“I Wonder If the Crowds Ever Miss Me?”
Tragedy has struck Celtic at various times in the club’s history with the death of players at the club. In its infancy, the club was rocked with the demise due to tuberculosis of the young midfield star Peter Dowds, the first player to die in service. John Thomson’s name, famed throughout the world for his death during a match protecting the Celtic goal, remains a familiar one to even the younger elements of the Celtic support while the sad passing of two great Celts and close friends, Johnny Doyle and Tommy Burns, although separated by almost three decades, remains raw in the hearts of many associated with Celtic and beyond.
The name of Peter Scarff tends to be less well known – yet the life and untimely death of this Celt is an evocative story well worth telling.
Peter Scarff joined Celtic at the height of Jimmy McGrory’s scoring prowess in the year that ‘The Human Torpedo’ smacked a British record eight goals past a beleaguered Dunfermline team in 1928.
Signed by Willie Maley after trying out in a benefit match in Alva, Stirlingshire as a trialist, Peter had been playing for his local parish team, St. Convals in Linwood up until that point. Maley was heard to snap after the game, “Sign Him!” There could only have been one player he was referring to as it was reported that Peter “had impressed all around the ropes” during the trial. It was a no-brainer for young Scarff to sign for Maley’s team – he came from a family of dedicated Celtic supporters in Linwood (and they remain dedicated to this day).
As a precocious talent he was farmed out to Maryhill Hibs for experience, a club who had a history of nursing young Celtic prodigies. Charlie ‘Happy Feet’ Napier, who later formed a left sided partnership with Peter and one certain Bertie Auld, would also use the same route into the Celtic first team.
20 year-old Peter made his debut against junior club Arthurlie in a home Scottish Cup tie in January 1929. This was a potential banana skin as Arthurlie had infamously eliminated Celtic from the competition 32 years previously after the furore of the Battles-Divers-Meehan player strike. History was not to repeat itself, thankfully, as Celtic ran out comfortable 5-1 winners with Peter enjoying some favourable press coverage: “The new boy Scarff, brought by Celtic from Maryhill Hibernian, is a gem of the first water. From the first kick, his moves were those of a master. There was mind and meaning behind every manoeuvre, and the way he made the game for his mates was just a joy to behold. You often hear the phrase ‘peach of a pass.’ Verily Scarff’s passes are the juiciest peaches.” The Glasgow Observer was moved to declare that “the success of Scarff and McGrory’s fine display brightened us up no end, and we can face the future with confidence.” The future was indeed bright for young Scarff.
He took Jimmy McGrory’s place in the first team a week later against Hearts and, despite losing 2-1, the first Scarff goal was registered on the Celtic score sheet. “It was left to the newcomer Scarff, to show the real Celtic touch in neatly eluding 3 opponents and driving a low ball past Harkness. “A really pretty goal and very heartening to the Celtic following.” The following week Peter scored the only goal of the game against St. Mirren and a month later scored his first hat-trick for Celtic, away to Raith Rovers in a 4-1 victory. He quickly and firmly established himself in the first eleven, scoring 8 goals in 22 appearances in that debut season.
In his first full season in a Celtic jersey in 1929-30, Peter was on the goal trail early with his 2 goals against Morton at Cappielow securing victory in the first away game. He followed that up with another hat-trick, this time against Clyde in September in the Glasgow Cup. It was another Scarff goal that secured a point for Celtic at Tannadice the next month when “he crowned a delightful movement in which the whole forward line participated, by shooting past McGregor from close range.” He also scored two memorable goals against Rangers in Charity Cup that season, then a valued tournament which attracted big crowds. While Celtic’s league challenge faltered badly and the team were knocked out the Scottish Cup by St. Mirren in the 3rd round, Peter could reflect proudly on having scored 19 goals in just 27 appearances – second only to Jimmy McGrory himself. He faced the new season with real enthusiasm that he – and his goals – might help bring Celtic some major silverware for the first time since 1927.
Season 1930-31 was to prove a landmark season for Willie Maley’s young side. They fought Rangers toe-to-toe all the way for the League title and ended up losing out by an agonising two points – two draws in the last 3 games proving fatal. The esteem which Peter Scarff was already held in was evident from the Glasgow Observer’s report of the opening game of the season against Kilmarnock: “Our big Linwood boy played well in his own fashion tackling with sureness and spreading the ball intelligently . . . I think he has the true Celtic spirit and possesses a strong pair of shoulders and a hefty shot.” That hefty shot was much in evidence as Peter recorded 22 first-team goals, the same as Charlie Napier – but a fair bit behind the famed McGrory who hit the net 44 times!
With 101 goals scored in the league it was clear that Celtic’s front line was leading the charge against Rangers. It was Celtic’s renewed attacking vigour that helped them land the Glasgow Cup in October 1930 – Peter’s first medal as a Celt. They also had to rely on the traditional Celtic spirit to see them through. Charlie Napier had to go off injured – no substitutes were allowed – and Peter’s friend, Bertie Thomson from nearby Johnstone, was then sent off. Despite being reduced to 9 men Rangers continued to receive assistance from their steadfast 12th man: the referee. Scarff was the victim of one particular decision: “From the free kick Scarff shot a second goal for Celtic, amid demonstrations of great joy, but to the surprise of the Celts [the referee] gave a free kick in the goal area, whether for offside or fouling no one could say, the crowd yelling disapproval.” Despite this, Maley’s bhoys stuck to the task and saw the game out, securing an important psychological victory into the bargain.
The 1930-31 Scottish Cup campaign got underway against East Fife at Methil in what proved a difficult encounter. A goal down at half time followed by an injury to McGrory, forcing him to move to outside-left, and things were looking bleak. Charlie Napier secured the equaliser and it looked as though the Celts would have to settle for a replay until, in the dying moments of the game, Peter Scarff struck to win the tie. Successive away victories over Dundee United (3-2) and Greenock Morton (4-1), was followed by a comprehensive beating dished out to Aberdeen at Celtic Park (4-0). A 3-0 victory over Kilmarnock in the semi-final set up a Cup Final date at Hampden with Motherwell – before a crowd of 104,803.
Celtic struggled to overcome an impressive Motherwell side (who would go on to win the League the following season) and were facing defeat until a Bertie Thomson cross was turned into his own net by Motherwell defender Craig. This meant that Celtic would have another crack and this time they did not disappoint, running out 4-2 winners in the replay (with a double each from Bertie Thomson and Jimmy McGrory). For Peter Scarff, who had recently turned 23 years old, it was the pinnacle of a football career which promised much more. He and Celtic were clearly heading in the right direction. This was ably demonstrated when he was selected for his first international cap – against Northern Ireland – another measure of his standing at such a young age in the Scottish game.
Scottish Cup success and a first international cup would not be turning the head of this Linwood bhoy though. A tale recounted to me by a descendant of the Scarff family tells of Peter’s kindness. A poor flower seller outside Celtic Park used to furnish Peter with a fresh flower for his lapel every day after training. She was extremely grateful to receive a sum of one shilling for a flower that was on sale for a halfpenny – a figure that was 24 times its value.
Peter and his Celtic team-mates were to celebrate their Scottish Cup success in some style as they departed by cruise ship for Celtic’s first ever tour of North America in the summer of 1931. Scarff wore a Green/Blue dress shirt in one game instead of the Hoops supposedly because of a kit shortage. Rumour has it his shirt was stolen by an overzealous American hoops fan. An item appeared on E-bay in recent years with a claim to being Peter Scarff’s shirt from the tour, asking for an astronomical sum!
Peter took on the attacking mantle for Celtic on tour with his five goals in a 7-0 win over Montreal Carsteel as Jimmy McGrory had broken his jaw in the previous game against Brooklyn Wanderers. Peter deputised regularly for McGrory when his injuries received by virtue of his danger kept him on the side-lines. Jimmy McGrory commented on Peters display against Brooklyn, writing in his diary, “Peter Scarff played a wonderful game at left half.”
Peter in action on the 1931 US Tour
In what turned out to be a gruelling tour for the players, the Celtic team boarded an overnight train after the Montreal match to New York for a game against Hakoah Allstars played the next day, when both Scarff and Napier were sent off in a physical match against a team peppered with Hungarian internationals. The chance to see New York and other great sights of 1930’s America were a genuine thrill for Peter and his team-mates, but many of the games on the demanding tour were overly competitive for friendlies and a number of Celtic players picked up injuries along the way. The squad were not entirely unhappy to head for home after the final game at the end of June.
Following the American adventure, Celtic got Season 1931-2 off to a flying start with three straight victories (and 9 goals) in the first three games. McGrory and Scarff were leading the goal-scoring charts for the Bhoys and it was an unbeaten Celtic team with 26 goals in 7 games who travelled to Ibrox on September 5th 1931, full of confidence that they could match the Ibrox team and take the League flag that season.
The tragedy which unfolded that day at Ibrox is two-fold in nature, but what happened subsequently to Peter Scarff has largely been overshadowed by the loss of his team-mate and goalkeeper John Thomson in an accidental collision at Ibrox that day. Peter was pictured standing motionless staring at his fatally injured colleague being stretchered from the pitch. He himself missed the next two games due to illness, returning the next month to first team action. Celtic’s league title was beginning to falter in the aftermath of the death of the Prince of Goalkeepers. Peter Scarff was also unable to shake off the illness which had caused him to miss games.
On 19th December 1931 Peter Scarff donned the famous Hoops for the 112th and last time – and he was still only 23 years of age. His appearance that night was cut short after he appeared to cough up blood on the pitch. This alarming sight generated immediate concern for onlookers.
After tests a diagnosis of tuberculosis was confirmed, a bacterial disease also known as consumption that had been a scourge in recent times. It was this disease that had taken Peter Dowds of Johnstone, a player Willie Maley called “The greatest ever all-round Celt” some 29 years earlier.
Peter went to a sanatorium in Bridge of Weir in the hope that he might make a recovery. Intermittent reports in the newspapers suggested improvements in his condition and there was hope that he might yet return to Celtic Park and resume his thrilling playing career. Peter’s fiancée, Marjory Boyle, later recalled that he kept his spirits up despite struggling to recover. “He kept telling me that he would soon be better in spite of what the doctors had said and would soon be playing for Celtic again.” They had met at a time when Peter was already a regular Celtic first team player and as they fell in love he made it clear to her what his priorities were: “I’m wearing a Celtic Jersey and I’m playing for you. Those two things are the most important things in my life.”
As weeks turned into months remaining in the sanatorium, despair started to set it in as Marjory subsequently revealed in the Weekly News, “Deep down Peter knew that his playing days were over. He knew that he would never wear the White and Green again. Alone, he who had been used to the shouts of thousands, waited every Saturday for news of the Celtic games. “I wonder if the crowds ever miss me, he once said.”
Peter Scarff lost his struggle with tuberculosis and, at the age of only 24, he passed away on the 9th December 1933 at his home at 33 Bridge Of Weir Rd. Linwood. His funeral service in Kilbarchan Cemetery took place after a requiem mass at St. Conval’s Chapel in his home village.
Many travelled by special bus from Glasgow while others got the tram to Paisley’s outskirts and walked the rest of the distance to the isolated cemetery. The Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette dated the week after his funeral commented, “The mourners stood around with bared heads during the committal service and many of them were visibly affected by the occasion, and the tears were in no way hidden when just before the interment Manager Maley of Celtic laid the green and white Celtic Jersey on the coffin. The young Celtic player Jimmy Delaney was heard to remark, “I hope they do that for me.”
A report by the Weekly News on the funeral reported that “A poignant moment was that when as the coffin was leaving the Church a poorly dressed old woman bustled through the crowd and placed on the coffin a humble spray of flowers.” This old woman was the flower seller from outside Celtic Park who had walked barefoot from Glasgow to pay her respects to Peter Scarff for his generosity. It was a lovely, touching tribute.
The young Celtic player and Scottish internationalist was dead, just over 2 years after his team-mate John Thomson. It was a few years before Celtic’s first eleven properly recovered from the loss of both men. It is easy to draw parallels between them, two brilliant young Celts who both played in the same team, never realising their full potential for Glasgow Celtic in heart breaking circumstances. Had Peter Scarff lived he would have went on to play at his peak alongside household names such as Jimmy Delaney, Malky MacDonald and Johnny Crum who were leading lights in Willie Maley’s last, great Celtic team who went on to win the Empire Exhibition Cup in 1938. Peter would also have had the opportunity to play before Europe’s biggest ever football attendance, a jaw-dropping 146,433, in the Scottish Cup final versus Aberdeen at Hampden in 1937.
Peter is commemorated by The Peter Scarff Linwood Celtic Supporters Club established in 1947 in his name. The club remains active to this day and members of Peter’s family have been involved with the club since its inception to the present day. In December 2013 the Celtic Graves Society and the Peter Scarff CSC organised a commemoration ceremony at Peter’s graveside where a large crowd of Celtic supporters from Renfrewshire and beyond heard eulogies from Peter’s descendant Anne McElhinney, Lisbon Lion Jim Craig, Celtic historian David Potter and Celtic FC Chief Executive Peter Lawwell.
The local CSC named after Peter celebrate another Championship victory at Celtic Park
Although the Scarff and Thomson stories are tragic they are part of the Celtic folklore that helps to make the club’s history the richest and most colourful in British football and beyond. Their efforts for the Celtic cause in their short but successful playing careers should not be forgotten.
I think it is right that we should remember Peter Scarff.
Written by Iain Reynolds
Former Peter Scarff Linwood CSC Secretary
An earlier abridged version of this article appeared in Celtic Quick News Magazine