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Happy Lions Day: A Celebration That Reaches Across The Generations

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I missed Lisbon by nearly eleven years.

My parents weren’t even in their teens when the greatest club side this island has ever produced went to Portugal as ambassadors and came back as icons. It was a victory that belonged more to my grandparents than my folks, and had they still been here I know they would have loved these days.

I know that because Lisbon looms large in our family and it always has.

I will hazard a guess and say that it’s not the only family where that’s the case.

I come from a die-hard “Celtic household”, where everyone gets it.

When my niece was born my sister was adamant that she wouldn’t be getting involved in “the family business” but what do you know? She wasn’t even three before she had her first Hoops top. This is how it works. This is how it’s meant to be. You pass this stuff on. Forever.

Lisbon enhances everything we know about our club. I grew up hearing about it. My folks shared many a memory of it over the years. My father ended up in casualty that night after a neighbour decided to christen the close where they stayed with a of champagne, which swung wildly and smacked him on the head instead. My mother remembers going to Celtic Park with her sisters to watch the coming home.

When Celtic played Benfica in 2006, my father travelled over there to stand on the turf where the most famous game in our history was played. That had to be an emotional moment. He’s not a big writer, but he did a piece about that experience for Issue 5 of CQN Magazine. The game was not memorable for any good reason – we lost 3-0 – but he and many others fans already had their highlight to savour, by visiting Lisbon and the place the magic happened.

Everyone has their story about Lisbon, even those of us who weren’t there. They don’t even have to be true stories. For me, one of the first fictional pieces I ever wrote in my life – when I was about twelve – was one of those “make a wish” pieces they give you to do in English class. I wrote one about a kid (me) who wakes up in Lisbon on the day of the match. I got to imagine the whole experience from the perspective of someone who was there.

Why not? What better wish could you make?

Years later I revisited Lisbon in a story called Killing Mr Hitler, where a Rangers fan saves a guy in a brawl; said guy turns out to be a “celestial tourist” – basically, an archangel, on his holidays, down to catch the Scottish Cup Final – and he gets a wish.

After a lengthy discourse on parallel universes and changing history (none of which he listens to) – “In some realities, killing Mr Hitler wasn’t such a good idea, you know …” – he goes back to Lisbon and greases the wall the Celtic famously climbed over the night before the game, and a couple of them fall and break various bones, and we don’t win the game … but his changing history doesn’t work out quite the way he intended. When he nips back through the time-tunnel (don’t ask) he finds that the shock of the experience motivated big Stein and the team to even greater accomplishments and in the world he’s in we’re actually six times Champions of instead.

Lisbon has always been with me.

It’s one of the few events that shaped the course of my life that I do wish I could back and experience for myself.

I know what it meant to me, and how it made me the person I am. It’s weird being able to connect your entire being to an event you weren’t even alive for, which happened eleven years before you were in the world. It doesn’t seem possible, somehow, for a distant event which, after all, was related to what a football team did, to have profoundly shaped the world for you, but there’s just no doubt at all that it did.

The world we live in, as Celtic fans, was shaped by those guys and what they did over there. Our entire lives have been affected by it in some way. My old man’s life-long love of our club might never have been so pronounced but for Lisbon, so his version of the romantic opening where he offered my mother his Celtic scarf at a taxi rank on a rainy night after he’d come back from a game, might never have happened and then I wouldn’t be here at all.

And it’s that, and little moments like it, which I’m sure we can all trace back through the threads of time, which tell you what the experience meant and what it was about.

All the way through my childhood and upbringing every conversation at a social function would be steered towards Celtic and Lisbon would come up over and over again.

Sometimes, as with my gran on my mum’s side it would be used as a stick to mercilessly beat the heathens amongst the company who followed another Glasgow side. “You’ll never beat the Lisbon Lions,” she would taunt them, without mercy, until they scuttled off and conceded the point. At other times it would be invoked as something future Celtic would have to aspire to even if there was no hope of them ever meeting the standard.

This is a generational thing. My generation will tell our grandkids about this and what it means. I hope they have the same sense of pride in it, and in the club, that we do. Certainly that triumph in Lisbon warmed our hearts during a lot of dark years, it’s the one thing that our rivals could never live up to, could never quite reach, and watching them try and fail (usually spectacularly) was a tonic at a time when they were outspending us by a factor of 4-1.

It was the ceiling they never got near to touching, and that somehow made the bad times easier.

It also enhances the way our club feels right now, in this history making campaign. It would have been special anyway, but the timing of it makes it almost mythic, makes it almost like something pre-ordained. The symmetry of it is poetic.

Today a group of guys who, like me, were probably not even born when the Lions secured that victory are putting cut-outs of Billy McNeil all over the city and sharing the pictures on social media; this is fantastic, and a great way to keep the flame burning.

People forget that this was seen by many, at the time, as a Glasgow triumph as much as one revolving around our very own club. Needless to say, it’s no longer viewed in that light, but that’s a minor matter. What everyone will need to accept is that this changed the city, and the way both its major clubs saw the world around them.

Lisbon 67 hangs over Ibrox as much as Celtic Park.

But more than anything, this is about us, all of us, those in the Celtic Family, whether we experienced that day as it happened or whether we’ve lived it since through various media and medium. It’s one of those days I’ve often tried to re-imagine through the prism of social media; how would the internet have responded in the days and weeks before kick-off?

How would we have handled the night itself?

I’m going to try and explore that with an article later on.

The audience which watched the game on TV is a fraction compared to that which would be able to enjoy it now, in various ways, from instant text updates to illegal streams.

It is an -generational experience, encompassing those who were there, who watched it unfold on the telly, those not born yet and those who weren’t even born in the 80’s far less the 60’s and to whom this still has the ability to inspire awe.

Tonight at the Hydro generations will come together to pay tribute to those men, in a series of events that will keep the fires burning for the next generation. For days to come this will be the focus of many across the world. Families. Friends. And some of it will be about passing the torch on to those who came after us.

That’s a noble ideal, and one I am glad I can play some small part in.

What these guys did 50 years ago today, it can’t be oversold. How many lives did it shape? How many did it change? Trying to imagine our world without it. It’s like trying to imagine it without the invention of television. It is impossible.

In a way, so was what they did over there, those eleven local boys who got to take the field against one of the best club sides of that, or any, era. People from neighbourhoods likes ours. From lives like ours. Who walked the same streets as some of us did. They were from us. They were just like us. So perhaps what we see when we look at them is a little bit of ourselves. Perhaps they taught us what we could achieve if we did more, believed more, worked harder, got better in our own little ways. They showed us what was possible.

And the debt we owe them, for all of it, is enormous.

They will live forever, as long as the next generation gets it like we do.

Those men shaped their lives too, and it is important that they understand it.

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