Bobby Murdoch – Different Class by David Potter; Empire Publications; 345 pages paperback (including 16 pages of b/w photographs and full statistical records); £10.99
Oh they gave us James McGrory and Paul McStay,
They gave us Johnstone, Tully, Murdoch, Auld and Hay…
A David Potter book and yet another essential addition to the Celtic bookshelf.
Modern footballer biographies should generally be treated like the SARS virus, but this one has everything going for it; a legendary player who was also a wonderful character and whose career blossomed during extraordinary times, both for the club and for society as a whole. In the hands of a skilled writer the finished product is as good an example of the genre as I’ve read.
Part biography, part autobiography and part social history (where else are you going to see John F Kennedy, The Beatles, The Book of Revelations and the West Indies cricket team – to name but a few cultural reference points – all mentioned in the same context as one of the Lisbon Lions?) It chronicles the life and times of a man whose adulation and status as one of the greatest Celts of all time came not as a result of any media constructs, but from the grass roots supporters. As Potter points out, even twenty years or more after his football days were over, Murdoch would be mobbed by fans on his frequent visits to Celtic Park, many of whom were too young ever to have seen him play on anything but VHS.
One of the remarkable aspects of Murdoch’s Celtic career, as recorded in the book, is that it very nearly didn’t get off the ground at all. Pitched into a shambles of a team in the early sixties, he must have been made of strong stuff to survive the barracking of his own supporters, frustrated by years of seeing the club run into the ground by a myopic board and never slow in those days to single out individual players for the treatment, even if they were inexperienced youngsters.
Potter isn’t afraid to confront such issues as the behaviour of the Celtic fans during the sixties either, a refreshing change from some of the romantic sanitised green -spectacled views of the period often put forward by official histories.
Having been played all over the pitch and never guaranteed an extended run in the team, even when playing well, Murdoch had decided to hand in a transfer request after being left out of the squad which travelled to Switzerland for a European match in 1963. He was even considering emigrating to Australia.
The turning point for Murdoch and Celtic was the arrival of Jock Stein. Subsequent events are part of Celtic folklore, of course, and it’s generally accepted that the ’65 Cup Final against Dunfermline was the lighting of the green touch paper. Yet that result was anything but a foregone conclusion and Potter brilliantly recreates the tension surrounding that game and the euphoria after it, relating that he ‘couldn’t eat his fish and chips after the game for sheer delirium mingled with the gnawing fear that it had all been a dream.’
Throughout the book the author intersperses the narrative with personal and humorous anecdotes of this kind adding both a fan’s eye view of Murdoch’s progress from callow youth with some potential to essential fulcrum of the ’67 team as well as a colourful backdrop to the events unfolding to a largely incredulous support.
By the time Lisbon came round Bobby had sustained the troublesome ankle injury which was to plague him throughout his playing career and beyond. In fact he was very nearly declared unfit to take part in the game. Considering he was involved in the build-up to both goals, how different the history of Celtic might have been…
Tributes to Murdoch’s consummate skill as a player appear throughout the book from a variety of team mates and opponents. One of the most glowing comes courtesy of Giacinto Facchetti, an adversary on that day in Lisbon. Commenting on the absence of Inter’s influential midfield player Suarez, he says: ‘I cannot stress enough that the absence of Suarez was a major blow to us. He was our playmaker and the most vital member of our team. It would be like Celtic taking the field without Murdoch.’
Apart from being a fitting tribute to the part that Murdoch played in Celtic’s success, Potter has done a remarkable job in conveying the insecurities of a man playing for his livelihood and facing increasing worries over injuries, weight problems and the arrival of younger players, signed by the manager to be groomed as his replacement. Being captain in Billy McNeill’s absence of the team which failed so miserably in the 1970 League Cup final against Partick Thistle also seems to have had a profound effect on him. In my opinion this part of the book portrays the vagaries of this most fickle of occupations as well as anything I’ve read since Eamonn Dunphy’s diary of his life at Millwall.
Yet his resilience and strength of character once again saw him return to top form and have a few more successful seasons with Celtic before finally leaving to join Jack Charlton at Middlesbrough. It has been well documented in other books about this era that not all of the departures of the Lions to pastures new were particularly well handled by Jock Stein, and Bobby Murdoch’s was no exception. But it says a lot for him that he never expressed any bitterness about this in public and indeed he went on to enjoy ten happy years on Wearside.
While it’s true that Bobby’s recurring injury meant that he was never the player in the North East that he had been in his pomp, he still retained his class (there weren’t too many European Cup winners playing in the English league at the time) and still had his astonishing ability at passing a football. Consequently, his time at Ayrsome Park was anything but a failure. Led by Murdoch, Charlton’s team gained promotion to the old First Division and enjoyed a relatively successful spell after years in the doldrums. He was also instrumental in nurturing the career of a young Graeme Souness (‘I sometimes wish I hadnae bothered’ he is quoted as joking as Souness led Rangers to several leagues in a row).
It’s to Potter’s credit that he is able to infuse this part of the Murdoch story with (almost) as much life as his career in Scotland, albeit with occasional glimpses at what was happening back at Parkhead; doubtless Bobby would have been doing the same at the time.
When his boots were finally hung up in 1976 he was persuaded to stay on at the Boro as coach and then as manager. The latter job turned out to be a disaster, but by that time Middlesborough were in a financial mess. Potter likens Murdoch’s managerial career to that of McGrory at Parkhead: ‘Both were outstanding players… and often assumed that players knew how to play the game as well – and as fairly as they did. They were great ambassadors for their clubs but failed at managerial level to bring success.’
The portrayal of Bobby’s final years is poignant, given his ill-health and pain from his football injuries, but his good humour and humanity shine through until the end.
While he might not have accumulated the financial rewards that his skill would have derived for him in the modern era, Bobby Murdoch has secured his place in the pantheon of all-time Celtic greats. David Potter’s book enhances that status and ensures that future generations will have a worthy testament to how it was achieved. It’s an honest, affectionate portrait of a man who seemed to epitomise the best of his working class background and of the teams he became intrinsically linked with.
Read it. You won’t be disappointed.