Team of the Decade – The Greatest XI of the 1950s

A Celtic State of Mind are currently running polls to establish our greatest teams of the decades from the 1950s right up to the 2010s. These seven sides will then be considered alongside the controversial ACSOM Cult XI that was established earlier this year.

The 1950s saw many of Celtic’s greatest ever players don the famous green and white hoops with distinction, and the polls have sparked some healthy Twitter debate around who should and who shouldn’t make the cut.

The selection process is almost complete, with the side (managed by Jimmy McGrory) lining up as follows:

1️⃣ John Bonnar
2️⃣ Duncan MacKay
3️⃣ Sean Fallon
4️⃣ Bobby Evans
5️⃣ Jock Stein
6️⃣ Bertie Peacock
7️⃣ TBC
8️⃣ Bobby Collins
9️⃣ TBC
1️⃣0️⃣ Bertie Auld
1️⃣1️⃣ Neil Mochan
We are down to the final two spots, with four magnificent talents vying for just two jerseys: The McPhail brothers – John and Billy – Willie Fernie and Charlie Tully. This poll is going to be tight…

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Player 1 – John McPhail
The universally popular figure of John McPhail originally joined Celtic in 1941 from Strathclyde at the tender age of 17, making his debut not long after in the Wartime Regional League in a 1-1 draw with Partick Thistle. His nickname was ‘Hooky’ due to his tendency to kick the football with the outside of his boot.
Initially used as a right-half, John’s early career in the hoops saw him as one of the most assured performers in a generally disappointing era for the Bhoys. He did pick up a winners’ medal in the Victory In Europe Cup in 1945 but it wasn’t until he was moved to centre-forward in 1950 that his career really took off.
As a robust and bustling forward, McPhail combined physical strength with a subtle touch and great vision. He was strong in the air and with the ball at his feet he demonstrated a wonderful and clever passing ability, plus he was a regular goal scorer. In season 1950/51, he became “his side’s inspiration, and the idol of the supporters”.
He created history by scoring a goal in the first 10 seconds against East Fife on 16 December 1950. Some reports put it as quick as six seconds, a record that will likely stand in Celtic history. At this point, East Fife must have been sick of the sight of him as he had by that time scored a barrowload against them during the season, including a four-goal haul earlier in March as well as a hat-trick in this later game.
John McPhail really battled for the club, literally so. He captained Celtic when they took on Lazio in Rome for the Italian club’s Golden Jubilee match in May 1950, and, after 30 minutes, he and Lazio player Remondini were ordered off for fighting. A clash between Lazio and Celtic… That sounds familiar…
Further honours were to follow as John picked up a Coronation Cup winners’ medal in 1953 and league and cup winners’ medals in 1954. That league title was vital as it was Celtic’s first since 1937/38, a long time to wait and a measure of how much Celtic had slid back in the standings of Scottish football. He also won five caps for Scotland, and even scored on his debut against Wales.
His younger brother, Billy McPhail, later played for Celtic, and is most fondly remembered for scoring a hat-trick in Celtic’s legendary 7-1 victory over rivals Rangers in the 1957 Scottish League Cup final. John McPhail had also himself once scored three goals against Rangers, in the 1950 Glasgow Merchants’ Charity Cup. This is the only occasion in Celtic v Rangers history that brothers have achieved this feat.

Player 2 – Willie Fernie
Fife-born Willie Fernie was an important player for Celtic during the 1950s. He saw the transformation from the lows to the highs, from the best seat that even money couldn’t buy – by being there on the pitch or on the trackside – in a long relationship with the club.
Willie signed for the Bhoys in October 1948, and he would go on to make in excess of 300 appearances during a Parkhead career in which he firmly established himself as a Celtic favourite and great. Fernie moved to Glasgow from ‘Leslie Hearts’ and eventually made his competitive first-team debut in a 1-0 league victory at St Mirren on 18 March 1950. Over time, he displayed a remarkable versatility which saw the club deploy him as a right-half, inside-forward and outside-left as the need arose.
A tireless runner, Fernie gave 100% until the final whistle by which time opposition defenders would be at the point of exhaustion at having to track the hard-working Celt. His wonderful talent with a football made the Fifer a huge favourite with the Celtic support but also a marked man with the opposition who would regularly treat Fernie to excessively rough treatment. It was a credit to the Celt that he never retaliated to the often vicious fouls employed to stop him.
Despite his talent, the club generally underperformed, which was not helped by a meddling board and a decent but powerless manager. Things could have been so much greater at the club when talent such as Willie Fernie is considered.
There is little doubt that, without the brilliance of Willie Fernie, such iconic Celtic triumphs as the 1953 Coronation Cup victory, 1954 league and cup double and the back-to-back league cup triumphs (including the 1957 League Cup final 7-1 rout of Rangers) would simply not have been possible.

The most celebrated game for Willie was the 1957 League Cup final, where he scored a penalty and many considered him to be man of the match in one of Celtic’s greatest victories of all time.
Player 3 – Charlie Tully
Charlie Tully moved to Parkhead in June 1948 from his hometown side Belfast Celtic where he had been idolised by the support. His journey across the Irish Sea – for a then sizeable fee of £8,000 – triggered a frenzied response from fans in Glasgow. Celtic were really in the doldrums at this point in the club’s history, and Charlie with his magical skills and ‘Cheeky’ personality lifted the whole club, helping them back to silverware and respectability.
There is a strong case for claiming that Charlie was really the first ‘Celebrity’ footballer, long before the arrival of George Best, David Beckham and such like. At his peak with Celtic it was possible to buy items like Tully ties, Tully cocktails and Tully ice lollies which were obviously green and white in colour. It was ‘Tullymania’.
On his game, Tully would relentlessly tease the opposition with his outrageous ability and his ball skills would bamboozle opposing defenders and thrill the crowd. His antics on and off the pitch soon became the stuff of myth and legend, and could take up a whole article on its own. Tully was the most talked about player in Scotland (if not the whole of the UK and Ireland) and he loved the limelight. When Tully was in town everyone wanted to be there.
Charlie loved to play up to the crowd and enjoyed nothing more than hearing the crowd roar their approval as he left another embarrassed defender trailing in his wake. Nothing typifies the skill and impudence of Tully better than his goal in the Scottish Cup at Falkirk on 21 February 1953. With Celtic awarded a corner, the Irishman surveyed the scene in the penalty box before whipping the ball straight into the back of the net. The perplexed referee insisted that Tully had taken the kick from outside the corner markings and ordered a retake. Tully duly obliged and again whipped the ball straight into the net – goal! This goal from a corner was no fluke, as Charlie also did this in an international for Northern Ireland against England.
In truth, his medal haul was a vast underachievement in comparison to what he could have achieved with the talents he was gifted with. One man does not make a team but some sure can push a side to their limits. Tully wasn’t to be the great talisman for Celtic but in fairness the club was poorly managed during much of his tenure. The coaching was poor and constant board meddling was undermining the side.
Player 4 – Billy McPhail
Billy McPhail, the younger brother of former Hoops’ skipper John McPhail, enjoyed a brief but memorable Celtic career. He’d had an interesting journey before Celtic as a ladies’ hairdresser, a restaurateur and a period in the army (Blackwatch). A clever and skilful centre-forward, McPhail was seen as a slimmer, faster and more elegant player than his brother, and had a reputation for possessing a good head for goals.
He signed for the Bhoys in May 1956 from city rivals Clyde and made his debut in a 2-1 League Cup win at Aberdeen on 11 August. He’d signed just as his brother was retiring. Billy began his footballing career with Queen’s Park and played with them for three seasons before turning professional with Clyde. He’d spent 10 seasons at Shawfield where he became a prolific scorer but gradually became injury prone, and a series of injuries badly hit his time with the Bully Wee.
The signing was thus seen as a gamble due to the injury issue, but Celtic needed shoring up, having fallen behind again since the glorious League and Cup double of 1953/54. However, there was no doubting the talent of the player and in two seasons at Celtic Park he ensured his eternal place in Celtic history and in the hearts of all followers of the Bhoys.
In October 1957 in front of 82,000 supporters at Hampden, Billy McPhail scored a wonderful hat-trick as Celtic retained the League Cup with a now legendary 7-1 routing of rivals Rangers. The first was a header and the other two were well-taken shots.
McPhail simply massacred Rangers’ centre-half Valentine that afternoon. He beat him in the air, he beat him on the ground. Valentine simply couldn’t get anywhere near his man. McPhail ran his marker ragged all afternoon and such was the torment of the player and the Ibrox club’s support that a shower of bottles rained down from the Rangers end as Billy calmly slotted home his third – and Celtic’s sixth. He had run almost the whole of the opposition’s half to seal the goals. Wonderful, and a great work-rate.
Unfortunately, the injury jinx returned to haunt McPhail and after just two seasons in the Hoops his career came to a sadly premature end due to knee problems. It was not long after the League Cup victory that his next major injury hit on 21 December 1957 in a 2-1 defeat to Partick Thistle after a collision with the goalkeeper. Billy McPhail’s injury turned out to be more serious than thought and he ended up with his leg in plaster.

He had played 57 games and scored 38 goals as a Celt – a magnificent return.

Colin Watt

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