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Lisbon Lions the pride of Scottish football 50 years on

Glasgow (AFP) – On a hot and sunny afternoon in Lisbon 50 years ago, Celtic sealed their place in history by becoming the first British side to win the European Cup.

The current crop of Celtic stars –- who stand on the verge of clinching a rare domestic treble — may be receiving plaudits for a record-breaking campaign that has seen them go an entire season unbeaten on their way to claiming a sixth title in a row.

But their achievements pale into insignificance when compared to the “Lisbon Lions” campaign of 1966-67, which ended with a clean sweep of trophies including the European Cup.

On May 25, 1967, Jock Stein’s Celtic side came from behind to defeat the much-fancied Inter Milan 2-1 in front of 45,000 spectators at the Estadio Nacional. 

It was a golden age for Scottish football. Less than 24 hours before Celtic’s victory in Lisbon, Kilmarnock had lost out to Leeds United in the semi-finals of the Fairs Cup.

Six days later, rivals Rangers would lose 1-0 to Bayern Munich after extra time in the Cup Winners’ Cup final –- a competition they would later win in 1972.

But Celtic’s remarkable achievement takes its place as the pinnacle of success for Scottish football that has yet to be surpassed in the modern era.

“We weren’t worried about being the first British team to win the European Cup — we just wanted to win,” right-back Jim Craig told AFP.

“But we always knew how big an achievement it was because European champions — it’s something every year that only one team can say about itself. 

“So for us to do it was absolutely amazing, and I can be honest about this and say that it put Celtic’s name up amongst the big boys of Europe.”

Celtic’s triumph was all the more spectacular given the fact that the 11 first-team players were all born within a 30-mile radius of their stadium in the east end of Glasgow.

“That’s Bobby Lennox’s fault. If he hadn’t played it would have been within 10 miles of Glasgow,” Craig joked.

“It’s quite amazing. I would think nowadays it would be almost unbelievable to think that it might happen again.”

Craig, now 74, had to battle to regain his place in the side after missing a tour to America as the dentistry student had to sit university exams.

“Eventually I got my chance and you’ve got to take your chance in football,” said Craig, the only qualified dentist to have won a European Cup.

“I was there for the right half of the season.”

– ‘Quite a cocky bunch’ –

Victories over FC Zurich, Nantes, Serbian side Vojvodina and Dukla Prague secured their place in Lisbon.

No one outside Scotland gave Celtic a chance against Helenio Herrera’s Inter side, who were famed for their defensive catenaccio style, and targeting their third win in four years in the competition.

However, Stein had fashioned the Glasgow giants into a side that loved to attack with energy, fluency and creativity.

“Inter had an amazing record,” Craig said. “But we were quite a cocky bunch when I look back on it. We thought we could win everything.”

Things didn’t start well for Craig, however, as he felled Renato Cappellini in the box, for Sandro Mazzola to net the resulting penalty with barely eight minutes gone.

“I don’t think it was a penalty. I didn’t actually tackle him. I just timed my run to go across his path and he went down like a sack of potatoes,” Craig protests.

“It was a bit of a blow, although if you look at the whole game it meant that they went back into defence because their catenaccio system was designed to get a goal and then sit on it.

“So they surrendered possession to us, which suited us down to the ground.”

Craig made amends for the penalty when he supplied the cut-back for Tommy Gemmell’s second-half equaliser.

Stevie Chalmers then netted a late winner for Celtic, who had 42 attempts on goal to Inter’s five.

As the club prepare to mark the anniversary of their greatest victory, not all the Lions will be there to join in with the celebrations.

Legendary manager Stein, and players Bobby Murdoch, Ronnie Simpson, Jimmy Johnstone and Gemmell have since passed away whilst illness will prevent captain Billy McNeil and Chalmers from taking part. 

“It’s with a great sadness that we celebrate the 50th anniversary missing some of them. I get emotional thinking about it,” said Craig.

“We’ve lost half the team and others are not particularly well, so from that point of view it’s very poignant.

“I can say just now that it’s been a real privilege to go through my life as a Lisbon Lion. I’m so privileged to have been part of it.

“Wherever we go somebody knows about us, even people you think would have no interest in football.

“As to whether a Celtic team will ever win it again, well, please God they will in my lifetime — so they better hurry up.”

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