Friday, 2 June 2017

Days of Thunder


Days of Thunder

There was an ominous rumble of thunder over Hampden Park as Tom Rogic glided elegantly into the Aberdeen penalty box and fired Celtic to a memorable cup final victory last week. As the drifting Glasgow rain fell, half of Hampden’s great bowl celebrated wildly while the other half looked on with a mixture of stunned disbelief and probably a fair degree of resignation as Celtic had stopped Aberdeen in their tracks in 6 out of 6 games across three competitions this season. In truth, after a first half which Aberdeen shaded, Celtic looked the stronger, fitter side as the game wore on and had a few chances to take the lead. A goal was coming but until it did there was always that fear lurking in the back streets of your mind that Aberdeen would snatch a winner. As the clock ticked down, the game was there for someone to grab by the scruff of the neck and force the outcome. Thankfully it was the big Celt who seized the moment.

In a season filled with dramatic moments Rogic’s exhilarating winner came in the last moments of the last game of the season and demonstrated that this Celtic side, like all good Celtic sides, fights right to the end. They have demonstrated all season long that they can find a way to win games even on those few occasions when the team were not playing particularly well. This season though will best be remembered for Celtic’s return to playing a fast expansive game. It has been a season of goals, attacking play and real pride that Rodgers’ side not only completed a wonderful treble and an invincible season, but did so playing football the Glasgow Celtic way.

They had scored 106 goals in the league, collected 106 points, won all three major competitions and in 12 games against their two closest rivals had won 11 and drawn one. There were two 5-1 demolitions of Rangers bookending an invincible league campaign and the team had performed with some credit in the toughest Champions League group they have ever played in. The supporters too had played their part turning up in huge numbers and giving the side the sort of backing some of the so called ‘big clubs’ in England would envy.

The joy of this season has been doubled by the fact that the Celtic family is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the triumph in Lisbon in 1967; that achievement is still recognised as the greatest deed in Celtic’s long and illustrious history and rightly so. It has been wonderful to watch the stadium being lit up by thousands of phones during the dark days of winter as the Celtic Park faithful sing their homage to the men of 1967. In every game this season the sixty seventh minute has echoed to the words of a familiar song;

‘In the heat of Lisbon, the fans came in their thousands, to see the bhoys become champions 67.’ 



Most of those singing will not have been alive when the Lions mauled Inter but have been taught the stories by relatives who were and watched video footage of Stein’s remarkable side. All Celtic followers are rightly proud of the achievements of 50 years ago.

In the days following that dramatic cup final with Aberdeen I caught up with some of the excellent documentaries which recalled that summer of 1967 and the deeds of a team of working class Scottish lads who took Europe by storm 50 years ago. The best was undoubtedly BBC Scotland’s excellent ‘Glasgow 1967: The Lisbon Lions.’ It captured the spirit of the times brilliantly. Glasgow was on the cusp of modernisation and huge swathes of so called slum areas were about to be demolished and replaced by high rise towers and soulless schemes which lacked the community spirit of the old districts. My old man used to point to the two ugly tower blocks built by the Gallowgate as we walked to Celtic Park and say with a wry smile, ‘Filing cabinets for people.’ Those flats stood for almost 50 years, a two fingered salute to the working class community forced to deal with their communities being ripped apart by the city planners and their workplaces vanishing as the scourge of mass unemployment returned.

As Glasgow was being remade in the sixties, its football sides were a shining light to the people who followed them with such passion. Celtic simply sparkled that season and approached European ties with a confidence which belied the fact it was their first time in the European cup. As Zurich and Nantes were swept aside the fans began to think the impossible might just be conceivable. As Vojvodina fell to McNeill’s last gasp header and Dukla were fatally wounded at a raucous Parkhead, Celtic found that they were standing on the cusp of greatness. Surely they would not fail? Surely those thousands who followed them to Lisbon would find a happy ending to their incredible story?

History records that Celtic defeated Inter Milan 2-1 in the twelfth European Cup final. Those bare statistics don’t begin to describe the verve and skill nor the fitness and spirit of a Celtic side which would not be denied their moment of glory. Their victory was a triumph for football and a triumph for a club which was born into a harsh and uncaring world.

As the last of the Lions age and their deeds recede into history it is hugely satisfying that the supporters show them such affection. Of course it pains us to see Billy McNeill, once so vigorous and commanding as a player and Manager, suffering from early onset dementia. None of us will escape the ravages of time but few of us will achieve in our lives what Billy and his comrades did in that golden era.

The bonds between the Lisbon Lions are as strong as ever and one of the most beautiful moments of the documentary shows them as young men in their prime emerging from the dark tunnel at the Estadio Nacional into the Portuguese sunshine. Those green and white shirts seemed to glimmer in the bright sunlight as a piano played a delicate and poignant version of a tune recognisable to all Celtic fans as ‘In the heat of Lisbon.’ I must confess to feeling emotional as I thought of those young Scottish lads who played with such flair and style on that day long ago when history was made.

So when the thunder rumbled at Hampden last week and Tom Rogic sealed a famous cup win, I was delighted that in this special season Celtic had risen to the challenge and played the game in a manner the Lions would have approved of.  History swirls around Celtic like incense in a Cathedral; you can feel it, you can smell it and you can sense it. The class of 2016-17 kept faith with the bhoys of 1966-67.

The last scenes in the documentary showed Bobby Lennox gazing out to sea on his beloved Ayrshire coast, thinking of his comrades and saying wistfully ‘We were like brothers, I loved them. I absolutely loved them.’ Bertie Auld, eyes misting with tears spoke of his absent comrades with three simple words; ‘I miss them.’

We all do Bertie. We miss Ronnie, Tommy, Bobby, Jimmy, Joe, Sean and of course big Jock. They will never be forgotten.

I hope next season we still occasionally sing their praises; still make some old men smile when they hear Celtic Park reverberating to the words:

‘In the heat of Lisbon, the fans came in their thousands to see the bhoys become champions 67!’