Tonight sees some of Europe's smallest and least-known clubs begin a daunting UEFA Champions League adventure in which their chances of long-term survival can only be described as slim. Yet if these continental minnows are feeling in any way overawed at the prospect of venturing into football's richest and most hotly-contested club competition, they may be able to draw some inspiration from the unlikely success of 11 home-grown Scots 40 years ago.
Certainly, there was an undeniable fairytale element to the Celtic side who ended the Latin countries' decade-long stranglehold, all the more so as Jock Stein's 'Lisbon Lions' were all born within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park, with all but one hailing from within ten miles of the stadium. One celebrated Scottish sportswriter, eulogising about Stein's achievement, summed it up thus: "Tell me a manager who did something comparable, winning the European Cup with a Glasgow District XI?"
Before 1967, only four clubs - Real Madrid, Benfica and the two
Milan giants - had been able to lay their hands on the game's
most sought-after club trophy. None had managed to combine the feat
with winning their domestic championship and national cup in the
same year. Stein's Celtic not only achieved this, their
memorable 2-1 win over Inter Milan in Lisbon was in fact the
culmination of a season in which they entered five competitions and
won every one of them.
Their victory was, above all else, a triumph against the odds, particularly given that all the pre-match talk had been of Inter, champions in 1964 and '65, completing an historic tripletta of European Cup wins. Under the legendary Helenio Herrera, the Nerazzurri had won three Serie A titles between 1962 and 1966, losing the fourth in a play-off with Bologna, and had also tasted glory in the Intercontinental Cup.
The sight in the tunnel led even some of the Celtic players to fear a mismatch. "There they were," recalled Jimmy 'Jinky' Johnstone, the jewel in Stein's crown, "all six-footers with Ambre Solaire suntans, Colgate smiles and sleek-backed hair. They even smelled beautiful! And there's us lot - midgets. I've got no teeth, Bobby Lennox hasn't any, and old Ronnie Simpson's got none, top or bottom. The Italians are staring down at us and we're grinning back up at them with our great gumsy grins. We must have looked like something out of the circus!"
It was at that moment that Bertie Auld, Stein's midfield schemer, surprised the Inter players yet further by leading an impromptu rendition of the Celtic Song. "I think the Italians thought they were playing a pub team," is how a chuckling captain Billy McNeill remembers their opponents' bemused reaction.
'Pure, beautiful, inventive football'
Herrera's players would certainly have felt confident that everything was running to plan when they earned and converted an early penalty. However, Stein had gone into the game talking of winning with the kind of football "that made neutrals glad we won it" - and his team certainly lived up to that promise. Siege was immediately laid to the Italian goalmouth, and though Herrera's side reverted to their infamous Catenaccio ('bolted door') system, it was only a string of stupendous saves from Giuliano Sarti that kept them ahead.
When Celtic's equaliser finally came 19 minutes into the second half, it said much for the attacking instincts of Stein's side that it was laid on by right-back Jim Craig for fellow full-back Tommy Gemmell to slam home an unstoppable left-foot thunderbolt. "I remember being in the perfect position to see it," recalled McNeill. "Stood on the halfway line, I watched Tommy shape to hit the shot and I instantly knew we would go on to lift the European Cup." Sure enough, the Italians seemed unable to shake off their defensive shackles and, despite yet more heroics from Sarti, a knockout blow was eventually landed seven minutes from time when Stevie Chalmers stuck out a foot to stab the ball home from close range.
It was estimated that 7,000 Celtic fans - a remarkable figure in that era - had travelled to Lisbon for the match, and 20 minutes after the final whistle, these same fans were still to be seen dancing around the pitch and kissing the now-hallowed turf. Herrera, meanwhile, was nothing if not gracious in defeat. "I take my hat off to Celtic, they deserved to win," he conceded afterwards. "Their performance was one of courage and daring. The European Cup is in good hands."
It was this acknowledgement of the style with which their prize had been attained that most pleased Stein. "There is not a prouder man on God's earth than me at this moment," was how the former miner reflected on the win. "Winning was important, aye, but it was the way that we won that has filled me with satisfaction. We did it by playing football. Pure, beautiful, inventive football."
The Lions' legacy
Stein had shown himself to be a master tactician and manager of men, and he also proved to be something of a prophet when he added: "Now that the stranglehold of the Latins has been broken, there will be further success for other British sides, possibly for Manchester United". Sir Matt Busby's United, of course, won the trophy the very next season.
However, opening the floodgates for other, non-Latin clubs was not the only enduring legacy left by Stein's side. The most obvious are to be seen at Celtic Park, where massive stands named in honour of both the club's greatest ever manager and Lions themselves tower as a lasting tribute to a team still loved and revered, even by fans too young to have seen them in the flesh.
Only last November, when Celtic played Benfica in the Champions
League, the club took along the remaining members of Stein's
side so they could return to the scene of their greatest triumph,
the Estadio Nacional - where they found 5,000 Glaswegians waiting
to greet them. Sadly, however, that emotional 'homecoming'
was made without Stein, Johnstone, midfielder Bobby Murdoch and
goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson, all of whom have now passed away.
Each were mourned amid scenes largely unheard of in Scotland, with over 20,000 people lining the route of Johnstone's funeral cortege to sing and applaud their hero in an incredible send-off. The impish little winger had been the darling of the fans, easily beating off Henrik Larsson and Kenny Dalglish in a vote for the club's finest ever player, and in the aftermath of his death, a charity single in aid of sufferers of Motor Neuron Disease, the illness that claimed him, reached number one in the Scottish charts.
It also said a great deal for the unifying power of football that, even in a city as notoriously divided as Glasgow, shared respect for the talents of a player such as Johnstone saw many Rangers scarves added to the mountain of green-and-white memorabilia left in tribute outside Celtic Park.
The Ibrox club's captain, Barry Ferguson, was even moved to donate a five-figure sum from the proceeds of his autobiography to MND research. "I wasn't born when Jinky was at his peak but I spoke to my dad - a staunch Rangers man - and he was simply in awe of his skills," said the Scotland midfielder. "I watched the funeral on TV and the scale of it all staggered me. The streets were lined with people, ten deep in places - you would have thought a prime minister had died."
It was at times like these that we were reminded that one of the first to congratulate Stein after that victory in Lisbon was his fellow Scot and close friend, Bill Shankly. The then Liverpool manager's greeting? "John, you're immortal." What has been proved since is that not only was Shankly right, but immortality - certainly in the hearts of the Celtic fans - has also been bestowed on every one of Stein's players.