In the tunnel underneath the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon moments before the 1967 European Cup final, Celtic’s players lined up alongside their opposition, Inter Milan.
Captain Billy McNeill takes up the story. “The contrast was incredible. They had all these lovely, lyrical names like Alessandro Mazzola, Giacinto Facchetti. We had Murdoch and Auld. They had tanned legs and faces, like models. We were all gums and pale skin.
Great victories generate their own mythology, in which the smallest incident is often embellished into a matter of world-turning importance. But this anecdote resonates down the decades because it sums up so much about the story of the Lisbon Lions.
It’s the moment when European football’s Latin citadel was stormed by an impudent attacking force from the north; it’s the so-called Glasgow & District XI, gap-toothed and scrawny products of Britain’s post-war austerity, standing tall against the glamorous two-time European champions; it’s the shock and uncertainty of the imperious Italians, who, not for the last time that evening, would ask themselves: What the hell is this?
Being a boyhood Celtic fan, Andy Robertson will know that story.
You wonder, when he joins his team-mates in the tunnel in Kiev, whether he’ll look at Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Sergio Ramos and channel his own bit of 21st-century Bertie Auld or whether, when the match starts, and if Ronaldo drifts out to his side of the pitch, it will cross his mind that when his opponent was winning his first La Liga title with Real Madrid back in 2012, Robertson was contemplating life as an amateur at Queens Park, deemed too small to make it at Celtic’s youth academy.
Robertson’s rise has been one of the most endearing elements of Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final. He has been the subject, in this week of weeks, of rags-to-riches feature interviews in The Guardian and The Times. In this democratic age of matey YouTube stars, he has become an Anfield cult hero as much for his relatable persona as for the ping of his sweet left foot.
There was the tweet from August 2012 excavated in the aftermath of the semi-final win over Roma, in which an 18-year-old Robertson bemoaned his lowly station: “life at this age is rubbish with no money #needajob.”
Or the story of how Robertson, a supporter of food bank charities, on hearing that a seven-year-old Liverpool fan had donated his pocket money to the cause, sent the kid a letter and a signed Roberto Firmino jersey (“because nobody wants the left-back’s shirt,” he wrote wryly).
Speaking to Donald McRae for The Guardian piece, Robertson gave more details of his origin story: His upset at being cut from Celtic; his Queens Park debut against Berwick in front of 372 fans; how, while jobbing as an usher at Hampden Park, he once showed an injured Vincent Kompany to his seat for a Scotland v Belgium international.
Robertson’s rise through Dundee United and Hull City had plenty twists of good fortune, but none as serendipitous as his first meeting with Jurgen Klopp. “He gave me one of his hugs,” Robertson recounted of his arrival at Anfield. “The gaffer really wants to know you. I sat down with him and he told me about his past and I told him about mine. We both had to battle for everything. He liked my story and that helped.”
He liked his story but Klopp let Robertson sweat it out for four months on the training ground before a December injury to Alberto Moreno gave him his chance. By January he was charging around the Manchester City rearguard in a display of yapping terrier pressing that became a famous social media clip and helped make him a fan favourite.
The natural inclination is to set this Champions League final up as a clash between Ronaldo and Mo Salah, one the reigning champ of the goal-getting craft, the other the freewheeling breakthrough phenomenon taking a shot at the big man’s Ballon D’Or title as well as his Champions League crown.
But if Liverpool win in Kiev it may well be in Robertson’s tale that the Anfield myth-makers find the most material. In that meeting of minds with the young Scot, Klopp must have recognised so much about himself and what he wanted his Liverpool to be.
The everyman, the grafter, the unlikely lad; the social conscience, the front-foot playing style, the fact that if anyone would buy into Klopp’s egalitarian communal ethic, it would surely be this kid who so recently manned the tills in a Glasgow M&S.
Lest we be accused of pandering to the more misty-eyed proponents of the Liverpool legend, this final is admittedly no underdog fairytale story. Liverpool’s revenues of €424.5m saw them ranked ninth among the world’s richest clubs in the 2018 Deloitte Football Money League. They paid £75m (€85.5m) to add Virgil van Dijk into their troublesome defence in January.
And they have, as they are not slow to mention, won it five times.
Neither are Real simply gilded aristocrats. A teenage Marco Asensio overcame a developmental condition that left him with excruciating joint pain every time he played. Ronaldo himself was born into poverty in Madeira, the son of an alcoholic father. Like most top soccer squads, Real’s are drawn from various ghettos, favelas, and banlieues around the globe.
But Real are Real and the story is being written already. In the pre-match press conference back in 1967, Jock Stein said:
“I am now going to tell him [Inter manager Helenio Herrera] how Celtic will be the first team to bring the European Cup back to Britain. But it will not help him in any manner, shape or form: We are going to attack as we have never attacked before.”
This week, the Liverpool manager has been trying to shape the mythology of this final as Stein once did when he kindled the garrulous spirit that inspired the Lisbon tunnel sing-song.
It’s also why in the meeting of the pale-skinned Glaswegian, who had to battle for everything, and the glittering stars of Real lies the essence of this final’s fascination.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved