For some, it could be a daunting act to follow. Scott Brown, however, believes that wearing the skipper’s armband at Celtic Park is a privilege given those who have gone before him. And as Celtic celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lisbon, the pinnacle of the club’s history, the midfielder has voiced his own desire to do justice to the memory of those who put the shirt on the map.
Brown has spent a decade at Celtic during which time he has been treated to all the anecdotes of John Clark and Bertie Auld, a double act he has yet to grow tired of. Clark oversees the kit at Celtic without being so hands-on, but when Brown first arrived at Celtic he was a daily reminder of the heights that have been scaled by the club. “John used to tell us all the time that we wouldn’t be able to lift the European Cup,” smiled Brown. “We used to rib him about it but at the same time you cannot help but stop and think about that. I don’t know that it is a story you could ever get sick of hearing – although obviously I wouldn’t tell John that.
“But theirs was an amazing story. I think we all know that it isn’t something that we will ever see again. They were eleven local guys, eleven mates really, who went out and won the European Cup. That is the thing that always strikes me – John would have wee Bertie or whoever in for a cuppa and you’d be walking past his wee room thinking to yourself that those guys were the best in Europe at one time.
“They are just such ordinary, down- to-earth guys. They don’t have any airs or graces and although they are forever telling us that they were better than us, there is always a smile and a joke with it. All these years later and what you can still see is that they were proper mates. They are still mates. They still kick about with one another, they still look out for one another and you can still sense that spirit and togetherness that was obviously such a huge part of that team.”
In many ways, the easy reach of the Lions and their ability to sustain an approachability may well have rendered their story far more prosaic than it actually was.
It is difficult to envisage such a scenario playing out now – nor, indeed, would it be possible to imagine the Champions League winners being handed their medals from a shoebox, the way it infamously played out in Lisbon.
For the current skipper, this week is an opportunity to pay homage to the class of ’67 and ensure that their achievements get the respect that they duly deserve.
“They put Celtic out there,” said Brown. “There isn’t anyone in football who doesn’t know the story of the Lisbon Lions. They made Celtic known throughout Europe and, as we all know, they did it by playing a certain kind of football.
“They are the inspiration for any player who ever walks through the front door at Celtic. It is funny, I have played with players here for many seasons and I have played with guys who have come only for a short time before moving on but there is something about Celtic that stays with all of them and I think the Lions are a big part of that.
“You have players who will tell you time and time again than when they leave Celtic, they still think of the club, they still support the club. I know how many of them look for tickets, how many are in touch to pass on best wishes and support at various times and some of that goes back to that kind of spirit that the Lions created at this club.
“I am glad that they are getting the chance to have a moment and take their place where they belong this season. For me, what they achieved is something so special that you almost can’t quite grasp how big it was.
“They deserve all the glory and all the accolades this month because in many ways these guys are Celtic. They are the benchmark that the rest of us all aspire to.”
Brown will lead the plaudits but it is also on the park where he will look to do justice to Celtic’s greatest ever team. That Jock Stein’s achievements will never be surpassed, there is a feeling that under Brendan Rodgers there is a team capable of making inroads into European football.
That may be a more modest ambition than what the Lions delivered but given the financial disparity and chasm between Europe’s richest clubs, it nevertheless represents a level of success.
“I think every Celtic team wants to play to that philosophy, Jock Stein’s philosophy that for every goal they score, we’ll score one more,” smiled Brown. “This season we have strived to replicate that kind of attacking football, of trying to play to the very best of our ability not just in one or two games but in every game, every training game, every bounce game, every time we have a ball at our feet.
“No-one will ever be like the Lisbon Lions. They are legends and rightly so. But to play in a way that honours the standards they set at this club will always be a privilege.”
Contrasting different generations in football is always a difficulty given the obvious evolution. Money aside, the game itself has modified and changed with pace and athleticism, body fat and sheer physicality far more prevalent than ever before. Brown, though, does not pause when asked if the Lions could still do it in today’s world.
“Without question,” he stated. “These guys were players. Jinky, Bertie, Tommy Gemmell, big Billy [McNeill], Stevie [Chalmers] and Bobby Murdoch, John Clark – those guys would be superstars today. They’d be at the very top level because they knew how to play football.
“All we can do is try to make sure that we carry a flag that they passed over. There is a pressure at Celtic and part of that pressure is to live up to what has gone before. You have to cope with that and recognise it. You have to be understand that for every Celtic fan the Lisbon Lions are the ultimate heroes. They are the guys who delivered something that we are all proud of.
“Every time you pull on the jersey you have to appreciate that and understand what you are playing for. For some it is a pressure but most of all it is a privilege. My own ambition at the club is simply to make sure we try and play a kind of football that they appreciate.”