Blues for Mister Charlie

In the Brylcreem days of the late 1960s, my dad would often attend Mass on Saturday mornings and linger outside church
afterwards to talk with friends. As often as not they would be stout Irishmen in tweed caps and coats, smoking unfiltered fags or pipes, members all of the building trade.

Inevitably, the conversation would shift to football and Celtic’s prospects that afternoon. In those days (Stein time) there was little need to take refuge in nostalgia but all the same I heard all about McGrory and Charlie Tully.

Perhaps some day soon my 10 year old son will watch me retreat into the Celtic twilight over a caffe latte in Starbucks in Manhattan and recall Charlie Nicholas. Charles de Goal surfaced during the 1980-81 season and in scoring 16 of Celtic’s 84 goals became a new hero for the Jungle. He was slim and spry, enjoyed the music of The Clash and Joe Jackson, loved playing for The Hoops and was a veritable weapon of mass destruction. The bould Charlie’s talent was so precocious and prodigious that he served only a very short apprenticeship with the reserves before breaking through into the big team.

He starred in a Celtic side that was bursting with talent – Bonner, Aitken, McAdam, MacLeod, Bums, McCluskey, McGarvey. Billy McNeill was having migraines over team selection – three accomplished strikers to fill two slots every week.

Such was Charlie’s prestige that the local Orange parade in Maryhill was re-routed to pass his house and the Kid responded in grand style, scoring regularly against the Govan Heroes. His opener at a rain-lashed Hampden in the League Cup Final of 1982 was a joy to behold. Watch the video. He doesn’t hardly seem to draw his foot back at all before the ball hits the twine. Less than a month later at Ibrox, his famous shuffle and shimmy were the prelude to a classic goal which helped Celtic to their first Ne’erday win in Govan since nineteen canteen. Oh happy day!

And then, just as suddenly as it all happened, Charlie left Celtic for Arsenal (of all teams at the time!) in June 1983 after banging in two penalty kicks versus Rangers at Ibrox in the last game of the season. And for no more than a pittance. It still is not clear why he chose to leave Parkhead. What was tragic was that like Dalglish six years before, a team could have been built around him to restore Celtic’s profile in European tournaments.

His spell in London was without distinction and this affected his style and confidence. He returned north, not to Celtic but to Aberdeen in 1988. His swansong in red was scoring the winning penalty kick in the 1990 Scottish Cup Final versus Celtic.

Charlie returned to Celtic as the club was falling apart but save for a few flashes of his virtuoso skill he was all but finished. He looked puffy and overweight. He scored against Raith Rovers in the November 1994 League Cup Final and how we cheered his apparent winner only to watch as the game petered out in agony for Celtic. I don’t recall if he ever played for the Hoops again but that winter afternoon he looked like a tired journeyman.

The landscape of sport and entertainment is littered with prodigies who promised much but delivered little but it would be
uncharitable to add Charlie to the list. His medal collection will be as modest as his abilities were vast but he inspired so much joy all those years ago. Remember the Big Ben chant: “Charlee-Charlee! Charlee-Charlee!”


From the Celt issue 76

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for that, you brought back loads of happy memories, I was about four years younger than Charlie and was lucky enough to watch him coming into that really talented team, I even went to Wembley for his Scotland debut but it was a midweek game and miserable 2-0? lose with the bold Charlie not great, that goal against the huns when he got the ball from a throw in, drifted past/skinned 3 or 4 huns then belted it into the top corner with the hun goalie flapping his arms in vain, natural goal scorer, wasted, as you say to the clubs of London. It was widely believed that Liverpool wanted him, with the belief that his career would have taken off at Liverpool as they would have made him buckle down, who knows, I was truly gutted that he left at all

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