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On a wing and a prayer – the 1931 Scottish Cup Final

Cup Final fever is here again.  If this Saturday’s encounter is anything like the 1931 Scottish Cup Final, fought by the same teams and considered one of the most exciting and dramatic in the history of the tournament, Hampden will see cheers and tears aplenty.

In 1931 Celtic were hoping to win the oldest trophy in world football for the thirteenth time.  For Motherwell, two years older than their Glasgow counterparts, it was their first-ever major cup final appearance – and their fans turned out in great numbers to support them.  40 special trains as well as 237 trams and 79 buses per hour delivered a crowd of 104,803 to Hampden on what the Motherwell Times described as “a glorious spring day” with the only drawback being “a stiff wind blowing from end to end.”

 

Celtic 1930 to 31

Motherwell team 1930s

 Bhoys against (Steel)Men – the 1931 squads

 

There was well-founded optimism amongst the Lanarkshire contingent.  While Celtic, still managed by the grand old man Willie Maley, enjoyed “a tradition of invincibility” over Motherwell in the Scottish Cup, Maley’s good friend and counterpart John ‘Sailor’ Hunter had put together the best Fir Park side to date.  They presented a real challenge to both Celtic and Rangers in the Scottish League:  from 1927 through to 1934 they would secure a top 3 finish each season, often splitting the Glasgow teams.

 

John Sailor Hunter and Willie Maley Cup Final Managers

Old Pals Act:  Willie Maley and Sailor Hunter

 

While Celtic had the great Jimmy McGrory up front, the brave and dependable Johnny Thomson in goal and craftsmen like Charlie Napier, Alec Thomson and Bertie Thomson available to turn on the style, this team of Steelmen played a brand of football that had attracted a lot of admirers.  The focus was on the forward line spearheaded by Willie MacFadyen, a strong and mobile centre-forward who could rival McGrory in the goal-scoring stakes (the following season MacFadyen would score 52 goals in the League – a Scottish record that still stands).  On the right wing there was the dependable John Murdoch who was ably supported by John McMenemy – son of the Celtic legend ‘Napoleon’ and an ex-Celt himself who had picked up a winner’s medal in the 1927 final.

 

Jimmy McGrory cig card 2

‘Send for McGrory!’ – Celtic’s famed centre-forward

 

The left-wing was the real danger area for Celtic though.  George Stevenson and Bobby Ferrier were known as the ‘Rolls and Royce of Scottish football’ for good reason: they were “a species of perfection which captivated they eyes, and transfixed the full-backs, of a generation.” They were not only incredibly skilful individuals, they combined with deadly effect to net a total of 424 goals between them in their Motherwell careers.  It was unusual for any non-centre forward to strike up such a rate of goals.

 

Bob Ferrier cig card

Bobby Ferrier, a Motherwell legend

 

The huge terraces at Hampden were a feast of colour that Saturday afternoon.  The Celtic contingent had turned up in considerable numbers for the club’s 21st cup final appearance (having won 12): “At the West terracing a dense column of green handkerchiefs greeted the eyes.” The distinct claret and amber of the Motherwell fans (the club had recently adopted these colours in favour of blue) was very much in evidence too:

As against the waving of the green there was the display of the “Knowetop Laddies” with their block letters, standing out in bold relief on the crowded slopes, the letters forming the word M O T H E R W E L L.  From hundreds of voices there came the shout “Motherwell” the chorus of the “Knowetop Laddies” as they completed their display.

We are familiar with fan displays inside stadia in the modern era but this was an unusual sight in grounds in the 1930s (although brake club banners were often taken into games back then).  Knowetop Primary School still sits directly behind the East Stand at Fir Park, opposite the main stand.  This is the area of the ground occupied by their ultras group, the Motherwell Bois.

It was Motherwell, playing with the wind behind them, who settled into the game first and their fans who were the first to cheer.  A mere 6 minutes had passed when a “swift grounder” from Stevenson deflected off the foot of Celtic captain Jimmy McStay to beat a despairing Johnny Thomson, whose fingers reached the ball but couldn’t stop it crossing the line.  “A thundering cheer rent the air” above the Mount Florida end of Hampden while the Celtic support looked on in silence.

 

A section of the crowd in 1931 final

Some of the crowd in the Main Stand at the 1931 Cup Final at Hampden

 

If you weren’t at the game itself, you stood little chance of knowing the score.  As well as no mobile phones or television in the 1930s, the cup final was not broadcast live on the radio (the BBC had a 15-minute report on the game which would only be read out at 6pm).  Back in Motherwell a large crowd had gathered outside the office of the Motherwell Times in the town centre where regular notices were being put up in the window thanks to telephone calls from a reporter at Hampden Park.  The crowd grew to thousands as the game progressed.

There was a touch of ingenuity on show:  one group of Motherwell fans had brought a basket full of pigeons with them to Hampden.  This was in an age when pigeon-fancying was all the rage:  it’s more likely that you’d get a bag of smoke bombs and flares past Police Scotland into Saturday’s final then a basket full of doos. It had been agreed before the game that if Celtic scored then a black pigeon would be released into the air to return to Lanarkshire; and if the Fir Park team scored it was white pigeon that would be sent home to convey the good news.  Celtic were now a white pigeon and a goal down.

The Celtic team tried to get a foothold in the game but it was Motherwell who maintained the pressure.  MacFadyen missed an open goal and Thomson was called to save from both Murdoch and Stevenson.  In the 20th minute a shot from McMenemy would likely have been saved by the Celtic ‘keeper also if it wasn’t for the unfortunate intervention – yet again – of Jimmy McStay, whose left leg sent it away from the Fifer and into the Celtic net.  Two deflected goals, two-nil to Motherwell – and only twenty minutes played on the Hampden Park clock.  Another white pigeon went up in the air and over the city . . .

 

John Thomson saves v Mwell

Motherwell attack – but Johnny Thomson saves on this occasion

 

Celtic were now trying desperately to bring McGrory into the game to help pull a goal back.  He was being marked closely by Motherwell’s central defender, Alan Craig, and a personal battle was developing between them.  It was reported that Craig’s “bottling” of McGrory was not relished by the Celtic man whose fouls in response led to McGrory being “booed” by Motherwell fans in the main stand.  When Craig appeared to handle the ball in the box, it was the Celtic fans who were venting their spleen as no penalty was awarded.  Things were getting heated, Celtic were clawing their way back into the game – and then MacFadyen had a chance to put Motherwell three goals ahead but his header floated just over the crossbar.  Celtic survived until half-time.

Once again, the M O T H E R W E L L boards were raised aloft during the interval as the Lanarkshire fans realised their team had one solid hand on the famous trophy.  They were forty-five minutes away from glory.

Celtic started the second half at a frantic pace.  Bertie Thomson was the most impressive of the front players, creating chances and helping pin the Motherwell defence back.  McGrory was only being fed scraps though.  ‘Sailor’ Hunter changed his team’s tactics, drawing back Stevenson, McMenemy and Ferrier to help fend off Celtic, leaving only McFadyen and noted poacher Murdoch up high on the pitch to grab a third goal if the chance arose.

McGrory was being effectively marshalled by Craig.  Celtic kept the pressure up but clear-cut chances were limited.   As the minutes ticked away on the clock on the Main Stand (this was destroyed in a fire in 1945) the urgings of the Celtic support grew quieter.  Then there was another claim for a penalty – another Motherwell player hand-balled in the box – but once again Referee Craigmyle said no, awarding a corner instead, to the fury of the Celtic players and support.  Both Peter Scarff and Bertie Thomson chased the referee around the goalposts (and there were claims of man-handling by the Celts) but he stood his ground.

 

McGrory v Craig hand ball 1931

Hand-ball?  No penalty, says ref Craigmyle

 

Into the last 10 minutes and the Motherwell defenders were now clearing the ball at every opportunity, the neat build-up play of the first half abandoned.  Goalkeeper McClory helped run down the clock by deliberately taking his time over bye-kicks.  A large group of jubilant Motherwell fans left Hampden (bizarrely!) to head for Kings Park station be the first to arrive back in the town to spread word of their famous victory.

They were not alone in assuming that the Celts were done:  one Glasgow newspaper editor, desperate to get the jump on his rivals, gave the order to print the front page declaring that Motherwell had won the cup.  Matters appeared settled.

There were seven minutes left to play when another handball by Craig, outside the box this time, saw Celtic awarded a free-kick.  Charlie Napier, known to all as ‘Happy Feet’, stepped up to take it.  He had recently scored direct from a similar position against Dundee United.  Motherwell accordingly massed a large defensive wall in front of him.  This was a crucial mistake.  “The cunning Napier then rolled the ball wide of that labour-intensive structure” for McGrory to burst into the space behind – finally free of the constraints of Craig.  The Garngad man lunged at the ball, managing to get a toe on to it which “turned it astutely into the net in a twinkling.”  It was 2-1.

There was no time for celebrations as McGrory grabbed the ball from the net and raced back to the centre – pointing to the Hampden clock.  Seven minutes left.  The message to his team-mates and the Celtic support was unmissable:  we can save the day.  The King’s Park end of the old ground was alive with green flags and handkerchiefs being waved fervently in the air.

 

Hampden Park 1930s

Hampden from the air – in the 1930s

 

The minutes passed and still Celtic kept coming.  “Six times in the last five minutes the Celts were beaten back.”  It was like trench warfare and Motherwell kept coming out on top, holding their line firmly.  And then the Hampden clock moved into the last minute of the game.

Despite their best efforts, Celtic had apparently failed.  The Motherwell directors were receiving warm congratulations from their Celtic counterparts on their first Scottish Cup success.  Newspaper reporters closed over their notebooks in the press box.  A white pigeon was released from the Mount Florida terracing in the direction of the famous steel town.  The Knowetop Laddies raised the boards again, one after the other, in celebration:  M O T H E R W E

As the first L was being raised, there was a pause.  Bertie Thomson had sent over a high ball from the touchline.  McGrory saw a chance.  A cry went up near him of “Go for it Alan!”  There were two Alans in the vicinity: defender Craig and goalkeeper McClory.  Both went for the ball.  In 1976, Jimmy McGrory still remembered clearly what happened next: “It was en route for my head when Craig intercepted . . . the ball skimmed off his head and exploded in the back of the net behind ‘keeper McClory who was beaten to the world.”

In the dying seconds, Craig’s own goal had presented the equaliser Celtic craved.  The final tie was deadlocked at 2-2.  There would be a replay.

The Glasgow Observer columnist ‘Man In the Know’, Celtic’s greatest media cheerleader, described the scene a few days later in the weekly paper:

“The Celtic players dashed towards Bert Thomson who was simply overwhelmed under an avalanche of hysterical congratulations.  The great little Celt was seized, hugged, patted, kissed – and I don’t know what, while the Motherwell players, astounded, incredulous, made their way heavily to midfield.  Three seconds remained for play . . . But, if the incidents on the field of play were remarkable, how shall I describe the scenes on the terracing?  It would take Dante or Milton to do justice to the unforgettable spectacle.  I never witnessed anything remotely approaching the scene and probably never shall.  Talk about earthquakes, landslides, tidal wavs, and what not!  The upheaval on the terracing suggested the sudden, furious awakening of a slumbering mammoth . . . The crowd went made.  The air was black with upflung hats and caps.  Men, utter strangers, seized each other, thumped each other, wrestled, danced, shook hands, shouted, laughed, cried, cheered and, in a word, went plumb crazy with joy.”

There was one image, among the bedlam, which remained with the great McGrory: “As I ran upfield I stole a glance back and saw a picture of dejection which lives me to this day – some 45 years later.  Craig was lying on the ground in front of goal pounding the turf with his fists.  He was still there seconds later as the referee signalled the end of the match.  Poor Alan.  He was so near a Cup medal.”

Stop the clocks.  Celtic lived to fight another day.

 


 

THE REPLAY was held four days later on Wednesday 15th April at 5pm (there were no floodlights at Hampden at the time).  Celtic had never lost a Scottish Cup replay before.  Two goals each from McGrory and Bertie Thomson saw the Bhoys run out 4-2 winners.  This meant Celtic could take the coveted Scottish Cup with them on the club’s first ever tour of the United States and Canada a few weeks later.

 

1931-celtic-team-with-scottish-cup.jpg

The 1931 Scottish Cup winners

 

 

 

SUCCESS WAS MERELY DELAYED for Motherwell though as the following season was to prove the greatest in the club’s history, winning the Scottish League Championship for the first and (to date) only time.  The Fir Parkers were the only team between 1904 and 1947 to beat either Glasgow giant to the flag.  They did so in some style too, five points clear of Rangers and eighteen ahead of Celtic.  In the 1930s Motherwell were to appear in three Scottish Cup Finals – and lose them all.  They finally got their hands on the cup in 1952 for the first time.

 

A CUNNING PLAN was hatched by Motherwell’s defence to ensure there was no repeat of the confusion that led to Celtic’s equaliser at Hampden, as the Motherwell Times reported in the week after the final: “To avoid a mistake of that kind occurring in the future it is proposed to call the goalkeeper ‘Jock’.”

 

TRIUMPH TURNED TO TEARS for Celtic in the years that followed the 1931 Cup Final.  Before the decade was over, three of Celtic’s cup winning team had tragically died, all in their twenties.  Best known is John Thomson who died following an accidental collision later that year at Ibrox.  Two years on, following a long illness, 25-year-old Peter Scarff passed away after contracting tuberculosis.  In 1937, Bertie Thomson died in his mother’s arms due to heart failure.  Their names are still revered in Celtic circles.

 

Bertie Thomson headstone (2)

BERTIE, OF CELTIC FC – Bertie Thomson’s headstone 

 

PORCELAIN MODELS of the Scottish Cup were gifted to each of the Celtic players who took part in the 1931 success.  The one presented to Peter Scarff remains a proud possession of his family in Linwood where the local Celtic Supporters Club is still named after him.

 

Peter Scarff mini trophy 1     Peter Scarff mini trophy 2

 

LUCKY WHITE HEATHER as Motherwell fans tried a number of tricks and treats to ensure success in the cup final replay:

Black cats, spiders and pigeons

 

 

MUCH A’DOO ABOUT NOTHING as the final word about this famous final goes to the Motherwell Times: ‘In the soup today:- The pigeon that set off with the glad tidings for Motherwell two minutes before the end.”

 

Celtic with SC on US tour

Jimmy McGrory and team-mates show off the world’s oldest football trophy in the USA during the 1931 summer tour

 

———-

SOURCES

One Hundred Years of Scottish Football – John Rafferty

A Lifetime in Paradise – The Jimmy McGrory Story

100 Cups – The Story of the Scottish Cup – Hugh Keevins & Kevin McCarra

Rhapsody In Green – Great Celtic Moments – Tom Campbell & Pat Woods

 


 

Read more about the record-breaking Jimmy McGrory here . . .

Header Ritchie

https://the-shamrock.net/2015/09/26/jimmy-mcgrory-the-eighth-wonder/

 

MY FIRST CELTIC GAME 03 – FRANK MCGUIRE

CPSouth-Stand-Tram-Border No floodlights

 

It was my Uncle Peter (Galvin) who took me to my first ever Celtic game.  I was aged 8 at the time and we lived in Govan although, as my Uncle Peter liked to point out, we didn’t support our local team!

It was 1937 and the season hadn’t long started.  We had been on holiday in Girvan but my Uncle Peter was anxious to return to take me to Celtic Park for the first time.  We got the bus from Govan to Argyle Street.  Then we jumped on the no.9 tram to Auchenshuggle, which stopped on London Road, dropping us in front of Celtic Park.

It was a League Division 1 game v Hamilton Academicals.  Celtic had a great team at the time.  The world-famous Jimmy McGrory was still playing in the Hoops – it would prove his last season.  Celtic greats including Jimmy Delaney, Willie Buchan, Malcolm MacDonald, Willie Lyon and Bobby Hogg were all in the team that day.  This Celtic team would go on to win the title and also the Empire Exhibition Cup that season, laying claim to being the best team in Britain at the time.  Willie Maley, who had played in Celtic’s first ever game 49 years earlier, was still the manager.

 

Celtic 1938 Empire Exhibition trophy winners

 

Celtic Park looked huge.  This was before I’d been to Hampden.  The Jungle, across the pitch from me, had holes in the roof and wooden crush barriers.  There were no floodlights at Celtic Park at this time (and not until 1959) so there were no evening matches then.  In the war years, if it was foggy the games would start early.  You could hear goods trains running past on the railway line which at that time ran behind the Celtic End (West Terracing).

I was in the enclosure down at the front of the Main Stand, next to the tunnel.   My Uncle Peter had lifted me up on to the wall and I had my feet on the track just a few feet away from the pitch.  When the police walked along the track they’d tell you to move your feet. And then you’d just move them back on to the track after they’d walked on!

I remember the strong smell of embrocation oil in the air – used by athletes to rub on their body to relieve pain/sprains – coming from the tunnel.  There was no public address system at Celtic Park and the players didn’t do any warm up on the pitch pre-match.  That meant that you didn’t know who was playing until the teams emerged from the tunnel.  And even then it could take time to identify the players as they didn’t have numbers on their shirts or shorts in the 1930s.

Celtic Park 1929 onwards New South Stand from pitch

The Main Stand at Celtic Park – erected in 1929 

 

There was no Jimmy McGrory that day, who was replaced by Joe Carruth.  My Uncle Peter idolised McGrory.  Joe Carruth was to prove a popular Celt with the fans.  He stepped into the void left when, after McGrory retired in October, Willie Buchan was sold to Blackpool in November.  The Celtic support were up in arms about that.

McGrory played in the 3rd and 4th Celtic games that I saw.  The 4th was to prove his last-ever game for Celtic in October 1937, fourteen years on from his debut.  I only knew that McGrory was appearing that day when my excited uncle shouted out “McGrory’s playing!” as the players ran out from the tunnel on to the pitch.  Jimmy McGrory remains the record top-flight scorer in the history of British football.

Malky MacDonald, regarded by many as the most skilful Celtic player ever, replaced the injured Chic Geatons.  It was a young Celtic team who raced into a quick lead after Joe Carruth scored twice in the first ten minutes.  Hamilton scored half-way through the half though and then equalised just a minute before the interval.

 

Joe Carruth

 

It wasn’t long into the second half when Carruth was fouled in the box and Willie Buchan converted the penalty to give Celts the lead again.  About ten minutes later Frank Murphy set up Carruth to score again, making it a hat-trick for him.

The Celtic support realised that, although McGrory was on his way out, it looked as though there was a ready-made replacement waiting to fill his boots in the shape of Joe Carruth.   The Carruth family were already well-known in Glasgow as they ran a Catholic gift shop called ‘Carruth’s Grotto’ which was next door to St Mungo’s Church on Parson Street before it later moved down to the High Street, near Glasgow Cross.

 

Carruth Grotto

 

That was my first visit to Paradise but I’ve kept returning every year since.  I am now 88 years old and still a season-ticket holder.  My seat in the Main Stand at Celtic Park is not too far from where I sat on the wall next to the tunnel watching one of the greatest Celtic teams ever come running out over 80 years ago.  It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

 

 

The Jungle Cowshed 1949

The Jungle (aka the Hayshed) viewed from the Main Stand in the late 1930s

 

 

Frank’s first game was Celtic v Hamilton Accies at Celtic Park on 6th September 1937. 

 

Celtic won 4-2 (Goalscorers: Carruth (3), Buchan)         Attendance: 14,000

 

The Celtic team was: Kennaway, Hogg, Morrison, MacDonald, Lyon, Paterson, Delaney, Buchan, Carruth, Crum, Murphy

 

 

Willie Maley, Willie Lyons and the Empire Exhibition trophy

Celtic Captain Willie Lyon and manager Willie Maley at the end of season 1937-8 with the Empire Exhibition Trophy

 


 

MY FIRST CELTIC GAME 

Read about other supporters’ first Celtic experience here.

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This Is How It Feels To Be Celtic (BOOK)

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THIS IS HOW IT FEELS TO BE CELTIC

Dreams and Songs with the Invincibles

This is one supporter’s account of Celtic FC’s incredible ‘Invincible’ season of 2016-17 when the arrival of new manager Brendan Rodgers saw Celtic win every major domestic trophy – without losing a single game.
The songs, the chants, the stories, the jokes and all the drama of an unforgettable season are recounted in monthly review chapters with special additional features on Kieran Tierney, The North Curve standing area, Brendan Rodgers and the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Lisbon Lions. 
Every single game is recalled, including one incredible afternoon in Motherwell …

Motherwell away Say hello 10 in a row

 

This is a thrilling and humorous look back at the best Celtic season in a lifetime – and a celebration of the players and fans who made it so memorable.

‘We Are Invincible, We Are Invincible . . .’

 

 

This Is How It Feels To Be Celtic book – including P&P (to UK)

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The Curse of Racing Club

‘World triumph in three games.  The achievement of Racing, which will never be repeated in similar circumstances, will stay in history as a unique and unforgettable feat.  World Club Champions!’

(El Grafico, Argentinian sports paper, special edition -1967)

 

Racing 1967 World Champions

 

Campeon del Mundo – Champions of the World.  The Argentinian media gleefully celebrated the victory of Racing Club over Celtic in the 1967 Inter-Continental Cup Final, a competition in which the European champions played off against the champions of South America for the world crown.  It was the first time in the tournament’s eight-year history that an Argentinian team had triumphed and media, pundits and politicians alike in Buenos Aires rushed to heap praise on the team from the capital’s port district of Avellaneda.  It was the country’s greatest football success to date.  Yet one national newspaper, Clarin, expressed unease at the way that Racing had won the title: ‘Racing took the illicit road to victory.  They brought back the cup, but that was all.’

 

Newspaper front page

From Blantyre to Buenos Aires:  John Fallon makes front page news

 

Argentinian football did not enjoy a positive reputation in Europe at the time.  At the previous year’s World Cup, England manager Alf Ramsay had branded the Argentinian national team ‘Animals’ following a violent quarter-final encounter – and he refused to allow his players to swap jerseys at the game’s end.  The tactics deployed by Racing over the course of the three games against Celtic (with a deciding tie being held in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo) generated tremendous controversy at the time.

 

The tone was set in the first game at Hampden before an attendance of 83,437.  Spitting, flailing elbows, hair pulls, play-acting, studs being dragged down the back of opponents’ legs and outrageous tackles largely formed Racing’s armoury.  A double-challenge on Jimmy Johnstone (the second came in as he was already grounded from the first tackle) still causes the viewer to wince today.

 

In Buenos Aires, in front of a mammoth 115,000 spectators, Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson was struck with a missile on the head before the game had even started and had to be replaced. Racing engaged in the same intimidatory tactics as the first game and a number of Celtic players left the pitch carrying injuries after a 2-1 defeat.  (Jimmy Johnstone had to take a shower at half time to wash all the spit from his hair that his markers had kindly donated).  There were serious misgivings among Celtic directors about the wisdom of taking part in a play-off game to decide a winner.   Chairman Robert Kelly wanted the team to return home but he was over-ruled.  Everyone associated with Celtic was to rue that decision:  the deciding tie is widely referred to as ‘The Battle of Montevideo.’

 

In the play-off tie the Celtic players had clearly had enough of their Argentinian opponents and decided to take their revenge.  Jock Stein, although outraged at the outcome, had some sympathy for his team: ‘Even the Archangel Gabriel would have retaliated.’  The upshot was four red cards for Celtic (although Bertie Auld ignored the referee’s dismissal and played on!) and two for Racing.  One Uruguayan newspaper headline read: ‘A WAR IN MONTEVIDEO:  NO WINNERS, ONLY SURVIVORS!’

 

Celtic Racing Club Cartoon

The Scottish view of Celtic v Racing

 

Celtic’s hard-earned reputation for sporting play was in tatters – and the title of World Champions was lost.  Racing won in Montevideo by a single goal (a wonder strike from Juan Carolos Cardenas which gave substitute goalie John Fallon no chance).  Every member of the Celtic team was subsequently fined by the club for their misconduct.  Five decades on, surviving Celtic players remain embittered about their trip to South America and Racing’s tactics:

‘They were more than sleekit.  It was just badness.  Sheer evil.  Argentina were robust at Wembley the year before, but that was nothing compared to Racing Club.  They would have been happier to play without a ball.’ –  Bertie Auld

 

106 Celtic fans took a chartered flight to Argentina for the 14,000-mile round journey at a cost of £200 each (almost £3,500 in today’s money).   They – and the thousands of supporters back home who had to make do with delayed TV and newspaper reports to find out the score – felt cheated.  All sorts of oaths and curses were uttered in anger at Racing Club, known throughout Argentina as La Academia (The Academy).  Yet there was one curse in particular which was to prove enduring and damaging in equal measure . . .

 

 

 

The port of Avellaneda, with a population of over 320,000, is home to two of Argentinian football’s Cinco Grandes (the Big Five) football clubs.  While the classico derby between Racing and Independiente is not as well-known as that of Boca Juniors and River Plate, it is generally considered to be more intense, atmospheric and violent.  One of the reasons for this is the closeness of their two grounds – Racing’s El Cilindro (‘The Cylinder’ or Estadio Presidente Peron to give it its official name) lies only two hundred metres from Independiente’s Libertadores de America.

 

Stadia El Cilindro and Independiente grounds

 

It is believed that, in world football, only Dundee has two senior professional clubs in closer proximity to each other. It’s fair to say that Dens Park and Tannadice have nothing on these two temples of football.

 

The two stadia 300 metres apart

 

The rivalry between the two Avellaneda teams has been keen since 1915 when a 2-1 win for Independiente was over-turned by football authorities – a decision which handed Racing the League title.   Tensions between the clubs reached fever pitch in the 1960s as each achieved greater success.  In 1964, Independiente became the first Argentinian side to win the much coveted ‘Copa Libertadores’ – the club champions of South America – and then won it again the following year for good measure.  When Racing won the Argentinian league in 1966 they went on to beat Nacional of Uruguay in the Copa Libertadores final, paving the way for the Intercontinental Cup Final against Celtic.  The play-off victory in Montevideo meant Racing had gone one better than Independiente:  not just the best team in Argentina or South America but the best in the world.

 

It was too much for one of ground of Independiente fans.  With the connivance of a Racing groundsman, they entered El Cilindro on the night of their rival’s greatest triumph – and proceeded to bury seven dead black cats under one of the goalmouths on Racing’s pitch.  (Black cats are considered bearers of bad luck in South America).  Their aim was to bring a curse on Racing and deny them any future success.  As fans of La Academia celebrated in Montevideo and the streets of Avellaneda, the ‘Curse of El Cilindro’ (or the Seven Cats) was born.

 

Racing fans scoffed at the suggestion of a curse based on dead cats being put on them by their envious rivals.  Initially.  Prior to 1967, Racing had won Argentina’s top league on 15 occasions while Independiente had only 7 titles to boast of.  On the last day of the 1967 season, Independiente beat Racing 4-0 at home to claim an eighth title.  Perhaps there was something in the talk of a curse after all?

 

The following season, Racing lost a three-way play-off for the title.  A year later they sacked coach Juan Jose Pizzuti, who had guided them to victory over Celtic, and in 1970 went through four different coaches in one season.  Things were not going well in El Cilindro.  In 1972 Racing came second in the League but this resurgence was short-lived – in 1975 they suffered a momentous 10-0 defeat to Rosario Central and in 1976 they finished second bottom of the league, just avoiding relegation.  The decade after Montevideo had been a cruel one for Celtic’s victors with no silverware secured.

 

Toads in The Cylinder

 

 

When Juan Carlos ‘Toto’ Lorenzo, was appointed Racing coach in 1980 he decided to tackle the curse head on.  He persuaded the club to try and lift the curse by finding and removing the remains of the dead cats.  This meant that the pitch had to be dug up.  When it was, six cat skeletons were found.  The legend had always suggested seven cats had been buried but only six skeletons were discovered.  To end the hex, Toto then instructed that six dead toads be buried where each of the cat skeletons had been. (It is doubted that there is an Argentinian equivalent to the RSPCA).  His orders were followed, the toads laid to rest and the pitch re-laid.

 

Could half-a-dozen toads bring an end to the bad luck that the felines had apparently caused Racing?  In the last game of the season in 1983, Racing made the short journey to the Libertadores and their great rivals knowing that defeat would mean relegation – for the first time in the club’s history.  To make matters worse, a victory for Independiente would hand them the championship.  The Racing fans watched on in agony as a 2-0 win for the home team again proved, in the eyes of many, that La Academia were truly cursed.  It would be two long, drawn-out seasons before they returned to the top division – much to the amusement of Independiente supporters.

 

The 1990s were to prove even more painful for Racing and their fans.  In 1997, the 30th anniversary of Celtic’s vanquishing also meant that three decades had now passed and not a single League flag had flown over El Cilindro in the intervening years.  By contrast, Celtic had won 29 trophies since that defeat in Montevideo.  Racing had fallen badly, from one of Argentina’s most successful clubs to perpetual also-rans (although the commitment and passion of their support remained as strong as ever, as reflected in continuing high attendances).  What made matters worse for them was the fact that, from 1968 onwards, Argentina’s football season consisted of two separate League championships:  the Metropolitano and the Nacional.  This meant that Racing had missed out on two League titles each season since their win in 1966 – remarkable under-performance for a club of their size and standing.

 

Ticker tape at La Cilindra

Happier times in El Cilindro

 

Thoughts turned again to The Curse.  That seventh dead cat had never been recovered, people recalled.  Was the damned curse still intact?  What of the toads – why hadn’t they reversed Racing’s fortunes?  It was time to call in the big guns and, in South America, they don’t come much bigger than the Catholic Church.

 

On the evening of 4th February 1998 massive crowds gathered outside the majestic Santa Iglesia Cathedral in Avellaneda for a torchlight procession to El Cilindro.  Some estimates suggest that more than 100,000 followed the procession, led by Father Horatio Della Barca and 500 torches.  On arrival at Racing’s ground the priest said Mass and sprinkled holy water on both goalmouths.  The mass was followed by a concert by the band Vox Dei (presumably an off-shoot of Opus Dei) and a friendly match between Racing and Colón de Santa Fe.  A banner hung in the ground read:  “God is a Racing fan. The devil is not.”  Time would tell whether that bold proclamation was true or not.

 

Racing fans and priests holy statue march to exorcism 1998

The huge procession from Santa Iglesia Cathedral to Racing’s stadium

 

Racing’s president, Daniel Lalín, played down suggestions that an exorcism had been performed to rid the club of its curse: “This is not an exorcism but an act of faith.  The same faith displayed by the fans who stoically go to the stadium every Sunday.  We are uniting Roman Catholicism with Racingism.”  That faith was quickly put to the test in a way not previously considered imaginable in Argentinian football.

 

Mass on pitch photo

The goalmouths get the holy water treatment 

 

Racing had been dogged by financial problems for a number of years yet their fans were still stunned when, in July 1998, the club started a bankruptcy process.  Multi-million dollar debts had been run up and, as the country itself was in dire financial straits, there were no government handouts available as there had been in the past to the big clubs.  Legal proceedings rumbled on for months until, on 4th March 1999, Racing were formally declared bankrupt, prompting the court-appointed accountant to issue a statement with the words ‘Racing Club has ceased to exist.’  The new league was due to start that Sunday however Racing were formally suspended and the game against Talleres de Córdoba was cancelled. The Racing fans were having none of that:  over 30,000 Racing fans turned up at the ground regardless, hung out their banners and sang in protest at the club’s imminent demise for a full ninety minutes.  No teams appeared.  The Curse of the Seven Cats was turning into the worst nightmare imaginable.

 

Racing’s fans did not give up though.  The 4th of March was to prove an opening salvo in their war to stave off liquidation and preserve the club’s history.  They fought legal battles, protested outside Parliament and government buildings and even occupied Racing’s headquarters to prevent administrators from taking physical control of the club’s property, bringing them into direct confrontation with the police.  (In one unpleasant public encounter, Racing President Lalín received a nasty cut to the head when the club’s ultras threw one of their large drums at him while speaking to the media.)

 

Ultimately, in a way that should have proven an invaluable lesson to other historic rivals of Celtic, the fans succeeded in halting the club’s liquidation and demise.  An appeal court ordered that Racing continue but would be run by a private corporation for a period of 10 years to pay off the club’s debts.  It was far from an ideal situation but, crucially, Racing still existed – thanks to its fans. The curse had not killed the club.

 

It was now a new millennium.  The frustrations of Racings fans at the ongoing trophy drought were summed up well by Cardenas, the man who scored the sumptuous winner in Montevideo: ‘It took so many years to win something again, that people started to tell me that if all Racing fans kept watching my goal, there was a risk that the shot would finally hit the post.’

 

Racing Club priest 2

Sacred Heart of Racing:  Father Juan Gabriel Arias, a Buenos Aires priest, shows his true colours.  No red, the Independiente colour, is allowed anywhere in his church.  

 

Reinaldo Merlo, known throughout Argentina by his nickname of ‘Mostaza’ (Mustard) due to his distinctive hair-colouring, did not carry much in the way of expectation when he was appointed Coach of cash-strapped Racing in late 2000.  Merlo was famed as much for his superstitions as his coaching ability.  Whenever opponents launched an attack on his team’s goal, he would make a hand gesture to bring his team luck and ward off the opposition (presumably not the hand gesture made infamous by Barry Ferguson and Alan McGregor!).  He considered flowers to be especially unlucky and associated them with death.  Naturally, opposition fans would shower him with flowers at every opportunity.

 

The new coach knew all about Racing’s curse.  He believed that the club was never likely to win the league again unless the seventh cat could be found and removed.  He persuaded the board to start a new search which would go further than before:  as well as excavating the pitch it was decided to dig up the concrete moat which surrounded it also.  This was to prove a masterstroke – a cat skeleton, believed to be the seventh cat buried 34 years earlier, was discovered among the rubble of the moat and finally removed from El Cilindro.    Surely now this meant the end of the curse . . .

 

My old lady gave me life, Racing heart

Racing fans proclaim:  ‘My old lady gave me life, bur Racing gave me heart!’

 

Although Merlo was credited for ridding Racing of the last cat, the reality was he’d inherited a team that had finished 6th in the Apertura (Opening) championship and 18th in the Clausura (Closing) championship of the previous season.  Hopes of a League challenge were not high.  After some good early results though, Merlo advocated a cautious ‘paso a paso’ (step by step) approach to fans and reporters alike as Racing kept check with the league leaders.  Expectations rose.  Racing were not playing with flair – their top scorer only hit the net seven times that campaign – but they were increasingly playing without fear and were clear at the top of the league.  A magnificent strike from Gerardo Bedoya kept closest rivals River Plate at bay in El Cilindro (the fireworks display during the game’s final stages is a thing to behold!).  It would all come down to the final game of the campaign, away to Velez Sarsfield: a win would secure Racing’s first League title in 35 years.  Then, as the final hurdle approached, the curse came in to play again.

 

Argentina was in turmoil– a financial crisis led to the government freezing the bank accounts of citizens for 12 months and limiting the amount of withdrawals.  This sparked wide-scale protests and then riots resulting in a state of emergency being declared.  Top league football was suspended.  There was talk of the league being held up for months – or abandoned altogether, to help keep people off the streets.  Racing and other clubs protested and, after a week’s delay, it was announced that the final round of games would be played between Christmas and New Year on 27th December.

 

River Plate ran out 6-1 winners at home.  The title would belong to them if Racing lost at Velez.  A 1-1 draw was enough to spark scenes of unbridled jubilation at both the Jose Emiliano Stadium and also twelve miles across the city at El Cililndro, where over 40,000 Racing fans had gathered to watch the game on a giant screen.

 

Merlo celebrates 2001

Merlo greets the jubilating fans away at Velez as the title is won – at last

 

It had taken more than three decades, but the curse was at last defeated.

As they celebrated these Racing fans held up a banner which said:  ‘What ghosts?  No ghosts.  Merlo already said:  Racing are Champions!‘   The ghost cats of 1967 had now been exorcised, at long last.

 

What ghosts 2001 banner

 

Since then, Racing have won the league title only once more, in 2014.  This year (2017) is the Golden Anniversary of their defeat of Celtic and coronation as World Club Champions.  It remains Racing’s greatest achievement.  Yet, two Argentinian championships in the intervening fifty years is a poor return for this once-great club and is over-shadowed by the twenty-six League titles Celtic have secured in the same period.

 

Celtic fans might be forgiven for thinking that a little divine intervention has helped shape the fortunes of both clubs since the smoke cleared at football’s infamous Battle of Montevideo.

 

 Merlo and his statue

 Merlo the Magician – Racing Club had a statue built to honour the coach who brought an end to their curse

 

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Celtic’s tussles with Racing in the World Club Championship are remembered with good humour in this song which can be heard in the North Curve at Celtic Park and various supporter buses:

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cq1iNiZZuTE

  scoreboard.png

 

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Oh Harry, Harry!

Harry Hood pose black and white hoops

 

In the early 1970s the popular Celtic striker Harry Hood had a number of terrace chants in his honour.  Whether with or without moustache or sideburns, Harry had a swashbuckling style about him and knew the way to goal better than most.

In 312 Celtic games Harry notched 123 goals – a tremendous return.  Until Moussa Dembele came along in 2016, Harry was acclaimed as the last Celtic player to score a hat-trick against a team called Rangers.

This is the best and most enduring of the songs which you sometimes hear on the odd away trip.  The tune for the chorus is taken from a Hare Krishna chant popularised by ex-Beatle George Harrison in his 1970 song ‘My Sweet Lord’:

 

We don’t need yer Colin Stein

Eusebio or yer Alan Gilzean!

We’ve got someone twice as good 

We’ve got Harry Hood!  

Oh Harry, Harry!

Oh Lou Macari

Oh Kevin Barry

Oh Harry Hood!  (Oh Harry Hood!)

 

 

Harry Hood moustache and tracksuit

 

There aren’t too many songs where you get a world-famous footballer (Eusebio) name-checked along with a Rangers player (Stein), a Spurs player (Gilzean, formerly of Dundee), a bhoy from Largs (Luigi) and an executed Irish patriot (Kevin Barry).

 

Given Harry’s surname and the popularity of a Robin Hood tv show in the ’70s, it was no surprise that the show’s theme tune was adapted in tribute to the Celt:

 

Harry Hood, Harry Hood

Riding through glen

Harry Hood, Harry Hood 

And his Fenian men

Feared by the bad

Loved by the good 

Harry Hood!

Harry Hood!

Harry Hood!  

 

Harry Hood celebrates arms aloft

 

Another ditty in Harry’s honour was this catchy number:

 

Oh a dirty wee hun came up to me
He asked me the secret of the Celtic team
I answered him as best I could
The answer I gave was:  Harry Hood!

Oh Harry! Harry! Harry Hood!
We loved you Harry, like nobody should
You can keep your Rangers and your Colin Stein
Cos we’ve got Harry in the Celtic team

 

Harry Hood hoops 8

 

 

Two great Hunskelpers together!

Moussa visits Harry in his new bar at Angel’s in Uddingston for some goalscoring tips:

Harry Hood and Moussa Dembele

 

More Celtic songs and chants can be found here:  https://the-shamrock.net/celtic-songs/

If there’s any you’d like included email us at theshamrock@outlook.com.

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The Iron Man tells it like it is!

Sean Fallon as Celtic captain 1952

In one memorable chapter in the excellent George Connelly biography Celtic’s Lost Legend, the great Fifer and his closest pals in the famed Quality Street Gang, Davie Cattenach and Davie Hay, reminisce about their playing days and the characters they met on and off the pitch.

All of them speak in glowing terms about Celtic’s Iron Man – Sean Fallon.  The Sligoman had been instrumental in Celtic picking up many of that exceptionally talented group of youngsters and helped guide their early careers as Jock Stein’s assistant.

Talking in 2007, when Sean was still alive, Davie Cattenach gets the ball rolling – before recalling one of his favourite Fallon stories . . .

 

CATTENACH: Talking about brilliant servants, what about Sean?  Anyone shaking his hand would suffer from broken bones.  What a strength!

HAY: He’s no’ changed that much.

CATTENACH: He looks great.

CONNELLY: He was a good guy to look up to.

HAY:  Sean was for us.

CONNELLY:  He wasn’t coming in there shouting, or trying to unnerve you.  He had a nice away about him.

CATTENACH: We beat Rangers 3-1 in that Glasgow Cup final on a Monday night.  Quinn scored.  Oh, what a goal he scored!  We were all there that night.  Alex Macdonald was playing for Rangers – he could be a dirty so-and-so.  The ball came between us on the halfway line and we were both going for it.

I did him up high, at the top of his neck.  He was carried off on a stretcher.  Stein went ballistic at half-time.  ‘Oh, you f****** bastard! he screamed.

He called me for everything.  I was shattered.

Sean comes up and says quietly: ‘All right Catt? That was one of the finest tackles I’ve ever seen in my life!’

 

Sean changing room

 

Buy the George Connelly book here:  Celtic’s Lost Legend (Amazon)

Buy the wonderful Sean Fallon biography by Stephen Sullivan here: Celtic’s Iron Man (Amazon). One of the best Celtic books ever.

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More Celtic Stories for your enjoyment HERE!

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A Celtic Retrospective