The 7-1 game, Lisbon, Love Street, Seville. There are certain moments in Celtic’s history that are identifiable simply by their score line, venue or even the city where they became intrinsically woven into the illustrious fabric of this great club’s fairy tale. These iconic victories have grown in stature over time and are almost mythical in nature. They are the ‘JFK moments’ in Celtic’s unique story. I am one of the few players who have been lucky enough to wear the green-and-white hoops during such an unforgettable encounter. The match? The 4-2 game: when ten men won the league.Watch Professor Willy Maley with A Celtic State of Mind
1978-79 was such an unpredictable season. It came off the back of a hugely disappointing campaign which culminated in the departure of the club’s greatest ever manager, Jock Stein. A lot had gone wrong in big Jock’s final term. We had to deal with the loss of Kenny Dalglish, to Liverpool, and injuries robbed us of Pat Stanton, Alfie Conn and Danny McGrain. The result was Jock’s first and only barren campaign as Celtic’s boss. I gained the captaincy as a result of Kenny’s departure and Danny’s absence and I was determined to lead the team to silver-wear this time around.
There seemed to be permanent dark clouds over Celtic Park after Jock left and the atmosphere around the club was all a bit unreal. There was never going to be a good time to lose such a legendary figure and I felt that the speculation about his replacement was futile; only one man could take on the job and attempt to fill Jock Stein’s shoes and that man was Billy McNeill.
I recall on Billy’s first day in charge that he had me in his office to make it very clear that he was demanding total commitment from every player. As captain, it was my responsibility to make sure that the boys fully understood his intent. A wave of optimism swept through the side following his arrival and we couldn’t wait for the new season to begin. Billy’s fellow Lisbon Lion and great friend, John Clark, was installed as Assistant Manager and the partnership proved a definite success. Quiet man John was very astute and the perfect foil for big Billy, who could be a fiery character. Billy was used to winning trophies as a player and it was abundantly clear that he had every intention of carrying on this tradition as a manager.
Before he could do that, however, the gaffer had to rebuild the Celtic team he inherited and, during the season, he added experience to our ranks with the return of Bobby Lennox and Vic Davidson. He complimented the shrewd acquisition of these two veterans with the youthful promise of Davie Provan from Kilmarnock and Murdo MacLeod from Dumbarton. Davie and Murdo were two talented and much sought-after young players and they fitted into our team immediately, playing as though they had been at the club for years. Roy Aitken and Tommy Burns came through the ranks at Celtic Park and were already regulars by the time that Billy took over. They were improving all the time and firmly establishing themselves as integral to the side. George McCluskey was another home-grown talent, who had loads of ability and a knack of scoring important goals. Our club captain, Danny McGrain, had been out injured for over a year and returned in November but he didn’t play a league match until March. It took him a few games to get back to his old self but his very presence was a great morale boost for the team.
I had enjoyed my role as skipper while Danny was on the side-lines. It was such an honour to captain this magnificent club and I will always be grateful to big Jock for giving me that opportunity. There had been doubts whether Danny would ever return but he was such a determined character that he was able to overcome one of the many setbacks of a fabulous career. He was a Celtic great and I was genuinely pleased to see him back in the side.
The big freeze hit us badly and, going into 1979, it felt like we were losing ground on Rangers, Aberdeen and Dundee United. By the time our pitch had thawed out we faced a fixture pile-up and were playing a couple of games a week to catch up. There was no doubt that we were in a real title fight and there was every chance it would go down to the wire. I don’t think anyone envisioned however, the unexpected twists that lay ahead in this tensest of Celtic chapters.
Beyond that final match, which has now been etched into the minds of every Celtic fan of a certain vintage, one other game really sticks out in my mind from that season. We were up against Jim McLean’s Dundee United, who justifiably fancied themselves for the title. We weren’t in a position to drop anything and I recall that the heaving Celtic Park was brimming with anticipation. There was an electric atmosphere with that magnificent Celtic support always giving us an extra incentive to get the job done for them. I recall that we went behind and pulled ourselves back into it after the break. It was a scrappy affair, which often happens when so much is at stake, and then wee Doyley was brought down in their box with 20 minutes to go. Penalty!
I had been taking spot-kicks for a couple of seasons and had my usual routine when the occasion arose. Taking my time to get to the penalty box, I ran through my mental checklist. Being a defender on the opposite side of the pitch gave me the added benefit of having time to compose myself for the one-on-one. Goalie, Hamish McAlpine, had faced me before and I knew that he was left-handed and more comfortable on that side. Feeling a strong gust of wind against my back, I reminded myself to get over the ball or it could fly over the bar. Everything else in my mind was blocked out as I placed the ball on the paint of the penalty spot. The United players were shouting and bawling at me as I took a few steps back. Unable to break my focus, some began to throw clumps of mud at the ball. As I started my run up to strike it, I began to feel the pressure of the moment. When I approached my target, the wind blew it off its marker to the eerie sound of, “Ohhhhhhhhh,” by a cast of fifty thousand.
I fetched the ball, as no one else went for it, and returned to the 12-yard spot of reckoning. By this time my outwardly calm exterior was getting mightily anxious and beads of sweat were forming on my creased brow. Missing that penalty could have cost us the championship. The ball was placed. I took my run. I crashed it high to McAlpine’s left. The left glove got close but the ball was captured only by the net behind United’s ‘keeper. Celtic Park erupted in a cacophony of elation and we knew that United would not get near our penalty box for the remainder of the game. That Celtic side had a remarkable sense of belief and trust in one other and we marched on to our last match of the season with a huge amount of momentum driving us on.
All our hard work, our endeavour, our luck, and our dreams came down to our final encounter of the season. Rangers were going for a treble. All we wanted was one more win.
90 minutes later and we became icons of this remarkable football club. All the details will follow and it will read like fiction. But that is what is special about this thing called Celtic. It is an infectious beast that trips you up when you least expect it and raised you to heights you never thought possible. There I was on the night of 21 May 1979, a ten-year veteran of professional football and life-long Celtic fan, celebrating the unlikeliest of title wins with my team-mates on the hallowed turf of Celtic Park. We did it against all the odds with ten men; we did it against the mighty Rangers; we did it the Celtic way.
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