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ten men won the league - tra la la la la


“Celtic’s Greatest Games” by David Potter brings together 50 of Celtic’s greatest games throughout the club’s history including the first epic win of the Scottish Cup in 1892, the mighty Scottish Cup Final hat-trick of Jimmy Quinn in 1904, the greatest come-back Cup Final of them all in 1931, the 7-1 defeat of Rangers in 1957, the games against Dundee United in 1985 and 1988 and a few more recent triumphs . Celtic were, of course, the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, and that and other triumphs in Europe over Leeds United and Liverpool are covered in this compendium of Celtic’s greatest performances.

In this extract the author describes the night ten men won the league..

Neither Celtic nor Rangers could really claim that 1979 was a vintage year for them. By sheer chance it was the first year as manager for both Billy McNeill and John Greig, once adversaries on the field and now in the dugout. Scottish football was going through a major credibility problem in 1979 as well, it would have to be said, for it was the first season played in the wake of the Argentina fiasco whose reverberations kept on running in the shape of a general disillusion and cynicism, with drastically reduced attendances and a consequent lack of finance.

It was also one of the worst winters on record for the loss of fixtures. The game in question really should have been played in the New year, but snow and ice made a mockery of the fixture lists in January and February. Celtic, for example, did not play a single league match between 23rd December 1978 and 2nd March 1979. Undersoil heating was simply an experimental concept in 1979 and had not reached Scotland.

There were advantages to be had from this state of affairs. In Celtic’s case, it gave the players whose form had been mediocre and inconsistent until Christmas, a chance to have the famous ‘long hard look at themselves’, and in particular it allowed the recovery from injury, a mysterious foot problem that no-one understood, of Danny McGrain, by some distance Scotland’s best player at the time and who would undeniably have made a difference in Argentina, had he been there.

Celtic’s team was young and enthusiastic, but not yet of the Lisbon lions quality. One of the Lions, Bobby Lennox, was still there, but he was used sparingly by his old colleague Billy McNeill. McNeill had made two very sound investments in the purchase of two quality players from the lower reaches of the Scottish League - Murdo MacLeod, a doughty midfielder from Dumbarton, and Davie Provan, a fast and impressive winger from kilmarnock.

So when spring reached Scotland in March 1979 no clear pattern was emerging in the Scottish League as all teams were ‘much of a muchness’ as the saying went. Dundee United were doing well, as were St. Mirren, with the usual suspects of Hibs, hearts and Aberdeen challenging as well. Such is the nature of Scottish football, however, that the ‘also-rans’ gradually dropped out, although Dundee United lasted longer than most, and the stage was left for the big two to fight it out.

Rangers were, on the face of it, in better shape than Celtic. Already possessors of the League Cup, and still in the Scottish Cup (Celtic had exited miserably at home to Aberdeen in mid-March)), they had also had a good run in Europe, beating teams like Juventus and PSV Eindhoven before losing narrowly to Cologne. Two games between Celtic and Rangers were scheduled in May - one at hampden (Ibrox was being redeveloped) on Saturday 5 May and the other at Celtic Park on Monday 21 May.

The impetus seemed to have passed to Rangers when they beat Celtic at Hampden some two days after the historic and baleful appearance of Mrs. Thatcher in Downing Street for the first time. It was only 1-0, but Celtic had been tame, and Rangers now had the lead in the league.

But Celtic rolled up their sleeves and won their next three games, albeit none too impressively, against Partick Thistle on the May Holiday Monday, St. Mirren at ibrox (held there because Love Street was being redeveloped and Ibrox, which was also being renovated and which could not safely hold a rangers v Celtic crowd, was adjudged capable of holding the St. Mirren v Celtic crowd!) on Friday 11 May, and the against the now relegated Hearts at Celtic Park on Tuesday 14 May in a 1-0 stagger to victory in which the referee was given the biggest cheer of the night for blowing the final whistle.

All this meant that Celtic had 46 points to Rangers’ 43, but Rangers had two games in hand, against Partick Thistle and Hibs, games that would have expected to win. Two points only were awarded for win in 1979, so a victory, or even a draw, against Celtic would be very much to their advantage. It was Celtic’s last game of the season, and a win would guarantee them the Championship by giving them 48 points, leaving Rangers with a maximum of 47.

Celtic’s form may have left a little to be desired, but Rangers too were struggling. They were involved in the Scottish Cup final against Hibs, which had now gone to two games without producing a result. The first game on Saturday 12 May had been shown live on BBC, and Celtic fans had seen how ineffective Rangers were in a game that hibs really should have won. The first replay, on the night after Celtic’s win over Hearts was a similar story of Rangers failing to win a game they really needed to, and thus the second replay had to be scheduled for the Monday after the Celtic v Rangers game. It couldn’t be any earlier for Scotland internationals were now getting in the way.

Thus the 52,000 fans who had kept their tickets from January made their way to Parkhead that night. It would be the only opportunity for seeing the game as STV, who were scheduled to show the highlights and might just, in a move unusual for the times, have made a bid for live rights, were hamstrung by a strike, the curse of the 1970s and the reason for the recent triumph of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives. The BBC might also have made a move for the game, but they were similarly hamstrung, not by a strike but by managerial fecklessness. They didn’t even provide a radio commentary. Thus, no good audio or visual record of the game exists, although the Celtic Cine Club made a brave effort.

The game turned out not to be a classic - it was far too scrappy for that - but a thriller in which the tides of fortune turned frequently, and eventually decisively in Celtic’s favour.

Rangers, attacking the Celtic end of the ground, scored first within minutes of the kick-off. It was a good goal too, made by Davie Cooper and scored by Alex McDonald to reduce the Celtic fans to silence. Rangers held on to their lead until half-time comfortably enough, although not without a few scares.

The Celtic fans were disappointed but not completely downcast. They were very aware that they needed to score twice, for even a draw was of little use to them. A major effort was required, and Celtic’s fans were now willing to play their part. Spurred on by their singing, chanting, flag-waving support, they attacked the Rangers goal with frenzy and passion, but ten minutes into the second-half occurred the incident which in some ways defines this game, but which seemed at the time to have killed Celtic off.

Near the Rangers penalty area Alex McDonald went down after a foul. Referee Eddie Pringle, who was the only calm man inside the cauldron that was Celtic Park, correctly awarded the free-kick, but some Celtic players seemed to think that McDonald was making too much of it in an attempt to waste time. While several players gathered round to remonstrate with McDonald who was still on the ground, Johnny Doyle was seen to aim a kick at him, not with any viciousness, but rather by frustration at the break in play when Celtic were in the ascendancy. Mr. Pringle had no option and Doyle had to be sent off, after the referee consulted the linesman in front of the Jungle who told him what he had seen. What was harder to endure, however, were the smirks of the Rangers players and the pattings on the back of McDonald who somewhat predictably recovered after Doyle departed.

Celtic now seemed dead and buried, but still the songs and the encouragement continued in what seemed more like defiance than a genuine feeling that the cause could be saved. As if in response to the barrage of noise, Celtic surged forward - McGrain and Lynch were both attacking full-backs that night - with Aitken immense in midfield and the two McNeill signings, Provan and MacLeod now showed their value. An equaliser came in the 67th minute after a goalmouth scramble when Roy Aitken was able to prod the ball home.

The score 1-1, the crowd in bedlam and McNeill now decided to replace the defence-minded Mike Conroy with the sprightly veteran Bobby Lennox, still regarded as one of the fastest men in the game, even at the age of 35.

Aitken’s goal had brought Celtic back into the game, but it was still not enough. Attack was now the order of the day, and with renewed vigour the ten men pressed forward, playing with all the determination of the Celts of old in a cause that seemed lost.

Just 15 minutes remained when George McCluskey put Celtic in front, hooking in a ball after an Aitken drive had been blocked by the Rangers defence. This had followed a sustained period of Celtic attack, but then Celtic forgot one of the oldest dictums in the game - that you are always vulnerable after you have scored a goal. Almost immediately Rangers forced what was for them a rare corner, and the ball came to the hitherto anonymous Russell who drilled the ball through a mass of legs and bodies past Peter Latchford to tilt the game and the title once again in the direction of Ibrox.

The score was 2-2 and ten minutes remained as encouragement and support simply poured from the terraces. The Rangers end, triumphant for a minute or two, now held its collective breath once again as Celtic poured forward. Such occasions often provide a tragic figure. For example there was Alan Craig of Motherwell in the 1931 Scottish Cup final, Dixie Deans, who missed a penalty in the European Cup semi-final against Inter Milan in 1972; that night it was Colin Jackson of Rangers.

Jackson had had a great game up to this point, but he had been booked for one or two robust tackles a few seconds previously. Perhaps this affected his judgement.

George McCluskey made ground on the right, crossed and Peter McCloy parried the ball towards Jackson. Jackson, with Celtic forwards closing in on him attempted to head the ball clear or even out for a corner kick, but all he could do was divert the ball past a bewildered McCloy for an own goal to put Celtic 3-2 up. A lucky goal, perhaps, but not undeserved on the run of play.

There were now only five minutes left. The League Championship was tantalisingly close. ‘Wiser’ teams might have shut up shop for the last five minutes, put the ball out of play, conceded free-kicks in non-threatening areas of the pitch, feigned injuries, argued pointlessly with the referee - all to use up the time.

But Celtic were never wise in that sense. With the crowd still jumping all over one another in ecstasy, they surged forward, reckoning that if they kept the ball in the Rangers half they would find it difficult to equalise.
Time was almost up when the ball came to Murdo MacLeod some 25 yards out. He could hold on to the ball, find a team mate to pass to, even allow it to go for a throw-in. But he reckoned he should try to score. It was unlikely from that angle, but as long as McCloy didn’t save it the ball would go into the Celtic end, from where it would take a while to come out and the whistle would go for full-time. So he belted it as hard as he could - and the ball flew straight into the corner of the net.

Pandemonium once again, and almost immediately the full-time whistle came from Mr. Pringle.

Celtic Park had seldom seen anything like it. The immediate celebrations seemed to go on forever, with poor Johnny Doyle, skulking in the dressing-room to avoid his manager’s wrath, being summoned by Billy McNeill and ordered to join the celebrations.

And very soon the following season, Celtic’s supporters had made up their own song in honour of this game. It went (to the tune of Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring): “Ten men won the league, na na na na na...” and was repeated ad infinitum.


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