Lions of Lisbon: Celtic's Homegrown Heroes and Their European Cup Triumph
50 years ago this week, Celtic became the first British side to claim the European Cup, beating Italian giants Inter Milan 2-1 at the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon.
After a run of increasingly underwhelming titles under Ronny Deila, Celtic have enjoyed an incredible renaissance with Brendan Rodgers at the helm. Having gone undefeated on the domestic front their fans are dreaming big once more, perhaps even targeting a proper run in the Champions League next term.
The club and its fans are incredibly proud of their European pedigree. And rightly so: 50 years ago, on 25 May 1967, the Bhoys became the first British side to claim the European Cup, beating Italian giants Inter Milan 2-1 at the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon.
What made Celtic's triumph all the more incredible was the composition of their team, with all but one member of their 15-man squad born within 10 miles of their Celtic Park home. Outside-left Bobby Lennox was a relative foreigner, hailing from 30 miles away in Saltcoats, North Ayrshire. It's no exaggeration to suggest that a repeat of this is impossible in the modern era.
Leading them to success was manager Jock Stein. A former coalminer who began his professional career at Welsh side Llanelli Town, Stein had made more than 100 appearances for Celtic as a player. He later managed their reserve side, but believed he was unlikely to be given the top job due to his Protestant faith. Spells at Dunfermline and Hibernian followed, before he was proven wrong and handed the opportunity to take over at Celtic Park in March 1965. Stein thus became the first Protestant boss at a club inextricably linked with Catholicism.
Success came almost instantly: Celtic clinched the Scottish title in his first full season as manager, beating Old Firm rivals Rangers by two points over the 1965-66 campaign. It was the club's first domestic championship in 12 years.
That secured the Bhoys a spot in the 1966-67 European Cup. The competition was still in its infancy at the time, and had been won by just four clubs in 11 years: Real Madrid, Benfica, and the two Milan sides, Internazionale and AC Milan.
But despite being relatively new, the cup was extremely prestigious and highly sought after. British clubs had made it to the semi-finals on several occasions, with Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Rangers, Dundee and Hibs all getting to within touching distance of the deciding match. All had fallen at the last hurdle, however.
Celtic succeeded where those sides failed. They were helped by two of the favourites – Real and Inter – facing off in the quarter-finals, with the Italian club prevailing. Celtic beat Yugoslav side FK Vojvodina in the quarters, then avoided the Italians in the last four. The Bhoys faced Dukla Prague, winning the home leg 3-1 and then drawing 0-0 in Czechoslovakia to book their spot in the final.
Inter were undoubtedly heavy favourites to lift the trophy. They had won the past two European Cups, as well as two successive Serie A titles. Managed by Helenio Herrera, a key exponent of the catenaccio system, they had earned the nickname Grande Inter. With players like Luis Suarez, Sandro Mazzola and skipper Armando Picchi, they were not so much a team to be feared as one to stand quaking at the sight of. Their football was seen as negative – despite their abundance of talent and resources, matches were often won by narrow margins and using overtly defensive tactics. In recent years, Herrera has been compared with Jose Mourinho.
Suarez was injured for the final, but this did little to dent Inter's favourites tag. Stein's side would play an attacking brand of football, which would leave them vulnerable to Mazzola up front. Inter would score, then bolt the door (catenaccio translates as "door-bolt") and see out the game.
It seemed to be headed this way when the game began, as 45,000 supporters watched at the Estadio Nacional. With only a few minutes played, right-back Jim Craig gave away a clear penalty; Mazzola converted it, sending goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson the wrong way, and Inter led 1-0 with six minutes on the clock. As they withdrew into a more defensive style, the predictions seemed to be coming true. Celtic attacked with verve, but couldn't find a way through Inter's resolute defence, goalkeeper Sarti proving especially important in keeping the Italian side ahead at half-time.
The second half resumed in a similar fashion. But, a little after the hour, Tommy Gemmell finally levelled things up for Celtic. The ball was knocked into his path from the right-hand side of the box. Gemmell charged on to it and fired a powerful shot home. 1-1.
Inter still seemed more content to defend than attack, and with less than 10 minutes to go it cost them dearly. This time it was a long-range shot from right-half Bobby Murdoch, which Stevie Chalmers got a foot on to send the ball past a helpless Sarti. Just over five minutes remained and Celtic had enough to hold out. They were champions of Europe.
Having conceded the equaliser, Inter's tactics were questionable: they didn't win a single corner during the game, while Simpson made only two saves. The Portuguese newspaper Mundo Desportivo summed up the feeling of many: "It was inevitable. Sooner or later the Inter of Herrera, the Inter of catenaccio, of marginal victories, had to pay for their refusal to play entertaining football," they wrote in reaction to the final. For their heroics that night, Celtic's team of Glasgow lads were nicknamed the Lisbon Lions.
The European success fell early on in what would become a golden era for the Bhoys. They had of course won the domestic title the previous season, and retained it in 1967. Seven more titles followed without reply, setting a record of nine consecutive league titles (the record remained theirs alone until Rangers equalled the feat between 1989 and 1997). The 1966-67 season also saw Celtic win the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup, securing the club a landmark quadruple.
Though they would always be the first, they were not Britain's only winners for long. 12 months later Manchester United lifted the trophy by beating Benfica 4-1. And a decade after Celtic's triumph, English sides became Europe's dominant force: Liverpool won successive titles in 1977 and '78, Nottingham Forest followed them in '79 and '80, and Aston Villa became champions in 1981.
Liverpool won it again in 1984, after which there was a 14-year wait before Manchester United lifted the trophy in 1999. Liverpool (2005), United (2008) and Chelsea (2012) have all since added to Britain's haul of European silverware.
A Scottish club is yet to repeat Celtic's feat. The Bhoys made it to the final again in 1970, but were beaten by Dutch side Feyenoord. Their most recent European high came in the 2012-13 season, when Neil Lennon's side beat Barcelona in the group stages of the Champions League, on their way to a spot in the knockout round. This year they were eliminated in the group, though a pair of draws with Manchester City hinted at better times to come.
With a young and evidently very talented boss in Rodgers, they'll hope to recapture some of the glories of 1967. But while Celtic's hunger for success on the continent has not changed in the past half century, football certainly has.