The first signs that Jock Stein had a mélange of youthful prospects brimming under the surface at Barrowfield perhaps came to light before the European Cup-Winners’ Cup third round first-leg tie against Soviet Union side Dynamo Kyiv on 12 January 1966.
AGF Aarhus goalkeeper, Bent Martin, had performed well against Celtic in the previous round and was invited to Celtic Park for a month’s trial at the end of December. He was presented to the crowd before kick-off as a prospective new signing, but his appearance has been confined to that of a supporting role in the annals of Celtic history, as a 16-year-old would also make his first appearance to a wider audience that evening. Stein sent out a skinny young lad in a Celtic strip to entertain the 64,000 crowd by keeping the ball up as he walked around a packed stadium. As opening salvos go, George Connelly’s is up there with the finest in living memory.
“Bent Martin had just signed and they asked me to do a bit keepie-uppie on the park,” Connelly recalled. “I wasn’t nervous because Jock Stein told me to do it and that was it. It was before the game. Everybody says it was at half-time but it was before the game. That’s a definite.”
Sean Fallon had been closely studying Connelly’s progress in the reserves and knew how capable the young Fifer was. He remembered using his own ‘persuasion technique’ to get Connelly to overcome any stage-fright he may have been suffering from prior to his ball-juggling master class. He recalled: “I spoke to George. He was a shy boy and I looked after him. I gave him a few pounds and he came out the tunnel and he went right around the field and the ball never dropped on the ground. It was a European tie and the place was absolutely packed. Unbelievable. Everyone spoke about it. How many players today would be able to do that?”
This dramatic prelude to Connelly’s promising career captured the imagination of every Celtic fan who was lucky enough to have witnessed it. His keepie-uppie curtain-raiser has become part of the club’s folklore and in a letter to the Celtic View on January 26, 1966, D.A. McNaught of Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire had this to say about the young Fife native, “I must congratulate Celtic on an excellent performance against Kiev, but surely the finest performance of the night was the ball-juggling act by young George Connelly? My count may not be absolutely accurate, but I made it 654 times that he kept the ball up without once letting it touch the ground, before going off to shoot at Bent Martin.”
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Coming from a Celtic-supporting Fife family, the first record that Connelly ever owned was ‘The Celtic Song’ by Glen Daly. The shy youngster’s big brother, Joe, had bought the vinyl and it had become the soundtrack to George’s earliest Celtic memories. Daly was a Glaswegian entertainer who had a number of close friends within Celtic Park. His son, Terry Dick, was taken to Parkhead religiously from a young age and eventually became a ball-boy.
One match in particular from this era is vividly remembered by Terry. “I was there when George Connelly walked around the park keeping the ball up,” remembered Terry. “It was before the game and I was doing the ball-boy duties so I was wearing football boots and shorts and all the kit. About an hour before kick-off, Neilly Mochan came to the ball-boys and told us that he needed someone sensible. Someone said, ‘Right Terry, get your coat on’ and wee Smiler gave me a fiver and told me, ‘Go and get a box of lemons’. My response was, ‘A box of lemons? It’s seven o’ clock at night.’ But Neilly said to me, ‘You’ve got to do it or there will be no game. They’ll call the game off if we don’t get this box of lemons, son.’ So the pressure was all on me because, according to Neilly, the Russians weren’t going to play without their lemons. They claimed that we had broken an agreement to provide lemons for the match. What you’ve got to realise was that it was the Soviet Union then and a couple of party officials always travelled with the team and they were looking for anything to complain about.
“So out I went to try and find a box of lemons. This was in the days before supermarkets and it was at seven o’ clock at night. I felt that this whole game was depending on me and 64,000 Celtic supporters were pouring into the stadium from the wee tight roads. I remembered that there was a fruit shop up at Parkhead cross so I made my way up there but it was shut. I walked up to the front door and tried to look in. There was a wee wooden gap for their letters and I looked in and saw that there was a bulb on inside so I started chapping the door shouting, ‘Missus, there’s an emergency.’ I could hear her shouting back, ‘Get away, I’m trying to do my stock.’ I pleaded with her, ‘I’m here from Celtic and there’s going to be no game.’ Then I heard her asking, ‘No game? Have they no ball or something?’
So I explained that I needed a whole box of lemons and her face lit up. She opened the door and I got taken into the back shop and she brought out this box and opened it up. The aroma of lemons hit me and they were all individually wrapped in tissue paper. I was charged one pound seven and six and I’m walking through the Celtic crowds with this heavy box of lemons, dressed in football boots and white stockings.
I got into the stadium and took the lemons to Neilly and he says, ‘Thank God’ and he took the box off me. I handed him the change and he gave me a half crown for myself. After the game finished, we went in to tidy up the Kiev dressing room and not one lemon had even been taken out of the box. They were still sitting in their tissue papers untouched so the ball-boys all ended up throwing them at each other around the changing room and had a carry on. It had all been gamesmanship.”
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