Willie Wallace – “My life changed forever the day I joined Celtic”

It all happened on 6th December in 1966. It was a Tuesday, a day that invariably meant a slog at training – and this particular Tuesday was no different. After the hard work, we usually had lunch at the pub at Haymarket Station, mainly the first team players from the West of Scotland who travelled by train.

I had travelled by car via Bonnybridge and Falkirk to pick up a couple of the younger players. I did my usual thing on the drive home, calling in at the bookies in Falkirk to give them my daily donation, then travelling on to arrive about 3pm. I hadn’t been there long when the phone rang. It was the Hearts manager John Harvey, who asked me if I would be interested in talking to Celtic about signing for them.

John said Jock Stein had called him and would contact me if I were interested. He also told me both clubs had agreed terms and it was now up to me if the transfer went any further. As my wife Olive and baby daughter Lynn were out shopping and mobile phones were a thing of the future, I couldn’t talk to Olive about it all.

Only minutes after John’s call, Mr Stein telephoned. He asked me if I would be interested in joining Celtic. I said I would and he invited me to go to Parkhead at 4.30pm that same afternoon. He told me the Hearts party wouldn’t be there until 5.30pm and I asked him if it would be alright for me to be there without the Hearts’ director and manager. He said he had sorted that out with John Harvey.

As I lived at Cumbernauld, only 30 minutes from Parkhead. I waited until 3.50pm before I left, hoping Olive might arrive and I could let her know what was going on. But there was no sign of her by the time I had to go, so I left for the meeting as the only person in my family knowing that anything was happening that afternoon, let alone that what might occur could well be the biggest move in my football career.

On the road, my mind was in turmoil thinking about all the practicalities. What terms should I ask for? What length of contract would be best? Was I really up to the move? These and many other thoughts kept me fully occupied during the drive into the east end of Glasgow. Then another thought struck me: what would the rest of the family think? They were all Rangers’ supporters, like my uncle Jim Brown – my mother’s brother – who was president of the Kirkintilloch Rangers Supporters’ Club. Then I thought to myself that Uncle Jim had taken an interest throughout my career so far and his advice had always been the same: “Do what you feel is best for you and your immediate family”. So I took comfort from that as I pulled into the car park next to the stadium they called “Paradise”.

There was no one at the door when I approached the main entrance but I noticed a little, square window, so I knocked on it. A young girl opened the window and asked who I was looking for. I said “Mr Stein” and the gentleman behind her, with his back to us, turned and said: “Wispy – come in. The Boss will be with you in a few minutes”.

This man was Sean Fallon, assistant manager to Jock Stein. Sean took me through the front door and into the main entrance hall, where I sat down on a bench, beneath a picture of John Thomson, to wait for Mr Stein. John Thomson, as everyone who follows Celtic knows, was a famous Celtic goalkeeper, sometimes known as “the prince of goalkeepers”, who died tragically in an on-field accident during a match against Rangers at Parkhead in 1931.

As I sat there, I reflected on what I knew of the man who, in a few minutes, might be my new boss. He had been a player with Celtic before his career came to a halt through injury, then moved into a coaching role with the Parkhead reserves. He had become manager of Dunfermline Athletic at the start of the 1960s and led them to a Scottish Cup win in 1961, plus the bonus of European competition. He then switched to Hibs in 1964, his new team soon winning the newly-introduced Summer Cup. It had been a good start to a managerial career.

I was also aware that he had joined John Harvey and, I think, Willie Waddell to visit Inter’s training grounds at Milan, Italy, to study the methods of Helenio Herrera. Incidentally, after that trip Hearts had become the first Scottish club to use the 4–2–4 system in Scotland, although a well-known local journalist observed that it wouldn’t be possible to play this system as only 10 players were involved.

READ THIS…Matt Corr with Pat Woods: When Jock Stein met Helenio Herrera – The Invitation 

(NB: Part 2 from Matt Corr and Pat Woods will be published shortly on The Celtic Star).

After 10 minutes or so on the bench, I saw Mr Stein emerge from another room. He came over to me, introduced himself and took me into the boardroom (which I was to visit a few times over the next six years).

Seated at the table waiting for us was the Celtic chairman, Bob Kelly. I sat on the opposite side of the table from both of them. Mr Stein did most of the talking, telling me that the terms would be £65 basic appearance money, plus bonuses for the League and the Cup.

This was a great start for me, as my basic wage at Hearts was £35 a week, no appearance money and bonuses were nothing like as regular as they would be at Celtic. I was very happy with everything I had heard up to this point.

Jock Stein, Celtic manager

Then Mr Stein said the signing-on fee would be £1,000 and they would sign me until the end of the season. As this was all happening in December, that meant I would only have a six-month contract. I asked Mr Stein why the signing-on fee was so low and whether he was signing me only as a stop-gap until other players were fit. He said that the signing-on fee was low as the transfer fee was only £20,000 and, as the season was already halfway through, I could sign for six months and renegotiate a new contract at the end of the season.

I was quite taken aback by the size of the transfer fee. I knew that, at the start of that season, Hearts had been offered over £80,000 by Newcastle United and Stoke City. I couldn’t understand then – and don’t understand now – what exactly went on and why the transfer fee was set so low.

The new Celtic backroom team at Broomfield. From left: Neil Mochan, Bob Rooney, Jock Stein and Sean Fallon

I also said to Mr Stein that I didn’t understand the £1,000 signing-on fee, either. It was the normal expectation at that time that a signing-on fee would be a minimum of 10 per cent of the transfer fee. His reply was quite curt: “Oh. That’s in England, not here.” He had the transfer papers all ready and asked if I would sign them as, apparently, John Harvey had said it would be alright to complete the deal before the Hearts’ representatives arrived.

However, it now seemed to me that it wasn’t quite as rosy a deal as I’d expected. Apart from the low signing-on fee, it also meant that, if I agreed, I would receive nothing from Hearts for the six years’ service I had given them and I would be on only a six-month contract with Celtic. So I said “no” and was standing up ready to leave the boardroom when Mr Stein suggested I should wait until the Hearts’ party arrived. I agreed, left the room and went back to my seat on the bench under John Thomson’s picture.

When the Hearts people arrived, they simply said “hello” to me before going into the boardroom. John Harvey was the only one of the party who knew I had been at Parkhead since 4.30pm; the others thought that, like them, I had just arrived.

After a few minutes, John Harvey and Jock Stein came out of the boardroom, had a short chat just outside the door and then Mr Stein went back inside. John walked over and asked me what the problem was. I explained exactly what had happened since I had been there.

He also appeared to be disappointed with the offer. “Leave it with me,” he said and he walked back into the boardroom. I waited for about 10 minutes before John emerged again. He told me Hearts would give me £2,000 as their part of the deal.

That was fine with me, so now the only remaining problem was the six-month contract. John advised me to take the offer now and, if things didn’t work out, they would have me back. Knowing and trusting John Harvey – I always found him to be an honest man – I decided I would sign for Celtic.

I phoned Olive to tell her the news. She seemed happy with the outcome but a little confused over the details. I said to her that rather than go into it all over the phone, I would explain everything when I saw her at home. When I arrived, she had dinner ready so I opened a bottle of wine and, as we ate, we discussed how it would affect us – more than that, how it would change our lives.

This was especially important as many members of my family supported Rangers and the rivalry between the Old Firm clubs – and their huge supporter groups – could sometimes become pretty intense. I explained to her how much bigger Celtic was as a club than Hearts, that the team was full of top-class players, that I would benefit as a footballer and, of course, that we would benefit financially.

The discussion probably became a bit less focused as we finished both dinner and a second bottle of wine but at least I must have managed to convey part of the story effectively enough, as she summed it up by saying: “Good – and you won’t have to drive through to Edinburgh every day!”

Willie Wallace scoring on his debut a few days later…

Some members of the family were clearly disappointed I had signed for Celtic and not Rangers. I told them Rangers hadn’t asked me to sign and had never expressed an interest in me. I had never had any problems with my family over which clubs I played for.

However, some of my “friends” proved less loyal. I realised I’d lost some of these – mostly Rangers’ supporters – on the first Tuesday night after I’d signed for Celtic. I went down to the pub in a village called Torrance, three miles from Kirkintilloch, as I’d been doing for many years, to play cards and have a pint or two. As I walked through the doorway, I was quickly challenged with: “What do you want?”

The question came from the pub’s owner, who was also the barmaid. When I said I wanted a pint and to play cards with my mates, she replied: “There’s none o’ them here and we don’t serve turncoats in this bar – so get oot!” As I turned to leave, I glanced over at the corner table where we usually played cards. There was no one there. It didn’t take long for me to realise things had changed.

Willie Wallace, Lisbon Lion

An extract from Willie Wallace, Heart of a Lion, published by The Celtic Star’s Editor in 2013.


About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor, who has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

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