Once we heard the result on the radio, the 1967 European Cup win in Lisbon prompted me and a group of friends to run around the streets of Denny celebrating with Celtic strips on. I imagined myself as Bobby Murdoch, who was always an absolute hero of mine.
I was brought up as a Celtic fan, and went to St Patrick’s RC Primary School (whose school team played in green-and-white hoops) and later to St Mungo’s in Falkirk.
As well as playing for my school teams, I played at various times with Denny Boys’ Club and Gairdoch United, before joining Campsie Black Watch.
SIGNING FOR ABERDEEN
Whilst with Campsie, I ended up playing a trial match for Airdrie reserves against Rangers reserves. This was in 1975, and Rangers had a group of youngsters that Jock Wallace was calling ‘The Golden Boys’. This crop included the likes of Alec O’Hara, Gordon Boyd and Martin Henderson, who scored a hat-trick on this particular night as Rangers comprehensively dismantled us 6-0.
After the game, Aberdeen scout Jimmy Calder approached me and asked me to sign for them. I remember thinking, “Have you got the right guy here?”
I suppose in many ways I was in the right place at the right time. I signed for Aberdeen, and went on to enjoy a lot of success at Pittodrie. We beat Celtic in the 1976 League Cup final, which wrecked their treble chances, and I was also part of the 1980 league-winning side.
Ally MacLeod was my first manager at Aberdeen, and for the 1976 League Cup final he deliberately booked us into a hotel just off a roundabout in Newton Mearns. Celtic were at their usual pre-match location in Ayrshire, and Ally had someone in a car waiting for their team bus to leave Seamill Hydro. We were sitting in the team coach waiting, and when this car appeared over the brow of the hill, Ally knew that Celtic were approaching.
As soon as Ally seen the police motorbikes, which were escorting the Celtic team coach, he told George the driver to make his move. We pulled out in front of the Celtic bus, and you could see Jock Stein sitting down the front looking slightly bemused. Ally turned around to us and said, “That’s us, boys. We’ll never be behind them again today.” That was typical Ally; he made us believe that we could beat anybody.
BILLY MCNEILL AT ABERDEEN
Ally MacLeod left to take the Scotland job in 1977, and Billy McNeill came in with John Clark as the new management team. They were like a breath of fresh air around the club. They were so professional and great to work with, and crucially they brought in Gordon Strachan from Dundee, and Steve Archibald from Clyde.
The lure of a return to Celtic was too much for these two Lisbon Lions though, and there was no real surprise when they moved back to Glasgow the following year to be replaced by Alex Ferguson.
Fergie was very single-minded, almost autocratic, and it was immediately clear that he wasn’t going to take any nonsense from anybody. He also inherited a very good side, and some excellent young prospects who were already working their way through the youth system.
I played a fair amount of games under Alex, but I broke my leg in Bulgaria against Marek Dimitrov in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and Alex McLeish got into the side alongside Willie Miller.
It became clear to me that McLeish was going to be Fergie’s first choice to partner Willie Miller in the centre of the defence. This meant that I played for long periods in the reserves, which I really didn’t enjoy.
I knocked back a move to Allan Clarke’s Barnsley, and I later regretted that because I would have tripled my wages. I decided afterwards that I’d go to the next English side that came in for me, but nothing happened for another six months.
Eventually, I got a phonecall from Wallace Mercer, who wanted to sign me for Hearts on less money than I was getting at Aberdeen. It wasn’t ideal, but there were no other offers at that time, so I told him that I’d think about his offer over the weekend.
SIGNING FOR CELTIC
Then Fergie phoned me out of the blue on the Saturday morning and informed me that John Clark had been on the phone and wanted to sign me for Celtic. My response was, “That will be happening.” I wasn’t interested in negotiating wages with them; I just wanted to go to Celtic Park and sign. To be fair to Fergie, he knew how much I wanted to play for Celtic, and he didn’t demand a big fee for me; I think it was £35,000-£40,000.
At that time, I was driving a bucket of a car. I decided to hire a decent motor to drive down to Glasgow and meet up with Billy McNeill. I was offered a two-year deal on double the wages that were on the table at Tynecastle, but the money wasn’t important to me. It had always been my dream to sign for Celtic.
We flew to America for a pre-season tournament a few days after I signed, and I partnered Roy Aitken in central defence as we played against the New York Cosmos, Seattle Sounders and Southampton, who had Kevin Keegan in their team. We then played a few games in Germany and the Netherlands, where we won the Rotterdam Tournament, and I thought I performed pretty well.
TWO DEBUT OWN GOALS
Our first competitive match of the season was against St Mirren in the League Cup, and I was delighted that I kept my place in the heart of Celtic’s defence. My entire family were at Celtic Park to watch my debut that day, as was half of my hometown Denny.
Roy Aitken told me to make sure I went over to the Jungle before the game to acknowledge the supporters, which I did. I remember looking around the stadium, and thinking, “Wow.” Roy also told me he would give me the ball early to settle my nerves. When he did, I played a diagonal pass, which came off as planned, and I felt that I started the game pretty well.
We went 1-0 up through Frank McGarvey after half-an-hour, but shortly afterwards Frank McDougall advanced down Roy’s side. I was expecting my defensive partner to close him down, but he seemed to back off the St Mirren striker. I decided to go across to him just as McDougall struck a shot from 20 or 25 yards. It ricocheted off my foot, and looped right over Packie Bonner, who was standing on his penalty spot, and into the back of the net. That certainly wasn’t the start I had expected on my Celtic debut, but I wasn’t too concerned at that stage. I was confident that we would still win the game.
We were defending the Rangers’ end in the second-half, and Ian Scanlon raced down the Jungle side, he went beyond Danny McGrain, before smashing it across the face of the goals. I was in the six-yard box, and decided to simply header it out for a corner. Unfortunately for me, the ball hit my head about an inch off its intended target, and the ball ended up in the back of our net again.
The Jungle began to grumble and there was nowhere for me to hide; I didn’t know where to look. An hour into my Celtic debut and I had scored two own goals!
I looked across at the dugout, and fully expected Billy McNeill to haul me off. To his credit, he let me finish the game, which we went on to lose 3-1.
That night, I felt utterly dejected, and decided to take my wife out for a bite to eat at an Italian restaurant in Moodiesburn called La Campagnola. We were waiting in the reception area to be seated when Ian Redford of Rangers walked in with his missus.
“How are you doing, big man?” He asked with a smile.
“Don’t start,” I replied, as I wasn’t in the mood after the day I’d had.
“I know you lost,” Ian continued. “But how did you get on with your first game?”
I told him he’d read all about it in the following morning’s papers, and at that point Ian and his wife were called to their table. He stood up, accidentally knocked the table we were sitting at, and my full pint soaked me down the front of my trousers. It’s safe to say, I’ve had better days.
After that disappointing introduction, my Celtic career never really got going. St Johnstone beat us in our next game – also in the League Cup – and I lost my place in the side after that.
I played one more league game a couple of months later, when Hibs beat us 1-0 at Easter Road. After the match, Billy told me the punters weren’t happy with me, and I understood where he was coming from. The rest of my Celtic career was spent in the reserves, and I had a couple of loan spells at Alloa Athletic and then at Rochdale, who wanted to sign me permanently, but I didn’t fancy the move down there.
I was hugely disappointed that things didn’t work out for me at Celtic, especially when you consider that we were a league-winning side that season. A young Davie Moyes partnered me in the reserves, and I used to help him with his game. Although he was decent in the air, his distribution was poor. John Clark told me that Billy fancied Moyesy because he seen a bit of himself in him, and he started appearing in the first-team more regularly. I realised then that I had to leave the club I had supported my whole life.
Before I left, I had the small matter of the Daily Express five-a-side Challenge Cup at Wembley to contend with. Jimmy Lumsden went down with myself, Peter Latchford, Charlie Nicholas, Danny Crainie, Willie McStay and John Weir. We only took six players because the club wouldn’t pay for any more.
The English clubs took the tournament really seriously, but we had a side made up mainly of reserve players. We beat Watford; Ipswich, who had Paul Mariner, Russell Osman and John Wark playing for them; Manchester United, with Lou Macari, Bryan Robson and Jimmy Nicholl in their side; and Southampton, complete with Kevin Keegan and Mick Channon.
Wee Charlie was different class during that tournament. I think a lot of the English clubs started to stand up and take notice of him as a result of his performances at Wembley, even though it was just an indoor tournament.
LEAVING FOR ALLOA
Having played for Alloa briefly, they then offered me the role of player/manager. I was slightly apprehensive because I was still only 27 at the time, and I phoned Fergie for his advice. He told me to take the job, and Billy didn’t want a fee, so I left Celtic after less than a year-and-a-half at the club.
TEAMING BACK UP WITH FERGIE
My next move two years later was an even bigger shock, as Alex Ferguson asked me to be his assistant at Pittodrie. Archie Knox had gone to Dundee, and it gave me a fantastic opportunity to team up with my old gaffer back at Aberdeen.
I enjoyed a huge amount of success with Fergie, as we won two leagues, two Scottish Cups, and one League Cup. It was a footballing education, and one that would surely have held me in good stead. Then disaster struck again.
Fergie came back from the Mexico World Cup and advised me that he was taking Archie Knox back from Dundee, and that there was no longer a role for me at Aberdeen. I was out of a job and signing on the dole the following morning. A few months later, Alex and Archie went down to Old Trafford and never looked back.
Football can be a cruel game, but I got over my disappointment and moved into a new career in the banking industry, which lasted for 25 years.Listen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast
When I look back at the Celtic side that I played in, I still think that we had an excellent team: Packie Bonner, Danny McGrain, Mark Reid, Roy Aitken, Tam McAdam, Murdo MacLeod, Davie Provan, Dom Sullivan, Frank McGarvey, Charlie Nicholas and Tommy Burns.
It would be difficult for me to pick a ‘Greatest XI’ of players I played alongside, as I only started three first-team games! However, here is a selection of players, all of whom I regard as great Celts. Some I watched from the terraces, some I was lucky to have played with, and some I played under:
As a supporter, I remember going to Celtic Park one night in 1966 for a European tie against Dynamo Kyiv. This young player came on to the park and kept the ball up in front of a full house. He went around all the lines on the pitch, keeping this ball up. I later found out that it was George Connelly.
George’s downfall has since been well documented, but at the time that he left Celtic it was as though he suddenly vanished from the game. Celtic fans naturally wanted to know where he went because he really was a brilliant talent.
Many years later, I was managing Alloa Athletic when I went to watch a Sauchie Juniors player. It was someone else on the pitch, however, who caught my eye that day. He was slightly overweight, and the Sauchie goalie was just rolling the ball to him at the edge of the box. This big defender never ran all day, but he sprayed 60-yard passes all over the park. That was George Connelly in 1983.
There was a boy in the year above me at St Mungo’s High School in Falkirk called Brian McLaughlin, who was a really good friend of mine.
Brian was at an age that allowed him to play for my year’s school football team, and he also played the year above himself – he was that good.
One of the weekly comics we read around that time was called The Rover, and they did a feature where readers were asked to write in and nominate someone who was an excellent sportsman.
At the annual county sports, Brian would win the 100, 200 and 400-metre sprints, as well as the long jump, and everything else that he entered. He really was an incredible athlete. So much so, that I wrote to The Rover about him, and I told him this story a hundred times over the years, God rest him. My article was published and we both got a sports watch as a prize.
Brian and I played for our school teams in the morning, and then we’d play together for Denny Boys’ Club in the afternoon. We had an excellent side, which also included future Hibs’ players John Hazel and Mikey Wilson.
The janitor at our school was a guy called Tom Harvey, who was also a Celtic scout. Brian McLaughlin and a boy from Camelon called Michael Fagan were soon signed for Celtic, and it didn’t take Brian long to sign senior forms for them.
We called Brian McLaughlin ‘Super’, and he really was the greatest all-round player I have ever seen in my football career. He had everything, and I know that Jock Stein also thought very highly of him. Brian was like a quicker version of Kenny Dalglish; he couldn’t half run.
Sadly, Brian suffered a horrendous injury playing for Celtic’s first team, and it really set him back in his career. A Clyde hatchet man nearly snapped him in two. It was such a waste of an incredible talent.
When I arrived at Celtic in July 1981, Billy McNeill told me that I was rooming with Johnny Doyle for our pre-season trips to the States, Germany and the Netherlands.
Doyley was the life and soul of that dressing room. He was a nutcase, and used to wear this massive crucifix, which he taped to his body before matches.
On one occasion, the first-team were playing at Ibrox, and the reserves had an early kick-off at Paisley. Johnny and I were with the reserves that day, and as we were travelling back to Celtic Park on the team coach after our match, we got stuck behind a Rangers supporters’ bus in traffic. The Rangers fans quickly spotted Bobby Lennox at the front of our bus and started hurling abuse at us.
Further along the road, we drew up alongside this same bus on the motorway, and we stopped moving due to the heavy traffic. Wee Doyley suddenly said, “Watch this… Count how many bare arses you see.” The wee man then took his crucifix out and put it up to the window. You could see the Rangers fans’ faces turning red with anger. Then they started dropping their jeans and sticking their hairy arses up against the window. We were saying, “John, I hope this bus gets moving sharpish!”
Wee Doyley used to torture the young players at Celtic too. If it was their birthday, he’d take them into the boot-room and batter them. All the boys on the groundstaff at that time – Willie McStay, John Halpin, John Sludden – were absolutely petrified of him.
In saying that, Johnny was also one of the players – along with Tommy Burns and Roy Aitken – who told the young boys the Celtic story. They made sure that the next generation knew what it meant to be part of Celtic Football Club.
The day Johnny died was just terrible. The management team had all been given a list of players to call, so that they could break the news to us at roughly the same time. Brian Scott phoned me and said, “Really bad news, big man…” He then told me what had happened.
We were asked to report to training at the usual time the following morning. That was the hardest day’s training I’ve ever done in my life. We didn’t go up to Barrowfield that morning, we just went out on the track at Celtic Park and ran, and ran, and ran, for what seemed like hours.
Johnny was really close to Tommy Burns, Danny McGrain, Davie Provan and Frank McGarvey. It was such a sad time for us all, and the whole club had to try to recover from our terrible loss.
My son was born whilst the club were in America for the 1981-82 pre-season. The first time I actually seen him was when a supporter handed me a Daily Record, and there was a picture of my wee boy in the paper.
Tam Burns put me on a guilt trip straight away, and said to me, “Right, we’re going to Macy’s to get the biggest cuddly toy we can find.” There was no way I could take this giant teddy back on the flight, and I ended up having to send it back to Scotland in the mail.
Tam loved the club, and he made sure that anyone who came in knew exactly what Celtic was all about. I used to watch him at work. He would go and sit with players on the team bus, talk to them, and make them understand what they were representing when they pulled on that strip. It was fantastic, and he probably did that his whole life.
On the same American trip in 1981, we were staying at a hotel called Inn on the Park. We trained on a small part of ground in the park across the road, and the young boys carried the kit over, set the cones up, and we just trained in public.
Celtic have a huge support in New York, and it didn’t take long for word to spread amongst the locals. Before we knew it, the supporters were turning up to watch us in decent numbers, and it was great to be part of that.
After training, it was a case of walking across the road to go for a shower in the hotel. On this particular day, I was with Roy Aitken, John Clark and Davie Provan in the lift when Pele walked in. Unknown to us, his movie Escape to Victory was being previewed in the top floor of our New York hotel.
We were all standing there star-struck, when Pele said to John Clark, “Number six, Hampden 1966.” Wee John calmly replied, “Correct.”
When we got out of the lift, John turned around to us and said, “What do you think of that, boys?”
I worked under Billy McNeill and John Clark at both Aberdeen and Celtic, and I felt that they were a great match as a managerial partnership. Billy was very headstrong, and John would get in close to the players, as a good assistant does.
We were doing a simple shooting drill up at Barrowfield one day. Billy and John were on opposite sides of the 18-yard line, and there were two lines of players. Billy and John were laying the balls off to us, and we were shooting into Packie Bonner and Peter Latchford.
The players started to get restless after about 20 minutes, and someone asked John if we could change it a bit. John agreed and told us to dribble around him before shooting, and we added that into the drill.
After a couple of the boys did this, Billy shouted, “Hold on a minute. What are you doing?”
“We’ve been doing that drill for ages, boss,” answered John. “Can we not just change it?”
“We’ll change it when I tell you to,” came Billy’s incessant reply.
This was like a red rag to a bull for John. Before we knew it, they were both walking along the 18-yard line towards each other. Billy’s got the chest out, and John’s shouting, “Who the f*** do you think you’re talking to?” Danny and Roy had to split them up. I honestly thought there was going to be a fight.
Billy told John that he’d speak to him back at the park, and John left Barrowfield with the reply: “I’ll not be f***ing there when you come back to the park!”
The Celtic job must have been extremely difficult for Billy. Not only was he a supporter, he was the club’s most successful captain, and his standards had been so high throughout his career. The level of expectation on Billy when he went back to Celtic Park was exceptional.
I felt at times that his man-management could have been better. I remember sitting on the bench when we played Ajax at Celtic Park in 1982. Billy instructed Tam Burns to man-mark Johan Cruyff. He told Tam to follow Cruyff wherever he went. Tam argued that he was one of our most creative players, but Billy’s reply was, “Just do what you’re told.”
At the start of the game, Celtic were hitting towards the Rangers end and Cruyff was playing outside-right, next to the Jungle, which suited Tam because that was his side of the park. 15 minutes into the game and Cruyff had already sussed out what we were up to. He wandered right across the halfway line, and Tam duly followed him, as instructed, completely out of position. Cruyff stood in front of the dugout and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “What’s this all about?”
After my first two games, Billy told me he was taking me out of the team to do a bit of fitness work with Bobby Lennox, who was the reserve team coach at that time.
Lemon took me running every afternoon around Queen’s Park. We did it four days a week for about six weeks, and I’ve never been so fit in my life. What a fitness level he had, even at the age of 38.
He was still a fantastic player as well. We used to train on a plastic park at Helenvale, and Bobby hadn’t lost the pace, and would score goals for fun. I had played against him when I was with Aberdeen, but it was only when I saw him in training everyday that I realised just how incredible he was. He could still have been playing competitively when I was at Celtic Park.
Charlie was a real ‘Jack-the-lad’. I would say that Danny McGrain had a massive influence on his career, because he could quite easily have gone off the rails with everything that surrounded him outside of the game.
Charlie would pitch up at training with no socks on, and Billy McNeill would fine him for it. Charlie would then turn up without socks on the following day, and get fined again.
He used to sit on the team bus and listen to Duran Duran on his earphones. All of a sudden, he would sit upright and sing, “Girls on Film!” and then he’d settle down again. We were all looking at each other saying, “What is this boy all about?”
But what a phenomenal talent Charlie Nicholas was on the football field. One of the best I’ve ever seen.
Paul McStay was another youngster who broke through during my first season at Celtic Park. He was a superb player, and a really strong runner. McStay had played in a magnificent Scottish schoolboys’ team alongside another young Celt, John Sludden.
Wee Sluddy just seemed to lack that vital burst of pace. He had great technique on the ball, but he didn’t have that spark that Charlie had.
There were many like him – players like Jim McInally and Jim Dobbin – who simply didn’t get a look-in at Celtic around about that time. Jim Duffy was another right good player, but he was never given a chance by Billy. Duff was a better defender than Roy Aitken, and he used to put me in mind of my old Aberdeen team-mate, Willie Miller. I played a lot of reserve games with Duff, and I think a lack of pace might also have held him back from reaching the very top.
Willie Garner was interviewed by Paul John Dykes