Season 1949-50 got off to an unusually promising start for a Celtic team which had recently been involved in a relegation scare – with over a decade having passed since any major silverware had darkened the trophy room at Celtic Park. The first game of the season, a League Cup tie at home to Rangers, saw debutants Bobby Collins and Mike Haughney help their established team-mates get off to flyer with an unexpected 3-2 victory. The classy manner of the display, with the skilful Pat McAuley earning most of the plaudits, gave encouragement that a corner was turned: a win over Rangers with football being played in the traditional Celtic style. That early hope was soon to disappear though – and the blame didn’t lie at the feet of the players.
A fortnight later Celtic travelled to Ibrox for what proved to be one of the most controversial Glasgow derbies of that era before a crowd of 95,000. On the half-hour mark, with the score at 0-0, Charlie Tully pursued a pass-back from Rangers’ defender Sammy Cox. Cox successfully shepherded the ball away from Tully back to his ‘keeper Bobby Brown, then turned round – and kicked Tully clean in the stomach. This happened directly in front of the West terracing which housed the Celtic support (where the Broomloan Stand sits today). The fans waited for the penalty award and, probably less likely, a red card for the Rangers defender . . . and waited. While Tully lay collapsed on the ground the game was played on and the referee took no action at all. Furious at the blatant injustice, some Celtic fans started throwing bottles – causing hundreds of other fans to spill onto the pitch. The game was then stopped to allow Tully to be treated by the trainer – and still the referee took no action.
Celtic went on to lose the game 2-0. Worse was to come though. Celtic pressed the SFA for an inquiry into the events which caused the disturbance on the terracing that day. The inquiry’s findings were announced on the 7th September – with both Cox and Tully being formally reprimanded for provoking the violent disorder at the game. When Celtic Chairman, Bob Kelly, pushed for an explanation as to how Tully could possibly be responsible for an incident where he was clearly the victim, the SFA advised that the Irishman “had stimulated any slight injury he may have received.” Celtic’s disgust at this decision was compounded when it became apparent that in the referee’s match report he had stated that he had not seen the incident between Cox and Tully. How then could Tully be punished for play-acting if the referee hadn’t seen it?
The SFA refused to consider the matter further. A few days later, on 13th September, Rangers were the visitors to Celtic Park for the semi-final of the Glasgow Cup. That tournament enjoyed high attendances in the 1940s and there were concerns aired in the press from politicians and police at the potential for further trouble in that and subsequent fixtures between the two clubs. All hoped that this game would pass without incident. It did – until three minutes from the end.
The score was balanced at 1-1. Celtic were on the attack and, when a Celtic player was fouled, the cry went up for a free-kick. The ball was dead. The referee waved play on. Some Celtic players crowded round him, demanding the free-kick. The rest of the Celtic team watched on. There was no concern then when a Rangers player passed the ball forward, as the game had clearly come to a halt. Now, as Morrissey once sang, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before: a similar incident occurred in a modern Celtic-Rangers match. Back in 1949, the Rangers striker with the ball ran clear through, without any challenge from a Celtic defender, and stroked the ball into the net. No Celtic player had attempted to stop the attack in the knowledge that they were chancing their arm and that play was suspended. The referee had other ideas. He indicated that a goal had been scored and that the game would re-start from the centre spot. The Celtic players, led by Tully, went ballistic.
A chant came up from the supporters in the Hayshed enclosure, the fore-runner to the Jungle, of “Go off! Go off!” The fans were urging the Celtic players to walk off the pitch in disgust at the referee’s conduct. The Celtic players could be seen discussing the issue, as the Glasgow Herald reported: ‘Celtic’s chagrin knew no bounds then, and to the horror of those who have the interests of the game at heart, Tully was quite clearly seen to be urging his team-mates to leave the field.’ The Celtic players did not walk off in protest though, the game re-started and was quickly ended – with Celtic knocked out of the competition.
What action was taken against the referee? None. The result stood, despite the obvious unfairness in what had occurred with the Rangers players clearly taking advantage of the fact their counterparts had stopped playing. Yet the authorities did take action against someone. Even though the Celtic players had remained on the field after the goal, Charlie Tully was again the victim of the SFA – this time charged on the basis of ‘incitement and ultimately fined. Where, you may well ask, was the sporting integrity in all this?
The club challenged the SFA through internal committees and meetings – to no avail. The incidents would not be revisited. The results in both games would stand. Bob Kelly’s main concern was the fact that another game between the two teams was scheduled for later in the same month – on 24th September. Given the obvious anger felt by Celtic supporters at the refereeing decisions and treatment of their club, Bob Kelly petitioned the SFA to postpone the game on the ground of public safety. Once again, Celtic were rebuffed – the game, scheduled for Ibrox, would go ahead.
That was the final straw as far as the Celtic support was concerned. The Celtic Supporters Association had only been formed five years earlier and this was seen as a true test of its mettle. Urgent meetings were held to decide what action could be taken. The club’s view was that it had exhausted all the avenues open to it to protest the decisions of the referees and the SFA’s bizarre actions. The hostility to Celtic – and bias against the club – was open and apparent. It was also clear to many within the club and the wider support that, if Celtic were to go the way of their counterparts in Belfast – who had withdrawn from the game earlier that year in protest following the Boxing Day match against Linfield in 1948 when their players were seriously injured – few in the hierarchy of Scottish football would shed a tear.
Doing nothing was not perceived as an option by the CSA. The soundings taken confirmed that Celtic support wanted to make some form of protest at recent events. Inspiration came from Ireland where the concept of a ‘boycott’ had first taken hold the previous century. County Mayo was home to the famed Irish patriot Michael Davitt –of Celtic’s first patrons and a political associate of the club’s founding fathers – and it was also the heartland of Davitt’s Land League organisation which campaigned for fair rents and treatment for tenants from largely absentee English landlords at the time. One of the worst landlords was the Earl of Erne and his agent, a former British Army captain called Charles Boycott, was the first individual to be targeted by the Land League after he started serving notices of eviction on the local population. The campaign to isolate him, which included labourers withdrawing from the estate and local shops refusing to service, gave rise to the term ‘boycott’.
Could the CSA take a decision to boycott the forthcoming league fixture at Ibrox? It was undoubtedly a major gamble. The idea of not turning up to support the team, especially at that ground, was an unpalatable one to many fans. Yet if the call to boycott was met with a lukewarm response then the CSA would effectively be finished as a representative body. There was a lot at stake when the Association announced that its member clubs would boycott the Rangers game – and urged all Celtic supporters to do the same.
Many in the press were either hostile to the suggestion of a fan-organised boycott or sceptical about it working, especially in an important fixture between the country’s two biggest teams. Many Celtic fans indicated that they would watch the reserve fixture against Rangers at Celtic Park instead on the same day but even then the view was that relatively few Celtic fans would actually choose to miss the big game. The Celtic support though was not in a forgiving mood and genuine anger persisted at the way the club and its players had been treated at all levels of the SFA.
The match report in the Glasgow Herald conveyed a sense of what the game was like on 24th September 1949: ‘Rangers, Celtic – Match of Unreality’. The Daily Record’s report was headed up ‘All-Ticket? Not for Old Firm “Ghosts”. In a front page article in that night’s Evening Times headlined ‘Boycott Cuts the Ibrox Crowd’ a reported stated that “There was something different about the ‘Old Firm’ battle at Ibrox Stadium today. Extra police were on duty inside and outside the park, the fans in their invalid chairs were there, and the band played, but the crowd was cut by 30 per cent. The boycott of Celtic supporters was on.”
Attendance at the game was 60,000 – 35,000 Celtic supporters had boycotted the fixture compared to the numbers who had turned at Ibrox a few weeks previous. The call of the Association had been met with a real show of support, indicative of the contempt felt at the actions of officials and ‘blazers’ against Celtic. Picture Post, a popular photo journal of the time based in London, had sent a journalist up to cover the game and his report confirmed the impact that the boycott had on the game itself:
‘In this year’s fourth meeting between the clubs, a new tactic was introduced – perhaps for the first time in football history, we saw the Cold War at work. The Celtic Supporters’ Association announced a boycott of the game. The terraces at Ibrox’s West End, where Celtic supporters traditionally gather, were half-heartedly empty a few minutes before the game began . . . The Cold War has its own weapons. Rangers take the field. There is dead silence from the Celtic terraces.’ The journalist questioned Bob Kelly as to why the boycott had taken place and was told it ‘was a mark of disapproval registered against the standard of refereeing from which the Celtic followers believe their club has suffered unfairly.’
Celtic, unsurprisingly, lost the game – by four goals to nil. Alan Breck, in the Evening Times, identified some of the reasons behind the heavy defeat: ‘What between the vacant spaces on the terraces, the deployment of police in the ground, and the absence of noted personalities from the Celtic team the “Old Firm” engagement at Ibrox to-day had an unreal ring about it. Not a banner was seen and hardly a cheer was heard when Celtic appeared.’ The most notably absent personality was Charlie Tully himself: Celtic had suggested he’d returned to Belfast as he was unwell, but no-one believed that. Jock Weir and Pat McAuley were, curiously, dropped also.
The fact that Celtic played with only one recognised forward in the front-line, gave a debut to Willie Rennett (only signed from junior club Lochee Harp that month) and ‘played four bit boys not one of them with more than six weeks experience of first class football’ led many to suspect that Celtic had decided not to treat the game as a competitive fixture. It has been suggested, some years later, that Bob Kelly spoke to each of the players before the game to warn them of their conduct – and instruct them not to attempt to win the game. This fits with the view of Celtic historian Tom Campbell who recalled that Celtic ‘were clearly playing to strict instructions and avoided all body-contact, making only token attempts to challenge for the ball. Rangers seemed almost embarrassed – but won 4-0.” No shame for the shameless, it would appear.
An interesting footnote to this game concerns the Celtic defender Jimmy McGuire who had earned the nickname ‘The Killer’ from the Celtic fans for his whole-hearted approach to defending. It was perhaps no surprise that Jimmy, from Plains in Lanarkshire, had difficulty adhering to orders that day to refrain from any tough tackling. At one point he launched a ‘crude’ challenge on Shaw, who was already injured, and gave away a penalty. Bob Kelly was not a man who appreciated his orders being ignored: ‘The Killer’ only played on one more occasion for Celtic and was released at the end of the season.
It was the Glasgow derby that Celtic decided not to try to win. Yet it is better known as being the first occasion when a group of football supporters organised a large-scale boycott of a match (costing Rangers approximately £2,000), using political tactics to make an important stand. Of course, Celtic’s troubles with the SFA were far from over (will they ever be?) but in 1949 the Celtic support stood as one and sent out the clear public message that they and their club would not be treated as second-class citizens by the football authorities.
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Read the 1st and 2nd articles in the ‘Political Football’ series here:
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lssue 2 of The Shamrock – Celtic Retro fanzine is on-sale from the Ross County game on 27th December. More info here: