The Greatest Feat in Football
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s epic European cup win of 1967 has been a joy behold. The media has been full of pictures and video clips of smiling faces beneath the blue Portuguese skies of a summer long ago. Social media has also been awash with pride at the achievements of Stein’s team. This feel good factor is of course augmented by the current squad’s triumphant march through a season which sees them on the brink of a historic Treble and a season of invincibility in Scotland.
How do measure what the Lisbon Lions achieved? What rod can you use? A bunch of lads who learned their football in the streets and back courts of industrial Scotland took on the sophisticates, the so called elite of European football, and beat them. I don’t just mean ‘beat’ them in the normal sense of winning a football match, Celtic shattered Inter, demoralised them and left them in no doubt that they’d been thrown to the Lions.
Celtic breathed life and joy back into a game being strangled by defensive football and cynicism. There was an almost naïve approach to Celtic’s play in that magical year. They basically told opponents; ‘We’ll be attacking you from the start. What are you going to do about it?’ In that magnificent season of 1967 no one could live with them and Celtic swept the board by winning every trophy they competed for.
For Celtic supporters those days carry an iconic significance. Those who saw that magnificent team play wear their memories like medals. For those too young to have seen the Lions play there is an added sense of pride that even half a century ago Celtic was capable of such brilliance. Make no mistake about it; Celtic’s destruction of Inter Milan was a seminal moment in European football history. Negativity and defensive tactics were strangling the game at the top level till a bunch of pale faced Scots arrived on the scene and blew the cobwebs away. It is no coincidence that the great teams which followed Celtic were committed to a more expansive, attacking game. It is a measure of how Celtic dominated Inter that defender Tarcisco Burgnich told Jonathan Wilson in his book ‘Inverting the Pyramid- A history of football tactics (2008)
‘’We just knew, even after 15 minutes that we were not going to keep them out. It was a miracle that we were still 1-0 up at half time. Sometimes in those situations your confidence increases and you start to believe. Not on that day. Even in the dressing room at half time we looked at each other and we knew we were doomed. I remember at one point Picchi turned to the goalkeeper and said, ‘Guiliano, 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. It’s as if we didn’t want to prolong the agony.’
The agony was not prolonged as Steve Chalmers, a lad from the Garngad, provided the coup de gras and guided Celtic's greatest side to glory.
The transformation of the Clydeside in the 50 years since that Lisbon triumph has been remarkable. The shipyards and heavy industry have receded and the bright flats, shinning Science Centre and SECC have risen in their place. Social conditions in Glasgow too have changed greatly too as have social attitudes. Celtic’s triumph not only delighted the community which gave birth to the club but also made many Scots feel a sense of pride that a club from these shores could play that way and bring such glory to Scotland.
Celtic will always be the repository of collective memory and identity for those who are children of the Irish diaspora in Scotland but Lisbon opened doors, opened eyes, and the club increasingly found more and more supporters from all walks of life. Celtic has always opened its arms to all and rightly eschewed any thoughts of the narrow, exclusive tribalism others sullied themselves with. The club is rightly proud of its Irish Catholic roots but equally proud of its inclusive ethos. Tom Devine, himself of Irish stock and Scotland’s best known historian took the long view of what Lisbon meant to the Irish Catholic community of Scotland…
‘We weren’t exactly an underclass but we were pretty close to it and this team was the sporting Champions of that ethnicity. Lisbon was probably almost as significant as the visit of the Pope in 1982. Lisbon was, if you like, a stage in their emancipation.’
So it was that thousands of them gathered in the very modern setting of the Hydro to celebrate the achievements of the Lions of Lisbon. It was a joyous night, a night of poignancy and much emotion. Sir Alex Ferguson, a man steeped in Glasgow’s footballing culture said of the achievements of 1967…
"They set the pattern for a period, particularly when Manchester United the next year did it. From '65 to '67, if someone had written a book about it they would call it fiction. It was amazing. It was the greatest feat in football. They were pioneers for British football, there's no doubt about that, Sir Matt at Manchester United was rebuilding the team after the Munich air disaster, but they got to a semi-final, which was a great achievement for a very young side. For Celtic to do it with 11 players from within 25 miles of each other is astonishing. This event will recognise the achievement, but also applaud the players and management staff who achieved it. It will never be done again."
As thousands sang, cheered and cried a few tears of joy in the Hydro there was a sense that Celtic continues to be far more than just a football club. They remain the emblem of a community which has come on a remarkable journey. It was somewhat poignant they had gathered to celebrate the achievements of their team in sight of the very docks where the overcrowded cattle boats once disgorged their human cargo escaping hunger and poverty in Ireland. Those impoverished and often despised people overcame bigotry, exploitation and appalling social conditions to eventually take their place in every sector of Scottish society.
So it is with pride that we remember the Lisbon Lions. They gifted us an incredible legacy. They stated with unmistakable style and skill that this is what you can achieve if you believe, if you fight to the end and never give up.
Fifty years have come and gone
Yet still the memory lingers on
The pride, the joy, the sheer delight
They raised us to the highest height
Glowing shirts of white and green
Carried our hopes, lived our dreams
That day beneath the Lisbon sun
When the Lions roared and football won!
From the voices of countless Celtic folk down the ages I say to the wonderful Lisbon Lions:
Thank You. Your achievements fill us with pride. As long as there is a Celtic you will have the place of highest honour in our hearts.