LIKE the characters in a caper movie, the Lisbon Lions all fulfilled a different function – as much in matters relating to off-field badinage as on-field brilliance.
The remaining members of that Celtic squad lionised for lifting the European Cup in 1967 will be their team’s guests in the Portuguese capital this weekend as the final of club football’s most glittering prize – now the rebranded Champions League – returns there for the first time since Scottish football’s finest afternoon.
During the jaunt, no doubt John Clark will continue in his capacity as the Gently Sarky One, with the 73-year-old’s wit as dry as the Sahara. Clark, a supreme reader of the game in sweeping behind captain Billy McNeill for Jock Stein’s all-conquering side, has, though, also occupied another role in more recent times. Two decades as the club’s kit man means he is the last player from this nation’s most storied side still in Celtic’s employment.
For more than half his life, Parkhead has been the place of work for the Lanarkshire man: 13 years as a player, later followed by four years as assistant to McNeill in his first managerial stint. Only Willie Maley has given longer service to the club.
Clark, then, is the person best placed to compare and contrast the European force of his playing era with a club merely a domestic powerhouse now. He does that with tongue firmly in cheek, the affable character placing it there when asked if the current players are fully versed in just what he achieved when in their position.
“Well, I don’t go about telling them,” he said. “But I think the players spread the word. They will come up and ask if it’s true. If they are down in my room I just show them the photograph.
“I’ll say to them, ‘there’ve been big changes since then, but take a look at that. The thing in the middle with the big handles is the thing you’ll always want to win. I won it’. But it’s been great. Henrik [Larsson] and others were great guys, and before that you had Alan Stubbs and so on, all great guys to have about.
“The modern-day players don’t bother too much about what we did. They are all more concerned with their own football now. They don’t think about anyone else much. They count their cash. We just looked at the wage slip and that was it. It’s different now.
“But players are players. They talk the same as you guys, there is the same atmosphere there always was. The only thing I would say is that the foreigners are maybe a wee bit more professional at times than the Scots or English guys.
“Scots are a wee bit more open about things, whereas overseas players think about things a bit more before saying or doing anything. In our day, you got permission from Big Jock to do an interview. Nowadays it’s all done through the PR department. Our gaffer was the PR man. If he said you could speak to the press you spoke to the press. If he didn’t and you did it anyway you’d have a hard time for a while. Especially from his left foot. I saw it in action a few times.
“But we were well looked after as players at Celtic, though. Big Jock looked after us. He took us all over America. It was a wonderful experience – it took us all over the States for six weeks. The following year we won the European Cup.”
It speaks very much of these changed times that Clark considers to be “well looked after” was to be sent on a travel schedule that expanded horizons. Now, all the term would conjure up is expanded monetary rewards.
“It’s all about the finances of football now, isn’t it?” he said.
“You just have to look at the paper this morning and see that Derby County could earn £110 million from the [English Premier League] promotion play-off. And you are splitting £4.5m among the players. It’s a different world now – but good for them.” What is good for Clark, who possesses crystal clear recall of events almost a half century ago, is to ruminate over the company he kept in that run to the 2-1 victory over Internazionale.
“I can remember all the players we came up against. Laszlo Kubala, of Zurich. The French captain played at Nantes, Henri Michel. One of the best goalkeepers I ever saw was Illija Pantelic, of Vojvodina. And then Inter had Mazzola and such like. All good names.”
Yet, even if his experiences that include managing Clyde, Cowdenbeath and Morton could make him a sounding board in the dressing room for Celtic managers, that is role he seeks to avoid.
“I personally don’t want to be involved in that side of things,” he said. “People have to make up their own mind about how they want to manage the club. At times you are disappointed with results, but you let them get on with it.”
And, in typical style, Clark claimed he hasn’t had occasions when he was required to bite his tongue. “I bite a sandwich or a pie,” he said. “If Neil [Lennon] asks me I’ll say something in the passing. It was the same with Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. Occasionally they may ask you things in the passing, but not much.”
When the Lions get together, most outsiders couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Clark is chuffed that the club have brought them together to watch Real Madrid face their city rivals Atletico Madrid for the Champions League prize.
“We are getting on a bit, but still get on,” he said.
Clark, though, does have concerns for one fellow Celtic employee making the trip. “If you are with the lads this weekend and join in with us Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then you’ll get a feel for the boys,” he said.
“You’ll see the real personalities of the guys. Jamie Church, our security officer, is going over. He’s got the toughest job going. Everyone knows him but I really think he could be sunk.”