Interview: Bobby Lennox modest man who made football history

Lisbon Lion Bobby Lennox on the beach at his beloved Saltcoats with his poodle Yanna. Picture: John Devlin
Lisbon Lion Bobby Lennox on the beach at his beloved Saltcoats with his poodle Yanna. Picture: John Devlin
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The class clown at my school was fond of impersonating George Davidson. Perfectly capturing the venerable commentator’s politeness and reserve, he’d describe a sequence of passing involving almost the entire Celtic team, but because no man at the mic strove to have his words set in stone back then, the take-off would amount to little more than a list of names and the humour was to be found in the mimicry of Davidson’s distinctive voice: “Gemmell to Murdoch… there’s little Jimmy Johnstone… Wallace now, on to Chalmers…”

Then suddenly the reserve would be ditched: “Rangers had better hold on to their hats because here comes Bobby Lennox. Look at the little fellow go! I wonder what he puts on his porridge in the morning?”

I can’t remember if old George uttered these exact words because the era is so long ago now. The paleness of Lennox’s blue eyes on this sunny spring morning is evidence of all the time that has passed since Scottish football’s year of years, but at 73 the smile is still ready and the wit is still quick. When your correspondent is invited to sit down in the trim front-room stuffed with trinkets and bawbees and bronze boots from the most glittering of careers and confesses to this being his first-ever visit to Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast, the legend shouts to his wife in the kitchen: “Don’t bother with the kettle, Kath. This one’s just leaving.”

We’re in the midst of the 50th anniversary of our annus mirabilis and even just a casual squint at The Scotsman’s files reminds us that April, 1967 was a month of high delirium. Each day seemed to bring fresh excitement. “First Celtic, then Rangers – now here come Kilmarnock!” we reported after Killie won through to the semi-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, following on from the Old Firm reaching their respective Euro finals. And this very day was pretty special, being the occasion half a century ago of England 2, Scotland 3, the crowning of the unofficial, pretendy world champs, the most mythical of all our sporting achievements – but what’s your point, exactly?

So, given that Lennox had a grand game at Wembley and scored a sizzling goal, what was sprinkled on his porridge that morning? “Sorry, son, but I cannae remember,” he says. “I didn’t know the 15th was the anniversary until you told me. If it’s any good to you, lunch would have been steak with a wee slice of toast, my usual on matchdays. Probably I was quite daunted that morning as it was only my second game for Scotland. But I do remember Denis Law and Jim Baxter holding court in the hotel dining-room then spotting me at the door and saying: ‘Wee man! Ower ye come and gie’s us a’ yer patter.’ That was just great. That settled me right down.”

The Scotland base was in Hendon, an unremarkable north London suburb which must have seemed quite exotic to Lennox. “I’ve always been a homebody,” he confesses. “As a teenager I got invited down to Chelsea but, ach, I stood in the middle of the Kings Road wishing I was back in the Three Towns,” he says, referring to Ardrossan, Stevenston and the centre of his little universe, Saltcoats. “Other English clubs were interested in me but I knew I’d miss my old beat too much.”

From somewhere – well, from Ayrshire in fact – he summoned the courage to defy Jock Stein on the issue of residency. “When Kath and I got married he asked me if we’d move to Glasgow to be closer to the ground but I was perfectly happy tootling the 30 miles up the road.” Then a chuckle. “That was the only time I ever stood up to Big Jock right enough!”

The shy guy of Celtic, he was only too glad to get back home after a game and take Kath to the flicks, the La Scala or the Countess. “Here I’m just wee Bobby from Saltcoats and that’s always suited me just fine.” Out on the pitch, though, Lennox was hardly reticent. There were 571 appearances for the Hoops and 273 goals. Eleven championship badges, eight Scottish Cup medals, another five for the League Cup. And of course a few weeks after Wembley the European Cup as well. Ten of the Lisbon Lions hailed from a ten-mile radius around Parkhead so, in a way, the additional 20 to Saltcoats made Lennox the exotic one.

The man’s a proper icon. Callers at the house during our hour together tend to dally, presumably in the hope of another nugget concerning Bertie, Jinky or Big Tam. I’m particularly irritated by the postman’s arrival because this interrupts Lennox telling me about the Wild West-themed book group he founded with Jimmy Johnstone. Another visitor wants to talk to him about “the statue”. Yes, Saltcoats is erecting one in his name. “It’s humbling,” he says. “I mean, what a wonderful honour but at the same time it’s awfie embarrassing. I did think about objecting but figured they’d probably put it up anyway. This is such a small place and it’ll be very difficult for me to avoid bumping into myself.”

Bertie, Jinky, Big Tam. Auld, Johnstone, Gemmell. These three have been the cabaret star-turns of the Lions, telling the tallest and funniest tales and being the subjects of most of the others. Lennox was the quieter-living speedster on the left wing who didn’t cause Stein any bother and was never spotted by one of the manager’s spies, somewhere he shouldn’t have been. “Of all the lads my age around here I was the last to go to the dancing and I was never one for drinking,” he confirms. “My favourite haunt was a cafe in Saltcoats called the Melbourne. I’d get there nice and early for a seat and make my Vimto last all night. It was there that I met Kath with Elvis on the jukebox. Cannae remember the song, though.” The Melbourne is still going strong, just like Buzzbomb, as Lennox was nicknamed, or Lemon after a newspaper misprint, and when our photographer rings the bell he’s despatched there while we continue our chat.

Wembley ’67 was gloriously informal with none of the modern hype, even though Scotland were taking on the World Cup winners. Celtic played the first leg of their European Cup semi against Dukla Prague three days previously and, on the day of the international, Easter Road, Pittodrie and other grounds hosted league games as usual. And Lennox smiles as he recalls international duty back then: “Our regular rendezvous was the Queen’s Hotel in Largs, a nice wee family run place with good grub but there were only two baths. If you didn’t rush back after training the water would be silty with grass floating on top.”

But all football was informal in ’67, with Celtic’s coach driver getting lost on the journey to Libson’s Estadio Nacional, the team arriving just 50 minutes before kick-off. Says Lennox: “The stadium was in parkland and these photos of just a line of spectators next to some trees still amaze me because I think there’s only nine of them. It could be Ardeer Thistle in the Junior League.” Quaintly, there was a post-match banquet for both teams, Celtic having to wait an hour and a half while the vanquished Inter Milan were interrogated by manager Helenio Herrera. You want more informality? How about captain Billy McNeill handing out the winners’ medals from what Lennox thinks was a shoebox. For the Glasgow homecoming the cup was paraded on the back of a lorry. “Then my two brothers drove me and Kath back to Saltcoats. We popped in to see her parents and had a cup of tea and that was that, history made!” He remembers something else: “Me and Jinky asked Jock if we could get a picture of us wee guys next to the trophy because it was so big. He grumped about that. ‘Hurry up,’ he said, ‘because it’s going straight to the boardroom.’” Changed days. Now the likes of John Terry, banned from the final, can slip into his strip, shinpads and all, to cavort with the cup and try to re-write memories of Chelsea’s triumph.

Did the Scotland set-up become more slick with the appointment of Bobby Brown, the first full-time manager? “Not really. Jock was the only boss who went into tactics and that in a big way. The England game was Bobby’s first in charge and he didn’t really give us a team-talk. The big thing in the build-up was that everyone had to have their socks pulled right up and three inches of red showing at the top. That was in a pamphlet handed out by the SFA. I’m pretty sure all Bobby said to us before kick-off was that we were good players and we should go out and enjoy ourselves.

“Did we think we beat England? We wanted to win. The Anglos desperately wanted to win, having had to listen to how the World Cup had been won all season long. That [the ’66 final] had been a funny game for a Scotsman to watch. I didn’t really want West Germany to win it but I couldn’t say I was fussed about England winning either, even though they had great players like Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore. I hope that doesn’t make me sound anti-English.” (No Bobby, it doesn’t).

To relax before big games Lennox says he taught himself to read and the chunky, but already half-devoured, Wilbur Smith by his side is proof that he’s maintained the habit. “I like a wee relaxing afternoon with a book if it’s wet outside,” he says, “but at first it was cowboy novels because they were dead easy. You know: Leftie could always outshoot Hank and Hank could always outshoot Bronco! Jinky and I got into these books at the same time. We’d be down at Seamill with Celtic and in the afternoons everyone else would have a wee sleep and we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Cowboy books were great for first-time readers!” I mention the shoot-’em-up king from my youth, JT Edson. “Read everything he wrote,” beams Lennox. “He liked to have women fighting, didn’t he?” Now a brilliant image presents itself of Jinky chapping on our man’s bedroom door: “Hey Lemon, have you got to page 47? JT’s best bird-on-bird scrap yet!”

On the eve of the England game the players had a look round Wembley. “The big scoreboard read ‘England 0, Scotland 0’ and Eddie McCreadie said to me: ‘Wee man, if that’s the score at the end I’ll be going into Stamford Bridge on Monday wearing my Scotland strip and a massive grin.’ McCreadie next appears in our story when Elvis next turns up, Lennox having left Celtic in 1978 for the States: “When my team, Houston Hurricane, beat Memphis Rogues, who were managed by Eddie, I sent Big Jock a postcard: ‘Scored in the King’s home town and visited Gracelands. I’ve done it all now, Boss.’” He hadn’t of course and would soon return to Celtic for more glory.

On the journey to Wembley Lennox was thrilled by the sight of so many of his tartan-tammied countrymen, even more when he spotted his father, also Bobby. “It was a warm sunny day but Dad was sat on a step in his best coat. He’d driven down with my uncle and brothers but was too shy to collect the complimentary tickets and the others had to do it. Dad was a bookmaker’s assistant down at the harbour in Saltcoats when betting was illegal so he had to work surreptitiously. Every month or so the local bobby would say: ‘Bobby, I’m going to have to lift you tomorrow.’ Dad would go: ‘Right, see you then.’ Dad was so shy that when I played juveniles he’d hide behind a tree to watch my games, not letting on. He was the loveliest man in the world.

“I must have got my shyness from him. During the Ayrshire trials, when I found out I’d been picked for the Probables but that my three best pals from school were all in the Possibles, I refused to play.” But there wasn’t the merest trace of self-consciousness from Lennox in ’67, not when Celtic grabbed every prize going or in the Wembley victory. “Few folk seemed to give us a chance of beating England but we felt good. Baxter was going round the dressing-room telling everyone: ‘Just gie the ball to me, boys, and we’ll be fine.’ Then in the tunnel the Lawman completely blanked [Manchester United team-mate] Nobby Stiles.”

Law opened the scoring but shortly after Lennox was clattered by Jack Charlton. “He really did me and snapped a stud on my knee. The stud went up into his boot and broke one of his toes. My knee didn’t stop bleeding for two days. I was wearing a grey suit and it bled through that. There were no substitutes in those days but I wasn’t about to come off.”

Lennox’s goal, a right-foot shot past Gordon Banks, came in the 78th minute after Moore bravely stood up to a Gemmell thundercrack and Big Tam had returned the ball into the box. “I hit it nice and remember thinking: ‘Don’t bother diving, Banksy.’ Almost every one of my team-mates jumped on me. That really didn’t happen back then.” Well, it was a momentous triumph and at the final whistle Lennox sought out another Englishman he greatly admired, Jimmy Greaves. “I said: ‘Mr Greaves, can I please have your shirt?’” The swap happened at the England dressing-room door, Lennox unable to resist a peek at the crestfallen Auld Enemy.

This is a special year for Lennox who stresses that the really important match of ’67 was his marriage to Kath that summer in the church next to the Melbourne. With Gemmell’s death last month having so closely followed the revelation about McNeill’s dementia, the Lisbon anniversary celebrations will be poignant. “It’s Bertie, John [Clark], Cairney [Jim Craig] and myself who do most of the functions now. The team is fading but of course their achievements never will. At the time I don’t think we realised what we’d done. Because it was such a fantastic year for Scottish football the country possibly thought it might be repeated. And the same goes for the national team after Wembley.”

The Dark Blue heroes returned north the following day with the shy guy’s knee still oozing blood. “I think I just said goodbye to the boys in Glasgow, caught the train to Saltcoats and walked up the road. In fact, I know I did.”