 

The side who delivered the European Cup that day in Lisbon have been immortalised by the club and have been given the name “The Lisbon Lions” by the fans. Celtic have marked their achievements by placing a star above the club crest, by naming one of the stands at Celtic Park “The Lisbon Lion Stand” and by naming another “The Jock Stein Stand” in honour of the manager who assembled this historic side. A bust of Stein and a statue of Jimmy Johnstone decorate the front entrance of Celtic Park and the DVD of the final itself, produced in colour, remains a popular choice in the Celtic Superstore.

Celtic fans generally have an intrinsic and innate respect for their history and the fans regularly display banners and flags at games which glorify former players and legends all the way back to founder Brother Walfrid himself who began the club from a church hall in the Calton in November 1887, playing their first game in the following year. With this in mind alongside the celebrations of the 45th anniversary of the Lisbon triumph Celtic supporters will be using this day as a way to remember the lives of those “Lions” who are no longer alive.

Bobby Murdoch, often considered one of the best central midfielders of his generation, was the first Lion to die when he suffered a stroke and passed away on the 15th of May 2001. Three years later on the 19th of April 2004 goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson died following a heart attack and Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone, voted Celtic’s greatest ever player, died on the 13th of March 2006 following a battle with Motor Neurone Disease.

With three of the eleven who played that day dead the occasions to mark the anniversary of the success become more poignant reminding fans that one day the Lions will be gone and the only evidence of the success will be the history books and museum pieces that belong to the club. Despite these earthly truths the Lisbon Lions have taken on an unearthly characteristic as whilst they may simply be eleven Scots who won a European Cup to the Celtic fans they are immortal and will never be forgotten.

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