The 50-year anniversary of Celtic’s European Cup triumph is a time for commemoration as well as celebration. Having lived in Australia for the past 35 years, Willie Wallace is, perhaps, made more acutely aware of the effects of time than any other Lisbon Lion. The 76-year-old is back in Scotland for a series of events to mark the half-century elapsing since the epic victory and it is the second time he has been back in his old country inside three months. Yet, in that intervening period, the Lions have been altered irrevocably.
“I love coming back but it saddens me that the team is falling apart due to ill health and those who have passed away,” Wallace said. “Every time I come back there are less members. I was with Tommy Gemmell about three days before he died but I had to go back as I was going down to New Zealand. I was in New Zealand when he passed away. I didn’t fly back. It’s a long way.”
That night in the Portuguese capital when Jock Stein’s side overcame the mighty Internazionale with an awe-inspiring display of attacking prowess Wallace calls “a fairytale”.
Yet the forward, signed by Stein in December 1966 for £30,000 from Hearts, just as readily places the feat in a more prosaic context.
“I’m not being blasé about it but at that time it was just another game in a way because we’d won the league and Scottish Cup final and, before I got there, lifted the League Cup. Within six months of joining Celtic, I won everything. If someone had said that to me when I signed I’d have phoned the asylum.
“It’s a fairytale, something you can’t write. To sit in and think about it now is unbelievable. I’d already won the League Cup with Hearts and missed out on the league championship by .04 of a goal when Kilmarnock beat us.”
Wallace can be set apart from his fellow makers of Scotland’s greatest football success. He is the lone Lion, the Lion who left – the only one of that fabled XI to be signed by Stein following the peerless manager’s appointment by Celtic in early 1965, and the only one of that group of men not to remain in Scotland for their adult lives. Wallace doesn’t see Stein’s decision to go and get him as making him different in his boss’s eyes. The fact that he actually only played in the second leg of the Dukla Prague semi-final victory and the Lisbon final itself might illustrate that point. Wallace’s signing, on 6 December, 1966, came only three weeks before the, by then, 30-goal Joe McBride was lost for the season with a knee problem.
“I just got treated the same. It wasn’t any different. He [Stein] bought me for as cheap as he could. It was amazing for me. I fitted in there within two weeks. I’d known most of them from Scotland. It wasn’t the wrench that moving from club to club normally is.
“Of course I felt sorry for Joe. I was good friends with him. I was quite surprised when you look back and count up the matches played in the European Cup that Joe only played in two. That surprised me as I always thought Joe had been a permanent member of the side until his injury. But that was the gaffer. You weren’t guaranteed to play. Jock Stein never played the same guys up front. The defence stayed stayed the same but you never knew who the front five would be.”
Wallace never knew Australia would become his adopted home even after he had played two years for APIA Leichhardt Down Under. Equally, though, he admits he would have expected other Lions to have travelled outside Scotland.
“It did surprise me [that I was the only one that left]. Bobby Lennox went to America for a couple of games but I think that was it.
“When I went to Australia I played for an Italian club, funnily enough, in Sydney and we won the league two years in a row and we won the cup two years in a row.
“I came back here and was at Ross County for a few months and then big TG [Tommy Gemmell] got Dundee, so I went there with him for three years.
“Then one winter’s night I came home from training and the president of my old club in Sydney told me they were moving into the national league and offered me the job.
“It was snow and ice outside. The kids wanted to go right away and that was it. So I’ve been down there 35 years now. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.
“I still phone the Lions up regularly. It’s mainly Bertie [Auld] and John Clark or wee Bobby sometimes. I phone more than I do e-mailing or texting and things like that.”
And Wallace is never far removed from the events of 1967, wherever he goes. “I go over to a little tournament in Brittany [France] with some under-13 teams in Australia and the guys I meet are all Celtic supporters.
“They were still showing me the newspapers from 1967 just last year – all the reports of the game. They were as happy that we beat the Italians as anybody. Throughout the world there are guys who walk up to you and tell you in Chinese that they are a Celtic supporter.”
Wallace yesterday attended a civic reception held in honour of the Lions at Glasgow’s City Chambers.
The grace and favour of the occasion inspired one enquiry to him about the knighthoods some believe the Lions should be awarded en masse for one of the supreme British sporting achievements.
“The knighthood issue has never bothered me,” Wallace said.
“I was born and bred in Kirkintilloch and didn’t have a penny to go to the cinema sometimes, so I don’t look for these things.”