IT WOULDN’T seem to take much figuring out as to why Bobby Lennox would be inclined to favour the team in white when he takes his seat at the Stadium of Light for tonight’s unique meeting of the Madrid teams that doubles as the first derby Champions League final.
The 70-year-old is currently enjoying a return with the remaining Lisbon Lions to the city that gave rise to their collective naming courtesy of the 1967 European Cup triumph, the sweet pinnacle of the club’s exploits under Jock Stein. The last, bitter hurrah of that era in the competition came when Atletico Madrid produced a masterclass in football thuggery at Celtic Park in 1974 to ensure Stein’s men had their hopes of a third final in seven years booted into touch.
Yet, this isn’t why the forgiving Lennox is right behind Real. “I don’t think about that semi-final; it’s by. It’s long gone and it is history,” he says. “I like Real Madrid and I scored the winning goal against them one night, so I have had a wee feeling for them ever since.”
That “one night” was the fabled evening of Alfredo di Stefano’s testimonial when a crowd of 130,000 watched Celtic run out 1-0 winners only a fortnight after they had put Internazionale to the sword in Lisbon. “It was a great game and a great night. It was a hard, hard-fought match, I’ll tell you. It was a real ding-donger,” says Lennox, that point proved by the fact that Bertie Auld and Amancio were red-carded for a punch-up. “They’d gone into the press and said that they would prove they were the best team in Europe, but the boys were great and proved that they weren’t.”
Celtic were so good Di Stefano later declared Lennox the “most difficult opponent I faced”. It was, however, Lennon’s mucker Jimmy Johnstone who earned supreme supporter acclaim and a garlanded press. The late winger also pinpointed the night at the Bernabeu as the greatest game he ever played. Said to have been mesmeric to the point of appearing to take on Real “single handed”, the crowd took to shouting “ole” each time he picked up the ball and beat an opponent, while he left the field to a guard of honour from the Madrid players.
“No, that was me and Bobby Murdoch helping him up the stairs,” Lennox jokes. “Seriously, Jimmy was great that night. I still don’t believe that Real Madrid didn’t come in and try to buy him. He was magnificent against them. I just kept telling him that dribbling doesn’t win you matches. It is scoring that wins you the match, know what I mean?”
The Lions’ weekend in Lisbon will evoke many memories of absent friends, with Johnstone, Bobby Murdoch, Ronnie Simpson and Joe McBride no longer around. Stein once suggested his greatest achievement in football was keeping Johnstone on the straight and narrow, with the errant winger’s infamous predilection for carousing and calamity making that seem a full-time job in itself at times. “Jimmy could have played for any club, but he had to be happy to play his best football and I don’t know if he would have been happy anywhere else,” says Lennox of a man he knew better than anyone. “Jimmy was asked once what he would do if he was earning £20,000-a-week. He said: ‘I’d be dead by the time I was 22’. That’s the story. I couldn’t picture Jimmy Johnstone living anywhere other than where he lived. He was really happy in and about Celtic Football Club.”
As appeared all the Lions, with not one of them enticed by money-spinning moves away from the east end of Glasgow while in their prime. Lennox was coveted by no less than Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur in the late 1960s. “I think the reason [we stayed] was that we were playing for the European champions and with the team we wanted to play with.
“We were all happy at home as well. Why go somewhere else? The money would have been much better than we were getting at Celtic but if you’re happy, you are happy. Why should someone go away to stay in London and be happy.”
Lennox, possessed of lighting pace even when playing in his late 30s, never appeared to age even in recent years. He inspired the “evergreen” epithet in seeming to have the secret of eternal youth but was forced to confront his own mortality when undergoing a triple heart-bypass last year. “I feel a lot better now. I wasn’t great for a month or two, though,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it at the time because I thought I was a fit wee guy. All of a sudden, I wasn’t, but I’ll get back into shape. It came about just after my 70th birthday. I’d had angina for years and the pills basically stopped working. That’s when it came on. It happens in life, you know. I am just grateful for what I have got and meeting all the rest of the boys and wives on the trip is great fun.
“When we went to Lisbon in 1967, we were fit, confident and thought we could win the European Cup. This time, we have taken our pills and our sprays. If anyone forgets them, we could be in trouble. I just hope we all get back all right.
“The likes of Jimmy, Bobby, Ronnie and Joe will be sorely missed, but their names will be mentioned a lot and all the stupid stories will come out. We will have a good laugh and we will think about all the boys.”