They Gave Us James McGrory and Paul McStay

There are those who will try and tell you that Paul McStay was never the player the press made him out to be, that he never fulfilled his potential and that he was the best of a mediocre lot. The same people will also tell you that Kenny Dalglish was rotten for Scotland etc. etc. etc.

It seems that whenever a talent of any kind emerges in this country the first reaction is to praise it and the next to try and show how clever you really are by picking fault with it. Australians call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome – build ‘em up so you can chop ‘em down.
While the quality of Paul McStay’s play undoubtedly fell short of his own incredibly high standards in the latter years of his Celtic career, that is not entirely surprising. After all, he had been carrying the team for ten years.

The Maestro, like Danny McGrain before him, was the class player who chose to stay with Celtic when his career and reputation would undoubtedly have fared better with a move elsewhere.

Paul McStay was big news even before his Celtic debut, being the star tum in an eventful Scotland v England schoolboy international at Wembley. Legend has it that scouts from as far afield as Everton and Leeds had been tracking him from the age of 11, and in 1982, shortly before he made his entrance on the Celtic stage, he became the one and only Scotland captain at any level to pick up an international trophy as Scotland won the European Youth Championship.

When the young Maestro made his first appearance in 1982 he was joining a team containing some of the finest talent in Britain. If the manager had been allowed to hang on to members of that team and build on it who knows what the history of the club might have been. But we are all too sadly familiar with the story of what happened next to Charlie Nicholas, Big Billy and the others.

Barely two full seasons into his career McStay was already the fulcrum of the side and the man most looked to in the crunch games. The team around him was a patchwork of the talented and the committed (Aitken, McGrain, MacLeod) and the talentless who should have been committed (Melrose, Whittaker). As his career progressed he would sadly find himself increasingly surrounded by players from the latter category.

Under Davie Hay McStay didn’t really reach the heights that were now expected and rumours soon began to abound that the Maestro would be winging his way abroad. Juventus apparently were interested and there was a fantastic urban myth that he had a clause in his contract forbidding the club to sell his older brother Willie!

Summer 1986 saw Scotland competing in the the World Cup finals in Mexico. Sadly, Big Jock was not there to lead the team, and it would have to be said that Alex Ferguson didn’t really handle the job too well (hardly surprising given the fact that it was a part-time appointment). Incredibly, he chose to overlook the Maestro in favour of aged slaphead Eamon Bannon, only to reinstate McStay for the final, violent clash with Uruguay.

The decision to drop him was surprising because McStay had been such an integral part of the Scotland set up since his debut in 1983. Indeed it was young Paul who started the World Cup campaign off with a brace against Iceland, the first a rare headed goal, the second a memorable long range effort.

After his return from Mexico rumours started that all was not well with Paul McStay. Burn-out some said: too many games too young. It was also suggested that he was an asthma sufferer who could no longer operate for 90 minutes (apparently he does have a very slight condition).

The season after was the first of the so-called ‘Souness Revolution’, as Rangers (the deceased)bludgeoned their way to the League title. Truth be told it was more a case of Celtic throwing it away as wrangles over money and new contracts, especially in the case of McClair and Johnston, became very public.

Throughout that season McStay was steady if not spectacular, but appeared in serious danger of falling into a rut from which he might never have reappeared. But in the aftermath of that disastrous season Billy McNeill came back, and Paul McStay emerged to show the world what he could do.

The Centenary year will be remembered for many reasons, not least of which was the stunning play of Paul McStay: a turn and a look before rolling a forty yard pass to the feet of the onrushing Chris Morris on New Year’s day to set up the first goal; a crisply caught snap shot to rescue a point against Hearts; the sheer authority of his performance at Ibrox during the 2-1 victory there.

At the end of that season he picked up both Player of the Year and Player’s Player of the Year awards. He had finally become the player he had threatened to be. Even the Blue Noses 9when they still had a living club) voted him the player they would most like to see sign for them in their fanzine.

At this point, with the world apparently at their feet, the club began its long, slow stumble into oblivion. Having won the double the club (manager? board?) made the fatal mistake of resting on its laurels. No new faces were added until practically the start of the new season (two players, both goalies), the wisdom presumably being that the squad was already perfect. Wrong! Age and injury soon ravaged the team and McStay and McAvennie were left to carry the team. Then McAvennie left.

By season 89-90 Celtic had been allowed to decay to such a degree that there is a good case to say that McStay stopped us from being involved in the relegation battle that year.

At the same time his own influence over the game was diminishing, largely due to the fact that the players he was now playing with were consistently worse than their predecessors (Examples: centre forward – McAvennie to Coyne to Jackie to Cascarino to Payton to Biggins).

That season itself had been an unmitigated disaster, starting with Le Merde’s U-turn and ending with the dreaded penalty shoot out in the Cup Final with Aberdeen. In between we had seen both club captain and vice-captain leave within a month of each other (staggeringly bad management) and at the tender age of 25 Paul McStay became the club’s longest serving outfield player and club captain.

His appointment was expected but not universally welcomed, despite the fact that within a year of becoming Celtic captain he would also captain Scotland to the Euro ‘92 finals (Big Dickie Gough coming back and being handed the armband for the actual tournament; loyalty Mr Roxburgh?).

The ‘Alphabet Of The Celts’, published around the time, commented that, “He might be a better player without the burden of captaincy”. Yes, and he might have been a better player without the burden of the nine other haddies he’d been playing with.

After yet anotller barren season in 1991 Big Billy was shown the door and Liam Brady took the plunge. Unfortunately it was three months before he had the chance to utilise the consumate talents of his club captain. McStay picked up the first serious injury of his career during the pre-season tour of Ireland. By the time he returned the team had shown signs of promise without any consistency and an inability to break down a packed defence had seen them flounder in the league and exit the League Cup at Airdrie.

McStay’s return was against Dundee United and he didn’t disappoint, spraying passes all over the park, appearing in attacking positions, helping out defence arid controlling the midfield. He continued in this vein for the rest of the season.

Sadly, he was denied another shot at the Scottish Cup on that cruellest of Hampden nights against the then existant Rangers.

The last day of the season saw Europe slip away thanks to a self-destructive performance against Hibs and the Maestro throw his jersey into the Jungle. We feared the worst.

Throughout the season speculation about his future had been rife. The contract signed in such optimism in 1987 had run its course and McStay was in no rush to make a decision. Certainly not with the shop window of Sweden ‘92 coming up.

The European Championships in 1992 was the first time Scotland had qualified for this competition, the last time only eight teams were to be involved.

Drawn against Holland, Germany and the CIS (the former USSR) the common wisdom was that Scotland would be lucky to emerge alive never mind make progress. However, the team confounded their critics to produce three performances of grit and skill, and at the heart of nearly every productive Scottish move was McStay. Against Holland he had the measure of Rijkaard, even out-jumping him on several occasions to win high balls. Against Germany he put McAllister through one-on-one with the ‘keeper three times in the first fifteen minutes (needless to say the media-hyped McAllister squandered all three chances) and against the CIS he capped a marvellous tournament with the opening goal, a typical 25-yard daisy cutter.

For six weeks in the summer of ‘92 every Celtic fan dreaded looking at the sports pages as team after team was linked with McStay (he certainly had talks with Udinese, a Bundesliga team and Arsene Wenger’s Monaco) but the player himself seemed remarkably unenthusiastic about the prospect of a move.

An incident from just before Sweden probably says more about his decision to stay than anything else. Haying been away from home for six weeks preparing for the Euros, Radio Clyde gave each player the chance to choose a song and dedicate it to someone back home. The Maestro chose ‘Missing You’ by John Waite.

Essentially he was a home bird and at that time his wife was expecting their first child, hardly ideal circumstances under which to up sticks and move. Maybe the welfare of his family came before his career.

His decision to stay brought immense relief to the beleaguered Celtic support who had been resigned to losing their best player and club captain, and his form at the start of the next season brought even more joy as he picked up just where he’d left off.

But it didn’t last. By the end of the season he was a shadow of the player of 1992.

The years of carrying the team were beginning to take their toll, injuries were becoming more frequent and the turmoil at the club certailny wasn’t helping anyone.

He could still raise his game, though, as Bobby Robson and Sporting Lisbon found out at Celtic Park in 1993. Frank Connor, temporarily in charge, told McStay to get his passes in rather than take people on. The result was that Robson had to concede to placing two markers on McStay in an attempt to contain him.

The March takeover by Fergus and the rebels gave hope that we might see some players drafted in that could again bring out the best in Paul McStay. He did finally lift a trophy as captain and certainly some of his performances during 95-96 were vintage Maestro, but for McStay the takeover came two years too late. His knees and ankles were already shot.

Against Dunfermline in January of this year he scored in the hoops for the last time, a fierce shot from the edge of the box that left the ‘keeper waving at the top row of the stand as the ball shot past him.

At Dunfermline in March he couldn’t even run. He limped about the park for 90 minutes. It was painful to watch such a great player reduced to that.

His decision to retire was taken, like his decision to stay in ‘92, with his family in mind. All too aware of others who played too long – apparently Tommy Smith, the Liverpool hard case from the ‘70s, needed help to get out of bed every morning such was. the state of his legs – McStay again decided that there was more to life than football.

ANDY MURDOCH

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