The similarities between the current Celtic team and Jock Stein’s side of 1966-67, in all truth, begin and end with the fact that both teams made it through 26 domestic games unbeaten from the start of a season.
Brendan Rodgers’ men have the opportunity this afternoon at home to Hearts to make it 27, and so create a new post-war record. They do so because on Hogmanay 1966, Dundee United staged a dramatic comeback at Tannadice to inflict a 3-2 defeat on Stein’s remarkable team, a Celtic side that would go on to sweep all before them in claiming an unrivalled trophy quadruple. The culmination of which was, naturally, becoming the Lisbon Lions, the Portuguese capital being where they became the first British team to win the European Cup.
The dominance of Stein’s team on the home front was, then, almost a by-product of what they were capable of beyond their borders. The backdrop to United’s run-ending success on Tayside, indeed, was framed by the press reporting that Celtic had offered to switch the first leg of their European Cup quarter-final tie that would be played two months later. They offered opponents Vojvodina the chance to come to Glasgow first off, but the Yugoslavs declined.
Yet, that such conversations were taking place meant that United players went into a game against Celtic with a thought that will not enter the mind of any Hearts player when considering their trip to Parkhead this lunchtime. “We knew we were facing one of the best teams in Europe,” United’s Swedish winger Orjan Persson remembered this week.
It wasn’t as if the Tannadice men were any slouches themselves. The previous month they had set up an Inter-Cities Cup quarter-final tie with Juventus – who they would defeat at home, but lose to away – thanks to the small matter of defeating Barcelona both home and away. Jerry Kerr’s side were inconsistent, but they reached thrilling heights when everything clicked.
The high points tended to come when their element of exotica, in the form of a smattering of Scandinavians, provided them with something extra. Persson was the first overseas player to sign for United, in the summer of 1964. He was soon joined by Finn Dossing, with Persson’s team-mate from home club Orgryte, Lennart Wing, and Norwegian Mogens Berg arriving shortly afterwards.
Persson, Dossing and Wing all played in the 3-2 win over Celtic, with Berg on the bench. Persson, the Swedish wide man who would join Rangers in the summer of 1967, believes the presence of Dossing was important. The forward cancelled out a Bobby Lennox opener to make it 1-1 early in the first half, and he was smarting.
“He was left out of the Barcelona games by Jerry Kerr and he was really angry about that,” Persson recalls. “He was a big player for us, could score goals practically from the corner flag and all other angles.”
His 23rd-minute goal on 31 December, 1966, brought an immediate response from Celtic through Willie Wallace. With a half-time lead, Stein’s side seemed set to go into 1967 having not lost a game home or abroad in nine months, a run stretching back 33 games that began after their surprise defeat by Rangers in the 1966 Scottish Cup final replay.
But with Persson and Dossing switching wings in the second period, Celtic’s record was skewered by Dennis Mitchell netting a 73rd-minute equaliser and then Ian Mitchell conjuring up a winner two minutes later. Incredibly, United would repeat this scoreline at Celtic Park four months later to become the only Scottish victors over Celtic in their all-conquering campaign.
“We were never afraid of these games,” said Persson, inducted into the Dundee United hall of fame in 2013, and who represented Sweden in the World Cup finals of 1970 and 1974. “These were the games that attracted the big crowds, had everyone talking, had the press writing, and it was a great moment to beat them at Tannadice. As a winger I loved playing Celtic because, if you beat your full-back, you really beat him – if that makes sense – because they played so high up the pitch.
“Jock Stein was an amazing coach and created a great team. I had such respect for Billy McNeill and Tommy Gemmell. [With Rangers reaching the Cup-Winners’ Cup that season] my time in Scotland came at the best time for football in the country, so I have great memories. Everyone I played with in Scotland, both at United and Rangers, were so friendly toward me. And as I started my family in Scotland, with my daughter Helene born in the Royal Infirmary in Dundee, the country has a special place for me.”
Persson has special memories in particular of McNeill and Gemmell – for very different reasons. He often produced explosive displays against Celtic and he contends they form the backdrop to an odd recollection of a conversation with McNeill, framed perhaps by his later first-hand experience of the religious divisions that infused the Old Firm rivalry.
“Jock Stein was interested in me when I was at United, and during one game against Celtic at Tannadice, Billy McNeill came up and asked me what religion I was. I thought it was an unusual question and the truth was I didn’t really have any religion. Many in Sweden don’t, but we are a Protestant country and so I said I was a Protestant. I never heard anything again and I sometimes think I maybe should have said I was a Catholic. It is all the same God, after all.”
Persson wasn’t a man for devilment, but imprinted in his mind is an incident from a United match against Celtic in August 1965, in which the Tannadice side lost 4-0 to Stein’s team. Gemmell was at the heart of it. “I got the only red card of my career that night. I had run past him and he tugged my shirt and when he went past me I stuck my foot out and clipped his leg and he fell like a tree.”
Celtic were more likely to be pulling up trees back then.