Every so often in football, a single game encompasses more than just a match between two competing sides. It incorporates a clash of identity, a battle of ideologies, often attacking against defensive football. The World Cup finals of 1954 and 1974 are perhaps the most notable examples, pitting the “romantic” favourites of Hungary and the Netherlands respectively against the more pragmatic West Germans. Even the matches between Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and José Mourinho’s Real Madrid between 2010 and 2012 were treated as the battle for the very soul of what football stands for.
One of the most prominent of these fixtures took place in the European Cup final of 1967, a clash between the defensively watertight serial winners of Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan and the confident, attacking talents of Jock Stein’s Celtic. On paper, Inter were the clear favourites, possessing players and a manager with the know-how of what it takes to triumph in Europe’s elite competition. Celtic represented the plucky underdogs, a team composed of players entirely from the Glasgow region. Football across the continent was more even than it is today, and so Celtic’s appearance in the final was not the shock it would be today, but few had expected them to be there.
Although Inter had the edge on paper, the run of games leading to the match may have perhaps offered hope to the Glaswegians that the Italian side could be got at. Prior to the final, Inter had to face matches against Padova in the semi-final of the Coppa Italia as well as facing Mantova in Serie A where a draw was likely enough to win the title for the Milan based club. The Padova match came first and Inter faltered, losing 1-0 to the outsiders and losing their chance at winning the first European treble of the domestic cup, Serie A and European Cup.
A chance at claiming the first of a now potential double followed with the Mantova match, but another 1-0 defeat opened the door for Juventus who beat Lazio 2-1 in their game to pip I Nerazzurri to the Scudetto title. Inter still approached the final in Lisbon as favourites, but the cracks in the Catenaccio system were beginning to emerge and Stein had his team set up to exploit them.
A former coal miner whilst playing part-time football, Stein was a name known to Celtic fans prior to his management days having played for the club during the 1950s. Having excelled at Dunfermline and Hibernian, Stein was appointed as the manager at Celtic Park in 1965 and was specifically tasked with ending the club’s long eight-year trophy drought.
Having transformed Celtic into the main domestic force in Scottish football, The Bhoys headed to the Portuguese capital on the back of an unprecedented season of triumph winning every trophy that they had entered so far. The domestic treble, or even quadruple if the Glasgow Cup is counted, had already been wrapped up before the showpiece occasion. Inter were all that stood between Celtic and European immortality.
Heading into the match, both teams were dealing with injuries to star players. Although Il Grande Inter were noted for their defensive style of play, they also possessed one of the best playmakers in world football at the heart of their midfield, Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez. Having become the first player to cost £100,000 when following Herrera from Barcelona to Inter, Suárez was the creative heartbeat of the Italian side.
After various reports of differing levels of fitness, Stein had jokingly suggested that he wished Suárez would be named in the team for the match as he “cannot be fully fit and there are no outfield substitutes allowed.” It was a typically jovial response from the Scot, but hearing the news that Suárez was not one of those who had arrived in Lisbon will have been music to his ears. Celtic were also without one of their best players, striker Joe McBride. Having impressed whilst playing for Motherwell, Stein made McBride one of the major additions for his rebuild and was ultimately repaid with 54 goals in just 55 games. The Scottish striker saw his progress in the season halted in December having suffered a serious knee injury. His goals would inevitably be missed by the side, but, unlike Suarez’s absence, they had a chance to get used to playing without him.
Stein had promised that Celtic would “be the first team to bring the European Cup back to Britain” and that they would do it by attacking as they had never attacked before. It was certainly a bold statement and one which offered hope to the thousands of travelling Scots, but it was Inter that started the match with intensity. Inside right Sandro Mazzola, another of the world-class players making up the Inter side, headed an early chance straight at goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson. Shortly after, with just six minutes of the game gone, Inter were awarded a penalty after a foul on Renato Cappellini with Mazzola sending Simpson the wrong way to give Inter the early lead.
If there was one side you did not want to fall a goal behind to in world football at this time, it was Herrera’s Inter. Predictably, Inter retreated into their disciplined shape and forced Celtic into mostly shooting from distance. Falling behind within ten minutes was not a part of Stein’s gameplan, but it may have been the catalyst that pushed his team forward. Committed to an attacking style of play, Inter’s defensive shape allowed Celtic to play their natural game.
For the rest of the first half, and indeed the game, the Scottish side dominated the play, keeping the Inter team penned in their own half. Chances were coming, but mainly from distance and Celtic were unable to find the breakthrough thanks to the man of the match performance being played out by Inter goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti. Half-time came with Inter still leading but struggling to match the intensity with which their counterparts played.
The second period began in the same fashion as the first ended with Celtic continuing to dominate the match and not allowing Inter any chances to add to their lead. Tommy Gemmell, the left full-back, has said how he was instructed by Stein to stay back to counteract the threats from the Italians. With the opposition sitting so deep, Gemmell decided to venture forward increasingly as the game wore on. This decision was vindicated after 63 minutes. Jim Craig found himself in space on the edge of the box, and with blue and black shirts crowding the penalty area, the right full-back laid the ball off to Gemmell on the top of the area. The defender stepped onto the pass, unleashing a first-time shot past Sarti to draw the Scots level.
Perhaps the autocratic and demanding nature of the way Herrera ran his side had finally caught up with the players as they appeared jaded and were unable to find any response to the effervescent Glasgow side. From the moment that Gemmell’s effort hit the back of the net, there was only likely to be one winner. The usually tight man-marking that was a key feature of the Catenaccio system had begun to waver as the legs of the Italians grew heavier, and both Bobby Murdoch and Stevie Chalmers found themselves free of attention. Murdoch took the shot on from distance and Chalmers got the slightest of touches to help the ball on its way. Celtic had done what few teams had successfully managed against Inter and had unsettled the system and overturned the Italians’ lead.
That winning goal came with just six minutes of normal time remaining, and Stein’s men confidently saw out the remainder of the match. Against the expectations of perhaps all but those in green and white, Celtic had become the first British time to hoist the famous trophy. The result defined more than just a single football match for both.
Inter had, in the space of three matches, thrown away the chance to win a historic treble. It marked the true beginning of the end for Herrera at Inter, with the Argentinian leaving after the following season. For the Catenaccio philosophy, Celtic had proven that it was not an unbeatable system, helping to show the way for the Dutch Total Football style that Ajax dismantled Inter with the following decade.
For Celtic, they had written themselves into the history books. The first British winners. The first European side to complete the vaunted treble. The first, and perhaps still only, truly homegrown squad to win the European Cup. It was a title that meant more than just another trophy to the collection. The tales of the Lisbon Lions have been etched into Celtic folklore.
The impact that this squad had upon the community in which it was formulated can be evidenced over the past year or so. After the deaths of both Billy McNeill, club captain at the time, and Stevie Chalmers, scorer of the winning goal, thousands of fans gathered in the streets and outside Celtic Park to pay final respect to their heroes. Those men who achieved immortality in Lisbon back in 1967 will forever be remembered and their stories passed down the generations.
It is easy in the modern game to be sucked into the underdog narrative. Even Manchester United, arguably the largest football club in the world have been cast in the role. Back for one night in May of 1967, football had a true underdog triumph. A triumph of positive, attacking football. A triumph of home-grown talent. A victory for all of football. Jock Stein had delivered on his promise. Celtic were indeed bringing the trophy back home to Glasgow having attacked the whole way, and Celtic’s victory over Inter Milan will always remain at the forefront of classic European finals.
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‘We did it by playing football, pure, beautiful, inventive football.’