In 1967 Celtic won the European Cup, an achievement so outstanding for that time that the pride, the ecstasy and the magical memories will live forever. Any Celtic supporter of that era, I’ve no doubt, would wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments.
Jock Stein, the Lisbon Lions and the rest of the squad left us a legacy that will most probably never be equalled.
This story is in honour of one of that squad and the vital role he played in getting Celtic to Lisbon. The man in question is Charlie Gallagher, my boyhood football hero.
Charlie Gallagher was a footballer blessed with a unique blend of skills and was a player who had a complete mastery of the ball. He was equally adept on both left and right sides and he was the finest passer of a football I ever had the privilege to watch. Of all the skills in his repertoire the one that I’ll always remember is the long-range pass to his winger. Charlie would ping the ball 25 or 30 yards and swing it inside the line into the winger’s stride, a fantastic skill to witness and one only the most gifted of players could execute. He also played the game the way it was meant to be played. He was elegant, graceful and sporting, very much Corinthian in attitude. There was only one way Charlie Gallagher helped to win football matches and that was with the application of superior skills to that of the opposition.
The European Cup was a distant dream for every Celtic supporter when season 1966-67 began, but four wins from four ties against Zurich and Nantes piloted us into the quarter-finals. The European Cup was still a dream, only now it wasn’t quite such a distant one.
The quarter-final draw paired us with the strange and not so well known name of Vojvodina from Novi Sad in Yugoslavia. Not a famous team, not a team heard of by many of the supporters I knew – an unknown quantity, and the unknown is always a worry in football. Little did we know how much worry Vojvodina had in store for us.
Celtic lost 1:0 in Novi Sad and by all accounts were fortunate to get away with just a single goal deficit. The worry began.
March 8th 1967 was the date set for the second leg. I turned 16 that week and I think I got my first grey hair through worrying so much about the match. I was also in the process of joining the RAF as an apprentice, but the game had priority in my mind. My future career would have to wait, at least until March 9th.
At the time I was working in a leather works in Main Street, Bridgeton. Not a place you would expect to find an abundance of Celtic supporters. It was a good place to work, though, with a lot of decent and friendly people there. Though not died-in-the-wool Rangers supporters, most of them would have leaned that way if pushed, so naturally, being the youngest in the place and the only Celtic fan, I took my fair share of ribbing.
My juvenile boasting that Celtic would win the European Cup fell on deaf ears or, in most instances, met with the Glaswegian response of, “Your heid’s full of wee motors son!” Therefore Vojvodina had me worried in more ways than just their ability to beat us at football. My delicate 16 year-old ego was in danger of taking a battering.
The Wednesday arrived and it was easy to tell it was the day of the match. My stomach was gripped with nerves, a symptom that would have no relief until the referee’s final whistle that night. I worked until 6.45 that evening then, with the usual “Good luck to you and your team” from the men I worked with I set off for Celtic Park. I didn’t know it at that moment but I was about to witness one of the most dramatic football matches I have ever seen.
75,000 spectators were locked inside the ground that night. I managed to get to my usual spot at the Celtic End near the right-corner floodlight pylon. I was absolutely delighted when I heard the team news. Charlie Gallagher was playing. Although I was biased about his ability I also believed that Charlie was a lucky talisman for the team.
Celtic ran out wearing their all-green strip, another reason for apprehension for me. I always preferred – and still do – to see Celtic play in their traditional hoops. On this occasion, though, that was a minor worry.
This was the big test – could Celtic overcome that 1:0 deficit and get to the semi-final of the European Cup? It was the proverbial atmosphere where you could cut through the tension with a blunt butter knife. 75,000 hearts started beating a little faster as the match kicked off.
The game completely lived up to its billing. Celtic were magnificent, totally committed to attacking play and testing Vojvodina to the absolute limits of their ability. Charlie was having one of his finest ever games for Celtic, using all of his passing and probing skills and playing his heart out, like the rest of the team. What was worrying for us mere mortals watching was the fact that Vojvodina were proving themselves to be an excellent team. Understandably they were not as committed to attacking play as Celtic, but when they did get forward the anxiety on the terraces was tangible. It was like being at a Celtic-Rangers game as they were back then – every time they crossed the halfway line we feared they would score.
Half-time arrived with the score at 0:0. The mood among the fans, however, was still one of confidence. The Celtic performance in the first half warranted no less than that.
The second period started in much the same fashion as the first, with Celtic relentless in their pursuit of the elusive opening goal. Twenty minutes into the half their efforts were rewarded. A Tommy Gemmell cross from the left wing was fumbled by the goalkeeper and then sent netbound by the evergreen Stevie Chalmers. The stadium absolutely erupted. The noise, the passion, the support for the team reached levels that I had never experienced before.
All that was needed now was that vital second. Surely, we prayed, Celtic would get the result their performance deserved. The last twenty minutes were nerve-racking. We needed that vital second goal but Vojvodina were remaining resolute in defence and a goal from them would surely shatter our dreams.
They say that fortune favours the brave. The performance of the Celtic players that night epitomised that saying. Their overwhelming desire to win that match was inspiring to anyone who witnessed it.
The match entered its last minute and Celtic won yet another corner. This was surely the last opportunity to win the game in regulation time.
Step forward Charlie Gallagher.
I believe that if Billy McNeill had been standing in the jam-packed Jungle that night then Charlie could have put the ball on his forehead from the centre spot, that’s how much I rated his ability.
It was like a moment frozen in time. Charlie flighted one of his impeccable corners, big Billy’s jump was timed to perfection, his forehead met the ball and directed it with power into the roof of the net.
I remember a split second of silence then an explosion of absolute ecstasy from 75,000 throats. People around me were hugging, kissing, dancing… Celtic Park was definitely Paradise for the next ten minutes.
Vojvodina just had time to kick off before the referee blew for full-time. We had won 2:0 and were in the semi-final of the European Cup. The dream was a massive step closer.
Everybody remembers that it was big Billy who scored the goal, and rightly so. But this is written for the man with the cool head and the uncanny ability to put the ball exactly where Cesar wanted it – the one and only Charlie Gallagher.