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The Merry Ploughboy Never Walked Alone

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OVER the last few weeks I have been involved in assisting with organising 1916 Commemoration Events for the local Irish Society. While doing so I could not help but think back to 1966 and the 50th Anniversary of the Easter Rising. I remember watching documentaries with my father and brothers and how those experiences stimulated my interest in Irish history.

Of course while my mind was back in 1966 it was not too much of a leap to recall how Celtic were faring at that time.GW917H728

You could say Celtic were in the throes of a revolution of their own. On the 49th anniversary of the Rising- 24 April 1965- we won the Scottish Cup. The first major trophy in more than 7 years.  Six months later the League Cup also arrived in the Celtic trophy room. And for the first time in my Celtic life we were seriously challenging for the League title. We had beaten Rangers 5-1 at New Year and as Easter approached we were neck and neck with the Ibrox men.  My confidence in our ability to clinch the title was increased at the end of March.  We went to Rugby Park and came back with a 2-0 victory. That was a great result for morale. Kilmarnock were the defending Champions and up till that season a team more likely to win the league than Celtic. I had never known the feeling of a win at Rugby Park. We had drawn there once but there had been 6 defeats and score lines of 6-0, 4-0 and 5-2 in favour of the home side. Not that night though. 2 Bobby Lennox goals made it a happy occasion for the Celtic fans in the 25,000 crowd. It was a mild, even warm by Scottish standards, night and as the large throng of Celtic supporters made their way up Rugby Road to the buses to the accompaniment of “the Soldier’s Song” there was great feeling of satisfaction.

A few days earlier we had booked our place in the Scottish Cup Final with a win over Dunfermline and we were also in the Semi Finals of the European Cup Winners Cup where our opponents would be Liverpool.GW984H607

In those days there was little live football and only occasional coverage of games from England. Liverpool however was one team that we had seen on TV. Not just because of their football but also because of their fans. This was at the height of the “Mersey Beat” era in pop music and Liverpool was a trendy city. I had seen and heard their fans singing and swaying on the tightly packed Kop. It was certainly a sight to behold but I felt that the Celtic fans could more than match them.

Indeed in the build up to the match the press also mentioned the fanatical support and singing of the fans as being important to the winning of the game for their team. The first leg would be at Parkhead on the Thursday of Easter Week. An 80,000 limit had been put on the crowd and a few weeks earlier I was one of the many thousands who stood in long queues on a Sunday morning outside Celtic Park to get a ticket. GW911H621

During that week we had seen those 1916 documentaries on TV and heard some of the songs that were also popular among the Celtic support. On the day of the game I was all set to join my mates on the terracing and play our part in the game. I was not the only one who wanted to be in that position. As I made my way along Janefield St I was approached several times by people looking for a ticket. One guy, who looked in his 30’s, had another offer. He would swap his centre stand ticket for my terracing one. What a decision. Should I watch from a nice seat in the centre of the stadium with a great view or stand for a couple of hours pressed up against sweaty bodies?

Really no choice was there? “Sorry mate, I am going to the terracing with my pals”. A few minutes later I was burrowing my way through the throng to my spot in the middle of the Celtic End. That’s where the heart of the Celtic choir was based. The Jungle growled and the Standites clapped but the singing came from the Celtic End. I was hoping that we might have some competition from the visiting fans. The official Celtic match programme gave its usual piece on the visiting side and also about the Anfield Kop. It told us what a great experience it was especially when the fans sang their special anthem – “You’ll Never Walk Alone” I had witnessed that on TV myself but I would not be hearing it at this game.

The Liverpool support was not that great and from their spot away over on the East terracing barely audible. Instead the songs were coming from the Celtic fans. However despite our contribution the team did not sparkle as much as we had hoped. The game was a bit scratchy and we missed a few chances including one when Stevie Chalmers put a shot over the bar from a position that looked easier to score from than miss. At the end of 90 minutes all we had to show for our efforts was a Bobby Lennox goal. Would that narrow lead be enough for the return leg that was due to be played the following Tuesday?GW823H622

Before then we had a trip to Easter Road. Perhaps this was an appropriate venue to hear for the first time at a Celtic game a song that would become a popular addition to the fans’ repertoire. As we crossed over the narrow railway bridge on the walk from our bus to the stadium I heard a group of about 5 or 6 guys singing “We’re all off to Dublin in the green, in the green”.  I found out the title was “The Merry Ploughboy” and it had become a sort of theme song for the 1916 Anniversary. Soon I, along with many other Celtic fans, had the 45 record by Dermot O’Brien and the Clubmen which actually made the hit parade for a while.

However the new song did not inspire the team that day and we had to settle for a 0-0 draw. With 3 games to go were at the top of the league table, 2 points ahead of Rangers.

And so just 3 days later it was off to Liverpool for the second leg of the semi-final. Not for me though. This was my first season of being a regular fan. I attended every home game and virtually every away match.  I had even managed a mid-week trip to Dundee.  That had been achieved by my travelling companion, John Fagan, and I promising to do our homework on the bus. It also involved John’s father getting the bus to come along the Main Street and waiting for us at the bottom of Jackson St. Our instructions were to get down the road immediately school finished as the bus would not wait long for us. As we made our way down the steep Jackson St we could see John’s dad waving to us so we decided to break into a run. Unfortunately John clipped my heel. I managed to keep my balance but he ended up rolling down a part of the hill. That caused him a somewhat uncomfortable journey and when we got to Dens Park he got some treatment from the ambulance staff at the ground.GW773H497

However a jaunt to England would mean 1 or possibly 2 days off school so there was no chance of going. As we headed to school that morning I was envious of those in the supporters’ buses that were going in the opposite direction to get to the A74- the main road south. School dragged with concentration difficult as thoughts of the night’s game kept interrupting. No live coverage of course so we would wait until the highlights programme around 10.00pm and watch without knowing the score. About half an hour before kick-off BBC went over to Anfield for a pre match preview from Kenneth Wolstenholme. In his summary he also mentioned the impact the fans would have on the game and the great singing that was coming from the terraces. However it was not the home anthem of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that could be heard in the background. Instead the Celtic fans were telling everyone that a lorry load of volunteers had approached a border town!

A few hours later we got to watch the highlights. Unlike the first leg Celtic were under a lot of pressure. One newspaper reporter, probably trying to give his piece some topicality, likened the siege on the Celtic goal to the one at the GPO in Dublin 50 years previously.  We did have chances but 2 Liverpool goals in the space of 5 minutes with about an hour gone put the home side in front. We watched dejectedly but in the last few seconds Celtic got the ball in the net. However the referee blew for offside against the “scorer”, Bobby Lennox.

At that time there were no in depth studio debates or countless replays of the action but the feeling was the goal was legitimate. It was many years later before I saw the incident more clearly and from that Celtic’s complaint that the referee was wrong seemed justified. Unfortunately the Celtic fans behind the goal took the decision badly and a hail of bottles and cans came onto the pitch.  Now we did hear the Liverpool fans, adding a chant of “Hooligans” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Such a pity as the Celtic fans had up until then behaved well and had proved that they could indeed out sing the Kop.GW1024H683

So for the second time I was downcast at a European Semi Final result. This was worse though than the loss to MTK Budapest a few years previously. At least on that occasion we did not have to contend with a gloating or condescending Hungarian media! However my particular disappointment was that the Final was set for Hampden and I was sure we would have won there. I did not go the final and in later years I regretted that I had not taken the chance to attend a European Final on my own doorstep. Instead I watched on TV and took some consolation in cheering Borussia Dortmund to victory.

I was at Hampden though a few days after the Liverpool game for the Scottish Cup Final against Rangers. Celtic were the favourites but on  a sunny, blustery day it was a bit of a scrappy game and ended goalless.  The replay was the following Wednesday and on this occasion Celtic had a bit more sparkle. However that did not extend to scoring. Several good chances were missed and Billy Ritchie in the Rangers goal made several fine saves. On the 70th minute a Rangers raid saw an initial shot blocked but the ball broke to full back Kai Johansen about 20 yards out.

He struck the ball hard but there were a lot of bodies in the box. Surely the shot would be blocked? The roar from the other end though told us that the ball had indeed gone into the net. Although there were 20 minutes to go you just knew that we would not score and despite some more good opportunities that is what happened.  A miserable night that was not made any better when we got attacked and the bus stoned on the way home.

So in the space of just over a week we had lost out on two trophies. However the main target was the title and at that stage we were on top of the table on goal average with a game in hand over Rangers.GW704H960

Our next game was against Morton. This was a season of firsts for me and so it would be my first trip to Cappielow. When I arrived at the meeting point for the bus that Saturday I discovered that John and his cousin who were the usual companions of my age were not there. Indeed there was no one else of my age on the bus but John’s dad sat beside me on the journey down to Greenock. As always I enjoyed listening to stories on the bus that often recalled previous visits to the grounds of our opponents. On this occasion there was a tale of a game that had happened a long time ago. In the 1920’s.  It was at the height of the “Troubles” and Ireland was on the verge of Civil War. On that occasion, so the story I heard went, Orange mobs had attacked the Celtic fans on the way to and from the game and in the ground itself. Was that why John and his cousin had not come that day? Anyway any slight safety concerns I had were unfounded as on a nice sunny day there was no trouble at all. My real problem though was money – or rather shortage of it.  I was a bit skint and had hoped the bus convener, as he sometimes did, would not take any fare. However I was not a member and so could not complain when he asked for my money. John’s dad did offer the loan of the entry money but that did not seem fair and anyway I was confident I could still get in.

At some grounds, especially Hampden, there was quite a bit of space in the turnstile. One of us would go to the very front of the stile and when the attendant pressed the release lever the guy behind would hurriedly push in to go through on the same click and thus two would get in for the price of one. This was not going to work at Cappielow so it was a case of vaulting the style when my turn came. I did bang my knee on the way over – probably some punishment for depriving Morton of 2 shillings.GW503H797

The game itself was a bit nervy. We had now gone 4 games without scoring and when our early pressure was not converted into goals Morton, who were desperate for a win to avoid relegation, took heart. They were awarded a penalty after 30 minutes but the ball was blazed over the bar. Just before the break wee Jimmy scored and near the end Bobby Lennox scored a second goal to make the points secure. I enjoyed the journey back up along the Clyde realising we were indeed on the verge of our first championship in 12 years.

We had the opportunity to win the title the following Wednesday. Our penultimate league game was at home to Dunfermline while on the same night Rangers had their last game of the season at home to Clyde. If Celtic won and Rangers didn’t then we would be champions. As it happened Alex Ferguson gave the Pars the lead but the Lennox and Johnstone double act worked again and we won 2-1. There were some celebrations in the ground but news that Rangers had won 4-0 meant we were still not technically champions. To do it we just had to avoid a 4-0 defeat on the following Saturday at Motherwell.

I took public transport to Fir Park and with over 20,000, mainly Celtic fans, packed into the ground I did not meet up with any of my usual mates.  As I took my spot behind the goals at the Knowetop end of the stadium I did have the company of a few recognisable faces in the shape of some guys from the year below me in school. One of them, John Cairney, I knew quite well from our Baillieston days. Many years later I would get to know his uncle of the same name who was a neighbour of mine in Auckland. At that time though he was better known as the author of books on Robert Burns and as “This Man Craig” from the TV series. It was from this show that Jim Craig had acquired the nickname “Cairney”. So it was maybe fitting that in the last minute of the last game of the season that the Celtic full back set up the chance for Bobby Lennox to score the only goal of the game.GW813H412

Mass singing was uncommon at grounds such as Fir Park even on this occasion. There were sporadic, localised outbreaks of singing and near us a couple of fans well-fortified by their carry outs started a song- “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark”.  They did not get any further though with several disapproving growls from fellow fans and yells of “none of that stuff here”. It would be a few years yet before the disappointment of that Anfield defeat would fade enough to let Celtic fans adopt the Liverpool anthem.

So our celebratory songs were of the traditional variety. We were indeed a “Grand old team to see” and that line about “When the league flag flies” had at last come true. Our more recently adopted “Merry Ploughboy” also got a good airing. In a little more than a year though it would not be Dublin, but Lisbon, that we would be all off to “In the Green, In the Green”.

Written by Mike Maher for CQN. Mike now lives in Auckland. Before emigrating to New Zealand he travelled to watch Celtic home and away every week during our glory 9 in a row years. 

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