CELTIC’S ONE CLUB MEN series concludes as Hugh Gallagher features Paul McStay, one of the finest footballers ever to wear the hoops…
He came from a strong Celtic family, his great uncle, Jimmy McStay having been a former manager and player. His other great uncle, Willie McStay was also a Celt. In addition, Paul’s 2 brothers, Raymond and Willie, were Celtic players at the same time as Paul. Paul McStay was a Celtic Boys’ Club member, who burst on to the scene in June 1980, when he captained Scotland schoolboys to victory over their English counterparts. McStay had a tremendous game and scored 2 goals in a game that was televised live; he was awarded Man of the Match.
He made his debut as a teenager in a 4-0 Scottish cup win over Queen of the South in January 1982. He was so good that Billy McNeill had to immediately make him a first team player. There was no question of McStay ‘serving his time’ as a reserve team player. He became a key player for, first, McNeill then Davie Hay.
The young McStay played an important role in Celtic’s league win in 1982. In the last game of the season, Celtic were struggling to break down St Mirren. At half time, it was 0-0 and Aberdeen looked as if they were going to snatch the championship; they were playing Rangers who, for some reason, didn’t seem to be trying and the half time score there was 4-0 for Aberdeen. That would have given Aberdeen the league but a tremendous exhibition of midfield play by McStay in the second half inspired Celtic to a 3-0 win and the League Championship.
By the end of season 1985-86, McStay, still aged just 21, had won 2 League Championships, a Scottish Cup medal and a Scottish League Cup medal. His career was at the same a time as Pat Bonner, so, like Bonner, he won less in the first few years of his career than would have been expected, due to the level of competition from excellent Aberdeen and Dundee Utd teams.
During this spell, McStay was turning in impressive displays against many top European teams. The highlight of this phase of McStay’s career was the final day of season 1985-86. As Celtic fans descended on St Mirren’s ground, Love Street, it was more in hope than of expectation of winning the League. Celtic required a 5 goal victory. However, the more difficult part of the equation was that Hearts had to lose to Dundee. with McStay, and every other Celt, playing out of their skin, Celtic had a 5-0 lead.
However, time was running out at Dens Park and Hearts, on a long unbeaten run, did not look like capitulating. Then, the breakthrough……Albert Kidd scored, not just once but twice, in the dying minutes and a famous League Championship was achieved.
The following season resulted in no trophies; Souness had arrived at Ibrox, bringing with him several English internationals, and Celtic struggled. However, Billy McNeill returned at the end of season 1987-88 and the season, bringing in any excellent players like Andy Walker, Frank McAvennie, Billy Stark and Chris Morris.
The Centenary season was McStay’s most successful and it ended in a glorious double. In Celtic-Rangers matches, McStay was in direct opposition to Souness. In the New Year match, which Celtic won 2-0 thanks to a Frank McAvennie double, McStay was imperious. He was faster, more skilful, stronger in the tackle than Souness, whose normal tactic of kicking opposition players as hard as he could, was rendered useless due to the simple fact that he didn’t have the legs to catch McStay.
3 months later, Celtic approached the 4th and final league encounter with Rangers holding a 4 point lead (at that time, there were only 2 points for a win). A win was crucial and McStay was the best player on the park. He scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win; Celtic ended up winning the League comfortably.McStay then went on to help Celtic clinch the double, as they came from behind to beat Dundee Utd 2-1 in the Scottish Cup Final.
Celtic were unable to capture the Centenary season form in 1988-89. However, at the end of a disappointing League campaign, Celtic had the consolation of beating Rangers 1-0 in the Scottish Cup Final. Then, unfortunately, Celtic hit a disastrous 6 year barren spell. Rangers threw millions at established English and European Internationals.
With players like Roy Aitken and Tommy Burns leaving, captain McStay was forced to carry a very poor Celtic team on his back. Morale hit rock bottom and there were serious problems off the park, which threatened the club’s very existence. McStay had to play under a succession of managers- Billy McNeill, Liam Brady, Lou Macari and Tommy Burns.
The situation was so desperate that, for 7 consecutive seasons, Celtic couldn’t even finish 2nd in the League. For the first of Rangers 9 in a row, Celtic were 3rd (in 1988-89), then 5th, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 4th and 4th. It wasn’t until Tommy Burns built an excellent Celtic team that the team rose from their slumbers.
Form was poor; there were brief glimmers of hope, but these were not sustained. For example, on St Patrick’s Day 1991, Celtic knocked Rangers out of the Scottish Cup, with a 2-0 win and 7 days later, a stylish Celtic defeated Rangers 3-0 in the League. The league gap was too big for that win to dent Rangers’ advantage.
However, hope was high that, with Rangers out of the Scottish Cup, McStay would be able to captain his beloved club to silverware. Disappointingly, in the next round- the Semi Final- calamitous defending led to a 4-2 replay defeat at the hands of Motherwell. Largely as a result of that defeat, the exit door loomed for that great Celtic servant, manager Billy McNeill.
Liam Brady came in, for what turned out to be a disastrous, barren period. Poor signings were made- eg Tony Cascarino, Stuart Slater, Gary Gillespie – and there were some dreadful results, like a 5-1 defeat against almost unknown Swiss side, Neauchatel Xamax. At the end of Brady’s first season, Celtic’s loyal captain, Paul McStay, seemed to be heading for pastures new. After the final game of 1991-92, Paul threw his jersey into the crowd; clearly the implication was that he was leaving and rumours were rife that he was about to join Inter Milan.
As it turned out, there was no move and, happily, Paul McStay decided to remain with the club he loved. Cynics suggested that he stayed simply because no bigger teams came in for him. However, a player of McStay’s calibre would, undoubtedly, have attracted interest; it is more likely that with Celtic struggling so badly, he preferred to remain to attempt to lead a fightback.
Season 1992-93 was another poor season. Apart from fine midfield displays by McStay and John Collins, there was nothing for Celtic fans to cheer, as Rangers’ run of consecutive leagues continued. A poor start to 1993-94, and a defeat to St Johnstone led to Brady’s dismissal, which heralded the start of Lou Macari’s equally disastrous period in charge.
Macari made a good start, with Celtic coming from behind to beat Rangers 2-1. However, that was as good as it got and he bought even poorer players than Brady, with signings like Carl Muggleton and Wayne Biggins. After a poor season, and major financial problems, Fergus McCann came in to save the club and almost immediately dismissed Macari.
His replacement, Tommy Burns, was universally welcomed by Celtic fans. Paul McStay seemed revitalised under his former team mate and his form, which had dipped from his normally very high standards, improved.
Early in season 1994-95, the stage seemed set for an early boost for Burns and a chance for Mcstay to finally lead Celtic to silverware. A League Cup Final date with Raith Rovers provided a straightforward assignment and the chance of the first trophy since 1989. Celtic dominated the game but, after 2 hours, the score was 2-2. McStay’s incredible bad luck continued; heartbreakingly, his penalty miss was crucial and Raith Rovers emerged victorious from the penalty shoot-out.
However, at the end of the season, the drought finally ended. Celtic beat Airdrie 1-0 to win the Scottish Cup and McStay finally got his hands on a trophy, in his role as captain. After the disastrous reigns of Brady and Macari, there was now fresh hope.
In Burns’ 2nd season, 1995-96, Rangers should have been stopped from attaining 8 in a row. Celtic lost only 1 league match in the whole campaign – a loss to Rangers. However, draws in the other 3 Rangers’ matches cost the club dear and Rangers won by 4 points, despite losing 3 games.
Hopes were high at the start of 1996-97 that Rangers could be stopped from doing 9 in a row. Just like at the start of McStay’s Celtic days, and unlike the early days of his captaincy, he was surrounded by quality players.
His team mates were players like Allan Stubbs, Enrico Annoni, Paulo di Canio, Jorge Cadete, Jackie McNamara, Morten Wieghorst, Andreas Thom, Tom Boyd, Pierre van Hooijdonk, Peter Grant and Phil O’Donnell. That was probably the best squad Celtic had since 1988.
Burns had Celtic playing the best football seen for years. However, defeats to Rangers in all 4 games cost Celtic the league. Rangers took 12 points from Celtic, yet only won the league by 5 points. If Celtic had won just 1 of those games, the league would have been won by a single point.
Celtic did beat Rangers 2-0 in the last 8 of the Scottish Cup but, just like in 1991, a semi final replay defeat – this time to Falkirk – signalled the end of Burns’ reign.
Sadly, Paul McStay had to retire at about the same time, due to a career ending injury. It was typical of the bad luck that had haunted McStay throughout the 1990s, that he was forced to leave just when Celtic turned the corner. He missed the wonderful 1997-98 season, when Celtic ‘s league win prevented Rangers from winning 10 in a row.
When Paul McStay left Celtic he’d won 3 League Championships, 4 Scottish Cups and a League Cup. He played 678 games and only Billy McNeill has played more games.
Apart from the 4 featured players, Celtic have, of course, had many other faithful servants. Probably, the most faithful was Danny McGrain, who burst on the scene in the very early 1970s. In spite of major problems early in his career, with a fractured skull, diabetes and a mystery leg injury, which sidelined him for 16 months, Danny was a truly world class right back for almost 20 years. He Celtic gave 100% and then spent one season with Falkirk, 1987-88.
Sadly, the economics of the modern game mean that the days of long term loyalty are over. The conveyor belt that was Celtic Boys’ Club no longer produces young Celts like McStay. Junior football also produced men like McNeill, but that, too, has dried up.
Written by Hugh Gallagher for CQN Magazine.
Click on the Lions & Legends button to read Hugh’s account of the careers of Celtic’s other One Club Men – Billy McNeill, Bobby Lennox and Pat Bonner.