Celtic in your blood…
Having spent a few years of my life living in England, I realised a long time ago that Celtic fans are to be found everywhere. I got chatting to an old Scottish chap in deepest Oxfordshire who went by the name of Pat Ward. As it transpired, Pat had played for Hibs in the early fifties as well as Leicester City but his heart was always bound to Celtic. His Uncle was a Bishop and this pugnacious son of Dumbarton always regretted not getting the chance to pull on the Hoops. We would talk football for hours and he regaled me with fascinating tales of the tough world of 1950s Scottish football. Astonishing crowds of over 60,000 for the Edinburgh derby match were commonplace and he also recalled getting away with landing a ‘good right hook’ on a particularly rough Rangers player, which thankfully the officials missed. He also remembered getting the train to Edinburgh from the west to play for Hibs one Saturday morning and seeing a man up a ladder putting up bunting for the Orange walk. His team mate and fellow Celtic fan, Mick Gallagher, ‘bumped’ into the ladder which collapsed sending the bunting fitter sprawling to the ground. Such tales remind us of the nature of Scottish society in the 1950s and the tough and physical nature of football. One tale old Pat did tell me was of the dreadful 1947-48 season when Celtic travelled to Dundee knowing that a defeat coupled with others winning could see the proud Celts relegated out of the top league for the first time ever.
Celtic had been building a decent team in the late 1930s and their title victories in 1936 and 1938 coupled with finishing second in 1939 suggested that their young team would be set for a successful period ahead. Mr Hitler had other ideas though and the war brought an abrupt halt to Celtic’s progress. Players left for the forces, crowds were limited by law because of the fear of air raids and the unofficial ‘southern League’ started to ensure no club had to travel long distances (to Aberdeen, etc.) and use up valuable fuel. Celtic hadn’t treated wartime football with any seriousness and as a consequence entered the post war era in a poor state to compete. Hibs, Hearts and Rangers were the top teams in those seasons after the war and the huge Celtic support suffered much pain and humiliation. Season 1947-48 was to be the pits.
The season began with the old league cup section format. Celtic had been drawn in a tough group with Dundee, Rangers and Third Lanark. Defeat at Ibrox was followed by mixed results which suggested they were still an inconsistent team. They were hammered 4-1 by Dundee and lost away to Third Lanark before beating Rangers at home. It was to no avail and they were out of the League Cup. The league campaign itself was something of a trial for the Celtic support. There were brighter performances such as the 5-3 win over a useful Partick Thistle side but Celtic fans endured some horror shows too. Morton beat them 4-0, Queens Park and Falkirk defeated them too and they were thumped 4-0 at home to Rangers in the New year’s game of 1948. The club needed results or they’d be dragged into the relegation fight. By January 1948 they sat 12th just 3 points above bottom club Airdrie. They stuttered through the spring and found themselves still in the mire as the final fixtures approached. A good cup run took them to the semi-final where Morton beat them 1-0. They then faced the final four league fixtures and needed results or the unthinkable could become reality.
Two days after losing in extra-time to Morton in the cup, a tired looking Celtic travelled to Cathkin Park on the south side of Glasgow to face fellow strugglers Third Lanark. It was a real relegation battle and to the dismay of Celtic’s huge support they were thumped 5-1. A defeat against Hibs was followed by a rearranged home game with Third Lanark which Celtic again lost, this time by 3-1. They faced their final league fixture of the season at Dens Park against a club who had already beaten Celtic 4-1 there in the league cup. Celtic were 2 points above the drop zone and another defeat coupled with a big Airdrie win, would put them in risk of relegation. Dundee had finished 4th in the table and had won 10 of their 14 home games as Celtic and an army of fans arrived at Dens Park to try to save their honour. It had been a wretched season and now the last act was about to be played out. It was all or nothing for a Celtic side who had lost their previous 4 games and conceded 13 goals.
Celtic fans made up more than half of the 31,000 crowd crammed into Dens Park on that April day in 1948. They’d be there to roar and drive the team on as always and things began brightly enough when Jock Weir scored in 14 minutes to put Celtic ahead. However after an hour, Dundee were 2-1 up and things were looking bleak. An element of the home support had come to see Celtic suffer and tensions were as high on the terraces as they were on the pitch. Weir equalised in 66 minutes as Celtic fought for their lives and as the game entered its dramatic closing phase there were chances at both ends. Jock Weir finally scored in 88 minutes to complete his hat trick and spare Celtic any worries about relegation. It had been a close run thing but the Celts were safe.
The events of that traumatic season spurred Celtic into serious action. They signed Charlie Tully from Belfast Celtic after that club had ceased playing in the league following repeated and increasingly violent sectarian attacks on their fans and players. This culminated in the disgraceful scenes at Windsor Park when Linfield fans invaded the field and assaulted Belfast Celtic players. Centre forward Jimmy Jones had his leg broken by the thugs and the club withdrew from the league. Glasgow Celtic looked to the future and began to reorganise their scouting and training. There would be more pain in the years ahead but never again would the spectre of relegation haunt this proud club. When you consider the angst among some when Celtic lose a Champions League tie, it is worth considering the pain our grandfather’s endured in those far off days when Celtic diced with relegation.
Football has changed so much since 1948 but the passion of the fans who roared Celtic to safety on that tense day at Dens Park has been passed down the generations. Never doubt for a moment that Celtic supporters back then were any less passionate than any of us today. They loved Celtic and the thought of the Club being relegated hurt them as much as it would hurt you or I today. Thankfully the team responded to the call of history and the roar of their fans to see that it never happened.
Celtic remains the only founder member of the Scottish League to have competed in the top division every season since its inception in 1890. When you consider the list of founder members; Abercorn, Cambuslang, Celtic, Cowlairs, Dumbarton, Heart of Midlothian, Rangers, Renton, St. Mirren, Third Lanark and Vale of Leven, only Celtic, Dumbarton, St Mirren and Hearts still survive in their original form. 1948 was a wake-up call for Celtic and thankfully the club has never been close to relegation since.
As I listened to old Pat Ward telling me of the events of 1948, I could sense that even decades after they occurred that this proud Celt was still pained to think of the club he loved so much sink so low. He never got to wear the hoops in his career but his passion for Celtic was undiminished. On the occasions he played against Celtic, he gave 100% as a good professional should and told me he’d be smiling at friends in the old Jungle throughout the game. He hoped Bob Kelly would notice his efforts with Hibs and somehow realise that he was Celtic mad but the phone call never came and Pat went to England to further his career with Leicester City. He passed away in 2003, the year his beloved Hoops fought their way to the Uefa Cup Final in Seville. He’d have been proud of them and their wonderful fans. How far they had come since the day Jock Weir’s hat-trick staved off the unthinkable at Dens Park. To old timers like Pat, the fire didn’t diminish with time or age. He used to say to me, ‘Celtic is in your blood, win, lose or draw, they’re your team and they always will be. You never lose that!’ Rest in peace Pat and be assured that countless thousands of us still have Celtic in our blood and we will certainly never lose it.
Pat Ward (1926-2003) Celtic to the core.