Tom Campbell with A Celtic State of Mind – Was Robert Kelly knighted for Jock Stein’s services to football?

The Queen’s Honours List, published at the start of 1969 contained one major surprise. Bob Kelly, chairman of Celtic, had been knighted ‘for services to football’. He had been chairman at Parkhead since 1947 (his father had also been chairman several years before him) and had served with distinction as President of the SFA, as well as being a highly respected legislator with the Scottish League.

However, it was felt that politics rather than football had played a major part in the bestowing of the honour. In 1968 the USSR and its allies in the Warsaw Pact had acted with armed force to quell a movement towards liberalism in Czechoslovakia. Apparently, very little to do with football… but those countries who had invaded Czechoslovakia were represented in the European Cup.

Bob Kelly led the opposition to their continued participation in the competition, and indicated that Celtic, drawn against Ferencvaros of Hungary in the next round, would not be willing to play against those opponents. Other clubs were impressed with this principled stand, and followed suit; UEFA backed down and redrew the fixture list; the countries behind the Iron Curtain pulled their teams from the competition.

This concerted action may well have influenced the British government to recommend the knighthood for Bob Kelly, incidentally the first Scottish football chairman to be so honoured.

On 2 January 1969, Celtic visited Ibrox to play Rangers in the traditional New Year’s fixture… and Mr Bob Kelly (now SIR Robert Kelly) was greeted warmly, congratulated, and toasted by the Rangers’ directors. Later, when he took his place in the Directors’ Box for the match, he was applauded politely by those nearby in the stand. It was in marked contrast to the abuse that he had frequently encountered at that venue in the past.

Kelly himself stated that the honour had been bestowed upon the club rather than to himself; one Celtic historian commented acidly that Sir Robert had been knighted “for Jock Stein’s services to football”. However, it would have been suitable recognition of how far Celtic, once described and dismissed as ‘the Irish club’ had come to be accepted. Perhaps not too much had changed on the pitch, however; in a typically hard-fought match Rangers won by 1-0, having been awarded ‘a soft penalty’ by the referee (Mr R.H. Davidson).

Tom Campbell

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