It’s a story of firsts, controversy and revenge for the early Celts

Celtic’s history is filled with stories of cup success; this week marked the 135th anniversary of the first time the Bhoys ever reached a final. It’s a story of firsts, controversy and revenge for the Celts…

In 1888, a grand exhibition was held in Glasgow, formally called the ‘International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry’. It drew visitors from across the world, with almost six million people attending during its run from May to November.

The extravaganza was held in Kelvingrove Park, with the money it raised being used to build Kelvingrove Art Gallery. As well as many demonstrations and public lectures, sport was also part of the Exhibition’s programme, with events taking place at Glasgow University’s recreation grounds.

These sports pitches no longer exist but were found in the shadow of the University’s famous tower building. In the modern era, the site of these pitches now houses the university’s School of Chemistry (the Joseph Black Building).

The Glasgow Exhibition Cup was another attraction for visitors. It involved 16 teams from across the west of Scotland, including modern day sides Morton, Partick Thistle, Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Clyde.

Celtic were also part of the line-up, in their first ever competition. The Bhoys had only played their first game at the end of May 1888, winning 5-2 versus Rangers. In fact, the Exhibition had begun before Celtic even played this game.

On Wednesday 1 August 1888, Celtic appeared in the opening fixture of the cup contest. It was a notable moment as both Celtic’s first ever competitive game and also first game away from the original Celtic Park. The Celts’ opponents were Paisley side Abercorn.

4000 fans were there to see this competitive debut, although not the Bhoys’ first win. Although Celtic took the lead (newspapers do not record the scorer), Abercorn equalised and the match finished 1-1.

The next steps are a mystery. A replay was to be held and scheduled for the following Monday. However this was a local holiday in Paisley and there were suggestions that Abercorn would refuse to play. In the end, Celtic were in the second round and no record exists of any replayed match, suggesting that Abercorn may have indeed ‘scratched’ the tie.

In the next round (quarter finals), Celtic were drawn to play another side which, like Abercorn, no longer exists. Dumbarton Athletic were one of a number of teams that played in the town in this era. The game was held twenty days about Celtic’s opening tie, on 21 August 1888.

This was a small but momentous day for Celtic. According to newspapers, a “large turnout of spectators” watched as the Celts took a massive early lead, going 3-0 up after only ten minutes. Even a later fightback by Athletic only made it 3-1. Celtic were not only in the next round, they had their first ever competitive win.
The Firsts seemed to keep on coming when the Celts played their semi-final tie. The match against Partick Thistle was the Bhoys’ first ever competitive Glasgow derby, and in fact the oldest one still in existence. The two teams met eight days later, on 29 August 1888.

The game seem destined for a draw – and a replay – until a dramatic conclusion. One of the Thistle forwards, Ferguson, was injured and left the field with two minutes to go (in the days before substitutions were allowed). Celtic then struck before the end and claimed a 1-0 victory.

A week later, Celtic were back at the university sports grounds, this time to play in their first ever cup final. On 6 September 1888, the Bhoys lined up against Cowlairs, from north Glasgow. This was the team that, along with Hibernian, played in the first ever match at the original Celtic Park.

6000 fans watched the game and, despite being a new team, Celtic were seen as favourites for the game. However Cowlairs had some guest players from other teams – including James McCall of Renton – which would even the match.

As the match started, Celtic seemed to have the advantage. Playing downhill and with the wind at their backs, they put their rivals on the back foot. However when half-time came it was still 0-0 and the Celts would now have to contend with those problems.

Within five minutes of the second half starting, Stewart of Cowlairs had given his team the lead. The north Glasgow men thought they had doubled their advantage but it was ruled out, before a goal from Bishop did make it 2-0. Celtic had no answer and their first final ended in disappointment.

There was some bad blood taken from the game. Throughout the match, the Bhoys complained that Cowlairs fans severely abused the Celtic team. As a result, at the after-match dinner, Celtic’s John Glass promised that the Bhoys would have their revenge.

Portrait of John Glass – Celtic Founding Father

The club president said: “Let them scoff and jeer. Celtic will yet win to their proper position by their merits and those who scoff today will one day have to applaud.” Before the season was out, this would prove to a prophetic statement.

Within a few months, the Bhoys fame and success was already evident. Despite it being only their first season, they reached the Scottish Cup Final, losing out to Third Lanark. This remains the only club that Celtic have ever met in the Scottish Cup Final and failed to beat.

And then in May 1889 came another historic moment. The Celts claimed their first ever trophy when they won the Glasgow North Eastern Cup. Playing at Clyde’s Barrowfield ground (only around one mile from the current Celtic Park), they easily triumphed 6-1.

Their opponents that day? Cowlairs, of course. It seemed that President Glass promise of payback was proven entirely correct. It was also only the start of a glorious history.

Matthew Marr – @hailhailhistory

Matthew Marr’s debut Celtic book, The Bould Bhoys, Glory to their name is out now on Celtic Star Books. Order your copy below…

About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor, who has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email

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