One of the best
Flag Day is upon us once more and it’s always a time to reflect on the achievements of last season and focus on the challenges ahead in the new campaign. I’ve been lucky enough to watch a good few such days and always enjoy them. In days past Celtic’s old board would splash out on a hired limousine and it would drive to the corner of the Jungle where some invited guest would pull a rope to release the championship flag which would flutter above the Jungle for the rest of the season. Usually a board member or someone with connections would do the honours and I recall Jock Stein’s wife being the star guest one sunny August day. In modern times people who have made a significant contribution to the club have been asked to unfurl the flag. In recent years the great Sean Fallon has been guest of honour as was Fergus McCann and few could grumble about their credentials for carrying out the task.
Today the honour goes to a man who was in his prime one of the best full backs in the world and a Celtic great. Danny McGrain is well deserving of this honour having given over 50 years of service to Celtic. He overcame setbacks and injuries in his playing career which would have broken weaker men and demonstrated a physical and mental strength which all great sportsmen need. Yet, Danny might not have been around to do the honours today had it not been for a quick thinking Policeman….
The Police car slowed to a crawl as the young officer scanned the nearby cars for the one they were looking for. ‘Nothing’ he said to his colleague as they turned and headed for the Linthouse area which borders the huge Southern General hospital complex. Again the same pattern was repeated; check the parked cars in the area for a colour and model match, then move on to the licence plate. Just as they were thinking of moving on they spotted a likely car. ‘Colour matches…checking the plate.’ The driver slowed to a halt. There was soon no doubt that this was the car they were looking for. As they stepped from the vehicle they could plainly see a familiar figure slumped over the steering wheel. ‘That’s him, quick get the door opened.’ The door was thankfully unlocked but even if it had been locked they would not have hesitated to break in. This was an emergency. One of the officers quickly assessed the situation and used the sort of common sense long experience had endowed him with, ‘He’s hypoglycaemic, but still with us.’ He produced a soft, sugary sweet from his pocket and eased it into the man’s mouth. As life-saving procedures go it was undramatic and inexpensive but to a diabetic whose brain has been drained of sugar it was manna from heaven. It saved his life.
The man in the car was of course Celtic legend Danny McGrain. He had failed to show up at home after attending a meeting and his wife had the wisdom to quickly call the Police when her calls to his mobile went unanswered. Skipping a meal had meant Danny’s body was seriously low on sugar and in such circumstances the brain’s reaction is to close the non-vital bodily systems down and conserve what little sugar there was in his system. He had lost consciousness shortly after having the presence of mind to park by the side of the road and it then became a race against the clock to find him. Thankfully the Police did find Danny’s car and knew what to do to revive him.
Danny McGrain had to battle to overcome setbacks in his professional life which would have made a lesser man give up. He joined Celtic as a skinny teenager in the pivotal month of May 1967. He would have watched the Lisbon side rip the opposition apart at home and abroad and wonder if he had what it took to break into such a side. It says much for Celtic that the boyhood Rangers fan was welcomed by the club which was building a formidable reserve side to replace the Lions when time and injury deemed it necessary. Jock Stein, in his wisdom, allowed Danny and other up and coming youngsters like Davidson, Macari, Dalglish and Hay to train with the first team. They could hardly fail to learn the tricks of the trade watching the Lions in action every day. McGrain, it could be argued was the best servant Celtic gained from the ‘Quality Street’ group of youngsters. He served Celtic with distinction for 20 years and in that time dealt with a fractured skull, a serious ankle injury and a broken leg. On top of this he was managing his diabetes and still managing to be consistently excellent for Celtic season after season. His tally of 661 first team games has him fourth in Celtic’s all time appearances list with only McNeil, (790) McStay, (678) and Aitken (669) ahead of him. That tally of games doesn’t begin to hint at just how excellent Danny was in his prime. He was blessed with great pace before injury and age took their toll and had the skill of a winger when it came to getting past opposing defenders. It would be interesting to see how many assists he had in Celtic goals in that era as he was constantly overlapping and supporting the attack. Younger fans at least have video footage to judge Danny but those of us who saw him will testify that this was indeed the real deal. Danny was a world class player at his peak and a man who grew to be a 100% Celt despite being raised as a Rangers fan. Indeed Celtic Historian David Potter recalls an incident with one of our less intelligent fellow Scots….
‘He was attending a reserve football match and was spotted and recognised by a Rangers fan. The bluenose was about to launch into a tirade about the Pope, Fenians etc. before he remembered that this was not appropriate for the Protestant Danny. Danny then says, "He searched what there was of a brain before shouting 'McGrain, you diabetic bastard!"
Danny became a quintessential Celtic player, combining tremendous skill with what Billy McNeil called ‘a cruel tackle.’ Among the plethora of cup and league wins, my memories of Danny return to that amazing night in 1979 when Celtic faced Rangers in a win or bust league match at Celtic Park. He and Roy Aitken drove Celtic on that incredible night despite setbacks in the game and won the Championship for their beloved Hoops. Danny won 62 caps, appeared in the World Cup Finals and had a career of great distinction. Despite this he remained the ordinary lad from Drumchapel who was welcomed into Celtic Park in 1967 by the best team in Europe. Few would have predicted then that the nervous 17 year old would in due course be voted into Celtic’s greatest ever side by the supporters who came to regard him as an all-time great.
I only met Danny McGrain on one occasion. He was signing autographs in the car park of the old Celtic Park. He signed my programme and I thanked him for all he did for Celtic. He smiled at me and said, ‘It’s been an honour playing here.’ I got the impression he meant it. He may have felt it was an honour to play for Celtic but we who saw Danny play with such flair and distinction know that it was we who were honoured to watch a footballing great wear those famous hoops. That brilliant sports writer, Hugh McIlvanney, said of Danny…
‘Anybody who saw him at his best had the unmistakable impression of watching a great player, probably one who had no superior anywhere in the world.’’
So today give Danny the sort of ovation he deserves. He gave all he had for Celtic and continues to pass on the skills and good habits he learned from the Lisbon Lions to a new generation of young players. The modest man from Drumchapel will no doubt take his seat after the fuss has calmed and will Celtic on to a wining start to a new campaign. It was always about the team, the club and the fans for Danny. Men like him are not just a link to the past for supporters; they are a reminder of the standards players can achieve with hard work, dedication and the honing natural ability until it is exceptional.
Take a bow Danny, you were one of the finest players ever to wear the Hoops and just as importantly a decent human being who demonstrated what can be achieved in life when you refuse to be beaten by setbacks and injuries. Those of us who saw you play can still see in our mind’s eye that wonderful overlapping full back driving up the line and whipping in a telling cross. The old Jungle would roar for more and the old ground would echo to the sound of your name being chanted by thousands of voices….. Danny, Danny, Danny, McGrain, Danny, Danny McGrain…..’