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lisbon lions book

The lisbon Lions: The Real Inside Story by Alex Gordon; Black & White Publishing; 238 pages hardback; £16.99

Published to coincide with the 40th anniversary this year, the cover of this book proclaims the authors as none other than all eight of the surviving Lions. However, this is less of a showcase for the literary talents of our greatest ever team than a tabloid-style series of interviews strung together by Alex Gordon, who, unsurprisingly, used to be the sports editor for one of our newspapers.

As far as I’m concerned, when a journo can’t, or won’t, up his game to write a proper book - especially when the subject matter is so dear to so many - then the result is always going to be about as satisfying as reading anything else in the papers. Hence this book reads as if Gordon has basically interviewed the Lions and transcribed it pretty much verbatim from his dictaphone to the page. The result is that curious hybrid of colloquialism mixed with that awful hackneyed style so beloved of what the late Jimmy Sanderson would describe as ‘trained journalists’.

I mean, can you really imagine Bertie Auld saying: “One major disappointment for yours truly on our big day in Lisbon was that I didn’t get the opportunity to pit my wits against Inter Milan’s Luis Suarez. Injury forced him out of their team and in the aftermath of our triumph the Italians pointed out they would have picked up the trophy again had their much-vaunted Spanish midfielder had been playing.”

Rather than present the story of Lisbon in a structured linear way with his own prose linking the players’ stories together, Gordon presents each interview as a discrete chapter. The same anecdotes are therefore repeated by two or three players, and we get passages like this from Stevie Chalmers: “I agree with Bobby, by the way, about the pre-season trip to America being a great thing for the club...”

The tabloid-style shilling of the book through its press release is equally irritating. The story of these events stands on its own merits. It doesn’t need spicing up with lame teasers such as, “which Lion thought the European Cup Final was the easiest game of the season?” or “Who now admits he made life difficult for Jock Stein?” or, worse still, “Which Lion had a running battle with his team mates throughout the European Cup Final”.

This kind of hopeless pandering to (non) sensationalism reaches one of its low points in Willie Wallace’s chapter, where he attempts to “clear up a few mysteries that have followed me about for forty years or so.” Willie, it seems, was never a Rangers supporter but was taken to watch Rangers in the 50s because his Uncle Jim was president of the Kirkintilloch Rangers supporters club. He spent a lot of time watching Falkirk as well. Who cares? I don’t remember Willie’s football allegiances ever being called into question. On the contrary, it was no secret that he wasn’t a Celtic fan, but we used to take great delight in watching one of theirs playing for us and doing well against Rangers. (see Gemmell, Tommy)

Apart from the interviews with the Lions there are three chapters at the end of the book where the players pay tribute to their deceased manager and team-mates, Jock Stein, Ronnie Simpson, Bobby Murdoch and Jimmy Johnstone. More interviews, but glowing tributes nonetheless.

It is rounded off with chapters about the players who were in the Celtic squad at that time but never made the final. Players like John Fallon and John Hughes. There is also a profile of big Jock’s assistant
manager Sean Fallon. These are chapters which Alex Gordon has apparently been forced to write himself. The results aren’t inspiring.

What should merely have been appendices are presented here as numbered chapters: pen pix (hate that form of the word) of the players with statistics on their Celtic careers and internationsl caps; a brief summary of what happened to each of them after Lisbon; match reports from all the games leading to the final; more statistics on attendances, appearances and goalscorers for Celtic in the European Cup that season; more statistics
detailing the medals won by each player; a separate section on the players’ nicknames and some random facts about the year 1967.

The last hundred pages or so give the game away, as much of it reads like random notes that should really have been woven into a better structured account of the greatest single event in Celtic’s history. The benchmark, for me, still remains ‘One Afternoon in Lisbon’ by McCarra and Woods, and this, I’m afraid, falls way short.

There are some 16 pages of black and white photos but none that will not be familiar. There’s even one of Robert Kelly captioned ‘the ambitious chairman of Celtic who always believed that football should be played in a flamboyant attacking mode.’ To such an extent that before Jock Stein stopped his meddling in team affairs we were throwing away three goal leads in European semi-finals and the players were being made to go on sightseeing tours when they should have been training or swotting up on the tactics of their opponents.

I hope the book sells well and the Lions make some money out of it, but they deserve a better ghost writer than Alex Gordon to chronicle the best football day of their lives.