Football’s history is long and complex, with eras spanning from Ajax’s Total Football to Real Madrid’s Galácticos. These eras are often culminated in a few pivotal moments – a climax to a fairy-tale; Chelsea and Spurs’ draw to give Leicester the Premier League title or Manchester United’s incredible injury time comeback against Bayern Munich to seal a continental treble. Instilled in our viewership is a craving for romantic poetry, the collective feeling when all neutrals are on the side of David as he lines up his shot against Goliath. Few clubs ever have such an impact on the sport, and one of those clubs is Glasgow Celtic.
As a club renowned for the magic that surrounds them, Celtic have often been the lead in some of the greatest footballing stories of all time. More recently, a draw home and away against an abundantly rich Manchester City side shockingly ended Guardiola’s perfect start in a real passion over money fixture. Before that, in the game celebrating the club’s 125th anniversary, Neil Lennon led the hoops to a historic win against arguably one of the best Barcelona sides in history. Man Utd and Liverpool have both fallen victim to the sheer resilience and determination of the green and white side, too. However, one specific result at the end of one specific campaign had more of an impact on the world than the cumulative effect of all of these results – yes, I’m talking about when Celtic overcame Inter Milan 2-1 on the 25th of May, 1967, to win the European Cup.
To truly understand the implications of this, we first need to look at the history surrounding the fallen Inter Milan side. Real Madrid won the European Cup for 5 consecutive years following its inauguration. Benfica won the following 2, toppling Real in a thrilling 5-3 final in which a Eusébio brace put Benfica ahead following the first half hattrick scored by Puskás. AC Milan beat Benfica the following year to claim the title and then came Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan side – a team made up of equal parts infamy and mastery.
Beating both Real Madrid and Benfica in consecutive finals at this time was no small feat. As the two most established clubs in the competition thus far, through toppling them in ’64 and ‘65, Inter were well on their way to making a name for themselves. This was largely down to the Catenaccio style adopted by Herrera. Initially beginning throughout the Italian leagues, the bigger club began to perfect it. Looking akin to the modern parking the bus, the Catenaccio style’s most recognisable traits include an early goal and a strictly organised defensive shape with an extra man at the back. However, to describe it as solely that would be an injustice.
Behind the back line sat Picchi. This role was a sweeper role, and ended any attacks that somehow made it past the solid line of defenders. However, he also was the facilitator of many attacks, something comparable to a modern ball playing centre back. Facchetti, the left back, was one of the earliest examples of an attacking fullback. This was essential to the style as Herrera utilised the central strength of the defence and deep lying playmaker, Luis Suarez, to move the ball out to the wings and attack with pace. In light of this, Herrera was known to criticise other coaches attempting to replicate his philosophies of neglecting the attacking side of his game and reducing it to simply all out defending.
This is quite clear to see in the public eye. As mentioned before, this Inter side were infamous. People watch football to be entertained and the more the Italian side held games to a goal or two, the more they broke up fluent and attractive play, the more they garnered labels such as ‘anti-football’. It’s fair to say that Herrera was a pragmatist, playing a realistic and practical game of football that would push for a win. Would you describe his football as innovative? Arguably, yes. It was new and effective. Would you describe it as attractive, or a positive aesthetic? Not necessarily. Coupled with the fans’ off-field tactics involving vandalising and disturbing the opposition team’s hotel, this Inter Milan really started to become the antagonist in this narrative.
While Inter’s style centred around strength in defence, it’s safe to say that Celtic’s 424 style was the complete inverse. With no sweeper, and attacking fullbacks, this was one of the earlier instances of a modern back 4. Stein drilled it into his defence that the fullback on the side of play was to join the attack – a philosophy still used today. Ironically, it was Gemmell and Craig disregarding this instruction that led to Celtic drawing level in the cup final, Craig assisting Gemmell’s thunderous goal. The freedom to do this, and to be creative, was a trait held by Celtic that Inter players were envious of. To quote Jock Stein, Celtic really did win the day by playing “pure, beautiful, inventive football”. Inter’s style, however, was so mentally draining from strict organisation that, following onslaught after onslaught of Celtic attacks, eventually the skipper, Picchi, gave the order to his goalkeeper to give up. An order nobody expected from such a merciless side.
With the circumstances surrounding the cup win, it’s difficult to avoid getting wrapped up in the sheer wonder of it all. A whole team born in Glasgow up against Italy’s elite; countless times we’ve all heard the story of how Celtic were there to make up the numbers. We’ve all heard how the Inter players strode down the tunnel like something from a Greek myth. We’ve all heard how in the scorching heat of Lisbon, Bertie Auld cut to the real question: “can they play?”. And they could. Just not like Celtic.
Romance aside, why was this win more than other European Cup wins? It’s easy to think that every club must feel like this about their own wins, and maybe they do, but there is something unique about this one and that’s the tactical implications that followed. Stein’s attractive and attacking style, wave after wave of creation, was the dreamer against Herrera’s realist. Catenaccio was a harsh suggestion that football is just a sport while Celtic’s alluring style was the spark of imagination that reminded us how special it can be. Celtic, and football, won that day and went on to promote so many glamorous playing styles still used today.
Examples of this are a back 4 compared to a sweeper, which is now an obsolete position. Having wingers work with a fullback to utilise extra manpower going forward and create problems for a defence is a widely accepted tactic in modern football. Stein was a manager ahead of his time. It would be wrong to suggest that Celtic killed off negative football on this day – pragmatic, defensive football would still have its place in years to come – but, without Celtic showing up the style’s vulnerabilities, the landscape of football could have been very different. When the likes of Alex Ferguson cite their inspirations as Jock Stein and his Lisbon Lions, it speaks volumes about the influence they had on the world of football.
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