In May 1967 I was a Celtic-daft 8 year old, living in the village of Fochabers, counting down the days until I would be sitting down in front of the television to watch Celtic play Inter Milan in the European Cup final.
It was on the Sunday before the final when we were walking home from Mass that my dad first broke the news that there was going to be a small problem about us being able to watch the game. He tried to explain that Thursday May 25 was the Feast of Corpus Christi and a holiday of obligation, which meant an evening Mass. This wasn’t a “small” problem at all: this was the biggest problem that there had ever been.
There was only one person I could turn to for help to make sense of this sorry mess: my Granny Boyle. Over the next few days she would use all her Killarney charm to try to reassure me that things were going to turn out fine. I was convinced that the Pope must be a Rangers supporter to have organised a holiday of obligation on the same night that Celtic were going to win the European Cup. My Granny suggested to me however, that the Holy Father would probably be a football fan himself and would also miss seeing the game because he would have to say Mass in the Vatican.
On the day before the final, I was at school and thinking about my Granny telling me that the Pope was an Italian. But what would happen, I thought in a panic, if the Pope was an Italian who supported Inter Milan? What would then be the point of me saying prayers for Celtic to win, when all the time the Pope was saying prayers in the Vatican for Inter Milan? This was far too important to wait until after tea to sort out with my Granny and I had to call in by to see her on my way home from school. My Granny distracted me by getting me talking about all the players in the Celtic team and of course I told her all about them and how brilliant they all were. Her message to me was quite clear: when you had players as good as Celtic had and when their captain was my hero, Billy McNeill, and their manager was Jock Stein, it surely wouldn’t matter how many prayers the Pope was offering up for Inter Milan. We both agreed that Celtic were that good!
There was nothing however, that Granny could do about the time of the Mass and its clash with the final. Before teatime on the evening of the match, Dad issued the instructions that we would only be able to watch the first half of the final and then would have to leave to make sure we got to the chapel in time for the start of Mass. And so it was that at half-time in the 1967 European Cup final with Celtic trailing 0-1 to an Inter Milan penalty (which, it was clear to me, was definitely never ever a penalty), the Boyle family, with myself dragging behind at the rear, had to walk down to St Mary’s Chapel. My friends who all lived on the same street, came out of their houses to watch the sorry scene (it would later be recreated for the film Papillon, when Steve McQueen and the other convicts are paraded down the streets on the way to their transportation to Devil’s Island).
For an eight-year-old, concentrating on Mass could be difficult enough on an ordinary Sunday but this was an extraordinary Thursday. Looking around the congregation it was clear that I wasn’t the only one who only had thoughts about a football match taking place in Lisbon. I just knew that the Pope would now be praying for Inter to keep Celtic out in the second half and so I piled in with my own prayers that Celtic would score two goals. At the usual point of the Mass when we were asked to pray for the Holy Father, I kept a dignified silence and resisted the temptation to boo out loud (incredibly it seemed, it was only me and my Granny Boyle who actually knew what that man was up to in the Vatican at that very moment, doing everything he could to help Inter Milan).
The readings at Mass were usually done by a member of the congregation called Alex Young and when he didn’t appear up at the altar at that point, I became aware of murmurings around the chapel that Alex wasn’t in the church. Sure enough, he wasn’t sitting alongside his wife in their usual seat. My dad whispered to me that Alex must be at home watching the end of the game but would be in shortly. Hours seemed to pass before the unmistakeable sound of the large heavy outside door of the chapel could be heard opening, followed by heavy brogue shoes on the concrete floor of the vestibule and then the inside door finally opened. By this time, the entire congregation had turned round in time to see the bold Alex Young standing there at the back of the church: he had the biggest smile on his face that you could possibly imagine anyone ever having and his extravagant double thumbs up sign confirmed beyond any doubt that CELTIC WERE CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE!!
Outside the church at the end of Mass, Alex held court, relaying the news of the two goals, as other people hugged and kissed each other. I could see my friends waiting for me with a football at the church gate and when we got to the park they took it turns to be Tommy Gemmell and Stevie Chalmers to demonstrate how Celtic had won the European Cup. Before I ran off to see them, I looked across at my Granny Boyle and she had that magical smile on her face which said, “See, didn’t I tell you that everything would turn out fine”. She had indeed been right all along and I’m sure that when the Pope eventually saw the game that he too would have agreed that things had turned out fine for Celtic and also for football.