Whenever Celtic have to travel to provincial grounds in the Scottish Cup, crowds are attracted by the possibility of an upset. This was exactly the situation when Celtic’s name followed Falkirk’s in the draw for the third round in 1953. A Celtic defeat would not have been a great shock because the Parkhead side, despite having a great reputation as Cup fighters, had been struggling, mired in the middle of the league table, unsettled in formation and personnel. The combination of a tight, narrow pitch in winter conditions and a Falkirk team eager for cup glory made many sports writers consider that such an outcome was distinctly possible.
The crowd of 23,000 that packed Brockville was an all-ticket one and had been limited by the police, but thirty minutes before the kick-off parts of the ground seemed dangerously overcrowded, especially behind the goal at the railway end.
The travelling support greeted the side enthusiastically and acknowledged the presence of Jimmy Delaney in the dark blue of Falkirk with mixed emotions. delaney had been a hero of legendary proportions for previous generations of Celtic fans and many eyes turned to spot the trim veteran with the balding head. Another familiar player in Falkirk’s colours that afternoon was Jock weir who had once scored three goals for Celtic at Dens Park to remove the threat of relegation in the last game of the 1940 season. the presence of two such players, clearly past their best, drew further attention to Falkirk’s role as underdogs but prepared for an upset.
Both sets of players moved around gingerly during the shooting-in as they tested their footing. fortunately the pitch was heavy and holding rather than frozen and the players could retain their balance, despite greasy spots on the wings.
Within minutes of the kick-off Falkirk took charge, urged on by the roars of the locals. Delaney was in sprightly mood on the right wing and troubled Meechan with his nippiness. Meechan drew the ire of the crowd in the stand with some heavy tackling to stop him and after only five minutes Falkirk scored. As Celtic defenders stood stock still, Jock Weir raced in to head a bouncing ball high into the net. Centre half Stein and goalkeeper Bonnar glared at each other in mutual recrimination, but the damage had been done. Shaking their heads in disbelief, many Celtic supporters in the crowd were wondering when the short and stocky Weir had last scored with a header.
Immediately following the goal Celtic exerted themselves but the Bairns’ defence appeared well organised in front of their veteran ‘keeper McFeat. In Celtic’s attack the latest (and unlikely) hero of the supporters, John McGrory, chased every ball in his shambling and ungainly style but was posing little danger to Falkirk. McGrory, originally a centre-half until his defensive shortcomings were exposed in clashes with Mochan (Morton) and Reilly (Hibs) had been drafted in as a centre-forward in an optimistic attempt to solve a chronic problem. The majority of the support, while approving of his awkward enthusiasm and his recent goals, felt that his main qualification for the position was his surname – the same as the club’s all-time leading scorer and his current manager.
Celtic’s defenders were still experiencing difficulties and it surprised nobody when Falkirk went further ahead in 18 minutes through a close-range shot by Campbell.
Falkirk’s following, clearly swollen for the occasion, erupted into raucous delight. Celtic’s support lapsed into a sullen discontent. The odds were more in favour of Falkirk adding a third than Celtic pulling a goal back and the home side continued to press forward. Delaney was the source of most danger and Frank Meechan’s persistent fouling further infuriated the ‘standites’ after one jarring challenge in particular from the full-back, marginally fair this time but obviously calculated to intimidate. John McPhail sportingly stopped play to help the shaken Delaney to his feet.
At half-time Falkirk led by those two goals and left the pitch to a thunderous ovation. Celtic had shown little to inspire optimism for the second half.
However, even as the teams lined up for the restart one could sense a new determination. Charlie Tully, scarcely seen in 45 minutes, gave an example of it within seconds of the referee’s whistle blowing when he elbowed Delaney as they passed each other.
Despite Celtic’s early pressure, Falkirk came close to adding a third after a breakaway when Delaney’s alertness gave him a half chance but his shot scraped past Bonner’s left post with the Celtic defence once more in disarray.
The momentum had started to swing in Celtic’s favour, however, and in 53 minutes came the incident that would be destined to be recalled by successive generations wherever Celtic followers gathered.
The hard pressed Falkirk defence conceded a corner on the left at the Railway End. Tully took the kick and his inswinging ball swerved in flight to deceive defenders and forwards alike to finish up in the net past the unsighted McFeat, untouched by anyone. The Celtic players rushed towards Tully to congratulate him. The fans on the overcrowded terracing erupted in joy and as the crush barriers gave way before them they poured on to the fields by the hundred. Meanwhile, amid the confusion and turmmoil the referee had moved over to confer quietly with his linesman who had raised his flag. Following this consultation he immediately signalled ‘no goal’ and ordered the kick to be retaken, Tully having apparently placed the ball slightly outside the arc, as he frequently did in his assiduous practice of ‘gamesmanship’.
It was a memorable sight as the realisation dawned slowly on players and spectators that the goal would not stand. Tully stood attentively with hands on hips feigning politeness as the referee explained his decision.
Moving to retake the corner, Tully halted in order to indicate to the officials that he had no room for a run-up, the crowd still encroaching at that end of the ground. A contingent of policemen had to help push the spectators back but still Tully was not fully satisfied. Almost petulantly he handed the ball to the nearby linesman for him to place.
At last he was ready and finally took the much-delayed corner. The ball swung over with the same flight as his previous effort and once more finished up in the back of the net behind the luckless McFeat, again untouched by any player.
Once more joy erupted at Brockville on the field and on the terraces; again spectators surged forward in joyous disbelief and more barriers gave way like matchsticks. several minutes elapsed before the pitch could be cleared of supporters and to remove those injured in the crushes until eventually the tie, now irrevocably changed in mood, was resumed.
Amid turmoil on the terracing Celtic continued to attack, pressing home the psychological advantage. Falkirk could not hold out and a mere six minutes later Fernie equalised when he crashed the ball into the net from three yards after two other shots had been scrambled off the Falkirk goal line.
The sequel was unfortunate. Once more the spectators were on the field in their hundreds but this time there was no real excuse for their presence there that could be offered. They spent more time in cavorting around the players and delayed returning to their places. Several Falkirk players, unused to such crowd scenes, were seen arguing with the referee and it appeared that they were complaining – with some justification – of intimidation by the crowd.
After a lengthy delay (the third of the match) Falkirk no longer had the will to resist. predictably, McGrory was responding to the cheers of the crowd and he took a neat pass from Fernie in his stride before shooting past McFeat from some twenty yards out. The Celtic crowd went wild and many of them raced on to the field to add their unwelcome congratulations to the scorer. McGrory, indeed, had to receive some attention from the trainer. So prolonged was the celebration and the pitch invasion that the referee had gone to consult with both of his linesmen as well as the police. Aware that the official was on the brink of siding with some of the Falkirk players who were clearly suggesting that the tie be abandoned, the Celtic players started herding their followers towards their places on the terracing.
After the interruption the match restarted and was played out in an atmosphere of relative calm. The only notable feature of the closing stages was a meandering run by Tully: elated by the success of his corner taking exploits he headed towards his own goal in a run that ended with him playing the ball off an opponent to gain a goal kick, much to the delight of a Celtic support no pacified and satisfied.
At the end of a hectic afternoon the home side counted up the cost of entertaining Celtic in a frenzied Scottish Cup tie. Almost every barrier at one end of the ground had been twisted out of shape or uprooted and 32 spectators had to receive first aid in the pavillion. The provincial club had other legitimate grievances as well, not least the persistent fouling of Delaney in the first half by Meechan which merited a caution. Firmer action at that stage by the referee might have allowed Falkirk to settle. Even after making allowances for the collapsed crush barriers, there was no doubt that an element of intimidation on the part of some of the supporters on the pitch had unnerved several of the home side’s players.
After being knocked out of the Cup Falkirk’s only consolation lay in having taken part in one of Scottish football’s most dramatic and enduring moments.
For Charlie Tully it was a more prosaic experience. Barracked by his own supporters in the first half for a lackadaisical approach to the game, he had been cheered off in triumph at the final whistle. He had perpetrated the most blatant foul on Delaney – although it was scarcely a brutal offence – and he had gained the approval of the supporters for his ‘wrong way’ run near the end. He had also accomplished the rare feat of scoring from a corner – not once, but twice!
First published in ‘The Celt’, November 1988
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