x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

An age when Celtic roared

Danny Kaye's The Birth of a Star in 1945, and Jock Stein's birth of a star team in 1967. Two features spanning 22 years, but both continue to bleed colour even in grainy black and white pictures.

Willie Wallace is lifted up by happy Celtic fans in Lisbon in 1967.
Willie Wallace is lifted up by happy Celtic fans in Lisbon in 1967.

Danny Kaye's The Birth of a Star in 1945, and Jock Stein's birth of a star team in 1967. Two features spanning 22 years, but both continue to bleed colour even in grainy black and white pictures. Compared in looks to an award winner in the American screen actor Kaye, he of Hans Christian Andersen fame, Tommy Gemmell, the Celtic and Scotland defender, similarly wallowed in gongs in a joyous period in the late 1960s as part of a fabled, all-conquering Celtic side.

The Glasgow club's gilded moment continues to pound furiously in the heartbeat of millions of their supporters, who hanker after a bygone age and a golden period of great theatre. On the cusp of tonight's coming together in the Champions League of two of Britain's largest club sides, the "governers" of England and Scotland, it is always worth reflecting on the tradition that defines their demands, and from where they came.

As Rod Stewart once wrote in a song dedicated to Britt Eckland: "You're Celtic, United, but baby I've decided you're the best team I've ever seen." In the modern day, they, like Rod and Britt, have gone their separate ways to some extent, but they are bonded by time and dominant Scottish managers. Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United's three European Cup victories and like Stein, have working-class roots in Glasgow. Football appears to be a strictly middle-class past-time these days at the elite level, but it was not always the way.

United revel in a level of finance, bloated by television millions, that renders impotent in many ways clubs from unfashionable European leagues such as Celtic. Celtic could get a serious going over at Old Trafford, but tradition continues to dictate that this is a contest of epic and almost biblical proportions. David slayed Goliath, and a good little 'un can beat a good big 'un. That is unlikely yet, historically, Celtic, like United, have always been a club of firsts.

United would win the first of their three European Cups in 1968 when Sir Matt Busby oversaw a 4-1 extra-time win against Benfica at Wembley - a year after Celtic became the first Scottish, British and, it must be noted, Northern European club to snag the big trophy. Pertinently, Celtic collected the trophy with 11 players of the club's country of origin, all born within 30 miles of Celtic Park. "Eleven players of the same nation will never win the Champions League again," commented Gemmell. "We had 11 Scots, and that is unbelievable when you think how small a nation we came from. You'll never get that happening again, never mind all being within 20-odd miles of the club's home ground."

Studying Stein's side of the day, or the Lisbon Lions in which they are most memorably recalled, continues to hold mystical appeal. Gemmell will be at Old Trafford tonight, where he will get the opportunity to engage with old foes such as Sir Bobby Charlton and Paddy Crerand. He may walk and talk as he did on the night when he scored the equalising goal and Stevie Chalmers the winner in Celtic's 2-1 success over Helenio Herrera's Inter Milan at Libson's Estadio Nacional.

"We won everything we played for that season, so to win the European Cup was not a huge surprise to us," said Gemmell. "I think we broke the mould and after we did it, the other British clubs such as United and Liverpool had a bit of belief. I think we provided a bit of inspiration. Let's put it that way. Big Jock was a great motivator." Since the inception of the old European Cup in 1955, only two British players have scored in different finals. Phil Neal of Liverpool and Celtic's Gemmell, who netted as the Scots lost to the Dutch side Feyenoord in 1970. For those of us who hanker after the good old days, it is worth recalling that the European Cup was once a knockout competition, blessed with only the champions of each country.

Celtic and United met two years ago in the Champions League, both winning their home games, but such meetings were once the sole preserve of the exhibition arena. "We played Manchester United a few times. We beat them in a friendly at Celtic Park if I remember correctly, then we played them in a couple of matches on tour in America. That's when they had the Bests and the Charltons," said Gemmell.

"There were tremendous, a really formidable side, but we didn't have any fear of them. We had a lot of confident players, simply because they had ability. We never feared anybody at that time." Illness is no respecter of reputation with godly wingers taken from the clubs that made them. United mourned the death of the Northern Ireland winger George Best from a kidney infection in 2005, while Celtic lost Jimmy "Jinky" Johnstone after a struggle with motor neurone disease several months later.

"They were both tremendous entertainers. I know because I played against them both," said Gemmell. "I came up against Besty in international matches, and wee Jinky in training matches. They were exceptional players." Johnstone once said Celtic's European Cup winners were a "speeded up version" of the Dutch's total football philosophy. He also once recalled of the defeated Inter Milan side: "There they were, Facchetti, Domenghini, Mazzola, Cappellini. Each and every one of the looked like the film star Cesar Romero. They even smelt beautiful. And there's us lot. Midgets. I've got no teeth, Bobby Lennox hasn't any, and old Ronnie Simpson's got the full monty, no teeth top and bottom. The Italians are staring 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."

Before he left Aberdeen to become manager of Manchester United in 1986, Ferguson assisted Stein as part of the Scotland coaching staff before his death in 1985 left Ferguson in charge of his country at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. "I am proud to say that I knew Jock Stein as a football manager, as a colleague and as a friend. He was the greatest manager in British football. Men like Jock will live forever in the memory," Ferguson has said.

Gemmell can see similarities, but believes Stein showed more decorum. "Fergie is aggressive, as everybody knows. Big Jock was aggressive, but he kept it quiet. He kept it for us within the dressing room." It seemed everybody in Lisbon was a Scot in 1967. The Liverpool manager Bill Shankly grabbed Stein afterwards to tell him: "John, you're immortal." Gemmell continues to be dreamy and realistic at the same time. "It would be nice to see United, or perhaps even Celtic, winning the trophy. Then I maybe wouldn't have to talk about the Lisbon Lions anymore."

A good notion, but one about as far-fetched as a team of 11 Scots again getting together armed with serious notions of carting off the Champions League. @Email:dkane@thenational.ae