He may have been the most skilful Celtic player of all time. Many supporters back in the day certainly thought so and Bob Crampsey, one of Scottish football’s greatest historians, described him as “a synonym for grace … blessed – or perhaps cursed – with almost an excess of talent … above all the purist’s footballer.”
Malky MacDonald was born 100 years ago this year. To celebrate the centenary of a true Celtic great, the broadcaster and journalist Alex O’Henley has written a book which tells the story of his Island background, his Garngad upbringing, his incredible football career on and off the pitch – which saw him become Scotland manager – and the character of a man fondly remembered for his generosity of spirit in what is an often unforgiving work environment.
As Malky was no ordinary footballer, this is no ordinary football book. For a start it is written in two languages, English and Gaelic, reflecting both the author and his subject’s roots in South Uist. In addition, the book’s delightful design and layout and the extensive range of largely unseen photographs (mostly provided by Malky’s remaining family) mark it out as something special, a fine achievement by the small, independent publisher, the Islands Book Trust. The striking image of Malky on the cover is an excellent taster of the quality of the pictures inside. There are few Celtic books that would grace a coffee table the way that this does.
There is no question of style sacrificing substance though. The author, known to Celtic supporters from his stint as a presenter on Celtic TV and more recently as a BBC Alba match commentator who has been UEFA’s Scottish football correspondent since 2004, tells the engaging tale of how Malky (or Calum as he was known to family and team-mates) shot to fame in the Hoops and established a reputation as one of the most versatile Celts of all time. In one week in 1932 he went from playing for the school team to making his debut in the Celtic first team at Firhill – scoring two goals into the bargain!
He spent thirteen years at Celtic, working under the club’s famed first manager Willie Maley – with whom he had an intriguing relationship – and was an integral figure in one of Celtic’s most famous forward lines: Delaney, MacDonald, Crum, Divers and Murphy. It was this spearhead that thrust Celtic to glory in the club’s golden anniversary season, winning the league title and upsetting the odds to overcome the best that English football had to offer to win the Empire Exhibition Cup – playing some of the finest attacking football in the club’s history.
Malky was a goal scorer of some renown to boot – as the Rangers defence of season 1938/9 could testify as they had the best view possible of Malky’s hat-trick in a historic 6-2 victory, one newspaper reporting that the goals ‘were all of the type that revealed the football master.’
Malky experienced some difficult times as a Celt, losing over a full season at his prime due to injury, and watching on as the club failed to make any positive adjustments to the wartime era, letting a wonderful team simply dissolve away. He was 32 when he left the club but he continued playing at Kilmarnock then Brentford before going on to manage both clubs. His adventures with Killie in Europe will come as quite a surprise to younger fans, especially the story of their semi-final battle in the UEFA Fairs Cup against Leeds United the night before Celtic became European Champions in Lisbon.
The author has done well to bring a real personal dimension to the Malky MacDonald story principally through the recollections of family and friends as well as individuals such as former Celtic chairman Jack McGinn, Celtic historian Pat Woods and Terry Dick, the son of Glasgow comedian and original singer of ‘The Celtic Song’ Glen Daly, for whom Malky was a genuine hero.
Fifty years after his greatest triumph in football Malky had something of a starring role in the club’s Centenary documentary made in 1988 in which his love of both Celtic and football was firmly evident. It was during his interviews for that documentary that he declared that “Celtic is not just a club, it is a heritage.” This book is a wonderful addition to that heritage from an unusual (and overlooked) Celtic perspective. Malky MacDonald is no longer a forgotten star.
The Shamrock rating: 8/10
Forgotten Star The untold story of former Celtic, Kilmarnock, Brentford and Scotland great Malcolm MacDonald by Alex O’Henley. Cost – £25.00