CQN continues its enthralling and EXCLUSIVE extracts from Alex Gordon’s book, ‘That Season In Paradise’, which takes us through the months that were the most momentous in Celtic’s proud history.
Today, we look at the most important game in which the team have ever been involved – the unforgettable European Cup Final on May 25 in 1967.
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 past 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.
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.’
Proud ambassador 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. 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.
RARING TO GO…Billy McNeill, Ronnie Simpson and Tommy Gemmell before the kick-off.
‘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!
‘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.’
The club’s onfield leader and inspiration, along with many of his fellow triumphant team-mates, reckoned the victory over the feared Italians was one of the easiest games of the campaign. He said, ‘Certainly, I had more difficult encounters in domestic games that season. Neither John Clark nor I were under any threat against Inter because the other guys in the middle and up front were doing their jobs so well.
‘My biggest problem that day was whether to pass it out of defence to Bobby Murdoch or Bertie Auld. I would gather the ball and suddenly there was a shout in unison, “Give it to me, Caesar!” I would look up and there was Bobby and Bertie urging me to pass the ball to them and let them get on with it.
‘Before the game, Big Jock was fairly strict with the players at our luxurious hotel in Estoril. We relaxed, played cards, read books and generally just took it easy. There was a magnificent pool at the hotel and Big Jock would only allow us thirty minutes to go for a swim.
SHAKE ON IT…Billy McNeill and Inter Milan skipper Armando Picchi exchanges pennants before kick-off.
‘He would point to the sun in the clear blue sky and say, “That is your enemy, remember that. It will sap your energy. Be careful what you do.”
‘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. Although I was a central defender, it was not the way I was brought up to play football. It certainly wasn’t the Celtic way.
‘Our supporters wouldn’t have tolerated that and, in any case, we all knew the fans deserved better. I said it then, I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again – those guys on the terracings were absolutely brilliant; they were our twelfth man. We never, ever took them for granted.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.’
TOMORROW: TOMMY GEMMELL – AND THAT GOAL