Celtic’s Greatest Goalkeeper – David Potter narrowed it down to two

John Fallon is never slow to tell you that the job of the goalkeeper is the hardest in the game. He is certainly correct in that statement. Mistakes are always remembered, whereas good days are often shrugged off as “Well, that’s what he is paid for, isn’t it?”

Celtic have been very fortunate in that they have had many great goalkeepers, and if pushed to say who the best is, one has a difficult task.

02.08.1931: imago/Colorsport – John Thomson – Celtic. 

It is tempting to go for John Thomson, basically because of the tragic circumstances of his death in 1931, and certainly all accounts agree that he was good, with even the Scotland selectors, an arbitrary and whimsical bunch at the best of times, convinced throughout 1931 that he was the best around.

One is similarly tempted to go for Ronnie Simpson, again possibly for romantic reasons because of Ronnie’s long, eventful and really rather strange career which saw him capped for Scotland and winning a European Cup medal some 22 years after his debut, and when he had been written off at least twice by the very Manager who eventually glorified him!

Celtic v. Rangers Ronnie Simpson and John Fallon hug each other after the 2-1 defeat of Rangers. 23rd October 1965
07.11.2012 Glasgow, Scotland. Lionel Messi and Fraser Forster in action during the Champions League game between Celtic and Barcelona from Celtic Park.

In modern times we have had Fraser Forster (twice), Craig Gordon and Artur Boruc (plus Joe Hart – ed) and it would be difficult to find an awful lot wrong with any of these three. Slightly older supporters will mention Pat Bonner who is also worth a mention, and in the old days there was Dan McArthur and Davie Adams. John Thomson’s replacement from 1931 onwards was a Canadian called Joe Kennaway, and he was well thought of as well.

Ronnie Simpson and Billy McNeill

The truth is that you never can say, but I would be inclined to narrow my choice down to two, and I could never dream of picking the better one because one played for a very good Celtic team, and the other played for a very bad Celtic team. Both however were much loved by the fans at the time that they played and you cannot really ask for a great deal more than that.

Charlie Shaw

The man who played in a great Celtic team was Charlie Shaw who played from 1913 until 1925. Charlie came from the Celtic heartlands of Twechar, but he played first for Port Glasgow (on one occasion achieving a shut out against Bennett, McMenemy, Quinn, Somers and Hamilton and even saved a penalty “with the spring of an acrobat” from Jimmy Quinn) and then Queen’s Park Rangers before becoming a little homesick in London and returning to Scotland, to play for the team that he loved.

His first season was a mighty one. It was 1913/14, during which Celtic with Shaw, McNair and Dodds at the back went from October 7 until February 28 and conceded only one goal! This was great stuff, but 1914 changed things.

It did not put an end to football, for the game continued and Charlie played all through the war because he was the “sole proprietor of a shop” – two newsagent’s and tobacconist’s shops in Bridgeton. Following the injury to Sunny Jim in 1916, Charlie became captain of the side – very unusual for a goalkeeper to do this – and he kept going until he emigrated to the USA in 1925. He died in 1938 at the age of 52.

In the years of the Great War and those immediately after, Charlie was a Glasgow personality. Celtic were often described as “ten Internationals and Charlie Shaw” – a comment on how good the Celtic team was. The song “How can you buy Killarney?” was changed to “How can you buy Our Charlie?” (as it would be 30 years later for Charlie Tully) and of course Rangers supporters paid him the greatest compliment of them all when they sung “Oh Charlie Shaw, he never saw whaur Alan Morton pit the ba'” after a game in 1921.

You see, very few players of Rangers or anyone else managed to put many past Charlie! Stories used to be told about how he went home one day in the second half and no-body noticed. He was dating an actress at the Pavilion, it was said as a joke, or sometimes he got so bored with so little to do that he wandered round the park to give the opposition goalkeeper some advice on how to keep out Patsy Gallacher and “Sniper” McColl. Not true, of course!

Charlie Shaw

But Charlie was a man about whom such stories gathered. He was a cult hero, and my goodness, those desperate times of the Great War years and the 1920s needed a hero.

But all this must not be allowed to mask the fact that he was a great goalkeeper. “Lithe” “agile” “acrobatic” “cat-like” are phrases that are often applied to him, as indeed was the word “Shavian”, previously applied almost exclusively to the plays and the writings of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. It is a compliment to both men that they can be linked. He was also a great captain. It cannot have been easy in 1918/19 for example in the midst of the flu pandemic (Charlie himself was a brief sufferer) to lead a team to the League title, not always knowing who was going to be available. Mind you, he had Eck McNair, Patsy Gallacher and Jimmy McMenemy to help!

He played 430 games, and had 240 shut-outs, won 6 Scottish League medals, 2 Scottish Cup medals, 4 Glasgow Cup medals and 9 Glasgow Charity Cup medals. He never gained a Scotland cap, but played three times for the Scottish League – such figures of course distorted by the Great War.

There was always something very avuncular about Charlie. Sometimes with a moustache, sometimes not, he looked older than what he was sometimes, and always gave the impression that everything was going to be all right. “Leave it a’ tae Chairlie!”

Charlie would be my exclusive nomination for Celtic’s best ever goalkeeper, had it not been for someone called Willie Miller. It was a cold day at Pittodrie in December 1980 when I found myself watching a poor Celtic team go under to Aberdeen. “There’s only one Willie Miller” sang the Dons fans in deserved tribute to their centre half and captain. But my companion, an old, emaciated, downtrodden little man who had presumably been watching Celtic for longer than I had, demurred.

“No!” he said. “I mind o’ Willie Miller and he was a damned sicht better than thae twa” as he jabbed his thumb in the general direction of Jim Leighton and Paddy Bonner. He was referring to Willie Miller, Celtic’s goalkeeper in the years of the Second World War and the immediate aftermath.

Willie Miller

He played from 1942 until 1949, and that immediately gives a clue as to why Willie Miller is so comparatively unknown. Celtic won nothing of any significance in that period, and Willie’s medal total rises no higher than two – one Glasgow Cup medal and one Glasgow Charity Cup medal.

But that is not to say that he did not play a great part in Celtic’s history. Celtic needed to have a good goalkeeper in those days and they found one in this small, unassuming little man who probably did more than anyone else to save Celtic from relegation in 1948.

Willer Miller

The season was technically saved at Dens Park on 17 April, but it was in fact saved earlier than that on the many occasions when the goalkeeping of Willie Miller turned a potential defeat into a draw, or a draw into a victory.

He had poor defenders in front of him more often than not, but he seldom let Celtic down with a particular ability to change direction (almost!) in mid-air and never lacking the courage to come out and dive at the feet of dangerous opposition forwards. “Charging the goalkeeper” – a brutal occurrence was allowed then, but Miller was always nimble enough to get out of the way, and Celtic Park would often laugh at the spectacle of someone like Willie Thornton of Rangers or Lawrie Reilly of Hibs throwing themselves at Willie Miller, but Miller being able to evade them and we had the vignette of a burly forward in the back of the Celtic net while Miller cleared the ball upfield! He played 265 times and had 74 shut-outs.

His most famous performances were for Scotland, for whom he played 6 times. But his first great performance was for the Scottish League at Hampden in 1947, when a seriously outplayed Scottish League XI went down 1-3 to their English counterparts, but it would have been a lot more but for Willie Miller.

He was kicked and bruised, and at one point had to go off for treatment after a head injury but came back in bandages and defied the English once more – something that the late Bob Crampsey said was the “most courageous” thing he had ever seen in football. Largely as a result of this performance, he was chosen to play for Scotland against England at Wembley in April 1947 and did well in the honourable 1-1 draw.

So let’s not forget Willie Miller! Who was the best? I don’t know, but Celtic have been blessed with many great goalkeepers and the man that I mentioned at the start, John Fallon, an ever present attendee at home and away games, was by no means the worst either!

David Potter

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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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