A QUIETLY cherished, 14-year-old story has begun the process of entering the folklore of a Glasgow family. It concerns a veteran of the airlift that took 12,000 Scots to Lisbon in May, 1967, to see Celtic win the European Cup and the desire of his children to get him to another final in Seville 36 years later even as cancer was trying to prevent him. They knew – and so did he – that he wouldn’t be around to see his beloved Celtic participate in another occasion such as this. A ticket was procured, flights and accommodation secretly secured and a taxi ordered to collect Joe and deposit him at Glasgow Airport. The family wasn’t normally given to bursts of unruly sentiment but they all sensed that something sacred might be happening here.

Next Thursday, May 25, marks the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s triumph in Lisbon when they became the first British side to triumph in the biggest and most glamorous club tournament on the planet. Several English teams have since repeated the feat but Celtic’s success will never be equalled. The implacable forces of pure capitalism now ensure that only a handful of football’s richest clubs in four countries can ever win the European Cup. Celtic did it with 10 working-class men born within a few miles of the east end of Glasgow. The 11th was a foreign import from Ayrshire.

The occasion will be commemorated with a gala evening at the SSE Hydro featuring Sir Rod Stewart and Sir Alex Ferguson while the BBC has produced a Lisbon documentary. Newspapers, including The Herald, will empty their archives of what remains of their Lisbon collection featuring photographs that have become as iconic in their way as those marking the beginning and the ends of wars and the deaths of presidents.

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Among thousands of Scottish families and their loved ones scattered abroad memories will be rekindled of men and women who watched this team and bore witness to their achievements unto the next generation. Those who remain impervious to football’s febrile charisma rarely get to understand why so much human emotion can be expended on a game, and this one game in particular, when political events that affect real lives are unfolding rapidly around us. Isn’t it really just a game; another drug for the masses? And aren’t we all being made to remember One Afternoon in Lisbon merely to slake the eternal tendency of Glaswegians to elevate their triumphs on clouds of sentiment?

Willy Maley, professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow, is a lifelong Celtic supporter and explains why Celtic’s victory in Lisbon and the men who achieved it are still being garlanded 50 years on. “It’s all about family and community,” he says. “Celtic and many other clubs around the world took shape and grew within disadvantaged working-class communities struggling with social exclusion generations ago. The football clubs reflected the fierce pride of that community and their achievements helped to engender a sense of pride and identity in dark days. When they wore the colours they also bore the aspirations of their towns and villages on their shoulders.

“Celtic was formed to help save the lives of the poor Irish fleeing famine and persecution for their faith in Ireland. So, from the outset, they were at the centre of a people’s aspirations to be accepted on equal terms. Their early triumphs built self-confidence in this community and reinforced a sense of pride.”

A mile or so from the professor’s wood-panelled study is the storied western district of Maryhill, a sprawling working-class enclave still fiercely proud of its identity. Its daily social challenges are met each morning, it seems, with a razor-sharp wit and a rough laugh. When asked where he comes from, a Glaswegian abroad will rarely say Scotland; it has to be Glasgow. A citizen of Maryhill narrows it down still further. Bertie Auld, the oldest and best-loved of Celtic’s Lisbon Lions, comes from Maryhill, growing up in Panmure Street which runs parallel to the canal running behind Partick Thistle’s Firhill Stadium. Those who were born and grew up around here are fiercely proud of that connection. Peter Grieve and his son Peter Jr are both taxi drivers and citizens of the Republic of Maryhill. Each was reared on stories of Celtic and Peter Sr remembers vividly watching the game on the family’s old black-and-white telly. “Bertie is part of the fabric of Maryhill; everyone around here loves him, no matter which football club they support. He has always been proud of the place where he was brought up and, like all the other Lisbon Lions, he is tireless in helping local causes. None of them ever really left the communities that reared them and they were always proud to represent us.”

As in all the other places where those anointed 11 were born and raised the Celtic colours were passed on from mothers and fathers to daughters and sons. Peter Jr mentions the petition that’s been raised in Saltcoats to have a statue made in honour of Bobby Lennox, its own Lisbon Lion. “There should be one in Maryhill of Bertie Auld,” he says. “Because don’t forget, he also went on to be a successful manager of Partick Thistle. In fact there should be statues of each of the Lisbon Lions in those places where they were born. It wouldn’t just be to honour Bertie Auld of Celtic but Bertie Auld from Maryhill.” He is counting down the days until he can take his two young daughters to Celtic Park. “I’ll tell them all about Bertie Auld too.”

A dozen or so miles east along the M8, where Glasgow’s edgiest enclaves look towards Lanarkshire, lies Viewpark, a large working-class neighbourhood originally constructed to house miners and their families. All along the Old Edinburgh Road are the bus stops that once picked up five of the Lisbon Lions as youths and deposited them near Celtic Park. One of them was Jimmy Johnstone, voted the greatest Celtic player of all time.

He was born and raised in the streets of Viewpark and after his death in 2006 a statue was made in his honour. It sits just back from the Old Edinburgh Road in a little memorial garden surrounded by seven stones representing the Number 7 jersey that he wore. There are three benches in this immaculately-maintained little retreat which beams with civic pride. The public subscription for it attracted donations from supporters of Rangers, Celtic’s great rivals, as well as two of their finest players, Willie Henderson and Graeme Souness. After the funding target was reached the organisers found there was enough left to give £5000 for research into motor neurone disease, which claimed Jimmy. The statue now sits proudly on the site of the old St Columba’s Primary School where his skills were first honed. Jimmy Johnstone gave this community and the miners' families who first formed it pride and a sense of achievement, and when he died they put him at the heart of it. Each rain-soaked child who hurried past us on Tuesday afternoon slowed when approaching the garden and glanced up at the statue. They knew why we were here.

Margot McCuaig, an award-winning documentary maker, made a film last year about Jimmy Johnstone. She once worked at Celtic Park and has come to know the Lisbon Lions and their families. “What you soon get to know about these men is that they are a real band of brothers who have remained very close into old age. They have been devoted to each other in sickness and in health and through each other’s triumphs and troubles.

“They have come to know what they represent not just for Celtic fans but also to Scotland and I’ve always felt that they have never stopped feeling blessed and privileged at having been chosen for Lisbon. They are all proud men but humble too and, in all the time I have known them, they make every effort to attend supporters’ events all over the country and abroad. The bond they have with the supporters is very moving to witness and is just as strong among younger fans who never even saw them play.”

This week’s events to mark the 50th anniversary of Lisbon will be tinged with a degree of sadness and loss. Four of the men who won the European Cup have since died, the most recent being Tommy Gemmell, who scored the first goal in the 2-1 victory. Jock Stein, their boss, died while managing the Scotland international team in Cardiff in 1985. Billy McNeill, the captain, is suffering from dementia. In sickness and in death though, the Lions’ connections to the people who supported them have been strengthened further still. Premature death and health inequality have stalked the communities that reared them, a pattern of disadvantage that has not diminished with the passing of the generations. The traditional afflictions that have harrowed these places have not spared the men who became their champions.

In a 10-year period between 1965 and 1975 these players and the wider squad members won 22 trophies and reached five European semi-finals and one other final. They were feared and saluted throughout Europe, yet they were ill-rewarded for their labours. Celtic raked in untold riches on the back of their endeavours but the players saw very little of it. Many of them were forced to head south to unremarkable English clubs such as Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough, and only then discovered how poorly they had been paid in comparison by a board of directors who ran businesses on the dividends of their success.

Jim Craig, the left back from Govan whose pass set up Tommy Gemmell’s goal in Lisbon, split his apprenticeship at Celtic between training and studying for a degree in dentistry at the University of Glasgow. He says the players were very much of the communities that raised them. “I don’t want to speculate on the living standards of today’s top players and how they spend their time away from football but there was no question of our players receiving life-changing amounts of money,” he said.

“We continued to live in or near the neighbourhoods in which we were born. We encountered supporters in the street; at church; at the shops and in pubs and cafes. And this being the west of Scotland they weren’t slow in reminding you of your responsibilities. And perhaps we became better men for it. People talk about tensions surrounding the Celtic and Rangers divide but in those days, when it could be argued that the sectarian divide was deeper, few if any of us encountered any hostility from Rangers supporters. In fact quite the opposite: I always found them to be respectful and knowledgeable and happy to express a little pride too in what we had achieved. After all, the Rangers team of that era would have been more than a match too for most of the great European teams that we defeated.”

Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s foremost historian, says the cultural and social impact of Celtic’s Lisbon triumph can never be underestimated and that it still resonates to this day. “That team and their achievements gave such a boost to working men all over Scotland but especially to the Irish-Catholic community in west central Scotland, whose story since getting here had been characterised by discrimination and contempt, though this was beginning to fade.

“In Jock Stein we had a giant among men who bridged the sectarian divide but, just as importantly, gave a sense of dignity to working people who shared his Lanarkshire mining background. Stein had no formal education to speak of and, like many others, was dispatched down the mines as soon as he was old enough.

“Yet whenever he spoke he did so with great wisdom, authority and eloquence. Like many others if he’d been given a chance to shine or to attend university he would have been a successful leader in politics and in business.”

Celtic’s Lisbon triumph was watched by millions on live television around the globe. It was the first time in the modern world that Scotland as a nation was being portrayed in popular culture outside of Brigadoon and the images of No Mean City. What they observed was Scotland at its best: attractive, friendly, outward-looking and positive. More than a year later that reputation was further embellished when Celtic, who had been drawn to play the champions of Hungary in a European Cup first-round tie, protested at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The ties were all subsequently re-drawn and a gift from grateful Czechoslovakian football people sits in the Celtic trophy room.

My father was at Lisbon in 1967 along with his brother-in-law, John, a gentle and academic type who would go on to become head teacher at one of Scotland’s most illustrious fee-paying educational facilities. Joe always remembered his mother-in-law entreating him to “look after our John as he’s not really used to all this”. On the final whistle he looked around and, panic rising, realised "our John" was nowhere to be seen. Instead he had vaulted the moat that surrounded the pitch and invaded the pitch and could be observed kissing the turf in silent adoration.

And that was why our family all clubbed together to ensure Joe made it to Seville in 2003 before the cancer got him. My brother said, “By making it there in one piece he was a goal up against the disease before it equalised a year or so later. So it never actually beat him.” Like many other fathers who have since died Joe was our link to Lisbon and a team of footballers whose achievements will never die.