Portrait of an iconic team: Celtic’s Lisbon Lions

Daniel Storey

The background
It is hardly controversial to say that the arrival of foreigners is the greatest change in British football over the last 25 years. Non-British players, managers and owners are now a majority in the Premier League.

That is not to say this migration is a bad thing, merely different. It is an inevitable result of a sport that has enjoyed rapid investment. We welcome the comfort and safety at matches, the ability to watch a high percentage of games live on television and the possibility of witnessing the greatest players and coaches in the sport, so we can hardly cry foul at foreigners wanting to be a part of the spectacle. You can argue that it has harmed the fortunes of our national team – I think that’s just about undeniable – but the benefits surely outweigh the negatives.

Yet there is an inherent joy to be had in seeing a local player excel, and doing so does not make you guilty of some hardwired xenophobia. Recognising a place of birth and school sends a tingle of familiarity that creates a connection between a supporter and a player.

Celtic’s Lisbon Lions would be an astonishing team even if they had lost their European Cup final to Inter. They would be an astonishing team had they only reached the quarter-finals. Their achievements made them immortal, but the very nature of that squad was extraordinary. All but one of its 15 members was born within ten miles of Celtic Park. Bobby Lennox was the foreigner, born 20 miles further out in Saltcoats. You’d have struggled to find a semi-professional club in the UK with closer connection to their community.

Yet mere locality is nothing – or at least not everything – without achievement. Celtic were Europe’s ultimate local club, yet were crowned as Europe’s champions. They became the first British club to win the European Cup, and did so with an attacking verve that would serve as an example for teams to follow both inside and outside of Celtic Park.

It is almost impossible to say with any certainty that something will not be eclipsed. We have become obsessed with the idea of the greatest and the best ever, the words used as often as common adjectives, but there is always something or someone to break your mould. Yet Celtic’s achievement will truly never be matched. Football and society have changed too much for a repeat.

Celtic’s triumph in Lisbon capped a wonderful season for Scottish football. Rangers reached the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, Kilmarnock reached the semi-finals of the Fairs Cup and Dundee United knocked Barcelona out of Europe. A month before the European Cup final, Scotland beat world champions England at Wembley. Scotland had never had it so good; they would never have it so good again.

Yet Celtic’s victory was more than just an advert for Scottish football, but for Scotland. At a time when Glasgow was hard, violent and dirty, it was expected that a team forged entirely in that city could only ever be a reflection. Instead, Stein’s Celtic were the enlightenment.


The iconic manager – Jock Stein
Matt Busby, Bobby Robson, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Jock Stein. The relationship between mining communities and some of the greatest British managers is well-established. All of those five are (or were) sons of miners. Three of them went down the pits themselves, including Stein.

In truth, it’s hardly an astonishing coincidence. In the 1920s, when Britain’s mining industry was at its peak, the industry employed more than one million people. Yet there is no doubt that mining formed an intrinsic part of Stein and others’ personalities. It forged an appreciation for teamwork, looking out for your neighbour and incredible work ethic, one which Stein regularly alluded to during his career. “You go down that pit shaft, a mile underground,” he said. “You can’t see a thing. The guy next to you, you don’t know who he is. Yet he is the best friend you will ever have.”

Going down the mines also creates an appreciation for how fortunate you are to be doing anything else, and therefore the responsibility you have to be the best you can be and give those men something to be proud of, a team to believe in. Stein was a working-class hero not because he achieved greatness, but because he never forgot who he was achieving it for. It was he who coined a phrase that has become fashionable again in recent years: “Football is nothing without fans.”

Stein was an incredibly modern coach, by the standards of the day. He disliked players drinking or smoking and revitalised training at Celtic, much to the surprise of the playing staff. He retained that old-school Glaswegian temperament that regularly just became a temper, but like all great managers had an innate ability to inspire. On his first day at Celtic Park, Stein explained to his players that he would make them better and turn them into champions if they trusted his methods. How could you not believe him?

Celtic’s 1966/67 season may have been their zenith, but the descent from such a peak was hardly steep. Having won a league and cup double in his first season and won an unprecedented quadruple in his second, Stein could easily have allowed complacency to fester. Instead, Celtic won seven more consecutive league titles, four Scottish Cups, three League Cups and reached at least the semi-finals of the European Cup in four of the next seven seasons. A reminder: Celtic had not won a major trophy in the nine years before Stein joined.

Just as important for the supporters who streamed into Celtic Park was the style of football that Stein implemented. “Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing,” he said, repeating his famous line and expanding upon it. “Sometimes we are inclined to forget that. The only chance of bringing them into stadiums is if they are entertained by what happens on the football field.”

It isn’t that Celtic hadn’t played expansive football before Stein’s appointment, but nobody had blended it with success in quite such fashion anywhere in British football. Celtic had last scored 100 or more goals in a league season in 1938, but achieved that feat (in a 34-game league season) in each of his first three seasons. Celtic’s goal difference immediately improved from +19 to +76.

“Lisbon wouldn’t have been possible without him,” Celtic captain Billy McNeill said. “Had Jock Stein not come to Celtic at that time, the club would just have lumbered on. We might have won the Scottish Cup in 1965 – that may have been our year for winning the cup under Jimmy McGrory – but Jock brought the different approach to everything that consolidated it for us.”


The iconic player – Jimmy Johnstone
McNeill was the captain and leader of that Celtic team, the first British player to lift the European Cup and a defender who retired after 790 appearances for his hometown club and returned twice to coach them to league titles.

McNeill and Stein both have statues outside Celtic Park, but it is the third man immortalised in bronze who encapsulated the glory of that Celtic team. Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone was voted the greatest player in the club’s history in 2002 – against some competition – and he embodies the style that Stein demanded from his team in pursuit of their dreams.

Johnstone was arguably the greatest ever dribbler of the ball that Britain has produced, better even than George Best and Stanley Matthews. The story goes that he would dribble around milk bottles at home to improve his control, and perform sprints in heavy boots to increase his strength and pace.

Although Stein demanded entertainment, he had little time for skill for its own sake, and regularly clashed with Johnstone over his commitment to the team. He was eventually won over by the sheer natural ability his winger possessed, and Johnstone guided Celtic to the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final in the manager’s first season.

One wonderful story about Johnstone came a fortnight after the European Cup victory, when Celtic played Real Madrid in the Bernabeu in Alfredo di Stefano’s testimonial. It was obviously supposed to be Di Stefano’s night, but the 100,000 spectators gave Johnstone a standing ovation after his virtuoso display had won Celtic the game. Real goalkeeper Andres Junquera describes Johnstone as the best player he ever faced.

The second story comes a year later, and defines Johnstone beautifully. The winger was petrified of flying, although did so under duress. In November 1968, Celtic were drawn against Red Star Belgrade in the second round of the European Cup. Stein promised Johnstone that if Celtic won the home leg by three goals or more, he would not have to travel for the away leg. Johnstone scored twice and assisted three more goals in a 5-1 win, and stayed at home.


The iconic game – Celtic 2-1 Inter, European Cup final, May 1967
It is difficult to imagine a match between two clubs with more contrasting styles. Celtic were the entertainers, who surged forward on the counter-attack but also committed players forward and looked to take the game to the opposition. Inter were the opposite, the embodiment of catenaccio under Helenio Herrera, who would play with four defenders and an extra sweeper.

Herrera would later claim that his catenaccio was unfairly criticised for its defensive nature, but his critics might stick on a video of the 1967 European Cup final and tut pointedly through the whole thing. Inter scored early when the great Sandro Mazzola scored a penalty, but then parked several fleets of buses in front of their own goal, backing their own defensive might. In effect, this was eight defenders against eight forwards.

It was a foolhardy plan. Inter barely attempted to get out of their own half, and Celtic, though initially restricted to shots from distance, eventually made their territorial dominance pay. By the time Stevie Chalmers had scored the winning goal with five minutes remaining, Celtic had attempted 39 shots on goal. It remains the highest total of any team in a European Cup final (even including extra-time) and surely will for years to come.

One interesting element of Celtic’s strategy for the final is how Stein chose to tweak his attack. Rather than wingers Johnstone and Bobby Lennox staying out wide, Stein instructed them to stay slightly infield, dragging their man-markers with them. That allowed for the two full-backs to overlap and thrive in the extra space, while Johnstone and Lennox could play short passes with Chalmers and Willie Wallace. It is a similar attacking tactic to the one currently used by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

As the final whistle blew, Celtic fans poured onto the pitch to celebrate their team’s victory, such an extraordinarily joyous throng that the trophy presentation had to be moved from the pitch to the back of the stand.

The other lasting effect of that final victory is that it established the principle of Scotland and Scottish sides as neutrals’ favourites. The thousands of supporters that travelled to Portugal were good natured and largely well-behaved, and Celtic’s victory was sold worldwide as a triumph of good (attacking) over evil (defending).


What happened next?
Celtic and Stein barely looked back, embarking on a run of nine straight league titles and handfuls of domestic cups. Stein would eventually leave permanently for Leeds United, but moved again after two months when it became clear that he wasn’t enjoying his new surroundings. Having managed Scotland on occasion before 1978, he eventually took the job permanently in October of that year. His career and life would come to a tragic halt at Ninian Park, Cardiff in 1985, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the end of the game.

Johnstone’s own story was just as tragic. He left Celtic in 1975 but barely coped with life away from Celtic Park, institutionalised to life within his home city. It would eventually cause him to fall into addiction.

“When my dad left Celtic I think part of him left himself,” daughter Marie McCallum explained for a documentary on Johnstone in 2004. “The only team he wanted to play for was Celtic, even though he did go here and there and everywhere. I felt the heart was gone then. It wasn’t the same as it was. Could anything ever be the same as that? I think it broke him a bit and he went down dark roads and it was sad.”

Johnstone died of Motor Neurone Disease in 2006, and if you get a chance to watch that documentary (Lord of the Wing, narrated for the BBC by Billy Connolly), I’d hugely recommend it.

Daniel Storey – Enjoyed this? Like funding research into cancer? Good. Buy Portrait of an Icon here.