12 Greatest Club Sides: 11) Celtic 1965-1974

February 1, 2012
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There’s two types of likeable footballer: the goody-two-shoes Ryan Giggs-before-the-family-mishaps category and the otherwise-unlikeable-but-he’s-really-good-or-at-least-absolutely-mental type. Former-Brazil right-back Carlos Alberto should really fall into the first category, but he has a notable unhumble streak in interviews. Part of me thinks he has more right than most to be unhumble, after all even though boastful most of it is true, but it doesn’t quite sit right.

Some of his claims are only half-truths as well. For instance, his declaration of being a pioneer of the attacking full-back are partially true: the brilliant 1970 World Cup probably was the first time most of the world had seen defenders acting like wingers. However, probably just as he had been doing in Brazil (my knowledge of Brazilian football isn’t good enough to know when they started doing this but to have done it at the 1970 World Cup I assume they must have been doing it sometime in the previous decade), there were several European defenders attacking during the 60s. The most important of these belonged to Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale and Jock Stein’s Celtic, who met one another in the 1967 European Cup final with the full-backs being the deciding factor.

I’m sure it’s not news for anyone to point out that the major problem with Scottish football is the neverending dominance of Celtic and Rangers, so there’s rarely been a time where you could point out a truly great Scottish side. After a trophyless eight years for Celtic, former player Stein became their manager in March 1965 and won the Scottish Cup six weeks later. He then went on to win nine league titles in a row (then a tenth in 1977), eight Scottish Cups and six League Cups – all very impressive, but it hasn’t been exactly rare for Scottish teams to struggle against Celtic down the years, which makes the European successes of Stein’s team all the more important.

After scraping through the 1967 semi-finals against Dukla Prague using a defensive system, Stein opted to play to his side’s strengths and go for a very attacking system against Inter in the final. It could have gone horribly wrong: the best exponent of catenaccio to come out of Italy, La Grande Inter wanted Celtic to come at them so they could use the space to counter. They didn’t though, and the side made up of players all born within 30 miles of Glasgow were praised for what many saw as a victory for football over Herrera’s negative style.

Having gone 1-0 up thanks to a 7th minute penalty by Sandro Mazzola, Inter shut up shop and looked to grind out the victory, but Celtic’s attacking force was too much for them. As Ajax’s Total Football would expose again later and finally put an end to, the man-marking of catenaccio was weak when the opposition dragged the markers away from where they wanted to be. Celtic were set up in the 4-2-4 that had been popularised after the 1958 World Cup, but what set them apart was their movement – strikers Stevie Chalmers and Willie Wallace would drop deeper, especially Wallace, pulling the centre-backs with them to open up space for wingers Jimmy Johnstone and Bobby Lennox to cut inside and drag the full-backs with them. With the defenders dragged into uncomfortable positions and the flanks free, full-backs Jim Craig and Tommy Gemmell would bomb forward, while the midfielders could dictate the game in the middle of the park – Bertie Auld acting as more of a box-to-box type and Bobby Murdoch playing as more of a playmaker. Celtic were both patient and dynamic in how they played – employing an attractive passing style but the full-backs, wingers and midfielders providing direct threats when needed.

Were it not for the heroics of goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti, Celtic could have easily hit double figures against Inter. Tarcisio Burgnich later said: “We just knew, even after fifteen minutes, that we were not going to keep them out. They were first to every ball; they just hammered us in every area of the pitch. It was a miracle that we were still 1-0 up at half-time. Sometime in those situations with each minute that passes your confidence increases and you start to believe. Not on that day. Even in the dressing room at half-time we looked at each other and we knew that we were doomed… I remember, at one point, [Armando] Picchi turned to the goalkeeper and said, ‘Giuliano, let it go, just let it go. It’s pointless, sooner or later they’ll get the winner.’ I never thought I would hear those words, I never imagined my captain would tell our keeper to throw in the towel. But that only shows how destroyed we were at that point. It’s as if we did not want to prolong the agony.”

Eventually, they put Inter out of their misery. Murdoch hit it wide for Craig to attack down the right, before he pulled it back to the edge of the area for his opposite full-back Gemmell to hit home. Minutes from the end, they found their winner – Gemmell laying it off for Murdoch to strike with Chalmers rediverting the mishit shot. With that goal, the Lisbon Lions sealed their place in history – not only had they proven they could perform outside of Scotland, they had proved their greatness by dismantling another great side. In 1970, they made the final again, but lost out in extra time to a good Feyenoord side often overlooked thanks to Ajax’s brilliance, and they made the semi-finals a couple more times, however the victory over Inter would remain their finest hour.

Stein’s tenure came to an end after he was badly injured in a car crash in 1975 and didn’t come back quite the same after it, eventually persuaded to give up his post for the younger Billy McNeill and leaving Celtic in fairly hostile circumstances in 1978. Still Celtic’s first protestant manager had created arguably the only great Scottish club side in history. While Bill Shankly’s labelling of Stein as “immortal” was sadly proved to be untrue literally, within the hooped half of Glasgow it certainly could be.

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