When we were Kings...
1962 was a year of uncertainty at Celtic Park. The team had talent, lots of it but was brittle and lacked the belief necessary to master the dominant Scottish teams of the era; Rangers, Hearts and Dundee. Their brief inaugural appearance in Europe that season saw Valencia knock them out of the Fairs Cup after a spirited display in both legs. (2-4, 2-2)However the event which got Celtic fans excited came in September 1962 when Real Madrid were enticed over to play a friendly match. The game was the idea of businessman and Celtic fan Max Benjamin who wanted to raise money for the Jewish National Fund Charitable Trust and the rehabilitation of refugee woman and children. Real Madrid had an aura of invincibility, especially in Glasgow where they had destroyed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 European Cup Final. The magnitude of that victory and the manner in which it was achieved stunned the soccer world. Eintracht were no mugs having disposed of a good Rangers team 12-4 on aggregate in the Semi Final. However the Germans could have lost 10 at Hampden as 127,000 watched Real rip them apart with clever passing football and deadly finishing. Names such as Gento, Puskas, Santa Maria and Di Stefano entered Scottish folklore. Young Dunfermline manager Jock Stein watched the game with interest. He had seen the brilliant Hungarians destroy England in the mid-fifties (6-3 & 7-1) and now he saw Madrid play with the same brilliance. The shrewd former miner noted that this is how football should be played.
As McGrory’s young team trotted out to face the mighty Madrid on a bright September evening in 1962, few gave them a hope of upsetting the magnificent side which had won 5 of the previous 7 European cup finals. To their credit, Celtic went for Madrid from the start, Hughes, Lennox, Higgins and Chalmers gave Madrid’s defence some testing times in the first 10 minutes as 72,000 fans roared them on. Then, with virtually their first real attack of the game, Madrid carved Celtic open and Puskas slotted in the first goal. The Parkhead crowd applauded the incisive passing and clinical finishing, which so often seemed to be missing from their own side in that troubled era. When Amancio made it 2-0 mid way through the first half, some feared Celtic might crumble and take a severe beating. However, with spirit and enthusiasm they continued to attack their illustrious visitors and Chalmers pulled one back. They eventually lost 3-1 but such was the spirit and flair the young Celts displayed, the huge crowd demanded they appear back on the pitch and complete a lap of honour. They had lost but hadn’t been disgraced. They had given one of the best teams in the world a tough game and this filled the long suffering fans with hope for the future.
Madrid were polite and stated they were impressed by Celtic and their supporters but the gulf in class and organisation was still there for all to see. Celtic were for all their enthusiasm, a work in progress. There were more miserable days ahead as their potential remained unfulfilled. They were miles off in the League campaigns of the early 1960s and took some morale damaging defeats from their great Glasgow Rivals in those years. The promise of the Madrid game faded as their barren spell stretched from the legendary 7-1 game in 1957 into early 1965. Some wondered if the good days would ever return until in the early spring of that year a new Manager was appointed. The new man wasn’t one to accept any interference in team matters from Directors. It was his team, his way or he wouldn’t take the job. The autocratic Bob Kelly did what was best for the club and agreed. Jock Stein set about organising this bunch of talented but under achieving young players into a formidable team. The sort of skilful, pacey, passing game he had seen from Hungary and Real Madrid was blended with traditional Scottish traits such as grit and determination and it produced a team of awesome attacking prowess. Celtic won the cup in 1965 and belief spread throughout the club like a virus. The title was won in 1966 and the team took part in its first European Cup campaign in 1966-67 season.
Anyone who saw Celtic dismantle Inter Milan and their suffocating ‘catenaccio’ style of play can be in no doubt they were watching one of the best club side’s ever to play the beautiful game. If somehow those green hoops fell away from the strips in Lisbon that hot May day, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching the Real Madrid of old. The passing, movement and aggression were a joy to watch as the much vaunted Inter defensive system was stretched to breaking point beneath the Portuguese sun. Of course, Celtic won a great victory for themselves that day but they also won a great victory for football. Stein’s team played the game as it should be played with flair, skill and imagination. Even Inter coach, Herrera accepted that the days of defensive football were over. Celtic had seen to that.
As if it was pre-ordained, Celtic, newly crowned Champions of Europe travelled to Madrid to compete in the Alfredo Di Stefano Testimonial match in June 1967. Madrid were still a formidable team having narrowly lost to Inter in that season’s European Cup. This would be the test of how far Celtic had travelled in the 5 years since McGrory’s brave young side had been beaten by Madrid. The game was played in front of 117,000 fans and it was obvious that both sides wanted to win. For Stein and men like Chalmers, McNeil and Lennox this was the testing ground. Madrid had been the masters in 1962 now Celtic sought their crown. It is a matter of historical record that Celtic defeated Real Madrid 1-0 that night. That score line barely describes how they dominated the game. Jimmy Johnstone was at his mesmeric best and drew applause and chants of ‘Ole’ from the knowledgeable Spanish fans as he jinked past demoralised defenders time and time again. On one occasion two defenders had him trapped on the byeline and when it appeared he must lose possession, he flicked the ball elegantly over their heads to a team mate. It was the stuff of dreams, Celtic were mastering the mighty Madrid in their own stadium. Lennox, of course, flashed into action and scored a goal of clinical excellence following a slide rule pass from unplayable Johnstone. In every department Celtic were superior to Madrid and the game ended with a storm of applause for the magnificent team from Scotland who had demonstrated beyond any doubt that they were the greatest side in Europe. Stein looked on in satisfaction. He had learned from the best and had made his team the best.
As Di Stefano took his applause at the final whistle he glanced at the pale Scots who had outplayed his side so comprehensively. He may have been thinking that the crown had passed to a new generation, a team who played the game as it should be played. Jock was the king maker and that incredible season demonstrated his genius for blending together the various skills and talents of 11 Scottish lads and making them a powerful and elegant football team. His team can rightly be regarded as being among the vanguard of total football, a system of open attractive play so brilliantly expounded by the Dutch in the years ahead. Attacking play has always been at the core of the Celtic philosophy but it reached its zenith in that remarkable year. As for the stifling Catenaccio system, its days of influence were well and truly over. There were new Kings in football and they wore green and white hooped shirts.