Sean Fallon and a lifetime of devotion to Celtic…
I often start the boardroom part of my stadium tours at Celtic Park by saying something along the lines of “No Ireland, No Celtic,” given the events which led to the formation of our club in 1887, however, in Sligo’s case, that is particularly relevant.
Consider that between that first meeting in St Mary’s Hall in November 1887 and January 2013, with only the briefest of breaks, two men from the county in the north-west of Ireland witnessed every major triumph and tragedy associated with Celtic Football Club. Those men were Andrew Kerins – later Brother Walfrid, born in Ballymote on 18 May 1840 and passing away on 17 April 1915 – on the day his beloved Celtic won yet another Scottish Championship – and Sean Fallon, born in Sligo on this day in 1922, 98 years ago.
Sean’s story is real Bhoy’s Own material, beginning with the tale of how Joe McMenemy, the son of former Celtic legend Jimmy ‘Napoleon’ McMenemy, saved his sister from drowning in the nearby Lough Gill. The two men struck up a friendship, with Joe sending Sean some club materials, including Willie Maley’s classic tome, ‘The Story of the Celtic.’ The rest, as they say, is history, but what a history.
Having enjoyed an introduction to senior football with four Irish clubs – Longford Town, Sligo Distillery, Sligo Rovers then Glenavon – 27-year-old full-back Sean signed for Jimmy McGrory’s Celtic for £5,000 on Tuesday, 21 March 1950. He would make his debut and only appearance of that season against Clyde at Shawfield, a few weeks later, on Saturday, 15 April 1950, the Hoops lining up as follows:
John Bonnar; Sean Fallon & Roy Milne; Jimmy Mallan, John McGrory & Joe Baillie; Bobby Collins, Willie Fernie, John McPhail, Charlie Tully & Bill Rennet.
Sean did get on the scoresheet in his first match, albeit he would probably have preferred that goal to have been at the other end, the Sligo man getting the last touch 10 minutes from the interval to equalise Willie Fernie’s opener five minutes earlier. Clyde would take a late lead through Linwood before Charlie Tully’s last-gasp leveller, as the match ended 2-2.
This would prove be Perth-born winger Bill Rennet’s 15th and final game for Celtic, before joining Arbroath.
The Shawfield team included brothers Joe and Sammy Dunn, part of an incredible footballing family, where nine of the ten boys played professional football! Joe would join former Celt Tommy Docherty and England legend Tom Finney at Preston North End the following year, whilst Jimmy made over 400 appearances for Leeds United and older brother Willie had been understudy to Jimmy McGrory in the mid 1930’s at Celtic.
Season 1950/51 was a breakthrough campaign for Sean, rounded off perfectly with a Scottish Cup win in April, thanks to John McPhail’s early strike against Motherwell in front of 132,000 fans, Celtic’s first major silverware since the League and Empire Exhibition Cup wins of 1938.
Sean then crossed the Atlantic with his cup-winning team to embark on a tour of the eastern USA and Canada, during which he featured for the first time at centre-forward. As the new season commenced, he replaced the injured McPhail up front for the replayed St Mungo Cup quarter-final against Clyde at Firhill, on Friday, 20 July 1951, the Sligo Bhoy marking the occasion by scoring the opening two goals in the match – his first for the club – and having a third chopped off as Celts won 4-2. Sean repeated that feat in the final against Aberdeen at Hampden, on Wednesday, 1 August 1951, as a Charlie Tully-inspired Celts fought back from 0-2 to claim the trophy in front of 82,000 supporters, a nice belated 29th birthday gift to himself. I’m sure he had a chuckle when it was revealed that the St Mungo Cup was actually a recycled yachting trophy from the 19th century!
Sean scored his first goal at Celtic Park on the opening day of the following season, a League Cup sectional tie with Third Lanark, his header from Tully’s cross early in the second half making it 1-1. He was then denied a last-minute winner when the referee ruled out his effort on the grounds that he had not blown for a free-kick to be taken. Jock Stein would join Celtic from Llanelli on Tuesday, 4 December 1951 – my own dad’s 26th birthday – beginning a personal and professional relationship between the pair which would last for over 30 years.
Just over a year later, on Saturday, 20 December 1952, Sean, by now Celtic captain, would get an unwanted early Christmas present, breaking his arm on a treacherous Brockville surface during a 3-2 win over Falkirk. He would then be missing from the Celtic line-up until the last day in January 1953, sadly breaking the same arm in his second game back from injury, a 1-1 draw against Stirling Albion at Annfield in the Scottish Cup. That would rule Sean out until the end of March, thus he would be a spectator as Charlie Tully scored twice directly from the corner flag in the next round of the cup back at Brockville, two weeks later.
They say bad luck comes in threes, and in Sean’s case, that would be correct. During a match between Celtic and a Football Association of Ireland Select at Dalymount Park, Dublin on Monday, 20 April 1953, Fallon broke his arm for the third time in four months. Celtic would then bring in Neil Mochan from Middlesbrough, the new striker famously winning medals in both the Glasgow Charity and Coronation Cups before ever playing at Parkhead, Sean’s friend Jock Stein lifting the trophies as captain in his absence.
Season 1953/54 was a bittersweet one for Sean, his injury woes striking once again as he dislocated his shoulder in a game against Hearts at Celtic Park on Saturday, 24 October 1953. The Iron Man actually returned to the field to play the final 20 minutes on the left-wing, his arm strapped up in a makeshift sling. Such tremendous bravery exemplified the Sligo man.
Sean Fallon would be out with that injury for the next five months, returning, appropriately enough for an Irishman, on St Patrick’s Day 1954, for the 6-0 win over Airdrie at Broomfield, celebrating that return with a goal just on half-time. He would remain in the side until the end of the most successful Celtic season in 40 years, and indeed would enjoy his best scoring run during that period, with a double at Firhill then what looked a winning goal in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden, before a last-minute Motherwell equaliser forced a replay. He would net again in the League against Stirling Albion and Falkirk as the Bhoys captured a first title in 16 years with victory at Easter Road on Saturday, 17 April 1954, fellow Sligo Celt Brother Walfrid’s anniversary.
Sean then saved his best for the last, with the winning goal in the Scottish Cup Final against Aberdeen the following Saturday, to seal Celtic’s first double since the time of Maley, in 1914. The reward for the team included a trip for the players to the World Cup Finals in Switzerland that summer, Scotland’s first appearance at that level, where three of their colleagues were talking part, Bobby Evans, Neil Mochan and Willie Fernie.
There would be Scottish Cup final heartbreak for Sean and Celtic in each of the following two seasons, as first Clyde then Hearts took the honours at Hampden. On Tuesday, 7 September 1954, Sean scored the last of his 14 goals for Celtic at the venue where he had opened his account three years earlier, Firhill, a first equaliser in a Glasgow Cup semi-final against Partick Thistle which ended 2-2.
He would then complete his set of domestic honours against the same team at the national stadium on the afternoon of Wednesday, 31 October 1956, as Celts won their first League Cup thanks to three goals in 12 second-half minutes from Billy McPhail (2) and Bobby Collins, in front of just 31,000 spectators. McPhail, younger brother of former captain John, had been signed from Clyde just five months earlier.
Jock Stein had retired due to injury by the time the following season’s League Cup final came around, having played his last match for the club on St Patrick’s Day 1956 against Dundee at Celtic Park, the sad announcement being made the following January. Stein would be appointed reserve team coach in the close-season, as Bertie Peacock replaced Bobby Evans as Celtic captain and a future skipper, Billy McNeill, signed up at Parkhead.
Season 1957/58 would prove to be Sean’s last as a player at Celtic, the undoubted highlight being Hampden in the Sun, the 7-1 League Cup final victory over Rangers on Saturday, 19 October 1957. Having scored twice in the final 12 months earlier, Billy McPhail decided to go one better with a hat-trick, whilst Neil Mochan scored twice with Sammy Wilson and a Willie Fernie penalty making it a magnificent seven, to this day the biggest winning margin in a major UK cup final.
Five months later, on Saturday, 22 March 1958 (three years to the day before I was born) Sean took his final bow as a Celt, at left-back in a 4-2 win over Airdrie at Celtic Park. He suffered a knee injury that day, and it would transpire that, approaching his 36th birthday and with 266 appearances for the club he loved under his belt, together with a League title and two winner’s medals from each of the major domestic cups, it would be time to retire.
Beyond his playing career, there was a whole new world waiting for Sean on the coaching side. In 1962, he became assistant manager to Jimmy McGrory at Celtic, with many observers seeing him as the natural successor to the ageing legend. On Jock Stein’s appointment as Celtic manager, in March 1965, Sean remained in post, and was a crucial part of the most successful team and era that Scotland has ever known, overseeing the progression of the Kelly Kids into Lisbon Lions, then as the man responsible for bringing the Quality Street Gang of David Hay, Danny McGrain and Kenny Dalglish amongst others to the club.
In the early hours of 5 July 1975, Sean’s life and role at Celtic were about to change again, as manager Jock Stein was seriously injured in a car crash on the A74, whilst returning from holiday with friends. Fallon would take over the first team for that 1975/76 season, the first of the 10-club Scottish Premier Division era.
He inherited a team recovering from the loss of Billy McNeill, Jimmy Johnstone and Jim Brogan plus the concession of their treasured Ten-in-a-Row title to rivals Rangers. He would then lose the hugely talented but tormented George Connelly whilst leading Celtic to a 12th consecutive League Cup Final at Hampden in October, the trophy returning to Ibrox for the first time in five years after an Alex MacDonald header.
A 2-0 lead was then overturned by Motherwell at Fir Park in January 1976, thus ending hopes of a third successive win in the Scottish Cup, the first time Celtic had failed to make the showpiece final since 1968. And the European campaign ended in East Germany on St Patrick’s Day – how often does that feature – as Sachsenring Zwickau claimed an unlikely victory over Celtic in the quarter-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Rangers under Jock Wallace would finish six points ahead of the Bhoys in the inaugural Premier Division, and would complete a first domestic treble in 12 years by beating Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final. In a twist of fate, Wallace had been the Airdrie goalkeeper in Sean’s last match as a Celtic player.
In the close-season of 1976, Sean would move to a new role as Chief of Scouting & Youth Development, as Jock Stein returned to fitness and brought in former Partick Thistle manager David McParland as his assistant. In 1980, Sean took over the managerial reins at Dumbarton, famously trying to lure Johan Cruyff to Boghead in his spell there.
Just after noon on Saturday, 4 August 2012, four days after his 90th birthday, I was amongst the crowd rising as one to acknowledge and thank Sean Fallon for a lifetime of devotion as he raised the League flag high in the centre of his beloved Celtic Park, ahead of the opening game of the new campaign against Aberdeen. It is a ritual which has carried on every August since then, with this Sunday’s being unique due to the lack of supporters in the ground. Many have been given this honour over the past 55 years or so that I have been following Celtic, however, I can think of no person more deserving.
Five months later, on 18 January 2013, Sean passed away peacefully.
Happy heavenly 98th birthday, Sean Fallon, a true legend of Celtic Football Club.