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The Lisbon Lions: when Celtic’s pure, beautiful, inventive football reinvented the European game

May 25, 2018

The Lisbon Lions led by captain Billy McNeill take to the pitch on May 25 1967

(This was originally published in the New European newspaper last year)

The smoke from the green and white pyrotechnic flares wafted across the stadium as the crowd passionately erupted into song in the 67th minute of Celtic’s final game of the season against Hearts in Glasgow on Sunday afternoon.

Led by the fanatical ultras supporters group the Green Brigade in the North Curve section of Celtic Park, nearly 63,000 fans, from the very old to the very young, belted out the song which has marked Celtic’s 2016-2017 season:

 “67/ In the heat of Lisbon/ The fans came in their thousands/ To see the Bhoys become champions.”

Just as it had accompanied an impressive and colourful Tifo display that decorated all four stands prior to kick-off, The Heat of Lisbon reverberated loudly for five minutes, refusing to die off.

Despite the fact that fans were witnessing a 2-0 defeat of Hearts which marked Scottish football’s first invincible league campaign since 1898, and that manager Brendan Rodgers’ current side stands on the cusp of the club’s only fourth ever treble season, all there were primarily celebrating the 50th anniversary of a team whose achievement echoes through the annals of Scottish and British football and are fundamental to the collective identity of Celtic fans: The Lisbon Lions, men who blazed a trail for attacking football that revolutionised the European game in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Lions, led by manager Jock Stein, won nine consecutive league titles in between 1965-1974, and defeated Inter Milan in Lisbon on May 25 1967 to become the first British team to win the European Cup.

More importantly, at a time when the ultra-defensive catenaccio style of Italian sides was beginning to dominate European football, the Lions did so playing, in Stein’s own words, “Pure, beautiful, inventive football.”

As with all stories that endure far beyond their time, circumstances and context are vital in understanding the power of Lisbon Lions legacy. They pummelled a team of Italian football aristocrats with a side of working class men drawn largely from the city boundaries of Glasgow, all of whom were steeped in the heavy industries that had made Scotland an economic driver of the British economy. The player born furthest from Celtic Park, Bobby Lennox, came from only 30 miles away.

Football is an even more globalised business now than it was in 1967, Celtic have players from Honduras, Costa Rica, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and various European nations in their squad. The prospect of 11 men all from one city, let alone, Glasgow, winning the Champions League is remote.

John Clark, who played centre half for Celtic in Lisbon and who has given nearly 50 years service to the club in a variety of roles, including assistant manager, says that this fact has grown in importance over the years, “We didn’t really give it much thought then. But because we were all Scots guys, from the manager down, except for our assistant manager who was Irish, so it was a unique occasion. We were the first to do it, and to do it from a small country like Scotland was important.”


Celtic founder Brother Walfrid’s statue adorns the entrance to Celtic Park in Glasgow

They represented a club that was formed in 1888 by a County Sligo-born Catholic Marist monk, Brother Walfrid, to raise money for the impoverished immigrant Irish poor in the East End of Glasgow. As Celtic fan and author Stephen Murray notes, “80 years after being set up to help alleviate the effects of poverty, the sons and grandsons of these immigrants showed how life was getting better for their people.”

Their achievement was a powerful beacon of achievement for an immigrant community that had been forced to deal with sectarianism and political marginalisation in Scotland. Community solidarity and recognition of the role of immigrants in Scottish society remains at the heart of the club’s doctrine today, in no small part to an investment in it by Stein and his team’s ethos.

The Lions, and especially their manager, were deeply immersed in the working class solidarity that came from the organised labour of their backgrounds in the coal mines of Lanarkshire, the shipyards, steel works and car plants of what is now the Strathclyde region.

When speaking in admiration of Stein’s managerial style, legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, himself born of mining stock said, “He gets them to do what they do well, all the little things they do well, and he merges them all together. It’s a form of socialism, they are helping each other.”

Trade Unionist Jez Stewart, a member of the Lisbon Lions Celtic Supporters Club in Glasgow said, “The charitable roots in the East End of Glasgow and the club’s anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ are echoed in the solidarity that Stein preached.

“Look at the charity work the Celtic Foundation does and the Green Brigade’s collection for food banks. It all comes from the same root.”

However, it was not simply that they won with a bind that tied them to their fans and the Scots Irish diaspora, it was the manner in which they did it.

Glaswegians have a wonderful word, ‘gallus’, which encapsulates anyone with a powerful self-belief. Such was Stein and the Lions’ collective vision, that they went to Lisbon not simply to beat Inter Milan, but to do it with a gallus élan that made them admired. The venerated sports reporter Hugh McIlvanney said, “Jock said to me we are not just going to go and try and win it, we are going to try and win it in a way that makes neutrals glad we won it, that makes people proud of us.”

Mr Stein

Legendary manager Jock Stein’s statue casts a powerful presence at Celtic Park

Jock Stein’s statue stands guard at the entrance to Celtic Park in the East End of Glasgow, an imposing sentry who is joined by two of his most decorated lieutenants, Lions’ captain Billy McNeill, and the diminutive and mercurial winger Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone. Stein has a stand in the ground named after him, as do the Lions: their influence and contribution to the club pervades every brick of the stadium.

Stein, a one-man machine of memorable and inspirational quotes, knew the power of the deep emotional link between football clubs and their supporters, on his statue the epigram reads, “Football without the fans is nothing.”

That it was at Celtic Park that he made his mark is, on the surface, anomalous given the deep sectarian divides of West of Scotland society – Stein was a Protestant, from a family with Orange Lodge sympathies.

Born in 1922, he had worked in the mines of Lanarkshire until the age of 27 when professional football allowed him to escape the ever-present dangers of the coalface. His time there allowed him to develop a working class solidarity that transcended sectarianism. He was indicative of the triumph of people who had endured the war and were given succour by the Welfare State and social democracy, and venerated looking after one another.

McIlvanney noted, “He was a socialist who despised bigotry. No matter where he went, or where he worked, he would never be among better people than those he worked with in the pits. He was voicing admiration of the way camaraderie in that dangerous world overwhelmed petty considerations that prevailed above ground.”

Stein’s outsider status and commitment to the team ethic is important in the centrality of the Lions enduring importance for the club’s supporters. Derek Kirwan, a fan of 44 years, and another member of the Lisbon Lions supporters club, says, “Stein wasn’t a Catholic, he wasn’t one of us, but we like to think that we are left wing and are open to all people.

“That he is the next biggest figure in our history after Brother Walfrid, that he commanded respect, was an educational tool. He and the Lions were our heroes and they allowed us to teach younger fans what we were about.

“Stein raised the standard of every one round him and made them better. The ‘Celtic Way’ of attacking football started with him. They were our heroes in a way that Muhammad Ali might be for black guys in America.”

Although a hard man and disciplinarian who fell out with a number of players over the years, Stein also recognised the need to allow people the freedom to play without worry.

John Clark says he was a visionary, “There was no pressure of any sort, he allowed you to play. He set a game plan out, you could make mistakes as long as it wasn’t mistakes that cost you the game. He understood the game because he had played the game. He knew when you were up, and he knew how to get you up when you were down. He was a clever man and a very clever tactician. He revolutionised Scottish football.”

Murray says, “Stein was Celtic manager for the first 11 years of my life and he was worshipped. There was nobody else in Celtic’s history that had the size of character to impose themselves like he did. He was a very imposing man. Hard of face and very soft hearted, with a kindness that few people saw.”

Clark, who without football would have inevitably become a miner, says that Stein was an indelible influence on his life, “Big Jock signed me as a youth player. My father got killed in a railway accident when I was 10 and Jock became a father figure to me throughout my career. He is a person that I could never forget about. He signed me 50 years ago and I am still here at Celtic. I am very grateful for that.”

John Clark

Lisbon Lion John Clark has spent his professional life at Celtic after being signed by Stein

The Lions defeat of Inter Milan was the highest point for Scottish football and triggered a revolution that saw Rangers and Aberdeen both win European trophies in years that followed. Indeed, 1967 might have been an annus mirabilis for Glaswegian football because, Celtic’s bitter rivals, Rangers, were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Bayern Munich in the European Cup Winners Cup in Nuremburg six days after Lisbon.

Murray says, “It wasn’t just the Lisbon final. Between 65-75 Celtic were one of the major players in Europe. We should have won the 1970 final against Feyenoord, we lost two semi-finals, one on penalties against Inter Milan and another controversially against Athletico Madrid. It was the fact over a considerable time that club was one of the leading forces in European football.”

Stein’s football was profoundly influenced by Europe. Rather than looking to the English first division for inspiration, he sought out the great continental innovators. He had been present at Wembley in 1953 when Hungry, inspired by Ferenc Puskás, had humbled England 6-3 and had also had been at the 1954 World Cup to see West Germany defeat the same Hungarian side.

His greatest influence was Real Madrid who he saw hammer Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the European Cup final in Hampden Park in Glasgow in May 1960 in match considered to be one of the greatest of all time.

The attacking verve and daring of the Spanish giants was to be a major tactical inspiration for the former Lanarkshire miner.

The week after Lisbon, he told the club’s official magazine, the Celtic View, that they had repeatedly watched that game in preparation, “seeing it again enabled me to urge the players to emulate the very high standard of attacking football which made the match memorable.”

When Celtic defeated Inter Milan it was a triumph of attacking audacity. Despite going 1-0 down within the first 10 minutes, wave after wave of attacks saw more than 40 shots rain in on the Italian goal in which Sarti had the game of his life.

Despite only scoring the winner with seven minutes of play left, the game was, as they say in Scotland about a massively one sided game, ‘shootie-in’. McIlvanny was moved to describe it as “a 2-1 slaughter.”

Celtic’s gallus panache would inspire a renaissance in attacking football that was taken on by Ajax and other Northern European sides and that broke the threatened Italian domination. Make no bones about it Lisbon 1967 was a cultural paradigm shift in European football.

Author, journalist and Celtic podcaster Lawrence Donegan says the Lions legacy also lives on in its cultural impact. “Everybody loves an underdog story, especially an underdog story that ends in triumph, and especially if you are the underdog, but the Lions also speak to a Scottish Irish working class pride.

“You can see it in the Celtic players in the tunnel before the game, the sons of miners with their false teeth out, standing alongside these Italian Adonises, Inter players who were all athletic, tall and good looking and we had Bertie Auld.”

Donegan, whose grandparents were Irish immigrants, remembers the whole family gathering in their Stirlingshire pit village home to watch the game on TV. It went beyond sport.

He says, “The Lions are a perfect storm of everything. Some people like football just for the football but I like it for countless different reasons, for sporting, cultural and social reasons. Lisbon is the perfect storm of the football experience, the Lions are part of me culturally, who I am, where I am from, what I think, it’s all in one beautiful bundle.”

Stephen Murray says, “My father was working in Manchester and got a day off to come home to watch the game in his own house because he felt like he wanted to be with his own people when Celtic won the cup.

“He said he was glad that he did because it was the first time that he had seen pubs handing out free drink and an old fella I remembered said it was the closest thing to V-E Day, when the war was won, that he had experienced.”

The journey to Lisbon for fans in 1967 has become one of the most celebrated aspects of the Lisbon story. Murray says, “Celtic fans who travelled to Lisbon would have been working in heavy industries, shipyards, steel works, mines and the car plant at Linwood. They did hard jobs and going to football was a form of escapism.

“Many of them had fought in the war, in France, Holland or Italy. It must have been a source of joy that they could travel across Europe to see something of that magnitude having experienced the horrors of what they went through.”

The Lisbon Lions were also among the first products of the age of television in Britain with the 1967 final one of the first many people saw on British TV, and in the grainy black and white they saw Stein’s bravura entertainers. Contemporary colour photographs and colour film capture the vibrant green and white hoops of the players and the emerald green banners of the fans standing out vividly in the Portugese evening sunshine.

Lisbon Tifo

The tifo display to commemorate the Lisbon Lions at Celtic Park on May 21 20017

Donegan says many factors have combined to ensure the victors would achieve historic status, “Firstly, the Lisbon Lions, it’s a great name and secondly, it’s an iconic strip, Billy McNeill standing with the cup above his head in that beautifully simple strip. You’d probably pay a marketing guy hundreds of thousands of pounds to come up with it today.”

Celtic has cannily woven the legend of the Lions into the fabric of the contemporary club. Professor Raymond Boyle of the University of Glasgow says, “Football clubs are now brands, and brands are about narratives and stories. Celtic have been particularly good in last 15 years communicating the distinctive nature of the Celtic brand and the Lions story is integral.

“I use the phrase ‘modernising tradition’, Celtic have been very clever by getting that line right. They have been very sensitive towards fans when using iconic players that mean so much to them. They have used the Lions for charitable purposes through the Celtic Foundation, which very much feeds into a narrative of what makes Celtic different. It tells you about the connection between supporters and the club.”

The Lions legacy is also touched by poignancy and the knowledge of the players’ mortality – Tommy Gemmell, who scored the equalising goal against Inter Milan, died earlier this year, while Billy McNeill’s struggle with Alzheimers Disease was made public recently. Gemmell’s death meant that five of those that made up the tiny 17 man squad had passed, making this anniversary all more urgent for the club and its fans.

John Clark says, “Unfortunately, the captain, Billy, isn’t fortunate to be with us because of his health, and the same with Stevie Chalmers who scored the winning goal. It is important to remember those who aren’t with us, Tommy Gemmell, Ronnie Simpson, Bobby Murdoch, Jinky (Jimmy Johnstone), Joe McBride and Willie O’Neill. These were guys that made that team. We were a close-knit group of guys.

 “It’s been a joyful occasion, we are coming to the end of it, but 50 years on and to still be able to do it, that’s been my plus.”


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