During World War Two (and for some years afterwards) a popular song by Vera Lynn contained these words: “We’ll meet again, Don’t know where, Don’t know when … but I know we’ll meet again, Some sunny day …”
Well, before their recent visit to Celtic Park, the last time we played Lazio was on September 4, 1950 … sixty-nine years ago. And it was a miserable wet day in Glasgow, rain falling steadily all day long … but it did not stop a crowd estimated at 47,000 turning up at Celtic Park to see Lazio, the first Italian club to play a match in Scotland. I remember the rain because I was there, soaked to the skin but all agog to see a top European side in action.
Celtic’s team lined up: Bonnar; Haughney and Milne; Evans, McGrory and Baillie; Collins and Fernie; McPhail; Peacock and Tully. From the start Lazio looked a stylish side, wearing sky-blue jerseys (similar to Manchester City) and playing attractive one-touch football … but eventually they were swept aside by Celtic in the rain. John McPhail, only recently given an extended run at centre-forward, was a man with something to prove and turned in a remarkable performance. Celtic latterly swept aside their Italian opponents to win by 4-0 … and all four goals were scored by ‘Big John.’ There was a pleasing symmetry about the goals that buried Lazio: two goals in each half, a matching header and penalty kick (awarded correctly by Scottish referee George Mitchell).
What had Celtic’s captain John McPhail to prove? After several seasons as Celtic’s most versatile player (with appearances at right and left-half even long before the Coronation Cup of 1953) and innings at all three inside-forward positions … at last he was given the time to establish himself as Celtic’s centre-forward – arguably a problem position for Celtic to fill since the heady days of Johnny Crum back in 1938. And John seized that opportunity, eventually leading Celtic to the Scottish Cup of 1951.
But that was not his only motivation in September 1950.
Back in May, Bob Kelly had decided to award his players with a trip to Rome. It was a Holy Year and Celtic could see the historic sights of ‘the Eternal City’, would be given an audience with the Pope … and play ‘a friendly’ with Lazio, a team based in Rome and celebrating their 50th anniversary.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be not much of ‘a friendly’. Bobby Collins, who in a long career in Scotland and England proved a ferocious competitor, described the match as ‘the most vicious of them all.’ The Italian referee (a man who apparently performed well later as a World Cup official) had to award more than forty free-kicks – and ordered off John McPhail and his immediate opponent.
An urban myth has grown about John McPhail’s dismissal. According to John, the referee dismissed his marker for a series of fouls (and a scuffle with him) but then turned to Celtic’s captain and told him to leave the field “to calm down the crowd.”
It doesn’t quite ring true, that account. Almost certainly (judging by the number of fouls, and the rarity of matches between Scottish and Italian sides), there would have been a predictable clash of differing football styles and culture on the pitch … and both sides would have contributed equally.
In 1950 Celtic managed a 0-0 draw in Rome. Following our victory a fortnight ago, I would happily settle for a repeat in 2019.
Here is John McPhail’s account of his Roman Holiday – recounted over 20 years later in the 1970s:
Celtic historian Tom Campbell has recently released his 14th Celtic book entitled ‘A Very Different Paradise.’
For more details and to read reviews (as well as an interview with the author) please CLICK HERE