They called him ‘The Mighty Atom’. Standing at a mere 5ft 5 inches and weighing little over 9 stone, Patsy Gallacher was small – but this tiny bundle of energy was near impossible to suppress. He looked unwieldy and some thought feeble, but Patsy had the physical qualities of a gymnast and a relentless stamina which few opponents could match.
Making his debut in the Celtic first team in 1911, this son of Donegal quickly developed a reputation for skilful forward play the likes of which had never been seen. Celtic’s first historian, Dr. James Handley, captured the Patsy magic in this dizzying description from ‘The Celtic Story’: “He caught the popular fancy with his unorthodox style, his inexhaustible treasury of tricks, his magical elusiveness expressed in uncatchable wriggles, slips, swerves, hops and famous ‘hesitation’ stops. To see Patsy halt in mid-career, place a foot on the top of the ball and calmly wait for opponents, reluctant to approach and be fooled, to make up their minds, made many a supporter’s afternoon. Physically speaking, he should have been wafted off the field like thistledown.’
This atomic mite was not for wafting away though. He led Celtic to six League triumphs and had won the Scottish Cup three times during a majestic era for Willie Maley’s team. Then, in 1925, came the moment that defined a career – and what is still considered by some to be the greatest goal ever scored.
Some thought that the 1925 Scottish Cup Final would be a walkover for Celtic. Drawn against a then-dominant Rangers team in the semi-final, Maley’s men were not expected to make the final, never mind continue the Ibrox club’s failure to land the cup for over two decades. The managed to do so in considerable style, running out 5-0 winners with Patsy largely being credited for setting out Celtic’s tactics on the day.
Dundee had only won the Scottish Cup once before (against Clyde in 1910) and were not fancied to overcome the Glasgow team who were aiming to beat the record held jointly with Queen’s Park of ten Scottish Cup final triumphs. 75,157 spectators, 6,000 of them estimated to be fans of the Dark Blues, looked on as Dundee took a hold of the first half and grabbed the all-important breakthrough goal on the half-hour. It was a former Celt, Davie McLean, who knocked home the rebound of a Gilmour header, which had come off the bar with keeper Shevlin posted missing. (As the Dundee fans celebrated, the keen-eyed in the Celtic support may have remembered how the 37 year-old McLean had joined Celtic way back in 1907 and had been under-study to the great Jimmy Quinn for a few seasons before moving to England. His goal for Dundee was one over 500 in a career spanning over a remarkable 25 years.)
Patsy in action – 10 years earlier
Dundee took to the Hampden pitch in the second half with their lead still intact. Celtic fans remained confident that their team would soon equalise and be in control of the match but, as the minutes passed, Dundee’s resilience increased. Although having more possession than in the first half Celtic could not find a way through the Dundee defence – and especially their goalkeeper Jock Britton. The Dundee Courier waxed lyrical about his performance: ‘Many a joyous roar from the considerable Celtic support was choked down by the Dens Park custodian. It seemed he could not be beaten. Two great high-up clearances in half that number of minutes elicited cheers from friend and foe alike. Britton gave a masterly display, his clutching and anticipation being wonderfully certain and accurate.’
Saves from Connelly, Thomson and McGrory (playing in his first cup final) kept Celtic at bay. There was now only a quarter of an hour left in the tie, it looked as though Dundee would hold out and take football’s oldest trophy back to Dens Park with them in triumph.
Patsy had other ideas.
At the time of Patsy’s death in June 1953, one of the most fulsome tributes came from his rival and contemporary, the famed Rangers outside-left and Wembley Wizard, Alan Morton. Known as ‘The Wee Blue Devil’ for his daring wing play, Morton recalled that “in taking the responsibility for getting a goal himself, Patsy was absolutely unsurpassed in my time.” That pretty much describes what happened in the 76th minute of the 1926 Scottish Cup Final.
The institution that is the Dundee newspaper the Evening Telegraph (known to locals even today merely as ‘the Tully’) put it in very simple terms: ‘For Celtic had got the ball in the net that it put there to catch it. Gallagher it was who did it. A free kick and a “breenge.” That was all there was to it, and it was level pegging.’
The Scotsman was just as succinct: ‘it was a faulty clearance by the same player which allowed Gallagher, in company with a couple of other Celts, to rush the ball into the net.’
A breenge and a rush? Hardly the stuff of legend and in marked contrast with this comment from the Glasgow Herald: ‘The feature of the contest was Gallagher’s equalising goal, and in a career of much distinction it is questionable if the clever Celt ever accomplished anything quite so sensational and clever.’
More intriguing detail is contained in the Herald’s match report: ‘In 76 minutes Celtic got the goal that always seemed imminent, Gallagher crowning a daring and devious bit of play by throwing himself bodily into the net and carrying the ball with him.’
Throwing himself into the net? Carrying the ball? What on earth was going on? The Dundee Advertiser added some more colour: ‘The ‘Mighty Atom’ wriggled and pushed his way through a litter of friends and foes to stagger into the back of the net with the leather.’
Dundee’s resistance was broken. There was a certain inevitability that, with three minutes of the game remaining, a header from Jimmy McGrory – who had been shackled the whole game prior to that moment – breached Britton’s goal and won the cup for Celtic for a record-breaking 11th time. (To commemorate this success in his first cup final, manager Maley presented 20 year-old McGrory with the cup and insisted the Garngad Bhoy sit at the front of the Celtic team’s horse-drawn brake carriage as it made its way from Hampden into Glasgow city centre for the post-match celebration.)
Despite the significance of the occasion for the young McGrory, he always highlighted the remarkable nature of Patsy’s intervention in turning the game in Celtic’s favour. In his autobiography, ‘A Lifetime In Paradise’, published fifty years later, McGrory said that Dundee’s opener ‘only proved to be the spur for the greatest goal I have ever seen and aptly it came from the greatest player.’ This is his recollection of the equaliser:
Patsy Gallacher took a pass from Peter Wilson and even to this day I can remember vividly what followed. With that peculiar dragging motion of his he meandered past man after man until the Dundee left back made a desperate effort to stop him. Patsy fell to the roar of “penalty” from the Celtic crowd but in falling he had craftily kept the ball gripped between his feet and as the keeper came out Patsy somersaulted into the back of the net still with that ball lodged between his feet. There was absolute pandemonium and thq e Dundee players were absolutely stunned by such brilliant. That was the move that had beaten them and although it was only 1-1 they knew it was all over. I had to run into the net to free Patsy but I was so excited I didn’t even congratulate him. I just got him to his feet and ran straight back to the middle of the park.”
With no film footage of the cup final or even action photographs available, the best visual accounts of the scenes that greeted Celtic’s equaliser come from contemporary cartoons published in newspapers in the game’s aftermath. These confirm that Patsy did indeed end up bound in the goal-nets and could only be freed with the intervention of his team-mates:
Glasgow Observer – 18th April 1925
The Scotsman – 13th April 1925
Whether it was the greatest goal ever scored is a debate that can never be settled especially as the game of football continues to evolve and becomes a truly global sport. There is no doubting however the impact that the goal had on those who witnessed it. Robert Kelly was a 22 year-old when he attended at Hampden that day, the son of Celtic’s first captain, and who would later go on to become a Celtic director for four decades. He never forgot the ‘almost inhuman brilliance’ displayed by Patsy that day: ‘He must have beaten six opponents as he dribbled and swerved towards goal; several times he must have been very nearly on the ground as opponents made contact with him if not contact with the ball. His final, almost superhuman effort came barely six feet from the goal-line, when, having tricked the goalkeeper and again almost having been grounded by an attempted tackle, he somersaulted, with the ball wedged between his boots, right in the net, from which his delighted team-mates had to extricate him.’
Time can, of course, play tricks with the memory – and details can become embellished in the re-telling. That was certainly the view of the legendary Celtic playmaker Charlie Tully, a hero of the 1950s with a style not unlike Patsy’s, who began to question the veracity of the tale of the goal he heard many, many times: ‘According to all the reports I hear from Chairman Bob Kelly and Jimmy McGrory about the number of men Patsy beat, he must have started his run at Melbourne, hopped on a plane to London, jumped a helicopter to Hampden Park, and grabbed a taxi up the left wing to score. That’s the only possible way he could have passed all those people!’
John Rafferty, an accomplished sportswriter with The Scotsman later referred to it as ‘the weirdest Hampden goal.’ To Celtic historians Pat Woods and Tom Campbell it has proved to be ‘a goal destined to be recalled for decades! A touch of magic to continue the legend of Celtic’s invincibility in the Cup!’ The game was to become known as ‘The Patsy Gallacher Cup Final’ because, as The Dundee Courier said on the Monday after the match: ‘Gallagher could have been held by no man. His amazing control of the ball and his elusiveness were a thing for wonderment . . . he wears well, does this slip of a player whom Celtic must rate as much more valuable than his weight in gold.’
Uncontrollable and unpredictable. His burst of energy and trickery bamboozled the Dundee defence and, even when laid low and with yet another obstacle in his way, Patsy introduced the element of surprise – a somersault! – and went over the top. As he lay on the pitch caught up in the goal-net waiting on his team-mates to rescue him, Dundee’s cup hopes were blown apart. The classic slopes of Hampden exploded with joy in green and white. And almost a century on, they talk of his magnificent goal still.
Such was the impact of Celtic’s Mighty Atom.
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Modern Illustrations of Patsy’s Goal:
From the excellent graphic novel history of Celtic, The Celtic Story: The Will to Win by Patrick, Allan and Tommy Canning (Buy a copy here: Amazon link )
From the David Potter biography ‘The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Patsy Gallacher’ – the definitive text on Patsy (Buy a copy here: Amazon Link)
From Douglas Beattie’s excellent wee guidebook ‘The Pocket Book of Celtic‘ – well recommended, has lots of great Celtic goals illustrated and much more besides, buy a copy here: Amazon Link
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