Nowadays very few footballers, especially at the top level of the game, stay at one club for a lengthy period. With the opportunity for players and agents to make money in transfers, loyalty to a club is rare.
That was not always the case of course. There are many examples in previous years of players staying at a club for all, or virtually all of their careers – Billy McNeill, Willie Miller for example.
Because of this, testimonials are now much less common, certainly in the case of top stars. However, there was a time, when players wages were not as high as now, when the testimonial was seen as almost necessary to assist many players with funds for retirement. Even World Cup Winners.
As a Celtic fan I was privileged to witness Celtic play testimonials for Jackie Charlton, Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore. Celtic were a very popular choice for games like these as they would field an experienced team of regulars who wanted to win, and of course because they brought a large following to help swell the coffers of the testimonial recipient. Unlike many testimonials featuring “celebrity” guests these games featured top players and were genuinely contested. All three were great games but for me the best trip overall was in November 1970 – down to London to play West Ham in a benefit for the England World Cup winning captain.
Earlier in that year Celtic had won their 5th League title in a row. We had reached the European Cup Final and although we had lost to Feyenoord, we had beaten Leeds Utd in both legs of the semi-final so even the sceptical English were aware of our strengths. It was considered a great honour to be selected to play in such a game and I really fancied making the occasion as I could not imagine there would be many chances to see Celtic play in London.
There was the financial concern though. The previous month I had gone to the European Cup tie against Waterford. My regular travelling companion, Brian McHenery and I had decided to make a bit of an event of that game. Rather than just going for a couple of days we had made a week of it and accommodation and beer had taken a good deal of our cash resources. And holidays too. Less than a month after the Dublin trip I would need more time off to get to London. Brian decided he would not go – part of his reasoning was the fact that he would need to keep some savings so he could get to the European Cup Final (in those days that was a genuinely realistic consideration). None of the rest of my usual match day crew were interested so I thought I might just give it a miss.
Then one morning I saw an ad in the paper that a trip to the Booby Moore game was being organised by the Straw House Pub at Parkhead. I had never been in that bar, and whether deserved or not the feeling among my mates was that it was not the most salubrious of establishments. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a go and the next Saturday before heading to the game at Celtic Park I called in to the pub, paid my money and got my travel plans.
The game was to take place on Monday 16 November. On the previous Saturday we beat Kilmarnock 3-0 at home. We played well and should have scored more but it put me in a good mood for the relatively early rise the next day.
Being a Sunday I went to an early Mass and after a quick breakfast headed to Bellshill Cross to get a bus that would get me to Glasgow Central. It was there I was to meet the rest of the party before getting the train to London. After waiting at the bus stop for a considerable time I was getting concerned that no bus had turned up. Indeed I hadn’t seen a bus going in any direction.
Even on a Sunday there were generally buses going through the Cross in one direction or another. A passer-by mentioned that he had heard something about industrial action limiting the services. I now had visions of being stuck in Bellshill while the train was on its way south.
I started to walk back towards the direction of my house. I’d maybe need to see if someone would give me lift. Then hopes were raised as I caught a glimpse of a bus turning the corner. Then dashed again as I realised it was a private coach. MacPhails. Then as it got nearer hopes were on the up again. In the front window was a notice “On hire to Central SMT” I happily climbed aboard and as there was not much traffic about i got to the Station just in time.
At the Station I quickly located my travelling companions beside platform 1 and we were soon boarding the train. It was not a big party. Just about a dozen of us. All male and mostly in the 20-30 age group with a few older heads. One of those was the organiser. I cannot remember any names but I knew instantly he was the man in charge. He was like so many of the older guys I had encountered on the supporters’ buses. Not big or well-built but commanded respect.
I settled down in my seat at a table with 3 other lads. The other 3 knew each other but were welcoming enough without being gushing about it. Not long into the journey one of them produced a pack of cards and I was invited to join the game. I cannot remember what game it actually was (it was not poker) but I had heard these stories of innocents abroad getting parted from their cash by card sharks on train journeys. I said I was not really a card player – which was basically true. My father although not a gambler enjoyed poker. I think his great love of mathematics made the game attractive to him. He had taught his sons the basics of the game but I didn’t have his concentration skills and never really played often.
The other 3 assured me the stakes were only going to be pennies so I took the gamble and joined in. My fears were unfounded. We all took turns at winning a few hands and at the worst i would have ended up losing at most a shilling over the next hour or so. That broke the ice and after the cards stopped we had a blether the rest of the way to London.
In the early evening we arrived at Euston. On the journey down the “boss man” told us we were staying in a small hotel that would require a couple of trips on the Tube to reach. He was not sure exactly of the route but expected we would find it easy enough when we got there.
As it happened, I had arranged to meet a former Glasgow office colleague of mine at Euston. Jimmy Higgins had got a promotion move to head office in London some months previously and I had phoned him the previous week to let him know I was coming down for the game . Jimmy was not a fanatic but he was certainly a Celtic sympathiser and he liked a few beers so was keen to meet up. His local knowledge came in handy. I introduced him to my new found friends and gave him the address of the hotel. He quickly navigated us to our destination and after a quick registration and bag drop off, we were soon settling down in the pub almost across the road from the hotel.
Jimmy was glad to meet some fellow Glaswegians and Celts and the night flew by amidst chat and lager. In those days pubs in Scotland were closed on a Sunday so the feeling we were “beating the system” in some way made the night even more enjoyable. Soon though it was closing time – 10pm. We wanted the night to carry on a bit longer so managed to get a few bottles of beer to take back to our rooms in the hotel. Some of the lads felt we would need some drinking vessels so some tumblers were smuggled out inside coats. As we were leaving the landlord bade us good night and said that it would be good if we could at least rinse the glasses out if we were going to borrow them!
We parked ourselves in one of the bedrooms and had a sing song. It did not last that long as I recall. Jimmy gave us a song but had to head for the last tube service and after the long day tiredness overtook most of us and we were glad to get to bed for the night.
We were up quite early the next morning for breakfast and then checking out by 10am. With the game not until the evening we decided to spend the day seeing the sights of London. It was bitterly cold when we left the hotel and headed for the Tube Station. First task though was to the pub across the road. It was closed and outside the door there was a small crate of milk. Beside it the lads left the glasses they had taken the previous night – and yes, they had rinsed them out.
We did the usual tourist type stuff. Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace. This was a time when the “Troubles” in the north of Ireland were still on the go so perhaps not unsurprisingly in view of the loyalties of most of the party there were some uncomplimentary comments at the latter 2 places.
By late afternoon it was time for some food and a few pints. We met Jimmy Higgins in a pub in the centre of the city where he had come straight from work. With him as our pilot we made the tube journey to Upton Park. On board we met up with more Celtic Supporters and West Ham fans. Some noisy singing from both sets but no trouble. At the ground we discovered out tickets were for the end opposite from where the bulk of the Celtic fans were. In those days the only game that had segregation was the Old Firm encounter so we were not unduly worried about being surrounded by home fans. The police were though.
They insisted we move. Accordingly, they escorted us around the track past the main stand and into the terracing behind the other goal. We opened out a tricolour and displayed it on our walk around the ground, getting a few grunts from the natives and a cheer from the Celtic fans as we clambered into the away section.
Someone started up the Bobby Moore song. The one about his incident with the bracelet in Bogota. This was a popular song in Scotland at the time. Jimmy Higgins, always the diplomat, turned round and said “Cmon lads – no need for that tonight – a bit of respect”. I thought he had a point. Bobby Moore might be the English captain but there was no doubting his ability and leadership skills – and he had invited us in a sense (although we were paying a handsome price for the tickets). Others must have thought so too, and for the rest of the night the songs were from the more traditional Celtic repertoire.
There was plenty to sing about too. A really great game. Celtic led 3 times but had to settle for a draw. We should have won; we had the chances and I recall wee Bobby missing a great opportunity just before the end. Some felt it was to ensure Bobby Moore didn’t end his testimonial game with a defeat but I was sure it was just one of those things. Both teams had genuinely wanted to win the game.
At the final whistle it was handshakes all round. On the park and off it too as we passed some West Ham fans on the way out. We could not hang about for long. We had a train to catch. The return journey would be different from the one coming down. We were to leave from Kings Cross and head to Edinburgh from where we would get a connection to Glasgow. We did manage a very quick pint and I grabbed a Kit Kat from a vending machine just in case I got peckish on the way north. The train left right on time and we tried to relax as best we could for what we hoped would be a smooth homeward journey.
However, those hopes were soon dashed. About 15 minutes after the train pulled out of Kings Cross it came to a sudden halt. No explanation as we stayed motionless for about half an hour. We slowly took off and then stuttered to a halt. This carried on for about another half hour or so before we started to crawl along for a spell before at last getting speed up again. We were all weary and uncomfortable.
Unlike the train down this one was a corridor train which had compartments consisting of 2 long bench seats facing each other so there was no room to sprawl out. I went for a walk along the train but every compartment was the same apart from the 1st class compartments which were mostly empty. However, I was warned off that area by a very zealous conductor.
I returned to my own compartment and tried to settle down for the night. It was impossible though to get any sleep. At one point I even climbed up onto the luggage rack to see if I could lie down there! When the train got to Newcastle myself and one of the other lads decided to try our luck in first class. We reckoned that as the next stop was Edinburgh we would at least be in Scotland if we got thrown off! There was no sign of the conductor when we got to the first-class section so we grabbed an empty compartment, pulled down the blinds and spread ourselves out across the seats.
At last, some sleep, and the next thing I knew, the train had come to a halt at Waverley Station. In case there was a conductor looking to see our first-class tickets we quickly got off the train and onto the platform. I now realised I had left my coat, with my wallet in the pocket, back in the original compartment. I hurried back along the platform to try and find my original compartment before someone noticed my coat and took out. However, I had only gone a few yards when I got a shout from our group leader. He had my coat and gave me it to me with a telling off to be more careful!
Now we had to get our connection to Glasgow. We were much later than scheduled and the rush hour commute from the capital to the West was underway. Our coach was full of businessmen heading for offices and meetings in Glasgow. We were starving so when the refreshment trolley came into our coach, we virtually emptied it, to the annoyance of the businessmen in the rest of the carriage.
My intention was to have got at least some decent sleep on the journey back and get to my house in time for a shower and change of clothes before heading into the office as normal. However, it was now going to be at least 10am by the time we got to Queen Street Station. So, after saying goodbye to the rest of the squad I went to my office in West George Street to ask (tell) my boss I would be taking one more day’s leave.
That game was more than 50 years ago, and it was not a competitive match but it still remains in my memory. I never met any of those guys who accompanied me again. I wonder if they remember it as fondly as me?