“Billy mate, any chance of an autograph,” and Billy Stark was an absolute gentleman

Celtic players seem to be getting the rough end of the stick of late when it comes to the impact of Covid 19.

Odsonne Edouard was the only Under-21 French International to test positive this week and now looks doubtful to say the least for Saturday’s Glasgow Derby. Whilst Ryan Christie – probably Celtic’s most industrious of midfielders this season – will miss out due to a 14 day self-isolation period, after the unfortunate decision to play Playstation and pass some time at Scotland camp with Kieran Tierney and the soon to be tested positive former Celt Stuart Armstrong – get well soon Stuart.

This is something that everyone will have to get their heads round as the season progresses. COVID-19 in most cases will have little long-term impact on young fit footballers, but given contacts outside the game include friends, family and many more there can’t be any risks taken or allowances given.

Yet the most bizarre of cases this week involved former Celt Billy Stark. The former midfielder and Centenary Season double winner tested positive and Stark was informed of his unfortunate result just before half-time as he coached Scotland Under 19’s from the sidelines. The result of the positive test was relayed to Stark et al – with England leading 3-1 just before half time. Stark tested positive for the virus and then travelled home ‘in isolation’ to quarantine for 10 days. The game was abandoned immediately, in line with established COVID-19 protocol.

I had the pleasure of meeting Billy Stark on a couple of occasions, once outside Celtic Park where my Grandfather introduced me to Billy and Tommy Burns and again coming back after a flight to Spain some years later. On both occasions he was a gentleman. On the first he and Tommy were most respectful to my Grandfather and patient with me as I was a little boy with a programme to sign who became immediately lost for words – most unlike me I assure you.

Billy Stark scoring the only goal of the game to win Celtic the points in September 1987 at Celtic Park….

The second time, after passing the time on my flight home with the contents of my duty-free selection, I broke a golden rule of mine – don’t meet your heroes. For most people that rule is probably because your heroes may not meet your lofty expectations, for myself that rule is in place just in case my heroes think I’m a tool.

Grabbing a scrap of paper, possibly a boarding card and definitely a bookies pencil – yes really – I made a bee-line for Billy Stark, I think then manager of St Johnstone and from subsequent reports awaiting the arrival of a signing target who never turned up. Despite his own uncomfortable wait and being approached by a striding Celtic fan armed with a pointed pencil and three quarters of the way through a bottle of navy rum, Billy barely broke stride as I once again, despite being full of bravado, melted in front of a hero and could only muster the slurred words of ‘Billy mate, any chance of an autograph’ I know..what on earth, my Grandfather would have been proud!

Thankfully, although I have little recollection of any further exchange, Billy was kind enough to sign for me and I was called to make my way back to a group of friends desperate to get a cab and back home to bed. The next morning, I examined the boarding card an on it Billy had written ‘From Billy Mate,’ with a wee smile underneath.

Now what I’d like to have explained was how I’d gone to Celtic game on Hogmanay 1988, one where my younger Brother attended his first Celtic game and who from half time tried to persuade my old man –a man without interest in Scottish football and who would have been happy to take the opportunity to beat the traffic – to take us home as it was too cold for him. While I wanted to see every last kick of what turned out to be Celtic’s last match of the centenary year and one where goals from Billy Stark had started and ended a fine 4-2 win over a very good Hearts side and how I loved him for that performance.

It was a game I remember for Billy’s goals, alongside the incessant singing of ‘Henry, Henry drop the ball’ to Hearts keeper Henry smith after he had obliged late on in Celtic Scottish Cup semi-final win earlier that year and ‘Happy Birthday to you’, sung for the very last time that year as Celtic headed down the tunnel after winning a brilliant game of football on Hogmanay.

Just how that annoying wee brother couldn’t simply be warmed enough by a pie, Bovril and an encounter like that I’ll never know and I regularly remind him of his incessant whining that afternoon. Still my steadfast refusal to leave the ground meant we did get to see every kick of the ball that day and it remains a memory I cherish, thanks to Billy’s two goals bookending that win.

You can relive that encounter yourselves from the link below. The last goal of an amazing centenary year delivered with a wonderful finish from the boot of a fine Celtic player.

Odsonne Edouard testing positive was a shock to the system and the isolation of Ryan Christie on international duty with Scotland impacts on the team ahead of the Glasgow Derby, yet the one that probably worried me the most was the positive test for a hero of 1988.

So from a now debatably more mature and certainly more sober Celtic fan this time around, get well soon Billy mate, I, and all at The Celtic Star, wish you a full and speedy recovery.

Niall J

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About Author

As a Bellshill Bhoy I was taken to my first Celtic game in the summer of 1987. It was Billy McNeill’s return to Celtic Park as manager and Celtic lost 5-1 to Arsenal . I thought I was a jinx, I think my Grandfather might have thought the same. It was the finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parkhead's gates.

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