Being older than most of the other members of our Supporters Club allows me the benefit of experience when discussions about the merits of various Celtic sides. After the recent double defeats to Molde the NZCSC Facebook page was alive with debate about how bad the present team was. Somebody suggested that at least we had reached the bottom and surely things would have to improve. Now where had I heard that before?
As I have said previously, during the first 5 seasons of my Celtic attending life it never really occurred to me that Celtic would win the League. Silverware would have to come in the way of Cups.
The League Cup did not give much solace. The 7-1 win in the 1957/58 final was just before my recollection. The following season Celtic did get to the semi-final where they lost to a 10 man Partick Thistle but another 6 years would pass before Celtic even got past the opening group stages.
The Scottish Cup seemed to offer more hope. I was taken to my first Cup Final in April 1961. We had finished 4th in the League but our opponents were lowly Dunfermline playing in their first final. Celebration time surely? That was the first time I had heard of Jock Stein and of course it was the first time Dunfermline won the Cup!
The next season we got to the Semi Final but we were well beaten by a Willie Fernie inspired St Mirren. Thanks to my Uncle Terry who was a well- known character in the Glasgow pub trade we had secured centre stand tickets. We were grateful for this as there was a major riot as some Celtic fans invaded the field in an attempt to get the game abandoned with about 20 minutes or so to go. My best friend Peter had not been so lucky. He had gone to the terracing with his father and was in the middle of the fighting and bottle throwing. When I met him at school on Monday he announced he no longer wanted to be a Celtic supporter and from now on would be supporting the next nearest top flight team, Airdrie.
However by the time the following season got underway Peter had been reconciled and his father took us both to the opening game of the season – a League Cup tie against Hearts. We got off to a good start too. A youngster by the name of Murdoch opened the scoring after 7 minutes. The name was new to most of us and he had only got a game because John Divers forgot his boots. A 3-1 win over the Tynecastle men sent us home optimistic for the new season. However in midweek we lost at Dens Park and a fortnight later Hearts beat us 3-2 at Tynecastle with 2 goals from a certain Willie Wallace. The Edinburgh side won the section meaning once again we would not be getting our hands on League Cup silverware.
The first Old Firm game of the season saw us lose 0-1 at Parkhead with the usual Celtic penalty miss, Pat Crerand being the culprit. A few weeks later I did have the privilege of attending Celtic’s first ever home game in European competition but a 2-2 draw was not enough to overturn Valencia’s 4-2 win from the first leg. Celtic signed Bobby Craig from Blackburn Rovers just before that game and expectations were high that we had got an experienced player to help with the young “Kelly Kids.” Indeed we hit a wee bit of a purple patch including a Glasgow Cup win over Rangers. This was played on a foggy November midweek afternoon and we got the result just as we were leaving school. Any victory over Rangers was to be savoured and this was looked on as a sign the youth policy might at last be working.
However it was another of those false dawns. By the halfway stage on 31st December we were in 5th place 7 points behind leaders Rangers and 6 behind second placed Partick Thistle. If we were to stay in the hunt for the League title a win in the Ne’erday fixture was essential. Instead it was another reminder of how far behind we were as the Ibrox men romped to a 4-0 win. Later we would hear that Pat Crerand had been in a big argument with Sean Fallon during the half time break and would never play again for Celtic. He left for Manchester Utd on 1st February. We were again left with only the Scottish Cup to play for and had lost our arguably our best player.
After the New Year’s Day loss at Ibrox Celtic went to Pittodrie four days later and with a much adjusted side beat the third placed Dons 5-1. But then winter set in with a vengeance. It would be another 2 months before we played another League game. We did however get the Scottish Cup underway on a cold Monday night at Brockville with a 2-0 win over Falkirk. The next round gave us a home game against Hearts. For once I was not upset at the wintry weather causing a postponement. The scheduled date for the game clashed with a family wedding but the snow and ice meant that it was not played until 6th March – a Wednesday night with no other commitments for me. Willie Wallace opened the scoring for the visitors but Celtic recovered to win 3-1 and set up another home game versus Gala Fairydean. That was played the following Wednesday and a cold March night against non-league opposition meant the turnstile operators had a quiet evening. A 6-0 win put us into the quarter finals. The reward was a trip to Love Street to face the team who had eliminated us the previous season. This was the fourth round of the Cup but it was our first Saturday afternoon game in the competition and around 35,000 saw a Frank Brogan goal give us a narrow victory over St Mirren.
And so just over a year later from my last semi-final it was back to Ibrox where the opponents would be Raith Rovers. No danger of a riot this time. My recollection is that it was not a particularly exciting occasion and had Celtic taken their chances then they would have won by a bigger margin then they did in the 5-2 victory. So into another Scottish Cup Final but as we left Ibrox that day the celebrations were a bit muted. Awaiting us in the final would be Rangers who had triumphed over Dundee Utd by the same 5-2 score line at Hampden.
My initial feelings about the forthcoming final were of concern. Our record against Rangers was particularly poor and to be honest it was not too flash against most other teams either. However as soon as the build- up started some optimism started to creep in.
Football coverage was a bit more muted in those days. No 6 page colour pull outs in the papers or radio pundits giving their previews and opinions. However this game was considered a bit special. It would be the first Old Firm final for almost 40 years. My father had just been a young boy the last time it had happened and the players on that occasion were to me by now like men from history- John Thompson, Jimmy McGrory, Alan Morton, and David Meiklejohn. The press were giving the game a big build up and of course some of that centred on the potential for off field violence.
In the 1960’s enforced segregation at football games had not arrived in Britain. The only exception was the Old Firm encounter. Every year particularly at New Year the BBC would send their news cameras to this fixture so they could show this phenonomen to their English audience (and no doubt report on some violence on the terraces). According to my father the segregation had not come from the authorities but from the fans themselves who over the years preferred to travel their separate routes and avoid the opposition at the game itself. The police no doubt welcomed the idea but it was not officially acknowledged by the SFA. Cup Finals were not always all ticket affairs. Hampden could hold 135,000 so apart from grandstand seats it was usually just a case of rolling up on the day, paying your money at the gate and going in. However the police not unsurprisingly insisted this game be all ticket. Despite not technically acknowledging segregation the SFA distribution to the Clubs themselves sensibly gave Kings Park terracing tickets to Celtic and Mt Florida terracing tickets to Rangers. However there was also a general postal ballot ticket sale and in distributing those the SFA ticket office did not necessarily recognise that the requirements of Patrick Joseph Murphy from Coatbridge might differ from those of Billy McWilliams from Larkhall. That would mean on the day of the game a lot of ticket swopping outside the ground.
Not that tickets would be a concern for me. This was considered too “high risk” a fixture for someone of my age and I would not be going. Like most families in those days Sunday was spent at “your Granny’s”. And it would be in my Granny’s pre-fab on a Sunday afternoon where I would sit down and listen to and try and join in the discussions of older cousins, uncles and aunts about the fitba’. I was a bit envious of 2 of my older cousins- John and Brendan who seemed to know so much and who went to all the games. For me Celtic meant most but not all home games and the occasional trip to nearby away venues – Fir Park, Broomfield, Firhill. But John was there every week and he was optimistic about our chances. “It’s a one off game” “We were not the favourites in the 7-1 game”- These were a couple of his comments. My favourite was when he told me we were due to beat Rangers because of the Law of Averages. I thought about searching through the Parliamentary Statutes to see exactly what that Law said about Scottish Football!
And so the big day- 4th May- arrived. It turned out to be wet one. That would have pleased the Police. It also meant less colour. Present day fans with their replica tops and colourful flags and banners would probably be surprised at the lack of colour and uniformity of 1960’s crowds. Most fans did wear a scarf and for big games there would be rosettes but that was about it. Old Firm fans were always warned about bringing flags and for this particular game stringent measures were to be taken against anyone disregarding that advice. According to reports a solitary tricolour was hoisted at the Celtic end and a couple of Union Jacks at the Rangers end. With only the grandstands being under cover the vast majority of fans were exposed to the elements. For many protection meant a plastic mac meaning a large part of the crowd was decked out in blue irrespective of club loyalty.
No live TV so for me it was a case of the radio at my cousin Frankie’s house. With the nerves it was difficult to concentrate and we had to use our imagination to picture what was happening on the field of play. Rangers did seem to be having the most of the pressure and scored a few minutes before half time. However less than 2 minutes later Celtic equalised and it was 1-1 at the break. At least we were not getting beat! From the commentary we figured that Celtic were battling away without seeming to have much in attack. Frank Haffey’s name kept cropping up and we were praying that his good form would continue and we could maybe sneak something at the other end. And then the commentator told us excitedly Jimmy Johnstone had put the ball in the Rangers net! We celebrated long and loud. Too loud! We did not hear the commentator explain the goal had been ruled out for offside and for a short while thought we were leading in a Cup Final. Then the final whistle. I was at first relieved. It had not been a great game by any means but we were still in the Cup. However it was a bit like putting off a dentist visit. There is some immediate joy at not having undergone pain but then the realisation that you are going to have do it all again.
The re-play would not take place for another 11 days. And due to the bad winter there would be catch up League games to play. Celtic in fact played 3 league games before the re-play, winning the 2 home games and losing at Tannadice. 2 days before the re-play we walked out of Celtic Park having witnessed Celtic defeat Motherwell 6-0. There was a fair bit of optimism among my friends but being very wary I was thinking it might have been an idea to keep some of those goals for the Wednesday night at Hampden.
I decided that even the radio was out of the question for this game. Divine assistance might help so I went off to May Devotions. After the service I stayed a while in the church and needless to say a few prayers were made for Celtic success. I took a long lingering walk home on the basis that the longer I did not get a score up-date the longer we might still be in with a chance of winning the Cup. Eventually I could dally no longer. I got home with about 15 minutes or so of the game to go I reckoned. The TV was on and just as the programme the family was watching finished the announcer said they would go over to Hampden for a quick up-date on the Cup Final. There were no graphics on TV screens in those days but they were not needed. The pictures might have been in black and white but the message was as clear as technicolour. The Celtic End was virtually deserted. Only a few fans morosely leaning on the crush barriers. The Rangers End though was densely packed with the chants of “Easy, Easy” coming from thousands of voices. On the pitch Rangers were toying with a dispirited bunch of Celtic players. I had never felt so low in my 12 year old life!
Many years later I was discussing this game with my brothers. My younger brother who had been 10 at the time told me he thought that being a Celtic Supporter would be similar to being say a Jags or Motherwell fan. We would likely never have to worry too much about relegation but winning Leagues would never happen either. Maybe a Cup win here and there over the years. My youngest brother had a different take on it. He had only just turned 7 and was at that stage not too bothered about the game of football. That night he had been more concerned in playing with his toys. However when he saw the impact this game had on his father and older brothers he realised there must be something more to being a Celtic Supporter than just watching a football team.
That sadness he witnessed was replicated at the family get together the following Sunday. Cousin John who had been at the game said it was the worst he had seen. However on the bright side he reckoned that things had got so bad that the only way now was up! Surely we would take stock of the situation and changes and improvements would happen.
However it was not going to be that simple. The only change and improvement for the next season came in the questionable shape of Paddy Turner who was signed from Morton. Fate played its usual cruel tricks too. In the League Cup section we were drawn with Kilmarnock, Queen of the South and- you’ve guessed it- Rangers. Season 1962/63 had ended with a 3-0 thumping from Rangers. Less than 3 months later the 1963/64 season started with exactly the same result at Parkhead. A couple of weeks later it was another 3-0 stroll for the Ibrox men. In between those games I had taken my youngest brother to his first game- a 1-1 draw with the Doonhamers. We still remember it for the dark mood of the crowd and the anti-Bob Kelly demonstration we witnessed as we left the ground.
As well as elimination from the League Cup Celtic only won one of their opening 6 League games (including a 2-1 defeat at Ibrox). The Sunday family gatherings were sombre at times although black humour would help relieve the situation. This was the height of the Mersey Beat era. “Have you heard about the new pop group?” Asked my uncle Peter one Sunday. “Bob Kelly and the Easybeats” was his response to much grim laughter. I asked my uncle James why he had stopped going to see the Celtic. “Why should I “he said- “they never came to see me when I was sick!”
Despite all this I still has some youthful hopes that things would improve. And at the turn of the year despite our problems we were in third place. Of course Scottish football was generally more competitive then and on 31st December Kilmarnock headed the table with 29 points, 1 point ahead of Rangers and 4 ahead of Celtic. A win at Celtic Park the following day would bring us 2 points and bring us to within 1 point of the Ibrox men. Once again hopes were dashed with Jimmy Miller getting the only goal for the visitors. Although we remained in 3rd spot for the rest of the season there was never any real challenge to the top 2.
So once again we looked to the Scottish Cup for some solace. The first round looked easy enough. A home tie against non-league Eyemouth Utd. Concern and dissatisfaction was the order of the day at half time though with the score 0-0. Thankfully my fears that I would be witnessing a real embarrassment were relieved by 3 second half goals. Morton were defeated at Cappielow in the next round and then after beating Airdrie 4-1 at Celtic Park we were in the quarter finals. And of course fate decreed we would be going Ibrox. A few days before the game Celtic had triumphed in Bratislava and had reached the semi- finals of the Cup Winners Cup. However success in Europe could not take the Rangers monkey off our back and 2 goals, one a minute before half time and the second a minute after the re-start saw us eliminated once again.
Rangers were now on their way to a Treble. What had happened to the idea that last year had been so bad it could not get any worse?? One ray of hope was that European competition. My enthusiasm for that was not shared by my elders. “Don’t be daft- we are not going to win that” was the general consensus.
I allowed myself to dream though. Back in September there was relief from our domestic woes with a 5-1 win in Basle. A few weeks later I attended the second leg. The rain was lashing down and for once I went to the Jungle. None of my school friends were going. With the weather and the lead from the first leg only 8000 attended. There was never any doubt about the result. We won 5-0. But that did not impress too many of my friends. One of them stated that we would never be that bad that we could not beat a team from Switzerland. And anyway beating teams like Basle was always going to be easier than beating the likes of Dunfermline and Kilmarnock. (I wonder if he still thinks like that today!??!)
The next round was more intriguing. Dinamo Zagreb. A real air of mystery surrounded Iron Curtain country teams. However Yugoslavia was known for its quality players and so 42,000 spectators were delighted with a 3-0 first leg win at Celtic Park. Despite a second leg loss we went through 4-2 on aggregate. Slovan Bratislava were next up. Many of their players had been heard of through Czechoslovakia’s World Cup exploits. We attacked for 90 minutes but only had a Bobby Murdoch penalty to show for our efforts. The second leg would be fraught and with the game being played on a Wednesday afternoon it was difficult to concentrate on school lessons. However a solo run goal from Yogi got us the win.
And so to my first European semi-final. Once again Eastern European opposition and once again home in the first leg. With 51,000 others I roared in appreciation of a great 3-0 win. The final beckoned. This would cheer us up surely? There would be live radio coverage of the second leg. However there was a problem with the transmission and by the time audio was picked up we were a goal down. Confidence was ebbing. My brothers and I decided to go out and play football as a way of soothing the nerves. Updates from my father were not well received and well before the end we had accepted the inevitability of the 4-0 defeat.
So another season of nothing- with Rangers Treble Winners. Even cousin John could offer no comfort. Uncle James did try some more black humour. “Maybe they should sign David Nixon” was his suggestion. (Nixon was a famous TV personality and conjurer of the time) “The only way the Celtic will win anything is by using a magician!” he laughed. – Fortunately for all of us a magician would be walking in the doors to Celtic Park in little under 12 months!!!
Written by Mike Maher for CQN Magazine.