And they gave us James McGrory….
‘Jimmy, it’s time to get up,’ whispered Harry McGrory in his soft Donegal accent to his sleeping son. Sometimes he hated waking the boy up. He was surely happier in his dreams than he was facing the harsh realities and grinding poverty they faced each day in Glasgow’s tough Garngad district? Young Jimmy opened his eyes, smiled at his Da and then, remembering that today was to be the day of his brother John’s funeral, his smile faded. ‘What time are we due at St Roch’s Da?’ he asked quietly. ‘An hour or so to go yet son so get dressed and have a good wash. Put on your school clothes. Yer Ma is making some breakfast in the scullery.’ As his Dad left the room, Young Jimmy got up and glanced out the window of the tenement they lived in at 179 Millburn Street. The street was quiet and the old buildings, blackened by the soot of industry and the nearby Gas Works, looked dilapidated and dirty. He dressed quietly and before leaving the room sat on his bed, closed his eyes and prayed for his brother John, lost to meningitis just a month after his first birthday. ‘Jimmy, your breakfast is out son,’ called his mother from the skullery jolting him out of his prayers. Jimmy opened his eyes, blessed himself quickly and headed for the smell of toast which wafted through the chilly flat. His Mother looked him over as he entered the kitchen, ‘Yer looking smart son, we’ll get you some boots before winter.’ Jimmy glanced down at the frayed school uniform and sandshoes he wore every day. It was not in his nature to complain as so many of the boys at St Roch’s Primary school were worse off. Some even came to school barefoot in the better weather. The McGrory family finished their breakfast and slipped out of the flat for the short walk down the hill to St Roch’s. Neighbours nodded at them with solemn faces, ‘Sorry for your loss,’ said Dan Murphy, shaking Harry McGrory gently by the hand, a sad look on his face. Others stood in silence as they passed, a few blessed themselves. The sad walk of the McGrory family was one which many families in the Garngad had made in those hard years. Infant mortality in such areas was a national disgrace and as always, the poorest carried the heaviest burden.
They entered the Church and Jimmy saw the little coffin waiting for them by the altar. Tears welled in his eyes for little John but also for his parents. He glanced at his father who sat to his left, eyes closed, rosary beads in his hand. Decent, hard-working Harry McGrory, a man who signed Jimmy’s birth certificate with a cross because he couldn’t write. A man who laboured and sweated for more than 60 hours a week in the Gas Works to try and feed his family. His mother, Kate McGrory, prematurely old due to the wearying effects of poverty and child bearing sat grim faced and stoic. Her faith in God helped carry her through her troubles but losing a child is always a heavy blow. Whisps of grey flecked her hair and care lines ploughed her proud Irish face though she was still not yet 35 years old. Young Jimmy didn’t know then that he would lose her too before his twelfth year was over. He sat quietly in the rapidly filling Church and glanced at the image of Christ on the cross suspended high above the altar. ‘Help me,’ he whispered quietly to his God, ‘help me to help them.’
20 years later….
England brought their formidable team north to face a Scotland team which though often erratic was capable of occasional brilliance. The crowd packed into Hampden that day was given as 134,710 but this figure didn’t include the thousands of boys ‘lifted’ over the turnstiles to gain free entry. The scores were tied 1-1 and a titanic struggle ensued as both teams sought the winning goal. The excellent Bob McPhail of Rangers sent a fizzing shot whizzing just over the England bar and the packed bowl of Hampden growled and roared sensing Scotland might just snatch a winning goal. With six minutes remaining McPhail drove towards the England goal and saw his strike partner pulling left to make space for him. Instead of shooting though, the adroit McPhail pinged a perfect pass to his strong running team mate who controlled it instantly and stepping inside the English full back found himself through on goal. The crowd roared. This was the moment of decision. The tall, muscular English goalkeeper Henry Hibbs rushed out at the attacker to deny him time to think only to find himself outfoxed as the blue shirted Scot lobbed him with a deft left foot chip. The ball arced through the air as 134,000 Scots willed it into the net. The roar which greeted the goal was described as deafening by commentators of the day. The scorer of the goal which gave birth to the Hampden roar was James Edward McGrory of Celtic FC. The little boy born into poverty in the Garngad was the toast of Scotland.
Jimmy McGrory was the greatest scorer of goals in the history of British football. He amassed an incredible 538 goals in 534 professional appearances for club(s) and country. Most of these goals were scored for his beloved Celtic. A club which under the autocratic Willie Maley paid McGrory far less than he was worth and shamefully tried to sell him to Arsenal without his knowledge or consent. McGrory remains to this day Celtic’s all-time top scorer with 410 goals, a record that surely will never be surpassed? He played in an era when Celtic had lost supremacy to Bill Struth’s powerful Rangers team but he still found the net with astonishing consistency. That he earned just seven caps is perhaps testimony to the good strikers around at the time although many, including his friend Bob McPhail, were embarrassed at his exclusion from the Scotland team at times. Others muttered darkly about Celtic men being overlooked unfairly because they wore the green. The game of the 1920s and 30s was a lot tougher than the modern game. McGrory lost count of the number of times his nose was broken by the heads of aggressive centre halves but he fought hard for his goals and gave as good as he got. This normally gentle and devout man became a fearsome warrior once he crossed that white line. However, he also set the highest standard of sportsmanship and shook the hands of even the most unscrupulous defenders once the game was over.
McGrory’s 20 year spell as Celtic Manager (1945-65) coincided with a frankly dreadful era for the club. Yes there were moments of genius and delight like the Coronation Cup victory of 1953, the League and Cup Double of 1954 and the never to be forgotten 7-1 demolition of Rangers in the League cup final of 1957. But Celtic fans in that era lived with a board which regularly sold their best players, paid relatively poor wages for such a big club and had, in Bob Kelly, a Chairman who picked the team and undermined the manager. McGrory, the gentle boy from the Garngad didn’t possess the nasty streak necessary to succeed as a Manager or indeed the temperament to stand up to the autocratic Kelly. Bertie Auld said of him ‘He was the most decent and honest man I have ever met.’ Nice as those words are, they don’t describe the qualities a top manager requires to succeed in the tough world of professional football. In 1965 a tired McGrory stepped aside and allowed a new man with new ideas to take the helm. The new manager told his Chairman that team selection would be his decision and his alone. The new manager had the steel, presence and ability to mould the talented young players developed under McGrory at Celtic Park into a formidable team which would restore the club to greatness. His name was Jock Stein.
James McGrory had managed Stein in his playing days and knew his abilities to organise and inspire. He also knew early in 1965 that it was time to let go, time to let Jock take control. His role as Public Relations officer kept him involved at his beloved Celtic Park as the Stein era commenced. Everyone, including Stein, referred to him as ‘Boss’ and treated him with the respect he was due. With Celtic marching on to a dominance in Scotland that would last a decade, Stein guided them to the 1967 European Cup Final. McGrory travelled to Lisbon having lost his brother Harry shortly before the final. When the game was over and Stein’s immortal team had written their page of glory in Celtic’s history, an emotional McGrory was passed the big Cup by Jock Stein. He says in his own words that he just sat there holding the trophy and crying like a child. Perhaps this great Celt was overjoyed that at last his beloved team had rediscovered their greatness. Perhaps he was also reflecting on those no longer around to enjoy this triumph.
‘Jimmy,’ shouted his sister to the young player walking from the Garngad to Celtic Park for training. ‘Don’t be giving all your wages away today eh?’ He smiled back at her, ‘I’ve only got a few bob on me, will you stop worrying.’ She looked at him, a wry smile on her face, ‘Get the tram home then if it’s raining.’ They parted and young McGrory, Celtic’s new hotshot striker continued the walk through the streets of depression hit Glasgow to Celtic Park. There would be no tram home after training though as every beggar and down at heel Glaswegian who asked him for a copper was met with a patient smile and couple of coins. By the time he reached Celtic Park McGrory had not a penny in his pocket. It was not an unusual occurrence.
Jimmy McGrory was a decent man. A humble and devout Christian, who demonstrated by example rather than preachy words how to live a good life. If his incredible prowess as a striker was not matched by his achievements as manager of Celtic then we can forgive him that. Like us, he loved Celtic deeply and gave 100% for the club. We are honoured to count such a good man and such a splendid player among the lists of Celtic Legends. Those of us too young to have seen him play should still consider his goal scoring record with awe. We should also respect a decent, honest man who was a truly great Celt.
Sleep well Boss and Thank You.
James Edward McGrory (April 1904 –October 1982)