Celtic & The Spanish Flu Pandemic

As a Celtic historian, I like to look beyond the club when I do my research and examine the social scenarios of various eras. Often the events in society can affect fans and players, and enable you to put things in to context.

With that in mind, I began to wonder about the impact of the Spanish Flu pandemic on Celtic. In truth, it wasn’t something that I had considered to any great length until Covid-19 struck and the media began drawing comparisons to the previous pandemic of 1918. I decided to look into the period, what attendances were like and how the team was affected etc.

Most of my contextual research around this period had always centred on WW1. I knew of Celtic Park hosting Ladies’ football matches and the club holding an exhibition of trench warfare. Again, for context, it was interesting to examine the role that Irish politics, and the Irish Parliamentary Party’s call to support the war effort in exchange for Home Rule, played in terms of the club’s enthusiastic response. This became a particular point of interest, when looking at the differences at Celtic Park during WW2.

There was seldom much mention of the epidemic in this era. Crowds could be reduced in wartime, but that was for a variety of reasons, largely relating to the conflict. Today, we have matches behind closed doors; though I’m not sure that there was a wealth of knowledge in the field of virology back in 1918.

One of the early examples of Celtic Football Club being impacted by the Spanish Flu was from a 5-0 victory over Dumbarton on 26 October 1918. Whilst WW1 was drawing to a close, football and society faced a new threat.  The game was held at Dumbarton’s former home, Boghead Park. Play was delayed by some 30 minutes as both teams struggled to field a full 11, due to the Spanish Flu epidemic, which had made many unwell. Celtic fielded two debutants, Billy Mitchell and Paddy Corcoran. The former had been recalled from a loan spell at Hamilton to help the Hoops put a cohesive team together. Dumbarton didn’t have any such luxuries and had to loan Tom McGregor from Celtic for the match! McGregor had won five league titles and a Scottish Cup with the Bhoys by this point, but despite being an experienced defender, he was a reserve player.

The Glasgow Herald commented on the match with little praise for the Celts. The newspaper stated: ‘In striking contrast was Celtic’s winning margin at Dumbarton, a result obtained not so much by the belated improvement of the ex-champions as through the weakness of their opponents consequent on the absence of their usual goalkeeper and centre-forward.’

It is interesting to note that the newspapers didn’t even reference the Spanish Flu when mentioning the absences from both sides. This was the case throughout every report relating to Scottish football at the time, particularly in the Glasgow Herald, where each Scottish match was summarised in a sentence or two and far greater attention was given to the war, with updates on the number of deaths in the military and suchlike.

Having noticed that the Celtic players were affected by the situation in the period surrounding the aforementioned Dumbarton match, I looked at the impact on supporters. Following the huge second wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic, in January 1919, no less than 65,000 fans attended the New Year’s Day Glasgow Derby at Ibrox. It was the largest crowd at a Celtic match that season.  Jimmy ‘Napoleon’ McMenemy scored the goal for Celtic in a 1-1 draw and there was not a single mention of the virus in the post-match reports, nor was there any concern at the huge number of people in the crowd. A month later, there was a third wave of the pandemic, but I have no information to suggest a correlation between this match and a spike in deaths.

Ironically, McMenemy had not started the beginning of the 1918/19 season. However, upon escaping the war, he decided to return to football with Celtic and it was expected that he would play on 23 November 1918 when Celtic were due to play Partick Thistle at Firhill. However, two days before the match, the Daily Record quoted Willie Maley as saying that McMenemy’s return was doubtful as he was “not too well” at the moment.

Jimmy “Napoleon” McMenemy

Fans later learned that McMenemy was very ill with the Spanish Flu, as reported in the Glasgow Observer a week later:

“Those who had expected to see McMenemy play at Firhill are not likely to have that pleasure for quite a long time. Mac was seriously – I might say dangerously ill on Saturday, and in fact it was touch and go for the type of flu hanging around at the moment is what one might call virulent. I believe the favourite has got the turn for the better, though it will still be long before he gets back to delight us with those clever touches that mean so much and look so simple.”

In another ironic twist, McMenemy recovered and returned to action against Dumbarton on 14 December 1918. This time the match was at Celtic Park and he provided fans with a goal and an assist, in a 2-0 win.

About Author

Hailing from an Irish background, I grew up in Bournemouth with the good fortune to begin watching Celtic as a young child during the Martin O'Neill era. Still living on the south coast, I have a season ticket at Paradise and also travel to European away matches when possible. At the age of 19, I published my first Celtic book (Our Stories & Our Songs: The Celtic Support). Then, last year, I published my second book (Take Me To Your Paradise: A History Of Celtic-Related Incidents & Events), which is sold in Waterstones and official Celtic FC stores.

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