A Celtic State of Mind – Davie Provan’s baptism of fire from Neilly Mochan

The following is an excerpt from Paul John Dykes’ interview with Davie Provan:

Billy McNeill and John Clark were manager and assistant manager when I signed for Celtic in 1978. Neilly Mochan was the trainer, and I suppose you would call him an old-fashioned trainer. He was the guy who would run on to the pitch if there was an injury, and he took great pride in how quickly he could get on the pitch. He used to sprint on with the magic sponge in the bag, and was always very dismissive of you if you had an injury. It was more or less, “Get back on your feet, there’s nothing wrong with you” sort of stuff. You could be lying there with a compound fracture and Neilly would be telling you to get back up.

Neilly treated every injury on the pitch with the wet sponge. He had this bag with the cold water and the wet sponge in it and every single injury was treated that way, whether it was a groin injury, a cruciate ligament, or a gash on your shin. That’s about all the equipment that he had. Bob Rooney was the physio when I signed, and he was there for my first season in 1978/79 when we beat Rangers 4-2 to win the league championship. He was then replaced by Brian Scott, who Billy McNeill brought down from Aberdeen. Scotty was very good, as he was more into sports science and he was very progressive. I mean no disrespect to Bob, who was a bit more old school.

Celtic still had the old boot-room mentality when I was there. I mean, Bob Rooney would chase you. You had to be seriously injured before you were allowed in the treatment room. Bob didn’t suffer fools. He would just tell you to go out and get training, stamp your foot, and run it off. He would just send you up to Barrowfield to train. I think that was a legacy of the Jock Stein years where, if anyone was doubtful for a game, it was Bob Rooney’s job to make sure they played if they could.

When I signed, it was for a record transfer fee between two Scottish clubs and the first day I walked into training, Neilly Mochan was already there. I wished him a good morning, to which he replied, “Morning James.” I thought that was a bit strange, but I went in again the next morning and said, “Hi Neilly.” “Morning James” came the reply. For about the first two months he called me James, and this was Neilly Mochan telling me, “I don’t even know who you are son.” Just in case there was any chance of me getting big-headed about the record transfer and if I thought I’d made the big time. That was one of Neilly’s great gifts, he never allowed anyone to get ahead of themselves. He was a master at bringing people down.

I remember Frank McGarvey scored a hat-trick in one game, it might have been against Saint Mirren, and after the game Frank was talking about his goals. Neilly, typically, said to Frank, “You wouldn’t even get to carry the hampers for the good team.” Now ‘the good team’ was the Lisbon Lions. Neilly didn’t call them ‘the Lions’, he called them ‘the good team’. That’s how he put people down. He was just a master at it. If anyone was getting remotely carried away or too big for their boots, Neilly was the man to sort them out.

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The day I made my debut at Firhill for instance, I got off the bus and went to walk into the front door of the stadium and Neilly was like, “Haw, Provan,” I turned around, “Hampers.” He took me around the back of the bus and made the big new signing carry the kit hampers into Firhill. That was Neilly. It was only when you got to know him that you realised that he was just trying to keep everyone‘s feet on the ground. Initially I was like, “Who’s this guy? I’ve signed for the wrong club here. He’s going to make my life a misery.”

It wasn’t just me, he kept everyone on their toes. Neilly was also the kit controller, and if you went to him for a pair of boots you had to have holes in them before he’d give you a new pair. I remember going to Neilly for a new pair of boots and the toes were out of both feet. This would be April, and I was still using the same pair of boots I had started with the previous August. Neilly looked at my boots and he couldn’t argue because he could see that they were done. He said, “This is April son… I mean, I can’t give you a new pair of boots, because I hear that they’re going to free you at the end of the season.” I’m looking at him and he was brilliant at keeping a straight face. Then he started creasing himself at me, but that was Neilly, he was brilliant at the wind-up.

After maybe seven or eight years, I managed to build up enough respect to call him by his nickname – ‘Smiler’. There was no doubt that I had to earn the right to call him ‘Smiler’. I watched new players coming in after me and they went through the exact same thing with Neilly. Everybody got the same treatment.

Neilly was still fit enough to do the warm-up at training with us. He would jog around with us and get us stretched, and then Billy, John and Frank Connor would come in and do the session. Everybody had their function, and Jimmy Steele was the one who would crack jokes and play the fool before the big games when everybody was really uptight and tense. Steely would play the court jester, take the heat off, and take the tension out of the air. People used to think that Steely was daft, but he wasn’t daft at all. I could see why Jock Stein loved to have him around because before the really big games you needed somebody to do what Steely did. He would grab a waitress during the pre-match meal and used to start dancing with her. This would get the boys laughing, and he was terrific at it.

I was surprised when I first walked into the home dressing-room at Celtic Park, because it was half the size of the Kilmarnock dressing room. I went into the showers and it was the stone floor with old showers with circular heads with the water coming straight down. The facilities were basic to say the least. The dressing-room was freezing cold. That might have been deliberate, so that the boys don’t hang about in the dressing-room. I remember Desmond White called in an energy company to see if they could save money, and we had ice on the inside of the dressing-room windows. The energy company came in and told Desmond that the temperature in the dressing-room was so low that it was illegal.

We used to get changed at Celtic Park, and we’d take the cars up (in the winter) or we’d run up (in the summer) to Barrowfield for training. The Barrowfield pitches were a mud heap. It was a Rangers fan who used to own the yard behind the goals and he would burn tyres so the smoke would blow across the training ground. It was keystone cops stuff. People would often say, “It was good enough for the Lisbon Lions.” The Lisbon Lions won the European Cup despite Barrowfield, not because of it. If they had better training facilities, they might have been even better than they were. I couldn’t believe the facilities when I first arrived because I came from Kilmarnock where there were two or three really good training pitches behind the stadium.

When I signed, I had to work a week’s notice with my employer in Paisley, so Billy sent me to train with Frank Connor, who trained the kids in the evenings. The first time I saw Barrowfield I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “Is this Celtic? The team who won the European Cup 11 years ago? And this is their training ground?”

I remember when Ajax came over to play us, and they wanted to train a few days before the game. When they were shown Barrowfield they refused to believe that it was Celtic’s training ground. They thought that Celtic were at it by giving them this mud heap to train on. That’s how bad it was.

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