In a regular column, Graeme McKay will delve into Celtic’s rich history and take a closer look at the players, coaches and teams that makes up the tapestry of the club. In the first edition, he looks at the season before The Season; Celtic’s European campaign of 1965/66.
Celtic went after them from the off; within the first few minutes Lawrence had been tested by McBride and had passed. Lennox then volleyed over the bar from six yards and Chalmers had had a shot deflected past the post. The screw was being turned and much of Celtic’s bombardment was coming through Lennox. It looked like he should have had a penalty when he was fouled in the box. It looked like he should have scored when through on the goalkeeper. It was the first half of the 1966 European Cup Winner’s Cup semi-final and just under 80,000 people had turned up to see Celtic take apart Liverpool in a ‘Battle of Britain’. The only problem was that despite their attacking play, nothing was going in. That was until the 50th minute when Lennox had finally found his range and the lions before Lisbon were 90 minutes from a European final. 1966 is an often-remembered date in footballing history: the culmination of Jock Stein’s first full season in charge of Celtic and the first step on the road to legend. But don’t be mistaken for thinking it was the genesis: that happened several years before.
Is lightest before the dusk an idiom? It would probably go a way to describing the scene in 1957 when Celtic ripped Rangers apart 7-1 in the Scottish League Cup final. It is hard to imagine what that would have felt like: a Celtic team full of young and exciting prospects meticulously picking apart their arch rivals. Looking for a modern day analogue is hard. Perhaps the 6-2 game under Martin O’Neill is close. Or maybe the 5-1 from the beginning of this season. Neither of them exactly fit, but the sense of excitement of just how far the team could go would surely be similar.
But the interesting thing about retrospect is that you can start to feel like a movie watcher. You can see the iceberg before the captain; is that Michael Myers standing on the street over there? That Victorian kid’s cough is most probably consumption. Celtic supporters probably couldn’t see it at the time, but that massive victory over Rangers was blocking out a barren void that would lead to eight trophy-less seasons. But just as we have been rewarded for having to suffer through last year’s Scottish Cup semi-final, the Celtic fans of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were to be compensated and then some.
Although the barren period at Celtic Park was without trophy, it was not without merit. The Celtic board were selling off all the club’s best talent, some against the will of the player, all against the will of the fans, but fortunately made an uncharacteristically good decision when it came to the infrastructure of the youth set-up: 5 months before ‘Hampden in the Sun’, and 6 months after ending his playing career with the club, Jock Stein had been appointed as the Celtic Reserve coach. While the first team were floundering, Stein’s reserves, including several of the Lisbon Lions, were progressing at a frightening rate, including an 8-2 destruction of Rangers in the 57-58 Reserve Cup. Seeds were being sown and Stein was playing a vitally important role in the development of players such as McNeill, Clark and Murdoch. He also convinced the Celtic board that Barrowfield was where the players had to train and the site has seen every Celtic legend ever since. He remained in this position until he became the Dunfermline manager in 1960.
The eight trophy-less years saw Celtic finish 3rd, 6th, 9th, 4th, 3rd, 4th,3rd and 8th in the league. They didn’t see a League Cup final again until the 1964-65 season and even then it was for nothing as Rangers won 2-1 in the final. They fared slightly better in the Scottish Cup, gaining two runner’s up medals: one after a resounding 3-0 defeat to Rangers and the other one coming following a final replay submission to Jock Stein’s Dunfermline. Stein had saved Dunfermline from relegation within weeks of being appointed at the end of the 59-60 season and his star was clearly on the rise: not only did he win the cup with Dunfermline, he also got them to a European quarter-final before moving onto Hibernian. Jimmy McGlory was continuing to toil as manager of Celtic. McGlory had been in charge of Celtic for 20 years, but only had 4 cups and 1 league title to his name. He also had a win percentage of only 50%. What a player and what a servant, but it was time for Celtic to move on.
Jock Stein became Celtic’s 4th manager on the 9th of March, 1965 and immediately imposed himself as the full manager of everything Celtic-related, from dealing with player’s contracts to tracksuited and on the training field (looking back it feels similar to the way in which Martin O’Neill took complete control following the John Barnes reign). Stein was very much a student of the game and had modern ideas about how to man manage his players as well as how to think about tactics: as Dunfermline manager he had visited Helenio Herrera at Inter to get a sense of the set-up there. Some of the changes Stein implemented seem excruciatingly obvious, like making sure players train with a football as often as possible. He also made sure that players went full-time or left the club, thus ensuring complete focus among the group of players he had. Perhaps most importantly he brought in a 4:2:4 formation that would go so far as to define what we mean when we say ‘the Celtic way’. 46 days after Stein’s return Celtic won the Scottish Cup and qualified for the 1965/66 European Cup Winner’s Cup.
First up for Celtic was a trip to the Netherlands to play DVV Go Ahead (later to become Go Ahead Eagles). Jock Stein sent out Simpson, Young, Gemmell, Murdoch, McNeill, Clark, Johnstone, Gallacher, Chalmers, Lennox and Hughes and gave them the direction to stay compact and disciplined for the first 20 minutes, with the understanding that they would then be allowed to express themselves. Six minutes after the shackles came off Lennox reacted quickly to a rebounded Chalmers effort and put the Hoops into the lead. Newspapers at the time describe the crowd’s reaction to the rest of the match: ‘[the crowd were] laughing at their [Celtic’s] impertinence on a football field and jeering at the futile attempts made by their own forwards to score.’ Celtic ran out 6-0 winners and gave the crowd ‘something like vaudeville entertainment with laughs interspersed with flashes of football brilliance.’ The return leg was notable only for the fact that Jim Craig made his debut for the Bhoys. McBride scored the only goal of the game as a tired Celtic, who had just three days before played 120 minutes of football against Hibs in the League Cup semi-final, toiled to break down a side desperate to save face. Celtic, 1-0 victors, were booed off at full time.
The amateurs of AGF Aarhus were Celtic’s opponents in the second round. In Denmark Stein once again directed his players to follow the 20 minute plan, but this time Celtic were unable to click in the same way they did against DVV. Instead they ran out 1-0 (McBride) winners, but were never threatened. The AGF goalkeeper, Bent Martin, was a particular stand out and would go on to sign for Celtic that season before leaving within a year after making zero appearances. His biggest claim to fame, perhaps, was when he was shown to the Celtic Park crowd as a young George Connelly performed keepy ups around him. AGF went out quietly when it came to the 2nd leg at Celtic Park. They barely laid a glove on Celtic and if it were not for heroics from their many man defence and Martin in goals, the score-line would have been much bigger than 2-0 (McNeill and Johnstone)
The 1965/66 season was the first time the Russian Federation entered teams in European competition and this meant that Celtic’s quarter-final opponents would be an impressive Dynamo Kiev side. But Celtic were showing signs of huge momentum under Stein and their 4:2:4 attacking formation was causing sides no end of problems. Bobby Murdoch was improving game-on-game and Tommy Gemmell’s runs from deep were ‘storming’. Indeed, the media were naming Celtic a ‘juggernaut’ that just kept rolling on. With Bent Martin unveiled and young Connelly getting a fiver from Stein to entertain the crowd with his skills, the stage was set at Celtic Park. 64000 people packed into the ground to see Celtic take Kiev apart 3-0. A Gemmell long-ranger and a Murdoch brace were enough to see off the Eastern Europeans, the only blip coming when Hughes blazed a penalty over the bar. Celtic had done enough though. Diplomatic and logistic problems abounded in the second leg and three men saw red, including Craig, but a 1-1 scoreline saw Celtic through to the semi-finals where Liverpool were waiting.
It was the second leg of the league leaders of Scotland v the league leaders of England. It was Stein v Shankly. As mentioned, Celtic were 1-0 up from the first leg and looking to cement a place in the final against either West Ham Utd or Borussia Dortmund. Added incentive was that the venue for the final was Hampden Park. Everything was in place for Celtic to win their first European honour and only details had to be ironed out. However, things started to go wrong for Celtic from the off. Horrendous weather conditions had turned the pitch into a mud bath and made free flowing play very difficult indeed. Celtic just couldn’t get on the front foot and had Simpson and the woodwork to thank for the score being 0-0 at halftime. The flow continued in the second half and when Liverpool scored twice in five minutes, the game looked to be over. With minutes remaining, and Celtic seeking a single goal that would see them force a replay, Chalmers hit the bar. And a typically Celtic heart-breaking finale was ensured when the referee controversially ruled out a last minute Lennox goal for offside. Celtic were out of Europe and Liverpool would lose to Dortmund at Hampden.
It would help the narrative of this article if Celtic had been in a European wasteland for the years preceding Stein’s appointment, but un(?)fortunately that wasn’t the case. Indeed the 63-64 season saw Celtic get to the semi-final of the ECWC only to lose out to MTK Budapest. Celtic were 3-0 up from the first leg, but in some bizarre case of bravado Kelly demanded publicly that Celtic go all out attack in the away leg and were subsequently destroyed 4-0. What does help my narrative however is that fact that this episode was a clear example of the kind of boardroom interference that would not stand under Jock Stein. Stein was not coming in to Celtic to be subservient to the boardroom. He was there to begin a dynasty, one which, sporadic victories aside, McGrory was never able to fully get going. The 65/66 ECWC campaign was not about winning. It was about building.
Stein was taking control of Celtic from top to bottom. He was changing the mentality of the player: a squad largely made up of perennial losers. He had changed the way Celtic approached training and was continuing to carve out a reputation as one of the best modern coaches in the game. His first full season finished with a league and League Cup double, but it was of course the journey and not the destination that was important in the 65/66 season. Stein was forming a group of players that were getting ready to make an onslaught on opposition that had never been seen before in the British game. He was getting them ready for the heat of Lisbon.