Between 1945 and 1965 Celtic were erratic, self-defeating and very occasionally majestic, but certainly never dull, in an era shaped by three men in particular.
In March 1954, Laurel & Hardy came to Glasgow for a week-long stint at The Empire Theatre. But compared to their three previous visits – 1932, for example, when some of the 8,000 Glaswegians that turned out just to greet the legendary mirth-makers off the train had to be rushed to the Royal Infirmary after a balustrade collapsed on Hope Street – this one was something of a damp squib. Their arrival at Central Station wasn’t publicised, there were snowstorms and a city-wide power cut, and the duo spent much of the week grumbling about not receiving royalties for their old films being broadcast on television.
If it was empathy they were after, Stan & Ollie could have done worse than to catch a cab down past the Britannia Panopticon – where Stan had made his stage debut back in 1906 – and a couple miles further up the Gallowgate, where they would have found a football club that knew exactly how it felt to go from being riotously popular and successful in the earlier years of the century to becoming a faintly tragic variety act drawing ever-dwindling crowds in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The worm appeared to have turned for Glasgow Celtic when they completed their first league-and-cup double for 40 years just a few weeks after Stan & Ollie’s final curtain call at The Empire, but it was a false dawn – one of many during Jimmy McGrory’s long managerial reign at Celtic Park. The facts of McGrory’s tenure simply don’t compute in the mind of the modern Scottish football fan. 20 years – from VJ Day all the way through to Beatlemania – when Celtic won the same number of Scottish Cups as Clyde, less League Cups than East Fife and one very lonely league title. A grand total of five major honours in two decades; the same amount the much-maligned Neil Lennon took just a year-and-a-half to win more recently, even after six months of pandemic-enforced inactivity in the middle.
The post-war years saw significant societal change in Glasgow; slums cleared, high rises thrown up, cinemas shut down or transformed into bingo halls and intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants on the rise. Celtic, just like the humble tenement, the elegant Art Deco cinema and ‘sticking to your own’, appeared to have been left behind in the chaotic ebb and flow of 20th century life. And yet, at the right time and the right place – up the back of a Parkhead bus, say, when fans of a certain age are singing Puttin’ on the Style, about what Charlie Tully and co did to Rangers in the 1957 League Cup final – that era can seem as vividly romantic as anything that’s followed in the three score years since. The tale of that period is perhaps best told from the perspective of three men: all club legends, but often found at cross purposes in the tumult precipitating the 1965 rebirth of the club we know now.
THE PAST: JIMMY MCGRORY
Celtic’s club media are not exactly renowned for dishing out the hard truths; if there’s a positive spin to put on a poor result or player sale, they usually have no difficulty in finding it. It says something, then, that even on The Official History, the DVD released in 2008 to mark the 120th anniversary of the club’s foundation, Jimmy McGrory’s record as manager is dubbed ‘quite appalling’ by historian David W Potter. McGrory’s Hoops finished third or lower in all but two of his 18 full seasons in charge, lost nine cup finals and failed to go beyond the sectional phase of the League Cup on 13 separate occasions. But how? How could a man who’d bulldozed himself into the pages of The Guinness Book of Records as a Celtic player be so powerless to prevent the club slipping ever further into the middle pages of the Scottish press?
Lack of talent certainly wasn’t the issue. From the steadfast Sean Fallon to the fleet-footed Willie Fernie and the tantalising Charlie Tully, some of the most revered players in the club’s entire history ‘passed through Parkhead’s gates’ during McGrory’s rule. “Celtic in the late 1950s and early 1960s were fast, fit and often skilful,” wrote Bob Crampsey in his Jock Stein biography Mr Stein. “There was little wrong with the calibre of player signed. It was, however, increasingly clear that the paternal benevolence of Jimmy McGrory was not going to bring more than the most occasional success.”
‘Paternal benevolence.’ It’s a phrase that pops up so often in so many different accounts of those years you almost start to think it’s McGrory’s middle name. The implication seems to be that his approach was too much velvet glove and not enough iron fist, but that gentlemanly comportment could certainly work in his favour. Though born into poverty in precisely the kind of tenement building that was bound for the demolition ball by the time he ascended to the Celtic managership, McGrory later married Veronica ‘Nona’ Green, part of the dynasty that owned the one-time largest cinema in Europe, Green’s Playhouse on Renfield Street, and it was almost with the air of a cinema impresario that he carried himself; immaculately turned out in his signature Crombie coat, pocket square, bowler hat and pipe. His image could leave parents of prospective signings starstruck, especially those who remembered him banging in 550 goals – an unbroken record in British league football to this day – for Celtic during the 1920s and ‘30s. Bertie Auld recalled his father putting on his best tartan tie and gleefully accepting a beer offered to him by McGrory on the day his son signed for the club aged 17, before the boss turned to the future Lisbon Lion and asked: “Have you ever seen a new £20 note, son?”
On the question of why McGrory failed to impose himself as manager, or why it was only in the dying embers of his reign that that failure wasn’t accepted with cheerful forbearance by fans, answers to both can be found in his years spent terrorising opposition defences at Celtic Park between 1922 and 1937. The Garngad in North Glasgow is not known for its aquatic life but it was there that McGrory – later nicknamed ‘The Mermaid’ for his supreme heading ability – was born in 1904 to Irish immigrant parents who had both passed away by the time he was 20, leaving young James Edward burdened with the responsibility of supporting the rest of the family at a time when he was yet to prove he could handle the step up to Celtic from Junior side St Roch’s. The cascade of goals that followed – roughly one a game for 13 years straight – propelled the Hoops to three league titles and five Scottish Cups, but his generosity of spirit and uncomplicated decency in the face of such hardship gave him a resonance beyond those on-field exploits, in the hearts and minds of embattled working-class supporters in the years surrounding the Great Depression. As Archie MacPherson said in a televised tribute to McGrory following his death in 1982: “He did more than score goals; he converted countless supporters to the belief that football was all there was worth living for – and in the ‘30s that might not have been an unhealthy supposition.”
So grounded he described his £2 weekly wage at St Roch’s as ‘a godsend’, so loyal he casually rebuffed 1,000 times that amount as a sign-on fee when Willie Maley arranged for him to ‘accidentally’ bump into the legendary Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman in London; for all the mythical splendour of his achievements McGrory was, in his own head at least, still the same lad that had walked to and from Celtic Park for training every day, emptying his pockets to any beggar he came across on the way, and that gratitude to Celtic for providing a passport to another life is perhaps what stopped him resisting chairman Bob Kelly’s infamous meddling in team selection. That he had a degree of acumen, which might have blossomed into something more if only Kelly had allowed it to, seems clear. Aged 33 he guided Kilmarnock to a Scottish Cup final, eliminating both Glasgow giants en route, while at Celtic his triumphs – few as they were – were spectacular ones, like winning the league after being seven points behind with nine games left in 1954, or the 7-1 humiliation of Rangers in ’57 that remains the biggest winning margin that bitter and storied rivalry has ever seen.
“The fact is that he abandoned hope,” Kevin McCarra lamented in Celtic: A Biography in Nine Lives. “By the end, the promise that once lay in him as a manager had been blighted by employers who treated him as no more than a family retainer.”
Boxing afficionados will be aware of the sad epilogue to Joe Louis’ life, when the former heavyweight champ was reduced to working as a greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Ultimately, tragically, by the end of his 20 years in charge McGrory’s role was not dissimilar at Celtic Park; there to remind the fans of glory days past, but shorn of the power to create new ones.
THE PRESENT: CHARLIE TULLY
Suffice to say, Charlie Tully Junior doesn’t remember the photo being taken. But he laughs at the mention of it. The black and white snap shows his father, Charlie Tully Senior, pulling Charlie Junior’s pram down a Glasgow street, but he does so rather distractedly, because he’s reading a paper with his other hand. The photo tells us a lot, both about the Glaswegian press’ obsession with ‘The Clown Prince of Football’ during his 11 years at Celtic Park and about Tully’s cheerfully savvy way of milking that attention for all it was worth.
“Other people have said it before me,” Tully Jr tells me over the phone from Belfast, “but he was probably the first real football celebrity.” 15 years before the city of Manchester was bewitched by another winger from Belfast named George Best, Glasgow was so enamoured by ‘Cheeky Charlie’, with his witty one-liners and natty dress sense, that he had his own newspaper column (‘Tullyvision’), ranges of ties, cocktails and ice lollies named after him and even proved himself a rare chanter on his 45 RPM single The Boys in White and Green. If the actual football often seemed an afterthought then that was all to the good in an era when your average Celtic performance contained more slapstick moments than Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, but on the pitch as well as off it Tully was Celtic’s diamond in the rough, playing a key role in what sporadic successes there were.
One of 13 children, Charles Patrick Tully’s mastery of the leather ball had been attained playing barefoot on the streets of West Belfast, before making his name as a pro with the once-mighty Belfast Celtic. In the summer of 1948 their Glasgow cousins were still reeling from a worst-ever league campaign, having needed a last-gasp winner at Dundee on the final day of the season to avoid relegation, but the good relationship between the two Celtics, a fee of £8,000 and that smooth salesmanship of McGrory – who crossed the Irish Sea to seal the deal in person – all combined to make the East End Tully’s new home.
“Let’s be frank, it was a very lean period for Celtic and arriving at that particular time was opportune both for my dad and for them,” notes Charlie Jr, who serves as president of the Belfast Celtic Society. “He was something they had been looking for, an entertainer and totally different to anything they had at the time.”
Tom Campbell, co-author of the seminal text on Celtic’s history that is The Glory & The Dream, was a match-going teenager at the time and well remembers the Irishman restoring the fans’ enthusiasm as if at the flick of a switch.
“Just look at the surge in attendances that season. 55,000 at home to Morton, 70,000 at home to Rangers, and most astonishingly of all, 87,000 for the Glasgow Cup final against Third Lanark at Hampden Park. The key match was the 3-1 League Cup victory over Rangers. Rangers had their famous ‘Iron Curtain’ defence but Tully gave a truly magnificent performance and set up all three goals. From memory, The Sunday Mail’s headline read, ‘Tully: Brilliantly Tantalising, Tantalisingly Brilliant!’”
It’s sadly typical of that era that that game has gone down in history despite Celtic losing the reverse fixture and being eliminated at the group stage again, in yet another instance of McGrory’s side winning a battle but losing the war. It was one of an infamous sequence of derby games where Tully proved that he had a rebellious Holden Caulfield side to counterbalance the happy-go-lucky Norman Wisdom one. In September 1949, when a dubious late goal from a quickly taken free kick gave Rangers victory in a Glasgow Cup tie at Celtic Park, the ‘Pied Piper of Belfast’ was the instigator of an attempt by some Celtic players to leave the field. Kelly, who often appeared to prize adherence to Corinthian values more than the success of his own club, is said to have unofficially suspended Tully for the league meeting at Ibrox later that month, when the Northern Ireland international was absent with a mysterious ‘muscle injury’ as the Bhoys put in a deliberately half-hearted political protest of a performance and were duly routed 4-0.
Little wonder Tully enjoyed himself more away from football, palling about with Bing Crosby on a ferry to Belgium or duetting with Glen Daly – the entertainer whose nasal tones are still a fixture on the Celtic Park Tannoys to this day – at the Kenilworth Hotel in the city centre, where his party trick was charging drinks to the room of teammate Jock Weir.
“At that age it’s difficult to grasp exactly who your dad is, he was away a lot on tours of America, playing against Lazio in Italy, roaming all over the place,” says Charlie Jr, who was born in 1950 and had a Scottish accent – long since worn off – when the family returned to Belfast nine years later. “He was kind of an absent dad, probably typical of a lot of footballers at the time, and that awareness of how big a personality he was wouldn’t have come till much later. He was shrewd to exploit it to his advantage on many occasions, but that was also the Irish boyo in him, all part and parcel of being Charles Patrick.”
Better days were to come in the ‘50s, starting with the Scottish Cup victory of 1951, followed two years later by the triumph Tully is perhaps most synonymous with: the Coronation Cup. (It’s perhaps harsh to only mention McGrory’s five major honours when he was fairly adept at hoovering up the ‘exotic tournaments’, as Crampsey called them.) A one-off invitational featuring the crème de la crème of British football at the time, Celtic were only invited to the Coronation Cup for their ‘box office potential rather than playing ability’ according to Crampsey, but prevailed nonetheless, mainly thanks to outrageous performances against Arsenal and Manchester United from Tully, who was then injured for the win over Hibernian’s Famous Five team in the final.
The impish inside-left’s allergy to training hard has become as big a part of his fable as his skill and sense of humour, something Charlie Junior doesn’t consider strictly fair. Tully certainly wasn’t alone in his aversion to what Billy McNeill later described as the ‘tedium of pounding round the track’; teammates John Jack and Dick Beattie regularly used to train with their clothes on under their tracksuits, hop into The Jungle for a smoke and then leave early.
“It’s not that he wasn’t a great trainer, it’s what they were training. Laps and laps of Celtic Park can become pretty boring. It’s interesting that when the game developed latterly, the ball became a central focus of training, but in those early days it was nearly forgot about, and it seems as though that’s what didn’t sit well with my dad.”
By the time the 1957 League Cup final came around Tully was technically a veteran, but still had enough vim and vigour in his 33-year-old legs to drive Rangers defenders round the bend. Physically, he was a somewhat unlikely icon to transcend the sport, especially compared to pretty boys like Best that followed in his wake. “Charlie Tully had bowly legs, was bald and didn’t look strong enough to beat carpets,” is how Gordon Williams put it in his Booker Prize-nominated novel From Scenes Like These, set in 1950s Ayrshire. “Yet he had more personality in his little finger than Rangers had in their whole team.”
The fanatical regard Celtic fans held him in is epitomised by the fact most of the scorers from that final, poetically rebranded ‘Hampden in the Sun’, don’t warrant a mention in Puttin’ on the Style, but Tully – who didn’t actually net any of the seven goals – has a whole verse to himself. After one last demonstration of the board’s wrongheadedness – when the publication of Tully’s autobiography contravened a clause in his contract and was used as a pretext to usher him out the door – Celtic’s Clown Prince bade farewell to Parkhead in 1959.
“As I understand it he literally came home to my mother and cried,” Charlie Junior explains. “Awful.”
11 years into a managerial career back home he sadly passed away aged just 47, not long after the club he had done so much to shepherd out of the doldrums reached their second European Cup final in three years.
“It’s hard to believe that my dad will be 50 years dead in July ,” Charlie Junior reflects. “And yet, they still sing about him. They remember and revere him. We are so privileged to have that.”
THE FUTURE: JOCK STEIN
Would the large travelling support at Celtic’s 3-3 draw at Cliftonhill in September 1948 have believed you if you told them they were in the presence of the most important figure in their club’s history? Well, yes, they might have. Only, if asked to point him out, they would have pointed to Tully, who scored his first Celtic goal and was the reason most of them were there that day, rather than the little-known coal miner marshalling Albion Rovers’ defence.
If there’s one Celtic legend whose backstory does not need extensively retold at this stage, it’s Jock Stein. It is fascinating, nonetheless, to unpick where he stood in relation to the various power factions throughout the ‘50s and to trace his relationships with the main protagonists.
With Tully, for example. “Jeez, he’s an auld fella to be coming here,” is how Fallon remembers Tully reacting to the 29-year-old John Stein’s arrival (Tully was only two years younger), and there’s another well-worn tale about the two of them having a bit of a square-go in the bath after a derby defeat at Ibrox. It’s easy to depict Tully – the joker, the individualist, the freewheeling Falls Road Catholic – and Stein – the moderniser, the collectivist, the buttoned-up Lanarkshire Protestant – as ideological opposites, but the bond between them was a lot tighter than might be supposed. Stein once had Tully stay at his house the night before they played in a cup final and when Tully died in 1971, at the height of The Troubles, Stein disregarded RUC advice in order to travel to the funeral, where he and McNeill were pallbearers.
“I think some of the stuff written about their relationship is partially true, but I think some of it is total and complete myth,” states Charlie Junior. “There were tensions, but at any level from schoolboys up, there will always be disagreements in football. I remember going with Bertie Peacock to Jock’s funeral, and speaking to Mrs Stein and the family, and I got a fantastically warm reception for being there on my dad’s behalf. There was a tremendous respect, I think, underlying any other issues.”
Belying any concerns about his age, his pedigree or indeed his denomination, Stein quickly became the defensive cornerstone and captain of McGrory’s Hoops after arriving from Llanelli Town in 1951, making a big contribution to the Coronation Cup win and the double of 1954.
“Mean-spirited as it sounds, there has to be a presumption that the improbable rise in McGrory’s managerial career was linked closely to Stein’s acumen and knack for exercising a transformative influence on the players around him,” wrote McCarra.
Stein’s relationship with McGrory was another where surface differences in philosophy and temperament were smothered by an enduring affection and respect, as evidenced by the former’s insistence on calling the latter ‘boss’ even after replacing him as manager in 1965. That was still a long way off, however, when Stein retired due to a recurring ankle issue and was put in charge of Celtic’s reserves in 1957. The difference between the young coach’s meticulous approach – playing a 4-2-4 inspired by Brazil – and the ‘hands off and hope for the best’ one applied at first-team level was immediately apparent. “In the reserves, the organisation was top-class, all the little systems of play and how much you learned from Jock,” Pat Crerand relates in The Official History. “Then all of a sudden you’re in the first team and it’s a bit of a shambles. Then, unfortunately, Jock left, which was the biggest killer of all.”
If only Bob Kelly had seen fit to hand Stein the reins in 1960, instead of letting him join Dunfermline Athletic, Celtic just might have fast-forwarded to the glory days, instead of treading water for another five years under McGrory. Auld and Crerand, youngsters who played with passion and gusto, were sold for not conforming to Kelly’s outdated ideal of gentlemanly sportsmanship, while the club’s first promising European foray ended with a baffling collapse against MTK Budapest in the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals – after winning the first leg 3-0 at home.
It would be an understatement to say Stein faced a daunting job when he returned to Parkhead on March 9, 1965 – the day after American ground troops landed in Vietnam for the first time. But the new capo quickly laid down the law when Kelly, going back on his promise not to interfere, argued that Bobby Murdoch was a forward and not a half-back ahead of the Scottish Cup final against Dunfermline the following month. “Well, you’ll see on Saturday that he is.”
Celtic won the game 3-2, the scene after McNeill’s late winner evocatively sketched by Campbell and co-author Pat Woods in The Glory & The Dream.
“It was not merely the burst of joy that a goal produces, rather a tumultuous welcome to the future and the instinctive realisation that the young men had grown up and that nothing, now nor in the years to come, would withstand their collective spirit.”
Celtic’s Laurel & Hardy days were over.
This piece was originally published in issue 19 of Nutmeg Magazine: https://www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk/
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