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THAT SEASON IN PARADISE: FEBRUARY: FIGHTING BACK

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CQN continues its enthralling and EXCLUSIVE extracts from Alex Gordon’s book, ‘That Season In Paradise’, which takes us through the months that were the most momentous in Celtic’s proud history.

Today, we look at another dramatic chapter on the team’s destination towards the record books.

THE increasing popularity of Celtic – and their exhilarating brand of swashbuckling, entertaining football – could be measured in matchday attendances as figures continued to soar throughout the land. They were the biggest draw in the country and that was exemplified when their league game against Airdrie at Broomfield on Saturday February 4 was a 23,000 all-ticket sell-out.

As ever against crude and graceless opponents, the affair was never far away from developing into a roughhouse. After Jock Stein’s side’s 3-0 victory, a newspaper reporter observed, ‘Airdrie, for the most part, chose to play it tough, paying more attention to the man than to the ball. But with Celtic able and willing to meet them on these terms, no advantage accrued to the home side and the game was less than satisfying as a spectacle. Hughes was a particular target for abuse and, despite persistent provocation, showed remarkable self-restraint.’

Bertie Auld was smack in the middle of the combat zone that afternoon and he said, ‘Listen, there had been times in the past when Celtic could get kicked off the park. Our board of directors had almost-puritanical thoughts on the way they believed Celtic players should perform. It was okay for us to be knocked all over the place, but heaven forbid if any Celtic player decided to give some of it back. The directors would tut-tut if they even considered one their players had stood up for himself. If you hurt an opponent who had been kicking lumps out of you all day there was every chance your name would disappear from the team sheet for the next game. Any sort of retribution was absolutely frowned upon.

‘Obviously, our opponents knew the score. Every other team was well aware that we had to contain ourselves in fear of a reprisal from upstairs. Sometimes, it was like sending a boxer into the ring with both his hands tied behind his back and telling him to lead with his chin. And, back then, it was just as effective, too. But that all changed when Big Jock returned. Look, we knew we had to entertain, but, first and foremost, we were told to win. Not at all costs, because that was not Celtic’s style; never was and never will be. The name Celtic will always be synonymous with fair play. Big Jock was a winner and we were all up for that and, obviously, agreed with the Boss.

‘So, we were given a bit more freedom, if you like. Constraints were lifted and attitudes were relaxed. We were never going to win anything by adopting the ‘After you, Claude’ outlook. In the days before I left the club for Birmingham City, we would get turned over regularly by teams who didn’t possess a fraction of our ability. But they set out to stamp – sometimes literally – their authority on a game and there was little we were allowed to do about it. We had guys such as Paddy Crerand who wouldn’t tolerate anyone daft enough to give him a hard time, no matter the instructions from above. Paddy was born and brought up in the Gorbals and knew how to look after himself. No-one messed with Paddy. Same went for me. I was just a wee boy from Maryhill, but that was a hard school, too.

‘So, it was hardly surprising that Paddy and I were sold within a year or so of each other. Neither of us wanted to go, of course. Also, we could be outspoken and that was frowned upon by the management, as well.  So, we were shown the door. After Big Jock took over, we could go to a place like Broomfield and know they would attempt to intimidate us. However, the message was getting across to them that they were wasting their time with any bully boy threats. It may have paid off for our opponents in the past, but those days were gone. And our rivals realised it. I could look around the dressing room and see guys such as Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Murdoch, Billy McNeill, John Clark…I could go through the entire team. Jimmy Johnstone? Frightened of no-one. So, this was a Celtic squad who weren’t scared of anyone or anything and that allowed us to express ourselves and play in the manner everyone expected of the team.

THE BRAIN AND THE BRAWN…Bertie Auld was no-one’s pushover in midfield.

‘One of Big Jock’s favourite sayings was, “Win the battle and you’ll win the war”. As individuals, we all knew what that meant. Sort out your own personal situation and, if your team-mates do the same, then you’ve got an excellent chance of winning the game. I never shirked a 50/50 challenge. I could get a dig in and maybe send an opponent spinning on his backside. I would always smile, offer my hand to help him up and say something like, “Come on, son, there’s another hour to go.” Some of the replies were a bit rude! Almost overnight, our attitude changed and everyone realised Celtic were no-one’s pushovers. The message got around fairly swiftly.’

Broomfield, though, was seen as something of a version of soccer’s litmus test. Everyone was aware of the zealousness of the Airdrie players who were always keen for opponents to meet the acquaintance of the trackside wall which, unhelpfully for the ‘victim’, was only a handful of yards from the touchline.

Years later, when Billy McNeill was the Celtic manager first time around, we were discussing the halcyon days of bone-crushing, bruising battles at Broomfield when he was a player. The legendary captain laughed, ‘It was a great experience. You know, when I’m buying a player now I look at him and wonder if he could have played against Airdrie at Broomfield on a muddy pitch in winter and stood up to some of their big defenders who thrived on thirty-yard slide tackles. If I thought that he could, then he had a good chance of signing for Celtic!’

On this particular afternoon on a rock-solid surface, there were no traumas lying in wait for the Parkhead side. Keeper Roddie McKenzie fumbled a Willie Wallace shot and that was never advisable with nippy raiders such as Jimmy Johnstone in the vicinity. In a flash, the ball was in the back of the net and Celtic had a twelfth-minute lead. Moments after the interval, Stevie Chalmers turned on the after-burners as he hared through the middle of the home defence before firing beyond McKenzie. In the sixty-ninth minute, the elastic-limbed Irish international keeper thought his luck had changed when he pushed away a penalty-kick from Auld. He was reprieved for only a matter of seconds before the midfielder followed up to skelp the rebound into the net. Three goals scored away from home, none conceded and two points in the bag. It was championship-winning form.

In his usual diligent manner, Jock Stein prepared for the forthcoming European Cup quarter-final ties against Vojvodina Novi Sad the following month by arranging a challenge game against another Yugoslav team, Dinamo Zagreb, on February 7 at Parkhead. The deep-thinking manager promised the fans ‘something completely revolutionary’ in his team formation against top-class opponents who would end the season with a 2-0 two-legged victory over Leeds United to win the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup, now, of course, known as the Europa Cup.

The intriguing pledge from Stein was enough to entice 46,000 fans – this author included – to a frosty, foggy east end of Glasgow on a Tuesday evening to witness this new-look Celtic. At first, it was difficult to fathom the experimental line-up, especially with Billy McNeill wearing No.3 on his shorts, Tommy Gemmell with No.8, John Hughes with No.5 and Bertie Auld with No.7. The only player who appeared to have his regular number was Ronnie Simpson. Basically, Stein fielded a team in a 3-4-3 formation with three central defenders in McNeill, Davie Cattenach and John Clark. Gemmell and Hughes were deployed as deep-lying wide players with Bobby Murdoch and Auld in their usual places in the middle. Up front were Willie Wallace, Stevie Chalmers and Bobby Lennox, who was replaced by Jimmy Johnstone after the interval.

The Slavs won 1-0 with a breakaway goal two minutes from the end by their top marksman Slaven Zambata, so, as far as the result was concerned, the plan wasn’t an instant success. However, Stein may have been tempted to persist with it had Chalmers, Lennox and Johnstone not been wasteful with excellent opportunities. Gemmell, too, brought out two superb saves from the highly-rated Zlato Skoric with trademark long-range drives. Hughes recalled, ‘Jock had all the players at Parkhead four hours before the kick-off that evening to go over his thoughts. He went into fine detail about his newly-devised team pattern and handed roles to me and Big Tommy that ensured we wouldn’t get a moment’s rest. We would be fetching, running and delivering throughout the ninety minutes. It might have worked in theory, but it didn’t in practice. Before the end, the Boss reverted to our usual formation and, ironically, that is when Dinamo scored.’

Stevie Chalmers continued to don the mantle of Celtic’s main goalscoring threat when he claimed a second-half hat-trick in the 5-0 trouncing of Ayr United at Somerset Park on February 11. The travelling fans hadn’t been too keen to attend the game when they learned the kick-off had been moved forward two hours to one o’clock to accommodate Kilmarnock v Rangers at Rugby Park which was allowed by the authorities to start at the traditional 3pm time.

It still didn’t prevent a crowd of 19,000 squeezing into the tiny ground to enjoy another away day and the supporters were treated to a rare Jimmy Johnstone headed goal to open the scoring four minutes from the interval. The diminutive winger found a pocket of space in the crowded penalty area as Tommy Gemmell slung over a peach of a cross and the full-back’s close friend applied the finishing touch via his mop of vibrant red curls.

The home side had worked overtime to keep their opponents at bay, but their resistance collapsed in five second-half minutes as Celtic crammed three goals into their net. Chalmers knocked in the second after being set up by Johnstone in the fifty-seventh minute and within seconds John Hughes had battered in another – his first goal since returning from injury. The giant winger set Chalmers free for No.4 and the striker completed his trio with only eight minutes remaining.

HISTORY BHOY…Willie Wallace celebrated by scoring a double as he became a Hoops first in the Scottish Cup.

The following Saturday offered a bit of a curiosity to the 30,000 fans at Parkhead as Celtic took on Elgin City in the Scottish Cup. The Highlanders had shocked Ayr United on the same day Rangers nosedived at Berwick, but their exploits hadn’t convinced the bookmakers they were anything better than a 20,000/1 hope to sample glory at Hampden later in the season. Turf accountants in attendance that afternoon might have been questioning their wisdom with the part-timers holding the champions and trophy favourites to a scoreless stalemate with only two minutes remaining of the first-half.

Jock Stein watched as his players peppered the Elgin City goal and Tommy Gemmell came close to a hat-trick inside the first half-hour. The ball was being blocked and diverted as the anxious visitors valiantly held out. If Mel Gibson had invested in a time machine, he would have recognised there was no need for a casting couch for ‘Braveheart’ – he had a ready-made cast as the men from the north re-enacted some of the backs-to-the-wall battle scenes that afternoon in Glasgow. However, as the clock ticked down, Celtic, in unshakeable fashion, thumped in three goals. Stevie Chalmers sent a header fizzing into the net in the forty-third minute and, before sixty seconds had elapsed, Bobby Lennox added another. With just moments to go to half-time, Chalmers unselfishly set up Lennox for a third. The poor Highlanders looked utterly devastated as they trudged head down towards the dressing room. So near and yet so far…

They were put out of their misery when John Hughes blasted in a fourth just after the hour mark and Lennox rounded off his hat-trick in the seventieth minute. Willie Wallace went into the history books as the club’s first-ever substitute in a Scottish Cup-tie as Jock Stein put him on late in the game for Bobby Murdoch. Wallace announced his introduction by scoring twice to bring the total to seven. The Bravehearts had been undone by William Wallace. There had also been a nice touch before the game when Charlie Gallagher led out the team ahead of skipper Billy McNeill. It was an honour bestowed upon the elegant midfielder after he had been told he had been selected for his first Republic of Ireland cap against Turkey in midweek. Gallagher, a cousin of Paddy Crerand and also born and brought up in the tough Glasgow area of the Gorbals, qualified to play for the Irish through parentage.

The absence of Joe McBride, even from the substitute’s bench, was beginning to provoke speculation once again that all was not well behind the scenes at Parkhead. Jock Stein had taken a full complement of players to Seamill for a three-day break before the Scottish Cup-tie and with an eye to the forthcoming European Cup quarter-final against Vojvodina. McBride missed out on the refresher course at the Ayrshire coast as he was left at Parkhead for intensive training. The Celtic manager, though, maintained his stance that the player would return before the end of the campaign. Stein was famed for his positive thinking, but was also known for his kidology and that presented a conundrum. Just how serious was the injury to Joe McBride? If Big Jock knew, he wasn’t telling.

One thing was abundantly clear, though, and that was the mood of Stein following Celtic’s next game. After losing 1-0 to Stirling Albion in the compact confines of Annfield Park last season, the manager went ballistic following his team’s surrender of a point in a 1-1 draw against the struggling outfit who went into the contest as the third worst team in the First Division and who would remain in that position and just escape relegation at the end of the season. Stein’s affability wasn’t helped when his team came in a goal adrift at the interval. After dominating for huge chunks of the opening forty-five minutes, Stirling stunned the Parkhead outfit with a goal in the twenty-third minute. George Peebles was allowed far too much freedom on the edge of the box and he wheeled to strike a low drive away from the stretching Ronnie Simpson.

‘Big Jock was furious,’ said John Hughes. ‘I had seen him like that during the interval in a game against St Johnstone at Muirton Park. I had been on the receiving end of a fairly nasty challenge and was left with a gash all the way down my right shin that required immediate attention with stitches obviously required. “Get that sorted,” shouted Jock. “You’re going out for the second-half.” I knew he was serious. So, too, was I. “I can’t play, boss,” I told him. “Look at the mess of my leg. The stitches will burst at any time.” Clearly, he wasn’t happy at my stance. We had Stevie Chalmers as a substitute that day and it was obvious a fully-fit Stevie was a better option than me trying to cope with one leg. But Big Jock certainly didn’t like anyone who disagreed with him.’

Ironically, it was Hughes who rescued Celtic on this occasion when he launched a header into the net for the equaliser seven minutes after the turnaround. The champions, though, couldn’t carve out a crucial second goal as Stein grew more and more agitated on the touchline. His frustration was multiplied on the terracing among the travelling support as the home side frantically and desperately booted the ball all over the place as they held out grimly for an unlikely draw. It would appear Bobby Murdoch’s dread of Broomfield and Brockville had now been matched by his manager’s distaste of Annfield. The bulldozers have since removed all three grounds from sight and somewhere above us there just might be two Celtic legends sharing a smile at that thought.

Worryingly, though, Joe McBride, who had played for the reserves in midweek against Dundee, wasn’t deemed to be anywhere near fit enough to be named in the squad for Stirling. And the centre-forward would be left at home when Celtic flew out to Yugoslavia and their European Cup quarter-final first leg against Vojvodina the following Wednesday.

Once more the rumour factory sprung into overdrive.

TOMORROW: MARCH – MARCHING ON IN EUROPE

 
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