A Celtic State of Mind – From Barrowfield to Paradise with Davie Provan

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

I don’t know if the referee is still alive from our away tie against Real Madrid in 1980, and maybe I better watch what I’m saying here, but the referee’s performance that night was, let’s say, iffy. He gave a free-kick against Peter Latchford for over-carrying the ball. Then, for a corner, their centre forward – a guy called Santillana – went right through Big Peter. It should have been a free-kick but the goal was given. That goal was right on the stroke of half-time, and it changed the whole complexion of the match. They hadn’t made a chance in the first-half, but then they went in a goal up at half-time and it was game on. To be fair, they battered us in the second-half to beat us 3-2 on aggregate. But that goal stands out in my mind, and I still wonder about that referee…

A few years later, and another batch of youngsters started to emerge for Celtic. We got Charlie Nicholas, Paul McStay, Danny Crainie, Mark Reid and Big Packie all coming through at one time. During that period, Celtic took it for granted that we got three or four boys out of the Boys’ Club every year. It’s amazing when you look back now.

Celtic have lost a few youngsters to terrible injuries too, and I often wonder what some of those boys might have achieved. Brian McLaughlin got a dreadful knee injury, and this was the player who Jock Stein claimed was the best he had ever signed. Then young Stevie Murray, who was a top-drawer midfielder, got a similar injury years later and that finished his career. The biggest pity for me, though, was when John Kennedy was done by the Romanian boy. John could really have been something special, and it would have been great to see how his career would have turned out.

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Charlie Nicholas was a great young player. He had been on the ground-staff when I signed, and he adored Neilly Mochan, who looked after all the young boys. Neilly was a pretty hard taskmaster but all the ground-staff boys loved him. Now and again when Charlie was in the first team, he would start singing, “When the ball hits the net at the speed of a jet that’s the Mochan,” and the whole team would join in at the top of their voices. Neilly would turn bright red because he was such a modest man. I think he was quite chuffed because he‘d be sitting there beaming away, but he was embarrassed at the same time.

The two words that come to mind when I think of Neilly Mochan are ‘modesty’ and ‘humility’. He had a terrific career but the remarkable thing was that he never talked about it. I remember one or two people asking him about the Coronation Cup final goal, and he would say it was from the halfway line. It might have been a twenty-yarder, but Neilly embellished the story a wee bit over the years.

On a Monday morning, three or four skips would come in and they would get filled with empty beer and lager tins and bottles from the weekend‘s game. It was the ground-staff boys’ job to get clear the bottles and cans from the terraces. Youngsters don’t do those types of jobs at football clubs now, but it didn’t do them any harm. They cleaned the toilets, they washed out the bath, they did anything that Neilly or Bobby Rooney asked them – or told them – to do. That was just their apprenticeship, and it kept them grounded.

After the high of scoring in the 1985 Scottish Cup final, and coming back to win that game after being a goal down, I had a difficult time with my illness the following season. I remember I shouldn’t have been in the dugout on the last day of the season at Love Street in 1986. I was in my civvies that day, and I had been in the stand for most of the game. The minute I heard that Albert Kidd had scored that first goal for Dundee against Hearts, I made my way down to the dugout. I didn’t really feel part of it up until then because I had been out for quite a long time, but I thought, “To hell with it,” and I went down into the dugout to feel more involved in what was going on. To be fair to Davie Hay, he should have chased me but he let me sit there with my suit on. The boys were looking over and asking, “What’s the score?” That‘s where the iconic photo comes from with me signalling ‘2-0‘ from the bench.

The last big match I was involved in for Celtic was my own Testimonial in 1987 against Nottingham Forest. I know that Neilly had been at Middlesbrough at the same time as Brian Clough, but I’m not sure who phoned Cloughie to arrange the game. I was very fortunate in that, by the time that the game came around, Celtic were top of the league in Scotland, and Forest were top of the English league. Forest were a big draw at that time, and to get 44,000 of a crowd was remarkable because it was so cold that I couldn’t get my car key in the lock. That was a really special night for me.

Neilly Mochan had played the game at a good enough level to know what was going on in your head. You very rarely got a compliment from him, and it was normally when you weren’t playing well. That was when you were most likely to get a pat on the back from Neilly – when you were having a hard time and your confidence was maybe a bit low. If you got a compliment from Neilly Mochan it was like a lottery win because they were few and far between. I remember going up to Celtic Park after I retired and I was working for Radio Clyde. I was inside the stadium when Neilly poked his head out of his boot room, “Provo, come here,” and I went in to his famous boot room. He opened up a bottle of whisky and poured me a wee nip. I thought, “That’ll do for me.” For Neilly Mochan to pour me a half meant that he must have had a regard or a respect for me. You really had to earn that with Neilly because he was old school and he had this kind of veneer of hardness and coldness, but he was anything but that. That was just a front.

I often wondered when Neil Lennon was manager, and you would see John Clark sitting in the dugout, just keeping his own counsel. A guy like John Clark, who knows so much about the game, but he just sat in the background. Neilly Mochan was like that. I’m sure that there would be plenty going on in his mind but he would keep it to himself.

I think it is absolutely crucial to have people like Neilly Mochan and John Clark at big clubs. It’s important to have someone there that the supporters recognise and can relate to. Celtic are a very emotional club. There are maybe only two or three like that in the whole of Britain – Newcastle and Liverpool are similar in that respect. They are driven by emotion, and I think the supporters like to see some of the old players around the ground and still being involved with the team. It’s part of the identity of the club.

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