Celtic’s remarkable 1978-79 season ends with a Monday night miracle

The summer of 1978 was a time of huge change at Celtic Park. As predicted, the legend who was Jock Stein was replaced as the manager of Celtic by his long-time, on-field lieutenant, Billy McNeill. Out went Jock’s assistants, lifelong Celt Sean Fallon and former Thistle supremo, David McParland, who had masterminded their 1971 League Cup Final triumph over Jock’s Celtic, with physio Bob Rooney remaining to provide some degree of continuity. Billy’s new management team included John Clark, who having played by his side throughout a trophy-laden career in the Hoops, would now continue to be his right-hand man in the dugout.

But whilst the managerial change had been widely expected, the treatment of Jock fell well short of that deserving of such a faithful servant. Rather than taking a place in the boardroom, to provide insight and guidance for the new era, Jock was offered a role promoting Celtic Pools, an offer he felt well able to refuse. I recall a memorable photograph, which pretty much summed up the ‘deal’ at the time for many of us, Desmond White linking hands with Billy, whilst Jock looked on, already pushed into the background.

There would be a last hurrah for the big man in August, when Liverpool arrived as opponents for his testimonial. The old ground shook, as Jock and his Lions waved to a capacity crowd for what would prove to be their final salute. As always with Celtic, there was a twist of irony, as Our Kenny, fresh from scoring a European Cup winner at Wembley and jeered from the outset by his jilted lovers, settled the match with a double. Those wounds would partially heal in time, however it would never be the same.

Likewise with Jock, who took up the reins at Elland Road soon afterwards. Leeds, in a mirror-image of Celtic, was a pale, mid-table shadow of the side which had been at the pinnacle of European football just eight years earlier. As ‘McGrory of the Arsenal’ did not ring true in the time of Maley, neither would ‘Stein of Leeds’. Before the contract ink had fully dried, he would replace the humiliated MacLeod as manager of Scotland, following the shambles of Argentina. It would be his last challenge in football and, tragically, in life, following the events at Ninian Park, Cardiff, in September 1985.

There was little doubt that the season just ended had been disastrous. Nevertheless, for those of us who had only known one Celtic manager, there was anger and huge sadness at the way the great man’s exit had been handled. As Shankly predicted in Lisbon, John Stein is immortal. He will forever be Big Jock, manager of Celtic.

Billy’s second Celtic career had kicked off in the unlikely setting of Links Park, Montrose, for a friendly against the local team. A George McCluskey brace ensured a winning start for McNeill’s Celtic, in a game which, bizarrely, featured new coach Jim Lumsden in the starting line-up. However, as one career was launched another ended, as Pat Stanton’s attempted comeback in the Hoops, following a year-long battle with injury, ended in disappointment. He would join Alex Ferguson as Assistant Manager at Pittodrie the following month.

The depths plummeted by Celtic in the previous season were clearly illustrated in Billy’s first competitive game as manager. Lisbon must have seemed a lifetime ago, as a tiny crowd gathered at Celtic Park on a Thursday evening, to witness Celtic’s first venture into the Anglo-Scottish Cup, where we faced Craig Brown’s Clyde. It took a late goal from ‘Twists’n’turns’ to save our blushes on the night. There was actually a larger crowd at Shawfield on the Saturday, for what would prove to be Celtic’s last visit there. A second-half onslaught, featuring doubles for Conn, McAdam and Glavin, saw the Celts through 8-2 on aggregate.

League business commenced at Cappielow, as it would for Billy’s second spell in charge in 1987, with a narrow win, secured despite a late goal from ex-Celt Andy Ritchie. Real momentum was then generated through a busy August, with resounding League victories over Hearts and Motherwell, supplemented by four straight victories over the Dundee clubs, to eliminate both from the League Cup.

The game at Fir Park threw up one of those strange quirks of football fate, when brothers Peter and Dave Latchford kept opposing goals. When Celtic then beat Rangers 3-1 at Parkhead, in the first meeting as managers for old foes McNeill and Greig, the Bhoys sat at the top of the table with a perfect record. It had been a tremendous start for Cesar as the new Boss and he now set about reshaping the team.

The derby game had been Joe Craig’s last appearance, as he headed for Blackburn to conclude a short but successful spell at Celtic. The previous Saturday had seen a final performance in the Hoops for Quality Street Kid, Paul Wilson, a player subjected to horrendous abuse in 70’s Scotland and who matched his immense talent with courage. After eight years of first-team service, Paul was bound for Motherwell. Who will ever forget how he played in the 1975 Scottish Cup Final against Airdrie, Billy’s last appearance for Celtic, just days after the loss of his beloved mother, then turned match-winner with a double at Hampden.

Those goals helped Paul towards an unique record, in what would be his finest hour, a season where he outscored both Kenny and Dixie. He became the only player to score in four Hampden finals in the same season, with goals in the Drybrough, League, Scottish and Glasgow Cup triumphs. Born in Bangalore, Paul was the only non-white player to be capped for Scotland in the 20thcentury, in Valencia in 1975, and he was the first Asian footballer to represent any of the home nations at senior level. Paul’s Celtic debut was my first European game, a 9-0 victory over Finland’s Kokkola in September 1970, when he came on as a second-half substitute and scored twice. I was genuinely saddened to hear of his untimely death last September.

To freshen up the side, Billy turned to young Scottish talent. Kilmarnock winger Davie Provan, who had been a standout against Celtic in the Scottish Cup the previous season, came in for a Scottish record transfer fee of £125,000 in September. He would star for Celtic for the best part of a decade before retiring through illness, eventually turning to a career in media. Provider of a feast of goals in that period, through his direct wing play and crossing expertise, he also featured in my all-time favourite trick question, as Celtic’s first Spanish player (Juan Davie Provan? OK, I’ll get my coat!). In early November, midfield powerhouse Murdo MacLeod was signed from Dumbarton for another six-figure fee. Like Provan, he would star in the Hoops until 1987, scoring any number of critical goals with his trademark rocket shot, before leaving the club, in his case to join Borussia Dortmund. He would later play another key role in Celtic’s history, as the right-hand man of Wim Jansen.

Despite these great signings, the remainder of 1978 would prove really disappointing, as the good work of the early season sadly unfolded. Celtic’s only appearance in the Anglo-Scottish Cup ended in shame, on and off the field. Both legs of the quarter-final tie against English Second Division side Burnley, the eventual winners, were lost, amidst disgraceful scenes at Turf Moor.

There were home defeats to Hibernian and twice to bottom side Motherwell – one in the League Cup featuring the return of Paul Wilson to Parkhead – plus dismal draws against Morton, Aberdeen and Dundee United, where only one goal, an Andy Lynch penalty against league leaders United, was scored. Nervy home wins were ‘enjoyed’ over St Mirren and Bertie Auld’s Partick Thistle, with the Jags providing the only crumb of away comfort in the League before the year-end, on Davie Provan’s debut. Damaging defeats followed at Tannadice, Tynecastle and the new all-seated Pittodrie, as Celtic struggled to maintain a title challenge.

The one away performance of note during that period had been at Fir Park, in the second leg of the League Cup tie. A stirring fightback had overturned the Parkhead deficit and with seven minutes to play, the tie was deadlocked at 2-2. Cue the Ayrshire Mafia of Bobby Lennox, brought back by Billy after a spell in Texas, and the teenage Bear, Roy Aitken, rampaging through the Steelmen defence to seal a hard-earned victory. That took Celts into the quarter-final and a return trip to Montrose, scene of the season-opener. A straightforward aggregate win was illuminated with the long-awaited return of legendary captain, Danny McGrain, after an agonising year-long injury absence.

This would prove to be a critical point in the season, however, of immediate concern was a semi-final tie with Rangers, with the prize at stake a 15th consecutive League Cup Final at Hampden. Not since August 1963, in the days of Haffey, MacKay and Divers, when finishing third in a section containing Rangers, Kilmarnock and Queen of the South, had Celtic been eliminated from the League Cup prior to the final, an incredible run of 155 successive games.

Tragically, with just seven minutes left on the clock, Johnstone’s shot from a suspiciously offside position was saved by Baines, with the ball rebounding off young Celtic substitute ‘Ben’ Casey into the empty net. There would be no 15th final and, indeed, it would be several seasons before Celtic again graced Hampden for this showpiece….

The dreadful weather conditions in Scotland in early 1979 decimated the football card, to the extent that Celtic would play only two competitive games by the end of February, both Scottish Cup ties. Having not played there for forty years, Celtic made a third visit to Links Park in six months, where they disposed of Montrose, thanks to a second-half hat-trick from George McCluskey.

Next up were the giant-killers of Berwick Rangers, facing up to Celtic for the first time ever competitively and losing by three goals at Celtic Park on a damp night, thanks largely to an inspirational performance from Danny McGrain.

This set up a mouth-watering quarter-final tie at Pittodrie, against Ferguson’s Dons. Celtic dominated the game, however, not for the first or last time, future Hoops manager, Gordon Strachan, made the telling contribution, on this occasion twice heading netbound ‘Shuggy’ Edvaldsson headers off the line. Harper equalised within a minute of Johnny Doyle’s opener and the tie headed for a midweek replay.

There was a disastrous start for Celtic, in front of nearly 40,000 fans on the Wednesday night, as two blunders from Peter Latchford, in the opening twelve minutes, gave Aberdeen a lead they would not relinquish. Despite a second-half goal from the veteran Lennox, Celtic’s cup run was over, and the night would end badly, as a late effort from the same player was disallowed, sparking a rain of bottles and cans from the Jungle. When the dust settled, the reality sank in that for the first time since 1962, there would be No Hoops at Hampden for either of the major cup finals.

That replay had been the third game in ten days between the sides. Incredibly, not until 3 March, had Celtic managed to play a League game in this year, a single Conn goal being enough for the two points. Only our second League win since September, this would ultimately prove to be a pivotal day in the title race. The bearded warrior McGrain made his first Premier appearance since October 1977, inspiring hope amongst the faithful that the tide was slowly turning towards Celtic.

The next League game, against Motherwell on Paddy’s Day, saw Jock’s last signing, Irishman Pat Bonner, make his Celtic debut, as Latchford paid the price for one error too many. A Lennox double secured the points and a hat-trick of March home wins was completed against Morton, where Roy Baines, sold by Celtic earlier that month, made a quickfire return to Parkhead, this time between the Greenock posts, only to be beaten by a 30-yard Provan free-kick and a Burns goal, scored direct from a corner.

Having failed to sign Willie Pettigrew from Motherwell, Billy turned to an old colleague to bolster his strike force for the run-in, signing Vic Davidson from Blackpool, on the eve of a fixture at Easter Road. Like most of the fans behind the goal that day, I had no idea who he was, when he ran onto the pitch for his second debut, in the pre-mobile/social media days of 1979.

I would experience a similar problem many years later in Berne, when a shaven-headed Gerry Creaney took the field against Young Boys. Another comical opening for Celtic and the restored Latchford saw us two goals down within 15 minutes and, despite a late penalty from Ronnie Glavin, playing his last game for Celtic, the month ended like so many had before, in defeat.

The League table made grim reading, with Celtic seventh in a league of ten, five points behind second-placed Rangers, who had played two games more, and a further five behind leaders Dundee United, albeit an incredible six fixtures behind them. There would be much to do in April and May to provide the support with some success in this craziest of seasons.

April began with another hard-earned victory at Fir Park, in the rearranged Ne’erday fixture, where a rare Danny goal lit up another man-of-the-match performance from the comeback captain. A late Bobby Lennox penalty proved decisive in this midweek seven-goal thriller, with a comfortable home victory over Thistle on the Saturday then lifting Celts to fourth in the table.

Celtic headed to Tannadice the following Wednesday, for a critical match with League leaders United, where despite going ahead through a Vic Davidson header, the points stayed in Dundee thanks to a late Dodds winner. Ten points behind with ten games to play, it was a sombre journey home. However, things would take a turn for the better on the Saturday, at a packed Love Street, where a fabulous strike from George McCluskey settled the issue there, as news filtered through that relegated Motherwell had beaten Rangers, enabling Celtic to nudge ahead of them into second place on goal difference.

The feel-good factor continued in midweek at Tynecastle, with a three-goal victory, which kept the Celts in contention and plunged Hearts towards the drop zone, the final goal one of the finest scored for his beloved Celtic by substitute Tommy Burns, a great man very much in our thoughts at this time.

A difficult run of away fixtures continued at Pittodrie, against fourth-placed Aberdeen, with an Andy Lynch penalty cancelling out Strachan’s opener to earn a hard-fought draw, thus allowing Rangers to sneak back into second spot in the table, in the tightest flag race in years. Events took another huge twist on the Wednesday night. With fifteen minutes to play, Celtic trailed to a Frank McGarvey strike at Parkhead.

However, late goals from Shuggy and the Bear secured a vital two points against St Mirren, as Rangers lost at Pittodrie. It was now ‘Game On’ and momentum shifted to Celtic, as United headed to Glasgow for a top two showdown. The recent Tannadice proceedings were reversed, as Celtic overcame another Dodds counter to win 2-1, thanks to a Doyle header and another spot-kick from Lynch, in front of a near-40,000 crowd.

United were still five points ahead, although, crucially, Celts had five games in hand. Rangers were one point behind us, having played the same number of games but with a home derby to come. Aberdeen and Hibernian were tied two points further back, however, both were running out of games and their title challenge would now fizzle out.

A midweek home victory over Hibs set up a critical away test with Rangers, the following Saturday, in a game postponed from March and again played at Hampden, with Ibrox still out of commission. Celtic paid the price for a poor performance, a scrambled goal from midfielder Alex MacDonald being enough to win the match, allowing Rangers to move one point ahead. With four games to play, one of them crucially against Rangers at Celtic Park, the position was crystal clear, maximum points would be required to lift the title.

The final run-in would start at Firhill, on a Bank Holiday afternoon, with a game deferred from January. And it would start badly, with a Somner goal in the opening minutes. Striker Tom McAdam played the first of what would be many games in central defence, as emergency cover for the previously ever-present Edvaldsson, who had been injured at Hampden. Another Davie Provan strike at Firhill provided an equaliser and set up an all-out assault on Rough’s goal for a winner, which finally came in the last quarter from George McCluskey, emerging as a key player for Celtic, in this season of seasons. Three from three now required.

George was again to the fore in Celtic’s next match. This bizarre season continued for me in the unlikely setting of the main stand at Ibrox on the Friday night, as St Mirren chose to play their home game in Glasgow, whilst work on their new terracing commenced. I would stand on that terrace twelve months hence, to watch another dramatic title climax play out.

In the meantime, the fans who said goodbye to the old Broomloan End, scene of so many Celtic parties and not a few heartbreaks over the years, witnessed two late headers from McCluskey and Lennox, to win a tense match and move the Hoops to the summit for the first time, on goal difference from United who had completed their programme, as Rangers prepared for a Cup Final meeting with Hibernian the following day. Two wins for an unlikely title for Celtic.

For those of us at Celtic Park for the penultimate game of the season, against Hearts on the Monday night, it was another nervous ninety minutes. A Mike Conroy header, Celtic’s 100th goal in all competitions that season, proved decisive and sent the Hoops three points clear of our Glasgow rivals. Thoughts now turned to our final match of 1978/79, Rangers at home on the following Monday. Two Hampden stalemates with Hibernian meant that their final two League matches, against Thistle and Hibs, would now take place after the Parkhead clash. A win or draw would leave the title in their hands, only a Celtic win would be enough for us.

The tension was crackling in the old ground, as the week’s talking stopped and play began. On a bright May night, Old foe MacDonald came back to haunt Celtic again with an early strike and we trailed at the interval. Things went from bad to worse early in the second-half, as a grounded MacDonald felt the wrath of Johnny Doyle and suddenly we were ten. But not just any ten, as led by Roy Aitken, in his finest of many fine hours, Celtic attacked the Ibrox side at will and took the lead, following goals from Feed the Bear himself and George McCluskey.

There was a final act of defiance from Greig’s Rangers, just two minutes later, as they rallied to protect their dream of back-to-back domestic trebles. My heart sank into the seat below, as Bobby Russell’s shot following a corner, arrowed through our defence to crash against the Janefield post and bounce over the line.

However, there is often a magic about Celtic and this particular night was not to end in tears for those of a Hoops persuasion. Inspired by a blood-curdling Jungle roar, the sheer willpower of Aitken and McCluskey drove them down the Celtic right, forcing a fatal mistake from Jackson and providing a precious lead with just five minutes remaining. With those five minutes feeling like fifty, Roy again brought the ball out of defence and found Murdo MacLeod on the left side of the box.

As 50,000 fans screamed in unison for him to hit it anywhere, he came up with a better option, as his shot flew past McCloy into the top corner and the title was ours, amidst incredible scenes of joy. Some time later, thanks to the fact that Dad ‘worked’ in the stand on matchdays, providing hospital broadcast and Golden Goal services with his colleague Jim Divers, I had the privilege of standing in the Director’s box, as the stocking-soled Celts did their lap of honour in front of a delirious support.

I recall ex-Celt, Pat McCluskey, standing next to me and simply repeating the word ‘Wonderful’, then shaking his head. A veteran of Hampden triumphs and European Cup semi-finals, he may have thought that he had seen it all, however this night was something else. In the foyer downstairs, sat an expressionless Alex Ferguson, the manager of Aberdeen. He would not know at this point, that his team would be the successors to Celtic, as champions of Scotland. But that would be another day. For now, the night belonged to Billy McNeill and his team of young Lions, who had persevered through this strangest and tightest of seasons to reclaim the title in the most dramatic of circumstances.

The legend of Ten Men Won The League had been born.

Hail Hail,

Matt Corr

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About Author

Having retired from his day job Matt Corr can usually be found working as a Tour Guide at Celtic Park, or if there is a Marathon on anywhere in the world from as far away as Tokyo or New York, Matt will be running for the Celtic Foundation. On a European away-day, he's there writing his Diary for The Celtic Star and he's currently completing his first Celtic book with another two planned.