GLASGOW (Reuters) - Celtic’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ have entered history as a group of working class lads from Glasgow coached by a former coal miner who in 1967 became European champions.
But on the field at the Estadio Nacional on May 25 50 years ago was a player who didn’t quite fit the stereotype.
A lanky dental student at Glasgow University, Jim Craig initially signed for Celtic in 1963 as an amateur in order to complete his studies. His degree secured, Craig signed on full professional terms in 1965.
Two years later he was a European champion as Celtic beat Inter Milan to become the first Scottish, British and Northern European team to lift Europe’s premier trophy.
It was a unique experience of shared identity that Craig knows is unlikely to be repeated by players of any other club.
“You are all from the culture, from the same area, you come from a city where a certain section of the community supported Celtic and a certain section supported Rangers and that automatically meant most of the team were Celtic fans and to play for the team that you’ve always supported is something really, really special,” he told Reuters in an interview at his home near Perth.
“A lot of teams nowadays....in a sense you just play for whoever pays you, whereas we wanted to play for Celtic and got our wish and were delighted to do it,” he said.
There was no hint of glory in the air at Celtic when Craig first joined the club, with the focus very much on physical work in training but all that changed when Jock Stein took over as manager in 1965.
Stein had witnessed Real Madrid win the European Cup at Glasgow’s Hampden Park after a magnificent 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt, with Alfredo Di Stefano scoring three and Ferenc Puskas four.
“Jock told me that with the exception of the centre-half, everyone of the Real players were involved in the moves and that was how he wanted a team of his to play. When he came to Celtic Park he had all the parts he needed -- that was the team he wanted to emulate,” said Craig.
Stein put the focus on ball-work in training and allowed Craig and left-back Tommy Gemmell to attack down the flanks in a similar fashion to the modern ‘wing-back’ -- a revolutionary move in British football at the time.
“Tommy told me that under the previous management he had been told if he crossed the half-way line once more he would be out of the team the next week. Full-backs were supposed to stay where they were,” says Craig.
“Jock was open to other cultures and other ways of playing football.”
Some of the accounts of the famous hot night in Lisbon talk of Stein encouraging his players to win while playing attractive and attacking football but Craig says the manager had one main message.
“We were there to win. All this about what he said afterwards about how we won playing sweet and beautiful football... we were out to win first and foremost,” he says, noting that the penalty he gave away to let Inter take a seventh-minute lead had a big impact on the pattern of the match.
”The idiot who played right-back changed the whole nature of the game, because I gave away the penalty. I still don’t think it was a penalty by the way, but their culture was to go a goal ahead and then sit on it. And they did.
“That meant we got this enormous possession throughout the course of the game and were able to make all these chances. At halftime the boss just encouraged us to go out and continue what we were doing,” he said.
The approach paid off as Celtic dominated possession and eventually turned their chances into two second-half goals, prompting, at the final whistle, a pitch invasion from the huge travelling support.
“It was chaotic, I arrived back in the dressing room, holding on to my jock-strap and shorts because the rest had come off -- boots, socks and jersey, (captain) Billy (McNeill) was told to go back out and get the Cup and did not want to go because there was a big crowd outside the dressing room...but he had to go because someone had to get the Cup.”
Then came the mass celebrations on the streets of Glasgow as the team returned home as heroes. They have retained that status in the 50 years since as the Lisbon Lions became the club’s most famed and feted generation.
For all the personal satisfaction and sense of belonging to a unique group of players, Craig is also well aware of what the win meant for the club.
“It really stamped Celtic’s name on the European scene. Whenever the European Cup is mentioned, Celtic is mentioned along with it. And that was because of 1967.”
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Neil Robinson