GLASGOW (Reuters) - These are heady days for Celtic supporters but even in the euphoria of an unbeaten season the club’s past is being remembered with rare pride.
Celtic have just finished their Scottish Premiership season unbeaten throughout the campaign. A sixth straight league title is in the bag and on Saturday, they could complete the domestic treble with a Scottish Cup final win over Aberdeen.
Records have been smashed throughout a remarkable season of domination from Brendan Rodgers’ team and yet, while success has been duly toasted, the thoughts of the green and white faithful this week have been turned to the past.
On Thursday it will be 50 years since Jock Stein’s Celtic became the first British club to be crowned champions of Europe. The 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in the Lisbon final of the European Cup is the single greatest achievement in Scottish football history and led to the team being dubbed the ‘Lisbon Lions’.
Around Celtic Park, before the final game of the season against Hearts last Sunday, there were reminders of Lisbon everywhere: the statue of skipper Bill McNeill hoisting the European Cup high above his head stands at the entrance to Celtic Way, the figures of Stein and the magical winger Jimmy Johnstone are also represented in bronze by the main entrance to the ground.
Inside, a stadium-wide choreographed display paid tribute to the Lions and the crowd roared what has become a hymn to their club’s greatest night: “67, in the heat of Lisbon, the fans came in their thousands, to see the Bhoys become – champions”.
“The Lisbon Lions mean everything, everything,” said Celtic fan Thomas McTaggart, who shortly after seeing the current Celtic team presented with the league trophy, headed to Glasgow airport to catch a flight to Lisbon where he will spend this week honouring the Lions and celebrating near the Estadio Nacional.
McTaggart and his friends are retracing the steps taken by thousands of Celtic fans who half a century ago descended on Lisbon in numbers never seen before in European football. The Inter supporters were totally outnumbered as the Portuguese capital turned green and white for the night.
“I was amazed when I walked out to see all those Celtic scarves in the stadium. At the time we were saying ‘we’ve got to win this game because look at the support we have got’. It wasn’t just a case of winning it for Celtic Football Club because of all that support,” Jim Craig, right-back in the 1967 side, told Reuters.
Singing, as opposed to simple football chants, is central to the Celtic fan culture and as a nervous group of 11 Scotsmen, ten of them born within a dozen miles of their stadium in Parkhead, prepared for the game, midfielder Bertie Auld broke into the ‘Celtic song’ which, according to Craig, settled the team’s nerves, allowing them to focus not on their illustrious opponents but on the passion needed to beat them.
“That took the edge off the nerves...it was a very intelligent thing to do to break the ice and made us feel very much better,” he added.
‘Il Grande Inter’ had established themselves as the top team in Europe under Argentine coach Helenio Herrera, winning the European Cup in 1964 and 1965 as well as three Serie A titles. The previous year they had reached the semi-finals, where they lost to eventual winners Real Madrid.
The European Cup had been dominated by southern European teams since its inception in 1955-56. Real won the first five editions, Lisbon’s own Benfica had claimed two titles and AC Milan had grabbed the crown immediately before Inter’s glory years.
When Celtic went a goal down to a seventh-minute Sandro Mazzola penalty, the chances of an upset looked slim. Herrera’s tactics were well-established and involved a blanket defence once an advantage had been gained.
But playing fluid, attacking football, Celtic created a series of chances and finally equalised through a thundering Tommy Gemmell drive. Then six minutes from the end Stevie Chalmers turned in the winner.
Celtic fans poured on the field at the final whistle and, in the chaos, skipper McNeill had to raise the trophy alone, with his team-mates in the safety of the dressing room. But there was to be plenty of opportunity for the entire squad to savour the celebrations.
On their return to Glasgow airport the team was mobbed and thousands thronged the streets as their bus made its way to Celtic Park where the first ever Scottish, British and North European winners of the continent’s top trophy were greeted by their delirious supporters, members of the same community that produced the players.
“These days most of the players are playing for who pays them....but most of our team were Celtic supporters. To play for the team you’ve always supported is something special,” said Craig.
“It really is astonishing that a team that won the European Cup should come from such a very small area of what is quite a small country. That makes the enormity of what we did even better.”
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Neil Robinson