The Man Who Loved The Green
William Doyle guided his wheelchair across the kitchen to the big wooden table. He was still a young man but an accident in the pit had broken his back and left him in constant pain. The price of coal was high indeed. Come here young fella,’ he said to the seven year old lad who stood by the kitchen door of the modest little miner’s cottage. ‘I want to show you something.’ His son walked to his father’s side, ‘what is it da?’ He slid open the drawer of the table and removed some old letters, rooting inside until he found what he was after. ‘Here it is.’ he smiled holding up a small green book, ‘I bought this a long time ago, before you were born. I want you to have it.’ He handed his son the book and the youngster looked at the embossed writing on the hardback cover: ’The Story of the Celtic 1888-1938’ by Willie Maley. William Doyle regarded his son with a kindly smile, ‘It’s the story of the greatest fitbaw club in the world.’ Young John Doyle smiled and nodded, ‘Can I start it tonight Da?’ His old man nodded, ‘go right ahead, Johnny.’
Young Johnny Doyle read the 200 pages of Willie Maley’s history of Celtic’s first 50 years over the next few days. His father’s love of Celtic had begun to rub off on him before he started the book but those tales of Walfrid, Gallagher, Thomson and McGrory had him enthralled. He lay awake in his bed dreaming of wearing the beloved hoops and running out that tunnel at Celtic Park, his old man watching proudly from the stand. He loved playing football and his Dad had encouraged him, ‘Ye need tae be two footed, Johnny. Get that left foot trained up the same as your right and ye might play for Celtic one day.’ For a young boy it was all an impossible dream but still he did dream…
When Celtic supporters discuss players from the past they often wax lyrical about skills of Jimmy Johnstone, the imperious leadership of McNeil or the goal scoring prowess of Larsson or McGrory. When it comes to discussing real Celtic men who wore the hoops, they will always mention Tommy Burns and his great friend and comrade Johnny Doyle. To say Johnny wore his heart on his sleeve was an understatement. He simply loved Celtic and was utterly fearless when he turned out for them. Like Burns, he knew how much passion and emotion the supporters put in to supporting the team and gave 100% in every game he played. His style was direct and pacey and that two footed ability he got from his old man insisting he practice with his left as well as right foot meant he could cut inside or go outside a defender.
One of the hardest decisions he had made in his life was to concentrate on playing football on a Saturday and miss out on travelling on watch his beloved Celtic on the local supporters’ bus. He reflected later that this difficult decision made his mind up to give playing the game his full attention…
“It was one of the turning points of my life. I still supported Celtic, but now I wanted to be good enough to play for them.”
He signed for Celtic from Ayr United in 1976 for a then club record fee of £90,000. At Ayr he was noted as a good two footed winger who had ability and an attitude which combined determination and a certain wildness. Johnny was no stranger to referees and saw the red card flashed on a few occasions in his career. He took a lot of punishment from defenders in an era when tackling was still allowed and many defenders would fly into opposing wingers with the intention of intimidating them. No one intimidated Johnny Doyle, he was always up and back for more. His father’s advice on becoming two footed helped his play to be more varied and unpredictable. Sadly his old man succumbed to the injuries received in the pit and died when Johnny was just 8. He never had the pleasure of seeing his boy develop as a professional and eventually fulfil his dream of playing for the club he loved.
My memories of Johnny Doyle are of a player who looked as if he had achieved his life’s ambition by playing for the team he loved and that he was going to cherish every game he played for them. He was no more than 5 foot 7 inches tall but possessed a mighty heart which would see him approach even the most brutal defenders with determination and courage. Peter Latchford recalled that Johnny would show up on the team bus wearing a Celtic scarf because he was first and foremost a Celtic supporter. It meant so much to him playing for the team he had loved since he was a wee boy listening to his father’s tales of the great Celts he had seen. Sometime he cared too much and in his fierce determination to fight for the cause he would get involved with opponents or referees but the fans accepted this as they knew it stemmed from his deep rooted love for the club. His sending off in that title deciding Old Firm game in May 1979 with Celtic trailing 0-1 saw him sit distraught in the dressing room listening to the roars of the crowd and thinking he had let the team down. His joy was unconfined when he found out that Celtic had produced one of those stirring displays they are capable of and had won 4-2 to clinch the title amid incredible scenes.
Another bizarre episode occurred at Somerset Park his old stamping ground. The little stadium was packed to capacity but it was not going well for Celtic nor the vast majority of the crowd who had come to cheer them on. An early goal by Joe Craig had them in the lead but two second half strikes from the gangling Walker McCall had the home side in front. Celtic pressed for an equaliser but the fluency of the previous season was missing from their play. Then in a bizarre twist, Johnny Doyle while attempting a cross struck the Referee full in the face with the ball. The Ref was pole axed and fell to the turf as thousands looked on with a mixture of shock and amusement. To the astonishment of many, he got to his feet and showed Doyle a red card. It seemed very harsh as there was surely no intent on the player’s part.
Johnny Doyle achieved his ambition by playing for Celtic you knew he would give everything he had for the club. He had inspired days and days when it didn’t happen for him but through it all the fans knew he was one of them. His life was cut short in tragic circumstances but sometimes it’s not the years in your life but the life in your years and Johnny lived his to the full. At a book launch in Celtic Park a year or two ago I met his daughter Joanna who was just a child when she lost her dad. She seemed amazed by the affection which still existed for her old man more than 30 years after he last wore the hoops. I assured her that those of us who saw Johnny play wouldn’t ever forget him because we knew that if he wasn’t on the field battling for the team, he’d be in the Jungle roaring them on. Like his great friend Tommy Burns, he was one of us and every Celtic team needs such men in it. He gave his all for Celtic and his affection for the club was obvious to all who saw him play.
In memories view I can still see Alan Sneddon racing up the stand side on a chilly night in 1980. The mighty Real Madrid was in town and 67,000 Celtic fans packed the old stadium to roar the Celts on. The air crackled with excitement and expectation on one of those big European nights under the floodlights and we dared to dream we could beat the so called aristocrats of European football. Sneddon clipped a deep cross to the back post and the two Madrid defenders loitering there seemed in control of the situation. They didn’t bank on Johnny Doyle arriving from the left flank like an express train. The winger leapt between the two defenders to power a header into the Madrid net. Celtic Park erupted and Doyle ran towards the seething mass of Celtic fans celebrating in the Jungle. He was one with them, they were his people and he had given them cause for celebration and how they loved him for it.
Johnny Doyle. The man who loved the green.