Billy McNeill, captain of the Lisbon Lions, buries his face in the turf. Midfielder Bertie Auld is bowled over with his hands on his knees. Goalkeeper Evan Williams struggles to his feet. He has just been delicately lobbed by Feyenoord’s Swedish striker Ove Kindvall. Three minutes of extra-time remain.
Celtic are 2-1 down. Their grip on the club’s second European Cup loosens further with every passing second.
The pandemonium spills over on to the pitch, photographers encroach the penalty area and surround Kindvall. Celtic’s players pick themselves up and desperately search their minds for ideas of how to rescue a replay. None were forthcoming.
In a matter of a few seconds, referee Concetto lo Bello blows the final whistle, confirming Feyenoord as European Cup winners for the first time – and Celtic as European Cup final losers for the first time. Delirium for the Dutch and dismay for the Scots.
Here, BBC Scotland hears about games being decided by a coin toss, career lows and final complacency.
‘My greatest disappointment in football’
While the heat of Lisbon is still felt upon the steep slopes of Celtic Park even in the depths of winter every 67th minute, there is little rejoicing about the near miss just three years later. That despite the almost herculean feat of getting to two European finals in such a short period.
“The greatest disappointment of my footballing career,” admits Davie Hay, Celtic’s right-back on that evening in Milan.
“When you look at the pictures of us going up to get our medals, there is a total look of despair and despondency.
“We hadnae heard of Feyenoord. They were something like 44-1 rank outsiders.”
There is a beautiful irony about Hay’s comments. Three years prior, Helenio Herrera’s glamorous Inter Milan side would have felt similar about Celtic’s team of locals before they succumbed to one of football’s greatest upsets. Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967 by beating them 2-1 in Lisbon.
This time, there was no such fairytale ending. Tommy Gemmell’s opener from a free-kick – his second European Cup final goal – after half-an-hour gave Jock Stein’s side a lead that lasted just two minutes. Rinus Israel’s equaliser quickly brought them back down to earth.
To go from the underdogs to the favourites must have come as a bit of a culture shock for Stein’s men. In the years that followed the triumph of ’67, Celtic’s domestic form had been impeccable, winning successive league titles and cups. They were used to being domestic powerhouses, but their European form had been lacking.
In 1968, they exited the European Cup in the first round following a 3-1 aggregate defeat by Dynamo Kiev, and a narrow 1-0 loss to AC Milan dumped them out at the quarter-final stage in 1969.
‘The toss of a coin was farcical’
The club were in a transitional stage. Williams had taken the place of Ronnie Simpson in goals, Hay had moved into Jim Craig’s spot at right-back, George Connelly was already making his mark on the first team, while Kenny Dalglish, Danny McGrain and Lou Macari were all flying through the ranks.
There was hope of another European challenge in 1970, and things got off to a good start with an aggregate victory over Basel, but Celtic faced a great scare in the second round. After beating Benfica 3-0 at Celtic Park, it should have been a comfortable passage through to the quarter-final, but Stein’s men got a taste of their own medicine, losing 3-0 at Estadio da Luz, as Benfica equalised with the last kick of the 90 minutes.
With the scores level after extra-time, how do you decide who goes through to the quarter-finals? Penalties? A replay? No. The referee took the two captains, Celtic’s McNeill and Mario Coluna of Benfica, into his dressing room for a coin toss.
McNeill called heads, it landed on heads. He was then informed that round was merely for the right to toss the actual coin. He stuck to his guns. Heads again. He won, Celtic won, and were through to the quarter-finals.
“It was midnight before the game was decided,” the late McNeill told BBC Scotland in 2006. “The toss of a coin was a farcical way of deciding a tie – irrespective of who won.
“It was done in the referee’s room. It was just myself, Sean Fallon and Big Jock. The room was a bit away from the dressing rooms.
“After it was decided, it was chaos. I didn’t speak to any of the Benfica players afterwards, but I know they were angry.”
Feyenoord doing homework & underestimating the Dutch
In the quarter-finals, Celtic beat Fiorentina 3-1 to set-up an all-British semi-final. Though they beat Don Revie’s Leeds United, the consensus seems to be that Celtic became complacent for the final as a result.
Did they think the hard work had already been done?
“Everybody in Britain thought that,” says former Celtic midfielder Auld. “Leeds had a very good team and they were doing extremely well down in England. They had the ability, confidence and determination, and we beat them.
“We were self-confident but not over-confident. We had players who could win the game on their own and Jock covered every inch and every player; he was very special.
“We knew that Feyenoord were a good team with individuals who could stamp their authority on a game, but they turned out to be a better team than we thought they were and they were the better team on the night.”
Hay gives more weight to the argument, however, and is convinced that they did indeed take Feyenoord lightly.
“You should never go into a game and think it’s going to be easy, especially a European Cup final,” he said.
“On the night, we just didn’t perform. Big Jock changed the team from the Leeds game, we didn’t dominate the midfield, and Feyenoord did their homework.
“We totally underestimated them.”
‘I cherish it even though we lost’
As Feyenoord celebrated with their travelling fans, Celtic’s players cleared the pitch and waited for their manager in the dressing room, deep in thought.
“There was disbelief about what had happened, a total quietness in there,” Hay continues. “It was like when you wake up from a dream and you think ‘did that happen?'”
Had Stein been speaking honestly immediately after the match, he probably would have told his players that they had missed out on a gilt-edged chance to seal their names in European history once more, and that they only had themselves to blame.
Despite the disappointment, keeper Williams looks back on that night in Milan with fond memories.
“I cherish it even though we lost,” he states emphatically.
“Don’t worry, I won plenty. Leagues, cups, the lot. It was my privilege to play with and get to know those Celtic boys, to say I was a player under Jock Stein. I’m a lucky man to have those memories.”
“Evan is right,” says Auld. “Although we lost, it is such a highlight – Celtic in a second European Cup final. We were playing well enough in the league and in Europe, but that particular night it was not to be.”