Monday, 22 May 2017

Pilgrimage to Lisbon

or How I came to possess a piece of Billy McNeill's Jersey




Celtic fans who were present when the Lisbon Lions won the European Cup 50 years ago generally made a day trip of the occasion. They were up early on the day of the match, many attending Mass before departure as it was the feast of Corpus Christi. They flew from Glasgow to Lisbon and were then taken by coach to the stadium. Afterwards they were brought back to the airport for the return flight home.

For others like myself it was a week-long pilgrimage. My European Cup story actually started a year earlier. I was living in London and fully convinced that I would be travelling to Brussels for the final of the UEFA Cup. In the semi-final, Celtic took a 3-0 home lead against MTK Budapest and Brussels was beckoning. By the time the second leg came round I had set aside £10 for my travelling expenses. A 4-0 defeat in Budapest put an end to that dream. I felt I had to do something with my £10 and I was able to find another £2.10.0 to buy my first 35mm camera. That camera travelled to Lisbon with me a year later.

Celtic supporters believe that their team is capable of anything, so early in 1967 Lisbon was always on the horizon. However, it wasn't until Celtic recorded a 3-1 home win over Dukla Prague in the semi-final that we started to take the dream seriously.

With my friends in the London branch of the Celtic Supporters Club, I knew that if we were going to get to Lisbon we would have to make our own arrangements. No one else was going to organise charters for us. On the morning after the victory over Dukla Prague I phoned Aer Lingus to enquire about chartering an aircraft. That could be done but as soon the question of a deposit was raised I ended the conversation. I had no idea where I could raise the money and still, at the back of my mind, was the 4-0 defeat in Budapest a year earlier.

I had another problem – I didn't have a passport. For most people that would be easily resolved. In those days Britain charged 7/6 for a temporary travel document for short trips to parts of Europe. I didn’t want one of those, if I was going to Lisbon I was going to travel on an Irish passport.

A letter was dispatched to my Donegal-born mother in Greenock, requesting her birth certificate and marriage certificate. Three days later a reply came back saying that she did not have her birth certificate. Another letter was dispatched explaining how a copy could be obtained on application to the General Register Office in Dublin. After that all I could do was wait. I wasn’t too concerned as the final was still almost four weeks away.

Meanwhile Celtic went off to Prague and played out a 0-0 draw to become the first British Club to reach the final of the European Cup. We were in business. The following day I again phoned Aer Lingus to enquire about chartering an aircraft, only to be told that none was available. The club committee considered its options and spoke with the owner of the coach company that we regularly used to take us to games in Glasgow.

He came back to say that he could provide a 51-seat coach for £500. He would drive but because of the length of the journey he would need a second driver and Willie, our usual driver on the Glasgow run, was his choice. That meant that 50 fans could travel. The coach owner also told us that he could block book accommodation for one-night in Lisbon. When we added in the cost of the match ticket we decided to offer packages at £12.10.0 each. If we sold 50 packages we would break even. Actually the club had a healthy bank balance and it was decided that each paid up member could travel for £10.

The plan was to leave London on the evening of Monday, May 22 and travel to Southampton for the overnight car ferry to Le Havre. After that the details were a bit loose but we hoped to be in Lisbon before lunchtime on Thursday, in plenty of time for the 5:30pm kick-off. No one was too worried about the journey home but we did expect to be back in London in the early hours of the following Monday morning.

We were busy taking bookings and as far as I can recall it always looked as if we would fill the bus. Someone had a Spanish friend who wanted to come along and that wasn’t a problem. I was, however, still praying that my mother would receive a copy of her birth certificate and forward it to me without delay. Phones were still a rarity in Greenock in 1967 and all I could do was be patient. That was difficult as it still hadn’t arrived on the Friday before we were due to leave. Then a miracle happened and all the magic documents arrived in the mail on Saturday. I already had my own birth certificate, the completed application form and the necessary photographs and was impatient for Monday morning to arrive to see how I would fare in the Irish Embassy. I needn’t have worried. The woman at the passport desk listened to my tale and told me to take a seat. I left about 30 minutes later the proud holder of an Irish Passport.

On Monday evening we met up at our usual departure point, a north London pub, the local of our Honorary President, George McDonald. Fifty men had booked to travel to Lisbon but now there was a woman in our midst and she wasn’t there to wave us off. She was determined to travel to Lisbon. She assured us she would sit on the steps at the door and we just didn’t have the heart to say “no”. Eventually a stool appeared from the boot of the bus and a party of 53, including the drivers, set off for Southampton.

In the 1960s the British Government had introduced a Foreign Travel Allowance to control the outflow of cash by those departing the country. The upper limit was £50 when we were travelling. I doubt if anyone in our group had anything approaching that amount, about a month’s salary for me, but we had to form a queue to be questioned individually about just how much cash we were carrying. We had a bit of an incident when Danny Harkin declared that he had 7/6. The official thought Danny was playing games and asked him a second time but received the same reply “7/6”. At this Danny was warned, in no uncertain terms, that if he didn’t stop messing he would not be travelling. A frustrated Danny put his hand in his pocket, pulled out a handful of coins, and responded angrily “Ah’ve got seven an’ a tanner¹. Dae ye want tae see it?”. Fortunately the official accepted that he had been overzealous and Danny was waved on.

Once on board the majority headed for the bar to avail of the duty-free prices. A few of us sought out comfortable seating to try to catch some sleep and I suspect the only ones with a berth were the drivers. Sleep was hard to come by as the singing got louder as the night wore on. I became concerned for our reputation when a long conga chain started to make its way noisily through the ship, upstairs and downstairs, and in and out of lounges. I was able to relax when I noticed a uniformed ship’s officer stuck in the middle of the chain, clearly enjoying himself.

We berthed at 7:00am and the bus was quiet as we drove off the ferry and started out on the long journey south. I was seated directly behind the driver and my fascination for maps prompted me to get involved in the navigation. Motorways were scarce in 1967 and progress was slow. It was interesting when we entered the famous town of Le Mans as the Le Mans 24-hour race had a much higher profile then than it does now. It turned out to be even more exciting when we found ourselves driving along part of the actual race circuit.

By the time we reached Tours we were hungry and it was decided to stop for a bite to eat. Language was a problem and I presume we ordered the Plat du Jour. That turned out to be a very rare minute steak which many of the group thought disgusting and made their feelings known. However we moved on without incident and passed close to the magnificent cathedral of Tours. At the time I thought it something of a sacrilege to be so close to such a wonderful historic structure and not stop to view it properly, but we were all focused on getting to Lisbon on time.

Next we went through Poitiers which was a familiar name from the history books. After that we headed for Angouleme, a large town that was a new name to me. I think we went through it or perhaps I just remember seeing lots of signposts for it. We did go through Bordeaux and after that we crossed a major national park and onto the long straight roads of the sparsely populated Department of Landes. By then it was dark and there was nowhere to stop until we reached the town of Bayonne.

We arrived at 1:00am and the drivers desperately needed some sleep. They stopped outside a modest hotel and went inside to make enquiries. The news was good as the hotel had a number of vacant rooms and it would cost us the equivalent of £1 per night for bed and breakfast. I think everyone who wanted a room was able to avail of one. Some felt that the money would be better spent elsewhere, or maybe they didn’t have enough, and decided to sleep on the bus. The hotel was very basic. Everything was painted white, the bed clothes were white, the wooden floor was bare and unpolished but the place was spotless. In the morning breakfast consisted of a huge cup of coffee, baguette, butter and the most delicious home-made rhubarb jam - one of the best breakfasts I ever had.

It was Wednesday morning and we hadn't yet reached Spain, although we were close to the border. Before we arrived someone came up to me and said that one of our party had had enough and wanted to go home. Would we stop at a railway station in the next town and let him off? I was concerned at dropping someone with no French in the south of France and leaving him to make his own way home. Did he even have enough money to pay for the train and ferry? He was insistent and we dropped him off, probably in the town of San Jean de Luz. Our lady passenger now had a proper seat.

At the border I decided it might speed things up if I collected all the passports and brought them in to the immigration office. I asked our Spanish friend to join me and to do the talking. Inside I presented a large pile of temporary travel passes, a handful of British passports, one Spanish passport and one Irish passport. The official gave the British and Spanish documents no more than a cursory glance but seemed to be fascinated by my Irish passport – perhaps it was the first he had ever seen. I wasn’t asked any questions and he eventually told us that we were free to go.

We hadn’t travelled far when we came round a corner on a country road and found a young man with a Celtic scarf thumbing a lift. We stopped and picked him up. The stool was once again called into use. I wish I could remember his story but I’m sure he would never have seen the final if we hadn’t come along.

After San Sebastian it was a long slow climb over the Pyrenees. During that climb I was asked to intervene in a dispute between two friends. I went down towards the back of the bus to find a heated argument taking place. On inquiring as to the problem, I was told by one that his friend wanted to stop the bus to have a “pee” and that if we kept stopping we’d be late for the game.

When man’s gotta go, a man’s gotta go, so I stopped the bus which didn't actually resolve the argument but they eventually got over it.

You will gather from that we didn't have a toilet on the bus but we managed OK over the first day. Now we were a bit concerned as we were still a long way from Lisbon and just about 30 hours to kick off. It was decided to bring a bucket from the boot of the bus and to store it in the door stairwell in case of future emergencies. I can't say if it was ever used.

We stopped for lunch in Vitoria. After Burgos we crossed the high plateau of the Meseta. The road seemed to be always going straight to the horizon, generally without another vehicle to be seen. We passed numerous small villages but they were just too far off the road to tell if they were populated or abandoned. They certainly looked ancient.

We had the occasional pitstop, passed through Valladolid and kept on the move until we reached Salamanca at around 11:00pm. By then everyone was famished and we stopped at a roadside bar which we hoped could provide food. The only food on offer was what we thought were salami rolls but were almost certainly chorizo-filled boccadillos. Few if any in the group were prepared to eat salami but we still ordered the rolls and ate the bread.

The place was buzzing, with the staff trying to deal with an unexpected 50+ customers. One of our party, a young customs officer who could speak Spanish, ordered a bottle of beer. In his haste the bartender placed the bottle upside down in the glass and pushed it across the bar. The customs officer considered this unhygienic and complained. He was ignored and so, leaning over the bar, he emptied the beer into a sink and asked for a replacement. Eventually the replacement was reluctantly delivered but it was served in the same manner as before. The now incensed customs officer lifted the bottle out of the glass and threw the beer over the bartender. The bar staff didn’t take kindly to this development and as far as we could tell the police were called.

We quickly decided that our best course of action was to evacuate the bar, get on the bus and head for Lisbon. Not everyone was happy with this decision but we managed to fill the bus and drove off, hoping no blue lights would follow us.

It was about 2:00am when we reached the Portuguese border where we found a barrier across the road and two armed soldiers. Our Spanish speakers were brought into play but the soldiers showed no inclination to allow us to proceed. We quickly learned that the border crossing was closed from midnight until 7:00am. We were of course in Franco's Spain. Our powers of persuasion were of no avail and we accepted that we were stopped there for the night.

Some of us were still standing around chatting when a British registered car, containing four young men, arrived on the scene. We assumed correctly that they were also going to the game and we explained the difficulty. They were unperturbed and the driver turned to his friends in the rear and said “John, have you got the collars there”. A minute later four fresh-faced priests, from Dundee I think, approached the soldiers at the barrier, confident that in Catholic Spain they would have some influence. They didn't and we all stayed put until morning.

The pressure was now on. We had entered mountainous country and our 51-seater coach made slow progress up, and later down, narrow twisted roads. I was fascinated by the trees, most of which had a bowl attached to collect sap, which I now understand was used to make turpentine and rosin. I was also taken aback at the apparent poverty. Farming was clearly a totally manual occupation. Whole families could be seen in the fields, each member wielding an adze-type implement to break up the soil. Crossing the bridge at Coimbra we looked down on women washing sheets in the river and spreading them out to dry on sandbanks.

Throughout the day we were on edge about getting to Lisbon on time. Even when we reached the outer limits of the city we were still concerned. We were driving on a long straight seemingly endless highway. Disconcertingly, for much of the length of this highway we looked out on an enormous shanty town. Behind a safety fence were countless huts built from plywood, chipboard and sheets of corrugated iron – a testimony to the 35-year rule of the dictator Salazar.

It was 3:45pm when we arrived at our hotel and we were still concerned about getting to the Estádio Nacional in time for the 5:30pm kick-off. We checked in and were quickly outside again hailing taxis. In the event we managed to reach the ground in good time.

Just about everything that can be said has already been said about the 90 minutes of football that followed, so I won't try to add to it. I’ll just note that we were at the end where all the goals were scored and despite the early Milan goal we still felt that we could win. It was tense and the quality of the football passed me by. It wasn't until years later when I saw a film of the game that I realised just how impressive the Celtic players were.

The jubilation that came from the winning goal was only surpassed by the celebrations that followed the final whistle. It was some time before order was sufficiently restored for Billy McNeill to climb the steps to collect the trophy and for the enormity of Celtic’s achievement to start sinking in.

We eventually started to settle down and I was still conscious of the fact I hadn’t been to Mass and it was the feast of Corpus Christi. I jumped into a taxi and after a short drive found myself in a church where Mass had just started. I suppose you could call it a Mass of Thanksgiving.

Back at the hotel I met up with Hugh White, who like myself wasn’t into serious drinking. We had a night of quiet celebration. There were few enough Celtic fans around as the vast majority were on there way back by air.

The plan for the following morning was to meet on a square near the river and be on the road by 10:30am. Most people were in their seats when Gerry McGrath came on board and caused something of a stir. He held aloft a large portion of a torn Celtic jersey and announced that it was part of the shirt worn by Billy McNeill. Gerry was just one of a number of fans who mobbed the Celtic captain after the final whistle and left him needing a fresh strip to go up and collect the cup.

Everyone on board the bus pleaded with Gerry for a small piece of the jersey as a souvenir but when he had the chance to speak he announced “The only person who is getting a piece is Liam for organising the bus”. I, of course, had plenty of help but I wasn’t going to argue with him at that point and gratefully accepted the piece of Billy McNeill’s jersey that he proceeded to tear off for me. The small piece of cloth, still with Billy McNeill’s DNA and clay and grass stains from the Estádio Nacional, has become a family heirloom.

When we did a headcount we were missing two. No one had seen them that morning and search parties were dispatched to look for them. We were some distance from the hotel and I returned there by taxi. When we all reassembled no sighting was reported. It was decided that the best approach was to remain in Lisbon for lunch and to leave at 2:00pm. There would be no stops en route as we had to cross into Spain before midnight.

At some stage the missing pair showed up. I should have found them earlier. I didn’t look in their room and they had been fast asleep when I inquired about them at the desk.


We reached the border comfortably and kept going, looking for a place to eat (and drink). It was late at night when we arrived at the bar from which we beat an early retreat two days earlier. I was concerned at the reception we might receive but the argument that a bar wasn’t going to turn away 50 unexpected customers won out. We spent a pleasant hour there before returning to the bus for another long drive.

It was 11:00am on Saturday when we reached San Sebastian. Apart from the hour in Salamanca we had been on the road for 21 hours. The drivers told us they were going to find a B&B for some sleep and we were left to our own devices until 6:00pm. Some of us headed for the beach and I presume the remainder found bars.

As we assembled at the bus everyone was in good form but one group was in higher sprits than the rest of us. They had discovered that a bottle of Bacardi could be purchased for 7/- (35p). They clubbed together and bought a case. They also bought a case of Coca Cola but felt they had been cheated on that as Coke was more expensive in Spain than in the UK. The plan was for an all-night road party but the coach owner had other ideas and all the drink was placed in the boot.

The 6:00pm meeting time was important. There had been a number of serious overnight coach crashes in France and there was a plan to introduce an 8:00pm curfew for long-distance coaches. We weren’t certain that the law had been changed but if it had the drivers planned to ignore it. That meant we had to be across the border by 8:00pm or a French policeman on border duty might ground us for the night.

We crossed the border and headed north without hindrance. It was decided that we should stay away from the centre of Bordeaux to avoid the attention of the police. I plotted a route on the outskirts of the city and well after midnight we were on the final leg and driving down a long boulevard when in the distance a motorcycle came to a stop across our path. As we came closer to the junction our fears were confirmed. It was a policeman, with his hand held high, ordering us to stop. Our hearts sank, or at least the hearts of those still awake, did. Then, just before we came to a halt, the policeman got back on his motorbike and drove off. Seconds later he was followed by dozens of racing cyclists. Once they were past we were free to follow, but not for long. We had hoped to join a short stretch of motorway but found that the cyclists had priority and we had to find an alternative route.

Again we drove through the night before stopping for breakfast somewhere in the middle of France. The drivers were pleased with progress and thought that they could catch a late afternoon ferry from Cherbourg rather than the night ferry from Le Havre. A phone box was found, a call made, and it was established that the ferry company had no problem with that plan.

We arrived in Cherbourg at around noon with some hours to pass before setting sail. We were at a loose end. The bars no longer seemed to have the same appeal for the drinkers among us, or perhaps they had run out of cash. There were no ATMs in those days to allow for a top up. A gang of us wandered past a locked church. Someone said, “Today’s Sunday. We should be trying to find a Mass”. Some else suggested inquiring at the parochial house. We agreed on that course of action.

The priest answered the door and we told our story. He offered to open the church at 1:00pm and celebrate a special Mass for us. A respectable number turned up and filled three or four pews at the front of the Church. As the Mass came to an end the priest suggested that we should conclude with a hymn. After conferring briefly it was agreed we would try “Faith of Our Fathers”. The words had the right level of defiance to have it sung occasionally in Celtic Park and so everybody joined in enthusiastically. Before we reached the end someone whispered “We should have had a collection”. The reply came “There is no plate” and another voice said, ”Use Andy Murphy’s hat”. Andy’s hat was famous. It wasn’t a
cap as you might expect but a trilby and badly needed to protect Andy’s bald head from the British winter and the Spanish sun. It was duly passed round and by the time it reached me, it had an impressive amount of coins. I am not sure how much value it had to the priest as it contained a selection of low-value escudos, pesetas and francs. In other words we had all emptied our pockets of the cash that was going to be of no further use to us.


We were all tired and short of money and so had an uneventful sea crossing, followed by a drive to London, arriving there around midnight. The entire trip had been a bit of an endurance test. Over the course of the week some of us slept in a bed on two nights, others just one. It was all worth it – we had witnessed the greatest event in Celtic’s illustrious history and left ourselves with memories that have faded little over the course of a lifetime.

¹While it existed the sixpence coin was frequently referred to as a “tanner”.

(From talking to other fans in Lisbon after the game we were left with the impression that three buses had left the UK for Lisbon. We made it all the way; one broke down and by the time it was repaired had to turn back; the third took a wrong turn and ended up in Madrid. A few of the fans on the latter flew from Madrid to Lisbon and were expecting the bus to catch up and take them home.)

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Pilgrimage to Lisbon

or How I came to possess a piece of Billy McNeill's Jersey Celtic fans who were present when the Lisbon Lions won the Eur...