Friday, 23 December 2016

This side of Heaven

This side of Heaven

Glasgow 1979
The old man took his daughter’s hand and glanced briefly beyond the curtain at the sea of faces which seemed to float in the darkness of the hall. ‘My, what a crowd, who have they come to see?’ Maria held his hand and smiled, ‘You Dad! They’ve come to see you.’ He looked at her in genuine surprise, ‘Me? Goodness!’ The compare completed his speech and introduced the modest and rather shy old man to the waiting audience which filled the Kelvin Hall. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only… Jimmy McGrory!’  There was a huge roar as the old man walked onto the stage to be embraced by a tsunami of affection. There were youngsters who never saw him play, contemporaries who did and knew him to be the most lethal striker the British Isles had ever produced.

The old man stood basking in their affection. They knew he loved Celtic as much as any of them and had served his club with distinction since 1922 when a shy boy from the Garngad walked through the front door of Celtic Park and into sporting immortality. They knew he had often been treated poorly by Celtic during more than 50 years he served the club board. From the shoddy episode when they tried to sell him to Arsenal against his wishes for the then huge sum of £10,000. Of course he refused to go saying that ‘McGrory of the Arsenal didn’t have the same ring to it as McGrory of the Celtic.’ His loyalty to Celtic was rewarded by being disgracefully paid less than his team mates. In typical fashion he said of that episode, ‘ Well, it was worth it just to pull on those green and white Hoops.’ Such an attitude may have seemed na├»ve but Jimmy McGrory loved Celtic and it was his dream to play for the club.

For the thousands in the Kelvin Hall cheering the delighted looking old man on the stage it was a chance to say thank you. There was no golden handshake from the parsimonious Board, no testimonial match for a man who spent a lifetime in Paradise serving his club as player, Manager and Public Relations Officer. His retirement at 75 would be one of watching the pennies and that will be to the everlasting shame of the Celtic Board of the era. But all of that was far from his mind as he stood as guest of honour of the assembled Celtic support. The Board may have treated him shabbily but they would let him know how much he was appreciated. When the applause and cheers subsided an old song reverberated around the hall…

‘In the war against Rangers in the fight for the Cup
When Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up
We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again,
On Erin’s green valley’s look down in thy love,’

It was a fitting tribute to a man who made Hampden roar with a winner against England in 1933 as 134,000 Scots looked on. It was McGrory who scored 410 goals in 408 games for his beloved Celtic. Despite consistently scoring throughout his career, he was capped by Scotland a mere 7 times scoring 6 goals in the process. His old friend and opponent from the fine Rangers side of the era, Bob McPhail, would express embarrassment at McGrory being dropped from Scotland sides for no apparent reason, especially when the team were due to play at Wembley. McGrory took it in his stride and supposed the selectors had their reasons for not capping him more often. Some muttered that it was about the team he played for rather than his ability and in those less enlightened times they may have been right.

To see him in his later days looking a little shrunken and frail in his suit one could be forgiven for failing to appreciate just what a powerful athlete he was in his prime. Contemporary and former Arsenal player Bill Patterson said of him…

"Shoulders like a young Clydesdale, neck like a prime Aberdeen Angus and a head the nightmare of every goalkeeper. He had the knack of connecting with his napper and directing the leather netwards with greater velocity and judgement than many a counterpart could accomplish with his feet."

McGrory was called ‘The Mermaid’ due to his heading ability but there was far more to his game than just that. Football in the 1920s and 30s was far more physical than today. There were no substitutes and injured players often hobbled about on the wing  just to keep eleven on the field. McGrory often had to battle brutal defenders to get his goals and had more broken noses and black eyes than he could count in a long career. His playing days coincided with the rise of Bill Struth’s powerful Rangers side in the 1920s and 30s and the Celtic Board preferred to try and grow a team of youngsters to meet this challenge rather than invest in seasoned professionals who would complement their prolific centre-forward. McGrory’s tally of 3 league titles and 5 Scottish cup wins in 14 seasons at Celtic is testimony to the ascendancy of Rangers and the parsimony of the Celtic Board.

As he took the applause from the supporters gathered to honour him in the Kelvin Hall in 1979, Jimmy knew he was among friends. These were his folk, Celtic people honouring one of the finest Celts of all. The warmth they showed towards him was born of that deep bond which all true Celts have. This old chap had seen more of Celtic’s history than most of them and had said of his trip with the side to Lisbon in 1967…

"I actually broke down in tears of joy that night, the first time in all my years in the game that I had cried. What a thrill it was to see young boys like Murdoch, McNeill, Johnstone, Gemmell, Clark and Lennox coming of age. What a thrill it was to see the club I had served all my life reach its pinnacle. My one ambition now is to live long enough to shed some more tears into that magnificent European Cup." 

That was Jimmy; a fan above all else. A man who had spent a lifetime in Paradise and despite the ups and downs of football, the shabby treatment by the board and the lack of ambition the club often showed, had never lost his passion for the club he loved.

Glasgow October 1982
Old Bob McPhail hobbled on his stick down the Ward in the Southern General Hospital. Despite getting on in age himself he wanted to see his old friend and rival one last time. Jimmy lay on the bed, frail and tired but unafraid. His deep religious convictions had moulded his life and death held no fears for him. The old Rangers man sat by the bed and held McGrory’s hand. The two old timers exchanged quiet words and the affection between them was obvious. Few of the nurses or visitors scurrying around the Ward would have known that the two old men where once the greatest strikers in Scottish football. McPhail left in tears knowing he wouldn’t see his lifelong friend again this side of heaven. Once they had bestrode the Scottish game like the heroes they were. Once they had fought out titanic struggles on the field wearing the green and the blue but when the great Referee looks at his watch and is ready to call time there is nothing to do but be glad of a life well lived, of a game well played.

Jimmy McGrory left us on 20th October 1982 but as long as Celtic endures so too will the legend of this splendid footballer.

When will we see his like again?

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