50 Years On, The Lisbon Lions Make a Comeback

By Joe Donnelly on at

"We did it by playing football: pure, beautiful, inventive football. There was not a negative thought in our heads."

It is understood that before Celtic's winning 11 took to the pitch against Inter Milan in the 1967 European Cup Final, manager Jock Stein told his players: "Go out and enjoy yourselves." 90 minutes later, in the searing heat of Lisbon, the underdog outfit from Glasgow had become the first British team ever to win the most coveted prize in club football. More impressive still is the fact that the entire squad — from Ronnie Simpson between the sticks, to Stevie Chalmers at the opposite end — was Scottish: ten of its players grew up within ten miles of Celtic Park, while midfielder Bobby Lennox was from nearby Saltcoats, an extra 30 miles away.

In the context of modern football this homegrown accomplishment is inconceivable. Money rules the modern game and, for perspective's sake, just two of Manchester United's starting 11 against Ajax in the Europa League final on Wednesday night were English in Chris Smalling and Marcus Rashford. These days Celtic Football Club, though always a big fish stuck in a small pond, is slowly asphyxiating in a Scottish game that offers no serious competition, unwelcome in the Premier League, and regularly dumped out of European competition in the earliest rounds. No wonder its fans idolise the Lisbon Lions, the team of Glasgow boys that showed the world they could play. It's not just the nostalgia, either: people far more qualified than I have billed it the greatest feat in football history.

The Lisbon Lions achieved the impossible, which made me wonder: could a present day all-Scottish Celtic conquer Europe, 50 years (and one day) on since one of world football's most remarkable triumphs? I took to Football Manager 2017 — a simulation game brimming with near-interminable databases, fastidious statistics and meticulous topology — in search of the answer.

First, the ground rules:

  • My definition of 'Scottish' is players who were either born in Scotland, or who are registered to play for the national team. Kris Commons, for example, was born in Mansfield but plays for Scotland by virtue of his Dundee-born grandmother.
  • This concession does not extend to foreign players who are granted Scottish residency during the course of the game.
  • My full Scottish team includes all 11 players on the pitch, as well as all six substitutes — it was difficult enough managing that, far less an entire squad.
  • I gave myself three consecutive seasons to win the European Champions League with my modern day all-Scottish team.

Season one: (Falling) out with the old, and in with the new

When I assume control of the mighty Hoops in the summer of 2016, all of current real-life manager Brendan Rodgers' signings are already at the club — including French teenage sensation Moussa Dembele and ex-Aston Villa midfielder Scott Sinclair (who you may know as the guy married to Helen Flanagan of Coronation Street fame). In the real world, an unbeaten domestic run this season has seen both players picking up several awards, and their combined worth totals tens of millions of pounds. In this world, I've got no room for Frenchies or sassenachs. My first order of business is sticking them in the reserves.

Like a eugenics-inspired dictator, I strip my team of ethnic diversity to mould the current squad into a homogenous tartan army. English? Out. Croatian? Out. Honduran? Out. Short of building a wall around the team's Lennoxtown training facility, I don't know what more I could've done to Make Celtic Great Again. Naturally, I need some cover before taking to the transfer market myself, so I put only the least-able foreign players up for sale (for now).

My own chequebook brings in 34-year old Shaun Maloney from Hull, an attacking midfielder back for his third spell in Glasgow, and ex-Falkirk defender Murray Wallace heads back northward from Scunthorpe. Hibernian striker Jason Cummings initially knocks me back, but renegotiated terms seal the deal — despite manager Neil Lennon's resistance, who blasts my so-called "predatory" behaviour in the Daily Record online. He's always been a fiery one.

In preparation for the first of three Champions League qualifiers, we turn out some decent friendly results against lower league English teams and I'm pleased to see Cummings, Maloney and new signing Kenny Mclean net some goals in the absence of the injured Leigh Griffiths — Celtic's top scorer the previous season with 40 goals across all competitions. I draft in a couple of youth players to fill the holes in the squad and, besides the odd injury here and there, life looks good. We're all-Scottish, we sell over 40,000 season tickets, we're odds-on to win the league, and everyone seems happy.

Until they're not. Despite beating Dundalk home and away in the first ECL qualifier, and recording a 7-1 aggregate win against Montenegrin side FK Mladost Podgorica in the second, Celtic's former superstars express their lack of faith in the new regime almost at once. Paddy Roberts cancels his loan deal and returns to Manchester City, Swedish international Mikel Lustig logs a transfer request and heads for Leicester, AC Milan snap up Moussa Dembele, and Australian playmaker Tom Rogic is lost to Ajax within the space of a few weeks. The dogs! Even the less-capable foreign players are following suit, and suddenly my squad looks a little threadbare. I didn't want them anyway, I tell myself, this one's for science.

Despite these troubles, we perform well against Bulgaria's Ludogorets and qualify for the Big Cup's group stages, netting a cool £12 million in the process. A Callum McGregor double appears to impress Scotland boss Gordon Strachan, and the 23-year old from Pollok gets his first call-up to the national side.

We draw Porto, Dynamo Kiev and Juventus in Group H but the liberal fake news biased media writes us off due to our lacklustre start to the Scottish Premiership, where we've dropped points all over the place. A 4-1 win against Porto at home sees the campaign off to a great start, while a victory over Rangers the following week — including a hat trick from the returning Leigh Griffiths — keeps the press at bay.

A 1-1 draw away from home in Kiev is convincing and I'm steadily becoming engrossed, and slightly obsessed, with the team. I play You'll Never Walk Alone before each game, scarf raised high above my head. I bless myself as I sit down at my PC. I scream with joy when we score and howl obscenities at the ref when he makes bad decisions. My in-game avatar gets sent to the stands after lodging a complaint. I pace back and forth across my room in solidarity.

And then the wheels fall off the ride.

We lose six league games on the trot, my midfield maestro Stuart Armstrong is ruled out for months with a shoulder injury, and Juventus hammer us 5-0 at Celtic Park. We lose the league cup final to a last minute goal against Aberdeen, sit sixth in the premiership table come Christmas, and, crucially, finish third in Group H. This season, the Champions League dream is over.

I decide not to participate in the January transfer window, and we manage to climb the league and reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League — only to be gut-punched by two late goals at Manchester United. We finish the season in second place which 'concerns' the board of directors. Worse still, arch-rivals Rangers clinch the title. No silverware for The Bhoys this year.

Season two: Second season syndrome

After the rollercoaster of my first season in charge at Celtic, I realise that maybe, just maybe, I've allowed my passion for the team in real-life to colour my judgment and managerial style. I made snap decisions, and fell out with players when they underperformed or things weren't going my way. I stormed out of a press conference after losing at Ibrox. My girlfriend suggested I go for a walk round the block as I was apparently "insufferable" following our departure from Europe.

Reaching the quarterfinals of any European tournament is a big deal, Jenny.

Nevertheless I had to ask myself: is this how big Jock Stein would behave?

I approach season two with more of a level head. I bring Charlie Mulgrew back to the club pre-season, and tempt John McGinn away from Hibs. Despite trumping us in the cup the previous year, my Champions League cash injection allows me to bring Aberdeen's Ryan Jack onboard, and an eight-game domestic winning streak soon has the board and fans eating out of my hands.

We scrape through the Champions League qualifiers and draw Tottenham Hotspur, CSKA Moscow and Atletico Madrid in Group E. Winning the league cup in November gives the players a boost — as does a five point gap over closest rivals Aberdeen by Christmas — but some disastrous European away form sees us finish at the foot of the table, just like in the real world. We're out of Europe, not even qualifying for the Europa League playoffs, not passing Go, not collecting 12 million pounds.

With these distractions out of the way (cough) we go on to win the league cup, the Scottish Cup and the league — a domestic treble which, at the time of writing, hasn't been achieved here since Martin O'Neill's debut 2000/2001 season (if real-life Celtic beat Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final this Sunday, Brendan Rodgers will win the domestic treble).

But without Europe, it's all a bit bittersweet. I've stopped singing You'll Never Walk Alone quite so much, and my pseudo-religious rituals now seem a bit redundant. Is there even a god up there and, if so, why doesn't he love my virtual football team? The pressures of the job no longer keep me awake at night.

Season three: The Hail Hail Mary

Onto season three — my final stab at European glory. Transferwise, I keep the squad mostly the same. I bring in David Marshall as backup for the near-faultless goalkeeper Craig Gordon. I sign Kilmarnock's ever-improving prospects Greg Kiltie and Adam Frizzell and bring in ex-Rangers icon Steven Naismith. I'm saddened to see Kolo Toure retire, despite the fact I'd completely forgotten he was still at the club.

It's business as usual in Scotland, and amid swatting aside Kilmarnock and Hearts we once again qualify for the Champions League group stages. In Group G we rub shoulders with Olympique Lyonnais, Dinamo Zagreb and, shit, Real Madrid. As a season ticket holder at Celtic Park going on 20 years, I've longed to see Los Blancos take to the hallowed turf of Paradise. But not here. Not now. If we've any chance of emulating The Lisbon Lions, it's time to dig deep.

Home and away wins over Lyon shock the press, as does a 4-0 skelping of Zagreb in Glasgow, with the only downer a 1-0 loss in Croatia. The less said about the 5-1 trouncing at the Bernabeu the better, however we somehow, somehow, SOMEHOW, salvage a point against Madrid at home. And like that, we're through to the last 16 of the tournament — last achieved by Neil Lennon, whose underdog side famously defeated a brilliant Barcelona team in 2012. It's glorious.

Domestically, we're running amok, but Europe naturally becomes the focus. I'm back belting out You'll Never Walk Alone, I've taken on another four or so pre-game rituals, created pet names for every one of my players, and my girlfriend has permanently relocated to the bedroom with Netflix. A disciplined 0-0 draw with PSV Eindhoven in Holland marks a good start to our post-group stage adventure, and a surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win at home — goals from Brown and Griffiths — sees us through to the quarters! This is the stuff of dreams.

Quarter final draw: Man Utd. Okay, big team, but they all are at this stage. We didn't do badly against them in the Europa League during my first season, and their team looks largely-unchanged since. We can do this.

1-1 at home. 1-1 away. Extra time. Penalties. Maloney with the decisive kick.

WE'RE THROUGH TO THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SEMIS!!!

For it's a grand old team to play for! For it's a grand old team to see! I'm tempted to call it a day here and now because I'm on cloud nine-in-a-row. I'm laser-focused on Europe now: even a 3-0 Scottish Cup defeat to arch-rivals Rangers can't quell my excitement as the Big One is suddenly within touching distance.

Semi-final draw: Juventus. The Old Lady. Again, thinking back to that first season things didn't go so well. But we're a better team now. Fitter, wiser, stronger.

Home: 2-0 defeat. Okay, we can turn this around.

Away: 5-0 defeat. Maybe we can't.

We're out. The dream is dead.

I see out the end of the season. We win the league but I don't care. I resign. You'll Never Walk Alone, Celtic.

Despite my best efforts, it wasn't to be. A semi-final run for a modern Celtic would be pretty good going, which makes you think perhaps the Lisbon Lions did achieve the impossible all those years ago. As Alex Ferguson, one of the greatest managers of all time, has said:

"For Celtic to do it with 11 players from within 25 miles of each other is astonishing… it will never be done again."

Perhaps he's right. At the end of the season when the Lisbon Lions won the European Cup, and every other competition they entered, a journalist buttonholed Jock Stein and said: "what a wonderful season!" Stein laughed.

"Aye, but what do I do next year?"

Back in Football Manager, I'm offered the Scotland job off the back of what everyone else sees as my previous season's heroics at Celtic. Despite four years and three full campaigns having passed during my reign, Scotland have as usual failed to qualify for an international tournament in that time.

Which means they still haven't taken part in a World Cup or European Championship since 1998. Some of you probably weren't even born then. Wish me luck.