“No-one knew more about football than Jimmy Gribben,” Jock Stein

“No-one knew more about football than Jimmy Gribben. He was my friend and my advisor,” Jock Stein…

Jimmy and Jock with the Scottish Cup in Glasgow’s Central Hotel in April 1965

Despite enjoying a senior footballing career, it would be in his next post-playing role that the name of Jimmy Gribben would become more widely known. Jimmy worked for Celtic in the backroom team as a scout and assistant trainer between 1940 and 1976.

Manus Gallagher is the proud owner of an incredible library of Celtic books and he has trawled the annual club handbooks of that era for information on Jimmy’s appointment or promotion at Parkhead without success. I think it likely that he was appointed as part of Jimmy McStay’s backroom team as a scout following the retirement of Willie Maley in February 1940, and that at some point in the next decade he was promoted to the role of assistant trainer, which he certainly held in the summer of 1951, as he is captured as such on the team photograph then. He would therefore serve under three Celtic managers, McStay, Jimmy McGrory then finally Jock Stein himself, before officially retiring in July 1970, although his connection with the club would possibly continue on an informal basis until his death six years later.

Celtic 1951/52

It was around that same summer of 1951 that Jimmy received a rather unusual gift from Celtic. Grand-daughter Margaret Gribbon picks up the story.

“It is local folklore that the Gribbons were the first to own a television set in Baillieston. This was in 1951; it was a Vidor television and at that time Grandad Gribbon was working as a football coach with Celtic FC and the TV was given to him by one of the club’s doctors, possibly John Fitzsimons. Apparently, the house was crammed with the natives watching the Queen’s Coronation.”

It wasn’t only the backroom staff at Celtic who found favour with Jimmy. He made such an impression on Gil Heron during the Jamaican centre-forward’s brief spell at the club in the 1950s that the player was later moved to comment on his role.

“My days at Parkhead have been wonderful, and there are no greater bunch of boys than those at the paradise. I, as a complete stranger, was made at home the moment I arrived and the Manager (Mr. McGrory) has been very understanding.

There at Celtic Park we are fortunate enough to have one of the greatest trainers in football in the person of Alex. Dowdalls, and I can’t forget Jimmy Gribbon, who personally has helped me tremendously, in other words he’s just like a father.”

Trainer Alex Dowdells would leave Celtic Park in the summer of 1956 to take up a role at Leicester City, with Willie Johnstone brought in as his replacement.

Celtic trainers Willie Johnstone and Jimmy Gribben

Jimmy would assist Willie with the first team whilst also working closely from 1957 with the man he had brought to Celtic six years earlier, new reserve team coach Jock Stein. Jock moved to Dunfermline in 1960 to take up his first manager’s post at East End Park, but the reserve side he left behind in Glasgow would be in good hands. The family sent me a photo of Jimmy’s medal for winning the 1960/61 Scottish Reserve League with Celtic, a third successive title. Of course, the medal was engraved with the name Jimmy Gribban, just to keep us all guessing!

As an aside, there was another incredible co-incidence in the timing of that Reserve League win. As the young Celts were securing the title at Tynecastle with a 6-3 win over Hearts on Wednesday, 26 April 1961, their former coach Jock Stein was winning his first major honour as a manager – by beating his old team Celtic in the replayed final of the Scottish Cup! Bertie Auld scored twice for the second-string – having lost his first-team place to Alex Byrne – and was watched that day by representatives from Birmingham City, with a transfer imminent. Other scorers for the reserves in Gorgie were Bobby Carroll, with a hat-trick, and Jim Conway.

Later that year, a tiny, red-haired teenage winger arrived at Parkhead from Blantyre Celtic. Jimmy Gribben also had a vital role in keeping the player later voted as the greatest in Celtic’s history at the club.

‘Jim’ Johnstone had featured for Celtic reserves before being farmed out to a junior side – in his case Blantyre Celtic – as was the custom at that time. On St Patrick’s Day, 1962, Jimmy Gribben travelled to watch Johnstone play for Junior Scotland against Ireland at Castlereagh Park, Newtownards, the little winger impressing in a 4-1 win, as did wing-half Martin Ferguson of Kirkintilloch Rob Roy, brother of future Aberdeen and Manchester United manager, Alex. By all accounts, Gribben had seen enough to convince the Celtic management that the winger had the talent to succeed at senior level. He would be called up to Celtic Park in the summer of 1962 and made his first-team debut at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock on Wednesday, 28 March 1963, just 12 months after Jimmy’s visit to watch him in Ireland. By the end of that season, Johnstone had appeared for Celtic in a Scottish Cup final. He would not look back. In Jimmy Gribben’s page in The Celtic Wiki, there is an article which also refers to his role in ensuring the genius of Jinky was not lost to Celtic.

“Again, we Celts can be thankful for Jimmy’s footballing nous. When a certain Jimmy Johnstone arrived at Celtic Park, both Bob Kelly and Jimmy McGrory felt he would never make the grade, mainly due to his diminutive nature. But Jimmy Gribben persuaded the two – and continued to argue on behalf of Johnstone – that the wee man had the qualities required to flourish at Celtic and so Jimmy Johnstone was given the chance to become ‘Wee Jinky.’

Gribben’s son Billy used to be told of the tiny wing wizard and said later, “I’m sure every Celtic fan is glad my dad made them persevere as he went on to become the best player the club has ever known.”

Jimmy and Margaret presented with an electric coffee pot by Jimmy Johnstone, John Clark, Billy McNeill and Jock Stein

Jimmy’s granddaughter Margaret Gribbon would have been delighted that Jinky stayed at Celtic as well, otherwise he might not have been around to take her to Glasgow’s O Sole Mio restaurant for dinner on her 21st birthday in October 1988!

And historian Pat Woods is in no doubt of Jimmy Gribben’s importance to the Celtic story.

“No Jimmy Gribben…No Jock Stein…No Jimmy Johnstone…No European Cup.

It’s as simple as that.”

On 16 January 1971, just six months after Jimmy’s retirement from Celtic, Margaret, his wife of over 40 years, passed away in the family home at 17 Greenshields Road, Baillieston. Born on 22 December 1901, Margaret had celebrated her 69th birthday just a few weeks earlier. The cause of death was stated as bronchogenic carcinoma and was registered by her son John. The thought has occurred to me that Jimmy’s retirement from Celtic Park the previous summer may have been announced when news of his wife’s illness was received at the club.

Jimmy would outlive his beloved Margaret by the best part of six years. He died just before 8am on Saturday, 20 November 1976, also at 17 Greenshields Road. He had turned 81 years old the previous month and was suffering from acute ventricular failure and myocardial degeneration. The death was registered by his daughter, Betty McCaig, who as mentioned earlier lived with her dad at the same address. Despite his surname being recorded at birth as Gribbin and being widely known in his football career as Gribben, the death certificate shows him as James Gribbon. His occupation, as stated on that certificate, was Assistant Football Trainer (retired), a lovely touch, reflecting perhaps how proud he was of being Jimmy Gribbon of Celtic. He had put the same words on Margaret’s death certificate back in 1971.

That same afternoon in November 1976, I was privileged to be in the Tynecastle stand as Celtic took on Hearts in a vital League match, the Celtic players wearing black armbands as a gesture of respect to Jimmy. A Willie Gibson hat-trick looked to have derailed the Hoops’ title challenge as the hosts raced into a 3-1 lead by the break, but a storming second-half fightback saw Jock Stein’s exciting side come through to win 4-3 with a late Ronnie Glavin strike.

The Celtic View of Wednesday, 24 November 1976 carried news of Jimmy’s sad passing, under the headline…Death of Jimmy Gribben

“The funeral took place to Dalbeth Cemetery yesterday of Jimmy Gribben, a valued backroom figure at Parkhead for a number of years. There was a large Celtic representation at the Requiem Mass and burial services.

Jimmy Gribben who was 81, was instrumental in Jock Stein coming to Celtic as a player 25 years ago. Recollecting his transfer from non-league Llanelly to Parkhead, manager Stein said:

“Jimmy Mallan and Alex Boden were injured and Jimmy, who knew me from my Albion Rovers days, thought I’d do as a stop-gap centre-half. I was associated with him in the development of young players at Parkhead from 1957 to 1960. A lot of players signed from then onwards can be thankful to him. He was a great favourite, a kindly man who had a clinical approach to the game. He gave great service to Celtic and many people will remember him with gratitude.”

Jock’s Celtic would honour their old friend and colleague again with a 1-0 victory at Ibrox that very night, thanks to a wonderful curling shot from Joe Craig, securing a first Hoops win over Rangers in almost three years and my first-ever victory in that fixture witnessed personally.

Jimmy would no doubt be nodding his approval at those two results back in November 1976…and his Celtic legacy lives on to this day.

Whilst hosting a Celtic Park Stadium Tour on 29 October 2023, I was advised that two of Jimmy’s grandsons and two of his great-grandsons were present. Cue some special photographs and a great discussion over Jimmy’s role in securing our greatest-ever manager.

Jimmy’s grandsons Michael and Jamie Doherty at Celtic Park with his great grandsons Harley and Craig Docherty

Nikki Guthrie and Elaine Currie were the two ladies from the tour who contacted me later. Nikki is the partner of Jimmy’s grandson, Michael Docherty, and Elaine is her best friend. Michael and his elder brother Jamie Docherty are the sons of Margaret Gribbin, Jimmy’s late daughter, and they had brought their respective sons Harley and Craig Docherty – two of Jimmy’s great-grandsons – on the Celtic Park tour as a birthday treat for Michael. Nikki dropped me a note looking for information on a possible publication about Jimmy’s career as a surprise for Michael and, before you know it, I am knee deep in Gribben research!

Small world syndrome then kicks in, and I discover that another of my friends and colleagues from the stadium tours, Ken Ross, has known one of Jimmy’s granddaughters – Margaret Gribbon – for many years. Ken puts us in touch and soon I am meeting up with Margaret and her brother John, viewing Jimmy’s treasured Celtic blazer and shamrock jersey, now beautifully framed and displayed by his grandson, and speaking with others from Jimmy’s family. This article is the eventual output from those accidental seeds.

Another cherished Jimmy Gribben memento – a shamrock jersey given to Jimmy’s son by his dad
…Jimmy’s blazer from 1962, still in the proud possession of his family

A few weeks after meeting the Docherty’s on the tour, just before Christmas, I was chatting with ex-Celt Tommy Callaghan about folk who had been significant in the development and history of Celtic, so I threw in the name of Jimmy Gribben. Tommy remembered Jimmy well.

“Jimmy was around when I signed for Celtic in November 1968. He was an older man by then, but Jock thought the world of him and kept him involved. In fact, he brought him along on my first trip to Seamill, shortly after I joined the club. It was just the players with Neilly, Sean and Bob Rooney but I remember that Jimmy was there also. He would have been a good age by that time, and I think he left the club and retired shortly afterwards.”

I’ll leave the last word to Jock Stein, from the programme of his testimonial match in 1978.

“I don’t suppose many of you youngsters will recognise the old gentleman to whom I am, showing the European Cup. He’s the late Jimmy Gribben – and one of the great Celts. Jimmy was my mentor, the man responsible for Sir Robert Kelly bringing me back from Wales to Parkhead. Jimmy was one of the real backroom boys, a good player in his day, an able coach. Never in the public eye, he did a remarkable job at Celtic Park.

No-one knew more about football than Jimmy Gribben. He was my friend and my advisor. Jimmy is long gone now but I will never forget him. He taught me much, especially in my apprenticeship days as a coach and manager.

People like Jimmy Gribben were the lifeblood of football – and how we could do with more of his calibre, of his wisdom, experience and coaching talent today.”

Hail Hail!

Matt Corr

With grateful thanks to Pat Woods, Tom Campbell, Manus Gallagher, Ken Ross, Nikki Guthrie, Elaine Currie, Margaret Gribbon, John Gribbon, John Tracey, Philomena Tracey and the wider Gribbon family.

Follow Matt on Twitter @Boola_vogue

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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