It had been eight years since I last spoke to George Connelly. Referred to as “Scotland’s answer to Beckenbauer” in his prime, George was the elegant figure who astounded onlookers at a packed Celtic Park as a 16-year-old by performing his keepie-uppie routine right around the vast expanses of Parkhead before a European encounter against Dynamo Kiev (George is always keen to highlight that his ball-juggling took place before the game, as many hazy memories have embellished the occasion to having occurred at half-time).
It was the beginning of a wonderful career, which took him to the 1970 European Cup final, Scotland’s Player of the Year in 1973, qualification for the World Cup finals in 1974, and many more league and cup winners’ medals along the way. But it ended all-too-soon, and for a multitude of reasons.
George and I first met for a few tins of Diet Irn Bru at The Unicorn Restaurant in Kincardine to chat about the book I was writing at the time – The Quality Street Gang.
Having relished the chance to spend a couple of hours with this man of mystery, I vividly recall the last thing that George said to me that summer’s day in 2010, just as I was about the get back into my car (he had walked me right up to the door like the gentleman that he is): “The way I’m feeling today, Paul, I never want to touch drink again.”
We hadn’t discussed his much-publicised battle with alcohol during our interview because I wanted to focus on his vintage talent, something that I felt had often been overshadowed by stories of the demon drink. George brought it up almost as an afterthought, and his statement of intent filled me with a great sense of positivity because it felt as though he meant every word of it.
I had idolised George Connelly since I was a youngster, playing football for our hometown side, High Valleyfield. The men who ran the team – Iain Downie and Mick Hutton – were old pals of George (to this day, Mick is still very close to him) and hardly a training session went by without one of them enrapturing my young team-mates and I with tales of the almost mythical talents of George.
The rise and fall of George Connelly is undoubtedly a story of cinematic proportions. In fact, a few years ago, I was involved in making the feature-length documentary about the Quality Street team he was part of. Sadly, after around 18 months of working alongside False 9 (the team behind Celtic’s Smiler and Sean Fallon biopic, The Iron Man) production hit a brick wall. Hopefully some day we will resurrect the project.
If we do, then George has rewritten the final scenes for us. The ‘rise and fall’ story would now end with the archetypal Hollywood happy ending…
George hasn’t touched booze for four-and-a-half years, and he looks a picture of health in sobriety. He decided that he was ready to make his first ‘public’ appearance in 11 years a fortnight ago when he agreed to help me out with the first-ever Quality Street Gang book signing.
Celtic fans flocked to see the Fifer at The Penalty Spot in Glasgow’s Sword Street, with some travelling from as far as Leeds and Folkestone to shake his hand and get their long-awaited photograph taken with him. Former Chelsea and Manchester United midfielder, Jim McCalliog, was among the crowd, as was ex-Celt, Tosh McKinlay, who upon asking George if he could get his photo taken with him, was met with the response, “Can I get my photo taken with you, Tosh?”
Everyone in attendance felt blessed to spend a couple of hours with the man whose own autobiography was titled, Celtic’s Lost Legend.
Paul John Dykes