The queue at the Asda was full of the usual screaming weans demanding sweets, stressed mums and bored looking men. The guy behind me mumbled ‘busy today eh?’ I turned and nodded, ‘Aye, not my idea of a good time.’ In that split second I realised I was talking to a Celtic legend. After that I didn’t care if the queue took an hour to clear. There’s an old saying which runs ‘Never meet your heroes.’ The perceived wisdom is that they usually disappoint you when you do. Not this guy. Once I’d thanked him for his contribution to Celtic and shook his hand we reminisced about moments which in a way we shared, me on the terraces and him on the pitch. I recalled his spin and turn in the centre circle at Parkhead which left two Rangers midfielders lost before his perfect pass to the overlapping Chris Morris opened up their defence. Morris swept the ball across goal and McAvennie smashed it home but that goal was made by the man they called the ‘Maestro,’ the one and only Paul McStay. That game played in January 1988 showed a young player at the very peak of his game.
Way back in 1980 a team of 15 year old Scots showed up at Wembley to take on an England team who all looked at least 6 inches taller than the Scottish team. Men against boys the commentator quipped as big Paul Rideout stood beside the young McStay. 90 minutes later Scotland had beaten England 5-4 and McStay had hit two. The commentator changed his tune and the watching Tims were glad this young McStay was on Celtic’s books. Two years later the bulk of this talented crop of young Scots were European Champions at under 18 level and McStay excelled. It was no surprise that he was a first team regular at a very young age. His ability to tackle, pass and control the game from midfield marked him out as an excellent player. His combination play with Tommy Burns and Murdo McLeod exemplified one of the best balanced midfields the club has had, combining as it did power, pace and left/right footed players. Early success in his career came at a time Aberdeen and Dundee United were the main contenders for honours. The 1980s saw 4 different clubs win the SPL but the arrival of Souness at Ibrox led to the playing field being tilted in their favour, mostly by the application of money. Football was about to change and not for the better.
Paul McStay became Captain of Celtic in 1990 as the club was in turmoil. He was clearly the best the best player in a struggling team and few could have blamed him had he chosen to play elsewhere. Indeed he threw his boots into the Jungle after the last game of the season in May 1992 and many thought this was his goodbye. However, this Celtic man from a Celtic family stuck it out. There was to be more bitter disappointment ahead as Celtic went on a six year trophy drought. Ironically, it was McStay, Celtic’s best player, who had the bad luck to miss the deciding penalty in the 1994 League cup final which the team lost in a shoot-out with Raith Rovers. The forwards who failed to score with the dozen or so chances which came their way that day were more to blame than the tireless McStay but his anguish was clear for all to see. In 1995 he led Celtic to the Scottish cup final against Airdrie and in a tense, messy game Pierre Van Hoojidonk’s header earned the Hoops their first trophy since 1989. McStay was ecstatic and his Manager Tommy Burns raced onto the field to embrace his inspirational captain. It was an emotional moment for all who saw it. Celtic were back and the pain of those barren years was over.
Paul McStay led Celtic during some of the darkest days of the club’s recent history but his dogged determination and ability kept the fans believing that things could get better, that the good days would return. He turned in some brilliant performances, even in the midst of poor seasons. His wonderful goal at Ibrox in 1994 brought Celtic an unexpected victory. His last minute equaliser against Hearts in a game which looked lost in the centenary year typified the never say die spirit of that team. His part in one of Celtic’s great European nights when they destroyed Sporting Lisbon 5-0 was crucial. His scintillating passes which opened defences or switched play in a heartbeat were a joy to watch. Those of you too young to have seen McStay play can at least look at footage of him and surely judge him to be among the finest players to have graced the Hoops. Only Billy McNeil has played more games for Celtic than Paul McStay and that tells you all you need to know about the Maestro. He wore those Hoops 678 times and never gave less than 100% for the club loved as much as any fan.
I met Paul McStay on one other occasion apart from our chat in the supermarket queue. He was signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans outside Celtic park in 1997. It was that tense year when Rangers made it 9 in a row and his season had been hampered by injury. That dramatic season turned on some pretty brutal Old Firm games and the old war horse was nearing the end of a great career. I shook his hand and thanked him for all he had done for Celtic. He smiled, ‘Don’t thank me,’ he replied, ‘I’ve made a living doing something I love. It’s been incredible playing for Celtic.’ I asked him before we parted if we could stop the ‘ten.’ ‘We will because we need to!’ he replied emphatically. He was right and we did.
Paul McStay’s time at Celtic was turbulent to say the least. He won three titles, three Scottish Cups and a league cup. Further recognition of his ability lies in his 76 Scotland caps from an era when there were more good Scottish players around. He had been footballer of the year and young footballer of the year. His career can be split into two halves, the successful 1980s when Celtic competed well and won their share of honours and the traumatic early 1990s when we all suffered so much before the phoenix finally rose again. He was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame and voted by Celtic fans into their all-time greatest Celtic team. Leaving Celtic Park must have been a wrench for a man who had spent 16 years there but all players, no matter how gifted, know when it’s time to call a halt. It was a time of change when he left Celtic. The ending of an era in some senses but he would have looked on in satisfaction as new players such as the young Swede with the dreadlocks arrived to fight for Celtic and lead the club to an overdue renaissance.
Paul McStay deserves to be remembered as one of the great Celtic players. The fact that he often played in Celtic teams which couldn’t match his level of ability is no slight on this excellent footballer. David Potter, Celtic historian and author, said of him…
‘He is a lovely man and those of us who were privileged to watch him in his prime will never doubt that we saw a great player. But oh, what a player he would have been if he had come twenty years earlier or ten years later!’
The thought of Paul McStay playing with the Lisbon Lions or with Martin O’Neil’s Celtic side is mouth-watering indeed but he was of his era and was an exceptional talent then. He was a brilliant player in good times and a beacon in darker times. Twice in my life I was privileged to shake his hand and thank him for his contribution to Celtic. This short blog is my homage to a Celtic great and an opportunity to express the gratitude of many Celtic fans who loved the Maestro.
Thank you Paul. You’ll never walk alone!