Watching the England and Scotland under 15 players lined up at Wembley you could have been forgiven for thinking the English players were much older. Most of them were taller and more muscular than their Scottish counterparts but football isn’t always about physicality. On a sweltering day in June 1980 the young Scots ably led by their talented young captain from Holycross High School in Hamilton, played with the head and passed the ball around their bigger opponents. It was a contrast in styles between English directness and brawn and Scottish craft and wing play. It proved to be an epic encounter which saw the young Scots emerge victorious by a margin of 5-4. Their young skipper, who played exceptionally well and scored 2 goals on that day at Wembley was of course, Paul McStay.
It’s interesting to look at that young Scotland side as it demonstrates how tough it is for even talented young players to make the grade as a professional McStay, John Robertson, Ronnie Coyle and Ally Dick had fine careers but for others it was much harder to play at the highest level…
Scotland Under 15 side 1980: – A Bruce (Craigmount High, Edinburgh), E MacDonald (Belshill Academy), A O’Connor (St Ambrose High, Coatbridge), C Plenderleith (Currie High, Edinburgh), R Coyle (St Gerard’s Secondary School, Glasgow), P Nicholas (Holyrood Secondary, Glasgow), J Robertson (Portobello High), P McStay (Holycross High, Hamilton) (captain), J Sludden (St Mungo’s High, Falkirk), S Rae (Musselburgh Grammar), A Dick (St Modan’s High, Stirling)
Subs: C Currie (Wishaw High) D McKay (Lourdes Secondary)
In the months ahead Celtic would move to ensure this bright young talent was signed by the club he had always supported. Just 18 months after leading the Scotland under 15 side to victory at Wembley, he made his debut for Celtic against Queen of the South and the supporters were rightly impressed by the maturity and play of the 17-year-old. Billy McNeil said at the time that despite his youth he had all the attributes to go directly into the first team. He would score at Pittodrie against Fergie’s excellent Aberdeen side that season and open his account against Rangers in the Glasgow derby. No one who saw this young player taking his first steps in the professional game could be in any doubt that he was the real deal. He had an elegance and vision about his play few possessed. He could make the incisive pass or timely tackle and was fearless on the field of play. The bonus to top all of this was of course that he was Celtic daft.
Those early seasons in the Hoops were a great time for him and playing in that excellent Celtic side of the early 1980s suited him. The Celtic midfield of that era blended the elegance of Burns, the power of McLeod and Aitken and the guile of McStay, who pulled the strings in the centre of the field. It was one of the most balanced and talented midfields in Celtic’s recent history. With Provan, Nicholas, McCluskey and McGarvey adding threat up front you always felt that Celtic side had a chance against anyone. Scottish football was fiercely competitive in that era with Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee United all battling for honours with Celtic. There were talented players at a few clubs in the SPL in those days, but few could match McStay.
Celtic had some real talent on their books but as was the way then the parsimonious board of directors failed to reward them in a manner which would keep them at Celtic Park. Charlie Nicholas was sold to Arsenal and saw his salary increase hugely; Burns also had a chance to move south but his love of Celtic kept him at Celtic on a salary far less than he could have earned in England. As the conveyer belt of talented young players dried up later in McStay’s career Celtic were to suffer for their inability to keep good players at the club.
He played superbly against Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in the 1984 Scottish Cup Final driving his team on after the harsh sending off of Roy Aitken and the scoring of a suspiciously off-side looking opening goal by the Dons’ Eric Black. Mcstay, at just 19, cajoled his team mater to greater efforts and the ten men eventually equalised in the last few minutes. It was no surprise that McStay crashed home the equalising goal but despite his efforts an extra time goal by Mark McGhee gave Aberdeen the cup. He would return to Hampden a year later and help defeat Dundee United in the 100th Scottish cup final.
It would be fair to say that McStay’s high point in the Hoops came in that wonderful centenary season of 1987-88. He led Celtic magnificently in game after game and provided some wonderful assists as well as weighing in with crucial goals. In one match Celtic trailed an experienced and tough Hearts side at Celtic Park then as the game neared its conclusion, McStay met a clearance at the edge of the box and fired in an unstoppable shot. Celtic were the masters of scoring late goals that season; a sign that a never say die spirit animating the whole side. In January 1988 Celtic met big spending Rangers in a game which many saw as a real test of their mettle. In a tough encounter played in incessant rain and marked by fierce challenges and aggressive play, it was McStay who provided the class that day. Just before half-time he received the ball inside the centre circle, he sidestepped a challenge, pirouetted away from Ranger English import Ray Wilkins and sent a slide rule pass to the onrushing full back Chris Morris. Morris crossed for McAvennie to crash the ball home. It was a goal created by the vision and guile of McStay, a player at the top of his game. One newspaper said at the time…
‘Paul McStay’s centimetre perfect pass to Chris Morris had to be seen to be believed. I’m sure the noise of the Rangers defence being torn apart was heard at Ibrox.’
Celtic roared through a memorable season and completed the double after more late heroics against Hearts in the semi-final and Dundee United in the Final. As the Celtic support basked in the glory of their centenary season triumphs, few would have thought that it would be another decade before they won the title again.
A Cup win in 1989 stopped Rangers winning the Treble but it was clear as the 1990s arrived that Celtic were struggling to keep pace with the big spending Ibrox side. McNeil left after being denied a decent wage by the board. It transpired that he was the fifth best paid manager in the SPL. Good players also drifted away and at times it looked as if McStay might try his luck elsewhere as Celtic looked rudderless in the early 1990’s.
Things reached a nadir in the 1994 League Cup Final where success starved Celtic supporters turned up to watch their side play a Raith Rovers side they really should have beaten. The match ended 2-2 due to a combination of poor finishing and erratic goalkeeping from Celtic. In the penalty shoot-out it fell to McStay to take a kick to keep Celtic hopes alive. The fates conspired cruelly as the best player on the field missed the kick and he cut a disconsolate figure as he trooped off Ibrox against a backdrop of celebrating Raith players and fans.
By the end of that 1994-95 season Celtic had gone six long years without a trophy and battled their way through to the final of the Scottish Cup. The McCann revolution was beginning by then and players of a more appropriate calibre were beginning to arrive at Celtic Park. It was one of these players, Pierre Van Hooijdonk who headed the only goal of the game to give Celtic a scrappy but well-deserved cup victory. Celtic fans watched the joy and relief on McStay’s face as he celebrated on the field.
Paul McStay played 683 matches for his beloved Celtic with only Alex McNair and Billy McNeil ahead are of him in the all-time appearance record list. He won 3 titles, 4 Scottish cups and a league cup. Above all of this he demonstrated time and time again that he was a gifted midfielder who played his heart out for Celtic and who stuck with the club when it would have been easier and understandable to walk away. He won 76 caps for his country and represented Scotland at every possible level.
His last game for Celtic came on 5th April 1997 at Starks Park against Raith Rovers. Celtic drew 1-1 as their bid to stop Rangers winning their ninth consecutive championship faltered in the final furlong. Players were arriving who would stop the ‘Ten’ the following season and no Celtic supporter would be more pleased than Paul McStay.
Too often players are lauded as club ‘Legends’ but in the case of Paul Michael Lyons McStay that title was richly deserved.
Thank you, Maestro, it was an honour and a pleasure to watch you play.