TODAY CQN brings you the fourteenth EXCLUSIVE extract from Alex Gordon’s book, ‘CELTIC: The Awakening’, which was published by Mainstream in 2013.
The book covers the most amazing decade in the club’s history, the Sixties, an extraordinary period when the team were transformed from east end misfits to European masters.
A WEEK after being dismissed from the Scottish Cup, Celtic overcame Partick Thistle 4-1 with Bobby Lennox (2), Billy McNeill and Tommy Gemmell easing some of the pain. Across Glasgow, Rangers huffed and puffed before a goal from John Greig eventually saw off Clyde. Next up was Motherwell at Fir Park while Rangers travelled to Dundee.
‘We were playing our games and were then desperately trying to find out what was happening at Rangers,’ recalled Gemmell. ‘The lines of communication in the sixties weren’t quite what they became in the twenty-first century. Backroom staff or some travelling reserves would be footering about with dials on radios with reception next to hopeless. It was almost as nerve-wracking after a game as it was during it.’
A goal from John Hughes downed Motherwell. Now all eyes – or ears – were on what had happened at Dens Park. Slowly the announcer said, ‘Dundee 2’ – there was complete silence in a dressing room with every eye on a little plastic source of information perched on the treatment table – ‘Rangers 4.’ Gemmell added, ‘Of course, we were disappointed, but there was a general shrugging of the shoulders as we went for our showers. “There’s always next week,” was the cry. But we also realised there would come a time when we couldn’t repeat those hopeful words. At the same time, we were confident we could hold our nerve.
‘We had been over the course before, we knew the pitfalls. Rangers had made an awful lot of changes over a period of twelve months or so, not least sacking their manager. They had brought in about six players from other clubs and, basically, that was unheard of. Look at Celtic, for instance. We added Willie Wallace in December 1966 and hadn’t gone anywhere near the transfer market since then. Could Rangers continue to click? Only time would tell. We concentrated on our own game, of course, but, naturally, we were more than a little interested in what was happening over at their place. We would look at the fixture list to see who we were playing, but we would also check out who they would be taking on.’
UNSTOPPABLE…Willie Wallace was on fire as Celtic maintained title challenge.
Valentine’s Day arrived with a visit from Stirling Albion who had been more of a thorn in Celtic’s side than a bouquet of roses in the past. Rangers had a Saturday off with games being rearranged to restructure the fixture list after the ravages of winter. Celtic had the opportunity to close the gap to four points. A ferocious penalty-kick from Gemmell sent the Celts on their way and Wallace doubled the advantage to complete a 2-0 victory. The Old Firm resumed combat in the championship at the start of March with Celtic travelling to Kilmarnock and their old foes at home to St.Johnstone. Could this be a defining moment in the championship?
Wallace was on fire as he walloped in four in a runaway 6-0 triumph. ‘The way I looked at it, we simply had to win, there were no alternatives,’ said Wallace. ‘That’s what Big Jock wanted and there were no cat-and-mouse situations at the time. We had to go out for an hour-and-a-half and score at least one more goal than our opponents. Not that easy, of course, but that was the battle plan every matchday.’ Wallace made life a misery for Kilmarnock keeper Sandy McLaughlin that afternoon as he struck shots from all angles with accuracy and power. Lennox netted, too, and substitute Jimmy Quinn, the great grandson of the legendary Celt of the same name, claimed his first goal for the club. Stein made a fuss of the youngster as he came off the pitch.
How would Rangers react to the news Celtic had walloped in six at Rugby Park? It was a fair response – they netted six of their own in a 6-2 triumph over St.Johnstone. Coincidentally, one of their players, Alex Ferguson, also collected a foursome that afternoon. The bustling old-fashioned centre-forward, with the flashing elbows, was living the dream while making life more than just a little awkward for Celtic. His fourth against the Perth Saints was his fourteenth league goal of the season. The other new boys, Andy Penman and Orjan Persson, had pitched in with fifteen between them and the Ibrox side were congratulating themselves on good business in the summer transfer market. A new era? Or a false dawn? Time would tell.
Celtic, two games behind Rangers, were still playing catch-up when Aberdeen came to Parkhead while White took his side to East End Park to face Celtic’s Scottish Cup conquerors Dunfermline. ‘We were looking for someone to beat Rangers or, at least, take a point off them,’ said Wallace.’We knew how awkward and dangerous the Fifers could be. They were a good team as, unfortunately, they had demonstrated against us in the Cup. It was also well-known that their manager George Farm was not a big fan of the Old Firm. He was always going on about a ‘them-and-us’ situation and was hell-bent in smashing our superiority. We looked at the fixtures and wondered if this could be the occasion a door might be opened for us.’
A blistering hat-trick from Lennox and a header from McNeill guided the club to a 4-1 win over the Pittodrie side, a game also notable for the first appearance of a youthful Davie Hay, as a substitute; an individual who would prove to be a winner at the club as a player and a manager. Once more, the transistor radio became the main focus of interest in the dressing room. The dial was set, the announcer, in strict monotone, went through the list, ‘Celtic 4 Aberdeen 1 – “Aye, we know that one!” – then silence. Pause and the announcer carried on, ‘Dunfermline 1’ – more intolerable silence – ‘Rangers 2’. Ferguson and Persson had nicked it for the visitors. ‘There’s always next week.’
IN CONTROL…Jock Stein manoeuvred Celtic through a football minefield.
In total, Celtic would cram seven league games into a frantic month of March, two more than their rivals, to balance the fixtures. With Kilmarnock and Aberdeen overcome, the remaining five would be against Airdrie, Falkirk, Raith Rovers, St.Johnstone and Dundee United; two at home, three away. Rangers had a clear Saturday when Airdrie arrived at Parkhead, but were never a threat as Wallace, with a hat-trick, and a single from Lennox overwhelmed them 4-0.
Next up was a trip to Falkirk while Celtic, reasonably, weren’t too excited about the prospects of Stirling Albion doing anything to help their cause at Ibrox. Gemmell once more paved the way with an unstoppable penalty-kick and the lethal double-act of Wallace and Lennox added the others in a 3-0 victory. Rangers romped to a 5-0 win over hapless Stirling Albion. Celtic would score five themselves a week later, dismissing Raith Rovers 5-0 with Wallace claiming another trio and Lennox and Hughes contributing the others. Persson led the charge again for Rangers with the opening goal in a 3-1 victory over Hibs at Easter Road.
A couple of days later Celtic decimated St.Johnstone 6-1 in Perth with Lennox sticking four past John Donaldson. The Parkhead side had now moved a game ahead of Rangers with six remaining when Dundee United visited Glasgow on the day the Ibrox outfit travelled to Broomfield to take on Airdrie. Celtic brought down the curtain on a hugely successful month of March with an excellent 5-0 triumph over the Tannadice side, their seventh successive victory in the space of twenty-eight active days. Lennox (2), Johnstone, Wallace and substitute Cattenach, with the only goal of his Celtic career, were the marksmen.
Once more the transistor came into play. All that was needed was the atmospheric drum roll. It informed them Airdrie had scored one goal against Rangers, but the men from Govan had hit back with efforts from Willie Johnston and Alex Smith. Something, surely, had to give. Could it be possible for the Old Firm to win every game in the league campaign after the 2-2 draw at Parkhead on the second day of January? That’s the way it was shaping up. Neither looked like faltering with the finishing tape in sight. Rangers travelled to Tannadice for a midweek confrontation with Dundee United while Celtic rested. After this game, the clubs would have five matches each to play during the month of April.
Remarkably and unexpectedly, Rangers shed a point in a goalless stalemate on Tayside. It was the first time their forwards had fired blanks since the fateful afternoon against Dunfermline in Glasgow at the tail end of October, the result that saw Scot Symon dismissed. ‘I could hardly believe it when I heard the score,’ admitted Gemmell. ‘I was certain what we could contribute when the pressure was on, but it looked as though the Rangers lads were coping, too. They had won ten consecutive games after drawing with us and we were running out of matches.
‘You never let your spirits sag, but there comes a time when you have to accept the inevitable and, sad though it may be, you cannot expect to win everything every season. If nothing else, 1968 taught us that. We had retained the League Cup, but the campaigns in Europe and in the Scottish Cup were nothing short of disastrous.’
The way the fixture list panned out, Celtic had been left with six away games from their final nine. Rangers, too, would play away from Ibrox in three of their remaining four with the last game against Aberdeen due at Ibrox on 27 April when Celtic had a day off with their scheduled opponents, Dunfermline, playing in the Scottish Cup Final. It was possible, therefore, for Rangers to go a long way to winning the championship with Celtic idle and powerless to do anything about it. Celtic travelled to Edinburgh to take on the unpredictable Hearts, who weren’t enjoying their best league season with their focus fixed on the Scottish Cup. Nevertheless, they were dangerous opponents, especially on home territory at Tynecastle.
On the same afternoon, Rangers played host to Dundee United, only three days after allowing a crucial point to escape against the same rivals. Lennox and Johnstone took care of business in a 2-0 win in the capital. The question now was: Could United stage an action replay in Glasgow? Goals from Ferguson (2), Willoughby and Johnston provided the answer, Rangers winning 4-1. Four days after the trip to Tynecastle, Celtic were on their travels again, this time to Aberdeen for a midweek fixture while the Ibrox side could rest until the Saturday. It was tense and tight at Pittodrie, but Lennox settled the nerves with the only strike of the encounter.
WING WIZARD…Jimmy Johnstone who terrorised rival rearguards.
On Saturday 13 April, Dundee visited Parkhead while Rangers travelled to Kirkcaldy to face Raith Rovers, still battling relegation. With so much at stake, the Celtic fans would have accepted a win under any conditions, but, instead, they witnessed a fabulous five-goal performance with Lennox (2), Hughes (2) and own goal from George Stewart propelling them to an exciting 5-2 triumph. The Ibrox side had to fight all the way for the points at Stark’s Park and they scraped a 3-2 victory with goals from Davie Smith, Willoughby and Penman. They were still in the driving seat and they were winning. They were also conceding goals.
It was worrying White with so much at stake with a mere three games to go. New goalkeeper Sorensen had seen twenty-seven goals stuffed behind him in his twenty-eight games and, to the new Rangers manager, that didn’t look like an impressive ratio. The blond Dane was flamboyant and acrobatic, but at that time White was looking for a steady pair of hands. He was about to make a cataclysmic error of judgement.
On Wednesday evening 17 April, Celtic played Clyde in the Glasgow Cup Final and thrashed them 8-0 with a hat-trick from Lennox, two from Hughes, one from Johnstone and two booming drives from Murdoch and Gemmell. However, the events at Hampden were of little consequence with most of the attention a few miles away in Greenock where Morton were taking on Rangers. White reinstated Norrie Martin to goal instead of Sorensen. Unless the Dane had a mystery injury, it was an inexplicable judgement call from the Ibrox gaffer. If there was one set of goals that Sorensen would have known better than Ibrox, it would have been those at Cappielow where he had spent over three years after signing in March 1964 from Odense.
As any goalie will tell you – from amateur to junior to senior – they like to feel at home in a particular goalmouth. Sorensen would have known every clump and divot in both those penalty areas, every angle facing him. Not all pitches measure up perfectly and corners, for instance, can be up to four or five yards shorter or longer, as the case may be. Those little things mean a lot to a goalkeeper. Martin did not possess the same expert geographical knowledge of his team-mate. Amazingly, with twenty minutes remaining, Morton were leading 3-1 with Joe Mason, later to become a coach at Ibrox, terrorising the Rangers rearguard. The Ibrox side retaliated and eventually two goals from Greig and one from Johnston helped them scramble a 3-3 draw.
With two games to go, Celtic were now on top of the table, albeit on goal average. Celtic had scored 102 goals and conceded twenty-two as opposed to Rangers’ eighty-nine for and thirty against. Stein’s men had claimed thirteen more and conceded eight fewer. Their goal average was 4.64 compared with Rangers’ 2.97. Celtic knew they could afford to win their remaining two games by the slenderest of margins and the championship would be theirs for the third successive season. Rangers could win two and match them on points, but only a miracle would pull things around in their favour as far as goal average was concerned.
Celtic fans applauded the Morton players onto the Celtic Park pitch three days after they had done their team a massive favour. No set of visiting players had ever received such a warm and delirious reception. The natives weren’t so friendly, though, with a minute to go. The game was deadlocked 1-1 and it looked very much as though a good turn from old Parkhead favourite Jim Kennedy was about to backfire on the team closest to his heart.
Gerry Sweeney, trying to work his way through the Celtic reserves, had been released by Jock Stein in the summer of 1966. Kennedy, by now skipper at Morton, remembered the Renfrew-born youngster and tipped off Cappielow’s extrovert chairman Hal Stewart. ‘I knew he was a good lad,’ said Kennedy. ‘Possibly not Celtic material, but certainly someone who could do a job for Morton. I had no hesitation in recommending him.’ Sweeney was snapped up and, a month or so later, Celtic also freed his pal Tony Taylor, a winger who rarely got a first team mention. The soccer grapevine got to work again and, through the influence of both Kennedy and Sweeney, Taylor also made his way to Morton. And so it was that the two young former Celts found themselves squaring up to their boyhood heroes on 20 April.
All was going according to plan when Wallace flicked a close-range effort wide of the exposed Andy Crawford. ‘Really, that should have settled us,’ said the man known as Wispy. ‘Maybe it came too early, but we didn’t attack consistently as we knew we could. The fans sensed it, too. If it remained like that, we only had to beat Dunfermline in the last game and, irrespective of what Rangers achieved, the title was ours. It was difficult to get that thought out of your head.’
Morton rarely threatened until, suddenly and without warning, a gap appeared on the edge of the box. Taylor took a touch before drilling the ball wide of the diving Simpson. Hush. Stan Rankin, the Morton defender, rushed forward to have another boot of the ball as it settled in the net and got himself entangled in the mesh. While he tried to get back to his feet, his team-mates were racing around Celtic Park dancing jigs of delight to complete silence. Clearly, this wasn’t in the script.
THE JUGGERNAUT…John Hughes brought flair and power to the Celtic attack.
Gemmell recalled, ‘To be honest, we didn’t see it coming. We had been playing reasonably well, keeping possession, but it was also true we weren’t exactly overworking their goalkeeper. Wispy had taken his goal superbly and with guys like him, Bobby Lennox, Jimmy Johnstone and John Hughes up in attack, you always fancied getting a goal or two. I don’t remember us being particularly nervous that day, but you will get occasions when the ball refuses to run for you. Without taking anything away from the effort that the Morton boys put in, I think that was their only shot at our goal that entire afternoon.
‘At half-time, we didn’t appear unduly worried. Big Jock always did good work during this period. He would make sharp observations, point out a few things. I never once saw him fazed in these situations. He had a sharp eye for detail. And you only needed one look at the quality within our ranks and there was no need to panic. We still had a full forty-five minutes to play against Morton and, to a man, we believed we would get at least one more goal. Every single Celtic player who filtered out of that tunnel for the second-half was of that opinion.
‘We had put so much effort into getting ourselves in this position that it was really unimaginable that we would fail now in front of our fans. The advantage had been passed to us and we had no intention of handing it back to Rangers. We realised they were playing Kilmarnock at Rugby Park at the same time, but we didn’t even know their half-time score. Nor were we interested. It was all about what we did and not what was happening in Ayrshire.’
The hour mark arrived without Celtic making a telling contribution in enemy territory. There was a lot of effort and endeavour, but precious little guile or craft. Jock Stein and Hal Stewart were big buddies off the field, but their friendship must have been stretched to breaking point during that second-half with Morton refusing to leave their own half, camping in front of the eighteen-yard box. Of course, there are occasions when teams are simply pinned back and aren’t allowed an escape route into the other team’s half. This was not one of those occasions. Morton were not in Glasgow to provide a spectacle. Their white-clad players presented a ghostly barrier in front of their keeper who, obviously under instructions, wasn’t kicking the ball long. Instead, he would roll it to someone who would dally on it before passing it back. Crawford, as he was entitled to do back then, would pick up the ball and send it onto to a team-mate in the near vicinity and they would go through the entire rigmarole once again. Inter Milan could have taken lessons off this team.
Celtic continued to probe. Suddenly seventy-five minutes were on the clock. There was the distinct trace of anxiety creeping into play. Celtic, under Stein, were known as a patient, passing team, but they could play it long, too, and were being forced into this tactic against the stubborn Greenock side who simply packed their penalty box and refused to budge. Eighty minutes gone and still no breakthrough. Eighty-five minutes gone and Morton were holding firm. Eighty-nine minutes gone and there was still no change.
Suddenly there was a loud groan from some parts of the ground where supporters had transistor radios, those founts of all knowledge. Behind the Celtic dug-out, someone proclaimed, ‘Rangers have won 2-1 at Kilmarnock.’ Obviously, it was no hoax. At that moment, Jock Stein turned to Neil Mochan and said, ‘That’s it, Neil, we’ve lost it.’ The situation could only have been likened to winning the Lotto jackpot on a Wednesday and being told there’s been some mistake and you must return it on the Saturday.
MASTER MARKSMAN…Bobby Lennox on target against Partick Thistle.
They must have thought it was all over, too, in Ayshire with photographs appearing in the following day’s press of Rangers fans cavorting around Rugby Park, scarves held high amid much celebration. Hold on, though. There were thirty seconds still to play in Glasgow. It wasn’t an effort fit to grace any Goal of the Season gallery. It wasn’t a pulverising Tommy Gemmell special or a Bobby Murdoch moment of improvised magic. It wasn’t a Jimmy Johnstone flash of solo brilliance. It wasn’t a soaring header from Billy McNeill. Even the players who performed in the green shirts that afternoon find difficulty in recalling it. But, and be sure of this, Bobby Lennox’s winning goal against Morton in the fading seconds was one of the most important strikes for Celtic in the sixties.
What does he remember about it? ‘It looked as though we were about to hand the initiative back to Rangers,’ remarked Lennox. ‘As everyone had come to expect from this Celtic team, it was never over until the referee blew for full-time. We knew it was very, very close to the end. Suddenly, there was a chance. A ball was floated in, the Morton defence didn’t clear properly and it dropped perfectly right at my feet at the back post. I didn’t hesitate as I lunged forward to stab the ball beyond Andy Crawford from about six yards out. I watched it go over the line with a mixture of elation and relief. We had won.’
The strength, sturdiness and quality of the foundations of Celtic Park were put to the test in that moment. The place was in bedlam. Players hugged each other, total strangers on the terracing embraced as long lost cousins and Jock Stein beamed before heading up the tunnel. Of all people, he must have realised how wrong it was to write off this Celtic team.
The championship had ebbed and flowed in a truly memorable campaign. Now there was one game to go. Rangers were due to play Aberdeen at Ibrox on Cup Final day – 27 April – and faced the genuine prospect of going through the entire league programme, all thirty-four games, without defeat and still not winning the title. That would have been one for the history books. Stein was at Hampden that afternoon to watch his old club Dunfermline, the team who had abruptly cut short Celtic’s interest in the tournament, face Hearts. Two goals from Pat Gardner and a penalty-kick from Ian Lister gave the Fifers a 3-1 triumph.
It seemed a lifetime ago that Stein was congratulating his Dunfermline players after their success in the competition over Celtic; in fact, it was seven years minus a day. He stood to applaud when a national newspaper reporter gave him the news. ‘Rangers have lost 3-2 at Ibrox.’ Stein asked, ‘Are you sure?’ He was told the Pittodrie side had scored a last-minute winner. Rangers had definitely lost 3-2. Ignoring the limp that had ended his playing career, the Celtic manager tried to bound down the Hampden steps and his ankle almost buckled under his weight. He stumbled, got his bearings and raced off to spread the news. ‘This has been a great day,’ he said. Who could argue?
Davie Smith and Ferguson had netted for Rangers in front of 50,000 at Ibrox, but a goal from Davie Johnston in the fading seconds sent them hurtling to their first defeat at the final hurdle. Two goals in the last minute a week apart in Glasgow were to have such a major say in the destination of the championship. Celtic knew they could now afford to lose against Dunfermline in midweek and still keep their crown. It was a joint celebration in Fife; the champions v. the Cup winners and it was the hottest ticket in town. There were those, of course, who didn’t bother with the necessities of legal entrance.
The game attracted East End Park’s official record attendance of 27,816, but it was estimated some 5,000 fans also crammed into the packed surroundings. Walls were scaled and there were the amazing scenes of hundreds of supporters sitting on the roof of the stand at kick-off time. Urgent police messages for them to come down were ignored. ‘Nae chance, pal,’ was the consensus from these would-be Sir Edmund Hillarys. Turnstiles collapsed under the sheer volume of supporters determined to witness the climax to a truly remarkable season. Eventually some sort of order was restored, the fans remained on the roofs of the main stand, and the game got underway.
Bobby Lennox was a genuine, unassuming, down-to-earth character who never luxuriated in the praise that came his way from such grand admirers, among them Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton. He would have easily enticed massive transfer cheques from Arsenal manager Bertie Mee or Newcastle United boss Joe Harvey, two who would have had him across the border at the speed of light to play for their teams.
Lennox had now scored in every one of Celtic’s last eleven games, amassing an extraordinary eighteen goals in total, before the duel with Dunfermline. He had also scored in the opening 3-0 win over Clyde in September. Now he was about to finish what he had started. In typical style, he did just that. Lennox flashed two beyond Bent Martin in a 2-1 victory and Celtic did not have to rely on goal average to bring the third successive title back to Parkhead, the first time the feat had been achieved by any Scottish club since 1935.
The total of sixty-three points was a record post-war total for the Scottish First Division; it was to turn out to be Jock Stein’s best league performance as manager. Celtic had scored 106 goals, more than that of Motherwell, Falkirk and Stirling Albion combined. It was also the third successive season they had topped the ton.
Rangers could take no consolation from the fact that their total of sixty-one points would have been enough to have won the flag in any other season, but one, that of 1957/58, in the history of the thirty-four game league seasons. In a way, that merely emphasised the magnificent achievement of Jock Stein’s team.
* TOMORROW: JOCK v RANGERS (Part Three): Changes are on the way at Celtic as Jock Stein masterminds the way ahead. The next dramatic instalment of Alex Gordon’s book, ‘Celtic: The Awakening’, continues – ONLY in your champion CQN.