“HAVE you got anything for your back page?” asked Billy McNeill.
The Celtic legend, in his second spell as manager of the club, added swiftly: “Or do I have to rescue you and your paper again?”
The questions were delivered only a few minutes after the team’s 2-1 league win over Dundee at Parkhead on April 22 1989.
I was Sports Editor at the Sunday Mail, the nation’s biggest-selling newspaper, and had a rare Saturday off. On these occasions, I would take the opportunity to watch Celtic, the team for whom I had never disguised my allegiance.
Billy McNeill was aware of the fact.
I had been in the editorial earlier in the day before heading over to Celtic Park with our reporter, Dixon Blackstock. Any hopes of a successive title triumph had been blown as Celtic struggled to replicate the Centenary League and Cup double.
Barely 16,000 fans turned out the Saturday afternoon when the Dens Park side were in town and it took goals from Anton Rogan and Mark McGhee to give the Hoops the win in a fairly nondescript performance.
I went along to the media room afterwards and that’s where I was pulled aside by the manager and asked the pertinent questions.
I told Billy we didn’t have anything special on our back page and he smiled: “Okay, you have now.”
He gathered the Sunday newspaper journalists around him and said: “Right, Gentlemen of the Press, here’s your back page.”
McNeill then informed us Celtic had arranged to play Liverpool at Parkhead the following Sunday in the Anfield club’s first game since the Hillsborough Disaster where 96 supporters had so sadly and needlessly lost their lives.
Fixtures of this magnitude normally take months in putting together with all the hidden extras, including, of course, ticket sales.
I made that point to the Celtic manager who looked at me and said: “Oh, thanks, Alex, we hadn’t thought of that.”
My big friend possessed the ability to do sarcasm with the best of them.
I had the feeling I was about to be presented with a big pointed hat with the initial D on it and told to go and stand in the corner of the room.
Billy fired out the details as the media guys scribbled in their notebooks. I kissed goodbye to a quick visit to The Montrose pub, owned by a redoubtable Celtic season ticket holder by the name of Jim Cullen. The Broomielaw howf was the normal watering hole for thirsty members of the Fourth Estate as they compared notes in the matchday aftermath.
It was back to the office at Anderston Quay to give the story pride of place and to make sure there was a significant cross reference on the front page to emphasise the day and date of the match against Liverpool.
Remember, please, these were the days before social media, so for this breaking news to be imparted to the supporters, the usual communication centre back then were newspapers or TV and radio. To get the tale into black and white was imperative in case a fan didn’t pick up the date during announcements via other media outlets.
Kevin McKenna was The Celtic View Editor at the time. He was a personal friend and, as a young man stepping onto the tightrope of the inky trade, had already impressed me. I didn’t require any special powers of deduction to realise Kevin was going to become one of the most astute, knowledgeable and readable writers in the business.
To Kevin fell the extra task of putting together a programme for the event. Say it quickly and it’s not painful. Kevin also had the job of making sure the club’s official newspaper was on the stands on Wednesday and he did not work with a cast of thousands on The View.
He asked me if I could spare some time to assist on the matchday programme. I was delighted to do so.
That magazine was virtually put together in my kitchen at home on the Sunday evening. My girlfriend cleared the decks and we had a massive old table we could work at, drawing up pages and typing away furiously.
There were the usual requirements of first-person pieces from respective managers, Billy McNeill and Kenny Dalglish, calls were made, quotes were offered, they were hammered out in A4 paper, quickly edited and prepared.
Kevin required everything for the following morning to go to the printers. It was all enjoyable high-speed stuff and I recall we may have raised a glass or two afterwards to celebrate getting it over the line.
A requirement in any programme back then was the name of the referee and his officials. That presented a problem. We hadn’t a clue who had been given the task and, at that stage, neither did anyone at Celtic Football Club!
Bob Valentine, from Dundee, was eventually given the honour. Coincidentally, the match official worked for the Sunday Post, the Sunday Mail‘s main rival on the newsstands in the days we could each sell close to a million papers. Bob’s role in the DC Thomson empire was outwith the editorial, but he would have been used to working at pace.
Another tradition was for an advertisement to be placed underneath the identities of the match officials. I’ve no idea why.
I phoned a friend of mine, a chap by the name of Ricky Fearon, and enquired if he wanted to contribute to the charity fund. He didn’t hesitate and an advert for his Sports Antiques business appeared in the programme.
The front cover was always going to be the words of the anthem of both clubs, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone‘, and the Celtic board made the decision to put Liverpool’s name first with their club badge in honour of their opponents.
In itself, that was highly unusual with this being a Celtic home game. I’m sure some collector will be able to inform us if this is unique.
Anyway, the job was done and I was invited along to Celtic Park for the 2.30pm kick-off on the Sunday of April 30 1989 for the historic fixture. The chap sitting in the seat immediately in front of me was Craig Johnston, the former Liverpool player who had flown in from Australia that morning.
We were among the 60,437 crowd who had turned out for a worthy cause in the east end of Glasgow that emotional afternoon.
Just before the start, Kevin sought me out. “It’s a sell-out,” he said excitedly.
I believe Celtic had printed something in the region of 30,000 programmes – an exceptionally high figure – for the game and they were sold at £1 apiece. After necessary deductions, all proceeds went to the Hillsborough Disaster Appeal Fund.
They had been snapped up and Celtic did an immediate reprint. I was told they were still selling the programme weeks after the event.
It had been a mighty – and worthwhile – effort. It didn’t really matter that Celtic lost 4-0 only 24 hours after drawing 0-0 with Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
How good to see the tradition continuing at Anfield this afternoon with the Legends’ Charity Match between two of the world’s most prestigious sporting institutions.
Aye, they’re quite right.
You’ll Never Walk Alone.