Oh The irony, Glasgow Celtic! Champions of the British Empire, 1938

If you know the history – Celtic at birth, 50 & 100: Part 8 – July 1938

Any Celtic supporter looking back at the season just ended in July 1938, the fiftieth in the emerging story of one of the world’s great football clubs, would have been forgiven for thinking that very few, if any, of the preceding 49 campaigns would have witnessed such drama. There had been just about everything in there, Parkhead legends moving on and new heroes moving in, record crowds, historic milestones and unique achievements, many of which are still discussed in Celtic circles to this day.

In a club renowned for starting elevens which can be recited without effort, the Lisbon Lions being perhaps the best example, Celtic’s Scottish Cup-winning side of 1937 are right up there:

Kennaway: Hogg & Morrison: Geatons, Lyon & Paterson: Delaney, Buchan, McGrory, Crum & Murphy – this side was mentioned only this morning on The Celtic Star as Brian (Poppy) enriched our day with his lifetime memories of supporting Celtic – see HERE.

And here’s another video, this time on You Tube…

On Saturday, 24 April 1937, in front of a European club record crowd of 147,365 – Hampden Park at that time the biggest stadium in the world, its capacity measured at over 180,000 but ticket sales restricted to 150,000 – the above Celtic side defeated Aberdeen 2-1. Johnny Crum opened the scoring for Celtic in the 11th minute, with Armstrong equalising for the Dons – playing in their first Scottish Cup final and wearing their distinctive gold-and-black shirts of the time – straight from the restart. With 18 minutes remaining, Jimmy McGrory flicked the ball through for Willie Buchan to score off the far post, as the Hoops won the famous old trophy for the 15th time. Unbeknown at the time, it would be the last Celtic honour won by the two fan favourites. (there is another unique video clip on this which can be accessed via National Library of Scotland HERE).

A week is certainly a long time in football. The new cup-holders were brought back down to earth with a bump the following Friday, losing 8-0 at Fir Park, Motherwell, Celtic’s record defeat to this day. This was the final match of a League season which saw the defending champions finish in third place, behind both Rangers and Aberdeen. Just about everything that could go wrong, did so that day.

Goalkeeper Joe Kennaway was injured early on and had to retire in the first-half, replaced between the sticks by Willie Buchan, whilst left-back Jock Morrison was a virtual passenger on the left wing before he finally left the field.

Motherwell striker, Alex Stewart helped himself to six goals, perhaps the only player ever to do so against Celtic. I recall reading that the team were heading down on the overnight train to London to watch former Celtic colleagues, brothers Frank and Hugh O’Donnell, play in the English FA Cup Final for Preston North End against Sunderland.

Frank would open the scoring at Wembley, just before half-time in a match where incredibly 12 of the 22 players (including Preston’s Bill Shankly) and both managers were Scottish, however, the Wearsiders would storm back with three goals of their own after the break to take the cup home to the north-east.

The two cup-holders from either side of the border would face each other at Roker Park, Sunderland on Wednesday, 6 October 1937, Celtic winning 2-0 with goals from the aforementioned McGrory and Buchan. The Celtic Wiki report on the game highlights another connection between the clubs, this one through tragedy.

Whilst Celtic were still mourning the loss of the Prince of Goalkeepers, John Thomson, just six years earlier, the event which led to Joe Kennaway crossing the Atlantic to leave his own mark on the Hoops story, Sunderland had watched their own 22-year-old keeper, local hero Jimmy Thorpe, die a few days after a game on this same venue in February 1936, following some harsh treatment from the Chelsea attackers which led to a much-needed rule change by the FA. Celtic and Sunderland would later meet twice more before the 1937/38 season was out.

Ten days after his goal against the Wearsiders, Jimmy McGrory opened the scoring at Celtic Park in a League match against Queen’s Park, a game the Hoops would go on to win 4-3. It would prove to be the final appearance and goal in his beloved Hoops for the Bhoy from Garngad, Britain’s greatest-ever goalscorer. Increasingly-bothered by injury, he had still managed 6 goals in 11 games in this present campaign. Things would never quite be the same again for Celtic supporters of that era.

It was about to get worse. On Saturday, 13 November 1937, Willie Buchan opened the scoring at Cathkin Park as Celtic and Third Lanark drew 1-1. Two days later, he found himself summoned to a meeting at Willie Maley’s restaurant in Glasgow City Centre, where the Celtic boss was joined by his Blackpool equivalent, a record £10,000 transfer fee already agreed with no input whatsoever from Buchan. How times have changed.

The following Saturday, Matt Lynch made his first-team debut against Ayr United at Somerset Park, effectively as Buchan’s ready-made replacement, as the sides shared two goals.

On Monday, 20 December 1937, it was announced that Jimmy McGrory had retired from playing and would take up the manager’s post at Rugby Park. As fate would have it, five days later, Christmas Day, the Celtic legend brought his new Kilmarnock charges to Glasgow’s east end on League business and left on the receiving end of an 8-0 defeat. Merry Christmas, Jimmy! Curiously, Willie Maley is said to have taken some glee from McGrory’s misfortune. He would have his revenge soon enough.

Seven days later, on Saturday 1 January 1938, 92,000 fans packed Celtic Park with many more locked outside, whilst some fans left the stadium unable to see the game due to the crowd congestion. The Hoops beat Rangers 3-0 to take another step towards regaining their title. This remains the record attendance for a game at Celtic Park, albeit some reports cite the actual attendance as ‘only’ 83,000.

The following weekend, Celtic travelled to Tynecastle to take on closest rivals Hearts, coming from behind to win 4-2 in front of 44,000, thanks to a masterclass from John Crum, now moved to centre-forward to replace the legendary McGrory. This was the pivotal match of this League campaign.

On Saturday, 5 March 1938, McGrory brought Kilmarnock to Celtic Park for a second visit, this time to take on the holders in the third round of the Scottish Cup. The underdogs would have their day, winning 2-1 in front of 40,000 spectators. Penny for your thoughts, Mr Maley.

On 2 April 1938, Willie Maley celebrated his 70th birthday, having served Celtic since the age of 20. By this time, it is alleged that trainer Jimmy ‘Napoleon’ McMenemy, another legendary Celt from the great man’s early teams, was acting as de facto manager as Maley moved towards retirement.

Three weeks later, almost a year to the day of that 1937 Scottish Cup final triumph, Celtic beat St Mirren 3-1 at Love Street to claim their 19th League title, a second in three seasons. On the same day, McGrory’s Kilmarnock were held 1-1 by Second Division East Fife in this year’s Hampden Cup final, having beaten Rangers 4-3 in the semi-final. The underdogs would prevail by 4-2 in the replay, the first second-tier side to win the Scottish Cup, thus denying Jimmy McGrory a winner’s medal in his first year as a manager. He would be back to claim that medal in 1951, this time with Celtic. As an aside, East Fife remained the only team from outside the top division to win the old cup until 2016, when ex-Celts Alan Stubbs and Anthony Stokes combined to end Hibernian’s 114-year-old Scottish Cup hoodoo, the Leith club defeating fellow Championship side, Rangers, 3-2 in the Hampden final.

With the Glasgow Charity Cup also secured by Maley’s Celtic, after a 2-0 victory over Rangers, the Empire Exhibition Cup would provide a fitting finale to Celtic’s half-centenary. With all the games played at Ibrox, Celtic beat Sunderland 3-1 on 26 May 1938, having been fortunate to draw 0-0 the previous day. Two days later, on 28 May, the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s first match, was reached.

On Friday, 3 June 1938, Celtic again edged out their title rivals, Hearts, 1-0 in the semi-final of the prestigious competition, thanks to a goal from Crum. And seven days later, the little striker struck in extra-time to defeat the mighty Everton in the final, in front of 82,000 fans. This would be the final major honour won by Willie Maley as Celtic’s manager. Champions of the Empire! Carlsberg/irony.

The line-up in the final against Everton saw just just two personnel changes from that which had won the Scottish Cup a little over twelve months earlier, both up front. With McGrory and Buchan now departed, Malcolm MacDonald and John Divers had taken the opportunity to become Celtic first-team regulars, the ‘new’ men filling the inside-forward positions whilst Johnny Crum moved to the centre to fill the biggest boots in world football, three medals in 1937/38 being a decent start.

On Wednesday, 15 June 1938, Celtic formally celebrated their Golden Jubilee, with a meal in the Grosvenor Restaurant in Gordon St in central Glasgow. Willie Maley was presented with 2,500 guineas, 50 for each year of service. In a poignant speech, the Boss includes the oft-quoted line:

‘My love for Celtic has been a craze…without it my existence would be empty indeed,’ Willie Maley said, a quote that sits proudly at the top of The Celtic Star.

And with that, this most monumental season in Celtic’s history to date was finally at an end.

Hail Hail,

Matt Corr

Follow Matt on Twitter @Boola_vogue

Thanks and credit as always to the folk behind the wonderful Celtic Wiki, an invaluable resource for Celtic historians.

Read Matt’s earlier article this week in this series…HERE

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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