Friday, 26 July 2013

Bobby Murdoch; Celtic Legend
Stein’s Celtic were all over Rangers but the old sucker punch duly arrived as it had so often in the past. Despite all their pressure and obvious superiority Davie Wilson’s low shot put Rangers ahead and they held out until half time. The date was January 1966 and Celtic and Rangers were locked in a ferocious struggle for the league title. A defeat or even a draw would leave Celtic trailing their rivals. Whatever big Jock said at half it had the desired effect. Celtic roared into attack from kick off and at last began to carve open the Rangers defence. Bobby Murdoch was imperious in midfield. He pulled the strings and pinged the passes to Hughes and Johnstone who were ripping the Rangers full back’s apart. An equaliser soon arrived as Chalmers reached a near post corner and nodded home. When Charlie Gallagher put Celtic ahead there was only going to be one winner. Rangers had run into a new Celtic, a Celtic marshalled by Stein who had moulded them into a formidable side and given them the belief to be the best. The moment which sounded the death knell for Rangers domination of Scottish football arrived soon after and it was moment of footballing beauty. Charlie Gallagher cushioned the ball towards the onrushing Bobby Murdoch 25 yards from the Rangers goal. Murdoch crashed an unstoppable shot through the chill January air which exploded high in the net behind the Rangers keeper. Celtic didn’t stop there and Chalmers smashed in two more goals to complete a 5-1 rout. If people didn’t realise that Stein’s new Celtic meant business, they knew now. The title was clinched later that year and the following season saw this emerging young team conquer Europe. Johnstone was a jewel, Chalmers a striker reborn but it was Murdoch who was the real maestro. He was was the engine of the greatest club side Scotland had ever produced.

 I was fortunate enough to meet Bobby Murdoch six or seven times in my life. Once on a train from Central station to Priesthill, where he worked in a bar, he enthralled my young mind with tales of tangling with the greats of Scottish and European football. He told me of a very angry group of players in Montevideo, Uruguay preparing for the third match in the brutal World Club Championship on 1967-68. Stein had told the players to maintain their discipline but some of them had had enough of the hacking, spitting and even pulling the hairs from players’ legs. Bobby’s eyes shone like an old warrior recalling battles long gone as he told my Dad and I that the players agreed, ‘If these bastards start it again let’s give them a bit back.’ What followed was the most brutal game in Celtic history. 4 men in Hoops and 2 of the Racing Club players were sent off. The thugs from Buenos Aires took the trophy they wanted so badly and Celtic was damaged in a variety of ways too. The whole team were fined £250 for letting Celtic’s reputation down. In truth Celtic should have refused to play that third game after the shocking brutality and intimidation of the first two games.

 Bobby Murdoch was a product of St Columbkille’s Primary School in Rutherglen and Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell. His footballing prowess and powerful physique marked him out as one to watch. Cambuslang Rangers snapped him up but Celtic had their eyes on him and the princely wage of £3 per week saw him sign on for the Hoops in 1959. He was farmed out again to Cambuslang to toughen him up but truth be told the young Murdoch was already a battler. Within 3 years he was a regular first team player at Celtic Park where Manager Jimmy McGrory played him wide or even at Centre forward. The bitter underachievement of those early years was summed up in the 1963 Cup Final when McGrory’s young Celts played the dominant and arrogant Rangers of Baxer, McMillan and Brand.  Celtic, with Murdoch and Johnstone, starring gave as good as they got and earned a credible 1-1 draw. The huge Celtic support looked forward to the replay, perhaps at last the false dawns would be over and they would finally master Rangers? It is history now that Bob Kelly interfered with the team selection for the replay and Celtic were thumped 3-0. The last 20 minutes saw Celtic fans leave the stadium in their thousands as Rangers toyed with them. Within two years all of that would change.

 The arrival of Jock Stein at Celtic Park in March 1965 energised Celtic and brought out the best in the talented young squad. Stein saw Murdoch as a central midfielder and partnered him with the astute and tough Bertie Auld. Together they helped Celtic play a form of total football unseen in Scotland and the rest is history. Murdoch strode the field in the European Cup final of 1967 like the superb midfielder he was. At his peak there was no finer midfielder in Europe. He could tackle ferociously, fire accurate passes over any distance and possessed a thunderous shot. He inspired those around him by his example and drove Celtic forward in those golden years.
The last time I met Bobby Murdoch was during a supporters dance at the Celtic Club on the London Road. He was in his element, among his people as he smiled, shared anecdotes and had pictures taken with many of the fans present.  He moved from table to table and took time to speak to anyone who wanted a word. This great footballer didn’t receive the financial rewards his skills deserved from Celtic in his playing days but he was committed to the Club he loved and he was a pillar of Stein’s great side.  Bobby was a great player on the field and a modest gentleman off it. For me, Jimmy Johnstone was the most skilful player I ever saw wear the Hoops but Bobby Murdoch was the most complete all round footballer. Those of you who didn’t see this great man play can catch a glimpse of his grace and power in grainy old video footage. But trust me, Bobby was a truly great player. He announced it with that thunderous goal on a cold, misty January in 1966 and proved it on hundreds of occasions subsequently.

 Bobby Murdoch, Celtic Legend; when will we see your like again?

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