CELTIC: THE AWAKENING: THE NEARLY MEN

0

TODAY CQN brings you the seventh 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.

THE CELTIC supporters’ annual rendezvous with misery and heartache. Another New Year’s Day game. Another New Year’s Day defeat. By now, the Celtic fans were ushering in new years with weary emotions, unrelenting apprehension replacing eager anticipation. Hopes simply faded away like smoke on a nippy January day. A sell-out crowd of just over 65,000 made it to Parkhead on the first day of January 1964 to see if Celtic could buck the festive trend. A goal from Jimmy Millar provided the answer; Celtic 0, Rangers 1.

Tommy Gemmell recalled, ‘That was my first Old Firm game and I would have been a lot more impressed if we had actually won. It was a fascinating encounter and I could see why all the old-stagers who used to frequent Celtic Park went on endlessly about these fixtures. Remember, these were the days when the attendance was split 50/50. Celtic had their half of the ground and Rangers had the other half.

‘So, when they scored there was this remarkable sight of half of the ground singing and dancing and the other half totally silent. It was a weird experience, to say the least. We played well enough that day, as I remember. I’m not being churlish when I say that if there was a break of the ball it went Rangers’ way. You get games like that. But it was a helluva afternoon and I was left wanting more. Somehow I knew we would get the upper hand. Eventually.’

Celtic could still entertain, though. Shortly after the Rangers defeat they hammered Falkirk 7-0 with Stevie Chalmers notching a hat-trick. A photograph appeared in the newspapers the following day of Falkirk keeper Willie Whigham sitting on his backside, covered from top to toe in mud, the ball nestling behind him in the net for the seventh time. Remarkably, he was smiling; possibly he was in a state of shock. Billy McNeill said, ‘When we clicked we reckoned we could beat anyone. If we scored one, we wanted a second. If we scored a second, we went in search of a third.

‘I don’t recall us ever sitting on a lead back then. We were probably a bit naive, but we always tried to put on a show for our supporters. The sad thing is we weren’t doing it in the games that really mattered. Yes, we could take nine off Airdrie and seven off Falkirk, but the Celtic fans were waiting for us to achieve something against Rangers. Those, clearly, were the games that mattered.’

YOUNG BHOYS…Bobby Lennox, Stevie Chalmers and Billy McNeill, with Jock Stein in the background, warm up.

Quietly, and almost imperceptibly, things were changing at Celtic. Gemmell was becoming an automatic choice at left-back, Jimmy Johnstone was getting an extended run at outside-right – without any decisions verging on the idiotic to chop and change – Stevie Chalmers was now permanently in from the wing to lead the attack and John Hughes was being utilised as an outside-left. Frank Haffey’s perplexing performance in the 5-3 win over Partick Thistle was to be his last in a Celtic jersey. It was somehow fitting that the keeper should say his farewells with another extravagant display of mishaps.

Celtic Park would never be the same again. Billy McNeill and Co would sleep more easily at night. Opposition forwards would have to work that little bit harder. Haffey lasted just one year at Swindon Town before packing up altogether and moving to Australia. Some would say it still wasn’t far enough removed from the east end of Glasgow.

A week that typified the eccentricities and inconsistencies of Celtic around that time arrived in March. The team fired on all cylinders as they overwhelmed a strong Hibs side 5-0 in Glasgow, but seven days later they were turned over 4-0 by Kilmarnock at Rugby Park. The league was blown early and the Scottish Cup once again represented the club’s best chance of silverware. But no-one was holding their breath when the quarter-final draw paired them with Rangers at Ibrox in March. It didn’t auger well.

Rangers didn’t need a helping hand in their encounters with Celtic back then, but the unfortunate John Fallon gave them one, anyway. Straight from the Frank Haffey Book of Blunders, Fallon gifted the opening goal to the club’s fiercest foes. A corner-kick dropped into the penalty box and Fallon, challenged by Ralph Brand, gave it the bar of soap treatment. It fell perfectly for Jim Forrest, smack in front of goal, and he couldn’t miss from six yards.

It was all over when Willie Henderson scored a wonderful solo goal. The tantalising outside-right, who would eventually be eclipsed by Jimmy Johnstone, raced past three defenders before unleashing a drive from the edge of the box that hurtled past the helpless Celtic keeper. The domestic season ended there and then as the net bulged behind the flapping Fallon.

The ever-dangerous John Hughes.

Celtic still had to perform on the European stage and, rather remarkably, had reached the semi-final of the Cup-Winners’ Cup by the time April arrived. The run got off to an astonishing start with a 5-1 victory over Basle in Switzerland in September the previous year. The headlines in the national press informed us it was a ‘SWISS ROLL FOR CELTIC’. Hughes became the first Celt in history to score a hat-trick in Europe with Divers and Lennox delivering the other two. Basle didn’t represent much of an obstacle, either, in the return in Glasgow when they again conceded five without reply.

The wonderful European adventure continued into December with a 3-0 victory over a very good Yugoslav side in Dinamo Zagreb and Celtic survived a 2-1 defeat in the away leg. Then they faced Czechoslovakian Cup winners Slovan Bratislava, a line-up that consisted of many of the players who had represented their country in the 3-1 defeat against Brazil in the World Cup Final two years beforehand. Goalkeeper Villiam Schroiff was one of their biggest names, but he was left powerless when Murdoch slotted home the only goal of the game via the penalty spot in Glasgow. It was the slenderest of leads, but Celtic doubled their advantage when Hughes scored in the second leg with an excellent solo effort.

There was an extraordinary and refreshing feel to Parkhead during the club’s European excursion. The woes on the home front could be shelved with a journey into the unknown. Hungary’s MTK Budapest arrived in Glasgow for the first leg of the semi-final and it was difficult to comprehend that Celtic were a mere three hours away from the possibility of a glamorous European final due to be held in Brussels. It was all very exotic and exciting facing up to players with unpronounceable names.

Tommy Gemmell said, ‘In truth, we didn’t know a lot about the teams we were up against. These were the days when you didn’t send scouts to have a look at the opposition. Goodness knows how long it would have taken to get to Hungary in 1964. I’m sure they wouldn’t have known an awful lot about Jinky, Yogi, Big Caesar or me, for that matter. It all added to the intrigue.’

Chalmers took his goal haul in Europe to five with two opportunist efforts against MTK Budapest and Johnstone added another in a splendid 3-0 triumph. The Celtic players disappeared down the tunnel after a memorable ninety minutes, but had to reappear when they were told the joyous 60,000 support had no intention of leaving the ground until they had taken a lap of honour. Fans left Parkhead that night already planning ways of how to get to Belgium for the Final. Could the old Hillman Imp stand the rigours of the journey? Sadly, all a bit premature. What could go wrong?

John Hughes takes up the story. ‘No-one knew what to expect back then. Tactics? We never discussed them. We just went out and played our natural game and that was to attack. It didn’t matter where we played, home or abroad, that was how we went about our business. You could say we were just a shade naive. Nowadays, if you are three goals ahead, you would probably be told to play it tight, keep the ball and hit on the break. Not in the early sixties, though.

‘After  winning the first leg against the Hungarians we were expected to go all the way. Once again, though, we showed an alarming lack of tactical skills. Robert Kelly was our chairman, but he was also in charge of team selection. He told the players we had beaten MTK in Glasgow by playing in a good, attacking manner and we could beat them again in Budapest playing the same way.

‘That’s how he wanted Celtic to perform, on the offensive all the time. Once more, we went into the game without any sort of defensive plan. We were halfway there after the first match, but we were still chasing the game. The Hungarians couldn’t believe it. They must have expected us to erect a defensive wall in front of our keeper, but, instead, we came out and attacked. They took full advantage and won 4-0. Unbelievable. A laudable outlook, but totally unrealistic.’

That was the end of Europe. It was also the end of the season without a Scottish Cup Final to look forward to. In usual Celtic fashion, there had been soaring highs mixed with plunging lows. The positives could be seen in McNeill, Gemmell, Murdoch, Johnstone, Hughes and Chalmers. They were becoming reassured first-teamers, but, annoyingly, there was still little or no direction off the field. The chairman appeared to revel in the club’s moniker of ‘Kelly’s Kids’ and when there was criticism he would dismiss it with his oft-repeated phrase,

‘Come back in two years’. Sadly, Kelly had been uttering those same words since before the turn of the decade and nothing was happening on the silverware front. It was all very well a young Celtic side gelling together to provide spectacles every now and again, but there was no consistency or scope for long-term optimism. The tide of expectation among the supporters was being repelled time and time again.

The opening game of season 1964/65 again emphasised that all was far from well with Celtic’s methods. They kicked off against Partick Thistle in the League Cup at Parkhead and had to settle for a goalless draw. ‘Here we go again,’ seemed to be the consensus among the supporters as they drifted away after a fairly tedious ninety minutes. And, yet, better things were around the corner. For a start, not only did Celtic qualify from their League Cup group for the first time in five years, but they got all the way to the final. East Fife, performing at a mediocre level in the old Second Division, barred the path to the semi-final. Surely, this was the start of something good?

Celtic could even go into the midweek encounter at Methil after a 3-1 Old Firm success at Parkhead the previous Saturday, 5 September. There was no need for meddling in team matters on this occasion. Celtic put out the same side against the Fifers and promptly collapsed to a 2-0 defeat. It wasn’t the end of the world – or the League Cup – and fans returned to Glasgow that evening still believing that events could be turned around. Stevie Chalmers certainly thought so.

STEVIE CHALMERS…Celtic’s speed merchant.

He was like a green and white tornado as he pierced the East Fife defence time and again with his electrifying bursts of speed. He rattled in five goals and Jim Kennedy, having finally found a compass to direct him to the opposition’s goal, netted, too, in a landslide 6-0 triumph. Morton, who would consolidate their place in the First Division after their meteoric promotion of the previous season, were the semi-final opponents at Ibrox on 29 September while Rangers would meet Dundee United at Hampden.

John Cushley was again in at centre-half instead of Billy McNeill while Bobby Lennox replaced John Hughes at outside-left against the Greenock side. It proved to be a wise decision by someone, credit where credit is due, and Lennox netted with Charlie Gallagher claiming the other in a hard-fought and well-earned 2-0 success. Rangers’ young centre-forward Jim Forrest was revelling in the competition and brought his goal total to an astonishing sixteen with two in the 2-1 win over Dundee United. Rangers, in fact, were only minutes from defeat when Forrest snatched an equaliser and then struck the winner in extra-time.

Unhappily, Forrest hadn’t quite finished with business in the League Cup as he demonstrated in the 2-1 Final success over Celtic at the national stadium on 24 October. There had been a school of thought among what passed as Celtic management that Cushley was more mobile than McNeill on the deck where Forrest did his best work. McNeill, of course, had no peers with his aerial work. There were few frills with the Rangers frontman whose short backswing and shot often took goalkeepers by surprise. That’s exactly what happened that dreary afternoon as he outmanoeuvred Cushley on two occasions and slipped two simple efforts beyond the exposed Fallon. Jimmy Johnstone squeezed one in, but it wasn’t to be. Were Celtic destined to be known as Nearly Men?

‘We were all over the place at that stage of the season,’ groaned Gemmell. ‘It was astonishing that we even managed to reached the final of the League Cup. ANY Cup! Four days after the defeat from Rangers we took on Kilmarnock at Rugby Park and that wouldn’t have been the game of my choice coming on the back of a Cup Final disappointment. Killie were a really strong team at the time. So, you might have thought we would have shored up the defence, believing a point at their place was a point gained and not one lost. The powers-that-be didn’t think along those lines, sadly. Nope. They put in Charlie Gallagher and Bobby Lennox for Johnny Divers and John Hughes and we were told to attack our opponents. I did as I was told and cracked one in from distance. Charlie added another. Unfortunately, they dumped five behind Fallon. A typical Celtic performance, I suppose.’

The 1964/65 league campaign had started with its usual staccato procedure of stop, start, stop, start. Chalmers, Murdoch and Lennox shared the goals in the opening day 3-1 victory at Motherwell on 19 August. Rangers were the next opponents and successes against the Govan side were few and far between in the early sixties. Chalmers, however, appeared to enjoy jousts with Ronnie McKinnon in these tense occasions and he fired two beyond Billy Ritchie.

Rangers manager Scot Symon fielded the robust Roger Hynd, normally a wing-half, at right-back in direct opposition to John Hughes on the left wing. It didn’t quite work and the man affectionately known to the fans as ‘Yogi’, after a popular TV cartoon character, Yogi Bear, scored the other Celtic goal. Davie Wilson got his side’s consolation. It had been an encouraging showing from Celtic, but, true to form, they then drew 1-1 with Clyde, had an identical scoreline against Dundee United and nosedived 2-4 to Hearts at Tynecastle. They had, at last, overwhelmed their greatest rivals and then carelessly thrown away four points in the next three games. Rangers struggled, too, and this looked like it could be the season for someone to mount a serious challenge on the championship, won the previous two years by the Ibrox outfit. Sadly, that threat was not going to come from Celtic. There was also the ignominy of 3-0 defeat from a distinctly-average St.Johnstone side for the supporters to contend with.

Celtic, as usual, had hardly been active in the transfer market, but they did make a move for Falkirk inside-forward Hugh Maxwell who had taken the eye back in the League Cup sections in August when he netted four in his side’s 5-2 win over Dundee United. Mind you, they were ALL penalty-kicks! Celtic parted with £15,000 for the player and he made his debut in front of a confused Celtic support against Dundee at Parkhead in November. There had been nothing in that day’s newspapers about Celtic signing a new player and, if you got in late and missed the tannoy announcement, you had no idea of the identity of the tall, skinny, red-haired bloke wearing the No.10 shorts. Hugh Maxwell was not a household name, hardly an instantly recognisable figure. Probably not even in Falkirk, either.

It wasn’t a debut to remember as Celtic went down 2-0 and Maxwell hardly got a kick of the ball. You only get one opportunity to make a first impression and, sadly for the new boy, it had passed him by. Celtic went through the usual topsy-turvy routine as they drove towards the turn of the year. They beat Partick Thistle 4-2 and then lost 1-2 at home to Dunfermline. The last action of 1964 saw Hughes firing in a couple in a 2-0 victory over Motherwell at Parkhead on Boxing Day. The cry from the terracing at the time was ‘Feed The Bear…Feed The Bear’ directed at Yogi and, it must be said, he rarely disappointed when he got decent service.

Celtic got their second taste of Europe in 1964, but the club and the fans saw precious little of the drama that unfolded the previous season. There was no disgrace, though, in going out to Barcelona before 1965 dawned. Murdoch gave Celtic a very creditable 1-1 draw against Leixoes in the first leg of their Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup-tie in Portugal in September and he hammered in a penalty-kick with Chalmers adding two more in the second game in Glasgow a fortnight later for a 3-0 triumph. Ronnie Simpson, at the age of thirty-three, made his first appearance for the club in November, but was powerless to prevent a 3-1 defeat from Barcelona. Hughes scored and hopes were high of a surprise in Glasgow. The Spaniards, so flamboyant in front of their own fans in the Nou Camp Stadium, showed their other side and shut up shop in the second leg. It ended goalless, but it was another lesson learned in an exciting arena. Gemmell observed, ‘You had to hope that someone from the Celtic management twigged that even the great Barcelona knew when to put up the barriers and protect what they had after a first leg advantage. Well, you had to hope.’

Charlie Gallagher was one of the most consistent Celtic players of that year. Essentially, he was used to pull the strings in the middle of the park, but he was also the possessor of a powerful shot that he had put to a good use since the start of the year with twelve goals to his credit which wasn’t bad for a player who performed behind the likes of Hughes, Chalmers, Divers and Johnstone. The problem with Gallagher, in the eyes of most supporters, was that he lacked a little bit of devilment, some dig. He wasn’t a ball-winner.

Celtic would rectify that problem in 1965. And a few others, too.

* TO BE CONTINUED: CQN’s exclusive extracts of Alex Gordon’s book. ‘CELTIC: The Awakening’, will continue later this month as the team go in search of their first piece of silverware in eight years. Don’t miss the next dramatic instalments – only in champion CQN.

 

Share.

About Author