I grew up in Knightswood in the west of Glasgow, and had been training with Celtic once or twice a week from the age of about 14. I didn’t come up from the Boys’ Club, I was playing with Drumchapel Hibs at the time.
Initially I got spotted playing in the school team by ex-Celt, Charlie Gallagher, who was scouting for the club at that time. Then, in a fourth-year school game, Billy McNeill actually came to watch me on the south side of Glasgow. John Clark and Frank Connor later came up to my house, just to try and tie me down to Celtic. I wouldn’t say there was that much interest in me from other clubs at the time, but I was aware for a while there was a possibility that Celtic were going to ask me to sign.
I signed straight from schools’ football on the day I turned 16. My first day on the Celtic Park ground-staff was the day after my birthday.Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind
Charlie Nicholas wasn’t actually on the ground-staff when I arrived. Mark Reid was the senior apprentice at the time. The other lads that I joined were Willie McStay, Danny Crainie, and a boy from Castlemilk called Hugh ‘Shanty’ Ferry, who I guess has featured in some of the tales that have been told over the years. Shanty was a character and a half.
When I first started it was incredibly exciting, but I didn’t really know what being an apprentice entailed. Back in those days, squads were fairly small, which meant that ground-staff boys did the pre-season training with the first-team and the reserve players. We’d get a game in the 14-a-sides, but also had to carry out all the tasks. It was a brilliant grounding.
From the ground-staff, I forged relationships with Danny Crainie and Willie McStay. I was more mindful of Shanty, who was some boy. I didn’t get involved in nights out with Shanty because it could have all gone a bit wrong!
And then Charlie Nicholas came in around Christmas time. He had been working as an auto electrician before joining Celtic. Charlie was a player I was aware of from schools’ and boys-club football, as he grew up in Maryhill. We had heard rumours that Charlie was joining us. From the moment he came in, he was a big character, cheeky and a wind-up merchant. Sometimes he took it too far, but I quickly realised that if you didn’t have a strong personality then you’d find being a footballer a real challenge.
Charlie knew the words to all the Celtic songs. Now and again if we misbehaved they’d send us up the Rangers end to clear the rubbish. That was the worst job at Celtic Park. Back in those days there were glass bottles lying all over the terraces. We’d be sweeping up, singing Celtic songs at the top of our voices, and throwing glass bottles at each other. Charlie knew every word of every song, even ones I had never heard. I came from a Celtic household and I knew most of them, but you could tell by the way Charlie spoke that he was Celtic daft.
I was pretty clever, but I signed for Celtic instead of working towards university. I think that Neilly Mochan – who looked after the ground-staff boys – realised that I wasn’t quite as unruly as Shanty Ferry. Shanty’s head was full of nonsense. Willie McStay was, and remains, very sensible. Danny ‘Puffer’ Crainie was less so. Puffer liked a laugh, and was a really good guy, as they all were.
Being on the Celtic Park ground-staff was an incredible learning curve, both from a football and life perspective. The first aim was to get into the reserve side; to try and displace some of the players whose time had maybe passed them by. Then it would be a case of setting my sights on the first-team.
I was very naïve when I arrived at Celtic. I was super keen and had a lot of energy about me, but not a lot of talent. I realised that football wasn’t what I thought it was. It’s an industry where everyone is competing for places. There’s a lot of money involved, and, although it can be great fun, it can also end badly.
As well as all the hard work, the young lads got up to pranks, of course we did. We enjoyed a laugh and a wind-up, sometimes even with the first-teamers. After a few months I came out of my shell, having been pretty quiet to start with.
I remember being in the first-team dressing-room getting on with a task, when John Doyle picked me out. He was determined to wind me up.
“What age are you, son?” Doyley asked.
“Sixteen,” I replied.
“I was in the first-team when I was sixteen, and there you are cleaning our dressing rooms,” mocked Doyley, jokingly.
“Aye, but it was only at Ayr United,” came my tongue-in-cheek response.
At that point, Doyley went absolutely mental, lost it, then chased me out of the changing room. What he used to do was grab you, get you in a headlock, then rub his big rings into your head. He did this in a loving, caring way, you know?
To avoid this punishment, I ran from the home dressing-room, right up to the tunnel, on to the park, with Doyley ten yards behind me. I didn’t realise I was that quick. He chased me all the way across the pitch. The jungle had a wee fence at the time. It wasn’t that big a jump, but there was a drop on the other side. I jumped over the fence before landing on the steps below. Doyley was looking down on me from the other side of the fence, threatening me that he would get me the next day. Looking back, things like that were just brilliant – really memorable – because it was a true learning curve in my life.
Doyley was teaching me a lesson and reminding me of my place in the pecking order at Celtic Park. He never did come looking for me the following day.
Paul John DykesWatch the creator and cast of Bend it like Brattbakk with A Celtic State of Mind