Creating history is so exciting, says Lisbon Lion Jim Craig

Back to front: Jim Craig was a full back but his attacking ability was what really mattered to Celic. Photograph: SNS

Back to front: Jim Craig was a full back but his attacking ability was what really mattered to Celic. Photograph: SNS

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It may seem that everything that could be said or written about Celtic’s extraordinary European Cup triumph of 1967 has been. The apogee of Scottish footballing success, what happened that early evening in Lisbon 50 years ago come Thursday has been framed and reframed for each subsequent generation.

Yet, Jim Craig is capable of cutting through the mountainous volume of words and comment about the triumph in which he played his part as right-back for Jock Stein’s all-conquering side. Ask him to sum it up in one word and he drills down to provide purity. It is as if he can shed layers of skin to once more become the 24-year-old blinking into the sunlight as he emerged from the underground tunnel of the Estadio Nacional to face the mighty Internazionale. “Excitement” is the word that tops all others for Craig to encapsulate the day and the feat that has embedded itself in a country’s collective psyche.

“I can still recall the sheer excitement of walking on and seeing all these Celtic colours and this enormous support. Our bus driver had gone the wrong way and we got to the stadium late so we didn’t have a chance to familiarise with the surroundings. The first time we were on the pitch was for kick-off and it was really, really special to see so much green and white. I can’t speak for anyone else but the feeling in my mind was: ‘I’m not going to let these people down’. Fervour and favour. To see such backing, having been tucked away in our team hotel in far removed Estoril, was both unsettling and overwhelming. Over the years, I have met countless people who tell me they were there. Who am I to doubt them?

“There have been many elements attached to the win but that day we weren’t thinking about being the first Scottish, the first British, the first northern European team to win the European Cup. I don’t think they were even mentioned back then. We were a competitive bunch of guys and wanted to win the trophy for ourselves, our club, but very much for those guys in green and white.”

A group who ripped the shirts from the backs of the Celtic players in an exuberant full-time pitch invasion, the result of the shredding of Helenio Herrera’s stultifying defensive catenaccio.

There are many remarkable facets of what Stein’s team, all born within 30 miles of Parkhead, achieved in recovering from going a goal down after only six minutes – a penalty awarded for a Craig intervention that he still feels was a refereeing error. The one that still seems incredible above all is that they had 41 goal attempts across the 90 minutes in the searing heat. Still a record figure for the final of Europe’s most prized club football tournament, it would seem symbolic of the new modernity, and new freedoms on a football pitch, to which they were giving vent on an occasion supposed to leave them trussed up by the shackles of their opponents, the old ways.

Scotland was hardly touched by the Swinging Sixties or the Summer of Love. It could be argued, then, that Lisbon in 1967 was Scotland’s contribution to the wider cultural shift that was the footballing expressionism patented by Stein.

Craig remembers talking to his former manager for a book shortly before his death in 1985, and being told his inspiration was watching Real Madrid demolish Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden in 1960. “He had gone to watch [Alfredo] Di Stefano – as we all did – and ended up having an epiphany because all but centre-back Jose Santamaria contributed to Real’s attacking. Players in every area of the pitch with forward roles.”

As Celtic would against Inter. Playing total football before total football was branded, and playing a pressing game more than three decades before the pressing game became the new orthodoxy.

Stein may have had a formula from Real but he distilled it. You could find parallels in The Beatles reinterpreting Chuck Berry. For everything to click into place that day, though, Craig required to shake off the concession of that penalty. “It was a minor misdemeanour, at worst, as I just ran across their player [Renato Cappellini]. It was not an obvious penalty and at half-time the boss said ‘Cairney, I know you are upset about it, but just forget it’. I wasn’t upset, I was seething. It doesn’t bother me if people talk to me about it now. I think I more than redeemed myself.”

He did so by crossing the ball in from the right wing for fellow full-back Tommy Gemmell to ram into the net from 25 yards and earn a 63rd minute equaliser that made Steve Chalmers’ winner six minutes from time then appear inevitable. Celtic’s ability to keep pushing, keep driving forward, seemed to speak of their effervescence, their indefatigability, but Craig reveals something more prosaic was at work.

“You talk about the 41 goal attempts, and part of that was we were told their keeper Guiliano Sarti was a weak spot – he certainly wasn’t that day – but all of this did tire us. Our attacks became a little dysfunctional because it was supposed to be when one full-back attacked, the other stayed back. And there was the two of us up the park for the first goal.”

Serendipity, perhaps, Craig’s other powerful recollection from the 90 minutes is of keeper Ronnie Simpson, with an Inter player racing in on him, stranded five yards out outside his own penalty area, producing a silky bit of ball skill before back-heeling to safety. “I nearly wet myself. It was good ball control and Ronnie always wanted to play up front in training. But when I think of what could have happened, I still shudder.”

Craig swells with pride at what ensued from the European Cup final victory, which was an invitation to provide the opposition for Di Stefano’s testimonial at the Bernabeu 11 days later. A blinding display – with Jimmy Johnstone exceptional – that secured a 1-0 win courtesy of a Bobby Lennox goal rubber-stamped Celtic’s greatness beyond these borders for Craig, in a season wherein they won every trophy they entered.

“The foreign press weren’t that admiring of our European Cup win. They said it was a fluke, down to Inter being off form and not ready. We received far more praise for the Di Stefano victory. Suddenly, we had proved to all that we could take on anyone and more, by going to a place like the Bernabeu and turning it on. That game sealed the season because it meant we proved our worth in two cup finals really.”

The worth of what the Lions achieved appears to have been recalibrated upwards in recent decades. The celebrations for the 50th anniversary are on another level to how the team were honoured for their 25th. Part of that is time being the harbinger of mortality. Of a band of brothers that Craig says “weren’t in and out of each other’s houses” but “weren’t beset by any cliques as we were all able to get on with a real camaraderie”, Bobby Murdoch, Ronnie Simpson, Johnstone and, this year, Gemmell have all passed away, while Billy McNeill has dementia.

Yet something else has changed in the past 25 years. In the quarter of a century following Celtic’s win, there were 14 further new names on the trophy. In the past 25 years, only three have been added. “The magnitude of the achievement does seem to grow with the years and my hope is that Brendan Rodgers’ team can at least regularly have a presence at the top level of Europe.”

The legacies associated with Stein and his Lisbon Lions are many and various. There is one, though, that rarely receives an airing. So thrilling and successful were Celtic in that period, they captivated a new audience across Scotland.

The club’s Irish Catholic origins gave them a powerful identity that became a central, though not exclusive, element of their supporter demographic. After 1967, a new generation of fans were attracted whose only bond with Celtic was forged through the stylish football they played.

The religious mix in the team and coaching staff – Stein was a Protestant as were many of the Lions – became more reflected in the terraces. Craig considers his team’s services to a certain football ecumenicism as only fitting.

“Catholic or Protestant, it didn’t matter a damn what religion you were at my club, in my household, and I am very proud of that fact. I am happy with everything about being a part of that team.”

And still excited by it.

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