Cesar and Celtic: Part 6 – A first cup final for Billy McNeill

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.

The last part of the series covered the opening games of Billy’s third season at Celtic, 1960/61, with rising stars John Hughes and Stevie Chalmers to the fore as the Hoops beat Rangers twice in quick succession then lost a third derby game, which cost the Bhoys a seemingly nailed-on qualification from their League Cup section, after a really promising start.

We pick up the story from there.

Billy remained on the injury list as Celtic progressed to the Glasgow Cup Final by beating Third Lanark 3-1 in the replayed semi-final at Parkhead on Wednesday, 7 September 1960, John Kurila in the centre-half role as two goals from Bobby Carroll and one from Charlie Gallagher, his first for the club, saw the Bhoys bounce back from the weekend defeat. Having already beaten Rangers 4-2 earlier in the competition, Celts would face Partick Thistle in the final.

The Ibrox club were the next visitors to Parkhead, for the second consecutive Saturday, this time on League business. If the previous weekend’s 2-1 defeat had been sore, then this would truly be the stuff of nightmares. John Fallon and Kurila continued to deputise for Frank Haffey and McNeill and, sadly, this would prove crucial, with three of Rangers five goals coming from mistakes made by the young replacements.

Alex Scott gave the visitors the lead within two minutes, Celts fighting back with Stevie Chalmers hitting the woodwork twice as the Hoops headed for the half-time cuppa 1-0 down. Just after the hour, things took a turn for the worse, Jimmy Millar capitalising on another error to double the lead. Ralph Brand, Davie Wilson and Harold Davis then piled on the agony in the final twelve minutes, and, at 0-5, Celts were just one minute away from equalling their biggest-ever home defeat, the trouncing by Hearts on 14 September 1895. Chalmers’ consolation goal just before the final whistle at least avoided that embarrassment, however, together with the 5-1 reverse at the hands of Aberdeen at Celtic Park on 2 January 1947, this remains our largest home domestic defeat since the war.

Colour photos from this match, shown above, are courtesy of  Hearts historian Tom Purdie.

As an aside, the referee for that Third Lanark match was Willie Syme. Many Celtic supporters will be familiar with his son, David, who was also a referee, Syme junior once famously the recipient of Jock Stein’s “Your father would have been proud of you” comment, after another controversial League Cup final performance involving the original Rangers.

Fewer perhaps would be aware that Willie’s father, also David, was actually a Celtic goalkeeper, standing in for the injured Charlie Shaw for two League games in the 1918/19 title-winning season. Every day is a school day on The Celtic Star.

The Groundhog Day theme continued seven days later, as Celts made the short trip across the water to Cathkin Park to face Thirds again, this time in the League, the fifth meeting of the clubs in five weeks. With three wins and a draw so far, the Hoops would start favourites, however, goals in either half from Goodfellow and Harley saw the points remain in Crosshill, despite the much-awaited return of Billy McNeill and Bertie Auld to the starting line-up.

Young striker John Hughes was replaced by Bobby Carroll the following Saturday for the visit of Aberdeen, the revamped forward-line failing to beat the wonderfully if insensitively-named Dons goalkeeper, Tubby Ogston, as the match finished goalless.

At Celtic Park that afternoon, the Pittodrie side fielded a 17-year-old inside forward called Charlie Cooke and left-half Doug Fraser, at 18, Cooke’s senior by one year. Both men would later be involved in big-money transfers to England and would play in Cup Finals south of the border – and in Cooke’s case abroad – as well as international matches for Scotland.

Cooke made his name with that exciting Chelsea team of the 60’s, losing out to Tottenham Hotspur in the Cockney FA Cup final of 1967 under ex-Celt Tommy Docherty but beating Leeds United in the replayed final of 1970 at Old Trafford, just weeks after Celtic had destroyed Don Revie’s dreams of European glory in front of a massive crowd at Hampden. The following year, Charlie would be part of the Chelsea side who beat Real Madrid in Athens to win the European Cup-Winners Cup, a first continental success for the Stamford Bridge club. I took a tour of the Chelsea stadium a few years ago, and the guide picked up on my accent. He then went on to say that Charlie Cooke was his idol and was one of the nicest men he had ever met.

Doug Fraser would also suffer Wembley heartache in 1967, a 2-0 League Cup Final interval lead lost to a Rodney Marsh-inspired Queens Park Rangers in March, as the Third Division West London side stormed back to beat his West Bromwich Albion team 3-2. He would be on the losing side again in the final of the same tournament three years later, this time that great Manchester City attacking spearhead of Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee fighting back to beat the Baggies 2-1 after extra-time. Two years earlier, however, Fraser would get his medal, as Jeff Astle’s 93rd-minute rocket beat Everton to win the 1968 FA Cup Final.

The last game of September 1960 saw Celtic meet Partick Thistle at Hampden in the final of the Glasgow Cup, played two days after the Aberdeen match on the Bank Holiday Monday afternoon, 26 September. With Frank Haffey and Bertie Auld still out injured, the Hoops team for the first of what would be countless cup finals for Billy McNeil at Celtic was as follows:

John Fallon; Dunky MacKay & Jim Kennedy; Paddy Crerand, Billy McNeill & Bertie Peacock; Bobby Carroll, Stevie Chalmers, Neil Mochan, John Divers & Alec Byrne.

Chasing a first success in this competition since 1955, Celts dominated the play in the opening half, Stevie Chalmers hitting the crossbar then watching Thistle keeper Freebairn stop another goalbound effort with his foot.

As so often happens, the final turned on a controversial refereeing decision, in this case five minutes into the second half. Jags right-back Muir handled the ball, just a yard from goal, referee Tom ‘Tiny’ Wharton immediately awarding Celtic the penalty. The official was then surrounded by Thistle players, before consulting with his linesman and overturning his decision, awarding a dropped ball.

Celtic’s sense of injustice was palpable, and you can probably fill in the rest of this story yourselves. However, for the record, having attacked constantly, Celtic were sucker-punched by two late Partick Thistle goals, Cunningham and McParland meaning the Parkhead wait for silverware would endure.
It had been the strangest of opening fixture schedules for Celtic.

For those Hoops fans who, like me, detest the relentless and repetitive nature of the current set-up in Scottish football, consider this from August/September 1960.

Celts had played 14 domestic competitive matches in a little over six weeks from mid-August.

Of those 14 games, 13 had been played in Glasgow – only the trip to Kilmarnock took place outwith the city – and 12 had been against local sides, Aberdeen being the other outlier.

Of those 12 matches, five had been against Third Lanark, four against Rangers and three with Partick Thistle. We would face all of those teams again at least once, as well as Clyde, another Glasgow-based club in the top division, who we had yet to play this season.

And we hadn’t yet reached October.

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

Matt Corr’s debut Celtic book is titled INVINCIBLE and is published by The Celtic Star on 15 May 2020. You can order a signed copy at thecelticstarbookstore.co.uk

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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.

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