“We’ve won the League again, fly the flag!” – Celtic’s Season 1980/81 (Part 3)

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MATT CORR last week started his detailed review of Celtic’s 1980-81 season and covered up until the end of the year in 1980 in the first two instalments.

Celtic’s season started HERE and Matt covers it brilliantly.

The story continues HERE with ‘A forlorn hope that the flag would be flying above the Jungle,’ Season 1980/81 and once you’ve read that, you’re up to-date and ready to read on below, so over to Matt to pick up the story of what was one of the most exciting Celtic teams I have ever watched…there are some video clips below, so if you have the time and want to know just how good this Celtic team was, then watch a few of them.

“We’ve won the League again, fly the flag!” – Celtic’s Season 1980/81 (Part 3)

For the first time in five years, there was a Celtic fixture on New Year’s Day to kill or cure the Hogmanay hangover. The previous occasion had not been a memorable one for me, my first visit to Ibrox ending in defeat thanks to a first-half Derek Johnstone header, as that great Celt Sean Fallon struggled to steady the ship in the absence of a recovering Jock, despite the presence of world-class stars McGrain and Dalglish.

As Stein convalesced, following a serious road crash the previous summer, Jock Wallace’s Rangers would go on to win the first-ever Premier League as part of a domestic treble. Thankfully, with the Big Man back at the helm, Celtic stormed back to win the double the following season, as natural order was restored for those of a Hoops persuasion.

In 1981, the holiday fixture was at Rugby Park and a packed, pale-faced Cairn bus headed down to Ayrshire to watch the Bhoys come back from a goal down in the opening minutes to win with a McGarvey double. Frank was again on the mark twice just two days later, in a 3-0 home victory over Morton, then scoring the winner against Dundee United at Parkhead the following Saturday, as Celts put the heavy Pittodrie defeat behind them with a perfect start to the New Year.

Next up was a first-ever trip over the border to play Berwick Rangers at Shielfield Park in the Scottish Cup. The pre-match media hype was all around the possibility of a second giant-killing act from the Wee Rangers, following their victory over the Ibrox side at the same stage in the holy year of 1967. On that occasion, a certain Jock Wallace was in the home goal as player-manager, setting an unique record having played in both the Welsh and English FA Cups earlier that season for Hereford United.

Fourteen years on, it was an ex-Celtic goalkeeper in the Berwick dugout, as mild-mannered Frank Connor sought to put one over on his old club. It was not to be, as goals in each half from Nicholas and Burns edged Celtic into the draw for the Fourth Round.

Back on League business at Tynecastle, a run of five straight January victories was completed with an easy 3-0 win over a doomed Hearts side, McGarvey, Burns and Sullivan on target. The mood in the packed Gorgie Terrace was lifted still further at full-time, with news of Aberdeen’s defeat at Ibrox, a combination of results which took Celtic to the top of the table.

Momentum was now very much with the Hoops, who progressed in the Scottish Cup with comfortable home victories over Stirling Albion and East Stirling. Between those ties, we witnessed Charlie Nicholas coming of age against Rangers, scoring twice as Celts stormed from behind to win 3-1, thus avenging the two earlier defeats to leave the old rivals a distant eight points in our wake.

My abiding memory of that match is of Roy Aitken, charging up the Main Stand side in the closing minutes to play a 1-2 with Colin Jackson before thumping the ball behind McCloy for Celtic’s third, then going on his own personal lap of honour behind the goal, his right fist raised high in triumph.

There was yet another brace for striker McGarvey the following week at Cappielow, Burns and Provan on fire in a 3-0 win as Celtic turned the pressure up on the defending champions Aberdeen, who lost at home to St Mirren.

Celts then made it ten straight victories in 1981 with a spectacular display against the Saints in mid-March. McGarvey was unplayable against his old team, hitting a hat-trick in a stunning 7-0 win. His second strike was perhaps the finest goal of his career, as he cut in from the Jungle wing, dribbled past defenders, somehow managing to stay upright despite being fouled, then unleashed the most glorious shot from 25 yards which flew past Billy Thomson into the roof of the net.

Parkhead was in raptures at this incredible moment, the referee appropriately blowing for half-time to allow the standing ovation to continue. This was the day we really started believing that the flag was coming home, Aberdeen losing to relegation-threatened Kilmarnock to fall four points behind the Bhoys. It had been an incredible turnaround since the teams had faced off at the end of December.

That goal defined for me the incredible striker which was Frank McGarvey.

The joke among the support at the time was that defenders would have no idea what Frank would do next, as usually Frank himself would still be considering his options at that time. He was a natural talent, slightly-built but brave in the face of atrocious physical abuse from defenders and capable of moments of genius.

His last act for Celtic was another case in point. In the 100th Cup Final at Hampden, in May 1985, Frank launched himself at a Roy Aitken cross to beat Hamish McAlpine with an impossible diving header in the closing minutes, to win the cup for Celtic and cement his place in our hearts and history forever.

I was genuinely sad to hear that he was being released that close-season, in the face of competition from McClair and Johnston, who manager Hay had settled on as his main strike partnership for 85-86.

However, back in March ’81, Frank still had business to settle. He followed up his St Mirren hat-trick with the final goal in a 4-1 midweek romp over Partick Thistle at Celtic Park, substitute Murdo MacLeod marking only his second appearance in an injury-ravaged five-month period with a couple of specials past Alan Rough.

Earlier, Dom Sullivan had notched up Celtic’s 100th competitive goal of the season, with another fantastic strike. This was a Celtic side in full flow, eyes focused fully on the League title, closing out March with a 2-1 win at Broomfield before Aberdeen came to Parkhead for the final time.

There were 35,000 plus in the ground to witness the last-chance saloon for Ferguson’s champions. The Dons took the lead through Andy Harrow early on and things looked bleak when Leighton saved Macleod’s penalty kick with just fifteen minutes remaining.

However, substitute George McCluskey came to the rescue with an equaliser on 85 minutes, following great work by Provan, and was then denied a winner three minutes later by a linesman’s flag, a decision later shown to be incorrect.

Nevertheless, eight points clear with just six games remaining, this was now Celtic’s title to lose.

There was an April Fool’s Day roasting for Hearts as Celts piled on the agony with six of the best in a record win, doubles for McCluskey and MacLeod supplemented by strikes from McGarvey and Provan.

Incredibly, for a Celtic side closing in on the title, only 13,000 supporters bothered to turn out on the night. There were actually 4,000 more at Firhill on Grand National weekend, to watch Tom McAdam head a last-gasp winner, after McCluskey had seen his late spot kick saved by the goalkeeper. With four games to go, Celts had amassed 51 points, with Aberdeen now only capable of a maximum of 53.

Before the next League game, Rangers at Ibrox, there was the small matter of the Scottish Cup Semi-final at Hampden against Dundee United, in a repeat of the League Cup last-four tie. For once the Celtic strike force came up short, United the better team against a Hoops side missing the suspended McGrain and McGarvey but having to settle for a replay, after a goalless draw in front of 40,000.

The midweek rematch had goals, three of them in the first ten minutes, in a game which see-sawed from start to finish. Nicholas gave Celts the lead from the spot after five minutes, only to watch as first Bannon then Hegarty stole in at the far post to push the Arabs ahead. Charlie then equalised for the Hoops on the stroke of half-time, with both teams then going for a winner in an exciting second period. It did arrive on 75 minutes and sadly for Celts it was at the wrong end of Hampden,

Mike Conroy getting a touch on Hegarty’s drive and looking on despairingly as it flew past Pat Bonner. A first defeat in 1981 meant there would be no retention of ‘our Cup’ for proud holders Celtic.

As football so often does, there was an early opportunity provided for Billy to lift his troops, with a visit to Ibrox just three days later. A victory would enable Celtic to match the potential points total for our only challengers, Aberdeen, with the Bhoys’ superior goal difference of thirteen meaning that the title could effectively be clinched that weekend.

This was something which had not happened since May 1967, when Jinky cut in from the wing to blast his second goal of the day in off the crossbar, the ball then sticking in the mud in one of those iconic Celtic moments, in front of the watching Herrera.

So it was with great excitement that we left the Celtic club in Springburn and boarded the Cairn bus for Govan, to watch the Celts do the business. There were 36,000 packed into the three-sided stadium, on our left the old Centenary Stand steadily being replaced by a new structure.

It was party time in the Free Broomloan, as early in the second half, the best move of the game, involving Provan, Nicholas and McGarvey, ended with Charlie burying the ball behind Jim Stewart for the winning goal. As the players took a well-earned bow at the end in front of the delirious support, manager McNeill correctly maintained his position that a further point was required before he would accept the title as won.

Again, the peculiarities of the fixture list dictated that recent Cup conquerors Dundee United would provide the opposition for the official title clinching-game. A huge travelling support headed to Tayside on the Wednesday night and they were rewarded early, as MacLeod headed the champions-elect in front after three minutes.

On the half-hour there was a setback, as poacher-supreme Willie Pettigrew snatched an equaliser. Back came Celtic, with that man McGarvey restoring the lead just five minutes later from a Provan corner and Celts went down the tunnel at the interval with the job half-done. The title-winning moment most of us remember came on the hour mark. We watched from high up on the old uncovered terracing, facing the main stand, as Tommy Burns lived up to his name, twisting and turning away from defenders to smash a beautiful left-foot shot past McAlpine and the title was ours.

The scenes at the end will live with me forever, a sea of green and white scarves around the ground as ‘Walk On’ echoed into the night air. The Celtic players joined in, scarves held aloft in triumph, before raising first Danny McGrain then Billy McNeill shoulder-high, in a flashback to another era. After the bitter taste of a final-day title loss the previous season, this particular championship felt very special, earned the Celtic way with an incredible winning run from Ne-erday, which blew the opposition away.

We funnelled out onto Tannadice Street on Cloud Nine, to the strains of a well-known BA advert of the time, the words amended to reflect the achievement of Cesar’s young lions…

…“We’ve won the League again, fly the flag, fly the flag”.

Hail Hail!

Matt Corr

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