Sunday, 5 February 2017

In the heat of Lisbon

In the heat of Lisbon

Barry looked up from his phone an incredulous look on his face, ‘Flights just went from £80 to £270. Canny go they robbing basas, soon as Celtic head some where they shove the price up.’ Sniper looked at him, ‘What aboot flying intae somewhere like Lisbon and jumping a train?’ Barry typed away in silence for a few minutes, ‘We could do that, £120 each flying fae Edinburgh?’  The three friends looked at each other nodding, ‘I’m in,’ smiled Mick, ‘need tae back the team there’s a European final riding on this game.’ They agreed and three return tickets between Scotland and Lisbon were purchased. Barry then sorted out train tickets from Lisbon to Porto and all was set. For good or ill the three amigos would be in Porto backing their team against the stuffy and cynical Boavista.

They would have 7 or 8 hours in the Portuguese capital between arriving at the airport and boarding the train at Santa Apolonia for the long journey north to Porto. There was little debate about what they would do with this time; they would visit the shrine which is the Estadio Nacionale where Celtic won the European cup so memorably in 1967. Before the trip to Portugal the three friends watched Celtic defeat Kilmarnock 2-0 at home before heading to Tynecastle to watch a bruising game in which Hearts scored the winning goal with just seconds left. It was a bitter, damaging blow in the league campaign but there was no time to mope on such things for the supporters or the team. The club’s biggest game in decades was just days away and thousands of Celtic supporters were heading to Porto to back the players and see if they could make another piece of Celtic history.

Sniper, Mick and Barry jumped the early morning bus at Buchanan Street bus station to Edinburgh airport and could see from the smattering of Hooped shirts on the bus that others were going to Porto by the same roundabout route they were. As the bus glided along the M8 the friends discreetly opened a beer and chatted about the journey ahead. From somewhere near the back of the bus a group of young Celts began singing a song which made some on the bus smile and others exhale and look at their papers…

For those who are in love there’s a song that’s warm and tender,
For those who are oppressed in song you can protest,
so liberate your mind and give your soul expression,
open up your hearts and I’ll sing for you this song…

The flight to Lisbon was full of Celtic fans and there was a mood of quiet confidence among them but Barry knew how tough it would be. ‘This is gonnae be a mission. This mob are gonnae sit in and waste time and dive all over the place. They don’t need tae score but we dae.’ Sniper regarded Barry in that manner a teacher does a rather slow pupil, ‘The Buckie bottle’s always half empty wi you init? Celtic will do this mob, I don’t care how, I don’t care who scores but mark my words, we’ll be going tae Seville so less ay yer worries eh?’ Barry smiled, ‘Just being realistic big man, it’ll be tough.’ Sniper regarded him, ‘Listen you, I’ve got oan my lucky medal, we never get gubbed when I’m wearing it so relax things are under control.’ Sniper’s ‘lucky medal’ was a football medal he won at Primary School which for him held special significance as the man who presented the winning side with their medals was the inimitable Tommy Burns. ‘Oh well that’s all right then,’ smiled Barry, ‘Hope you told Martin and the team yer wearing it.’

The plane banked to the left and began its descent through the clouds and into a sparkling bright Portuguese morning. The sun glinted on the ocean and on the landward side the urban sprawl of Lisbon was laid out below them like a bright 3D map. Sniper nodded towards Barry who sat eyes closed on the seat beside him. Mick nodded and smiled, knowing his friend hated take-off and landing on planes more than anything. ‘I asked the pilot if these things crash often,’ Sniper said to Barry, who mumbled, ‘What did he say?’  Sniper grinned, ‘He said, naw, just the once.’ Barry resisted a smile and muttered, ‘Shut it ya big plamph.’ The plane wheels screeched a little as the plane bumped down onto Portuguese soil.

As the plane doors opened the heat enveloped them like a warm caress. They walked down the steep steps to the waiting bus, a feeling of excitement growing within them. ‘Yaaas,’ grinned Barry, ‘Here we go again, we’re on the road again!’ Sniper shook his head and said to Mick, ‘Gets aw his patter fae song lyrics this yin. He started aw that cringe-worthy stuff up the Garage wan night. He said tae a lassie; ‘If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?’   Mick sand Barry laughed as Sniper continued, ‘She said to him, if I said my boyfriend was a kick boxer would ye fuck off.’  They descended into raucous laughter as Sniper continued his favourite hobby of giving Barry a hard time. ‘Just as well you’re a pal,’ Barry grinned, ‘or I’d be setting aboot you.’ Sniper smiled, ‘You couldny set aboot a pudding supper ya walloper. Yer sister battered ye at school.’ It continued in this vein until the three amigos exited the airport and jumped a Taxi for the Estadio Nacional.

The short uniformed man who looked like a cross between a Park Ranger and a cop waived an arm at them as they gazed through the fence at their field of dreams. ‘Fechado hoje! Fechado!’ Barry waited until the man was closer before showing him the badge on his yellow Celtic away top, ‘Any chance of a quick look around, Pal? We’ve come a long way.’ The man rolled his head as if he’d encountered many Celtic fans in such circumstances and said in reasonable English, ’ We closed today, come back tomorrow.’ Mick explained they were heading north to see Celtic play Boavista and couldn’t return tomorrow, The man rubbed the stubble on his chin before Sniper held a 20 Euro note out in front of him, ‘Ten minutes mate, come on eh?’ The man took the money, skilfully making it look as if he was shaking Sniper’s hand and said with a sigh, ‘Ok, dez minotos, then go.’ He then added as an after-thought, ‘and tonight you beat those sons of bitches too uh? We Benfica supporters don’t like Porto or Boavista.’ The three friends nodded as the man, it seemed that inter-city rivalry was the same the world over.

He led them a few metres to a gate set into a wall. He unlocked it and led them inside. ‘Ten minutes, rapazes eh?’ The three friends didn’t hear him as they were already looking around the stadium they felt they knew well from a hundred old photos and film of Celtic’s day of triumph there. Directly across the emerald turf of the pitch from where they stood they could see the podium where Billy McNeil had held the gleaming European Cup above his head. ‘This place is amazing,’ said Mick, smiling ‘amazing but an odd wee stadium tae hold a European final in?’  They walked to the centre circle and Sniper rotated slowly taking it all in. ‘It was right here the Celts did it. Amazing!’  The three friends basked in the Portuguese sun as they walked to the spot where Gemmell had smashed in the equaliser and then to where Chalmers guided that Celtic side to immortality.

The walked to the opposite end of the field and down the stairway into the cool, shade of the tunnel where the players had lined up before that game in May 1967. A gate stopped them going far but they were thrilled to be there where the Lions had stood waiting for their shot at glory. ‘This is where wee Bertie started that sing song,’ said Barry. Sniper grinned, ‘Aye, imagine the Tallies standing there looking cool and then the wee man belting out the grand old team.’ Mick looked at them, ‘Well, we won’t be here again so what do ye say?’  His too friends looked at him, ‘Why not,’ said Barry smiling. They began to sing, their voices echoing in the tunnel and drifting across the emerald field of dreams…

‘Sure it’s a grand old team to play for
Sure it’s a grand old team to see
And if you know the history
It’s enough to make your hearts go
Oh, oh ,oh, oh!
We don’t care what the animals say
What the hell do we care?
For we only know that there’s going to be a show
And the Glasgow Celtic will be there!’

It was almost a spiritual experience for the three Glasgow boys who had heard of what occurred here long before they were born. In a sense this place was a pilgrimage site for Celtic fans. It was here their team reached the pinnacle of their history. It was here a bunch of pale Scottish lads demonstrated to the so called elite of Europe what could be done with skill, determination and a willingness to play football as it should be played.

They headed back up the stairway and into the glare of the Portuguese sun as the Celtic side had done so long ago. The voice of the Portuguese security man broke the spell. It was time to head north to Porto and see if the modern Celts could make their own little piece of history.  

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