Recent sad news of the death of the great Celtic defender Tommy Gemmell and the dementia of his Lisbon Lions teammate and captain Billy McNeill took me right back to my young days of browsing football annuals while listening to the family’s old wireless set.
As a six-year-old, I looked on with my father and grandfather as England beat West Germany on our new black and white television set. After winning the World Cup (in my young mind I made every one of Nobby’s tackles, played each of Alan’s passes and scored all of Geoff’s goals) I became an avid football supporter. Nothing could ever again be more important than ‘Match of the Day’ or, later, ‘Football Preview’ with Sam Leitch and ‘Shoot’ magazine. Football tables and goal average were far more critical than ‘sums;’ match reports much more interesting than ‘composition.’
For me, though, it was the following year that would be seminal in my football education as two matches confirmed both my support for Leeds United and addiction to football commentary on the radio.
The first match was the FA Cup semi-final between Leeds and Chelsea at Villa Park on 29th April 1967 in front of 62,000 fans. A real North v South clash, the sides had met previously in the Cup in what proved to be hard, almost brutal clashes. For Chelsea, this was their third successive FA Cup semi-final; Leeds were still seeking their first major trophy win under Don Revie.
Tony Hateley scored Chelsea’s winner, heading in a cross from Charlie Cooke to give the Blues a 1.0 win. However, Leeds were infuriated by two controversial refereeing decisions in the second half that they claimed had cost them the match.
Firstly, Terry Cooper had a goal ruled out for offside, before Leeds were awarded a free-kick, just outside the penalty area, with a minute of the match to go. Johnny Giles slipped the ball to Peter Lorimer who hammered the ball past Peter Bonetti in a trademark strike. Again, though, referee Ken Burns ruled the goal out because he felt that Chelsea’s players had not retreated the regulation 10 yards and, additionally, he hadn’t blown his whistle for the free kick to be taken.
Just under a month later, on 25th May, I settled down, quite alone, next to the wireless as Jock Stein’s fabulous Celtic team travelled to Lisbon to take on Inter Milan in the European Cup Final. After just seven minutes, the Thursday evening optimism was shattered as Mazzola scored a controversial penalty to put the Italians – who had won the trophy on two previous occasions – 1.0 up.
However, it was Tommy Gemmell who equalised for Celtic and then the late Brian Moore (who was commentating for the BBC before his move to ITV) and I jumped out of our seats – along with thousands of other listeners and Glaswegians in the stadium itself – as Gemmell again supplied the pass to Bobby Murdoch who strode into the area before hitting the ball off of Steve Chalmers and into the net. Celtic, incredibly, led 2.1 and would hold out for the final five, agonising minutes.
Making history as the first (and only) Scottish team to win the European Cup; the first from Britain and the first Non-Latin side to win the trophy, Celtic also won every other competition they entered that season and set a new domestic record of 26 matches unbeaten which Brendan Rodgers’s side have only now managed to surpass.
Controversy and glory were the ingredients when these three sides clashed again three years’ later. As we all now remember, Leeds United were penalised by the football authorities for their success in chasing three major trophies – just as Celtic had been doing in 1967.
Unwilling to ease our fixture congestion we were made to play an incredible 18 matches in just over two months – from 28th February 1970 to the last day of our season on 29th April – including three in four crazy April days.
David Webb got Chelsea’s winner in that last match as Chelsea won the replay of the FA Cup Final at Old Trafford. This came after we had played two titanic matches against Celtic in the European Cup semi-final. After a tired Leeds lost 1.0 in the first leg at Elland Road, Billy Bremner smashed the ball into the net at Hampden Park to level the aggregate score. However, John Hughes equalised before wee Jimmy Johnstone scored the winner on the night. Celtic were through to a second Final and Leeds were down and out.
According to the radio commentary that evening, Jimmy Johnstone was practically unplayable, even by Terry Cooper who would be heading to Mexico as first-choice left-back with the England World Cup squad that summer. I also remember the commentators having to practically shout to make themselves heard as 136,505 mainly Celtic fans roared the Lions on.
This was and remains a record crowd for a UEFA match and is unlikely ever to be beaten. Only seven of those brave Lions now survive. Jimmy Johnstone has died and so has our greatest player – Billy Bremner.
As I recall those days in 1967, on the third anniversary of the death of my own father, I can still remember the hurt and anguish of Villa Park, followed by the unbridled joy of Lisbon. I continue to feel the pain of Old Trafford, the despair of Hampden and sheer disbelief of Mexico.
It is hard for me to forgive Chelsea but much easier to re-live the moments when Celtic were truly one of the greatest club sides the football world has ever seen or heard about. I grew up a lot in those three years but following Leeds United and learning through football has never been more important to me than it is now. I sincerely hope that all football heroes, as well as the many football fans who have followed them, rest in peace.