Belfast Monsignor's magic memories of 'Lisbon Lion' Stevie Chalmers

Monsignor Joseph Chambers became good friends with 'Lisbon Lions' Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers during more than half a century spent in Glasgow. Picture by Hugh Russell
Neil Loughran

THE Celtic family has lost two huge figures in the past week but, for a Belfast clergyman, Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers were much more than the sporting icons who achieved immortality 52 years ago.

For Monsignor Joseph Chambers, both were personal friends during a ministry in Glasgow that began, ironically enough, in 1967.

That was the year Jock Stein’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ became the first club from the UK to land the European Cup when they defeated a star-studded Inter Milan side at the Portuguese capital’s Estadio Nacional.

McNeill was captain that historic night while Chalmers scored the winning goal six minutes from time, his deft touch diverting Bobby Murdoch’s shot past a wrong-footed Giuliano Sarti, etching his name into legend.

The Glasgow giants have been plunged into mourning during the past week, with McNeill passing away last Monday, followed by Chalmers at the age of 83 yesterday morning.

Like McNeill, father-of-six Chalmers had been suffering from dementia in recent years.

Mgr Chambers, now based at St Patrick’s Church in Donegall Street, got to know both men during over 50 years at St Alphonsus’s Church – just a stone’s throw from Celtic Park – and has only fond memories of long days spent on the golf course.

“They were two of my very good friends in all the time I was in Glasgow,” he said.

“St Alphonsus’s is just down the road from Celtic Park, and they used to drop into Mass after training.

“I ended up getting very friendly with both of them, to the extent that I played golf every week with Stevie Chalmers at the Glasgow Gailes club in Ayrshire. Stevie was an exceptionally good golfer, a very low handicapper.

“Billy had a big family, four girls and one boy, and I ended up doing the wedding services for his family and of course, at weddings, you meet anybody and everybody, so I got very friendly with Billy and Liz McNeill, and their children.

“Both men were still very fit, very active and energetic when I got to know them, and it was only in recent years that they both got ill.”

By the time Mgr Chambers arrived in Glasgow, the green and white half of the city was still basking in the afterglow of Celtic’s most famous hour.

The memories of that success have never dimmed, and the passing of two cornerstones of that great side has served as a reminder of the esteem in which the ‘Lisbon Lions’ are still held.

“When I arrived, the city was still abuzz,” said Mgr Chambers.

“McNeill was a majestic player in the centre of the park, absolutely majestic. He commanded the centre of the field and nobody went past him.

“On the other hand, Stevie Chalmers was like lifting a piece of silk – he was so smooth and so precise in his control of a football, always directing players around him where to be for the next pass.

“The esteem in which that team is still held has become very evident even in the days since Billy McNeill died. No matter when you visit Celtic Park, you see that.

“All over there are reminders of the ‘Lisbon Lions’, and they were gifted special seats in the stadium to make sure they always had pride of place when they came to watch the games.

“After I retired I spent a few years in Donegal and there was a huge Celtic following there. Every year, ex-Celtic players were invited to a function in Donegal – in fact the last place I saw Stevie Chalmers was in Letterkenny, whereas Billy McNeill would go over frequently to Gweedore.

“They were great guys, really good company. As well as being nice people, they were good fun as well, very down to earth, and that’s how I’ll always remember them.”

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