In 1931 Celtic were hoping to win the oldest trophy in world football for the thirteenth time. For Motherwell, two years older than their Glasgow counterparts, it was their first-ever major cup final appearance – and their fans turned out in great numbers to support them. 40 special trains as well as 237 trams and 79 buses per hour delivered a crowd of 104,803 to Hampden on what the Motherwell Times described as “a glorious spring day” with the only drawback being a stiff wind blowing from end to end.
Bhoys against (Steel)Men – the 1931 squads
There was well-founded optimism amongst the Lanarkshire contingent. While Celtic, still managed by the grand old man Willie Maley, enjoyed “a tradition of invincibility” over Motherwell in the Scottish Cup competition, Maley’s good friend and counterpart John ‘Sailor’ Hunter had put together the best Fir Park side to date. They presented a real challenge to both Celtic and Rangers in the Scottish League: from 1927 through to 1934 they would secure a top 3 finish each season, often splitting the Glasgow teams.
Old Pals Act: Willie Maley and Sailor Hunter
While Celtic had the great Jimmy McGrory up front, the brave and dependable Johnny Thomson in goal and craftsmen like Charlie Napier, Alec Thomson and Bertie Thomson available to turn on the style, this team of Steelmen played a brand of football that had attracted a lot of admirers. The focus was on the forward line spearheaded by Willie MacFadyen, a strong and mobile centre-forward who could rival McGrory in the goal-scoring stakes (the following season MacFadyen would score 52 goals in the League – a Scottish record that still stands). On the right wing there was the dependable John Murdoch who was ably supported by John McMenemy – son of the Celtic legend ‘Napoleon’ and an ex-Celt himself who had picked up a winner’s medal in the 1927 final.
‘Send for McGrory!’ – Celtic’s famed centre-forward
The left-wing was the real danger area for Celtic though. George Stevenson and Bobby Ferrier were known as the ‘Rolls and Royce of Scottish football’ for good reason: they were “a species of perfection which captivated they eyes, and transfixed the full-backs, of a generation.” They were not only incredibly skilful individuals, they combined with deadly effect to net a total of 424 goals between them in their Motherwell careers. It was unusual for any non-centre forward to strike up such a rate of goals.
Bobby Ferrier, a Motherwell legend
The huge terraces at Hampden were a feast of colour that Saturday afternoon. The Celtic contingent had turned up in considerable numbers for the club’s 21st cup final appearance (having won 12): “At the West terracing a dense column of green handkerchiefs greeted the eyes.” The distinct claret and amber of the Motherwell fans (the club had recently adopted these colours in favour of blue) was very much in evidence too:
As against the waving of the green there was the display of the “Knowetop Laddies” with their block letters, standing out in bold relief on the crowded slopes, the letters forming the word M O T H E R W E L L. From hundreds of voices there came the shout “Motherwell” the chorus of the “Knowetop Laddies” as they completed their display.
We are familiar with fan displays inside stadia in the modern era but this was an unusual sight in grounds in the 1930s (although brake club banners were often taken into games back then). Knowetop Primary School still sits directly behind the East Stand at Fir Park, opposite the main stand. This is the area of the ground occupied by their ultras group, the Motherwell Bois.
It was Motherwell, playing with the wind behind them, who settled into the game first and their fans who were the first to cheer. A mere 6 minutes had passed when a “swift grounder” from Stevenson deflected off the foot of Celtic captain Jimmy McStay to beat a despairing Johnny Thomson, whose fingers reached the ball but couldn’t stop it crossing the line. “A thundering cheer rent the air” above the Mount Florida end of Hampden while the Celtic support looked on in silence.
Some of the crowd in the Main Stand at the 1931 Cup Final at Hampden
If you weren’t at the game itself, you stood little chance of knowing the score. As well as no mobile phones or television in the 1930s, the cup final was not broadcast live on the radio (the BBC had a 15-minute report on the game which would only be read out at 6pm). Back in Motherwell a large crowd had gathered outside the office of the Motherwell Times in the town centre where regular notices were being put up in the window thanks to telephone calls from a reporter at Hampden Park. The crowd grew to thousands as the game progressed.
There was a touch of ingenuity on show: one group of Motherwell fans had brought a basket full of pigeons with them to Hampden. This was in an age when pigeon-fancying was all the rage: it’s more likely that you’d get a bag of smoke bombs and flares past Police Scotland into Saturday’s final then a basket full of doos. It had been agreed before the game that if Celtic scored then a black pigeon would be released into the air to return to Lanarkshire; and if the Fir Park team scored it was white pigeon that would be sent home to convey the good news. Celtic were now a white pigeon and a goal down.
The Celtic team tried to get a foothold in the game but it was Motherwell who maintained the pressure. MacFadyen missed an open goal and Thomson was called to save from both Murdoch and Stevenson. In the 20th minute a shot from McMenemy would likely have been saved by the Celtic ‘keeper also if it wasn’t for the unfortunate intervention – yet again – of Jimmy McStay, whose left leg sent it away from the Fifer and into the Celtic net. Two deflected goals, two-nil to Motherwell – and only twenty minutes played on the Hampden Park clock. Another white pigeon went up in the air and over the city . . .
Motherwell attack – but Johnny Thomson saves on this occasion
Celtic were now trying desperately to bring McGrory into the game to help pull a goal back. He was being marked closely by Motherwell’s central defender, Alan Craig, and a personal battle was developing between them. It was reported that Craig’s “bottling” of McGrory was not relished by the Celtic man whose fouls in response led to McGrory being “booed” by Motherwell fans in the main stand. When Craig appeared to handle the ball in the box, it was the Celtic fans who were venting their spleen as no penalty was awarded. Things were getting heated, Celtic were clawing their way back into the game – and then MacFadyen had a chance to put Motherwell three goals ahead but his header floated just over the crossbar. Celtic survived until half-time.
Once again, the M O T H E R W E L L boards were raised aloft during the interval as the Lanarkshire fans realised their team had one solid hand on the famous trophy. They were forty-five minutes away from glory.
Celtic started the second half at a frantic pace. Bertie Thomson was the most impressive of the front players, creating chances and helping pin the Motherwell defence back. McGrory was only being fed scraps though. ‘Sailor’ Hunter changed his team’s tactics, drawing back Stevenson, McMenemy and Ferrier to help fend off Celtic, leaving only McFadyen and noted poacher Murdoch up high on the pitch to grab a third goal if the chance arose.
McGrory was being effectively marshalled by Craig. Celtic kept the pressure up but clear-cut chances were limited. As the minutes ticked away on the clock on the Main Stand (this was destroyed in a fire in 1945) the urgings of the Celtic support grew quieter. Then there was another claim for a penalty – another Motherwell player hand-balled in the box – but once again Referee Craigmyle said no, awarding a corner instead, to the fury of the Celtic players and support. Both Peter Scarff and Bertie Thomson chased the referee around the goalposts (and there were claims of man-handling by the Celts) but he stood his ground.
Hand-ball? No penalty, says ref Craigmyle
Into the last 10 minutes and the Motherwell defenders were now clearing the ball at every opportunity, the neat build-up play of the first half abandoned. Goalkeeper McClory helped run down the clock by deliberately taking his time over bye-kicks. A large group of jubilant Motherwell fans left Hampden (bizarrely!) to head for Kings Park station be the first to arrive back in the town to spread word of their famous victory.
They were not alone in assuming that the Celts were done: one Glasgow newspaper editor, desperate to get the jump on his rivals, gave the order to print the front page declaring that Motherwell had won the cup. Matters appeared settled.
There were seven minutes left to play when another handball by Craig, outside the box this time, saw Celtic awarded a free-kick. Charlie Napier, known to all as ‘Happy Feet’, stepped up to take it. He had recently scored direct from a similar position against Dundee United. Motherwell accordingly massed a large defensive wall in front of him. This was a crucial mistake. “The cunning Napier then rolled the ball wide of that labour-intensive structure” for McGrory to burst into the space behind – finally free of the constraints of Craig. The Garngad man lunged at the ball, managing to get a toe on to it which “turned it astutely into the net in a twinkling.” It was 2-1.
There was no time for celebrations as McGrory grabbed the ball from the net and raced back to the centre – pointing to the Hampden clock. Seven minutes left. The message to his team-mates and the Celtic support was unmissable: we can save the day. The King’s Park end of the old ground was alive with green flags and handkerchiefs being waved fervently in the air.
Hampden from the air – in the 1930s
The minutes passed and still Celtic kept coming. “Six times in the last five minutes the Celts were beaten back.” It was like trench warfare and Motherwell kept coming out on top, holding their line firmly. And then the Hampden clock moved into the last minute of the game.
Despite their best efforts, Celtic had apparently failed. The Motherwell directors were receiving warm congratulations from their Celtic counterparts on their first Scottish Cup success. Newspaper reporters closed over their notebooks in the press box. A white pigeon was released from the Mount Florida terracing in the direction of the famous steel town. The Knowetop Laddies raised the boards again, one after the other, in celebration: M O T H E R W E
As the first L was being raised, there was a pause. Bertie Thomson had sent over a high ball from the touchline. McGrory saw a chance. A cry went up near him of “Go for it Alan!” There were two Alans in the vicinity: defender Craig and goalkeeper McClory. Both went for the ball. In 1976, Jimmy McGrory still remembered clearly what happened next: “It was en route for my head when Craig intercepted . . . the ball skimmed off his head and exploded in the back of the net behind ‘keeper McClory who was beaten to the world.”
In the dying seconds, Craig’s own goal had presented the equaliser Celtic craved. The final tie was deadlocked at 2-2. There would be a replay.
The Glasgow Observer columnist ‘Man In the Know’, Celtic’s greatest media cheerleader, described the scene a few days later in the weekly paper:
“The Celtic players dashed towards Bert Thomson who was simply overwhelmed under an avalanche of hysterical congratulations. The great little Celt was seized, hugged, patted, kissed – and I don’t know what, while the Motherwell players, astounded, incredulous, made their way heavily to midfield. Three seconds remained for play . . . But, if the incidents on the field of play were remarkable, how shall I describe the scenes on the terracing? It would take Dante or Milton to do justice to the unforgettable spectacle. I never witnessed anything remotely approaching the scene and probably never shall. Talk about earthquakes, landslides, tidal wavs, and what not! The upheaval on the terracing suggested the sudden, furious awakening of a slumbering mammoth . . . The crowd went made. The air was black with upflung hats and caps. Men, utter strangers, seized each other, thumped each other, wrestled, danced, shook hands, shouted, laughed, cried, cheered and, in a word, went plumb crazy with joy.”
There was one image, among the bedlam, which remained with the great McGrory: “As I ran upfield I stole a glance back and saw a picture of dejection which lives me to this day – some 45 years later. Craig was lying on the ground in front of goal pounding the turf with his fists. He was still there seconds later as the referee signalled the end of the match. Poor Alan. He was so near a Cup medal.”
Stop the clocks. Celtic lived to fight another day.
THE REPLAY was held four days later on Wednesday 15th April at 5pm (there were no floodlights at Hampden at the time). Celtic had never lost a Scottish Cup replay before. Two goals each from McGrory and Bertie Thomson saw the Bhoys run out 4-2 winners. This meant Celtic could take the coveted Scottish Cup with them on the club’s first ever tour of the United States and Canada a few weeks later.
The 1931 Scottish Cup winners
SUCCESS WAS MERELY DELAYED for Motherwell though as the following season was to prove the greatest in the club’s history, winning the Scottish League Championship for the first and (to date) only time. The Fir Parkers were the only team between 1904 and 1947 to beat either Glasgow giant to the flag. They did so in some style too, five points clear of Rangers and eighteen ahead of Celtic. In the 1930s Motherwell were to appear in three Scottish Cup Finals – and lose them all. They finally got their hands on the cup in 1952 for the first time.
A CUNNING PLAN was hatched by Motherwell’s defence to ensure there was no repeat of the confusion that led to Celtic’s equaliser at Hampden, as the Motherwell Times reported in the week after the final: “To avoid a mistake of that kind occurring in the future it is proposed to call the goalkeeper ‘Jock’.”
TRIUMPH TURNED TO TEARS for Celtic in the years that followed the 1931 Cup Final. Before the decade was over, three of Celtic’s cup winning team had tragically died, all in their twenties. Best known is John Thomson who died following an accidental collision later that year at Ibrox. Two years on, following a long illness, 25-year-old Peter Scarff passed away after contracting tuberculosis. In 1937, Bertie Thomson died in his mother’s arms due to heart failure. Their names are still revered in Celtic circles.
BERTIE, OF CELTIC FC – Bertie Thomson’s headstone
PORCELAIN MODELS of the Scottish Cup were gifted to each of the Celtic players who took part in the 1931 success. The one presented to Peter Scarff remains a proud possession of his family in Linwood where the local Celtic Supporters Club is still named after him.
LUCKY WHITE HEATHER as Motherwell fans tried a number of tricks and treats to ensure success in the cup final replay:
MUCH A’DOO ABOUT NOTHING as the final word about this famous final goes to the Motherwell Times: ‘In the soup today:- The pigeon that set off with the glad tidings for Motherwell two minutes before the end.”
Jimmy McGrory and team-mates show off the world’s oldest football trophy in the USA during the 1931 summer tour
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