Cesar and Celtic – A first Cup Final for Billy

Cesar and Celtic: Part 10 – A first Cup Final for Billy

Hard to believe it’s already 12 months since we said our final goodbyes to the man who pretty much epitomised Celtic for many of us supporters who grew up in the mid to late-1960s. In this short tribute series, we look back at the early career of the incomparable Billy McNeill.

Part 9 of this series covered Celtic’s best run of season 1960/61, with five successive victories including Billy’s first goal for Celtic at Somerset Park, Ayr, two days after his 21st birthday, in March 1961. We pick up the final part of the story from there…

Saturday, 11 March 1961 was Scottish Cup quarter-final day, and there were four interesting ties to look forward to. League champions Hearts would line-up at Tynecastle against a St Mirren side still on a high after a remarkable 8-0 victory over Third Lanark at Cathkin. Motherwell’s reward for hammering Cup-holders Rangers 5-2 at Ibrox in a third-round replay would be a home tie with Lanarkshire rivals Airdrieonians. Jock Stein’s Dunfermline Athletic had also been in high-scoring form in the previous round, having won 6-3 against Aberdeen at Pittodrie. The Pars would face local opposition in the shape of second-tier Alloa Athletic.

The final last-eight match was a Battle of the Greens at Celtic Park, Hibernian returning to the scene of their 2-0 defeat in the League just three weeks earlier. The Scottish Cup was a huge deal back in those days, the latest visit of Hibs drawing 56,000 to Glasgow’s east end. Jimmy McGrory, or some might say Bob Kelly, named an unchanged side, which read as follows:

Frank Haffey: Dunky MacKay & Jim Kennedy: Paddy Crerand, Billy McNeill & Bertie Peacock: Charlie Gallagher, Willie Fernie, John Hughes, Stevie Chalmers & Alec Byrne.

It was a below-par performance from Celtic, the Hoops going behind to a Kinloch strike early in the second half and looking likely to end yet another season empty-handed as Hibernian keeper Ronnie Simpson dealt comfortably with what little he had to do. Then, as many in the crowd started to head wearily for the exit, Stevie Chalmers yet again was Celtic’s saviour, taking Alec Byrne’s pass to blast the ball past Simpson for 1-1. It had been a lucky escape.

John Clark scores the only goal of the replay at Easter Raod as Ronnie Simpson looks on in the Hibs goal.

Four days later, almost 40,000 fans packed into Easter Road for the replay. Celtic skipper Bertie Peacock failed to recover from a knee injury, paving the way for young John Clark to come in at left-half, the only change from the weekend team. In a game of few chances, the Hoops once again rode their luck, particularly in the closing stages, as England striker Joe Baker, for once, got the better of Billy McNeill, forcing Frank Haffey into a desperate save.

The game turned in extra-time, as Celtic’s superior fitness began to tell. Hibs survived until the end of the first period…almost. A short corner from Alec Byrne was fed to John Clark, the teenager then showing remarkable composure to beat his marker before firing home through Simpson’s legs. It would prove the decisive goal of the tie, the Leith men thus failing yet again to end their Scottish Cup bogey over Celtic, which dated back to the final of 1902 – ironically played at Celtic Park, following the first Ibrox Disaster – the last time they had won the old trophy. Those two unwanted Hibernian records would remain for a while yet.

It was Firhill for Thrills next for Celtic, the following Saturday. Haffey was an early saviour for the unchanged Hoops, saving a penalty from Thistle skipper Alex Wright within 12 minutes, after Dunky Mackay had handled a Neil Duffy effort in the box. Within two minutes, the Jags would be cursing their luck, as Celtic took the lead, Byrne heading home from Charlie Gallagher’s cross. The Bhoys would then enjoy a spell of superiority until just before half-time when Joe McBride showed his predatory instincts by slamming the equaliser past Haffey. There was still time for another twist before the break, this time John Hughes turning provider with a slide-rule pass leaving Stevie Chalmers one-on-one with goalkeeper John Freebairn. The Celtic striker showed great composure to calmly round the stopper before slotting home.

John Freebairn saves against Celtic in 1961

As an aside, I was saddened to note that John Freebairn passed away just a few weeks ago. Rest in peace, John.

The biggest excitement in the second half took place off the field, with police wading in to make several arrests, as the unsegregated supporters clashed behind the goal. Partick Thistle had the better of things but failed to pull themselves level, as Celts made it seven wins and a draw from their last eight games. Impressive stuff.

Two nights later, Celtic played host to struggling Raith Rovers in a re-arranged League match, much to the frustration of the Kirkcaldy club, who had requested Tuesday as an alternative date, providing an additional 24 hours rest for the players after their weekend efforts. This did not suit the Parkhead men, with both Billy McNeill and Paddy Crerand scheduled to play in an inter-League international at Ibrox.

With neither side particularly enchanted with the prospect of playing this game, it was perhaps no surprise that a disappointing match ensued. Stevie Chalmers gave the Bhoys the lead midway through the first half, with Dunky MacKay missing a penalty before inside-forward Fox equalised for the Fifers with 15 minutes to play.

Chalmers was one of four players on show that night who would wear the Hoops in Lisbon a little over six years later. Young Billy McNeill and John Clark were fast building a reputation in the Celtic defence, whilst they faced a dynamic Raith Rovers forward called Willie Wallace. He had scored against Celts in the Scottish Cup-tie at Starks Park the previous month and was nearing the end of his two-year spell in Kirkcaldy.

Having begun his senior football career at Stenhousemuir, Kirkintilloch-born Wallace would sign for Scottish champions Hearts the following month, just before his 21st birthday. He would continue to score goals for fun at Tynecastle, capped for Scotland and eventually attracting the attention of Jock Stein as a potential Celtic partner for the aforementioned McBride and Chalmers in the winter of 1966.

Talking of birthdays, there was one a bit closer to home within 36 hours of the Raith match.

At 7.30am on the morning of Wednesday, 22 March 1961, baby Matthew Joseph Corr was born at Robroyston Hospital on the outskirts of Glasgow, a third son for Matt and Anna Corr. The hairdo remains the same to this day.

Later that night, 21-year-old William McNeill made his first representative appearance for the Scottish League against the Football League at Ibrox, lining up beside his Celtic teammate, Patrick Timothy Crerand. The Scots would defeat their English counterparts 3-2 in front of 50,000 at Ibrox, thanks to goals from Motherwell duo Bert McCann and Ian St John and a late penalty from Rangers full-back Eric Caldow.

The English side featured legends Bobby Charlton, Bobby Robson and Jimmy Greaves, as well as future Arsenal manager Don Howe.

The first Celtic match of my lifetime took place on Saturday, 25 March 1961, and saw the Hoops welcome Jock Stein’s Dunfermline Athletic to Parkhead. The Bhoys lined up as listed at the top of this article, other than John Clark continuing at left-half in the absence of injured skipper, Bertie Peacock. The first goal would go the way of the Fifers after 20 minutes, a shot from former Rangers winger Harry Melrose beating Frank Haffey then clipping both posts before nestling in the net.

Within seven minutes of the restart, Celtic were level, Willie Fernie taking advantage of good work by the on-form Alec Byrne to beat Eddie Connachan with a tremendous strike. And the comeback was completed just five minutes later, this time Byrne the scorer, leaving three Pars defenders helpless before helping himself for a superb goal. It would prove to be the winner, Celts resuming their winning ways at a key point of the season as your 3-day-old author no doubt gurgled his delight.

The biggest match of the season so far would take place on the first day of April 1961, the Scottish Cup semi-final with Airdrieonians at Hampden. The Diamonds had caused a shock in the last-round by beating much-fancied Motherwell 1-0 at Fir Park, whilst St Mirren had repeated that scoreline to eliminate champions Hearts at Tynecastle. The Paisley side would be back at the same venue that afternoon to meet Dunfermline Athletic in the other tie.

A near 73,000 crowd at Hampden would see Celts overwhelm Airdrieonians to secure a spot in the Scottish Cup Final for the first time in five years. The tie was effectively over by half-time, by which stage the Hoops were already four goals to the good. The goals came in two five-minute bursts. On 20 minutes, John Hughes headed Byrne’s cross past Airdrie keeper Lawrie Leslie, who had lined up at Ibrox behind Crerand and McNeill ten day earlier.

And on 24 minutes, Hughes pounced on a Leslie fumble to make it 2-0, after the keeper had blocked a Willie Fernie effort. Frank Haffey was then called into action at the other end to prevent the Diamond underdogs clawing their way back into the game, the big goalkeeper diving superbly to clutch the hall in the top corner. Eight minutes from the half-time whistle, Stevie Chalmers made it 3-0 with a deft flick and five minutes later, Fernie completed the rout with another wonderful finish. The second half was dull by comparison, other than the powerful Hughes being denied his hat-trick by referee Tom ‘Tiny’ Wharton, after blasting the ball past Leslie.

So, the Hoops were in their first cup final since Hampden in the Sun four years earlier, a first Scottish Cup Final since the 3-1 defeat by Hearts the previous spring. Their opponents had still to be clarified, Dunfermline and St Mirren failing to score in the other semi at Tynecastle.

That replay would take place at the same venue four days later, whilst Celtic entertained St Johnstone in the League the same night. Miserable, wet weather kept the attendance at Celtic Park to 8,000, and despite dominating possession on a slippery surface, it was the visitors who opened the scoring through Gardiner on the half-hour.

Celtic’s equaliser when it arrived on 60 minutes was unusual, Willie Fernie’s inswinging corner-kick deceiving Perth goalkeeper Taylor to land in the net, the third successive game in which the veteran inside-forward had scored. There would be no further scoring as the Hoops had to settle for another home midweek draw. Still at least their opponents in the Scottish Cup final were now known, as word came through from Edinburgh that Jock Stein had led Dunfermline Athletic to their first-ever major cup final, following a 1-0 win over St Mirren at Tynecastle.

On Saturday, 8 April 1961, it was back to League action as Celts travelled the road and the miles to Dundee for a fixture at Dens Park. The Dark Blues boasted a fine young team who would be Scottish champions within twelve months, including centre-half Ian Ure and striker Alan Gilzean, both of whom would soon earn big-money moves to Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, albeit Ure is perhaps better known for his time with Arsenal. A tight game was settled by one mistake after half an hour’s play, Alex Hamilton’s passback to Pat Liney evading the home keeper, allowing Stevie Chalmers the easiest goal of his career.

The Bhoys would remain on Tayside that weekend as the next fixture saw them play 200 yards along Tannadice Street just two days later. There is a famous photograph of the team bus rolling up to the stadium with the players emerging already Hooped up, perhaps the work to replace the old main stand the reason behind that scenario.

United featured Celtic legend Neil Mochan at centre-forward, and he rolled back the years with a virtuoso performance, his rocket shot blocked by Haffey who could only look on helplessly as Gibby Ormond bundled it home for 1-0 just before the half-hour. A jaded-looking Celts looked to have lost their long unbeaten record until with seven minutes left to play, John Hughes nodded home a cross from Charlie Gallagher to earn the Bhoys a share of the points.

Two days later, Tuesday, 12 April 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and the following weekend, Celtic goalkeeper Frank Haffey probably wished he had gone with him, after shipping nine goals at Wembley in Billy McNeill’s first full international appearance. It was hardly the ideal preparation for both Celts ahead of the biggest club match of their young careers, the following Saturday’s Scottish Cup Final against Dunfermline.

Nevertheless, both were chosen in an unchanged Celtic team to face their old reserve coach Jock Stein in front of 113,000 at Hampden on Saturday, 22 April 1961. The match failed to produce any goals and is best remembered for two fantastic saves, one at either end. Early in the first half, a Paddy Crerand rocket was diverted by the head of John Hughes towards the top corner of Eddie Connachan’s goalframe.

The cheers of tens of thousands of Celtic supporters were stopped in their tracks as the keeper leapt to clutch the ball at the junction of post and bar, an incredible save. Then in the last minute of play, it was his opposite number Frank Haffey’s turn to shine. The man who had been the subject of ridicule all week for his part in the Wembley debacle single-handedly prevented the cup heading for Fife on that Saturday evening, somehow stopping a goalbound Peebles effort from crossing his line. All to play for then in the replay scheduled for four days later.

There was a Celtic emergency on the day of the replay, Wednesday, 26 April 1961, as Hoops defender Jim Kennedy was rushed to hospital suffering from appendicitis. His place would go to 20-year-old full-back Willie O’Neill, a baptism of fire for the youngster. Like the first game, the replay would be a tale of two goalkeepers, although sadly for Haffey, the misery following the fallout from Wembley would continue at Scotland’s national stadium.

Celtic lined up as follows, in front of 88,000, for the first major final of Billy McNeill’s career.

Frank Haffey: Dunky MacKay & Willie O’Neill: Paddy Crerand, Billy McNeill & John Clark: Charlie Gallagher, Willie Fernie, John Hughes, Stevie Chalmers & Alec Byrne.

Connachan was again in inspired form, defying the eager Hoops forwards time after time in the first half, as both sides again failed to break the cup final deadlock by the interval. The game turned within a minute midway through the second period. For once, Stevie Chalmers’ shot had beaten the incredible Connachan, only to be handled by a defender, Celtic appeals for a penalty kick waved aside by referee Hugh Phillips.

With six minutes remaining, Connachan broke Celtic hearts yet again, this time the inspired keeper somehow keeping out a 20-yard thunderbolt from Paddy Crerand. As the Hoops piled forward in a desperate attempt to level the tie, there was another kick from the football Gods for poor Frank Haffey. There seemed little danger in the 88th minute, as a long ball from midfield dropped into his box, the Celtic keeper favourite to reach it ahead of Charlie Dickson. However, this time the under-pressure Celt misjudged the bounce of the ball badly, left in the Hampden mud as the Pars forward carved his own name into Dunfermline folklore.

The sight of Jock Stein running delightedly from the Hampden dugout to embrace his players would be an all-too-familiar one as the sixties progressed, with Billy McNeill often the first port of call for the Big Man. Sadly, however, the man who would be known as Cesar would not be the recipient of a hug from the man in the white trench-coat on that damp Glasgow evening. He would look on dejectedly as the Fifers collected their winners’ medals, one of the saddest tasks for a professional player to endure.

He would not know then that he would be leading his Celtic players up those same Hampden steps on countless joyful occasions over the next fourteen years, as an unprecedented era of success was being devised by those who write football’s scripts.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

In Billy’s case, the pain and the manner and indeed the memory of that defeat would build an incredible determination and will-to-win which would transform the lives of those who trudged disconsolately home in their green-and-white favours over the next two decades and beyond, first as a captain and latterly as the manager of Celtic Football Club.

He would become respected and adored as a man who encapsulated the very essence of what it means to be ‘a Celtic man.’

For many, including your author, just one month old at that time, he would become and will forever remain Mr Celtic.

God bless and keep you, Billy.

Thanks, as always, to the folk behind the Celtic Wiki, a wonderful source of information.

Hail Cesar,

Matt Corr

Follow Matt on Twitter @Boola_vogue

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.

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