The tale of Jimmy Johnstone and the rowing boat is well-known to Celtic supporters. In 1974, the Celts’ greatest ever player was stranded on the Firth of Clyde in a boat with no oars and had to be rescued by the coastguard.
What’s less well-known is that almost nine decades beforehand a similar incident involved another Bhoys’ legend – an event that could even have stopped there being a Celtic!
Johnny Madden was an iconic figure in the club’s early history. He was centre forward in the first ever game and was also part of various other early achievements including league titles and cup wins.
Madden’s footballing legacy is not confined to Scotland. Many consider him to be the ‘father of Czech football’ for the influence he had on club and national football during his later time as boss of Slavia Prague.
One Saturday in August 1886, John Madden – along with two others, Charles Madden and John Halliday (some newspapers wrote this as Haidley) – left Dumbarton by steamer for a day out in Greenock. They stayed the night and on Sunday morning tried to get home.
Their return route was much less organised than the outward journey. At the James Watt Dock, the trio somehow managed to take charge of a row boat and tried to make their away over the Clyde. It is likely that all three were still feeling the effects of the previous day’s alcohol; certainly Charles was later said by local newspapers “to have been under the influence of drink”.
En route Johnny demanded to be let out, possibly due to safety fears. His partners dropped him at Davie’s Shore in Port Glasgow. The remaining two then again set off – but disaster loomed. They managed to lose an oar and so drifted helplessly into the middle of the river.
On hearing a commotion, an engine-keeper (the same occupation as Johnny’s father) named Samuel Hague set off in his own boat. He picked up Johnny and then went after the other two. There was a low tide and so the first two men’s boat had become stuck on a sandbank. A large crowd had gathered to watch these proceedings.
Events now took on a state of farce. As Johnny approached the other boat, Charles Madden jumped into the water. He said he would make his own way home, through a combination of walking and swimming in the direction of Cardross lighthouse. Demands from his companions that he return were ignored.
Johnny and the other two men headed back to Port Glasgow. There they alerted police about Charles’ plan. Miraculously he did in fact make it back safely, having waded and walked for about a mile-and-a-half through the shallow water and sandbank.
This Madden story is not widely known – no other accounts of his life refer to it – however it seems certain that the Madden in this story is the Celtic forward.
For one thing, the men were from Dumbarton, Madden’s home town and where every census from 1871 to 1901 listed him as living. Johnny also had a brother called Charles Madden, the name of one of the other men.
The three people were described by newspapers as being “young men”; Johnny at this point would be age 21.
Furthermore, they were all shipyard riveters, the same occupation as the Celt. In the 1881 census only two John Maddens were living in Dumbarton: one was a riveter (Celtic’s Madden) and the other a labourer.
Given his status as a footballer, it could be argued that if this was the real Johnny Madden then newspapers would have said this. However in 1886 Madden was not yet well-known in the sport, only appearing for local teams in Dumbarton.
In many ways the Madden boat incident was a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment for Celtic where a different outcome could have substantially altered the club’s history – or even erased it altogether.
The Clyde can be a dangerous place. In the weeks leading up to the Madden incident, newspapers reported drownings in the same area. If the future Celt had died, the club may never have been created.
Before coming to Parkhead, Madden played for Dumbarton, including in the 1887 Scottish Cup Final. This was won by Hibs and it was this victory – and subsequent celebrations in Glasgow’s east end afterwards – which was the catalyst to establish Celtic.
Madden apparently had a disappointing final, missing various chances. However if he’d met his end the year before, another Dumbarton forward might have proved to be a deadlier finisher. This could have stopped Hibs claiming their victory and all that followed.
Of course this outcome is all guesswork. But for safety’s sake, Ange Postecoglou should ensure that Kyogo, Jota and in fact all of the team are kept well away from boats, without or without oars.
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