Memories View – Celtic’s 1980-81 season. We’ve won the league again, fly the flag

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Back on League business, there were comfortable wins against Partick Thistle and Hearts before the next European tie, as Nicholas continued his fine scoring run.

The Romanian side Politehnica Timisoara were our next Cup-Winners’ Cup visitors, Charlie again on the mark with a first-half brace as Celts totally dominated proceedings. However, Celtic’s failure to convert any one of a dozen further chances proved costly, as a late Romanian counter set things up for a difficult second leg.

And so it proved a fortnight later in Timisoara, with a ridiculous performance from the Greek official taking centre stage. The writing was on the wall from the outset, as having won the toss, Danny McGrain looked on helplessly as the Romanians elected to play with the strong wind and kicked off.

Things went from bad to worse, MacDonald sent off within twenty minutes having been pushed to the ground, a goal awarded to the hosts in the closing stages despite a blatant foul on Latchford, then McGarvey sent packing for reacting to the umpteenth assault on him, as Celtic finished with nine men and out of Europe.

Even Assistant Manager John Clark got involved, the most mild-mannered of men provoked by the official into an argument and subsequent UEFA ban, as the tie ended in farce. Some of our Cairn members were among the small number of Celts in the 50,000 crowd.

However, when the red mist cleared, the fact remained that the return leg should have been a formality, given Celtic’s dominance at Parkhead. A sore lesson indeed.

September had ended with a whimper, with disappointing draws against Airdrie and Aberdeen. It took a late Nicholas penalty, his first for the club, to rescue a point against the newly-promoted Diamonds, in John Weir’s debut. At Pittodrie, another Charlie spot-kick, his ninth consecutive scoring appearance, then an excellent Burns header put Celts in control against the defending champions. However, a late collapse saw the Dons hit two goals in two minutes and a valuable opportunity to strike a title blow had been passed up.

There was progress in the League Cup, with a double-header against Hamilton Accies played within 48 hours due to Celtic’s European commitments. On the Monday night at Douglas Park, Johnny Doyle opened the scoring in a 3-1 win, knocking home the rebound after Ferguson had saved an Aitken shot.

None of us in the ground that evening would be aware we had just witnessed the last top-flight goal for a true Celt, the final chapter in that sad story being for another day. Two nights later, the job was completed at Celtic Park with a routine 4-1 victory, Nicholas and Burns again on target before a late brace from substitute McGarvey rounded things off.

By contrast, October was an excellent month domestically, Celts bouncing back from their European disappointment to record four straight League victories, with Dundee United, St Mirren, Morton and Kilmarnock the victims. Charlie, for once, failed to score at Love Street, although thankfully the Buddies chipped in with two own goals to gift the Hoops the points, in a game where their former star, McGarvey, was sent packing for the second time in ten days. There were also home and away wins over Partick Thistle in the League Cup Quarter-final, although extra-time was again required at Celtic Park before Burns and MacDonald finally settled the tie.

The see-saw season continued in November, with back-to-back defeats at Ibrox and at home to Aberdeen. Our first visit to the Free Broomloan was a miserable experience, the late Colin McAdam bullying his younger brother Tom to score twice in a 3-0 victory.

In midweek there was a glimmer of hope, a late Nicholas equaliser at Tannadice putting Celtic in pole position in the first leg of the League Cup Semi-final, as young left-back Mark Reid made his debut. However, the holders showed their mettle in the return game, scoring early on through Pettigrew before killing the tie with two second-half goals to set up a Dick Donnelly Dreary Dreich Dens Park Dundee Derby December final, which United would win easily.

There was a touch of ‘deja-vu’ about our next match, at home to St Mirren, as full-back Alex Beckett decided he would out do his Rangers rival Miller, with an even more outrageous last-minute strike to consign Celtic to a fourth defeat in six games. So it was a subdued Cairn CSC group who gathered for our first ever trip out of Scotland at dawn the following Tuesday, en route to London for Sammy Nelson’s Testimonial.

The game itself was not the story here, an instantly forgettable 0-0 draw on a freezing, cold night overshadowed by an incredible show of support from the 10,000 Celtic fans in the Clock End, making up around half of the Highbury crowd paying tribute to the Irish defender.

There was a bizarre moment the following morning, in that well-known Hoops haunt the Blochairn Inn, better known as the Budgie, in Garngad’s Fruit Market. Having travelled back to Glasgow overnight, the Wolfe Tones were given a brief break whilst the Troops descended on the Budgie for a breakfast pint. Whilst waiting to be served, I was asked by the barmaid to remove the Arsenal scarf I was still wearing, presumably to avoid upsetting any Spurs fans in the pub at that time. I guess there are football colours and football colours, however, it gave us all a laugh at the time.

The feel good factor from Highbury continued over the coming weeks, a strong second-half showing at Tannadice producing an excellent 3-0 win, John Weir scoring his only first-team goal whilst next-door neighbours Nicholas and Duffy shared the substitutes’ bench, as a degree of revenge for the League Cup reverse was taken.

Narrow victories at Firhill and at home to Hearts and Airdrie followed, attendances at all three games being worryingly in the 12-14,000 category, despite Celts clawing back to within a point of Aberdeen at the top of the table.

The final match of 1980 featured the top two at Pittodrie, a sell-out festive crowd of 24,000 watching as the defending champions blew Celtic away with an attacking performance which produced three goals without reply by the early moments of the second half.

That man Strachan then inflicted his own personal dose of pain, earning then converting a penalty for 4-0, before Nicholas gave the noisy and faithful Celtic support something to cheer at least on the day, with a consolation goal. It was not a happy bus on the long journey home, as we contemplated Celtic’s position at the end of a long, dark day. Now three points behind having played a game more, it seemed a forlorn hope that the flag would be flying above the Jungle come the summer.

However, as the old song goes, night is darkest just before the dawn…

Continued on the next page…

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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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