Friday, 28 November 2014

The Spirit of 79

The Spirit of 79
It isn’t often an ordinary fan such as yours truly gets the chance to visit one of the plush lounges at Celtic Park so when Stephen  Murray invited me and many other Celtic fans along to the launch of his book ‘Ten Men Won The League’ this week I was more than happy to oblige. It’s always nice walking in the front doors of Celtic Park and heading upstairs past the statues, photographs and artwork which map out the history of our grand old team. An added bonus to the evening in the Jock Stein Lounge was the presence of three of the players who played such a pivotal role in that amazing 1978-79 season. Danny McGrain, rightly regarded as one of the finest players ever to wear the Hoops, graced us with his presence as did goalkeeper Peter Latchford and full back Joe Fillipi. It was pleasing to watch these guys take time to chat with fans to pose for photos and sign books. It was a lesson in humility to some of the modern highly paid players who seldom mix with ordinary supporters. The bond former Celtic players have with the Celtic supporters remains so strong because they are approachable and patient with them. The bond and indeed affection they have with each other was obvious too. I asked Peter Latchford if he remembered the game against Real Madrid in the Benabuea in 1980, he smiled and replied, ‘Indeed I do, that Ref was such a homer and probably still has a place in Marbella paid for by his bung from that game.’ Danny McGrain was his usual modest self, always quick to downplay his contribution and focus on the team but anyone who saw him play knew he was a real deal. Joe Philipi, a tidy full back who never gave less than 100% was one of those gentlemen who gave the impression that just playing for Celtic was a dream come true for him. To chat to such men was a real pleasure.

Joanna Doyle was also present and that was fitting given the role her dad Johnny played in that tumultuous season. Stephen related the story told to him by Davie Provan of how Johnny Doyle went out of his way to welcome Provan to Celtic Park despite the fact that Davie was likely to push Johnny out of the first team. Provan said that Johnny Doyle remarked to him on their first meeting… ‘I don’t care if I’m not in the team as long as Celtic is winning.’ Those are the words of a real Celtic man. Johnny of course is remembered in the context of that 1978-79 league campaign for foolishly being sent off in the deciding match with Rangers but his contribution throughout the season was considerable. That man would run through brick walls for Celtic and his place in the hearts of Celtic fans is assured. One can imagine his anguish sitting alone in the Celtic Park dressing room listening to the roars of the crowd and wondering if he had blown it for his team. A ball boy apparently rushed in at full time to tell him that Celtic had won 4-2. Johnny almost hugged him to death. A true Celt and a man we miss still.

Being of a certain vintage I have vivid memories of Celtic fighting their way from a seemingly impossible position that season to find themselves facing Rangers in a game on which everything hinged. Hollywood script writers couldn’t have come up with a scenario as exciting and climatic as that astonishing game at Celtic Park. The drama and passion of that famous night in May 1979 will be forever etched into the memory of all who witnessed it but as Stephen points out so well in his book it took a gargantuan effort by Celtic to claw their way back into contention and set up that thrilling finale. The long, snowy winter of 1978-79 saw Celtic without a game for 10 weeks. When spring returned they had to cram in games at such a rate that you felt sure they’d crack and lose form. They didn’t and Stephen traces the incredible consistency of the team in the last three months of the season which saw them rise like a phoenix and shoot up the league table. There were late winning goals, dramatic incidents and odd occurrences like Celtic beating St Mirren at Ibrox on a Friday night!

As you read the book you get a real sense that Stephen’s viewpoint on events comes from a fan’s perspective. This is a Celtic man, an east end Bhoy pouring his heart into his writing. There are fascinating interviews and quotes from players involved such as Mike Conroy and even former Rangers player Gordon Smith but the prose overflows with Stephen’s enthusiasm and affection for Celtic. It’s hard to capture and distil the drama and sheer excitement of what occurred at Celtic Park on a bright May evening 35 years ago but Stephen does it superbly. He captures the excitement of a game which seemed to have everything as it bubbled and boiled to an astonishing finale as well as the scenes of unbridled and fairly chaotic joy on the terraces, pitch and changing rooms.  His description of the injured Tommy Burns standing on top of the small wall at the front of the Director’s box belting out ‘You’ll never walk alone’ with tens of thousands of other Celts brought a tear to my eye. God how that man loved Celtic!

As a boy you hear tell from your older relatives of great Celtic games like Lisbon or the 7-1 game and wonder if you’ll see such times yourself. That league clinching victory against Rangers in May 1979 was simply stunning in its intensity, atmosphere and significance. It was all the more amazing because Celtic had a mid-season loss of form which would have killed off any other side’s hopes of being champions. Few gave thought Celtic could be champions that year as they languished in mid-table at Christmas 1978 but as the snow fell and continued to fall that winter a very different Celtic was being moulded by Manager Billy McNeil. This Celtic was organised, hungry and ready to defy the odds stacked against them. To their eternal credit, they refused to give up and through grit, skill and sheer will power fought their way to the title.

I’ve read a lot of Celtic books but few have filled with pride and reminded me of what our club and its supporters are capable of in the manner this one does. Any Celt who witnessed these events should read Stephen’s book and relive some quite astonishing times. For those of you too young to have seen these events unfold the book will give you a window into the recent history of our incredible club and demonstrate that that passion and commitment we see today is not a new invention. It’s been there since 1888. Mike Conroy, now coaching in Ireland recounts his emotions at full time by saying…

‘I practically jumped into the Jungle at the final whistle. I took off my boots and threw them into the Jungle. I was trying to get my strip off when Johannes Edvaldsson jumped on me and said, ‘Haw calm down, calm down.’ I was going to throw my jersey in but I’m glad now because I still have it. I’ve played in better Celtic teams than that one but I’ve never played in a team or been in a dressing room that had that spirit about it.’

Those of you lucky enough to see Celtic’s phoenix like rise from third bottom of the SPL to becoming Champions on that amazing evening will never forget it. The spirit of 79 was incredible and Stephen has managed to give a great account of how it developed and drove Celtic on to one of their most famous and unlikely victories. It makes me proud just thinking about it.


As we I headed back to the Garngad after that game in May 1979 we sang ourselves hoarse. Even as a skinny young lad I knew I’d seen a game we’d talk about for years. Celtic fans we passed joined our songs, hugged us and beamed with utter delight. The Garngad was buzzing when we got home. Flags hung out of windows and songs of victory echoed long into the night. I awoke the following morning with a smile on my face that took a week to fade. That’s the way it gets you when you let Celtic become a part of you. You live it, breathe it, love it. ‘We are the Champions’ we sang over and over that night and I’m happy to report I’ve sung it many times since.

God Bless the Celts and every last one of you who loves the green!

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