Tom Duff – The Unholy Goalie
It was deadly silent in the Celtic changing room on New Year’s Day 1892. The players did not know where to look. Five goals down to Dumbarton at half-time without reply, things had only got worse in the second half with three more goals conceded – and still none scored. Amazingly, three Dumbarton ‘goals’ had even been chalked off by the referee.
This was real infamy: the worst defeat in the club’s short history. It remains to this day Celtic’s highest defeat in any match at Celtic Park.
Willie Maley was in the Celtic dressing room that day having played in the game. Years later he recalled that 8-0 defeat had came as a ‘terrific shock’ to the team. Even though it was a friendly, Celtic were vying with Dumbarton for the League title that season and had already beaten The Sons at Celtic Park a few months earlier. The calamity on New Year’s Day was a humiliation for Celtic. A scapegoat had to be found. Inside and outside the dressing room fingers pointed in one direction: at Celtic’s goalkeeper, Tom Duff.
The Scottish media of the day were in no doubt that the ‘keeper was the man responsible for Celtic’s embarrassment. ‘Duff’s goalkeeping was very indifferent’ reported The Scotsman while the Scottish Referee blamed him exclusively for Celtic’s humbling defeat: ‘had goalkeepers been reversed a different result would have been seen.’ Glasgow’s Catholic newspaper, the Observer, was still unforgiving of Duff’s performance three years later when it stated: ‘Everyone remembers the fatal new Year’s Day when, in the presence of some 20,000 people, the Celts had to submit to the ignominy of a 8-0 defeat, owing to the extraordinary and erratic behaviour of Duff in goal.’
Some papers openly speculated whether Tom and his team-mates were still hungover from the Hogmanay celebrations of the night before: “Because they eight (ate) nothing! – which we have reason to believe is a falsehood – at all events it is not denied that, at least, some of them drank.” It would prove to be Tom Duff’s last game for Celtic, the Committee sharing the media’s view that the blame for the heavy loss fell squarely on his shoulders.
The future had looked very different for Tom Duff just a few months earlier. He had been signed that summer from Cowlairs and was highly regarded. Willie Maley later wrote that in the club’s earliest years in the goalkeeping position “we never really had complete satisfaction” but with the signing of Duff it had become “one free of anxiety.” Tom was a safe pair of hands, the long-established custodian at Cowlairs, one of Scotland’s earliest clubs, which grew out of the railway yards in Springburn, north Glasgow.
Celtic’s decision to recruit Tom Duff as the last line of defence was not controversial at the time which, in hindsight, is more than a little surprising: Celtic’s new goalkeeper was an Orangeman!
Tom Duff’s membership of the Orange Order was known throughout the game at the time of his joining Celtic. The Ayrshireman had played in the first ever match at Celtic Park when Hibernian and Cowlairs met to formally open the new ground in May 1888. Just a few weeks later the teams met again, this time at Easter Road, in a much less harmonious affair. Tempers flared when Hibs striker ‘Darlin’ Willie Groves (a future Celt) received a punch on the jaw so hard he didn’t make it out for the second half.
Cowlairs were unhappy that the goal that put Hibs in the lead was allowed to stand and refused to play on, playing the ball back to Duff to stop the game re-starting. As the anger of the Hibs fans grew, the future Celt could be seen gesticulating at them. This was not a smart move because within a short while the Hibs fans had invaded the pitch after the Cowlairs started to walk off. The Hibs’ historian Alan Lugton described the scenes which then unfolded in volume 1 of The Making of Hibernian: ‘The Hibernian navvies were already fuming at the treatment Willie Groves had got and now they lost control, poured onto the park and set about the Cowlairs men, paying special attention to Duff who was well known for his Orange sympathies.’ As a full-scale riot developed on the pitch, the referee abandoned the tie and the Cowlairs players sought safety from the rampaging Hibernian fans in their dressing room. Alan Lugton went on to comment: ‘Incidentally, Duff the Orangeman would later play in goal for Celtic who, unlike Hibernian, never had a Catholics only policy.’
Further confirmation of the Orange allegiance of the Celtic goalie came some years later when the prominent Scottish football writer Bedouin (aka Robert M Connell) wrote a series of memoirs about the game in Scotland and its players for the Scottish Weekly Record in 1908. Connell was a friend of Celtic directors of the time such as ex-players James Kelly and Tom Dunbar. Celtic historian Pat Woods, writing in Celtic: Pride and Passion (2013) stated that Connell had a high regard for Tom Duff’s abilities which was an impressive reference from someone ‘whose knowledge of the early days of organised football in Glasgow was encyclopaedic and who referred to the keeper as ‘The Cowlairs Orangeman.’ This reference, in the 18th July 1908 paper, came about when Connell was discussing a series of famous encounters between Cowlairs and Rangers, and stated that ‘Duff, the Cowlairs Orangeman who subsequently kept goal for the Celts, guarded the uprights.’ Over a decade on, the memory of Duff playing in Celtic’s colours was still causing comment.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Tom Duff signing was that the Celtic committee, players and supporters were all aware of his Orange background – and yet there is no record of any objections being made from any section. It is inconceivable that Celtic signing an Orangeman today would be met with the muted compliance of the Celtic support! Yet Duff was welcomed with open arms.
This may in part be due to the fact that Duff’s association with Celtic preceded the summer of 1892. Celtic had long-standing difficulties identifying a suitable goalkeeper. Mick Dolan, Willie Dunning and Jamie Bell had all been tried in the club’s first two seasons and even defender James McLaughlin had been used on occasion. In the summer of 1890, after Celtic’s second season, the club had fixed up a number of prestigious friendlies against English clubs, including Wolves, Notts county and Preston North End, and it was Tom Duff who was invited to keep goal. He responded with a string of good performances as Celtic went undefeated on their mini-tour of England. Yet, when the new season started, it was Bell who was again between the Celtic posts – but not for long.
In season 1890-91 Celtic failed to make the long-hoped for breakthrough, coming 3rd in the inaugural Scottish League and knocked out of the Scottish Cup at the semi-final stage. Celtic meant business for the new season and spent considerable sums securing Dan Doyle and Alec Brady from Everton as well as the prodigal Neilly McCallum returning from Notts Forest. The final piece of the jigsaw was the goalkeeping position and they went for the man many considered the best in Scotland at the time: Tom Duff.
There was no doubting Duff’s goalkeeping pedigree. He had played against Celtic many times and always impressed, even though Cowlairs were regularly on the losing side. It was Duff who had kept a clean sheet and stopped Celtic in their first ever cup final, the Glasgow Exhibition Cup in September 1888, which Cowlairs won 2-0. In a heavy Scottish Cup defeat to Celtic in 1888 one newspaper said of Duff that he ‘through all proved a most capable man.’ In January 1890 it was his ‘magnificent goalkeeping’ which forced Celtic into a replay which itself was marked by ‘miraculous saves’ from Duff (presumably of the non-Lourdes variety).
Season 1891-2 saw Duff and Celtic get off to a great start. He kept a clean sheet against Rangers in a 3-0 victory in August and the team defended ‘remarkably well’ in a 5-2 win over Abercorn a few weeks later. When reigning champions Dumbarton visited Celtic Park on 26th September in a top-of-the-table encounter, the Bhoys recorded an impressive 2-0 win. It was the most important game of the season up that point and one journalist highlighted that Dumbarton ‘were only kept from going through by the excellent goalkeeping of Duff.’
Tom’s star was very much in the ascendancy but that game may have sown the seeds for the disaster that was to unfold. Torrential rain hit Celtic Park during the match and the referee finally ordered both sets of players off the pitch until the downpour receded. The damage to Tom was to prove severe – he missed almost two months of first team action because of rheumatism connected with the fierce soaking he suffered in that Dumbarton tie.
Celtic kept faith in Tom and when they reached the Glasgow Cup Final on 12th December the call went out for him to return between the sticks. He had a quiet game as Celts ran out 7-1 winners against Clyde – which meant he won his first major medal in football, one of the main reasons why he’d moved to Celtic Park. Tom played in Celtic’s next two competitive fixtures, knocking Kilmarnock Athletic out of the Scottish Cup and beating St Mirren in a League tie on Boxing Day. With a new year dawning life was looking good for both Tom and Celtic: a trophy already in the bag, top of the League and going well in the Scottish Cup.
In the absence of competitive fixtures for most of January, Celtic fixed up some friendly ties instead. Dumbarton were invited to return to Celtic Park for a New Year’s Day fixture with a genuine competitive edge and, as expected, the tie proved a great draw with over 15,000 spectators attending. That would only rub salt into the Celtic wounds.
Over a century on, it is difficult to explain what went so badly wrong that day for Celtic to lose an incredible eight goals without reply. It was a full-strength team which included early Celtic luminaries such as Dan Doyle, Sandy McMahon, Jerry Reynolds, Johnny Madden, Peter Dowds and Neilly McCallum. These were no novices.
Captain James Kelly was missing due to injury and replaced for the day by the Clyde centre-half John Cherrie (who played ‘a miserable game’ according to one paper and Celtic did not follow up their interest in him). The keeper was certainly at fault for some of the goals. The second was described as ‘a soft shot which Duff might easily have saved’ and in the second a strike from Dumbarton striker Bell ‘made Duff shake in his shoes.’ Some of his errors appeared more schoolboy than Apprentice Boy.
If, as suspected by many, Tom Duff had over-indulged in his Hogmanay libations – or made the mistake of taking alcohol while still being treated with laudanum for his rheumatism – the likelihood is he wasn’t the only Celtic player who had done so. Yet he was the scapegoat and the only player to be removed from Celtic Park. This is perhaps no surprise in light of the scathing criticism in the papers, such as these comments from the Scottish Referee match report: ‘Duff for the day spelt his name D-U-F-F-E-R. It will take a lot of his best saving to recover the reputation lost.’
For Willie Maley the 8-0 defeat proved a ‘a rude awakening that ultimately did us good.’ The Benburb goalie Joe Cullen was brought in and would prove the most successful of Celtic’s early custodians in his five years with the club before leaving for Tottenham Hotspur.
Although the league was eventually lost by just two points to Dumbarton that season, Celtic won the Charity Cup to go with the Glasgow Cup that Tom Duff had helped secure back in December. But most importantly of all Celtic finally won the greatest prize in Scottish football at the time at the fifth attempt: the Scottish Cup. This treble of trophies was referred by Willie Maley as Celtic’s ‘three-leaved shamrock success.’
Meantime, Duff had returned to Cowlairs and was able to recover something of his reputation. Two years after his departure from Celtic he put in a strong performance in a Glasgow Cup semi-final against his former club which in the eyes of one reporter ‘proved that he is still possessed of all the ability that earned him fame as a custodian.’ He had gone some way to restore the damage done to his reputation that infamous New Year’s Day.
Duff’s former team-mate and famed Celtic striker Sandy McMahon said years later that he could have been ‘a great goalie had he only put his mind to it.’ Indeed, if the Dumbarton debacle had been avoided, Celtic’s goalkeeping Orangeman could have been a part of the success the club would go on to enjoy in the 1890s: winning the Scottish Cup that season for the first time and winning their first League Championship the next season.
For Tom Duff, it just wasn’t to be – yet he remains a fascinating footnote in the club’s history and the most potent symbol of Celtic’s ‘open door’ signing policy from its earliest days.
For Celtic, the future was bright – but it wasn’t Orange.
Tom Duff and his Celtic team-mates weren’t the only people who enjoyed a good swally on Hogmanay 1891 . . .
In a publicity stunt, the match between Celtic and Dumbarton was kicked off by the unusual figure of Major Burke, the manager of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show which was touring Scotland at the time and attracting audiences of up to 7,000 people a night in the East End Exhibition Building near Duke Street in Glasgow, a short distance from Celtic Park.
The show was extraordinary by the standards of the day, featuring a cast of over 300 cowboys and Native Americans (or Red Indians as they were known then) and up to 200 horses, mules and buffaloes who recreated scenes of wagon ambushes, marksmanship and full-scale battles. As well as Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, the main attractions were the exotic and fierce-looking Red Indians with names such as Lone Bull, Kicking Bear, Iron Tail, No Neck (admittedly, not an uncommon sight in Dennistoun) and the Sioux brave Charging Thunder.
After his appearance at Celtic Park on the 1st January 1892, Major Burke had to attend to some urgent business at the Calton Police Station in Tobago Street, just off the London Road. Charging Thunder had spent Hogmanay touring the public houses of the Gallowgate and getting familiar with the locals. On his return to the campsite while under the influence he assaulted one of the show’s interpreters with a war club which resulted in the police being called – and Charging Thunder being taken into custody.
Major Burke’s attempts to secure his early release failed and the Red Indian remained resident in the Calton’s jail cells (which can still be seen when driving along London Road) until January 12th when he had to appear in the Sheriff Court. While he pled guilty to the assault, Charging Thunder’s claim that his lemonade had been spiked did not result in any clemency being shown as he could not identify the Gallowgate pub in which this offence had occurred. He was sentenced to 30 days imprisonment in Barlinnie. This was not proving a good start to the New Year for either Tom Duff or the Sioux Brave.
Charging Thunder returned to the fold of the Wild West Show and came back to Britain again when it toured in 1903. There was another fall-out and this time Charging Thunder decided that he would set up home in Salford with one of the show’s horse trainers, Josephine Williams. He remained in Greater Manchester for the rest of his days, changed his name to George Williams and raised a family while working at the Belle Vue Circus – where he looked after the elephants – until his death through pneumonia in 1929. He is buried in Gorton Cemetery near Burnage, where Noel and Liam Gallagher grew up.
According to his surviving grandchildren, Charging Thunder did not shake off the fondness for drink that landed him in the Tobago Street police cells. But when he had imbibed too much he would avoid trouble by heading for the zoo where he would sleep off his hangover with his favourite elephant, Nelly, guarding over him.
An earlier version of the Tom Duff article first appeared in Issue 3 of The Shamrock magazine
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