Celtic legend Kenny Dalglish pays tribute to Lisbon Lions

It might be slightly more obscure than the obvious 50th anniversary set to be marked by Celtic. But as well as being the month the Parkhead side lifted the European Cup, May 1967 also happens to be when a '¨certain Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish signed a provisional contract for Jock Stein's team having turned 16 years old.

Celtic and Scotland legend Kenny Dalglish volunteered for the day at grassroots football club Stirling City All Stars to help launch the 2017 McDonald's Grassroots Awards. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Rarely can the stars have aligned so perfectly above a football club. “Winning the European Cup takes precedence!” states Dalglish, firmly. “I was just saying to someone earlier, I have now lived in England longer than Scotland. But as time goes by you can still never erase the memories of what they did. Whether it is 50 or 100 years it does not lessen the achievement or the excitement when you see it again [on television]. It is still special.”

Promoting a grassroots football event in Stirling yesterday, Dalglish was not far from Dunblane, where Tommy Gemmell moved in his latter years. The Celtic legend passed away last week at the age of 73.

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Dalglish wonders whether some of the so-called “Quality Street Gang” who were tasked with seeking to maintain the glory era would have achieved what they did in the game without the guidance of the Lisbon Lions, with Gemmell to the fore.

“It’s just how everyone has portrayed him,” he said, with reference to the cascade of glowing tributes to the player who scored in two European Cup finals for Celtic. “He did have a wicked sense of humour, he was a fantastic player – it was maybe a bit strange at the time to have a right-footed left-back. But then when he started playing it did not look like he was right footed. It looked like he was left footed.

“The number of goals he scored was unbelievable. It’s a sad end but people will look back and say Tommy Gemmell is up there with the greatest Celtic players for what’s he’s done.

“They were all helpful, and they were helpful with their humility,” he added. “Danny McGrain and I were 17 – well he might have been 18, a bit older than me!

“And they were brilliant with us. We were just two little boys coming to join in with full-time training. The way they looked after you. And they would have had a laugh but that settled you in as well.”

Considering what he went on to achieve in the game, Dalglish is also very grounded. But even he never won five trophies in a single season, with the haul including a first European Cup win for British football. Somehow the Lisbon Lions kept their egos in check. Dalglish learned a valuable lesson from them.

“They were a great bunch of players and special people as well,” he said. “For them to remain like that after five trophies in one year – especially when there is the one with the big ears at the end – it’s a hell of an achievement. They had time for everyone.”

Dalglish notes that because the established stars like Gemmell were so well-versed in what they needed to do to win, it meant the younger players could benefit from spending more time with Stein and the coaches. The others just got on with it and were, by then, almost coaching themselves.

“It is not a coincidence the amount of young players who went on to make a living from football and who were there at the time,” he said.

“It was because of their [the Lisbon Lions’] guidance and help and also the fact Jock could spend time with the young players because the first team, without being complacent, was flying. He [Stein] could look after us and educate us. Just the fact you were in the same area as the Lisbon Lions and sometimes you’d be playing in reserve games with them was enough.

“It’s not like now when it is a no no for top players to play in reserve games – they all played and they were as good as gold.”

Few footballers could have had such 
perfect conditions in which to grow as players. Both McGrain and Dalglish 
later displayed the benefits of being able to draw on the inspiration around them at that time.

The former was perhaps the greatest full-back in the world for a spell while Dalglish could count himself among the best strikers, winning the same European Cup he remembers the Lisbon Lions bringing back with them from Portugal on three occasions himself with Liverpool, scoring the winner at Wembley v Bruges in 1978. Dalglish, who turned 66 at the weekend, stressed he won’t ever forget those who helped send him on his way.

“If they were a certain type of person they could have made you feel daunted,” he said. “Myself and the rest of the young boys all had total respect for them, not only for what they did on the pitch but for what they did off the pitch by helping us.”

l Kenny Dalglish volunteered for the day at grassroots football club Stirling City All Stars to help launch the 2017 McDonald’s Grassroots Awards. Nominate any deserving grassroots heroes at www.mcdonalds.co.uk/awards”