The Italian Job – Celtic’s Season 1981/82 (Part 1)

We had a great close-season in the Northern Area Celtic club in Springburn in 1981, basking in the afterglow of a tremendous championship-winning campaign. Fergie’s brief revolution had been quashed, his 1980 title success dismissed as a blip, in the same way that Bob Shankly’s Dundee in ’62 and Willie Waddell’s Kilmarnock, three years later, had momentarily interrupted the juggernaut of League success enjoyed by the two big Glasgow clubs since the late fifties.

Pre-season tours of the USA and Germany, with superstars Keegan and Beckenbauer amongst the opposition, were rounded off by a tournament in Rotterdam, where Celtic overcame two old European foes, hosts Feyenoord then Dukla Prague, to keep the feel-good factor going with an early trophy win.

The Celtic team to face Feyenoord – the final score was Feyenoord 1 Celtic 2

The serious stuff started the following Saturday, with a League Cup sectional match against St Mirren at Celtic Park. And it started badly, a personal disaster for debut Bhoy and lifelong Celt, Willie Garner, who managed an own goal in each half to help Saints to an unexpected 3-1 victory, after McGarvey had continued where he left off last season, by opening the scoring with a header on the half-hour.

Worse was to come in midweek at Muirton Park, where an eighteen-year old striker named Alistair McCoist scored then earned the penalty which secured a 2-0 victory for First Division St Johnstone, champions Celtic incredibly finding themselves bottom of the section and pointless after two games. McCoist would score in the return fixture at Celtic Park but would be gone by the end of the month, joining Sunderland, before returning to Scotland two years later to sign up at Ibrox.

Heading home from Perth that night, it would have been difficult to imagine how the remainder of this campaign would pan out. For the next four games, Celtic were simply sensational, winning both Hibernian fixtures and the return match with St Johnstone by the same 4-1 scoreline and going one better at Love Street.

Poor Garner paid the price for the opening defeats, his Celtic career effectively over before it had really begun, young David Moyes stepping into his spot and impressing from the outset. However, the main focus was on the awesome display of firepower, several rockets from MacLeod supplementing a barrage of goals from the strike trio of Nicholas, McGarvey and McCluskey. Radios were pressed to ears at Easter Road on the final night, hoping for a draw or Perth win in the Battle of the Saints, to ensure that Celtic’s fantastic fightback would not be in vain.

The night was to end in disappointment, the Buddies winning to maintain their single point lead at the top of the group and the Hoops were out, failing to qualify from a League Cup section for the first time since 1963.

The attacking masterclass continued as Celtic unfurled the League flag with a home fixture against Airdrie, Tommy Burns scoring within 45 seconds, before the ‘terrible trio’ took the tally to five. McCoist’s future strike partner, Sandy Clark, moved a step closer to his own big-money transfer to England, in his case to West Ham United, with a double for the Diamonds in their 5-2 defeat.

September opened brightly, with a fine 3-1 win at Pittodrie, despite the worst possible start, Gordon Strachan netting an early penalty then fleeing from an invading Paddock ‘supporter’, the second such incident in this fixture within a year. Burns quickly equalised with a header, before McGarvey struck either side of half-time, and for once the long road home from Aberdeen was a journey to be enjoyed.

Morton were the visitors to Parkhead the following week, dispatched more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline would suggest, thanks to second-half goals from MacLeod and the returning McAdam. Our thoughts then turned to the big one in midweek, as Italian champions Juventus flew into Glasgow for our first competitive meeting. The old ground crackled with tension, over 60,000 packed in, as for the second time in eighteen months, European royalty came to Celtic Park.

Juve contained the core of the Italian side who would win the World Cup in Madrid at the end of that season, plus the Irish superstar and future Hoops manager, Liam Brady. But McNeill’s young side showed no fear, taking the game to their illustrious opponents from kick-off and, in my view, unfortunate to win by only one goal, a drive from MacLeod which flew past Zoff on the hour mark, as Paradise erupted.

We filed down Janefield Street afterwards, still elated from witnessing one of the great European nights, as once again the best had come to the East End of Glasgow and the best had succumbed in our fortress. However, as with the Real Madrid tie, there was an unspoken thought gnawing away that the goal may not be enough.

In the interim, there were other matters to be addressed, starting with a trip to Ibrox on the Saturday. Despite the completion of their rebuilt stadium, there was a marked gulf in the quality of the two sides, the apathy from the Rangers support reflected in the presence of Celtic fans in three of the four stands, including the newly-opened Govan.

An early McAdam header gave Celts the lead, a lead never in any danger as they outplayed their hosts throughout. MacLeod doubled the advantage late on from a free-kick to seal victory, as the Celtic fans went through the full repertoire of Eighties taunts, from ‘Greig must stay’ to ‘You couldnae sell all your tickets!’. Good times to be a Tim.

There was a difficult game the following weekend, as bottom-dogs Partick Thistle came to Celtic Park and shut up shop, goalkeeper Rough defying Celtic for an hour before Nicholas beat him from an acute angle. Burns headed a second late on in a 2-0 victory, however the main story of the day was the injury sustained by McGrain, leaving the inspirational skipper a major doubt for the midweek trip to Turin.

On the Sunday evening, I met up with some of the Bishopbriggs Bhoys from the Cairn bus, for my first-ever overseas Celtic match. These were the days of Trans-alpino, where around £70 bought you a train ticket to continental Europe, assuming you were under-26. Climbing into the back of a Transit van for the first part of that journey, from Springburn to Central Station, I could hardly contain my excitement.

The party was already in full swing, with big Paul on the tin whistle, as the adventure of a lifetime got underway. An overnight train to London then a connection to Paris brought the first problem, how to get from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon for the final part of the journey. Schoolboy French and the odd helpful local saved the day, as we dragged our weary torsos onto yet another train for the overnight cattle ride to Torino. It was a long night, for some reason no seats had been allocated to us, so the tin whistle was on overtime, entertaining the troops in the corridor until arrival in Turin at 6am on the Tuesday. This is how it feels to be Celtic?

With budget being the order of the day, we quickly secure rooms for the equivalent of £1 per night at a hostel across the road from the station. After a much-needed wash, we are ‘good to go’ and the bars of Turin are our target. This is easier said than done, however, eventually we land in what would be described in Glasgow as a café, but with the subtle addition of beer. When in Turin…

Later, we decide to visit the stadium, the old Stadio Communale, for some photographs. We get lucky, as Juve are actually training there and although we cannot approach the players directly, we receive a wave and a smile from Liam Brady as the team re-board their bus.

Returning ‘home’, I am struck by how similar the entire city appears, it is literally block after block of identical buildings, darkness is falling and we’ve had a few beers. Not a great combination. At one point we are stopped by the police, guns and all. In my best ‘O’ level Italian, I explain where we are trying to get to and somehow we do manage eventually to return to base.

There is a pub across the road which looks lively, so in we go. Things are going well until the place is raided by yet more police. We are like TV viewers detached from the scene, as the usual suspects are lined up against the wall before everything calms back down. We are left alone to head back to our Poundland penthouse. Thankfully, there is a game tomorrow.

The following day, we meet up with some other Celtic fans in the city centre, and the news is not good. Supporters are speaking of attacks and robberies and all-round carnage taking place, with us as the targets. Some of this is put down to trouble in Turin the previous summer, when English fans rioted in the city following a defeat by Italy in the European Championships, Celtic being the first team from these shores to visit the place since then. So it’s a cat-and-mouse day for the Cairn reps, low-profile beers and a few more distressing tales to hear, before making our way to the stadium for the big game.

We’re inside the ground and this is something else entirely. We seem to be surrounded by Italian fans and all notion of segregation has long since been abandoned. This is exhilarating but genuinely scary. There are fireworks everywhere as the teams emerge into this cauldron, Celtic wearing all-green as we try to make any kind of impact against a 70,000-strong wall of deafening Italian noise. It already feels like we will be up against it big time tonight. As suspected, Danny McGrain hasn’t made it, a major blow, young Moyes reinstated but this time at right back and Roy Aitken was the captain for the night.

The game kicks off and Juventus are in the mood, Brady pulling the strings as attack after attack bears down on our goal. Despite this, Celtic put up fierce resistance, Brady’s young compatriot Bonner outstanding for the first half-hour before winger Virdis spins in front of us to curl a beauty into the far corner. The tie is level and it’s going to be a long, difficult night.

Early in the second-half, Roberto Bettega swivels in the box to beat Bonner with a vicious shot, and the Italians have the overall lead they crave. Although a solitary away goal is all that is required, there will be no way back for Celtic. Juventus are masters at seeing out the game. The ball is passed across and through us and the only surprise is that they don’t appear interested in going for a killer third.

We head back to our ‘local’, deflated and defeated on the evening, a second police raid going almost unnoticed as the inquest begins. Worse is to follow in the morning, as the local newspapers are full of the most horrific photographs of assaulted Celtic supporters. It has been a bloodbath outside the ground where the supporters’ buses were parked, one man has been slashed across his back and is in hospital. The result is suddenly irrelevant, as we realise families back home will be worried sick in the pre-mobile days of 1981. Our train is not due to leave Turin until 10.30pm. It will be a long day.

Early in the evening, we head into the main station and base ourselves in a bar there for some final beers. It feels like a safer option than walking the streets. Having witnessed the worst of behaviour, we are then confronted with the decent face of football, as a number of Juventus fans approach us to apologise for the treatment we have received here.

As the only Italian-speaker in the group, I have become interpreter-in-chief and incredibly we end up having a great laugh, sharing a few beers with the Italian fans. There is a surreal moment later on, as one supporter insists I follow him to his car. I cringe to this day at my naivety in doing so, however, someone is looking after me and the Italian then proceeds to empty his glove compartment to provide me with a parting gift, a Supertramp cassette of the time, ‘Breakfast in America’. When I hear the Green Brigade belt out the Scotty Sinclair Logical Song, I often have a chuckle at that episode in Turin’s main railway station, one of the lighter moments in what was a severe initiation to my European awaydays.

Soon it was ‘arrivederci’ for the long journey home, as before, via Paris and London. The tin whistle was somewhat muted from memory, as we contemplated an incredible few days. We arrived back in Glasgow early on the Saturday morning, exhausted and with just enough time for a wash and shave before catching the Cairn bus at 10.30am for the trip to Dens Park, a mere 90 miles or so away!

It had been a strange opening to the season for the champions. Despite playing some fabulous football we were already out of two tournaments, having won a third. Focus would now be on an all-out assault to lift the League and/or Scottish Cup, maintaining Cesar’s record of a major trophy win every season.

To be continued…

Hail Hail!

Matt Corr

Click on Matt Corr’s name at the top of the page to read some of his other excellent features on The Celtic Star.

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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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