Remembering Celtic’s 1967 Lisbon Lions

Outside Celtic Park, one of the most impressive, cutting edge stadia in modern Britain, there are three statues which offer a glimpse into the window of history.

One is of legendary manager Jock Stein; who led the club back from the brink in the 1960s, and moulded them into a dominant force – both in Scotland and on the European stage.

One is of Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone; one of the best wingers European football has ever seen, and the only Scottish player ever to podium in the Ballon d’Or rankings.

The other; unveiled most recently in 2015; is of the captain of the Lisbon Lions, Billy McNeill.

All three men have one major success in common. They did the unthinkable; they conquered the great Internazionale on the grandest stage of them all, winning the European Cup with a team from Scotland, and in doing so created the defining moment in the history of Celtic FC.

It’s easy to look at something that happened more than 50 years ago as if it was a parallel universe. For many modern fans, only the memories of our grandparents connect the sport that existed in 1967 to the game we know now, but there are a few parallels.

For one, the idea of Celtic winning a European cup – never mind the European Cup – was just as unthinkable then as it is now.

When Jock Stein took the reins in 1965, Rangers’ venture to the 1961 Cup Winners’ Cup final represented the only time a Scottish club had got to the final of a European competition. That was a Rangers team who would win eight league titles between 1950-1964; Celtic, during this time, had won one.

The Hoops team that the ineffable Stein inherited had gone a decade without a major trophy of any description, but that changed pretty rapidly.

Arriving from Hibs, the stoic Scot – the first Protestant manager in the club’s history – implemented a radical tactical approach, featuring two high-pressing wingers in a generally unheard-of 4-4-2 formation. He added just one player to the team who had finished eighth in the First Division, but it just so happened that that one player Joe McBride from Motherwell – went on to score 44 goals in his first season.

In Stein’s first full season, Celtic bridged the huge divide between themselves and Rangers, and playing some of the most exciting football in Britain at the time, became champions for the first time in ten years.

With that title win, something had changed at Parkhead. Where confidence was once bereft, the personality, professionalism and tactical dexterity brought to the table by Stein had instilled players with a sense of self-belief like never before. All of a sudden they were rolling over the domestic competition like it was nothing; they went on to win nine league titles on the spin; but it was always going to be a huge jump to translate that onto the European stage.

Still, Stein asserted that Celtic could win ‘everything’ in the 1966/67 season, and his squad endeavoured to prove him right.

A group of players all born within 30 miles of Celtic Park – captained by the imposing McNeill, marshalled by dependable terrier Bertie Auld, flanked by the immeasurably skilful Bobby Lennox and Jinky Johnstone, and led by the prolific strike partnership of McBride and Stevie Chalmers; set out to take Europe by storm.

Down went Zurich; down went Nantes; down went Vojvodina and down went Czech big-hitters Dukla Prague.

Inter, though, were going to be another ball game. The defending Italian champions were used to winning the European Cup by now, having won it twice in the last three years, and were bang in the middle of perhaps the most successful periods in their history under Helenio Herrera.

When the teams took to the field in Lisbon, the Italians, along with the rest of Europe, fancied themselves; especially after Sandro Mazzola opened the scoring from the penalty spot on seven minutes.

No-one overturned a lead against the defensively unstoppable Inter at this point in time; they’d conceded just three goals in the entire tournament prior to this; but somehow Celtic – playing in their first European final – found a way.

The scenes on the final whistle – after Tommy Gemmell and Stevie Chalmers secured a jaw-dropping second-half comeback – meant that the Lions of Lisbon, a team of Scottish men who barely had the right to be on this stage, were unable to be presented with the trophy on the pitch. It was flooded with thousands of travelling Celtic fans who spilled out from the stands in a state of hysteria when Kurt Tschenscher blew the whistle for full-time.

The players were ushered off the pitch by the stadium’s security staff, and it was in the stand of Estadio Nacional that a disbelieving McNeill – accompanied by his manager Stein and star wide man Johnstone – lifted the European Cup for the first and only time.

It’s that moment that created the image which has been immortalised outside Celtic Park since 2015. So if you’re ever passing through Glasgow, swing by and have a look for yourself.

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