Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Stuff of Legends: Ten Men Win the League

Season 1978-79 was an odd one. Celtic under new Manager Billy McNeil set off in pursuit of Treble winning Rangers who under new manager, John Grieg, were determined to hold onto the title. Celtic began the season in good form winning all 3 opening matches convincingly before Rangers arrived in the East end of Glasgow to test if McNeil’s team had the bottle to beat them. Rangers had a settled and strong team with players like Forsythe, Parlane, Cooper, McDonald, Johnstone and Smith all seasoned campaigners.  Celtic had failed miserably in the previous season, losing 15 league games and finishing fifth in the league. Jock Stein’s shabby dismissal by the board after that barren season angered many of the fans too. Billy McNeil was a young Manager, could he build a team to put the Hoops back on top? Did they have the stomach for the battle? September 9th 1978 saw a packed Parkhead roar the teams out for what was an important marker for the rest of the season.  Celtic fielded George McCluskey up front with Tom McAdam and the speed and dribbling of ‘Chicken George’ allied to McAdam’s physical presence had Rangers toiling from the start. In just 2 minutes he cracked home a fine drive after Rangers failed to clear a free kick. The Jungle and Celtic end were bouncing as Celtic totally dominated the opening exchanges. It was no surprise when George McCluskey hit a low skidding shot into the net to send Parkhead into raptures. McNeil’s first Old Firm game couldn’t have got off to a better start.  Rangers tried to raise their game but Celtic matched them and could have gone in at half time more than 2 goals up. As often happens in such games though, the team under the cosh snatched a goal and it was game on. Parlane’s goal in 47 minutes gave Rangers some hope but Celtic held their nerve and McAdam’s second goal to make it 3-1 was fair reward for their play. A late penalty save by Latchford from Alex McDonald was the cherry on the cake for the happy Celtic support who went home in fine voice. The desperate disappointments of 77-78 Season were behind them, they were ready to challenge for the title again. Weren’t they?

Of course, being Celtic, the euphoria was short lived as Hibs won the next league match at Celtic Park 1-0. Celtic stuttered through September into October which brought a crushing 1-4 reverse at Pittodrie to the emerging Aberdeen team being built by Fergie. Further defeats to Hearts and Dundee United left the Hoops drifting off the pace and November began with a series of equally poor results as 1 win in 4 league games testifies. It was looking grim as Christmas approached. Celtic lost a League Cup Semi Final to Rangers after some ‘Honest mistakes’ saw a ‘penalty’ awarded for a blatant dive by Cooper and Tommy Burns sent off  for protesting about the award.  Celtic didn’t win a single game that December and were in some disarray as 1978 gave way to 1979. Snow covered Scotland in that fierce winter of 1979 and Celtic arranged a few friendlies as matches were called off and fixtures piled up. It is remarkable that they didn’t play a single SPL game from 23rd December 1978  till the 3rd of March 1979. Would McNeil be able to rejuvenate his flagging side during the shutdown?

Fergie’s fast improving Aberdeen came calling on a raw March day in 1979 and were beaten more convincingly than the 1-0 score suggested. The 26,000 who roared Celtic on that cold and windy day knew that now only a good run of form would give them any chance of getting back into the title race. Remarkably Celtic won six consecutive league games after failing to win a single SPL match in the previous 4 months! It was game on as spring arrived and hope sprung again in the hearts of the faithful.  Celtic surged through the fixture list winning 13 of the 16 league games after that opener against Aberdeen.  It was a remarkable turnaround for a club who looked well off the pace in the league as late as March. Celtic crammed six SPL games into 19 crazy days in May 1979 as the fixture schedule began to demand much of tired legs. In a bizarre game against St Mirren played on a Friday night at Ibrox, due to reconstruction at Love Street, Celtic finally overcame a very useful St Mirren team 2-0. The second last game of the season was against Hearts at Parkhead and a nervous Celtic support watched as the team pounded the visitors goal for most of the game but it still took 55 minutes for the much under-rated (and Celtic Mad) Mike Conroy to score a headed goal from a Provan cross and win the match.   However Rangers were ominously on their tail and had 2 games in hand as the season neared its climax. The Ne’rday game, which was postponed due to the snows of January, was rescheduled for May 21st 1979. For Celtic it was winner takes all as a win would put them out of sight and see them crowned Champions.  For Rangers a draw would do as they had Hibs away and Partick Thistle coming to Ibrox the following week. It all came down to this one game for Celtic, beat Rangers as they had done in that opening Old Firm game back in September and the Championship would be theirs. Lose and Rangers would be Treble winners for the second successive year. The Celtic team which lined up for that legendary game is worth recording as they live in Celtic folklore forever: Latchford, McGrain. Lynch, Aitken, McAdam, Edvaldsson, Provan, Conroy, McCluskey, McLeod & Doyle. Substitute Bobby Lennox was the link to the glory days of Lisbon and was after one last hurrah in a glittering career which yielded 10 Championship medals.

Despite a Public transport strike, Parkhead was a seething mass of noise, passion and colour as the teams came out on that bright Monday night. The TV crews had gone on strike just two hours before the game and the only footage of a historic match would be recorded by the rather poor cine camera of Celtic Films.  The packed Jungle was swaying and roaring defiantly as the pre match ritual chants of YNWA and The Grand Old Team boomed out.  The Captains shook hands, the coin was tossed and battle commenced. The first few minutes were full of snarling players, bone shaking tackles and little good football. However after 9 minutes Rangers swept up the Jungle side in their first real attack of the game and Cooper’s cross to the near post was swept home by the aggressive Alex McDonald. The Rangers end exploded as the Hoops fans were momentarily silenced. A bad start for Celtic, no doubting that, but not fatal to their hopes just yet. Things took a turn for the worse however after 15 minutes when a grounded Alex McDonald exchanged verbals with Johnny Doyle who foolishly flicked at him with his boot. The eagle eyed Jungle side linesman flagged it up and Doyle was sent off.  The look of horror on Doyle’s face as he sprinted from the pitch said it all. Johnny bled Green and White, he loved Celtic and now he had seemingly let them down in the most vital game in years. He ran distraught to the dressing room leaving 10 men to face a confident Rangers and a one goal deficit. The Hoops fans responded to the setback and sang as loudly as I’ve ever heard them in an Old Firm game. The team, prompted by the power of Aitken and McLeod as well as the guile and skill of Provan and McCluskey began to pin Rangers back. Aitken’s goal bound header smashed the bar as the green clad hordes roared Celtic on. Celtic had nothing to lose as they drove at an increasingly desperate and defensive Ibrox side who seemed relieved to hear the half time whistle with their lead intact. As Celtic reappeared for the second half three quarters of the Stadium was covered in Green and White as a defiant chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ filled the spring sky. Come on Celtic, you can do this! The assaults on Rangers goal became increasingly ferocious and it is a wonder that they held out until 66 minutes had elapsed. The talented Davie Provan fed Roy Aitken in the box in front of a packed Celtic end and the big man smashed it home! Celtic Park erupted as the players punched the sky in joy! Half way there, let’s get the winner now!  Celtic swept forward in waves of attack after that and in the 74th minute George McCluskey latched onto a blocked Aitken shot to slam home number two amid scenes of utter jubilation!  Incredibly the ten men were in the lead. A stunned looking Rangers restarted the game and immediately won a corner. It was a rare attack for the men in blue but fate dealt Celtic a cruel blow when Cooper’s low corner was swept through a ruck of players by Bobby Russell and nestled in the bottom corner of the net. It was 2-2. Rangers were back in the driving seat. Celtic restarted the game with just 13 minutes left to find a winner. Aitken roared and cajoled his team mates to greater efforts; it was as if he knew a moment in history was here to be seized. He almost equalized with a header which the diving McCloy touched over the bar with his fingertips. The clock was ticking down and still they pressed, harried and chased every loose ball.  The Celtic end seemed determined to drive Celtic home and roared every attack on in an increasingly hysterical and tense atmosphere. Then, in the 85th minute, McCluskey carved his way into the box and his swerving cross come shot was parried by the Rangers keeper onto the head of onrushing defender Jackson who to his horror knocked it into his own goal.  It was 3-2 to Celtic! Seldom has the old stadium roared and rocked as it did in those frantic closing moments! ‘Come on Celtic, hold on, nearly there.’ In the dying seconds Murdo McLeod strode forward with the ball ‘Kick it into the fucking crowd!’  Someone near me shouted in desperation. McLeod reached the corner of the penalty box and unleashed a shot of stunning power and accuracy which ripped into the top corner of the Rangers net! The Celtic end exploded…’Yeeeessss! We’ve done it, we’ve fucking done it! Champions!’ The final whistle went unheard amongst the roars but the players heard it and threw their arms into the air and embraced like brothers. The fans did the same. Celtic had won the Championship against all the odds. All the faults and failings, all the struggles and setbacks had been blasted away by the left foot of Murdo McLeod and his magnificent team mates. I recall seeing Davie Provan on his knees punch the ground in joy as we fans hugged each other as if their lives depended on it. On the packed terracing of the Celtic end and Jungle an explosion of joy was taking place. Some shed tears at the passion and sheer will to win on show on that May night long ago. Brother Walfrid, Willie Maley, James McGrory, John Thompson and all the greats of Celtic’s wonderful history would have smiled down on dear old Paradise that night. They would have seen the old Celtic spirit alive and the joy it gave to their wonderful support. It was nothing short of remarkable that Celtic could have suffered so many setbacks that season and still rouse themselves to the monumental efforts it took to seize the title on that wonderful May night.  They would not accept defeat and came back time and time again against their greatest rivals. It was one of the most dramatic games of Celtic’s illustrious history and the players and fans had fused into one to claim that title. They did it the hard way; they did it the Celtic way with skill, passion, goals and guts.

It was the night a legend was born. It was the night Ten men Won the League.

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