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THAT SEASON IN PARADISE: MAY: ASSAULT COURSE AT THE ESTADIO

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CQN continues its enthralling and EXCLUSIVE extracts from Alex Gordon’s book, ‘That Season In Paradise’, which highlight the months that were the most momentous in Celtic’s proud history.

Today, the author continues his look at the players who were involved in playing such an important role in the glorious triumph over Inter Milan in the European Cup Final on May 25 1967 in Lisbon. Goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson shares his thoughts from his memoirs, published the same year.

‘I WAS CRYING. I couldn’t stop myself. The tears came rolling down my cheeks. I was standing in the lingering sun of Lisbon in the Estadio Nacional, completely helpless in my emotions.’

The words belong to the remarkable Ronnie Simpson, as revealed in his autobiography, ‘Sure It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For’.

‘The European Cup Final of 1967 was over. Referee Kurt Tschenscher, of West Germany, had blown for the last time and Celtic were champions. Champions of all Europe for the first time at their first attempt.

‘And I, Ronnie Simpson, at the age of thirty-six and seven months, had become the first British goalkeeper to win a European Champions Cup medal. I couldn’t believe it. I was overcome.

‘I wasn’t alone for long. In seconds I was smothered in the arms of manager Jock Stein, then reserve keeper John Fallon, the player who had stripped for every European tie and never been called up. The three of us were locked together, crushing each other, scared to open our mouths in case we all burst into tears again.

‘Suddenly, I realised there were more people running around us than there should have been. Our supporters were on the field. This was their greatest moment as it had been ours and they were going to make the most of it.

‘But the fastest man of all at that moment was Bobby Lennox. He came sprinting straight at me and I held out my hands, thinking he was coming to join in the goalmouth celebrations. But Bobby kept going right into the back of the net. Then it dawned on me.

‘Before a match, I take out my false teeth and stick them in my cap which I keep in the back of the net. It’s a habit I have adopted in important matches just in case I have to meet someone at short notice or at the end of a game. Then I can always pop my teeth in. Bobby noticed this habit of mine and, as he also had false teeth, he asked me before the Lisbon Final to keep his set of choppers inside my cap. And this was what Bobby was racing for – and I suddenly knew why!

‘The fans, Celtic, Portuguese, Italian and the others were desperate to get some sort of souvenir from this remarkable Final. Players were getting jerseys and pants torn from them bodily, fans were cutting lumps out of the turf, the corner flags were already on their way to places well away from Portugal. My cap, with two sets of false teeth, was too obvious a trophy.

TEARS AND CHEERS…an emotional Ronnie Simpson is mobbed by fans at full-time.

‘Bobby won his race, grabbed his teeth and ran for the tunnel leading to the dressing room. I quickly grabbed my cap and teeth and tried to make it – and did so after what seemed an eternity. I was half-strangled and almost crushed as a tug-of-war went on for my jersey. But this was one jersey I was keeping. I fought with all my remaining strength to make the tunnel and I made it with my jersey, cap, pants, boots, hair, gloves, false teeth and body intact.

‘I was met in the dressing room by Bob Rooney, our physiotherapist. He threw his arms around me, dumped me on a seat and the two of us burst into tears. We couldn’t help it. The happiest moment of my life and I couldn’t raise a smile! The joy of beating Inter Milan was a strange experience. Had the tension been so great? Had I put in so much concentration into this match that I had no strength at the finish? Or was it sheer emotion that had made me lose control? I don’t really know. But even today I still find it hard to believe I was a member of the Celtic team which won the twelfth European Cup tournament.

‘It is wrong to say that we had prepared for this match in the two days we had stayed in Estoril, or the ten days before training at Largs and at Parkhead. I felt we had been preparing for this Final all season. I felt we had been building up for this match from the early days of August.

‘I remember well what the Boss said to us after our final training session in Glasgow before we boarded our chartered Dan Air jet aircraft for Lisbon. “Look, boys, I think it can be us. If we play it correctly, we can win.” He said it with that dry smile of his which meant he was certain we would win. He talked to us about the method of Inter Milan and their playing strengths. He was convinced that their right-back Tarcisio Burgnich would be given the job of shadowing Jimmy Johnstone. This proved to be correct. He told Willie Wallace to play up front for the first ten minutes, then change over with Stevie Chalmers who would play deep in this early spell. He wanted to confuse the opposition, unsettle them, without upsetting the Celtic team plans. This he succeeded in doing.

AIR WE GO…Ronnie Simpson races from his line to cut out an aerial threat.

‘He wanted Jim Craig and Tommy Gemmell to attack freely and run with the ball. And he wanted the ball cut back into the path of running players. And, as the world saw on television, we had ten running players – and all running forward! Our manager never insists on anything. He suggests it. And his suggestions have so often been proved right, that they are now accepted with little, or no, opposition.

‘He made one other point. He impressed upon us that should we lose to Inter Milan, we were to lose like true sportsmen. He asked us to play it clean no matter what happened. He wanted Celtic to come out of the Final with credit, no matter whether we won or lost. He didn’t dwell too much on this, but he made his point very plainly. With the game on television, to be seen throughout Europe, he wanted Celtic to be seen as a team fit to grace a European Cup Final. Fit to win it – or fit to lose, with dignity.’

Simpson added, ‘Inter’s manager Helenio Herrera had fought long and hard to get Celtic to some disadvantage. And had failed. He had gone to Portugal some weeks before the Cup Final and appeared on television asking the Portuguese people to support Inter in the game as they, like the Italians, were Latins. He had demanded first choice of the dressing room and had protested when he learned that Celtic wore their numbers on their pants instead of their shirts. He even made sure we would be out first at the interval, so that we would be exposed to the sun longer than Inter Milan.

THE ITALIAN JOB…Ronnie Simpson is helpless as Sandro Mazzola nets a perfect penalty-kick for the opener.

‘Manager Jock Stein held himself in check. He told us, “If I know the people of Portugal, they will support Celtic. We, like the Portuguese side which played in the 1966 World Cup Finals in England, play attacking football. We will win the Portuguese support by entertaining them and by playing the attacking football they enjoy.” He was right – as always.’

John Clark said, ‘I know Billy McNeill has always stated that he thought the Inter Milan game was the easiest we faced in the European Cup that season. Probably we didn’t have to work as hard as we did in the goalless draw against Dukla Prague in Czecholslovakia, for instance, but I still thought it was a tough shift. 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 bludgeon 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. Yes, I take on board what Big Billy says, but I have to admit I feared Inter on the rare occasions they tried to get forward. It was a game where you knew one lapse of concentration would bring about disaster.

CALM BEFORE THE STORM…Ronnie Simpson, flanked by Billy McNeill and Tommy Gemmell, prepares for the kick-off.

‘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  decades down the line. Or, possibly, I’m just not giving Ronnie the praise he deserves for a bit of off-the-cuff goalkeeping.’

Ronnie Simpson admitted, ‘I admit now there is one moment from the game which has given me a couple of sleepless night and has made me think quite a lot. The moment when I backheeled the ball to John Clark across my goal and out of my penalty area. A loose ball had come into our area, some thirty yards from goal and I went for it as almost every other member of our team was up in attack. I had plenty of time, or so I thought, and my intention was to give the ball a good old-fashioned wallop upfield.

‘But as I ran towards the ball I could hear an Inter player chasing me from the other side of the field and he was gaining very quickly. It was then that I got it into my head that if I kicked the ball, I might kick it against the Italian and it might rebound towards goal which, of course, was unguarded.

‘As I was running, I could see John Clark racing to the other side of the penalty box, obviously to cover the goal. I made my mind up then. As I got to the ball, I threw my left leg over it and backheeled across the penalty area to John Clark. Luggy promptly cleared it and that was that. Since then I have wakened up a few times in the middle of the night and asked myself, What would have happened if that hadn’t come off? Supposing I had muffed the kick and Inter had scored? Would I be where I am today? Would I have been able to live it down?

‘Remember, this was the first-half and Inter were already leading 1-0. It would have been a tragedy for me, for Celtic and for Scotland. What a chance to take – but, thankfully, I got away with it.’

Bobby Lennox said, ‘We deserved to win in Lisbon. After I scored against Motherwell to make sure we lifted the 1966 league title, our first in twelve years, I recall Big Jock saying, “We mustn’t look to the past at the legends who have gone before us – we must build our own legends.” How prophetic were those words?

‘Yes, it was great to make history in Lisbon. Nothing will ever top that feeling. I will always remember the referee blowing that final whistle and I just turned round to see who was the nearest team-mate. It was John Clark and we just threw ourselves at each other. Honestly, we were like a couple of schoolkids. “We’ve won! We’ve won!” We yelled our heads off as Inter Milan players walked disconsolately past us, heads bowed in defeat.

‘Then I remembered my false teeth were in Ronnie Simpson’s cap in the back of his net. I saw all those supporters racing onto the pitch and I suddenly thought, “I better get my teeth!” I ran to Ronnie, picked up my gnashers and the Lennox smile was ready for the cameras.’

TOMORROW: The Lonely Man and the Impossible Task

 
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