JOCK STEIN said it all really: “I want to be remembered for the football we played”. He was referring to Celtic’s first European Cup final appearance against the formidable Inter Milan in Lisbon and the possibility of defeat, something that Stein’s side were unaccustomed to experiencing.
Fifty years on, the quality of Celtic’s football in that glorious season and the scale of their achievements is still being talked about. Celtic and Jock Stein pointed the way ahead for European football and although they never won the competition again, they will forever be remembered as the team that broke the stranglehold of the infamous catenaccio.
Europe had become bored of Italy’s vice-like grip on the major prizes. Inter and AC Milan had won three European Cups in four years and the defence-minded style of Italian clubs was stifling the life out of football. From 1963 to 1967, Italy’s Serie A was characterised by cautious – although highly technical and skilful – football that yielded fewer and fewer goals. Just consider that in 1966-67, the average goals per game in Italy was just 2.0 – compared to 3.00 in England, 2.73 in Spain and 2.92 in Germany.
Goals were plentiful at Celtic, in fact, in 1966-67, they netted 111 in 34 Scottish First Division games. Stein preached attacking football that was fast, cultured and richly entertaining. He believed that making a good team into a great team relied on injecting unpredictability into the equation. In players like Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Murdoch and Bobby Lennox, Celtic had the flair and guile that took an efficient and consistent team into the stratosphere.
But as well as individualism, Celtic’s big strength was the way the player with the ball was supported by the entire team. You could argue that Stein’s Celtic were the forerunners of Dutch “Total Football”.
Celtic’s success in 1966-67 came in Stein’s second season in charge at Parkhead. A modest footballer by all accounts, he became Celtic’s first protestant manager when he took over in 1965. In that first campaign, Celtic won the Scottish League and Scottish League Cup and were runners-up in the Scottish Cup and semi-finalists in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. It was a very good start.
Nobody could have foreseen just how dramatic 1966-67 would become. Celtic warmed up for the serious business with two important pre-season victories, 4-1 against Manchester United and 1-0 away at Real Madrid. Once the league got underway, Stein’s men went 16 games unbeaten before Dundee United beat them 3-2 on New Year’s Eve. By then, Celtic had already won the Scottish League Cup, Bobby Lennox’s goal proving enough to beat Rangers 1-0.
They had also reached the last eight of the European Cup, the competition that Stein described as, “the one that matters”. They had worked their way through the first two rounds with few problems, beating FC Zurich and Nantes home and away. Johnstone was in irresistible form in France as Celtic won 3-1, prompting the media to nickname him the “flying flea”. Johnstone, who was more commonly known as “Jinky” in recognition of his tricky runs down the flank, was only 22 at the start of 1966-67, but he had already been capped by Scotland. Stein initially considered that he was too much of a luxury player, but Johnstone won him round and it is often forgotten that in 1967, he finished third in the European Footballer of the Year poll.
Bill Shankly said it all when he told Stein he had become immortal
Johnstone was not the only player who could provide that spark of genius. Bobby Murdoch, complimented by Stein as “Just about the best player I had as a manager”, was a sophisticated performer. Another youngster, Murdoch stayed with Celtic until 1973 when he joined Middlesbrough because he needed fresh challenges. He had won everything you could as a Celtic player by the age of 22.
Most of Celtic’s team were yet to reach their prime. Goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson was heading for 37 after a career in England with Newcastle United, where he won the FA Cup twice in the 1950s. But Jim Craig (23), Billy McNeill (26), John Clark (25), Tommy Gemmell (23), Murdoch (22), Johnstone (22), Willie Wallace (26) and Bobby Lennox (23) had years ahead of them. Steve Chalmers was 31 at the turn of the year.
They had to rely on skipper McNeill, who acquired the nickname “Cesar”, a reference to the 1960 film, Ocean’s Eleven, to get them through the quarter-final of the European Cup against Vojvodina. Celtic lost the first leg 1-0 in Yugoslavia and it was a last minute goal from McNeill that gave them a 2-0 turnaround in the second leg. “We had an in-built confidence that we could not lose,” said John Clark some years later. Celtic’s players believed that the Vojvodina tie was the toughest on the way to the final, but they made life difficult for themselves in the last four.
Celtic took one step towards the final by beating Dukla Prague 3-1 in the semi-final first leg at Parkhead but Stein, uncharacteristically, discarded his attacking beliefs for the second leg in Prague. Celtic played negatively and ground out a fractious 0-0 draw in the Juliska Stadium. They would meet an Inter Milan side that had been crowned European champions in 1964 and 1965, the team of Helenio Herrera, the arch-exponent of catenaccio
Meanwhile, domestic honours had to be secured. On April 29, four days after reaching the European Cup final, Celtic won the Scottish Cup by beating Aberdeen 2-0 at Hampden Park in front of 126,000 people. Willie Wallace, who had been bought from Hearts for £ 30,000 in the close season, scored both goals.
Celtic were agonisingly close to winning the league, but slipped up at home against Dundee United, losing 2-3 for the second time in the season to the Tangerines. On May 6, the “Old firm” derby at Ibrox Park ended in a 2-2 draw and it was enough to give Celtic the championship. Jimmy Johnstone scored both of Celtic’s goals. In the stand was one Helenio Herrera Gavilán, laughing and enjoying the atmosphere of his first Glasgow derby.
And so, the green and white half of Glasgow decamped to Lisbon for the European Cup final. Estimates suggest that between 15,000 and 20,000 travelled to Portugal for the game on May 25, 1967 but Celtic versus Internazionale has become one of those moments in football folklore that has become a classic “I was there” situation. If everyone who claimed to have been in Lisbon that day was in fact present, 20,000 would probably become 200,000.
It is fascinating how Lisbon and the players who made history have become woven into the social history of Glasgow. Nobody could deny that Stein’s Celtic did not deserve to be crowned Europe’s finest on that sunny evening. It was Scotland’s triumph, but it was also Britain’s big breakthrough. There was also a certain symmetry with England’s World Cup win, but cynics would argue that the achievement of winning the European Cup against a mean spirited team that had dominated the competition in recent years, was even more worthy of praise.
This was also, importantly, a victory for home grown talent. The Celtic team that lined-up against Inter all came from within a 30-mile radius: Simpson, Craig, Auld and Chalmers were all Glasgow-born. Both McNeill and Clark were from Belshill, 10 miles south-east of Glasgow. Murdoch grew up in Rutherglen, Johnstone was born in Viewpark, North Lanarkshire and Wallace in Kirkintilloch. Gemmell was born in Motherwell and Lennox was a Saltcoats lad. Very few teams have had such a concentration of origins.
Inter were a feared team and had beaten Torpedo Moscow, Vasas Budapest, holders Real Madrid and CSKA Red Flag of Sofia on the way to Lisbon. But in the weeks leading up to the final, something had started to go wrong for Herrera’s side. With 28 games played in Serie A, they were four points clear of Juventus at the top of the table. But five winless games later, including a 1-0 defeat against Juve, Inter were one ahead of their rivals.
Inter were not at full strength for the final. Luis Suarez, the former Barcelona forward and Herrera acolyte, was now 32 and injured. Jair, the Brazilian winger who had won the European Cup for Inter in 1965, was also sidelined. There were rumours that Sandro Mazzola, one of the all-time greats of Italian football, was also struggling for full mobility.
Nevertheless, Inter were favourites, but Jock Stein was not going to psyched out of the game. He showed his team the 1960 final on cine film, seeking inspiration from the great Real Madrid side that lit-up Hampden Park. There was talk about how Inter would set themselves up and how the smothering tactics that had so incensed Benfica in 1965 might be repreated against Celtic. “The formation is not as important as the attitude,” said Stein, who had studied Herrera’s methods at length a few years earlier. He told his team to “got out there boys and play your usual game”.
Herrera, an exponent of mind games, tried to whip-up local support, but he had underestimated the damage done by his team in 1965 when they had squeezed the life out of Benfica and Eusebio.
British sides had not generally fared well against Italy in the 1960s. In the European Cup, Everton and Liverpool had both fallen foul of Inter and Manchester United had lost to AC Milan in post-Munich 1958. Chelsea and Leeds, in the Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup, had better results, although they had felt the wrath of Italian defences and crowds.
Celtic had the stamina and the skill to upset an Inter team that included Mazzola, Giacinto Facchetti, Angelo Domenghini, Mario Corso and Tarcisio Burgnich. They went into the game with the instruction not to concede early given Inter’s penchant to close-up once they were ahead. But in the seventh minute, they fell behind to a Mazzola penalty. Celtic came back strongly, though, and they were denied by the woodwork and goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti, a custodian who had perfected the art of the “sweeper-keeper”.
Celtic eventually equalised in the 63rd minute, a piledriver from Tommy Gemmell, who had been one of their outstanding players. Stein’s men dominated and had something like 49 shots during the game. Celtic laid siege to Inter’s goal and only Sarti’s brilliance kept them at bay. “Inter are like a crenelated wall, ramparts and watchtowers,” was how David Goldblatt, in his marvellous book, The Ball is Round, described the constant pressure and Inter’s ability to cope.
Journalists in Lisbon were quick to praise Celtic’s ability to take the game to the Italians. “They’ve all go Stein’s heart..there’s a bit of the big man in all of them.”
Six minutes from the end, Inter cracked, but it took a clever, and apparently planned, deflection to win the game. The shot came from Bobby Murdoch and it was Steve Chalmers that touched the ball home. Some called it a fluke, but Chalmers admitted it was a move that had been practised for weeks. It didn’t matter, Celtic hung on to win 2-1 and for a wee while, Lisbon belonged to Glasgow.
Hugh McIlvanney described it thus: “Pockets of Celtic supporters are holding out in unlikely corners, noisily defending their own carnival atmosphere against the returning tide of normality, determined to preserve the moment, to make the party go on and on.”
Somebody else described it as “Dunkirk with happiness”, while the Portuguese press said that Inter had paid the price for refusing to play entertaining football.
They had also been throttled by their own tactics. As Inter retreated after scoring so early, Celtic’s energy and pace swamped them. It enabled players like Murdoch the space to flourish. Patience had also been key for the Scots.
Bill Shankly, discussing the game afterwards, with his compatriot, Stein, leaned over and said quietly: “John…you are immortal.” But the last word on the game goes to Herrera, never a man to value a defeat. “Celtic deserved to win. We lost, but the match was a victory for sport.”
But how right the bard of Anfield was. Stein and his team had made history, playing in a style that lifted the heart and suggested the dark art of catenaccio was not the way ahead. A few days later, Inter’s castle was stormed again as they lost their final Serie A game at Mantova, allowing Juventus to win the scudetto. Herrera’s world was crumbling and he stayed just one more season before moving to Roma.
Celtic continued to win trophies under Stein – between 1965-66 and 1973-74, they won nine consecutive Scottish League titles, five Scottish Cups, five Scottish League Cups and of course, the European Cup. In 1970, they reached the final again but lost to Feyenoord. They almost repeated their all-conquering march of 1967.
The Celtic team that won the European Cup has become, like Stein, immortal in the eyes of Celtic fans and anyone who cares about the history and culture of the game. “The Lisbon Lions” probably all deserve a statue in their honour. This was, after all, a team of the people…