Billy McNeil heads Celtic into the European Cup semi-final with a late winner

The Lisbon Lions: A Celebration of the European Cup Campaign 1967

ProgrammeThroughout 2017 we will publish exclusive extracts from the book ‘The Lisbon Lions: A Celebration of the European Cup Campaign 1967’ by Andy Dougan, published by Virgin. The extracts are adapted exclusively by the author for The Supplement. In this edition Celtic have progressed to the quarterfinals against Serbian champions Vojvodina.

 

There was good news and bad news for Celtic as 1966 turned into 1967. Their form on the park was superb and they continued to be all-conquering; in seven league games in January and February they had scored 25 goals and conceded only 3. In the Scottish Cup they had scored 11 goals without reply in the first two rounds.

But the bad news came in the shape of a season-ending injury to Joe McBride. The man who had been bought to give the team a cutting edge was unavailable and the man who had been bought as his strike partner, Willie Wallace, had missed the European registration deadline.

Meanwhile Vojvodina waited in the quarter finals. They had beaten Atletico Madrid in an epic tie which had gone to three matches in those pre-penalty shootout days. Even the third game needed extra time before Vojvodina finally won 3-2. By the end they were down to nine men so they would be missing two players for the querter final. In those days, the world was a bigger place and the Slavs were a mystery to Scots fans as Billy McNeill recalls.

 

”In those days, you didn’t have the advantage of television. Vojvodina was a trip into the unknown for us but I do remember they were a big, powerful side. All we knew was that they played in a city called Novi Sad, but that didn’t mean much. We didn’t have a clue where we were going when we played in Europe, especially with that one.”

 

Stein had made an important tactical switch at the start of 1967. He broke up his full back pairing of Tommy Gemmell on the right and Willie O’Neill on the left. Gemmell moved to the left, Jim Craig came in at right back, and O’Neill was banished to the bench. There was some logic to the move as Craig remembers.

 

”When you’re a right-footed player at right back, your tendency was to hit the by-line and cut the ball back. When you’re a right-footed player playing at left back, as Tommy was, then you’re inclined to slip inside and score.”

 

The move gave the side a better balance and two over-lapping full backs which would pay dividends later.

In the first leg Celtic found Vojvodina lived up to their reputation as a physical side who could play a bit. McNeill had one of his best European games bestriding the pitch like a colossus; the ball seemed attracted to his head like a magnet. Up front they lacked a cutting edge, John Hughes had a very poor game and in the end Celtic lost 1-0. A rare defensive error from John Clark allowed Stanic in to score the only goal of the game. The loss wasn’t the end of the world and McNeill certainly had alwaysfelt they might have to win 2-0 at home.

 

”I’m not saying we went out there thinking we would lose 1-0 but it certainly wasn’t the end of the world for us. We had played really well and as a defensive unit we had been brilliant.”

 

The return leg was one of those special nights at Celtic Park and no one who was there could forget it. The crowd was immense and the players could not help but be lifted. Steve Chalmers recalls the intensity of the atmosphere.

 

”I remember the noise when we came off the park after our warm-up. It was incredible. We all came down the tunnel into the dressing room and we just couldn’t wait to get back out there and get after them.”

 

There was a surprise in the Celtic side that night. Chalmers and Hughes played but the injured Bertie Ald was replaced by Charlie Gallagher. A man ahead of his time Gallagher was a superb midfielder but by all accounts, he didn’t have enough ‘dig’ for Stein who seldom selected him. In the first half Gallagher fared no better than anyone in the Celtic side who seemed overawed by the occasion.

Doubtless made aware they were only 45 minutes away from going out of Europe they were a different side in the second half. Wave after wave of attack was launched against goalkeeper Pantelic and in the 58th minute he made an uncharacteristic mistake. Gemmell raced down the left and whipped in a cross which the keeper fumbled; the ball dropped at the feet of Chalmers who made no mistake.

Despite Celtic’s repeated onslaughts Vojvodina held firm. At 1-1 on aggregate and with only minutes to go thoughts inevitably turned to the play-off game which had been scheduled for Rotterdam. With 40 seconds to go McNeill found himself with the chance to make history.

 

”I knew it was late in the game. I always liked Charlie taking corners because he used to fire them at you and it was just a matter of getting your timing right. If I got my timing right and Charlie threw the ball in there, then you always had a chance.”

Billy McNeil heads Celtic into the European Cup semi-final with a late winner

Billy McNeil heads Celtic into the European Cup semi-final with a late winner

Gallagher threw it in, McNeill fought above a packed defence – Chalmers later revealed he had obstructed Pantelic – and he scored a magnificent header from a perfectly-flighted corner. It was 2-0 on the night, 2-1 on aggregate, the Slavs were raging, and as soon as he re-spotted the ball the referee blew for full time.

Celtic had made it to the European Cup semi-final in one of the most memorable games ever seen at Celtic Park. They had faced their sternest test, according to Jim Craig, and come through it.

 

”Vojvodina were possibly the best side we met in the tournament. They were physically very strong, and they had a great touch on the ball. Unlike Dukla Prague or Inter Milan, there wasn’t really a single star name in the Vojvodina side. But we were under no misapprehensions about their quality.”

 

Celtic players celebrate after beating Vojvodina

Celtic players celebrate after beating Vojvodina

 

The Lisbon Lions: A Celebration of the European Cup Campaign 1967, by Andy Dougan, can be bought on Amazon and through other outlets. If you’re interested in Andy’s other work on Celtic, football and film, you can visit his Amazon page


Andy Dougan is the author of 'Celtic: The Lisbon Lions and The Glory, Glory Bhoys'. He is also the author of 'Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev' which was long-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. He has written acclaimed biographies of Robert De Niro, Robin Williams and Martin Scorsese. He can be found on twitter under @andydougan


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