PO Box 306, Glasgow, G21 2AE, Scotland
The Head Bhoys: Celtic's Managers; by Graham McColl; mainstream Publishing; £14.99 hardback
Given the amount of dross I've had to wade through reviewing books for this scurrilous rag it's hardly surprising that I have become a jaded old cynic when it comes to reading Celtic-related books. However, occasionally a book comes along which restores my enthusiasm for the task, and The Head Bhoys is one of them. Once you get past the cringeworthy title you're into a book which is written with some style and which keeps up a cracking pace as it reviews the careers of all of the men who have at one time or other occupied Old Smokey, the Parkhead Hot Seat. I wouldn't really disagree too much with McColl's knowledgable assessment of any of them.
It was not always the case that a manager at Celtic Park barely had time to get on nodding terms with the commissionaire before finding his taxi revving up in the Walfrid Car Park. In the first eighty years of the club Celtic only had five managers. They've made up for it since, of course, appointing eight in the last twenty years, a regularity that Corporation buses would have been proud of. All of them are given a fair hearing by McColl who takes us chronologically through the reign of each one in turn.
The first boss, Willie Maley, has his place as one of the all-time great Celts assured, of course, and it's true that he did more than most to deserve it. McColl acknowledges these achievements but also draws attention to some of Maley's management techniques when dealing with players (often mere boys) that jarred so much on my post-modern sensibilities that I was left with the impression of a thoroughly dislikeable individual who ran Celtic like a Dickensian Mine owner. Maley's treatment of McGrory, for example, when he tried to get the striker to sign for Arsenal on the way home from a European trip is a perfect example of the man's autocratic, bullying style. His treatment of the player once he made it clear that his intention was to stay at Parkhead was nothing short of scandalous: "The tawdry conclusion to his refusal to move to Arsenal was that Maley, in collusion with the Celtic board, decided that they would pay McGrory less than his due. The player, unknown to him, would receive less money than his team mates for the remainder of his Celtic career; quiet vengeance by Maley and the Celtic board of directors for McGrory's refusal to help add to the Celtic coffers."
His stubbornness and egocentricity eventually led to his own downfall when he had a fall-out with the directors over who was to pay the tax on a gift he had received. As McColl puts it, "The biter had been bit."
Maley's successors were James McStay and Jimmy McGrory, both of whom were never really allowed to get on with it without interference from above and who have become almost marginal figures in the history of the club. The directors seem to have been so pleased to get Maley out of the way that they took full advantage of having relatively pliant individuals willing to stand aside and let the likes of Robert Kelly get on with their hobby of running a football club.
Stein has been the subject of many biographies, and much of his managerial career has become the stuff of legend. There's little new to say about the man's achievements, but the book still manages to provide some insights into Stein as a person thanks to contributions from Billy McNeill, Davie Hay and Lou Macari. McColl also attempts to debunk some of the mythology that has grown up surrounding Stein's eventual departure from Celtic in 1978.
As far as the history goes, the chapter on Stein is where I think the book ceases to be a straightforward - if still engrossing - chronicle and starts to incorporate all the elements of the Celtic management soap opera that we've become used to in recent years. There's an immediacy about the second half of the book that really helps it fizz along.
Billy McNeill, as you might expect, is frank and honest in his assessment of his own time as manager at Celtic, and in terms of relations between manager and board, the chapter which deals with his first spell as boss clearly shows the seismic shift taking place in the game and illustrates how poorly equipped the Celtic board were to take on new challenges. McNeill had a good job at Aberdeen but when offered the post at Parkhead couldn't take a chance on knocking it back in case it wouldn't be offered again. The lure of Celtic was simply too strong for him, but the board chose to exploit this rather than utilise it: "I wasn't ready. I shouldn't have gone... It was the wrong thing to do at that particular time however exciting it was... I found great difficulty in establishing any relationship with the chairman."
David Hay will have to go down in the annals as one of the unluckiest managers we've had. It's true that there is a tendency to fall back on revisionism at times when Davie's concerned - the last season he was in charge Celtic were often terrible - but he was up against a board of directors arguably at the height of their dizziness. His demise was another shabby affair which still reflects badly on the board. Hay was actually given permission to smash the club's wages policy and allowed to pay a massive transfer fee for Mick McCarthy only to get the sack a week later. Go figure.
Billy McNeill returned to claim a double and was initially given some money to invest in players, but it was clear his second spell was going to have little more impact on the mind set of the board than his first. This time he was up against Holmes and Souness at Ibrox but the Celtic board had failed to evolve during the years of his absence. "The second time was absolutely desperate. It was much worse than the first time I was there because Rangers were so far in front of us." Caesar's plans and schemes for the future were scuppered by money problems and an outdated financial infrastructure.
By the time we get to Liam Brady the elements of high farce and low wit are all in place for a tragic-comic tale of a club spiralling out of control. Brady is naturally critical of the board, but he's also honest enough to admit that: "If I've made excuses with regard to how difficult it was with the board then I have to admit that my signings didn't really come off (one of the great understatements of all time when you remember Gary Gillespie and Tony Cascarino) and on the pitch is where I failed." This candour is actually evident in most of the ex-managers interviewed for the book. It is a quality which undoubtedly adds to its attraction.
Lou Macari's chapter is the briefest in the book, despite Lou's tenure taking place at a time of huge upheaval for all concerned. As McColl says, "Returning to Celtic Park had been the biggest gamble of Lou Macari's life and, with the odds stacked against him, it was a calculated gamble that failed spectacularly". It ends with Fergus taking charge and Lady Cosgrove writing Lou's Celtic epitaph at the end of the unfair dismissal hearing.
I found the chapter on Tommy Burns - Celtic's longest serving manager of the Nineties - the most uncomfortable to read. Clearly there are still some raw wounds there. Nonetheless, there is no Bradyesque self-flagellation. He does admit that there were many occasions, through inexperience, he did the wrong thing; but to Tommy, this amounted to stuff like, "Talking back to McCann and saying things to him at board meetings." Even then, he claims to have been driven to this course of action. No mention of getting tactics wrong or picking the wrong players.
When it comes to the career of Jo Venglos McColl is on the side of the good guys. He highlights the Doc's credentials for being in management at the top level and rubbishes the hacks' treatment of a much-maligned coach who did a manful job in the face of sustained hostility from many quarters.
Jansen, Barnes and O'Neill bring the story of the Head Bhoys up to date, but although its sub-title is "The Celtic Managers", this book is as much a history of the Celtic directors. The detrimental effect they have had on Celtic over the years is made clear, and in the case of Desmond White, McColl doesn't pull any punches: "To those who could look behind the facade at Celtic, it was clear that the chairman, Desmond White, who had succeeded Robert Kelly in 19761 was simply using the club as a licence to print money. The dedicated, captive support would fill the terraces and White would cream off the profits. Celtic have always had marvellous supporters, real lovers of football, people who live for the game. It means that if the club's board are of a cynical bent the good faith of these people can be exploited mercilessly".
"Everything was done on the cheap" - adds McNeill - "it was murder."
Although a lot of board shenanigans seem so long ago now in these relatively peaceful times, there's enough material in here to get you looking out your old pitchfork for a wistful trip up to the Walfrid Car park.
Definitely the ideal gift to put in Uncle Tim's Christmas Celtic sock, but make sure you read it yourself first.
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