My wee friend with the black beard was a Protestant clergyman, a refugee from the military regime in Argentina. He taught Greek and Hebrew to bible students at the University of Paris. He was telling us about the state of the modern French novel. “Tres, tres beau,” but penetrated with sadness. “When you are young, do your parents ever say you poetry?”
“No,” I said, but my father said me teams. ‘Shevlin, McNair and Willie McStay; Jimmy McStay, Cringan and McFarlane; McAtee and Patsy Gallagher, Cassidy, McLean and Paddy Connolly.’”
That my parents did not ‘say me poetry’ was no deprivation. I got soul from a load of Irish 78s and an old wind-up gramophone. There was one sad disc with ‘The Laddie From Cardenden’ on one side and ‘The Scottish League’ on the other.
My father crossed from Donegal to the Gorbals at the end of the First World War and Celtic’s first spring and was weaned on the sides of the Thirties. I suppose I must have slept through the record attendance final of 1937 in my cot in Rutherglen Road where Basil Spence’s abominable ‘Galleons Under Sail’ now stands and was probably down to bed in Stamperland by the time Celtic and Everton kicked off at Ibrox on June 10th 1938 to contest the destination of the Exhibition Cup.
The long winter began that summer’s night. The second spring was almost thirty years away.
The first game he ever took me to was Third Lanark A versus Celtic A at Cathkin Park on August 26th 1944. I still grieve for the demise of Thirds, my second team. Celtic were in green shirts, black shorts and hooped socks. Rolando Ugolini was in a grey jersey in goal and Bobby Evans and ‘Hooky’ McPhail played for Celtic in a 2:2 draw.
We were back at Cathkin just over a year later, October 14th, the big teams this time, Celtic winners by 2:0. Jackie Gallagher shot into an empty goal when Peter McBride and Matt Balunas got in a fankle, and there was a penalty, I’m sure, a few minutes later, that Delaney blasted into the roof of McBride’s net.
It may seem nugatory to record details like this but every Celtic win of the period was received as being at last the turn of the tide. In the same futile hope we had applauded McGrory’s appearance in the stand (did he ever sit on the touchline?) at the pre-season trials of August 1945 when he took over as manager for the next (long) twenty years. (“Today they are ringing their bells – tomorrow they will be wringing their hands.”)
Rangers were supreme at the time that I remember staring in disbelief at a headline in the Daily Record which read Clyde 4 Rangers 3, and when they went down in Germany 6:1 to a team from the British Army on the Rhine I just could not credit it possible.
“Why are Rangers such a good team Daddy?”
“They’re not a good team. It’s just that they’re better than any of the others.”
(At the Kelvin Hall circus every January there were two teams of performing dogs, blues versus greens, with a balloon for a ball and goals. I don’t think I was ever there when the greens won. Our luck was right out.)
I experienced my first sadness like a coal hammer to the heart when dear Jimmy Delaney moved to Manchester United in February 1946. The second was Willie Miller’s failure to get the nod over Frank Swift for the Great Britain side versus Europe at Hampden in 1947. The third was in a closemouth in 1948 when the news came down the street that Celtic were out 0:1 to Morton in the Scottish Cup semi-final. It wasn’t quite the same anguish when Collins and Fernie moved on in 1958. Close enough, but I was older then, if not wiser.
We were at Charlie Tully’s first appearance in the pre-season trial of 1948. My father was not impressed but was willing to make excuses for Charlie’s new boots worn especially for the occasion. He never did acquire a love for Tully. Charlie didn’t have Delaney’s modesty. “Jimmy Delaney would come out of Parkhead, pull down his hat over his eyes and away. But this Tully fella… Celtic should have let him go years ago when West Bromwich were after him.”
After a very good league win over Thistle, Colonel Shaughnessy promised us that Celtic would be back and the Evening Times in May 1947 predicted our troubles would be over if we could only get Parola, the Rest of Europe centre-half, a big Italian. Feelers even went out to Middlesborough for Wilf Mannion.
My father had no time for Bob Kelly. To paraphrase Montaigne somewhere: run a mile from a man of principle. “McGrory’s just a yes man up there. The only team I’m interested in is Malky’s (Malcolm MacDonald was manager at Brentford before coming back to build the Kilmarnock side with which Willie Waddell won the league).
After modern day setbacks I look back and wonder how my father’s generation coped. Mine was born into dearth and defeat and took it for normal, but they had seen the happy times and burst with pride for the old Celtic. They knew what it had been like to win leagues and cups and now there was nothing.
Celtic in the 40s and 50s used to go to Ibrox with no strategy or tactics at all and play well if they held Rangers to a 4:0 defeat or even got a goal themselves. There were real stoics in those days! We expected to get thumped and Rangers expected to thump us. Yet what an incredible amount of talent was streaming in and out of the club!
Bob Kelly in his book ‘Celtic’ says that Parkhead never had a proper replacement for John Thomson until Ronnie Simpson. This was an insult to the memory of Joe Kennaway but above all to one of the greatest ‘keepers ever to pull on a Celtic shirt, Willie Miller, who between 1946 and 1950 performed heroics behind a defence that would have destroyed Thomson’s confidence as well. He played Rangers on his own at Hampden on May 30th 1946 and gained Celtic a 0:0 draw. He was a magnificent ‘keeper, brave agile and safe.
I was not privileged to watch Peter Wilson and I thought Bobby Murdoch could certainly pass a ball in his first game for Celtic, but the greatest midfielder ever in my experience was Bobby Evans, whose transformation into centre-half was equally stunning. Bobby was an all-action footballer whose only peer for energy and endeavour was Harry Mooney of Third Lanark. I stood in an Arnhem churchyard one sunny Sunday morning in 1958 and listened to a Dutchman who had seen Evans on TV in a Scotland team hammered 4:0 by England wax lyrical about the classiest defensive performance he had ever witnessed. This was before Evans played Uwe Seeler out of it against Germany at Hampden in 1959. Bobby Evans in his prime simply never turned in a bad game. He and Willie Miller were worth the turnstile money on their own. So were Tully, Fernie and Sammy Wilson alongside Billy McPhail.
Season after season the Kelly years began with dash and promise and wasted away before Ne’erday. Celtic went to Wembley to see the Hungarians tear England apart, crossed to Switzerland for the World Cup but never seemed capable of realising football ahead and the A Team without a plan was an anachronism. The only thing modern about that Celtic was the pre-match record selection from the Top Twenty.
Jock Stein enabled my father to rejoice in his old age, same as Maley (if not to the same extent) in his youth. He was at Celtic Park in the New Year of 1966 because Stein had given his beloved Bhoys back their pride and watched in delight a 0:1 half-time deficit turn into a 5:1 lacing of Rangers. I was with him in the stand for the League Cup match against Rangers on August 30th 1967 (the night The Fugitive was ending on TV) with Celtic 0:1 down and 12 minutes to go. We got three without reply and the whole stand resounded to the noise of stamping feet.
We walked on flowers from London Road to Argyle Street. “Changed days,” I said to him.
“Aye, changed days,” he said. Pure poetry.
We got a 39 bus in Midland Street but could have walked home to Pollok through the sweet night air.
It is a sobering thought, like contemplating the existence of God in the void of time, but where might Celtic be today without Jock Stein? My pensioner father would certainly not have been able to sport a button in his lapel with a big ‘9’ on it – surely an impossible feat for Celtic before Stein and without his like impossible again.
Stein brought leadership, he brought strategy, he brought tactics match per match. He prepared a one half team to play a whole 90 minutes and exploited the potential of the playing staff in hand (nobody of my acquaintance had much time for the side he took over in March 1965). He fed the hungry and he gave drink to the thirsty. He set the prisoners free. He must never be forgotten.
My father died in the close season of 1984 – one of Celtic’s more modern no-formula, no-use, no-win years – with nothing to cheer him from Celtic Park. He used to tell me I couldn’t call myself a Celtic supporter because I didn’t pay often enough to see them. I had lived in exile in London for 30 years. Concern is supposed to wane over the years, but I used to stand at the Arsenal (where a Celtic win against Rangers got as big a roar as a Gunners goal) like the shadow of the Valois – yawning – hanging on in nervous suspense for the Scottish Premier Division scores, worried sick if we were away at Tynecastle, Tannadice or Pittodrie and praying that Billy McNeill and Tommy Craig had got the game worked out or the defence were putting up a real stuffy performance.
No doubt about it, by the Centenary season the second spring had degenerated into lazy, hazy days. The worst Celtic result I heard that season was the 7:2 League Cup win over Hamilton in August. To lose two goals to toothless Accies! A few days later it was five to Rangers.
A wee African priest on a visit to Glasgow went to the big match. The crowd was enormous and he stood on the packed terracing waiting for the kick-off. Then the earth began to tremble through the soles of his shoes. Overhead the sky split. He was hearing his first Hampden Roar as the Champions of Europe appeared in the sunlight to play Spurs in a friendly. Every time I meet him he shakes his head in disbelief and lights up at the memory: “My God, the passion! The noise! Cel-tic! Cel-tic!”
Did your parents say you poetry? Yes indeed, we had the lot; lyric, epic, bathos, pathos, turgid doggerel and triumphant ode.
We are Celtic supporters. Thanks be to God.
The Celt (1989)