As World War One raged on in the summer of 1915, Scottish League football continued to be played officially as it had been suggested that it would be good for morale. The Scottish Cup and International matches had been suspended for the duration of the war but the title was still there to be won. Players wages were capped and most were doing war work of some kind as well as playing football.
Celtic entered season 1915-16 as League Champions having won the title the previous season with a bit to spare. They started well losing just two matches in first half of the season. One of these loses was to a very good Hearts side which had beaten Rangers 4-0 at Ibrox the previous week. That 2-0 defeat at Tynecastle in November 1915 was the last defeat Celtic suffered in a competitive match for 17 months. They racked up an astonishing 62 matches undefeated with 49 victories and 13 draws. They did not lose a single competitive game in the entire calendar year of 1916. Indeed they actually played two games in one day in April 1916 to avoid the need for a midweek game which would have meant players potentially missing shifts in factories and docks deemed vital to the war effort. They defeated Raith Rovers 6-0 at Celtic Park before heading for Motherwell where they defeated the Steelmen 3-1.
The title was clinched in April 1916 amid limited rejoicing as the war dragged on in Europe and the 1916 Rising in Ireland caused yet more concern to many who followed Celtic. To get an idea of the worries people had then consider the fact that the Herald newspaper gave the week's casualty figures as 92 officers and 1,568 men killed in action. The list of those injured and maimed would be even longer. It seems strange to us a century later that football could continue as the nation endured such losses but continue it did. Celtic, Scotland’s leading Irish club of the time played matches as Dublin burned in Easter Week. Indeed a contemporary newspaper carrying a report on Celtic’s 4-1 victory over Third Lanark also carried a report on the arrest of the ‘Traitor, Roger Casement’ who was arrested while trying to land thousands of German Rifles for the Irish Citizens Army. The Report also quoted Casement as saying…
"Let Irish men and boys stay in Ireland. Their duty is clear before God and before man. We, as a people, have no quarrel with the German people."
These were clearly tumultuous times and loyalties were stretched and tested. People were living through one of those great upheavals which history periodically produces. For the Celtic team on the football field though this was a golden era. With players like Patsy Gallagher leading the attack and Shaw, McNair and Dodds defending so well the club was thriving. Jimmy ‘Napoleon’ McMenemy pulled the strings ably assisted by the lightning fast Andy McAtee. They also had Peter Johnstone, a tough and reliable big player from the mining communities of Fife who played in almost any position and was adored by the fans. He was unafraid of the gruff and intimidating Boss, Willie Maley, and would argue his case if he thought he was right. Maley, who undoubtedly admired Johnstone, was distraught when the big man was killed on the Western Front a year later having insisted on ‘doing his bit.’
For Celtic 1916 turned into 1917 and the side continued their winning streak until, finally, they lost to Kilmarnock at Celtic Park in April 1917. Their incredible run of 62 competitive games without defeat still stands as a record in British football. Indeed it is a record in top class European football although Real Madrid currently sitting on a 40 match unbeaten run after Karim Benzema’s injury time equaliser against Seville this week. It seems incredible to think that Zidane’s Madrid have won more trophies in his tenure than matches lost! (Champions League, European Super Cup and the World Club Championship)
Of course, football and indeed the world, has changed immeasurably since Patsy Gallagher, Peter Johnstone and Andy McAtee drove Celtic on to victory 100 years ago. But those men deserve the respect of Celtic fans today. They did their very best for the club and brought Celtic glory and honour. They won four consecutive championships during World War One and have an honoured place in Celtic history.
Today we see an attacking young Celtic side being developed by a Manager of considerable guile and experience. The hard lessons of European football are being learned and while Rodgers side faced an immensely difficult Group in the Champions League, they emerged from it with some credit given the disparity in income between the Hoops and the sides they faced. Domestically however Celtic remains imperious. In 24 domestic matches in the SPFL and League Cup they have won 23 and drawn just 1. This raises the tantalising possibility of a domestic season without defeat. Even the Lisbon Lions couldn’t manage that distinction but could Rodgers’ side do it?
I’ve never been one to tempt fate but you’d have to say that it is possible. Football is of course a strange game and an error, a bad bounce of the ball or dubious refereeing decision can cost a team a game but you get the impression Rodgers sends his team out with high expectations in every single match they play. He is driven man with high standards and he wants the best for Celtic every week. If anyone can create a new team of ‘Invincibles’ then it is him. If Celtic return from their Winter break in Dubai refreshed and ready to go again then they’ll take some stopping. They continued to win at home in the first half of the season despite playing in a dozen high pressure European ties which their opponents were spared. They are now free to concentrate on domestic matters. If they hit the ground running and continue winning then each passing week will bring a once in a lifetime achievement closer.
It’s a long shot, a really big ask but you never know. We Celts always have our dreams and our songs to sing.