In his regular column, Ronan Kearney chronicles the emotional rollercoaster of following his beloved Celtic. This time the Lisbon Lions make him ponder how you can love something you’ve never seen.
A friend of mine had a little baby boy recently. Not even six months old yet and he’s in his first Liverpool jersey. Poor lad. His football team is picked for him, predestined to follow in his father’s footsteps and live his life in the Mersey Red.
I can’t criticise, I’ve performed the same trick. Celtic jerseys have been bought, packaged and sent to Australia to fend off the danger of having another Red Devil in the family. The success of this exercise is still to be told. I mean, I’ve tried convincing him that Leigh Griffiths is a better player in FIFA than Paul Pogba but 6-year-olds rarely listen to reason.
Recently, it’s made me think; how many of us get to pick our team? And how many have it thrust upon us? Given the upcoming anniversary of the Lisbon Lions, let me tell you of how I discovered Celtic.
Absolutely fanatical about football from as soon as I could walk, I remember watching an old video tape about Jimmy Johnstone. Not having a clue who this guy was, I was totally in awe of how he got past players. Big, small, narrow, wide. Didn’t matter to him. I asked my dad who this wee guy was. “That’s the greatest footballer I’ve ever seen” was his answer. The next hour spent watching that video was literally life-changing. I was choosing my team.
Any young Celtic fan is brought up on history, stories and legends. Hampden in the Sun, Albert Kidd, stopping 10 in a row. The Lisbon Lions however are on a different level. It’s impossible not to love them. But why do I love them?
The name. The Lisbon Lions. Leoes De Lisboa. The very mention of it evokes memories in those who watched as well as those who have only been told. To defeat not only a feared Inter Milan team, but a country, a legendary manager and a defensive system many thought unbeatable, it would take more than men. It would take Lions.
The players. It’s simple; the fear of the Lions will never be repeated. Here was a team born within 30 miles of the stadium crowned European champions. Playing free of fear, knowing only one way to play the game, those players delivered a footballing masterclass to the Italian giants.
Over 40 attempts on goal with other 20 on target, Celtic didn’t defeat Inter Milan, they battered them into submission with the knockout punch delivered by Stevie Chalmers. I never witnessed that group of players play. But look what they say about each other. After the sad death of Tommy Gemmell, legendary Lion Bertie Auld talked of their family bond, the togetherness and spirit that spilled over from the pitch and onto the terraces. Gemmell himself referred to Jimmy Johnstone as an “unbelievable player.”
The boss. Jock Stein. The mastermind behind one of the greatest footballing triumphs there’s even been. His football knowledge and tactical nous have been published time and time again. It’s the man himself that makes the legend. His beliefs, his morals and his standards. Having no time for sectarianism, a man of his ilk would be welcomed in today’s SPFL environment. Immortalised by Bill Shankly, adored by Celtic fans, worshipped by his players. The greatest.
How can you love someone you’ve never met? How can you love a team you’ve never watched? It doesn’t make sense. Sometimes, the greatest things never do.