BILLY Dunlop had supported Celtic all his life, a dedication forged on the streets and parks of his hometown, Rutherglen, where he rubbed shoulders with many would-be Hoops heroes, including a trio of future professional Murdoch brothers, Bobby, Billy and James (yes, that Bobby). It is no surprise, then, that the final whistle in Prague’s Juliska stadium on 25th April 1967, which confirmed Celtic’s status as European Cup Finalists that year, triggered an unshakeable resolve in young Mr D to be at that momentous event, backing his heroes in what he was sure would be their finest hour.
A 26-year-old jobbing bricklayer on a site in Bonhill, Dunbartonshire at the time, Billy raised the extra funds required for his pilgrimage to Lisbon as part of a squad that built a house, “on the side”, for a doctor in Neilston.
As the final drew within touching distance, around mid-morning on Sunday 21st May 1967 (a day, or so, in advance of the Moy Bar group from Hamilton), four friends set off from Rutherglen in a small Ford van en route to Portugal’s ancient Capital city to cheer on their “Grand Old Team”. The group comprised of Billy himself; van owner and plumber, Jim McGuire; trip mechanic, Joe Duffy; and a certain Matt Murdoch – none other than the brother of the above footballing trio of fellow ‘Ruglonians’, who had honed their considerable skills in the same Lanarkshire town as the travelling quartet.
Nowadays, the brother of a soon-to-be European Champion might reasonably expect to travel to such a prestigious event in some style; but in those less glamorous and lucrative times, when top players at a “family” club like Celtic were still basically fans in a jersey, a mere sibling of one of the game’s greatest-ever midfielders just had to rough it like any other punter.
The lads set off in high spirits, optimistically armed for the journey with “pieces” that would hardly see them across the county border, far less anywhere near their distant destination; and everything was going to plan until the intrepid band were halted in their tracks by a horrendous crashing noise from the front end of the van. They were far south of Hadrian’s Wall, in a spot vaguely described by Billy as “Russia”, unlikely as that may sound … and indeed it does! You might well think it was the drink – but as alcohol has never passed Billy Dunlop’s lips, neither before nor since, that was not a factor in any confusion over the exact locus.
Investigation suggests that it may have been an area called ‘Little Russia’, in the Tottenham district of London – but that is pure speculation, as it is by no means certain they took that route. Alternatively, it may have been Rushden, Northamptonshire, which may well have been on the favoured route south at that time.
Whatever … the jalopy had developed a catastrophic fault. The deafening noise had been the sound of a piston penetrating the engine block; and there was nothing in Joe Duffy’s well-equipped tool box that could restore it to anywhere near good running order. They might just as well have been in Vladivostok, so slim were the chances of coaxing that mortally stricken motor another yard, let alone across three more national borders!
Owner, Jim, had to make the agonising decision of whether to abandon his precious van or the trip of a lifetime … “Hobson’s Choice”, or what? In the end, he decided to stand by his wheels, surrendering his match ticket (which figures largely in this story later on) to his mates, who opted to struggle on by “thumbing a lift” – some lift!
Then there were three …
These days, three football fans in team colours would probably get short shrift and a very wide berth from passing traffic, such has unfairly become the yobbish image of the breed. However, back in the “Swinging Sixties” they were considered more like eccentric travelling troubadours, which, indeed, that band of Billy Bhoys truly were. So it was that they got no end of offers; but sadly, none that could accommodate all three, plus luggage; and as they had made a firm commitment to stick together, it seemed they were well and truly up the creek without a paddle.
Then, as so often happens in unlikely fairy tales … hallelujah … fate stepped in – in the form of fellow diehard Celtic fan cum long-distance lorry driver, John Breslin, who pulled over, told them to jump in and volunteered to transport them as far as his destination … Paris!
The show was on the road again. That guardian angel trucker was as good as his word, even smuggling them through the ferry from Dover to Calais, with the ‘Three Amigos’ crouching out of sight as they rolled on and off. Once safely on the French side, the stowaways jumped out to negotiate customs before climbing back on board for the onward journey to ‘Gay Paree’.
On that final leg of the journey so far, the Rutherglen three were introduced to the dubious delights of strong French espresso coffee – those little bombshells of thick, concentrated caffeine that would blow your head clean off and keep you awake for a month. The guys thought it was rank; but you can’t escape the whimsical thought that if Jim McGuire’s van had been lubricated with espresso instead of standard engine oil, that piston might never have ruptured the engine and this story would have unfolded very differently.
In the Capital, Billy and his pals seized the opportunity of some overdue rest and refreshment before embarking on the next stage of their rocky road to Lisbon. Remarkably, despite all their tribulations, they were well down that road before Jim Gracie and co had even got on the bus in Hamilton. It was only Monday 22nd May.
A quick check on the French transport network told them they had to take the Metro across Paris to the Gare d’Austerlitz, the rail station from which they could make a direct connection, via Spain, through to the Portuguese Capital. At that terminal, despite the language barrier, they somehow made the acquaintance of a lady who was there to see off her 19-year-old son, Serge. He it was who acted as ‘interpreter’, with his broken English. He was bound for a career in the merchant navy, due to join a boat in … where else? … Lisbon. Well, as you would expect of an instinctively hospitable bunch of Celtic fans, the trio of friends took the young mariner-in-waiting under their collective wing, promising his mother they would deliver him safe and sound to his port of embarkation.
That 1960s French train can only be described as a cattle wagon, packed to the gunwales, as they say, with only the most basic of facilities. For the sake of the squeamish, a veil should really be drawn over the toilet facilities, in particular – suffice it to say they were totally insanitary and wholly inadequate for the needs of the heaving mass of humanity on board. The on-board catering was scarcely any better. Consequently, the entire trip involved regular lightning hops on and off for food and toileting, as and when station stops allowed.
Somehow that perilous travel ordeal was negotiated successfully by the party, which was now restored to its original number of four, with the addition of young Serge; and they duly crossed over from the French SNCF network to the Spanish RENFE system on 23rd May, then onwards into Portugal on the 24th. They had made it – and with a day to spare!
In Lisbon, Serge began to earn his corn by negotiating a cheap, private Bed & Breakfast deal with a local family; and our intrepid four spent the rest of the time in the lead up to the game socialising with the locals and the rapidly swelling hordes of Celtic fans – mainly, though not solely, in the ‘British Bar’, which had been pretty-well annexed for the duration by a clientele that was, perhaps, of a less than fully imperialist persuasion.
As a reward for his companionship and enterprise, Serge was offered and eagerly accepted the unfortunate Jim McGuire’s match ticket; and he was blown away by the passion and welcome of the Celtic masses that day. At the triumphal conclusion, he dutifully stood guard over Billy, Joe and Matt’s belongings, as they got swept up in the spontaneous, joyous pitch invasion that ensued in the aftermath of the final whistle. Celtic had gained a new fan – one, possibly unique, in that perhaps the only game he ever attended resulted in them raising the greatest prize of all. The post-match parting was highly-charged and emotional, as Serge went off in pursuit of his new life on the high seas and the guys went out on the town to toast the new European Champions.
During the boisterous after-match carousing, they bumped into Neil Dunn, a cousin of Billy’s, who subsequently smuggled them into his hotel, where they gratefully spent their most luxurious night of the whole trip – mind you, that wouldn’t have been hard! As an interesting aside, Neil’s uncle, Jimmy Dunn, played over 400 times for Leeds United between 1947 and 1959. He was rated the best full back he had ever seen by none other than the great John Charles – high praise, indeed!
The following morning, Friday 26th May 1967, Billy and co joined the scrum at the British Embassy, exhausted (even despite the comfort of the previous night), hungry and penniless; and in quest of whatever could be provided. They were rewarded with an overnight B&B voucher and a through rail ticket home to Glasgow Central, via London Victoria and Euston, departing the following day.
On arrival back in Glasgow on the Monday, the uncanny run of good fortune that had characterized the whole trip continued. Without a coin to their name as they trooped down the Hope Street ramp from Central Station, the three weary travellers wondered how on earth they were going to get out to Rutherglen. As if on cue, a motorist who had spotted their Celtic regalia drew up and asked if they were on their way home from Lisbon. Eager to hear first-hand of the miraculous happenings in the Estadio Nacional, he ushered them and their baggage into his vehicle and happily diverted from his own road home to Paisley, to whisk them straight home to Ru’glen … nice and slowly, of course.
Honestly, you couldn’t make it up!
From In The Heat of Lisbon, published by CQN Books in 2017 and available on CQNBookstore.co.uk