JOHN CLARK follows fellow-Lisbon legends Billy McNeill, Jim Craig and Tommy Gemmell to have his say during CQN’s special tribute to the Celtic heroes who won the European Cup 51 years and three days ago.
Today, it is the turn of sweeper supreme Clark to tell his side of the story as it appeared in Alex Gordon’s book, ‘The Lisbon Lions: The 40th Anniversary’, published by Black and White in 2007.
IT took utter humiliation in Hungary to make absolutely certain there was going to be a lot of partying in Portugal when we lined up to face Inter Milan.
As we prepared for the European Cup Final on May 25, 1967, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to Budapest three years earlier when we blew the opportunity of playing in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup Final. We arrived for the second leg on April 29 with a handsome three-goal advantage from the first semi-final at Celtic Park. Stevie Chalmers (2) and Jimmy Johnstone had scored against MTK Budapest and we believed – stupidly, not arrogantly – we held an unassailable lead over our opponents. How wrong we were!
EUROPEAN MASTERS…John Clark, seated beside the glittering trophy, toasts Celtic’s Lisbon success with his team-mates.
The history books will show the Hungarians won 4-0 and every single Celtic player was totally embarrassed. Devastated is probably a better word. We had thrown away a massive advantage and we had no-one to blame but ourselves. The pitch was okay. The referee was fine. We were awful, naive in the extreme. We were lucky there wasn’t the live coverage on television of European football that we have today. A few us might have thought it would be preferable to spend the rest of our lives in the Hungarian capital rather than face the wrath of our raging support after an appalling, wretched display.
Back then, though, all the TV audience in Scotland saw were some flickering black-and-white images that lasted only a matter of minutes. There were no panels of so-called experts pouring over our every error, highlighting a blunder here and a clanger there. Believe me, this was one for those connoisseurs of calamity. You know those annoying videos that come out every Christmas and poke fun at poor individuals who have floundered in front of thousands? There would have been no need for a compilation job of our efforts against the Hungarians. All they would have needed was to show the 90 minutes of the game and that would have been enough. We made every mistake possible. No-one was singled out to take the blame; we were all culpable.
HEAD BHOY…John Clark shows his prowess in the air.
And it hurt like hell. So, I didn’t have to look too far for inspiration or motivation as we prepared to take the field in Lisbon. That dark, awful evening in Budapest was still locked in my memory bank and I wasn’t in the mood to suffer such abject failure on the European battlefield again. Inter Milan were going to pay for us getting a gubbing three years earlier!
We all knew about the Italians’ attitude to football. They were superb on the counter attack. They didn’t waste time or energy coming forward in waves. They were cagey, would keep possession and then suddenly explode into action when they got anywhere near your penalty area. They obviously believed in the rapier thrust rather than the almighty budgeon to get the job done. Thankfully, though, our guys in the middle of the field, Bobby Murdoch and Bertie Auld, and the lads up front kept the Inter back lot occupied throughout huge chunks of the game where you knew one lapse of concentration would bring about disaster.
EARLY DAYS…John Clark (back row, extreme right) standing alongside a young Billy McNeill in a Celtic side that also has European Cup-winning goal hero Stevie Chalmers seated in front row beside trainer Bob Rooney.
I’ll never forget that backheel from Ronnie Simpson, for a start. I still break out in a sweat when I think about it. That came from just one long pass from the edge of their own penalty area. Ronnie, as he often did, saw it coming and was off his line swiftly. Their centre-forward, Renato Cappellini, didn’t give up the chase, however. He kept on going and, for me, there were danger signals flashing. Ronnie actually turned his back on the Italian and looked as though he was going to run towards his penalty area where he could have picked up the ball. Instead, for absolutely no fathomable reason, he decided to backheel it to me. He told me he realised I was there all the time. I’ll take his word for it. Anyway, if that had hit the Italian it was goodnight for us. They would have gone 2-0 ahead and I genuinely don’t think we would have got three to win in normal time. No-one would have been talking about the Lisbon Lions four decades down the line. Or, possibly, I’m just not giving Ronnie the praise he deserves for a bit of off-the-cuff goalkeeping.
People still ask me today if winning in Lisbon was the absolute pinnacle of my career. I think they are rather taken aback when I say no. My happiest-ever memory from all my days in football was actually signing for Celtic in the first place. Before the ink dried on that registration form I knew had arrived.
John Clark, of Celtic Football Club. Now that really did have a good ring to it.
* Edited extract from ‘Celtic: The Lisbon Lions: 40th Anniversary’ by Alex Gordon. Published in 2007 by Black and White. Look out for more EXCLUSIVE extracts from the players who made the impossible dream come true over the next few days. Only in your champion CQN!