Celtic Winning Next Year’s League The Year Before

The Scottish League had been in existence for six years and Celtic had won it three times…

Celtic won their third Scottish League title in season 1895-96. It was a remarkable campaign won with a tremendous degree of panache and style, and was all wrapped up well before the turn of the year!

This was the idea in those days, so that after New Year, clubs could turn to what was considered the more important trophy namely the Scottish Cup. Celtic would not win the Scottish Cup in 1896 in what could justly be considered to be unfair circumstances, but the months from August to December 1895 could well be considered to be among the more remarkable of the club’s history. Not only did they win the 10 team Scottish League First Division, they also created their record victory, sustained their record home defeat and won the Glasgow Cup into the bargain!

1895 had not been a great season for Celtic. St Bernard’s had won the Scottish Cup, Hearts had won the Scottish League (it was indeed a great time for Edinburgh because Hibernian won the Second Division) and Celtic, riven by internal discord – a common theme in the early days and one which would get a lot worse in 1897 – were nowhere.

Celtic began the season without Johnny Campbell who had gone to Aston Villa. Willie Maley talks vaguely about the “stupid action” of a “very prominent committee man” causing the departure of the talented Campbell. Campbell would win the English League with Villa in 1896 and the League and Cup Double in 1897. His replacement was a man called Allan Martin from Hibs and he would have a good season. But there was still Sandy McMahon, now commonly referred to as “the Duke”.

The season started in sweltering heat at Carolina Port, the new enclosure of Dundee FC and Celtic delighted the 10,000 crowd with a 2-1 win, the goals coming from Martin and McMahon. Two weeks later came the first reverse as they went to Easter Road to play the newly promoted Hibernian and they lost 4-2 to the delight of a nasty Hibs crowd who barracked the Celtic players. They could hardly have called then the now common sectarian slurs (still around today) as the supporters of other clubs like St Mirren and Hearts did, but there was a resentment of the success of the Glasgow Irishmen who were accused (not without cause) of having robbed Hibs of some of their star players like Sandy McMahon and Willie Groves a few years ago. Jealousy of Celtic is sadly a common theme in Hibs circles.

This was a blow to Celtic but they then went on a tour of England in early September. Results were bad and behaviour was worse with even the normally cool headed Sandy McMahon being involved in some off the field “incidents”. When they came back to play their game at Ibrox on 7 September, we find that McMahon and Doyle were out of the side, whether suspended, injured or just simply “dropped” we do not know. Surprisingly however, the Celtic side played well and before 15,000 defeated Rangers 4-2 on a very windy day at Ibrox.

The two miscreants were still missing for the next game, the home fixture against Hearts, but this time the result was a great deal less happy, for Celtic went down 0-5 to Hearts who spotted all the weaknesses in the Celtic line up and inflicted on Celtic their record home defeat. 18,000 were there – a huge crowd for the time – and Celtic were simply “overmatched” as The Scotsman put it. Only James Kelly earned any kind of plaudits from the crowd, the rest of the team being subject to a certain amount of “hissing” and some of the crowd even beginning to applaud the excellence of the men from Edinburgh who had brought with them a huge support of over 1,000 to the delight of the railway companies.

Two days later on the Monday, it being the Edinburgh holiday weekend, Celtic travelled to the capital to play St Bernard’s at Logie Green. McMahon was restored for that game, but the team performance was little better, for Celtic lost again 0-3 and left Edinburgh trying to claim that it was all the referee’s fault.

Anyone who suggested at this point that Celtic were likely to become League Champions might have been deemed a candidate for “bedlam” (as they called mental hospitals in the Victorian age) but after that, Celtic rallied. Dan Doyle came back, clearly determined to behave and to set an example, and after a tight couple of games against Dumbarton at Boghead and Hibs at Celtic Park, the goals began to flow.

At the end of October, Celtic defeated Dundee 11-0 at Celtic Park. Everything about this game was “farcical” as Willie Maley put it. The conditions were poor after some overnight snow and sleet, Dundee were racked with internal fighting, some of their men got injured on the wet pitch and Celtic took full advantage – so full that no two sources are in agreement about who actually scored all the goals! It could indeed have been a lot more.

Celtic’s Allan Martin

And then we come to November 1895, possibly the best month in the club’s history to date. On 9 November Third Lanark were thrashed 7-0 to the delight of the fans, on the 16th the Glasgow Cup was won at Ibrox when Celtic beat Queen’s Park 6-3 and then on the 23rd the team travelled to Edinburgh to play Hearts in the return League fixture. Here revenge was dished out with 15,000 (including a large contingent form Glasgow who escorted their players to and from the ground lest they be attacked by Edinburgh “ruffians”) witnessing an emphatic 4-1 win with goals McMahon, Blessington and two from Martin.

Celtic were now back in the League race particularly when they heard that Rangers had beaten Hibs 4-0 (this was a good result for Celtic, for Rangers had started the campaign even worse than Celtic had and were only outside candidates for the League flag) and the next two games against the Saints (the western Saints of St Mirren and the eastern ones of St Bernard’s) were both hard fought victories, the game at Paisley on 30 November being as good an example of Celtic’s fighting spirit as one is likely to see. Goalless at half-time, St Mirren then opened the scoring early in the second half, before Jimmy Blessington scored twice and then Willie Ferguson scrambling a late clincher in a game that was not bereft of incidents on and off the park.

Celtic’s defeat of St Bernard’s at Parkhead on 7 December was even tighter but the goals scored by McMahon and Martin (as well as results elsewhere) meant that Celtic were now in a position to win the Scottish League if they won their next fixture. Their opponents? Rangers. Most unusually for the times, newspaper space was devoted to the “build up” to the game with things being said like “only a Scotland-England game could grip Glasgow like this”, and a huge crowd of 24,000 made their way to Celtic Park to see this encounter. The weather was appalling (it was 14 December) with heavy rain, otherwise who knows what the attendance might have been? As it was, 24,000 was huge for Victorian Britain.

Sandy McMahon – ‘The Duke’

The weather began to abate a little with showers rather than persistent rain, but the ground was still heavy. Not that it bothered Celtic, for the green and white verticals dominated the game and won easily 6-2. Martin scored twice as did McMahon, and Blessington and Battles scored the other two. “Towards the end Celtic did pretty much as they liked” to the delight of the huge crowd who had paid £707 (almost inconceivable for Victorian Scotland) for the privilege. This triggered off party time in the East End with scenes reminiscent of 1892 when they won the Scottish Cup. The League had been in existence for 6 years, and Celtic had won it three times. “Home Rule for Ireland would not have been nicer” said a committee man.

1896 thus dawned with Celtic the champions and favourites to win the Scottish Cup. Sadly they went out in the First Round to Queen’s Park, but Celtic cried “foul” claiming that Queen’s Park had used their influence to set the date for Barney Battles’ disciplinary hearing and ensuring his suspension for the game. Not that it really helped Queen’s Park, for Hearts won the Scottish Cup.

David Potter

About Author

I am Celtic author and historian and write for The Celtic Star. I live in Kirkcaldy and have followed Celtic all my life, having seen them first at Dundee in March 1958. I am a retired teacher and my other interests are cricket, drama and the poetry of Robert Burns.

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