Given that it’s the 50th anniversary of their unrivaled achievement, it would have been difficult not to think of the Lisbon Lions this year regardless. I’ve already written one blog about the road to Lisbon this year, and as the May 25th date comes ever closer I’m sure we’ll see more and more output based around the anniversary over the coming weeks and months.
But the events of the past few days have certainly overshadowed it.
For me, it started on Saturday at the graveside of Joseph Cullen, where no fewer than three of the Lions were in attendance for the latest Celtic Graves Society event. As the goalkeeper of the first Celtic team to lift the Scottish Cup, it was fitting that goalkeeper John Fallon was one of the three. He spoke about the great honour it was to be there, while Celtic Graves Society patron, Jim Craig, bemoaned the fact that these events never seem to take place near the equator.
The weather at these events has become something of a running joke, you see.
The third Lion in attendance was Charlie Gallagher. Though he didn’t speak at the event, I couldn’t help but think of the cross he supplied for Billy McNeill’s late winner against Vojvodina almost exactly 50 years ago now, something I hadn’t really known about until doing my research for the blog in January.
Of course, twenty four hours later it was Cesar who was in all our thoughts when the story of his battle with Dementia broke.
The heartbreaking account given by his wife, Liz, laid bare the struggle he now has with the debilitating condition and it was hard not to get emotional thinking about what it must be like for everyone involved in the McNeill family and beyond. When his wife is questioning whether on not he can even remember the wonderful achievements of his life, it really hammers home how awful it is.
I mean, consider what those achievements are.
Celtic won our one hundredth major honour this season. Billy McNeill won nine league championships, seven Scottish Cups and six League Cups as a player, as well as four league championships, three Scottish Cups and one League Cup as a manager. That’s thirty of them alone!
But clearly his biggest achievement was climbing the steps in Lisbon to lift the European Cup – still the only captain of a Scottish team, and the first captain of a non-Latin team, to do.
When speaking of the achievement, McNeill has always been quick to point out that his biggest regret of that day is that he went up those steps alone. It’s never sat well with him that the rest of the team were in the dressing room while he was out there picking up the prize for their combined success, and that speaks volumes for the leader that he is.
He’s right of course. It wasn’t just the captain that won the big cup, it was the team on the day and the squad throughout the season. McNeill scored the goal that got us past Vojvodina, but Gallagher supplied it. Joe McBride and John Hughes scored along the way, while of course Stevie Chalmers got that crucial winning goal in Lisbon.
And then there was Tommy Gemmell.
Tommy scored the very first goal of the European campaign against Zurich, and more famously he “put us on the level” when he scored the equaliser against Inter. Considering Tommy played left back, the fact he also scored in the 1970 final in Milan against Feyenoord, and actually scored over 60 goals in his Celtic career, is truly remarkable.
So when the news came through on Thursday morning that he had passed away I don’t think I need to say that we all felt his loss.
When I’ve played football in the past, it was usually at left back. So you’ll understand why of all the Lions it was Tommy Gemmell that I identified with the strongest. Jimmy Johnstone was probably my favourite for sheer entertainment and ability, but it was always Gemmell who inspired me. Probably because I too liked to get forward and have a shot or two!
But the truth is, I’m not the right person to pay proper tribute to Tommy Gemmell. Aside from the massive gulf in difference of our ability, I’m neither the right age to have been fortunate enough to see him play other than clips and DVDs from the past, nor am I a talented enough writer to properly acknowledge his greatness.
All I would say is that, although I didn’t specifically name my children after Celtic players, I have to admit that when deciding on a name for my son it did cross my mind which Celtic players might have shared that name. Gemmell and Burns is an illustrious company for my son to keep.
Regardless, perhaps I don’t need to be any good at paying tribute. I’m sure Sunday’s game will now see many tributes paid in a whole host of ways. In song, on the big screen, outside the ground, and in the many stories that will be bounced around the stands. The fact that all of this will happen regardless of your generation probably says it all. Like all the Lions, Tommy will always be a legend.
Of course, one other tribute would be for this current squad to continue to add to the history created by Tommy and all his teammates.
Only three Celtic squads have won the domestic treble, and Tommy was part of two of them. The all conquering 1966/67 team will never be beaten, while the 1968/69 team lost in the European Cup quarter finals to the eventual winners AC Milan. The last time we won the treble was back in 2000/01, just days after the first of the Lisbon Lions, Bobby Murdoch, passed away.
Since that day we’ve also lost Ronnie Simpson in 2004, Jimmy Johnstone in 2006, Willie O’Neill in 2011 and Joe McBride in 2012. Sadly the events of this past week only serve to remind us of just how long ago 50 years really is.
If this Celtic team are to win the treble then the match against St Mirren is an absolute must win. The Buddies may be bottom of the Championship, but they are gaining on the teams above them as manager Jack Ross seems to have them clicking finally. They beat Championship topping Hibernian in midweek, and actually have had an excellent season in cup competitions.
The League Cup saw them lose out on goal difference after three wins from four in the group stages, while the Challenge Cup has seen them reach the final against Dundee United. Their Scottish Cup campaign saw off Dundee at Dens Park as well as Spartans in the round before that and East Fife in the last round, so really they’ve only lost one cup tie all season and that was a 3-0 defeat to Hamilton Accies in the group stages.
Indeed, combine that with Jack Ross’s record at Alloa Athletic before he took the St Mirren job and you’ll note we’ve been here before. Alloa Athletic gave us more trouble in the League Cup quarter final than Motherwell did in the round previous or even Aberdeen did in the final.
Our recent cup history against St Mirren isn’t great either. Sure, we won the last Scottish Cup tie 2-1 in Paisley in 2013 before going on to win the trophy, but that came just a few weeks after they beat us at Hampden in the League Cup semi final. The previous meeting in the Scottish Cup in 2009 also saw St Mirren win 1-0 thanks to a Billy Mehmet penalty just one week after we had hammered them 7-0 in a league fixture.
Some days it just doesn’t go for you. Ask Aberdeen, they battered Hamilton on Tuesday night but it just wouldn’t go in and so they lost 1-0. In doing so, they pushed us one game closer to the title and combined with Wednesday’s win in Inverness we are now just seven points from six in a row.
Aberdeen had nearly 20 corners in that game and couldn’t make any of them count, unfortunately reminding me of the last time we played the team bottom of the second tier in a cup competition – Greenock Morton. That game, also in 2013, saw Neil Lennon’s side lose 1-0 after extra time to a team who were ultimately relegated to the third tier of Scottish Football that same season.
History has shown us that sometimes things don’t go the way you expect them to go. For all we are overwhelming favourites to win Sunday’s quarter final, sometimes the underdog wins. That’s one of the things that makes football the sport we all love.
Fortunately St Mirren don’t have any Celtic legends in their ranks, like Dundee did in the League cup final of 1973. Of all the honours that Tommy Gemmell won, captaining Dundee to that victory was perhaps the most surprising of all. RIP Tommy.
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)