Books by Celtic players in recent years are almost as common as dubious refereeing decisions but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1950s footballers’ memoirs were usually kept for the newspaper columns and printed over a few weeks. Not surprisingly – and not for the first time – the Celtic player that broke the mould was West Belfast’s own Charles Patrick Tully.
Charlie Tully was the first Celtic player to have an autobiography published, fitting of the man around whom there was so much hype during his time in Glasgow. To say that the bold Charles Patrick was a well-known public figure in Scotland and Ireland in the 1950s is an under-statement – his name was everywhere and Tully stories abounded. This Belfast Bhoy took it all in his stride and happily stoked the fire himself when the opportunity arose.
‘Passed To You’ was published in 1958, when ‘Tullymania’ was still in vogue and a year before he left Celtic. The second-oldest of fourteen children, Charlie’s impudence was on show from an early age. Attending St. Kevin’s school in West Belfast he resented the emphasis on hurling and was once given four strokes of the cane for organising games of football in the school grounds. Far from discouraging him, his displays for youth teams saw him taken on as a net-boy at Belfast Celtic, for whom he made his debut while still a teenager. Under the watchful eye of legendary trainer and former Liverpool and Ireland keeper Elisha Scott, the young Tully developed into a fully-fledged professional alongside Belfast Celtic legends such as Jack Vernon, Paddy Bonnar and Jimmy McAlinden. Not that Elisha wasn’t aware of his wayward tendencies on the pitch, telling Tully once: “If we shifted the goalposts across the park you’d be a world beater.”
Glasgow’s Celtic made their move for Charlie in 1948 at a time when the team was flirting with relegation to the horror of the support. It took him only three hours to decide to leave Ireland for the first time and set up in Glasgow. An £8,000 fee demonstrated that Celtic were – unusually – determined to get their man. It could have been different for, on arriving in Glasgow, he made his way to Willie Maley’s famed Bank Restaurant on Queen Street and, on asking for directions to Celtic Park, was instructed instead towards . . . Ibrox Park. The joke was played on him by Celtic’s previous clown prince in residence, the notorious Tommy McInally. Willie Maley kept him right before McInally gave him his first lesson in Glaswegian: “The correct pronunciation is Paurkheid.”
Tullymania was instantaneous for, in his own words, “when this innocent went abroad things really began to sizzle.” In only his sixth game in the Hoops against Rangers in September 1948 the Tully legend got into full swing thanks to a performance labelled ‘Tully And The Three Gers’. Charlie’s fairytale started with a roasting of the famed ‘Iron Curtain’ defence in an unexpected 3-1 victory. His flicks, feints and ball-juggling skills were so deceptive that the Rangers defenders were reluctant to approach him for fear of further humiliation. The Celtic fans couldn’t believe their eyes – he beat three defenders in one move using three different manoeuvres. But that wasn’t all. He set up all of Celtic’s goals into the bargain. For Celtic, it appeared like the dawning of a new era after a decade starved of success. The man himself said of the game: “I couldn’t go wrong. I tried everything in the book and wrote one or two extra chapters.”
It was soon after that the stories started, all nonsense to fuel Tullymania. In his book Charlie gives the mythical example of how he and Winston Churchill walked into Buckingham Palace together only to be met by the King who nudged his wife and said “Who’s that with Charlie?” A few weeks later he was dining with his new pal John McPhail when this exchange took place with a café owner:
“Is it true that an accident happened at training this morning?”
“Not that I know of’, said John.
‘Well’, said the proprietor, ‘I heard that you crossed a ball into the middle, this guy Charlie Tully jumped to head it for goal and got his head jammed between the uprights.”
‘Meet Charlie Tully!’ said John.
The biggest laugh in that story might be the suggestion that Charlie would ever bother jumping for a header in the first place.
The legends about Tully were sometimes based in reality though. His audacity knew no bounds. He once took a shy, threw it off the back of a defender, whipped a cross while the startled defender looked all around – and this move inspired a 3-2 comeback victory! And of course, there was the amazing story of how he scored direct from a corner kick at Brockville – only for the referee Gerrard to re-order it, believing that Charlie had placed the ball illegally. So what did Tully do? Hit it straight into the goal at the second attempt. Unbelievably, the same referee was in charge of an Ireland – England international at Belfast the following season when . . . Tully did it again! As the man himself said, “Doug Gerrard will probably tell you that Tully is the ace of all flag kickers.”
There is one chapter in the book that makes for fascinating reading: Celtic’s visit to Rome in 1950. From Bing Crosby meeting the players on the boat to Ostend and singing ‘I Belong to Glasgow’ to his ringside view of John McPhail’s decking of a Lazio opponent (who’d been kicking him and taunting him with lines like “you begga tougha man!”) in a supposedly friendly game, Charlie’s delight at recounting the various tales is obvious. The Celtic players were all presented with bouquets of flowers before the Lazio game got underway, prompting Charlie to say of the fans back home: “if the Tims could only have seen us then”! The undoubted highlight though was when the Celtic party made it to St Peter’s Square for an audience with the Pope. Charlie repeated the rumour doing the rounds in Glasgow that while he was in Rome every mass was all-ticket and the Holy Father had made enquiries about his birthday – in order that he could make it a Holiday of Obligation! The impact of the occasion wasn’t lost on the Belfast bhoy though when he saw the Pope which he described as “The most exciting and satisfying experience of all. No prize, or honour could ever be greater than this”.
The book is an easy and enjoyable read, mostly focused on tales of his team-mates, games and opponents but with occasional insights into Glasgow life and beyond in the 1950s. At one point he poses the question if all the wine-grapes (papes) go to Parkhead and all the bluenoses go to Ibrox, where do the four-by-twos (Jews) go? The USA Tour of 1957 left Charlie convinced that family life wouldn’t survive if women back home abandoned the kitchen for the workplace the way American women had. On an earlier tour to the States he took exception to an opponent referring to him as a Scotch Haggis when “the shamrocks were sticking out of my ears and the clay was still on my boots!”
There is a particular relish in reading Charlie’s account of the amazing 7-1 League Cup final triumph the previous year which the man himself refers to as “the greatest defeat of Rangers by the Tims in modern times”! His dressing-room bust up with Bobby Evans a few days before that game – Celtic’s first cup final against Rangers in 30 years – is one of the few instances in the book where ‘inside knowledge’ is revealed, including his successful attempt in making sure the story didn’t reach the papers before the final. By that time the name of Tully was known far and wide and the release of a book by and about him was destined to be a big seller. This after all was a player who was single-handedly responsible for a significant increase in attendances at Celtic Park and sustained this throughout his time in the Hoops. He was adored and cherished by the Celtic support – and well he knew it!
The book is quite hard to get your hands on nowadays, out of print and expensive. The good news is that the Belfast Celtic Society hope to re-publish it in the near future, with some additional biographical information. This can only add to what is already a fascinating read which captures the spirit of the time so well. It is also fitting that in the last chapter Charlie made the bold forecast that his first love, Belfast Celtic, WILL BE BACK. It wasn’t to be for the original Grand Old Team but it is down to the supporters of that much-missed team that we will get a taste of what Tullymania was like once again. Hopefully the Society will make sure this time that the photo on the book’s cover isn’t of Celtic losing a goal in a cup final!
I for one cannot wait. And maybe it will contain his response to the question famously posed to him in 1967: “Charlie – Do you think you could play in Celtic’s European Cup winning team?” Tully’s response was priceless and said, no doubt, with a hint of devilment: “Sure, I could take the corners.”
The Shamrock rating: 7/10
Visit the Belfast Celtic Society website: http://www.belfastceltic.org/