Even those Scots who nourish antipathy to sport in general and football in particular – a larger constituency than is generally acknowledged – usually know that, by winning the European Cup in 1967, Celtic became the first British club to acquire the trophy. The 50th anniversary of that achievement on May 25 confirmed that this football match is embedded in Scotland’s social history in a fashion which sets it apart from other notable occasions, like the Scottish victories at Wembley in 1928, 1967 and 1977.
Celtic’s accomplishment in overwhelming the ultra-defensive technocrats of Inter Milan in 1967 was of a different order. For a start, the metrics were not confined to comparisons with England, but calibrated against a European scale. Of course, it did no harm that Jock Stein and his players strode into a space never previously occupied by any English club, but even that status reanimated issues that had proved troubling within Scotland since Celtic had established themselves as one of the three most significant football entities in the country, alongside Rangers and the national team.
In 1967 Celtic were hailed as a British success story but were they, some asked – as they had done for 89 years – truly a Scottish club? Founded by Andrew Kearns from Sligo, aka Brother Walfrid of the Marist Order, and drawing support overwhelmingly from members or descendants of the Irish diaspora, Celtic flew the tricolour flag of the Irish Republic above the Parkhead stands. Yet, with the triumph of 1967, Celtic supplied a potent answer to the question of identity. If eleven men of mixed-faith backgrounds, all born within thirty miles of Celtic Park – and managed by Jock Stein, a local Protestant – could not be regarded as Scottish, how would they ever fit the description? Meanwhile, other developments, such as the first forays of Scottish working-class families to foreign holiday resorts, chimed with Celtic’s European adventure.
All of which topics have been addressed by a clutch of books prominent amongst the 50th anniversary commemorations. The five examined here have attempted to stake out distinct territory through diverse approaches. Two are fictional, while another two position their narratives within time frames – 1967 as a calendar year or 1966-67 as a football season – and the fifth places the game and its location within the narrative of European politics and culture.
The title of We’ll Always Have Lisbon is a flirtatious wink at the movies, a paraphrase of Humphrey Bogart’s allusion to Paris when he meets old flame, Ingrid Bergman, in Casablanca, where the eponymous location is also the staging point for World War II refugees seeking a visa for…Lisbon. A similar mingling of a love affair – adoration of the Lions by fans old and new – with wider narratives is the product of an excellent collaboration between long-standing Celtic supporter and author, Pat Woods, and David Frier, formerly Senior Lecturer in Portuguese at the University of Leeds. Woods and Frier connect the climactic evening in Lisbon with many other dramas, including the Dreyfus Affair, when vicious partisanship infected the French press, even sporting publications. As a consequence, a newspaper called L’Auto came on the scene in 1903 and, to boost circulation, the publishers founded the Tour de France cycle race. In August 1944, the paper was closed because of allegations of ‘submission to German control’ during the Occupation. The editor-in-chief started another publication called L’Equipe, named to remind the French of the need to come together, not only amongst themselves, but with former enemies.
L’Equipe borrowed from L’Auto and launched a new sporting tournament – the European Cup – in 1956. The idea was to fill empty pages during quiet midweeks, but the project was of a piece with innovations like the Common Market and Eurovision. The latter staked its claim on European football, a development which cost Portugal the European Cup final in 1966, when it was suggested that this impoverished country on the continent’s fringe lacked the broadcasting capacity to transmit the event properly.
Portugal remedied the situation in 1967, otherwise we would have been deprived of the alliterative perfection of the Lisbon Lions. We’ll Always Have Lisbon is replete with such serendipities, including the information that the Celtic support’s attendance at Corpus Christi Mass in the city’s churches helped secure the affection of their local co-religionists in the crowd at the final and that the lack of floodlights at the Estadio Nacional – and the possibility of extra time – were responsible for the unusually early 5.30 p.m. kick-off. Woods and Frier depict the characters of Stein and his Inter Milan counterpart, Helenio Herrera, in considerable detail, emphasizing the Argentinian’s negative tactics and taste for tacky deceptions, such as promising the Celtic manager a place on the Inter team bus for a game in Italy and driving off without him.
Stein, though, was equally sleekit when it suited him, as is related in I Remember 67 Well, by David Potter, who embarked on his first year studying Latin, Greek and Ancient History at St Andrews University just as Celtic were setting out on their legendary season. A native of Forfar, Potter was adrift amongst the throngs of wealthy English and American students, but Celtic became his sheet anchor as the team’s progress on all fronts began to attract the attention of the real outsiders, who increasingly turned to him for updates on the Hoops.
Potter intersperses his account of the mounting anticipation and anxiety of each month with personal vignettes and recollections of such occurrences as the attempt to reschedule a postponed Old Firm game, for which Stein and the Celtic board suggested a holiday Monday date in March, having learned that the Ibrox captain, John Greig, was due to marry that day and that Rangers would refuse. There is also a timely reminder that trolls are not an internet phenomenon when Potter records complaints from fellow fans. ‘I always knew that c*** Lennox would never make it,’ bawls one, while another declares, of the man whose strike would secure the European Cup, ‘Chalmers simply canny score goals.’
A quotidian account of Celtic’s 1966-67 campaign is presented by Alex Gordon in That Season in Paradise. He gets the jump on rivals with a foreword by Sandro Mazzola, who scored the opening goal for Inter with a penalty kick awarded for Jim Craig’s challenge on Renato Capellini. Mazzola admits that he and his colleagues wholly underestimated Celtic. Gordon also renders a service by highlighting, over three chapters, the contribution of Joe McBride, the free-scoring centre-forward whose chance of immortality in Lisbon was dashed by a knee injury. The book is also heavily seasoned with quotes from the Lions, mainly retrieved from prior interviews or ghosted books, but relevant nevertheless.
Gordon does not neglect Stein’s weaknesses, such as erratic appreciation of goalkeeping ability. He also reminds us that a Lisbon Lion’s salary was only 25 per cent more than the average wage in Britain but a serious failing – the more so because Gordon was a noted sports editor of the Sunday Mail – is negligent fact-checking. John Rafferty was indeed ‘a veteran football writer’, but for the Scotsman, not the Herald. Gordon has a 1967 referee brandish yellow cards (introduced in 1970) and in the same year he puts Kilmarnock in the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup (inaugurated in 1974), rather than the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, where he says they lost to Vojvodina (actually Leeds United). And Scotland’s biggest competitive victory was 8-0 against Cyprus, not 7-0.
Returning to intentional fiction, there is The Road to Lisbon, by Martin Greig and Charles McGarry, originally published in 2012. The dual narrative imagines Stein’s thoughts as his team head for the final, in tandem with the burgeoning awareness of Tim, one of a group of Gorbals lads en route to Portugal, whose narrative outlasts the capacity of their Hillman Imp. Authentic dialogue is always a challenge and The Road to Lisbon sometimes stutters like the Hillman Imp before picking up the rhythm of a road movie to progress through Swinging London and rural France (with indigenous love interest) to the Portuguese capital and an agreeably open conclusion.
The last of our accounts – The Lions of Lisbon – is a stage play written jointly by Willie Maley, Professor of English at Glasgow University, and Ian Auld, brother of Bertie, the Lions’ combative midfielder. Ian was a gifted youth footballer but at 16, when he could have signed for Arsenal,
he began drinking. He died in 1998, but added to the Lions legend with this romp, now available in a version intercut with 67-word summaries – from 67 contributors (including this reviewer) – and which features a splendid stock villain in Hector Farquhar, police inspector and Orangeman, who believes that John O’Groats is a Fenian name.
The Lions of Lisbon is knockabout panto fun but, like the other books, it exploits the compelling drama of Celtic’s remorseless assault on the Inter defence and the ultimate collapse of Herrera’s despised catenaccio (bolted door) system when Steve Chalmers’ epochal shot transferred the European Cup from the Latin triangle of Italy, Portugal and Spain to Northern Europe, where it remained for 17 of the next 18 years, though not with Celtic. Four months later, in their first defence of the trophy, the Hoops lost to Dinamo Kiev. Sic transit gloria? Not then, not yet and certainly not while there are surviving Lions to tell how they – and we – will always have Lisbon.