‘Today, you shook hands with the greatest centre-forward that ever kicked a ball’

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I have written several books about Celtic, and I always opted to have the illustrations in them show Celtic men in action (and wearing the hoops, of course). In my opinion, I rarely think of our heroes in street clothes, no matter how smart or trendy they may be … and I try not to think of them as ever growing old. In my mind’s eye, they are always young, superbly fit, and wearing green-and-white.

However, on occasion over the years, such as in interviews former Celtic players have turned up neatly dressed (and to outsiders looking more-or-less as ordinary men). For me it is always disconcerting to talk to a former player in jacket and tie, to talk about past games and to notice the grey hair and thickening girth … and at the same time to remember him as he was in his youth.

‘Disconcerting’, yes but not always disappointing.

The first Celtic player I met was one of the truly great ones, Jimmy Quinn (who scored three times to lead Celtic to a 3-2 win over Rangers in the 1903 Scottish Cup final). Perhaps I should explain that I never actually saw the great Jimmy Quinn play!

When I was a wee boy, round about 1943, my grandfather took me on some expedition or another into Glasgow. We were sitting on a bench in George Square when he jumped to his feet, obviously startled when an elderly man, an ordinary-looking man smoking a pipe, passed us.

He grabbed me by the hand, and raced after the man, and caught up with him at the traffic lights. Flustered, he started to speak: “Mr Quinn, Mr Quinn, could you, I mean would you shake hands with my grandson, please?”

This was done, and we made our way back to the bench and sat down. My grandfather, normally an unemotional man, still found it hard to collect his thoughts; finally, he was able to speak: “Never forget this. Today, you shook hands with the greatest centre-forward that ever kicked a ba'”.

To be perfectly honest, I have very little direct recollection of the event but it has passed into the Campbell family lore. The other instances cited here, I can remember…

One of my favourite Celtic players was Willie Fernie, and my admiration stemmed as much from his genuine sportsmanship as his undoubted skill and artistry. I saw him make his debut against St Mirren at Love Street on a miserable, rain-swept day, and was reasonably impressed and delighted in watching him perform for Celtic in later seasons. Sturdily-built with square shoulders, an erect posture, a graceful stride and a genuine player even from the start of his senior career.

In 2000 Pat Woods and I arranged for an interview with Willie at his home in Glasgow’s Newlands Drive. Audrey, his wife and who had been Jimmy McGrory’s long-time secretary, greeted us almost apologetically; Willie, apparently, was out, driving a visitor home and had not yet returned. Much worse was the news that he had very recently been diagnosed with ‘early-onset Alzheimers’ (and might at times be forgetful).

Willie arrived, still trim and fit-looking in his 70s; Audrey told him we had been informed about his diagnosis. He shrugged fatalistically, and admitted to a slight difficulty in pronouncing the name of the condition: “I’ll just call it ‘Oldtimers’. No great problem. Audrey’ll look after me. She’s been doing that for years, anyway.”

During the interview Audrey at times hovered nearby, but Willie needed little prompting from her or us. What we saw that night was an elderly man, polite and gracious, appreciative that we had taken the trouble to come and interview him. The interview went beautifully: Willie’s memory did not fail him, and he regaled us with stories of his days at Celtic Park. What impressed us greatly was his modesty about his own accomplishments and his tolerance, as it was obvious that he, a non-smoker and non-drinker, had not cared too much for the habits of some of his playing contemporaries but he was at pains not to criticize.

Unfortunately, many so-called heroes, admired and revered for their skill on the football field, cannot live up to that image off-stage. I can recall being in an Edinburgh pub and having to listen to a former star (and not a Celtic player) mouth off obscenitis about past injustices, and boast about his exploits on and off the football pitch. And so it was highly satisfying for Pat and me to meet and talk with somebody who lives up to the image. As a young man Willie Fernie was a player, and a sportsman; older, he was a gentleman (in the best possible meaning of the word).

I grieve at the current plight of Billy McNeill, so often an inspiring leader on the pitch but now apparently a helpless victim of dementia. I met him on several occasions and always was impressed with his air of authority, quick intelligence and, perhaps surprisingly, his tact.

A couple of examples.

Pat Woods and I collaborated on A Celtic A to Z back in 1992 and the book launch was held in Billy’s pub in Shawlands. He had promised that several of the Lisbon Lions would be present and, sure enough, they were there (in plain clothes) and in good form. My father was there, too, and he was (as always) very quiet and shy. He sat in the corner with my nephew and nursed a pint; and apparently content to sit back and observe but I knew the Lions were his heroes. I pointed him out to Billy and the big man swung into action. He had a quiet word with Bobby Murdoch first, and then walked over to the table where my father sat; they spoke for about ten minutes and then Bobby Murdoch took his place and then Bertie Auld and then Stevie Chalmers…

For almost an hour my father had most of the Lisbon Lions to himself, one-to-one, and I watched from a distance. I saw former footballers, real-life legends, carry out the instructions from their former captain willingly and cheerfully, take the time and the trouble to be attentive to one of the punters who had cheered them on years before and they were unswerving in their attention. I was impressed.

I remember also a Scottish Cup replay between Hearts and St Mirren at Tynecastle; I was living in Edinburgh at the time and went along. Hearts won by 3-0 and St Mirren (captained by Roy Aitken) had two men sent off and I think Chic Charnley was one of them. I was starting to head home, and bumped into Billy McNeill and we chatted for a minute; he suggested going inside for a cup of tea (or something); I hesitated but he assured me it would be fine and so it proved. He spoke to the Security Man at the door, a brief conversation: “He’s with me” … “No problem, Billy”.

A little booth inside, with a couple of Edinburgh matrons serving tea and coffee behind the counter, and I was fascinated by the conversation between Billy and one of the ladies, a middle-aged, genteel looking lady:

“Could we have a couple of cups of tea, Elizabeth?” ( ‘Elizabeth’ may not have been her name, but I’ve forgotten it.)

“Of course, Mr McNeill.”

She busied herself with the crockery, and Billy continued the conversation. “Elizabeth, how long have I been coming to Tynecastle now?”

“Quite a few years, Mr McNeill.”

“Well then, do you not think it’s time you called me ‘Billy’?”

“Perhaps, and I’ll think about it. But, regardless, you’ll always be ‘Mr McNeill’ to me.”

I remember that Billy smiled, shrugged his shoulders in resignation, and whispered to me: “There’s the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow for you.” Just then Wallace Mercer, Hearts’ chairman, came in, spotted Billy and made for him. “Are you two being looked after?”

“We’re just fine, Wallace. Every time I come to Tynecastle, I’m very well looked after especially by Elizabeth here.” I noticed that the Hearts’ chairman, noted the information, and was pleased at that; he had been informed quietly and effectively that ‘Elizabeth’ behind the counter was doing a great job and was one employee representing his club ideally.

Bobby Evans was a magnificent right-half for Celtic, and probably the best wing-half in Britain during the early 1950s. He was also one of the cleanest and most sporting of players and (despite his red hair) always in control of himself on the field no matter how torrid the match but he did have a reputation for touchiness off the pitch.

I have a personal memory of that trait of Bobby Evans. In the early 1950s I was waiting in the queue at a cinema in Sauchiehall Street to see the film The Great Caruso and noticed Bobby and his wife a couple of people ahead of me. Naturally I studied him, the first time I had seen him in real life, away from football: red hair, a shorter man than I would have thought but very powerfully built, dressed smartly in sports jacket and flannels and carrying a shopping bag from some department store. A pleasant young man and his wife, after shopping taking in a movie.

There was an interesting development, however. They had just picked up their tickets, and started to move on, when Bobby suddenly stiffened, looked angry and seemed prepared to step backwards. His wife seized his arm, said a few words like “Don’t bother, Robert!” And the incident was quickly over, Bobby and his wife going on into the cinema.

But, obviously, something had been said by the cashier to which the footballer had taken immediate exception, or some gesture made, or perhaps a hostile look exchanged but, whatever it was, it had changed the mood and the atmosphere. This incident made me think of the contradiction between the man’s somewhat prickly character off-field and his impeccable sportsmanship in game after game, season after season. ‘A puzzlement’, as the King of Siam might say.

So, I have seen Jimmy Quinn wearing his raincoat in a Glasgow street, Billy McNeill in jacket and tie at Tynecastle, Willie Fernie in shirt-sleeves in his living-room … but perhaps the most surprising ‘fashion news’ was the time I met Stanley Matthews (and Danny Blanchflower) when they were naked.

In the early 1960s the Canadian soccer authorities attempted to engender greater interest in the sport by having several British stars, such as Matthews, Blanchflower and others like Jackie Mudie, turn out for the recently formed Toronto City. Their first match was against Italia at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, but it ended in a 3-2 defeat.

I was at the game with John McMulken, also from Glasgow but a Rangers’ supporter, and afterwards we decided to loiter and see what was going on. We wandered under the bleachers and found ourselves in a warren of rooms; we wandered on, opened a door and found ourselves in the Toronto City dressing room and unchallenged by anybody. Most of the players were in a state of undress, and there we were face-to-face with the legendary Stanley Matthews and Ireland’s own Danny Blanchflower. Both were stark naked, and drinking energy drinks (probably Lucozade).

They nodded to us affably enough, probably thinking we had some official connection with the club … and we struck up a conversation: yes, they both liked Toronto, the weather was nice, the natives were friendly… the team would get to know one another and settle down … I have to admit I really don’t recall anything specific or memorable the great men said. After all, it is a bit unsettling to meet such stars in person for the first time and realize they are totally naked.

However, we noticed some things: Matthews, although about fifty years old, was in magnificent shape, he could have served as a model for a live-drawing class in an Art College, not one ounce of fat on him, muscles and tendons in relief on his body; Blanchflower was in cheerful, jovial mood and my friend commented later that “he was hung like a horse”.

So, there you are: Jimmy Quinn in his bunnet and raincoat, Bobby Evans in sports jacket and flannels, Billy McNeill in business suit and tie, Willie Fernie in his shirt sleeves … Stanley Matthews in the buff.

Tom Campbell

Click on image to order your copy of Bobby Evans – Celtic’s Forgotten Hero by Tom Campbell

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