CELTIC: THE AWAKENING (PART ONE)

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TODAY CQN brings you the first 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.

EVERYONE has the right to pursue a dream no matter where it may lead them. Celtic Park, in the early sixties, was a bleak place where dreams went to die.

During these grim times, the Celtic support trudged wearisomely along a one-way destination to the graveyard of hope and aspiration. Football fans, by the very nature of their calling, are doomed to suffer. But some poor souls suffer more wretchedly than others. Watching Celtic, back then, could more often than not be an unbearable ordeal for the most resolutely loyal supporter. Parkhead had become a monument to misery. The football club teetered on the precipice, peering gloomily into the impenetrable darkness. Where once there had been fields of splendour, there was now a wasteland of mediocrity.

Celtic were entrenched among the have-nots. Ambition drained from the very heart of a proud, old club, impoverished of imagination and bereft of leadership. There was little or no pleasure to be derived in following a team ponderously dragging along the path of failure, lacking ingenuity on the field and enterprise off it. It was an excruciatingly painful combination. To many, it appeared starkly unlikely the formidable history of the club would ever be allied to a triumphant future.

The wicked chill winds that signalled the descent of another winter barren of expectation provided its own obbligato of despair and disenchantment during those black days. Yet, from these joyless depths of inadequacy, something utterly unexpected was about the emerge. Not even the most relentlessly optimistic among the support could have conjured up anything so extraordinary in the most outrageous of their fantasies; their unyielding desires about to be realised in the most unimaginable of circumstances.

The dawning of the sixties offered little cheer to those of the Celtic persuasion. There was no positive reason for optimism. All logic pointed unwaveringly and unhesitatingly to sustained sorrow. The vision of the future could only be coloured in that of a dull grey. It remained in that drab tinge during the early years. Gradually, it was transformed to a faded black and white. Then, wonderfully and magically, halfway through a defining decade, it erupted into glorious, vivid technicolour; a glittering beacon piercing the pervading gloom.

It was pure theatre in the east end of Glasgow. Celtic Football Club had gone from Grade B listers to the Star Attraction in the space of five memorable, mesmerising, fascinating years. There was always colour among the chaos and the team had always been guaranteed to discover a leading man, but the main and persistent problem was the supporting cast. Charlie Tully, Bobby Evans, Willie Fernie, Bertie Peacock and Bobby Collins had no fears of consistently producing outstanding and illuminating moments in the demanding glare of the spotlight.

They found themselves surrounded, however, by honest, earnest individuals whose only flaw was they simply were not good enough to perform in the manner demanded and expected of a Celtic footballer. It would be tantamount to flattery to say the contribution of such individuals could be rated as ordinary. Their intentions were laudable, but, sadly, they did not possess the gifts required to deliver on promises; their lack of expertise exposed long before the final curtain came down. The void between the two extremes was routinely exploited by ruthless opponents.

Celtic’s participation in the First Division Championship, the Scottish Cup and the League Cup was a mere irrelevance. Pitifully, in the first five years of the sixties the club wasn’t even equipped to aspire to second-rate. Supporters, compelled purely by loyalty, wearily made their way to Celtic Park on matchday in the full awareness that enjoyment had been replaced by endurance. The players often left the field to a din of derision, the regular requiem for serial under-performers.

MIDFIELD MAESTRO…Bertie Auld who figured heavily in the team’s astonishing rise to success. 

The story of Celtic’s trip through the momentous sixties and seventies is a thrilling, multi-layered one.  From the doldrums to delirium. From rubble to riches. From excruciating lows to exhilarating highs. From bit-part players to the best in Europe. The cloak of lethargy had been shed, the vision recovered, the guidance reclaimed, the magnificence sustained. Inside five years, the club had arisen from dreary desolation to once again discover the direction, fortitude, hunger, ability, drive and desire that became the trademark of a football team loaded with masterful characters quite comfortable while parading their ostentatious talents on centre stage. It was a team rightly acclaimed as one of the best in the history of world football, a collection of personalities whose skills were avidly appreciated and enthusiastically admired.

Billy McNeill and Bertie Auld were the only two players who took part in the first game of 1960 and the last one in 1969 during a decade of exaggerated metamorphosis. Auld, of course, had a four-year interlude at Birmingham City between 1961 and 1965. McNeill, the majestic captain and leader of men, was still around, as manager, when he led the celebrations in the club’s Centenary Year with a League and Cup double in 1988. Fate, somehow, had determined the occasion.

Auld, a vitally important player and inspirational figure in the Jock Stein era, epitomised the bold, new Celtic that evolved in the mid-sixties. Auld liked to play his football with a swagger, even with a hint of arrogance. He was the cheeky chappie who, along with the equally-creative Bobby Murdoch, became the choreographer-in-chief of a revitalised, rejuvenated team. This product from Glasgow’s tough housing scheme of Maryhill was afraid of nothing. The football team adopted the same attitude and, inevitably, a rainbow of vibrant colour showered on grounds everywhere Celtic were in action.

In the absence of a bloke called Merlin, it is a source of wonderment that a football team, who often toiled and struggled against the most mediocre of opposition, some of them part-time, in front of their own legions at Celtic Park, could one day rule Europe with that certain amount of pizzazz and elan that set them apart from pretenders to the throne. With skill-based authority and wondrously fluent creativity, Celtic had launched themselves to an enchanting new level. This was a team of indisputable charm and exceptional panache. To the neutral onlooker, they became the best team on the planet and, if fair play ever won the day, would have had the silverware to prove it in 1967.

Celtic played Rangers twenty times in a variety of domestic competitions from the start to mid-sixties. They won twice. In the second half, they faced their ancient foes twenty-one times. They won ten and, importantly, three were Cup Finals. Before Billy McNeill headed in the Scottish Cup winner in the 3-2 victory over Dunfermline at Hampden in 1965, the club had gone eight dismal years without a trophy success.

At that stage, this was a team cast adrift, a ship in distress without a steady hand on the tiller and heading for the rocks with the inevitable dreadful consequences year after miserable year. The decade kicked off with a drab 1-0 defeat from Rangers and, highlighting the startling transformation, was completed with an overwhelming 8-1 triumph over Partick Thistle. In between, there had been five league championships, three Scottish Cups, five League Cups and, of course, a European Cup.

From the awfulness of those early years of the sixties, someone, somehow had found the keys to open the gates of football’s Utopia. The journey through two unforgettable and significant decades is one of epic proportions. The magisterial ascent of Celtic, as beguiling as it was bewildering, to exalted grandeur was that of the impossible dream. They say fact is often stranger than fiction. This is such a tale.

  • TOMORROW: TWO FOR THE ROAD: Billy McNeill and Bertie Auld discuss the remarkable transformation at Parkhead. It’s the second EXCLUSIVE extract from Alex Gordon’s book ‘CELTIC: The Awakening’. Don’t miss it!
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