JOCK STEIN had made up his mind and there was no point in arguing the case. I was left with the distinct feeling that I would be sitting in the stand every matchday if I didn’t sign for Crystal Palace.
Without win bonuses and appearance money, that would hit me hard financially.
I was made well aware I wouldn’t kick a ball in the first team again. What can you do in a situation like that? It was time to go and I’ll never forget the day I walked through those front doors at Parkhead realising I wouldn’t be back.
I scored against Falkirk in a league game at our place in a 4-0 win on March 27 1971. There wasn’t anything special about it, but obviously I had no idea it was the last goal I would claim in front of my own fans at the place I truly believed was Paradise.
My final goal for the club came in a League Cup-tie against Ayr United at Somerset Park on August 21 when we won 3-0. And, of course, my final farewell was the 3-0 triumph over BK Copenhagen. At least, I went out as a winner although I admit that is scant consolation.
Please don’t run away with the idea it was all grunting and growling when Jock and I were sharing the same postcode. We could actually be in the same dressing room without an angry exchange. In fact, there is a lot I have to thank him for and I realise those words may surprise or even shock you.
Back at the start of 1965, I genuinely thought my career might be elsewhere. I admit the possibility of asking for a transfer often occupied my thoughts. I couldn’t help but wonder if a move might prove to be beneficial. There are always transfer rumours in football and I figured in more than a few.
SEE YOU LATER, BOSS…John Hughes gives manager Jock Stein the slip during training at Barrowfield.
By the time the chimes for 1965 were still fresh and another year had been welcomed, I had been playing first team football since the start of season 1960/61. I netted seventeen goals in my first campaign and followed that up with thirty-one. Then I hit a slump and claimed only twenty-two! I got eighteen the year after that bringing it to a total of eighty-eight goals in four campaigns.
Not bad shooting for a rookie, even if I do say so myself.
And yet I wasn’t guaranteed a first team place in a side that often struggled. Why? Sean Fallon simply didn’t fancy me.
Jimmy McGrory may have had the title of manager, but he didn’t pick the team and we all knew it. Chairman Bob Kelly would take on that chore and he had the ear of Sean. We all realised, too, that Sean was Kelly’s man. He fed him all the information and gossip from the dressing room. And, clearly, I didn’t appear to be his idea of a footballer.
It didn’t matter that I was scoring goals every other game, my face didn’t fit. He never bothered to tell me where he thought I was going wrong. I was left out of the team and I was too naive to ask for a reason. I doubt if I would have been given an explanation, anyway. I would probably have been shooed away into a corner like some errant schoolboy.
TEENAGE RAMPAGE…new Bhoy John Hughes, at the age of 17, terrorises Rangers defenders Eric Caldow and Doug Baillie as Stevie Chalmers looks on during a League Cup-tie at Ibrox.
Frustrated? That would have been a massive understatement. Without warning, I would be chucked into the cauldron of an Old Firm confrontation and the next I was dropped and back in the reserves. I’m not exaggerating and facts will back me up.
Look at season 1961/62, for instance. I scored seventeen goals in a sequence of twenty-five games. I was reasonably happy with that sort of form and, please remember, I was still a teenager. Then I hit two successive blanks and, you’ve guessed, was axed with Bobby Carroll taking my place for the next game against Raith Rovers which Celtic lost 1-0 at Parkhead.
That was the way of things at the club pre-Stein. Sean Fallon had a lot of power in team matters and would even lock Jimmy McGrory out of the dressing on some occasions. Yes, I know that sounds absolutely ludicrous, but, believe me, it happened on a regular basis.
Before Big Jock walked back through that door in March 1965, I genuinely believed my future lay elsewhere. I wasn’t alone. There were grumblings in the dressing room and we all knew Spurs wanted Billy McNeill. There were stories about Bobby Murdoch thinking about emigrating with his family to Australia.
Falkirk were said to have taken a liking to Bobby Lennox and there was even speculation that Jimmy Johnstone was so fed up with his treatment that he was thinking of going back to the Juniors. Anyone who ever met Jinky will know that rumour may have not been too outrageous.
ME AND MY SHADOW…John Hughes with his Rangers ‘minder’ Ronnie McKinnon.
Jock was aware of my situation even while he was manager of Hibs. I bumped into him purely by coincidence at a midweek international at Hampden. Quietly, he took me aside. He whispered, ‘I hear you’re thinking about asking for a transfer. Is that right?’
I nodded and said, ‘I’m thinking about it.’
He replied, ‘Don’t do anything.’
I was a little puzzled. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Just what I say. Hold your decision for awhile. I want you to stay at Celtic. I know you can do a good job for the club. Give me time to get things sorted.’
It was the first time I realised the rumour factory had got it absolutely right; Jock Stein was about to return to Celtic. I may have been astonished at the time, but it didn’t take me long to discover that Jock had spies everywhere. He would have known as much of what was going on in the Celtic Park dressing room as the one at Easter Road.
HAMPDEN HEROES…John Hughes (second left) and his Celtic team-mates celebrate the 3-2 Scottish Cup Final 1965 triumph over Dunfermline with skipper and matchwinner Billy McNeill hoisted high on the shoulders of his colleagues.
To this day, I still have no idea who would have alerted to him to the fact I had grown a little disenchanted with my situation regarding being in and out of the first team at Celtic, but, of course, his information was spot on.
Naturally, I was delighted to agree to remain at the club that was closest to my heart. I was excited by the news of Jock Stein coming back to Parkhead. Billy McNeill had insisted the club made a catastrophic error in allowing him to leave in the first place in 1960.
Three years earlier, Jock’s career had ended through the injury that left him with a limp for the rest of his life. He was thirty-five at the time and was put in charge of the reserve team. He made a huge impression on Billy, that much was obvious.
Jock had been a centre-half in his playing days and he must have seen the potential in Caesar. It was only natural, I suppose, that he became a bit of a mentor. Yes, Billy was more than a little disappointed when Jock wasn’t offered a step up in the management at Celtic and left to manage Dunfermline where, of course, he guided the Fifers to an unexpected 1961 Scottish Cup win over Celtic.
Sadly, I have to admit I was centre-forward in that Celtic team. Jock had one year at Hibs before making the journey back to the east end of Glasgow.