Despite a period of unprecedented success at European club level, the three World Cup qualifying campaigns completed in the 1960s would bear little fruit for Celtic’s international contingent. The vast majority of those involved represented Scotland, with only Bertie Peacock and Charlie Gallagher of Ireland springing to mind as notable exceptions.
Bertie’s World Cup swansong came in the qualifying phase for the Chile World Cup of 1962, with appearances against West Germany and Greece, as the six counties failed to repeat the heroics of ‘58. He would play one more game at international level, against Scotland in Belfast in October 1961, by which time he had left his beloved Celtic to return to his native Coleraine, taking up a role as player-manager with the local team.
Charlie became the first Scottish-born player to represent Ireland, when he faced Turkey in Ankara in February 1967, gaining a second and final cap in Dublin against Czechoslovakia, just a few days before Lisbon.
Both Ireland and Czechoslovakia would face Scotland in the qualification group for Chile, with Billy McNeill and Pat Crerand featuring in a winning double-header against the Irish in May 1961. This came just weeks after the dual humiliation of a 9-3 defeat at Wembley, Billy’s international debut, and a Cup Final Replay loss to Jock Stein’s Dunfermline.
The pair were also involved in the third group match, played later that month, a 4-0 mauling from the Czechs in Bratislava and were then joined by new Celtic captain, Dunky MacKay, for the must-win return game at Hampden in September. The Scots duly won 3-2, setting up a November play-off in neutral Brussels. Only Crerand kept his place, as Scotland lost a late equaliser then succumbed to two extra-time goals to lose 4-2 in the Heysel, the victorious Czechs then going all the way to the Chile final the following year, where they would lose to Brazil.
Scotland faced another tough challenge to qualify for the 1966 Finals, to be held in England, being drawn against the mighty Italians. They included a number of players from the two Milan sides, who were dominating the European Cup at that time, winning three-in-a-row between 1963 and 1965. The group also comprised Poland and Finland, the Scots getting off to a good start by beating the Finns at Hampden in October ‘64, Steve Chalmers netting the second in a 3-1 win. Two other Celts took the field that night, Jimmy Johnstone and ‘The President’, Jim Kennedy, making the fifth of his six appearances for Scotland.
The next qualifiers took place the following May, back-to-back away fixtures in Poland and Finland. In the interim, new Celtic manager Jock Stein, fresh from winning the Scottish Cup against his old Dunfermline side, had replaced Sunderland-bound Ian McColl in the hot-seat. Jock chose two current Celts, Billy McNeill and John Hughes, together with former colleagues Collins and Crerand, in the starting line-up in Chorzow.
A late Law header earned a decent point against the Poles and four days later, with Billy retaining his place at the heart of the defence, the Scots won 2-1 in Helsinki, setting the team up nicely for the remaining fixtures. Cesar was again the lone Celt for the return match with Poland, at Hampden, in October 1965. In front of over 107,000 fans, he put Scotland in front early on, with a shot following a corner. It remained 1-0 until four minutes from time, then disaster struck, the Poles scoring twice to snatch a heart-breaking victory, handing the group advantage to Italy with two games to play.
The following month, on a memorable night at Hampden, in front of another 100,000-plus crowd, Scotland beat the Italians 1-0, thanks to a last-minute strike from John Greig. Celtic’s Bobby Murdoch, earning his first cap, and John Hughes played their part, as the Scots took the fight to the last game, four weeks later in Naples. However, although both retained their places, horrendous squad call-offs meant that the Scotland team was grossly under-strength, Liverpool centre-half Ron Yeats bizarrely playing up front, as they lost 3-0 to Italy and exited the competition with a whimper. The Italians would themselves face embarrassment in the forthcoming Finals in England, rank outsiders North Korea beating them in Middlesbrough, to join the Soviet Union in the quarter-finals at their expense.
The next campaign, for Mexico ’70, saw the Scots pitted against formidable West Germany, runners-up in England, together with their neighbours Austria and minnows Cyprus. Bobby Brown was the manager charged with qualification and Scotland again made a strong start, beating the Austrians 2-1 at Hampden in November 1968, in front of 80,000 supporters. There was a strong Celtic influence in the side, with five players in the line-up, Simpson and Gemmell in defence behind forwards Johnstone, Hughes and Lennox.
This would be a poignant night for veteran goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson, who was at fault for the Austrian goal, a long-range shot deceiving him in the opening minutes. The Lisbon Lion, who had made his international debut in the victory at Wembley the previous April at the ripe old age of 36 years, made the last of his five full appearances for his country. ‘Faither’ had an incredible career, real ‘Bhoys Own’ stuff. He was in the Queens Park goals in 1945, still just fourteen, then represented the British Olympic football team under Matt Busby in 1948. He then won two FA Cups with Newcastle United and played in a ‘B’ international against England at Easter Road in March 1953, just prior to representing the Magpies in the Coronation Cup.
Having fallen out of favour at St James Park by 1960, he joined Hibernian, where a certain Jock Stein moved him on to Celtic four years later, essentially being signed as back-up to John Fallon. Within three years, he was a European Cup winner and Scotland goalkeeper, winning everything with Celtic prior to his retirement in 1970, due to a recurring shoulder injury, in his fortieth year.
He would have one last appearance in the famous green crew-neck – my first Celtic strip and like Simpson himself, classy with no frills – when he led the team down the old enclosure steps against Clyde in May ‘71 for the Lions Farewell. I recall that day well and was genuinely saddened when my boyhood hero passed away suddenly in April 2004, fittingly the day after witnessing another Celtic Championship triumph. Ronnie was the second Lion to leave us, following Bobby Murdoch’s untimely death three years earlier.
Next up for Scotland was a trip to Nicosia to take on the Cypriots, in December ’68. Three weeks earlier, Gerd Muller had got the Germans out of jail at the same venue, scoring the only goal of the game in stoppage time. Scotland would have no such problem. Murdoch was Celtic’s lone starter, grabbing the second goal as the Scots completed the job by half-time, netting five without reply. Bobby Lennox and Billy McNeill came on as substitutes in a goalless second period, as the perfect campaign opening was maintained.
Spring 1969 saw a critical Hampden double-header for the Scots. First up was Germany in April, in the midst of a purple patch for Celtic which saw them win all three domestic trophies and a Player of the Year award for the brilliant Murdoch. Bobby was one of four Bhoys to line up in front of 96,000, Gemmell, Johnstone and Lennox completing the Hoops quartet. On a tension-packed night, Muller drew first blood, turning brilliantly in the box to put the Germans ahead just before the interval. Despite tremendous second-half Scotland efforts, the clock ticked relentlessly towards 90 without further scoring, then Murdoch showed his true class, stepping inside a defender to crash an unstoppable shot past Maier into the roof of the net.
The dropped home point made Germany favourites to progress, however before the return in Hamburg there was a fixture with Cyprus in May. Almost 40,000 watched that afternoon, as Scotland turned it on for what was my first international game, scoring eight times in a one-way procession to stay in the group race.
Colin Stein took the headlines, helping himself to four, whilst Billy McNeill netted yet again for his country and the late Tommy Gemmell completed the scoring with a trademark penalty, for what would be his only goal for Scotland. Four days later, Muller repeated Stein’s feat in Essen, as the Germans beat Cyprus 12-0, the concession of twenty goals without reply in two games highlighting the huge gulf in class.
Both Celts retained starting places in the cauldron of the Volksparkstadion in October of that year, this time joined by Jimmy Johnstone for the must-win tie. It was Jinky who struck first, following up on a Maier fumble to put the Scots ahead in the opening minutes. By the hour mark, the Germans had turned the game around, ‘Der Bomber’ once again on the scoresheet with a superb volley for 2-1, sparking a mini-pitch invasion, before Alan Gilzean headed a brave equaliser just three minutes later.
Libuda then avoided a wild swing from Gemmell to race through and beat Herriott with just ten minutes remaining. Then followed the infamous moment when Tommy made great contact with his right-foot, as he often did, unfortunately this time Helmut Haller was the target and the Celtic full-back saw red for a blatant retaliatory attack, as another qualifying campaign ended in both defeat and shame for Scotland.
There was one final, meaningless fixture to complete in a decade of frustration, in Vienna two weeks later. Bobby Murdoch was again in midfield as the Scots finished the group on a low, with two first-half Redl goals consigning them to a second consecutive defeat.
West Germany continued their superb form in Mexico the following summer, the goals of Muller taking them all the way to the semi-final, where they lost 4-3 after extra-time to eventual runners-up Italy, in what remains one of the greatest games of football ever played. Pele’s Brazil would win the title, and the hearts of football lovers all over the world, with a scintillating display of attacking football in the Azteca, their 4-1 win giving them a third – and thus permanently-owned – Jules Rimet trophy and the mantle of ‘Team of the Century’.