The Best of All
All of the TV coverage of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings got me thinking about old Tommy. One of seven children brought up in a tenement in the Gorbals he was, like so many from that district, Celtic through and through. He told me one time that much as he loved the Lisbon Lions and the teams Stein built, he thought the team being built by Maley in the late thirties could have been the greatest of all if the war hadn’t interrupted its development. I can still see his gnarled old face crease into a smile when he recalled a game in September 1938 when Rangers came calling. ‘Delaney ripped them apart,’ he said to me his blue eyes gleaming like a boy again. He could even recount the names of the entire team who thumped their rivals 6-2 on that September day long ago…. ‘Kennaway, Hogg, Morrison, Geatons, Lyon, Paterson, Delaney, McDonald, Crum, Divers and Murphy.’ Delaney, McDonald and Johnny Crum ran the show and but for a great display from Rangers keeper Dawson, Celtic could have hit double figures. That excellent team were to be scattered as the war clouds gathered over Europe. Celtic wouldn’t build another truly great side till Stein arrived in 1965. For Tommy too, extraordinary times lay ahead.
With two of his brothers on active service for the invasion of Europe in 1944, Tommy found himself half the world away in Burma with the Fourteenth Army. With the Japanese intent on invading India, the Fourteenth Army had the job of stopping them. The fighting was some of the bloodiest and most brutal of the war around the towns of Kohima and Imphal. Tommy seldom spoke of his experiences during his time in the far-east but opened up a little to me one evening as I visited him in hospital. He told me his mother would send him cuttings from the newspapers so he could read about Celtic’s progress or lack of progress in those war years. Dismal as Celtic’s form was, he still felt the connection to the team he supported all his days. There were to be no letters for weeks however when the Japanese offensive of 1944 saw Tommy on the Kohima ridge fighting off attacks by what he called ‘those mad screaming wee men.’ As the British and Indian soldiers, greatly outnumbered, held on grimly the psychological and physical pressure took its toll. Tommy recounted one Japanese raid which over ran a trench and led to the capture of one of his comrades. ‘We could hear him calling for his mother as they did God knows what to him and we just had to sit there and take it. Some of us wanted to go and try to rescue him but the officers told us to sit tight, as the Japanese wanted us to try and were waiting for us’. It was a long night for Tommy and he shut out the horrors by reliving in his head Celtic’s smashing of Rangers in that 1938 game. ‘It might sound daft, callous even’ he told me, ‘but I could escape into my memories when things were hardest and many of my best memories were of Celtic.’ The following day the Japanese attacked again and Tommy and his comrades took a terrible toll on them. ‘Their tactic backfired,’ he told me, ‘We were so angry about what they did the night before. When they attacked the next day we just said, aye, come on then you bastards.’
Tommy returned safely from the far-east but one of his brothers was lost in Holland in the later stages of the war. He moved back to the Gorbals and eventually on to Castlemilk as the old neighbourhood was demolished. He saw Celtic brief successes of the fifties and of course Stein’s dominance in the 60s and 70s. The last time I spoke to him was in hospital the week Celtic played Hibs in the cup final of 2001 as O'Neil's fine side moved relentlessly towards the treble. By that stage Tommy was a very old man in the final stages of his life. He pressed an old Celtic hand book into my hand and rasped in a tired, wheezing voice, ‘They would have been the best of all.’ It was from season 1938-39.
Guys like Tommy lived simple and often tough lives. Their standard of living was, by modern measures, poor but they were proud and independent. He loved Celtic with a passion but not in that zealous manner that leads some to hate. His pride in them was as standard bearers of his community. Celtic gave them something to look forward to at the end of a long and arduous working week and in Tommy’s case, somewhere to shelter, however briefly from the horrors of war. To his dying day he swore Maley’s team of the late thirties would have been the best in Celtic’s history had they been given time to mature together. ‘The war changed it all, broke up a great team,’ he would tell me. We who never saw them play are not best placed to judge but if Tommy said they were that good, then I for one believe him.
Maley’s team of the late thirties may have been one of the best but so were you Tommy. Sleep well old fella. Hail Hail