Celtic Change

Celtic Sean Graham

It was strange today of all days that a former Manchester City manager celebrates his 74th Birthday as his former side celebrated winning the Capital One Cup after a thrilling 3-1 victory over Sunderland at Wembley but perhaps Billy McNeill will mostly be remembered for being the captain of the first British side to lift the European Cup as he lead Jock Stein’s Celtic to victory over Inter Milan in 1967.

I have been reading this fascinating book about Celtic called Celtic-The Awakening by Alex Gordon, which takes you into uncharted territory and the story behind what it was like during that time and why the success of 1967 almost never happened and perhaps reading this book and getting the up close stories from the dressing room, will make fans understand just how big an achievement this was for Celtic on and off the pitch.

The Celtic team which became the Champions of Europe in 1967, could not have been further apart from the side that took to the field in the start of that decade, when they were a team plagued by defeats and in turmoil both on and off the pitch, drastic changed would be needed if the club wanted to challenge for honours at home and abroad.

The club needed leaders and direction both on and off the park and ultimately Jock Stein and Billy McNeill gave them that leadership but what brought about this remarkable transformation to change

The fortunes of the club from East End misfits to European Masters?

But Jock was not always there to wave his magic wand, the club almost incredibly allowed him to leave in 1960 and this was deemed a huge error by the players who enjoyed working with him when he was in charge of the reserves.

The players enjoyed working with him and never questioned his methods and often went around watching games paying out of his own pocket to do so and no matter the match or occasion, Jock would go to watch international matches or junior matches, it was all the same to him and he would often learn something from every game.

In Celtic: The Awakening, Alex Gordon enters uncharted territory to investigate the story of Celtic in the 1960s, an extraordinary decade in the club's roller-coaster 125-year history. Players of the era, good, bad and indifferent, are interviewed in depth in an attempt to unravel one of football's greatest mysteries.
The book is a must for any football fan never mind Celtic fan, full of great stories from the men who turned Celtic into European Champions and in author Alex Gordon, we have a man who not only writes great books and researches his subject matter well and thoroughly but also watched the Celtic side during their time of mediocrity and their subsequent rise to become European Champions, so he knows what he is talking about and I recommend that you take the time out to get a copy of the book if you get the chance.

Reading this book by Alex Gordon and finding out that today was Billy’s Birthday, it took me back to a conversation I had with the man they call Cesar and who was voted as the club’s greatest ever captain, about a time when Celtic Football Club became European Champions to add to his impressive collection of medals, 9 Scottish League Championships, 7 Scottish Cup’s and 6 League Cup’s as well as representing his country and also managing, Clyde, Aberdeen, Celtic, (3 League Championships, 1 Scottish Cup, 1 League Cup) Manchester City,( secured them promotion after two years in charge) Aston Villa before returning to Celtic to win them the Double in their centenary year, all this after being signed from his local junior side Blantyre Victoria.

By the time they reached the final in 67, Celtic had it all. They had a great team bond, a good mixture of characters who were as good off the pitch as they were on it, Bertie Auld, Bobby Murdoch in the middle of the park, Stevie Chalmers and Bobby Lennox up front a team filled with flair and skill, wingers like Willie Wallace, entertainers like Jimmy Johnstone who would go past defenders two or three times for fun - such was his talent - and of course they had good leaders on and off the pitch. Captain Billy McNeill was strong and commanding in the air and a good leader of men alongside him John Clark and flanked by Jim Craig and Tommy Gemmell and Ronnie Simpson as the last line of defence, These guys respected their team mates and opponents alike and last but by no means least they had a Manager who was up there with the best of them, a tactical genius in the late, great Jock Stein.

Celtic had an attacking nature, big Jock demanded it but he also wanted to make sure that his defence was strong and could be trusted, especially going into a European final.

He was a hard task master for sure but he was also one for a laugh and joke when the time was right.

Jock was also wise to the media and knew that Celtic getting to the final of a European competition would mean the club would be getting attention from the European media as well as the Scottish or British media so a few days at Sea Mill were in order and a few rounds of golf were the order of the day as well as some hard training, these boys had a big match to play!

Celtic captain Billy McNeill recalls the build up to the final in Lisbon.

“Big Jock had done everything brilliantly, very careful about the choice of hotel, which was magnificent with a beautiful swimming pool on the grounds.

“We went to the ground for training in the morning and we were supposed to go first but Inter went first so that they could watch us train in case they could learn anything from us.

“We had an attitude back then and nobody will ever convince us were the best eleven individual players in Europe but collectively and as a team, we had a determination about ourselves and if we played to our best we knew that we would be a handful for anybody”. As the final loomed even the locals looked to have warmed to Celtic and their supporters, could it have been they liked backing the underdog or perhaps the Celtic fans who made the trip had convinced the locals they would be on to a winner backing a side with such flair and talent such as Celtic.”

But going a goal down to a Mazzola penalty would not have been in big Jock’s script or impressed the locals.

“We did get the bonus of them scoring the first goal, when I say the bonus, we were all annoyed at it and it had us up in arms and if you look at it, we hit the bar a couple of times and funny enough their keeper Sarti, who we believed would be their weak link was their best player!”

“We did think it was an injustice but it was possibly the best thing that could have happened to us, because that meant that we had to take the game to them.

“It suited us because we had the players that could do that. We had wee Jinky that could take the ball to people and Stevie Chalmers, Bobby Lennox up front and Willie Wallace who could get up and help the forwards and we had two full backs in Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig who were at their best going forward.

“When you consider it, the first goal that we scored, Jim Craig cuts the ball right across the edge of the 18 yard line and Tommy comes and sticks it in the net.

“Tommy scored in the first match in Europe that year and he scored in the final as well.”

Celtic dominated the final and the only surprise was that the final score line was only 2-1,but that was mainly down to Sarti who gave a master class in goalkeeping but due to Celtic’s never say die attitude there was only ever going to be one winner.

When Stevie Chalmers scored for Celtic to win the European Cup for the club, he surely could never have dreamed they would not only be the first British club to win it but still the only Scottish club to lift the trophy.

The players had come through some really tough times but their friendship and camaraderie has seen them through many a match and situation.

The Lisbon Lions were a special bunch of guys and a special team but they had men who lead them who were winners and captain Billy McNeill knew just what it meant to lead his team to victory.

“Our achievement in winning the European Cup, consider a club with a population of only 5 million in the country could beat all the big knobs in Europe, with a team of local boys, I think that was quite astounding.”

I am just glad that books like Celtic- The Awakening, have given ordinary football fans like me, a chance

to see how Celtic became the top dogs in Europe in 1967, this was no overnight success, the club had to right the wrongs and mistakes they made at the start of the decade but boy did they do that and in doing so dominated not only Scottish football in 67 but also Europe.

Guys like Billy McNeill have commanded respect all over the world. Not only for his ability to lead a Celtic team to this amazing European triumph but for the way he conducted himself both on and off the park, he is a gentleman and role model to many and I sincerely hope he is celebrating his Birthday today with his family and friends, reminiscing on a fantastic day in May for Celtic and Scottish football, “Happy Birthday Billy, Hail Cesar!”


Sean Graham

Follow on Twitter @FeaturesSean

"I am just a guy who has over 40 years of memories of watching various clubs and matches since my Dad took me round the grounds in Glasgow each week before we went to meet my Mum after work and we always went to the Berni Inn where I had scampi and chips !

From watching Aberdeen, Celtic, Rangers, Partick Thistle, Maryhill juniors and Scotland as well as watching Everton and Manchester United, I have plenty of memories to share for fans to hopefully enjoy and remember."



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