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THAT SEASON IN PARADISE: A GUY NAMED JOE (PART THREE)

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CQN continues it’s thrilling and EXCLUSIVE extracts from Alex Gordon’s book, ‘That Season In Paradise’.

Today, we look at the 1966 team as the players prepared to win their first title since 1954. Sit back and enjoy the dramatic turn of events.

JOE McBRIDE drilled a thirty-second minute penalty-kick beyond St Johnstone keeper Mike McVittie in a hard-fought 3-2 win for Celtic on March 12 1966. He could never have guessed it would be his last goal at Celtic Park that season.

The club’s top scorer collected two goals in a 7-1 destruction of Hamilton at Douglas Park the following week and another double in a 3-0 victory over St Mirren at Love Street on April 5, but, after those two romps, he was firing blanks. The goal supply dried up as abruptly as it was unexpected.

The chunky frontman’s progress hit an invisible brickwall. He was still barging around with controlled aggression and making a general nuisance of himself, but the rewards had now diminished alarmingly. Four days after his pair in Paisley, McBride was up against the same opponents in the east end of Glasgow. It was a frustrating afternoon for the striker and his team-mates. McBride, noticeably, was bereft of his usual snap in the penalty-box. On this occasion, Celtic had to rely on Charlie Gallagher to open the floodgates in the fifty-fourth minute. With three minutes to play, Celtic were cruising 5-0 ahead with Bertie Auld and Stevie Chalmers pitching in with two apiece.

A few days later, Celtic took on Liverpool in the first leg of their European Cup-Winners’ Cup semi-final at a sold-out Parkhead, with 76,446 in attendance. I was fortunate enough to be there to witness Celtic ‘massacring’ the mighty Anfield outfit 1-0 with a second-half goal from Bobby Lennox. It is no exaggeration to say Jock Stein’s side could – and should – have won by four or five goals that evening. Ronnie Simpson had so little to do throughout the entire ninety minutes, he could have joined me and my Dad in the Jungle.

There could be no debate that a fully-functioning Joe McBride would have given Celtic the edge and, possibly, a passage to a prestigious European Final, a year ahead of Lisbon. It wasn’t quite a case of switching from prolific to profligate, but the assurance and penalty box poise that had been so evident at the start of the season had, in general, evaporated. And, to be fair, McBride was the first to admit it. He failed to convert a pinch against the Anfield side during the siege of Tommy Lawrence’s goal you would have put money on him knocking over the line in his sleep a month or so previously.

He said, ‘The game at Parkhead was terrific, but I missed one from under the bar. Heading was a strong point of mine, but I passed up a certainty. The ball came across from the wing and I got under it and headed over the bar instead of under it. It was a horrible miss.’

HEAD BHOY…Joe McBride launches an unstoppable header past Hibs keeper Willie Wilson.

Although McBride was misfiring, Jock Stein kept faith with the forward who had notched forty-three goals in all competitions until that stage of the campaign. To put that total in perspective, it was seventeen more strikes than the highest tally of the previous season by Stevie Chalmers. Alas, it simply looked as though McBride had run out of goals at the so-called ‘business end’ of the season. A goalless draw against Hibs at Easter Road followed the Liverpool tie and then it was onto Anfield for the second leg. Again, the record books show Celtic failed to register a goal in a 2-0 defeat on a Merseyside quagmire on an evening of wildly deteriorating conditions.

The game ended in uproar and controversy in the last minute when Bobby Lennox turned the ball behind the grounded Tommy Lawrence and left-back Gerry Byrne, who was on the goal line. ‘Offside,’ said Belgian referee Josef Hannet to the surprise of everyone. Billy McNeill’s take on the incident years later can be filed in the philosophic category. ‘Obviously, it was impossible for Bobby to be offside with two opponents between him and the goal. Later, we discovered Msr Hannet had watched the highlights of the game on television that evening and realised he had made a mistake. He actually owned up to his error. Thanks, referee, just a wee bit too late for us to take our place in the Cup-Winners’ Cup Final at Hampden the following month. Liverpool lost 2-1 in extra-time to the West Germans of Borussia Dortmund and there was the widespread belief among my Celtic team-mates that they had used up all their good fortune against us. That wasn’t sour grapes. The fact is they had contributed so little against us over the two legs. We dominated in Glasgow and we were comfortable all the way through the first-half at their place. Then they scored two goals inside five second-half minutes to turn the tie on its head. We had a legitimate goal ruled out and we were out and they were in the Final. It was a sore one to take.’

McBride recalled the no-goal decision years later. ‘It was a shocker from the referee,’ he claimed. ‘It was impossible for Bobby to be offside. Quite apart from the fact there were two opponents in front of him, he was actually behind me when I passed the ball in front of him before he took it on and stuck it in the net. I was well onside – their centre-half Ron Yeats was around the vicinity, as well – so, that being the case, Bobby had to be onside, too. It was a mystifying decision by the match official. If we had got through, I’m certain we would have won the Cup-Winners’ Cup at Hampden. I’m convinced we would have had too much for Borussia Dortmund in what would have felt like a home game.’

Privately, Jock Stein fumed at the Anfield defeat. Publicly, though, he preferred not to go into detail. He merely observed, ‘It’s history now. What we need to do now is concentrate on the next game which is the Scottish Cup Final against Rangers on Saturday. That’s the only thing that matters. Europe has gone for this season, but we have the opportunity to win a trophy and that is now our priority.’

HAIL THE HERO…Jock Stein acknowledges the Celtic fans.

The Celtic manager, though, had problems before the Hampden date with the Ibrox club. Bobby Lennox had sustained an injury at Anfield and had no chance of playing at the national stadium. That was more of a blow than Stein would care to admit. Lennox’s outstanding acceleration was a massive weapon against a fairly pedestrian Rangers central defence that relied solely on the strength of captain John Greig and centre-half Ronnie McKinnon. Neither was a speed merchant and Lennox had enjoyed encounters at their expense. However, Stein was informed by the medical staff at Parkhead he would have to lay his plans for the Scottish Cup Final without Lennox. It didn’t help his mood, either, when he realised Bertie Auld, who thrived in the often-toxic Old Firm atmosphere, would also sit it out after picking up an SFA suspension following three bookings. Jimmy Johnstone and Charlie Gallagher came into the team in their places.

The notorious Hampden swirl was in evidence on the Saturday afternoon of April 23 1966 on the south side of Glasgow.  A crowd of 126,599 turned out to witness a fairly drab and unenterprising encounter where both teams appeared far too tentative. The nearest to a goal came from a header by Billy McNeill that soared high over keeper Billy Ritchie before banging off the face of the crossbar and being hastily booted clear by a frantic and relieved John Greig. There was a singular scare for Celtic when the normally-reliable Ronnie Simpson left his line to deal with a long diagonal cross from the left wing. To the veteran’s consternation, the ball appeared to hold up in the wind. His timing was off and he was actually coming back down from his leap when the ball arrived in the penalty box. Rangers forward Jim Forrest, with an extraordinarily good strike rate against Celtic, raced in as he attempted to take advantage, but, thankfully, Simpson recovered his composure and grabbed the wayward object at the second attempt.

Joe McBride put in his usual ninety minutes’ worth of dexterity, but, once more, had precisely nothing to show for his raw effort. The Glasgow Herald’s chief sportswriter Raymond Jacobs observed, ‘McBride had a header brilliantly touched away by Ritchie, but Celtic’s leading scorer was, for the most part, an anonymous figure.’

For the first time in Jock Stein’s tenure as Celtic manager, the team had gone three consecutive matches without scoring a goal. He knew he would have to rectify that dire situation against Rangers in the Cup Final replay the following Wednesday. Once again, Stein was convinced his centre-forward would answer the call and Joe McBride led the line alongside Stevie Chalmers with an unfit Bobby Lennox again sitting in the stand. Bertie Auld, free of suspension, came back into the midfield at the expense of Charlie Gallagher, who, rather strangely, played for the reserve team against St Mirren on the same evening at Parkhead. A crowd of 96,862 turned out at Hampden while Charlie performed in front of two men and dog across Glasgow. At least, the ‘attendance’ in the east end of the city watched the Celtic second string win 7-0.

Remarkably, at the national stadium and for the fourth game in succession, the Celtic forwards couldn’t put the ball in the opposition’s net. It must be said, though, that Billy Ritchie’s goal led the most beguiling of charmed lives. How the Rangers keeper survived the bombardment will forever remain a mystery to anyone who witnessed the spectacle, this author included. Bertie Auld was shimmying this way and that, strutting around while skipping away from clumsy challenges and creating havoc with his exceptionally astute deliveries. He was in the mood to introduce his opponents to a carnival of chaos and all he required was for his team-mates to respond.

In the first-half, Stevie Chalmers passed up two opportunities and John Hughes was also culpable after being set up by the midfield craftsman. After the turnaround, Billy McNeill headed narrowly past the upright, Ritchie held on well to a shot low down at his left-hand post from Jimmy Johnstone and McBride put Chalmers in the clear with a neat knockdown, but his frontline partner carelessly lofted the ball over the crossbar. A goal just had to come.

Reporter Raymond Jacobs, of the Glasgow Herald, saw it this way, ‘The vital goal was scored by Rangers’ Danish right-back Kai Johansen twenty minutes before a relentless, at times ruthless, battle would have had to go into extra-time. It was a goal worthy of winning any trophy and its quality was matched only by its unexpectedness. Willie Johnston wriggled his way to the byeline on the left and when George McLean missed the ball a few yards out, it ran to Willie Henderson. The winger’s shot was cleared off the line by Bobby Murdoch out to Johansen, who let fly from twenty-five yards and the ball flew low and hard into the corner of the net. Thus are Cups sometimes won and in this instance the deed was done by a defensive member of the side whose forwards, compared with the opposition, had given little indication that they were capable of doing such damage by themselves.’

From Bobby Lennox’s vantage point in the stand, he observed, ‘I remember Celtic storming straight back at Rangers after that goal. If I recall correctly, Big Yogi ran down the left wing and pitched over a peach of a cross. In the busy penalty area, Joe McBride was first to react and thumped in a ferocious header. Billy Ritchie hadn’t a clue where the ball was. It struck him on the shoulder, flew upwards, came down, ran across the top of the crossbar and, with what looked like half the Celtic team queuing up on the goal line to knock it in, suddenly veered in the wrong direction, as far as we were concerned, and flopped on top of the net. That just about summed up Celtic’s luck in both of their matches against the Ibrox side.’

McBride completed the game limping on the left wing with John Hughes taking over his role in the centre of attack. In those unenlightened days before substitutes, managers were reluctant to render their line-up a man short and deployed an injured player to a role on the wing where they could at least be a pest to the opposition. McBride, without complaint, did as he was ordered, but, at the same time, also did so much damage to a pulled muscle that his season ended as soon as referee Tiny Wharton placed the whistle between his lips and blew for full-time. It had been a bad night all round for Celtic and Joe McBride.

Celtic were now three games – and four-and-a-half hours – away from winning their first championship since 1954 and Jock Stein was aware he would have to plot the way ahead without the services of his most resolute goalscorer. McBride was in the stand at Cappielow when Celtic took the first of the trio of hurdles against Morton on Saturday April 30 which followed swiftly on the disappointment of the Scottish Cup capitulation. The first of Stein’s trophies at Celtic had been surrendered negligently against inferior opponents. However, the title was within the team’s grasp and it was reckoned the most glittering prize the country had to offer would be more than acceptable as a fair consolation.

Bertie Auld said, ‘No-one should mistake what losing the Scottish Cup to Rangers meant to Big Jock. Us players, too, of course. The win the previous year against Dunfermline was so important to this club and our fans. I’ve said that often enough. For me, it was the absolute foundation for everything that followed. You can be certain we had every intention of retaining that particular piece of silverware. We knew we were a better team than Rangers. In one hundred and eighty minutes of football against them at Hampden, I think they might have had two shots on target and they scored with one. Goodness only knows how many we had in the replay alone – double figures, at least. But the better team doesn’t always win for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s a fluke bounce of the ball, a lucky shot that could go anywhere, an individual error or a referee’s decision. Fates decreed the Scottish Cup would be removed from our trophy cabinet and we didn’t like that one bit.

‘It was a learning curve, of course. Expectation levels among the fans had risen as the team’s performances reached higher levels. However, in the space of just over a week, the players had to contend with the bitter disappointment of going out of Europe after being only half-an-hour or so from a place in the Cup-Winners’ Cup Final and also losing the Scottish Cup. But we had to concentrate on the main prize, the First Division championship. I didn’t always see eye to with our manager, but I have to say he was outstanding around that period. With the Big Man in our dressing room and in our corner, there was no chance of anyone being allowed to feel sorry for himself. And he knew just how to gee us up.

‘He gathered the players around him before we got down to the nitty gritty of training at Barrowfield a day after the Cup Final loss. “Look,” he said, “what trophy did we all want to win at the start of the season? The league title, right? Now we’re three games away from our priority target. All we need to do is win the remaining three games and it’s all ours. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does. Forget what’s happening up the road. If we win, we’re the champions. And we all know we deserve that trophy. Our name is on it. Win it for yourselves, your families, your friends and every Celtic supporter. Win it for football’s sake. We’re the best team in Scotland. Now go and prove it.” How could you fail to respond to that? How could we let anyone down? Suddenly, our chests were puffed up again.

‘Big Jock could knock you down sometimes, but there were other occasions when he could lift you towards the clouds. Around that time of the defeats from Liverpool and Rangers and the subsequent bitterness of knowing we were the better team than both of them over the games, Big Jock showed a lot of character. He would have been as disappointed as the players, maybe even more so because he was such a perfectionist and a winner, but he stood up to be counted. I admired him for that. Maybe in the past, our heads might have gone down and stayed down, but he wasn’t having any of that.’

Dame Fortune, though, continued to scowl in the direction of Stein and Celtic. John Hughes would have been the ideal replacement to lead the line in place of Joe McBride, but he, too, had taken a knock against Rangers and had to be ruled out. The Celtic boss thought long and hard about his line-up to face a Morton team desperately trying to remain in the top division. The Greenock side had lost their previous six games and realised another defeat would consign them to the old Second Division. They were prepared to fight to the end. Stein announced his team just before the kick-off and, remarkably, it contained ten of the names that would conquer Europe in Lisbon just over a year later. Charlie Gallagher wore the number eight shorts and, of course, he was replaced by Willie Wallace against Inter Milan in the Portuguese capital almost thirteen months later.

Tommy Gemmell recalled, ‘Obviously, it was a massive game for us, but I was only too aware what the contest meant to Morton. I was told the players had been offered a helluva lot of money to stay in the top division. I knew their basic wage wasn’t great and that would take a hit if they were relegated, so the players we faced that day at Cappielow were scrapping for their very livelihood. You could say it was a fair incentive for them to beat us.’

Celtic’s lack of goals followed them to Greenock and Morton keeper Erik Sorensen wasn’t unduly perturbed during a tentative opening period. And, in the thirty-first minute, Morton had the ideal opportunity to break the deadlock when the referee awarded them a penalty-kick while  indicating Jimmy Johnstone had tugged Allan McGraw’s jersey. En masse, the Celtic players protested and insisted the infringement had taken place at least a yard outside the box, but the match official stood firm and pointed to the spot. The sun smiled radiantly on a perfect afternoon on Inverclyde, but the disposition of the travelling supporters among the 18,000 crowd didn’t quite match the natural elements as Flemming Neilsen placed the ball twelve yards from goal. Could it be possible that another Danish import would wreak havoc on Celtic for the second consecutive game? Neilsen strode forward purposefully while Ronnie Simpson did his best to second-guess his opponent. Cappielow was hushed as Neilsen’s boot made contact with the ball and the serenity was shattered in an instant with the whoops of the Celtic fans as his attempt flew wildly over the crossbar.

A minute from the interval, Jimmy Johnstone scored his team’s first goal in almost four-and-a-half games. It was no classic, but there wasn’t a solitary complaint among the Celtic contingent present in Greenock as the outside-right reacted quicker than everyone else in a thickly-populated penalty area to strike a shot beyond Sorensen. It was tense and taught throughout a nerve-riddled second-half with both sets of players displaying an energy and robustness as they met the challenge that offered the possibility of the title to one team and certain relegation to the other. In the fading moments, Johnstone swung over a cross and his good friend Bobby Lennox headed the second and killer goal. The league table showed Celtic and Rangers in joint top position on fifty-three points, but the Ibrox side had played one game more on thirty-three.

Dunfermline, who had lost 2-1 to the Ibrox side on the previous Saturday, revisited Glasgow and Parkhead for the penultimate encounter on Wednesday May 4. Again, Celtic made life tough for themselves. Jock Stein had little option but to go with the same line-up that had carved out the victory against Morton. Joe McBride and John Hughes were again spectators in the stand, their powerful goal threat frustratingly removed with the finishing tape in sight. Over thirty thousand fans were at Parkhead in the hope of watching Celtic clinch their first title in twelve years. Rangers were playing Clyde at Ibrox on the same evening and transistor radios appeared to be compulsory items for most of the fans. Faint hearts were few and far between in Glasgow that evening.

On the twenty-nine minute mark at Parkhead, Celtic fell a goal behind. Alex Edwards, the Fifers’ tricky little outside-right, swung in a corner-kick that somehow eluded every swinging boot until it dropped nicely for Alex Ferguson, totally unmarked at the far post. He didn’t quite connect sweetly, but his effort had enough oomph to elude the dive of the startled Ronnie Simpson and crawl over the line. It was an absolute gift for the Dunfermline striker. Jock Stein emerged from the dug-out, waved a clenched fist and growled at his players. Tommy Gemmell recollected, ‘It was just your bad luck if you were playing on the wing next to Jock on the sidelines and he was giving it pelters. I haven’t a clue how many times I was on the receiving end. It didn’t matter if the place was packed, a complete sell-out, Big Jock always made himself heard. And he wasn’t happy with our defending, I can tell you that. If the defence conceded a goal from a setplay, it normally meant we would be held back at Barrowfield the following day in training and Big Jock would go over and over how it was lost and what we had to do to make sure it didn’t happen again.’

Bobby Lennox, within five minutes of Ferguson’s goal, leveled with a brave header into the roof of the net after some nice interchanging between Jimmy Johnstone and Charlie Gallagher. Just before the hour mark, it was bedlam in Paradise when Johnstone snapped up a typical opportunistic effort. Lennox, with that short backswing that startled most goalkeepers, caught out Eric Martin with a low drive from just outside the box. The goalie, who had been performing heroics, managed to parry the ball away, but the Celtic winger was onto it in a green flash and rammed it into the net. It remained that way until the final whistle when news filtered through from Govan that Rangers had eased to a 4-0 triumph over Clyde. That result was met with derision among the Celtic support as they danced and sang and cavorted with unrefined glee. They were convinced Celtic’s trek through the labyrinths of failure in the championship were at an end.

One man remained to be convinced – Jock Stein.

He refused to allow his players to accept the invitation from the supporters to go out for a lap of honour. It was mathematically possible for Rangers to win the league on the old equation of goal average if Celtic lost by a certain margin in their last game against Motherwell at Fir Park. Jock Stein, a well-known gambler among the bookmaking fraternity in the West of Scotland, was taking no chances, his cards still firmly held to his chest. A well-meaning member of the Press extended his hand to the Celtic manager at the aftermatch conference. ‘Congratulations, Jock,’ said the newspaperman. Stein shot a withering glance in his direction. He could do sarcasm with the best of them. ‘Oh, so you know Saturday’s score, do you?’ he snapped. ‘Would you like to fill in my coupon, too?’ The Pressman stepped back. Jock’s mood lightened a little and he said, ‘What happens if we lose 4-0? Let’s celebrate when we know it’s in the bag – and not before.’

It didn’t prevent one national newspaper scribe from penning, ‘Celtic are beyond reasonable doubt Scottish League champions again at last. After an interval of twelve years and, surprising though it may seem, only the fourth time forty years, they virtually assured themselves of this most elusive honour by their victory over Dunfermline Athletic at Celtic Park.’

THE MIDFIELD MASTER…Bertie Auld in control.

Bertie Auld recalled, ‘It wasn’t an act from the Boss. I’ve no idea what the odds would have been for us to lose by four goals to anyone, never mind Motherwell, but he absolutely insisted on his players remaining professional right to the very end. “You can do what you want after Saturday,” he said, more or less telling us to refrain from cracking open a few bottles of champagne. Big Jock’s aversion to alcohol was well documented and he really never understood the drinking culture among players. “What good does that stuff do you?” he would ask over and over again. And the players knew when it was time to shut up.’

Emotions abounded with wondrous abandonment on a fantastically sunny afternoon at Fir Park on Saturday May 7 with the Celtic players taking a colourful curtain call as they celebrated their first championship success in twelve years; the hurt swept into the dark recesses of history as the players enjoyed a lap of honour in front of gleefully celebrating followers. Billy McNeill and Bobby Murdoch lifted veteran goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson shoulder high; his incredible personal story almost as sensational as that of the club. The First Division title had been delivered with a late winning flourish. As the clock ticked down to its exorable conclusion on an extraordinary football season, Bobby Lennox, from almost underneath the crossbar, turned in a low right-wing cross from Jim Craig for the only goal of the game. The Scottish game’s most coveted honour was heading for the east end of Glasgow with Celtic completing the marathon on fifty-seven points, two ahead of Rangers.

One national newspaper scribe reported, ‘The final word of a long campaign was written on Saturday with a timing as symmetrical as the signing of an armistice. For in the last minute of the last game of the last day of the season, Bobby Lennox scored the goal which beat Motherwell and made Celtic the Scottish League champions on points instead of by the much less satisfying margin of goal average. And, so, as Celtic became champions again after an interval of twelve years and for the twenty-first time in the club’s history, their first venture into the most prestigious of competitions which was inaugurated after their last success in the league.’

The article continued, ‘There was never the slightest suggestion that Motherwell would score enough goals to deprive Celtic of their right. No-one would surely deny that Celtic, having suffered the disappointment of recent Cup defeats by Rangers and Liverpool, do not deserve to hold the leading position in Scottish football which has escaped all their efforts for an inordinately long time.’

Drama, the like of which had never been witnessed before in Paradise, awaited in the new season. Naturally, Joe McBride was eager to play his part.

TOMORROW: Don’t miss another EXCLUSIVE extract from Alex Gordon’s book, ‘That Season In Paradise’ – only in your champion CQN.

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