CQN continues its EXCLUSIVE look at Celtic’s biggest day in history – the 2-1 European Cup Final victory over Inter Milan exactly 56 years ago today.
Author Alex Gordon, who has written fifteen Celtic books, including ‘Lisbon Lions: The 40th Anniversary Celebration‘ and ‘50 Flags Plus One‘, spotlights skipper Billy McNeill in an edited chapter from his tribute publication, ‘That Season in Paradise‘, which was published by CQN in 2016.
Please enjoy the walk down memory lane.
THE angels smiled down from the heavens on the day Celtic conquered Europe.
A noble Billy McNeill, the handsome Celtic captain with the sun highlighting his blond hair, emphasising his physique, with his pristine green-and-white hooped shirt positively shimmering in the glow, held aloft the European Cup as he commanded the rostrum of the Estadio Nacional looking for all the world like Apollo ascending Mount Olympus.
Inter Milan, the team who had dominated European and world football for two of the previous three years, had been vanquished. Their defensive tradition dismantled, their suffocating tactics blown away, their masterly reputation devastated. Celtic, refreshingly entertaining, had put sparkle and gaiety back into the beautiful game.
HEAVEN’S ABOVE…the immaculate Billy McNeill with the European Cup.
Years later, Billy McNeill, a genuine club legend, reflected: “To my mind, the greatest thing about our European Cup victory is that we did it in the Celtic manner. We always wanted to play with flair, adventure and style. We were determined for people to remember us for our attacking philosophy. I would like to think we managed that in Lisbon.
“It was a breakthrough for British football. It was marvellous for Scottish football. However, the main thing for everyone connected with the club, the manager, his assistants, the players and tea ladies, it was truly wonderful for Celtic Football Club.”
McNeill expanded on his memories. “I’ve never had a tougher job than accepting the European Cup. It was the most stirring and exciting moment of my life. But I had to steel myself for it. I had just crossed the safety line into our dressing room at Lisbon after being swamped by the congratulations of our fans. My back ached with all the slapping. My jersey had been torn off as a souvenir.
BRING IT ON…Billy McNeill, Inter Milan skipper Armando Picchi and West German referee Kurt Tschenscher and his assistants line up before kick-off.
“Now I had to go out and face them all again to collect the trophy.
“I put on a fresh jersey and, with assistant manager Sean Fallon and Ronnie Simpson giving me moral and physical support, I set off. The trophy was to be presented at the far side of the ground. It seemed there was just one way to get there – through the throng and right across the pitch.
“By the time we had made ten yards, Ronnie had got lost. Sean was on my left and around me was a posse of police. But the back-slapping, handshaking and general chaos never let up.
“We came to an obstacle – the six-foot-wide moat around the pitch. It was supposed to keep the fans on the terracing. Or, put another way, off the pitch. Some hope! Somehow, I made it to the other side. From there it was up the steps to the rostrum. The presentation was made by the President of Portugal, Americo Tomaz.
“And it was only when I felt the magnificent three-foot-high trophy in my hands that the full impact of the moment came home to me – Celtic were European champions!
THE GLITTERING PRIZE…Billy McNeill with the European Cup.
“I have to admit in the emotion of it all everything is a bit blurred. Also, I still had to get back to the dressing room. It was a bit easier than the first journey. This time we were led outside the stadium, hustled into a police car and whipped, siren wailing, through the crowds to the dressing room entrance.
“We had a bit of a job getting away from the policeman. It appeared he was determined to have his photograph taken with us and the trophy. But Sean and I eventually disentangled ourselves, dived for the dressing room and got through the scrum unscathed – except for the fact I had lost my jersey again!
“It was only then that I got the chance to sit down and soak up the satisfaction of being captain of the Celtic team which had just won the European Cup.”
ARRESTING SIGHT…Billy McNeill, flanked by Portuguese cops, holds the European Cup.
The club’s onfield leader and inspiration added: ‘It may seem a strange observation to make, but Inter Milan scoring so early with Sandro Mazzola’s penalty-kick was one of the best things that could have happened to us. It was their natural style to try to hold onto anything they had.
“They had a goal to protect and they seemed quite content to filter into their own half and do their best to keep us out.
“We were invited to take the game to the Italians and it was an invite we so readily accepted. We really should have been in front by half-time, but their goalkeeper, Giuliano Sarti, was quite outstanding. When we got in at the interval, we couldn’t wait to get out to restart the second-half. The penalty-kick decision really inspired us. We were all rattling on about the injustice of it and there was no way we were going to be beaten by a dodgy refereeing decision.
THE LEADER….Billy McNeill and his team-mates walk on the lush Lisbon turf.
“Jim Craig won’t thank me for this, but, having watched the incident several thousand times, I now think the referee called it right. Back then, though, we were all united in believing the match official had done us no favours whatsoever. I know Cairney will still argue that it was never a spot-kick, but let’s just say it certainly acted as a catalyst for us to get out there and turn them over.
“I recall it was actually quite calm in our dressing room at half-time. There were no histrionics. Big Jock simply insisted, “Keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll be okay.” He did make one telling observation, though, when he asked our wide men to think about pulling the ball back closer to the edge of the penalty box because Inter were crowding into the six-yard area as they tried to protect their goalkeeper.
EUROPEAN MASTERS…Stevie Chalmers whips the ball past Giuliano Sarti for the winning goal.
“When you look again at our first goal, you’ll see how good that advice was. Cairney was calmness personified when he came racing into the box onto Bobby Murdoch’s pass. His cutback for Tommy Gemmell was just right and Tommy simply belted one of his specials high into the net. Sarti had no chance. Eleven Sartis would have had no chance!
“Stevie Chalmers duly knocked in the winner with about five minutes to go and Inter Milan were out of it. They were a beaten team. If, by some chance, they had equalised, then the game would have gone into extra-time.
“Believe me, those guys didn’t want to endure another half-hour of what they had already been through.”