David Potter’s other Celtic player biographies have included Jimmy Quinn, Jimmy Delaney, Patsy Gallacher and Bobby Murdoch. In this book he puts forward the compelling case for Sunny Jim Young’s inclusion in the pantheon of the club’s legends.
Young was born in Kilmarnock and left to play football professionally for Bristol Rovers in 1902. Despite courting a local lass, he was keen to move back home and his chance came when Celtic sent Mick Dunbar south to sign another of Rovers’ Scottish players, winger Bobby Muir. Over a convivial lunch in the Black Swan, Dunbar was impressed by Young’s honesty and desire to play for a bigger club with a large support. The youngster was invited to Glasgow to have a trial with Celtic.
He didn’t grow up as a fan, but as Eugene McBride et al put it in An Alphabet of the Celts, “The moment he pulled on a Celtic jersey (green and white vertical stripes) for the first time there began a love affair with the club that lasted until his tragic death nineteen years on. He sold himself heart and soul to a team for which he had previously felt nothing.”
From his debut until his last match when he finally gave in to another crippling injury and hobbled off the pitch at Celtic Park during a game against Hearts – he ended up walking with a stick after he stopped playing – Potter chronicles Sunny Jim’s prodigious feats as the inspiration behind one of the most successful period’s in the club’s history. Between 1903 and 1917 he played a pivotal role in the winning of ten championships (including 6 in a row) seven Glasgow Cups and five Scottish Cups, a number that would undoubtedly been higher had the latter competition not been suspended as a result of the Great War.
Until injury prematurely ended his career he was captain of the side that went 66 games undefeated. Impressive enough in itself, more so when you consider that teams such as Rangers (they were still very much alive and most definitely kicking in those days) were allowed to use tactics that wouldn’t have been out of place in a rollerball match in order to hobble opponents into submission. In a passage about the 1904 Glasgow Charity Cup Final the author touches on one or two themes that have more than an echo in the present day. Celtic’s danger man Jimmy Quinn had his thigh split open as a result of a kung fu kick by Rangers full-back Nick Smith. It was, writes Potter, “A tackle that was to be remembered and related in vivid detail for the rest of their lives by those who saw it and it was never likely to be forgiven.” Quinn was carried off on a stretcher and would spend the next three months on crutches. The referee declined to even speak to Smith far less offer him first use of the bath and the green Rangers rubber duck. The Glasgow Herald reporter described the incident thus: “Ere the game was many minutes old Quin (sic) met with a severe accident by coming into contact with Smith and was unable to resume.”
Indeed it was a man’s game back in those days, and Sunny Jim himself was not adverse to what Paul Elliott might describe as the physicality of the contest. On December 17th 1904 the Celts played Partick Thistle in a match that, even by pre-World War One standards was described by the press as ‘wild’. Young was having a stinker and decided to take out his frustration on the Thistle forward Jimmy Sommen: “The Daily Mail described how, ‘The game was also marred by a good deal of hacking and foul kicking and the most glaring instance occurred when Young made a flying rush at Sommen who dropped and had to be carried off.’” Unlike Smith, Sunny Jim was sent off. Reporting the same match the pro-Celtic Glasgow Observer observed that, “Poor Black, the quietest man of the twenty-two, got the shipyard twist and was borne groaning to the pavillion. Sommen tried to send Sunny Jim high o’er the fence by a liberal use of ‘Force’. Next minute Sommen himself went soaring heavenward on the toe of Young’s boot. The Celt walked straight to the pavillion without waiting for the referee’s notice to quit and Sommen followed Black into the ambulance ward.”
Young’s – ahem – no nonsense approach would see him quite often the subject of abuse from opposition supporters, whether it was being pelted with orange peel at Pittodrie (the canny Aberdonians must have eaten the orange first – no sense in wasting a farthing is there?) or assaulted by the mother of Forfar winger Alec Troup after a game in which Sunny had upended her son a few times at Station Park: “An old lady was seen to approach Sunny with an umbrella muttering imprecations like, ‘Foul my Eckie wid ye, ye durty Glesca bugger!’ while swinging her umbrella with aggressive intent.”
Throughout his career Young’s influence at the club was such that it has been said that following his departure Celtic went into a decline that was only arrested with the arrival of Jock Stein. His influence might well have continued after his playing days had it not been for his tragic death as a result of a motorcycle accident when he was thrown from the pillion seat in a collision with a Kilmarnock tram car. He was 40 years old.
If he has become something of a forgotten man then hopefully Potter’s book will go same way to redressing that. The author draws a comparison between Sunny Jim and Roy Aitken. Apart from the fact that they both came from Ayrshire and played in similar positions: “Neither were what one would call brilliant players but they did inspire Celtic to success. Both had a commanding presence… and both were totally committed to the cause.”
David Potter renders pre-football on TV legends like Sunny Jim Young a great service by writing about their exploits. To a generation gone by who themselves grew up reciting the litany of “Young, Loney and Hay” they were the superstars of their day. This is another well written and worthy recognition of their contribution to Celtic’s history. Get it for Grandpa Tim but make sure you read it yourself first.