Book Review: Celtic In The Black and White Era

It is rare that you feel genuine excitement at the release of a Celtic photo book nowadays given the familiarity with so many club pictures through over-exposure online.  Yet when I first heard that the man behind the excellent ‘Lifted Over The Turnstiles – Scottish Football Grounds In the Black and White Era’ had put together a similar book focused exclusively on the Celts, I knew right away it would be something special. 

Steve Finan has certainly lived up to expectations, high as they were.  ‘Celtic In the Black and White Era’ is a glorious publication of over three hundred top quality photographs through the most exciting and interesting decades in Celtic history.  Starting with Johnny Thomson in the 1920s through to Johnny Doyle in 1979, this is a catalogue of everything from beautifully crafted action photos to hum-drum publicity shots which, because of the subjects involved, prove fascinating in themselves.  Bobby Lennox in his mother’s hairdressing salon?  Jimmy Johnstone in his welding gear?  Billy McPhail in his restaurant?  Tommy Gemmell out hunting?  They’re all here and much, much more. 

The cover photo best illustrates the quality that lies behind it.  Steve Finan uncovered a range of photos from the 1957 Scottish League Cup Final which had lain untouched for years.  These convey what it felt like being in the massive bowl of Hampden whose slopes were crammed with tens of thousands of supporters as Celtic recorded their famous 7-1 victory over Rangers – still a British record for a major cup final to this day.  Celtic goalkeeper Dick Beattie adorns the cover, turning to the Celtic End behind him in celebration yet again, and this is just one of a batch that capture that gloriously historic sunny day and the national stadium in true splendour. 

The build-up to Lisbon and the massive party the day after at Celtic Park are captured as are the famous battles against Leeds, Liverpool, Racing Club and of course the regular confrontations with Rangers.  Training sessions down the years at Celtic Park, Seamill and Troon featuring the stars of the Fifties, the Lisbon Lions and the Quality Street Kids show the Celts working hard and enjoying themselves.  Gradual changes to Celtic Park and the support itself are picked out and there are vintage portraits of unsung heroes and noteworthy Bhoys such as George Connelly, Jimmy Gribben, Johnny Crum, John Higgins and Gil Heron. 

It might not come as a great surprise to find out that this very well-presented and sturdy publication has not been produced by the club but by DC Thomson who have raided their extensive picture archive and come up with some absolute gems to help trace through a golden period in Celtic’s history.  The end product reflects all the hard work and detailed research that has gone into producing one of the best collections of Celtic photos put together to date.  This book will enthral any Celtic fan with a passion for the club’s history. 

The Shamrock rating: 9/10 

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How did you hit on the idea of ‘Lifted Over the Turnstiles’?   

Several years ago, while looking for a completely unrelated thing, I found photos of Airdrie’s old Broomfield ground (they are on pages 26 and 27 of the book) and was reminded of being in the main stand with my father in 1970 or ’71. I didn’t do anything about the photos at the time but remembered them. In 2017, frightened for my job as a production editor in the slow decline of newspapers, I went to my bosses at DC Thomson and suggested a department making books out of archive material. The company said: “OK, give it a go” and gave me time, a budget, and all the backing I needed. The first book I did was about household tips from the 1950s! How to get furniture dents out of carpets, how to stop flies entering your house, how to make tea towels last five times as long. It did very well. Now I have my own department creating books. The next title was Lifted Over the Turnstiles, which grew from those pix of Broomfield to a 260-page book. The archive I have to work with is incredible. Hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of Scottish sport images from the past 150 years. Some are photos, most are negatives. Some have a lot of information attached, others have none. Sometimes they are painstakingly catalogued, sometimes you find Cappielow listed under “Gourock & district street scenes 1954-58”. The cover of Celtic in the Black & White Era is a photo of Hampden In The Sun, that I found in a box marked only as “1957-58: B117”. You never know what you’ll find. It’s part of what makes the job so interesting. 

Was your job/background an influence?   

I’ve been a journalist for 41 years, but although fitba daft, I was never a sports journalist. I was chief sub-editor, news editor, production editor (the real power in a newspaper is always on the news desk). I still write a weekly column for a newspaper on spelling and grammar — mostly complaining about apostrophe usage. Over the years, I made myself an expert on old newspapers, old photos, old match reports. I would go to the bound files rooms and look at ancient newspapers several times a week, for several decades. It’s a life-long hobby that has served me well now I create books. I know where to look and (though it is strange to say) how to look. If you want a description of how teams played in the 1920s, read their match reports from every week of the season. Read the feature articles, taking note of who the manager praises and why praise is being given. You have to think like they were thinking, you have to ask yourself why players are described as “clever” or “off colour”. You have to look closely at the photos and decipher what it is you’re seeing. Look at all parts of the photo, why the crowd is shouting, whether a player in a training photo looks like he is (or isn’t) trying really hard, who is the manager shouting at? All the clues add up. 

How do you go about sourcing the photos?   

The archive I work with is huge. Three aircraft hangar-sized rooms. And it has quirks. Sometimes you look through the index for a player’s name. Sometimes they will be filed using the name of the game: “East Fife v. Celtic”. Sometimes they are in packets listed only as: “Football actions 1962”. A photo of Celtic Park might be listed under “General scenes, Glasgow (not factories)”. The people doing the filing might not have cared a thing for football. They were often office girls who wouldn’t know a rugby ball from a football. So sourcing the photos is an arcane process, closer to intuition than science. And often it is just luck. But that’s what makes the job so interesting. You might find a packet full of school sports days photos that, somehow, also contains three or four shots of the 1965 Scottish Cup Final. 

What are your main criteria for selecting certain photos over others?   

Everyone could answer this question. Some photos you look at and just say “Wow”. Sometimes you find a photo of a laddie doing some welding work and it turns out to be Jimmy Johnstone. I have a dream that one day I will find a packet of photos labelled “general fishing scenes” (or some such), and it will turn out to be Jimmy in his rowing boat. Other times, you know the significance of a game, or a goal, and you know that someone, somewhere will look at it and say: “I was there, I was on the terrace behind that goal. I remember it as if it was yesterday”. My biggest ambition is for some Celtic supporter to look through the book and come across a photo that makes them think: “I was with my long-gone father/grandfather/uncle. What a day that was. What a game. What times we had.” These books are shamelessly about nostalgia for the games, the places you went to 50 years ago, which leads on to thoughts of who you were with, and whatever happened to them. Football is the background to our lives. The books recapture time. Finding a never-before-seen photo of a time, or a game, is like having something unlocked in your memory. I am continually told that the books have been bought as gifts for the sort of difficult-to-buy-for bloke who usually gets new socks at Christmas — then they spend four hours looking through the book and have to be dragged to the table to eat their turkey and trimmings. I greatly enjoy these stories, I’m one of those old football blokes who would get lost in old photos. I just like fitba, and I like people who similarly like fitba and talk the fitba language.

Why have you chosen Celtic as the subject for this book?   

It was an easy choice. There is so much fantastic material, so many great characters to find photos of. But I can explain this best by giving an example. If anyone is thinking of buying this book, go pick it up in a shop and turn to the Hampden In the Sun chapter, pages 40 to 57. Those photos . . . that’s why this book was published. I’m going to make a huge claim: I’ve spent a lifetime looking at football photos and those are the best I’ve ever seen. Hampden looks incredible. It is like an epic movie set — Ben Hur, or the like. The low-angle images of Dickie Beattie set against the sun breaking through the clouds are incredible. The photographer could have spent weeks trying for a better angle, a better composition of a photo, and not done any better. These photos belong in an exhibition that doesn’t merely deal with football but talks of the evolution of sports photography. I’ve never seen photos that take my breath away quite like them. I intend to contact the club after the book has been published and offer them the high-resolution files in the hope that they might find them useful or might even find a place for them at Celtic Park. I urge you, have a look at these photos. If you’ve seen better, then please let me know. 

Any thoughts on what our next project might be? 

I’ve already started work on Lifted Over the Turnstiles 2. This time I will show old football grounds packed full of fans (wait till you see the photos I have of The Jungle!).  As I go through more and more of the old photos, I’m thinking I can do chapters on dugouts, tunnels and floodlights. And mud bath pitches, soaked fans, miserable fans, exultant fans.  After that, I intend a book following Celtic around the country (perhaps I’ll call it Celtic Away) showing old photos of the fans and the team playing at Pittodrie, East End Park, the original Douglas Park, Shawfield, and all the other Scottish grounds.  I am toying with the idea of a book about Celtic’s exploits in the later 1970s and 80s (because this book concentrates on the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s).  I have so much material and so many ideas that it’s a matter of how fast I can get the books out.  I’m greatly enjoying my work, and when doing research I’ve met some really interesting, kind, generous and knowledgeable blokes who tell me exactly why Links Park has a Dynamo End, or how many steps were on the terrace on the Wheatfield side of Tynecastle. 

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