Lisbon Lions 1967

1967. Four digits which form part of the core DNA of every Celtic supporter. The club’s success in being crowned Champions of Europe continues to reverberate forty years on. Yet the supreme triumph of the Lisbon Lions has overshadowed what was a remarkable and unsurpassed season for Scottish football – and for the Celtic squad itself, even before they set foot on Portuguese soil.

At international and European levels 1967 represents the high-water mark for Scottish football. In April Scotland went to Wembley to face the recently crowned World Champions in a European qualifier. The Scots, inspired by Baxter and Law, led England a merry dance, finally winning 3-2 – and triumphantly engaging in a game of keepie-up while the English looked on in impotence. 6 of the Scotland players went on to play in European finals the next month – four Celts alongwith John Greig and Ronnie McKinnon who picked up runners-up medals with Rangers in the European Cup Winners Cup final against Bayern Munich. Kilmarnock had also reached the semi-final of the Fairs Cup (forerunner to the Uefa Cup) before losing to Leeds United, while Dundee United had beaten Barcelona home and away before being knocked out by Juventus, whom they’d also beaten at Tannadice. Scottish football was riding the crest of the European wave.

The most remarkable feature of Celtic’s rapid ascension to the pinnacle of European club football was the turnaround in the club’s fortunes performed by Jock Stein. In March 1965 he took over a club which hadn’t won a trophy in seven years, hadn’t won the league in twelve and which trailed in at 8th place in Division 1. When Billy McNeill lifted the Champions Cup aloft in the Estadio Nacional in May 1967 it was the sixth piece of silverware Stein’s team had seized in the intervening two years. Yet he had made only two signings – Joe McBride and Willie Wallace – to assist his transformation of a team of young hopefuls into the Champions of Europe.

The team was the key. What is largely overlooked is the fact that Celtic’s success at Lisbon was not just down to the 11 players who donned the Hoops that day. Willie O’Neill, John Hughes, Joe McBride, Charlie Gallagher and John Fallon, with 106 games between them that season, are rightly regarded as Lisbon Lions, for they helped lay the foundations for Celtic’s astonishing success that season. McBride’s 36 goals that season, scored before his season ended in injury on Christmas Eve, were one essential ingredient. The sense of identity and togetherness fostered by Stein was another.

The newly crowned Scottish champions kicked off the ‘66-7 season in style with a 4-0 victory at Ibrox in the Glasgow Cup, one of five pieces of silverware which were in the Celtic boardroom come the following May. The games – and performances – against Rangers were to prove crucial throughout the season, as is usually the case. A 2-0 victory at Celtic Park in September was followed by another victory over Rangers in the League Cup Final in October, Bobby Lennox scoring the only goal. A 5-0 aggregate victory over FC Zurich had already set Celtic on the road to Lisbon. The goals were mounting up at a ferocious rate home and abroad.

At Dunfermline in November Celtic’s will to win was there for all to see when they overturned a 2-0 deficit to win by the odd goal in nine. French champions Nantes had been dispatched in clinical style, 6-2 on aggregate. The Celtic scoring machine was running to perfection but Stein decided to take out insurance early in December when record buy Willie Wallace, an impressive striker, was secured from Hearts. This meant that, less than three weeks later, Joe Bride’s knee injury did not result in the wheels falling off Stein’s juggernaut.

Throughout the early months of 1967 Celtic maintained their steady progress domestically. In the Scottish Cup, the fall of Rangers at the first hurdle in Berwick opened the door to Celtic’s first ever treble. Their only defeat in Scotland had been at the hands of Dundee United back in December but a second defeat followed away to Vojvodina Novi Sad in March. In the return leg a last-minute header from captain McNeill saw Celtic storm into the semi-final. Drawn at home in the first leg against Czechoslovakian champions Dukla Prague, the team secured the two goal advantage that Stein craved, winning 3-1 on the night. No risks were taken in the away leg and a 0-0 draw ensured their entry to the final, where the toughest nut of all waited to be cracked.

Incredibly, there was no slacking on the home front. 126,102 fans turned up to see Celtic take on Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final in April. Stein engaged in tactical tinkering to overcome the doughty Dons who’d secured a no-score draw at Celtic Park ten days earlier. Jimmy Johnstone was played through the centre rather than the right wing and the Dons defence was undone as the trickery of the Celtic forward line presented Willie Wallace with two goals to guarantee Celtic’s third trophy of the season.

The battle for the league flag was a different matter. Rangers, who had made it through to the Cup Winners Cup final, were still slugging it out for the domestic trophy that mattered. Although Celtic had built up a comfortable lead, a dangerous wobble occurred. Two home games in succession had resulted in a draw with Aberdeen and an unthinkable 3-2 defeat – again at the hands of Dundee United. Celtic had to visit Ibrox on 6th May, in a postponed fixture, requiring at least a point to secure the Treble. Jinky took to the stage with a devastating performance that included two goals, the latter an incredible shot from outside the box, to secure the fourth piece of silverware for the season. Standing in the famed marble hallway after the game manager Stein noted “It’s always nice to win the title, but it’s a pleasure to win it here.”

And so to Lisbon. Facing the debutants were the continent’s outstanding team of the moment. Under Helenio Herrera, Internazionale had already won the World Club Championship twice. They were European Champions in 1964 and 1965, losing out to Real Madrid in the semis in 1966. Herrera’s team were renowned for the catenaccio (door-bolt) approached which involved man-for-man marking and a sweeper to help secure victories built upon counter-attacks. It was effective but neutralised the obvious ball-playing talents of the individual Inter players from Italy, Spain and South America. In contrast, Stein’s men represented what Hugh McIlvanney has called “a Glasgow District XI” which played an expansive 4-4-2 system reliant upon a pacy frontline, a world-class winger in a combative midfield and two attacking full-backs (one of whom, Tommy Gemmell, scored 16 goals in season 66-7, 4 of them in Europe). When Herrera’s men decided to close-up shop and protect their one-nil lead in Lisbon they reckoned without Celtic’s craft, energy and blind faith in Stein’s commitment to attacking football. There were over 40 attempts on Sarti’s goal before the breakthrough was achieved in stunning fashion. After the game Herrera was moved to say “Although we lost, the match was a victory for sport.”

It was an incredible end to that most incredible of seasons for Scottish football. Celtic had won every competition they had entered. They had slain the dour, defensive-minded giants at home and abroad with a brand of football that won admirers throughout the world for its emphasis on the only thing that actual mattered: goals. What Stein said of the triumph that afternoon in Lisbon spoke volumes of his team’s endeavours throughout season 1966-7:

“Winning was important, aye, but it was the way that we won that has filled me with satisfaction. We did it by playing football; pure, beautiful, inventive football.”

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