Mrs Stein unfurled the flag, then it all went horribly wrong

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They say that to really enjoy the best of times, you also have to endure the worst of them.

Season 1977/78 certainly comes into that category. In my previous article, I recalled the day in April 1977, when Jock Stein’s Celtic regained the League Championship at Easter Road. The double soon followed, as Rangers were defeated in the Cup Final, thanks to Andy Lynch’s first-half penalty. The Celtic fans who sang in the rain at Hampden that day would have little idea of the contrast in the season to follow.

The signs were ominous pre-season, as speculation mounted that Kenny Dalglish, our captain, would be heading south sooner rather than later. This only increased when Kenny did not travel with the team for a pre-season tour of Singapore and Australia, where Celtic overcame international selects from the two host countries, plus Arsenal and Red Star Belgrade, to return home with the World Soccer Trophy.

Sadly, that would pretty much be it, as far as success for this season was concerned. Our worst fears were confirmed, when following a final appearance in a friendly at East End Park, Kenny followed the trail of his Quality Street Kid team-mates Macari and Hay to the riches of the English League, this time to join Bob Paisley’s European Champions, Liverpool. Mike Maher tells this story on The Celtic Star HERE.

Whilst Kopites would see their beloved Keegan replaced by a superstar, there would be no such compensation for Celtic supporters, as a succession of journeymen made their way through Parkhead’s gates in the coming months.

For those of us in the Jungle for the opening league fixture on the following Saturday, where Dundee United were the visitors, despite the sunshine and an attendance of more than 34,000, there was an unusually sombre atmosphere to flag day proceedings. Minus Kenny, Celtic lacked guile and the game finished scoreless.

Much more worrying, however, were the serious injuries sustained by two key players, Pat Stanton and Alfie Conn. Pat had been outstanding in his first season at Celtic, where he swept up behind a young Roddy MacDonald to form the backbone of our central defence. Following a tremendous career at Hibernian, the double-winning success of 1976/77 would be his swansong. He did not play top-class football again.

Danny McGrain celebrates the Scottish Cup Final win over Rangers with ‘He’s alright now,” Alfie, Alphie Conn

Alfie had been signed from Tottenham in one of those ‘headline grabbing’ transfers in which Jock was an acknowledged master. The former Rangers star provided the impetus for the title run-in when he joined in March, as well as providing the inspiration for the memorable Jungle chant, “He used to be ONE  but he’s alright now, Alfie, Alfie!”. Whilst his injury was not career-ending, he would be missing until October, by which time the tone for the season had been well set.

The following week was little better, with Celtic blowing a first-half lead to lose 2-1 at Somerset Park, in a game remembered for the incredible sending-off of Johnny Doyle, playing against his old side, for hitting referee Bob Cuthill in the face with a cross ball. This provoked angry scenes in the crowd, with Jock himself forced to intervene, as he had done at Annfield some six years earlier. The referee’s decision was overturned by the SFA on appeal, however, the points were gone and the dreadful start to the season continued.

Before October was out, there would be home defeats to Motherwell, with another Quality Street Kid, Vic Davidson, scoring a late winner, then Alex Ferguson’s young St Mirren side, where Frank Munro, signed the night before and making his debut as captain for his boyhood club, marked the occasion with an own goal. Future Celt, Billy Stark, scored the winner, following good work by another ‘to be’ Parkhead legend, Frank McGarvey.

Our away form was equally worrying, an Edvaldsson double half-time lead being lost at Ibrox, then another lead blown at Pittodrie to Billy McNeill’s Dons, where another Celtic defender scored for the opposition on his debut.

This time the unfortunate offender was giant centre-half Ian McWilliams, recently recruited from Queens Park and rumoured to have retained his amateur status at Celtic. Four successive league defeats and just a single point gained from our opening five games, meant that the defending champions’ season was, in essence, over before it had really started.

A defeat at Firhill continued the trend and even when we managed a couple of home victories, against Clydebank and Hibs, serious injuries to captain Danny McGrain and Johnny Doyle literally piled on the agony for the Celts. Danny had battled back from a fractured skull at Brockville then the onset of diabetes to become the world’s best full-back and he would now be ruled out for more than a year.

Thus, we had lost our two genuine world-class players within a couple of months.

In over 50 years of following Celtic, I cannot recall such a run of results and injuries to key players. This was reflected in a league placing of third-bottom by end October, with only Clydebank and Ayr United faring worse.

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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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