Frank Kelly – A Celtic Centenarian

There is a Celtic song about the 7-1 League Cup Final win over Rangers from 1957 which contains the line ‘For if I live to be a hundred I’ll never ever have so much fun, as the day the Glasgow Celtic beat the Rangers seven one.’  Frank Kelly is one Celtic supporter who has lived to a hundred years (and beyond) and can confirm that 19th October 1957 was indeed one of the most enjoyable days out ever! 

St Francis School, 1925 or 1926 – Frank is in the middle row, third from the left

Frank is a Gorbals Bhoy. Although swimming was his father’s sport, Celtic were his father’s team: he was happy to follow suit.  He was born on 10 August 1918 in the family home at 87 Caledonia Road, near the Southern Necropolis, and lived there until he was 21. The family later moved to Battlefield. Both his parents were from Glasgow, though two grandparents, as was the case with so many of the Irish who came to Scotland, were from County Donegal: one from Ardara. Frank’s fatherwas a boilermaker in the Govan shipyards. Frank was one of 5 children with three brothers (James, John and Charles) and one sister (Susan).

Growing up Catholic in the Gorbals in the 1920s, the focal point of the community was the parish that surrounded the massive St Francis Church on Cumberland Street.  At the time the church had twelve priests, seven masses were held on a Sunday and the parish extended to over 27,000 people.  It was quite common for the crowds attending mass to be so large that the huge building, which still stands today, couldn’t contain them and hundreds would have to listen on from the surrounding streets.

Father Stanislaus Cush OFM, as guardian of the parish, divided the congregation burden. Father Leonard and Father Brendan were two fresh ordinands. The former was made responsible for work with all young boys and youths and the latter for older youths and young men. Father Philip looked after all girls and young women.

The St Francis Boys Guild alone had a membership of over 3,000 and was the brainchild of one of the Franciscan Friars based in the Gorbals, Father Leonard.  As well as sporting activities the Franciscans encouraged the parish youth to branch out into a range of other pastimes – the Saint Francis Pipe Band is still going strong in the Gorbals today and heading for its own centenary year in 2026.

Father Leonard OFM and the St Francis Boys Guild Pipe Band in1926

Money was in short supply as the difficult Twenties turned into the Hungry Thirties and this was especially true in the Gorbals.  Although a Celtic fan who lived relatively close to Celtic Park, there was rarely spare money available to get into the games and he would be 13 years old before Frank was a regular attender at matches.  He and his pals sometimes hung around the Boys’ Gate or the SVDP Gate and this meant they could get into the ground after half-time and watch the second half.  (There was no money available for the city trams which meant that Frank would have to walk to and from the Gorbals to his school – St Mungo’s in Townhead – in all weathers).

Before he turned 13, Frank’s only means of entry into Paradise was the Boys Guild and their bands.  If the Guild was collecting at Celtic Park then it meant that some members would get free entry to the game.   On occasion, the Guild’s pipe band would play one week, and the silver band would often play the next.  The boys involved would march together through the Gorbals and along James Street in Bridgeton to get on to London Road and up to Celtic Park.  As either band played during the half-time break, a group of the boys would walk around the perimeter of Celtic Park with a large bedsheet to catch coins thrown as donations to the charity approved by the Celtic Board for that match.  It was thanks to the Boys Guild that Frank was able to get his first sightings of legendary Celtic figures such as Patsy Gallacher, Jimmy McGrory and John Thomson.

Frank in third year at St. Mungo’s – in the middle of the middle row

Frank played in one of the numerous football teams run by the St Francis Boys Guild.  One team-mate and pal was Gerry McAloon, a clever ball player who went on to become an inside-forward for Brentford and then Wolverhampton Wanderers.  During the 1940s, Gerry returned to Glasgow to play for Celtic where he stayed for three seasons in total, playing 54 games and scoring an impressive 30 goals.  Gerry then moved to Belfast Celtic for what would prove to be their final ever season.  He played in the famous game which took place in New York in May 1949 as part of their USA tour.  Belfast Celtic beat the Scottish international team (who had just won the British Home Championships) by 2-0.  Gerry later told Frank that he had persuaded his team-mates to wind-up the volatile Rangers player Willie Waddell early in the game with the result that Waddell received a red card, helping ensure victory for the Belfast Hoops.

One of Frank’s pals at St Mungo’s School was James Malaney who was another accomplished footballer who had trials with the Celtic reserve team and played as an inside-forward at junior level for Vale of Leven, Dunoon Athletic and many others on seminary vacations, where he attracted attention from senior clubs.  He played in a friendly match against Rangers and afterwards was invited to a hotel in Dunoon for a meeting with their manager Bill Struth.  Struth made it clear that he wanted James to join the Ibrox club and the fact that he was studying full-time was no barrier: ‘We’ve a university man at the club already.  Don’t worry, we’ll put you through university.  We like university men at Rangers.’  A very impressive financial offer was then made to the student but when he explained that he was in fact studying to join the priesthood and was due to be ordained the following week, the offer was swiftly withdrawn!

Struth insisted to James that the policy of not signing Catholics was not his, rather it was his club’s, and was apologetic for the confusion.  However, the former Rangers winger Alan Morton (the Wee Blue Devil) had accompanied Struth to the meeting – and he was furious.  Morton alleged that Rangers had been tricked into meeting a player on the cusp of becoming a Catholic priest.  In shades of a famous Scotch and Wry sketch many years later, it appears that the Rangers scout had not done his homework properly.  Father – later Canon – James Malaney went on to serve in the Dunkeld Diocese through to his death in 1998 when he was parish priest at St Columba’s Church in Cupar, Fife.

While many assumed that a favourable relationship existed between Celtic and the Catholic Church, Frank explained that wasn’t true of every parish.  He was party to a discussion that his Uncle Charlie had with Frank Brennan, the 1950s Scottish internationalist defender, outside a Glasgow theatre one night.  Brennan, who went on to earn such acclaim at Newcastle United he was given the nickname ‘The Rock of Tyneside’, was long considered one that Celtic had missed out on.  Although he came from Annathill, near Coatbridge, he was signed by Airdrie rather than Celtic.  It turned out that this was largely on account of a local priest called Father Dooley who did not consider that players were well treated at Celtic Park, the club effectively taking advantage of their religious affiliation.  Father Dooley would go to great lengths to dissuade any promising footballers in his parish to sign up at Celtic Park.

Queen Street in the 1920s, with The Bank on the left

As adulthood beckoned and Frank and his pals were allowed to enter Glasgow’s abundance of public houses, they would regularly head after a game at Celtic Park to Queen Street which was home to The Bank Restaurant – owned by the legendary Celtic manager Willie Maley.  Frank was first introduced to The Bank by his Uncle Jim who was on nodding terms with the great man himself.  His Uncle Charlie was also a friend of The Croy Express, the famous Jimmy Quinn.  Jimmy’s son Phil, himself a former Celtic player, represented the Quinn family at Charlie’s funeral.  Phil had confided in Charlie that Maley had long had a soft spot for his father’s team-mate Peter Somers, who he would let away with murder.  In the 1930s Frank recalls rumours that Johnny Crum was similarly indulged by The Boss. Maley was a strict disciplinarian.

The Bank was a large restaurant split into two sections with a separate area to the rear where players and former players would often meet.  This was also a favourite haunt for lawyers looking to negotiate out-of-court settlements in the private surroundings which The Bank provided.  Many deals were done there and not just those involving football.   Frank recalls that the impressive figure of The Boss, as Willie Maley was universally known, would stand at the back of the bar where there was an alcove and would chat there with patrons he knew well.  Frank and his pals were on friendly terms with Mrs Cook, the restaurant manager, and she would let them in to the back of the bar.  During periods of rationing, Mrs Cook would provide ‘specials’ of meals involving food that was scarce such as fish to favoured customers in that area at the back which was secluded.  This rather generous interpretation of the applicable regulations led to Willie Maley falling foul of the law and being fined in 1943 for breaching the permitted quota of fish to be sold at The Bank!

Frank recalls that on one occasion he and his brother Charlie walked into the back area of The Bank and saw Celtic players Peter Wilson, Alec Thomson and Patsy Gallacher all chatting away with manager Maley.  The stylish Peter Wilson was a favourite player of Frank’s and he fell into discussion with him one time in the pub where the forward told him that, before he joined the club, he had had a dream of playing for Celtic.  In that dream he received a through ball from Patsy Gallacher which he controlled and then went on to score – which is exactly what happened in one of his earliest games in the Hoops.  Frank recalls that it was rare for Maley to put an 18-year-old into the Celtic team but he happily made an exception for the talented Wilson.

Peter Wilson: ‘Cool and quick thinking’ said Willie Maley

There was another time in The Bank when Peter Wilson told Frank and his pals the story of when, during a game, he had exchanged passes with Peerless Patsy and then dribbled past a couple of defenders before scoring.  After Peter had finished celebrating the goal with his team-mates The Mighty Atom came up to him, obviously displeased at the failure to receive a return pass, and bluntly told Wilson: ‘What do ye think I’m doing here? It’s me who’s supposed to dae that!’

Patsy

Frank credits Willie Maley with a gift of knowing what a player’s ideal position would – or should – be.  He signed six centre-forwards within a relatively short period but he wasn’t intending for them all to remain in that position – they had to be ‘footballers above all else.’  When Celtic signed George Paterson he’d been banging in the goals in the juniors and lots of teams were after him.  Manager Maley saw something in him that no-one else did and soon converted him to a defender who would become a Celtic stalwart and internationalist in that position.  Other players that Maley similarly converted from their original position with success were Johnny Crum, Frank O’Donnell and Jimmy Walsh.

Frank is of the view that Celtic suffered worst at the hands of officialdom when George Graham was the SFA’s Secretary in the 1940s and 1950s.  He was well-known as a leading Freemason in Glasgow and there was no doubt where his sympathies lay.  On one occasion a Clyde player called Hugh Murphy (at one point a regular Irish international) was sent off in a game at Ibrox for making a ‘controversial gesture’ – he had blessed himself.  George Graham ensured that Murphy’s subsequent suspension would be lengthy one.

Graham was notorious for his dictatorial style and this brought him into conflict with a range of clubs including Rangers. While on international duty with Scotland, the Rangers winger Torry Gillick objected to the fact that the players were eating fish and chips while Graham and the blazers of the International Committee were enjoying more expensive fare – and demanded that the players be allowed access to the superior menu.  Graham was furious and subsequently sent the bill for the players’ food to Ibrox.  While Bill Struth agreed with Gillick that Graham was wrong, he decided to pay the bill as he was fearful that Graham would withdraw or interfere with Gillick’s international registration, such was the power that Graham wielded.

From his family connections with the Govan shipyards, Frank says that it was well-known that links existed between Rangers and Harland & Wolff shipbuilders.  Some believe that this connection was one reason for the Ibrox club adopting a sectarian signing policy similar to the employment policy of the Belfast company.  There were lots of rumours in Glasgow during the Second World War that Rangers players were given cushy jobs in the shipyard to prevent them being conscripted.  It is believed that a small community of German workers in Glasgow – some of whom worked in the Harland & Wolff yard – were affiliated to the Ibrox club and it was because of this connection that the nickname of ‘the Huns’ came to be applied to Rangers and its fans.

The journalist and historian Jack House wrote that after Harland & Wolff opened their shipyard in Govan that Rangers approached them to provide part-time employment for any players that they signed when needed. They were informed that it was a Belfast condition that no Catholics would be employed and that would require to be adhered to in Glasgow. Rangers consented and to provide assurance they would appoint Baillie Wilson of the Scottish Protestant League on to their Board of Directors. The rest is history.

Before the Second World War had broken out, Frank was working as part-time with the GPO and aiming to sit the Civil Service entrance exam.  Instead the war took him after training in England to Kenya, Ceylon, India and Burma as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) where he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. 

Frank in his army days

One war-time memory stands out for Frank.  He had been in East Africa as the Italians were in Abyssinia; however, his brother John was with Montgomery.  Montgomery won a stunning victory in El Alamein having amassed, under General Alexander, a very powerful force, one so large that the German forces were obliged to run as the British chased them all across North Africa to Tripoli. With no German resistance remaining, Montgomery ordered his troops to have a celebratory church parade in Tripoli. The Catholic service took place in Tripoli Cathedral and after the service the troops mingled in the Cathedral Square. With such a large group of military units there, boys who hadn’t met for years found each other and a huge number of Father Leonard’s boys from the Gorbals met and decided to form an old boys association and meet after the war was over. The result was that the FLOBA (Father Leonard’s Old Boys Association) was formed in Tripoli Cathedral Square, though officially at St. Francis Church after the war. Father Leonard was later rewarded for his service to the Gorbals community when he was taken on holiday to both Rome and Assisi in the company of  his mother from Liverpool, all costs paid for by the FLOBA.

It was Christmas 1945 before Frank was demobbed and he lived in London for a few years when he returned to Glasgow after the death of his father and to help nurse his mother.  Frank was working with the Ministry of Supply in Dalmuir when he fell in love with a colleague, Mary ‘May’ Desson, and they married at St Brendan’s Church in Dalmuir on 17th October 1953.  Earlier that year Frank had treated May to tickets to see Celtic play their Coronation Cup games at Hampden where they cheered the Bhoys all the way to unexpected success over Hibernian in the final. 

Frank and May’s wedding day

It was while living in Dalmuir that Frank and Mary’s three children were born: Catherine, Peter and Paul.  In 1959 the Kelly family moved to Garrioch Drive in the Maryhill area of Glasgow.  The family were one of the founding families in St Gregory’s Parish in Wyndford in 1965 and it has remained Frank’s parish down to this day. 

Peter Kelly recalls that his father took him to the Scottish Cup Final in 1965 where they witnessed the start of Celtic’s truly golden era under Jock Stein when Billy McNeill’s header proved decisive.  The whole family were watching on in their home in Maryhill on 25th May 1967 when a Celtic team earned the label of the ‘Lisbon Lions’ bringing untold joy to Celtic supporters including 46 year-old Frank. Grandma Desson, who was living with them, attributed the eventual victory to her rosary at half-time.

Frank and May enjoy a dance

Frank moved to work for the Ministry of Labour and in the 1970s he was a founding member of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) which was originally based in Waterloo Street in Glasgow city centre.  Frank and Peter were at Celtic Park on 1st May 1971 to see the last game the Lisbon Lions would every play together, against Clyde.  Through the 1970s and ‘80s Frank would stand on whatever terracing at Celtic Park that the Bhoys were shooting towards, then change ends at half-time.  Following his retirement in 1980 he remained a regular visitor to Paradise.  After Celtic Park was re-developed in the mid-90s Frank shared a season ticket with his son Peter in the upper North Stand in section 406. 

Frank meets Tommy Burns and Billy Stark with the Scottish Cup in 1995 along with son Peter, daughter-in-law Annette and grandson Alexander

Living in Glasgow for so long, it is no surprise that there have been other Celtic connections made along the way.  From their Gorbals days, the Kellys were on friendly terms with the Kurila family and their son John, another St Francis boy, would later play for Celtic in the early 1960s.  Later in life Frank became friendly with Billy McPhail, the hat-trick hero of the 7-1 game mentioned earlier, through their respective wives and the regular mass held for former pupils of St. Mungo’s school, which they both attended. Billy eventually became Frank’s neighbour when he lived in Kelvindale.

Cardinal Winning appoints Frank a Sacramental Officer

Frank is in no doubt as to who his favourite Celtic player is from all the years spent watching the team either in person or on television from his current home in Maryhill.  Malky MacDonald was called the ‘Professor of Football’ and could play in any position.  Willie Maley signed him as a left-winger but soon had him converted to an inside-right.  Even though he lacked speed, the incredibly skilful MacDonald took chances that no-one else took and his daring style endeared him to many.  Frank recalls with relish the occasion where Malky made a complete fool out of Dougie Gray of Rangers, who simply could not contain him.

The magnificent Malky MacDonald

The finest Celtic eleven that Frank has seen take the field together is the Empire Exhibition Cup winning team of 1938.  In his mind’s eye their play knitted together beautifully and they epitomised Willie Maley’s saying that it was ‘better to have a good footballing team than a team of good footballers.’

It will come as little surprise that seven of the Empire Exhibition team make it into Frank’s Greatest Ever Celtic Eleven:   Joe Kennaway, Peter McGonagle, Peter Wilson, Jimmy McStay, Chic Geatons, Jimmy Delaney, Malky MacDonald, Johnny Crum, Johnny Divers, Frank Murphy and Jimmy McGrory.

Defenders McStay and McGonagle, Peter Wilson and the great McGrory are the four players in Frank’s selection who predate his beloved 1938 team.  Wilson nipped into the team just ahead of Charlie Tully, even though 35-year-old Frank and his brother Charlie witnessed Tully’s famed moment of magic when he scored twice from successive corner kicks against Falkirk in 1953.  As far as the fearless Jimmy McGrory was concerned, the only striker who came close to squeezing him out of Frank’s line-up was Henrik Larsson. Frank considers Jimmy McGrory to have been the most decent, humble and honourable person anyone could meet. He remembers his shop near the Parson Street annex of St Mungo’s Academy and serving inexpensive Scotch pie, mash and beans for lunch.  

Frank celebrates reaching the age of 100 with family members

The last time Frank was able to visit Celtic Park was for a dinner at the No.7 restaurant in April 2017.  When he reached the incredible milestone of his 100th birthday the following year, he received a papal blessing from Pope Francis to mark the occasion.  Now, at the grand old age of 102, Frank happily follows the Celts on television from his Maryhill home.  He is part of that band of Celtic supporters who have been lucky enough to have witnessed the club win nine league titles in a row for the second time – although there are few among that number who used to enjoy a post-match pint in the company of Willie Maley in his pub!

Frank with his 100th birthday blessing from Pope Francis

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Read more of our historical articles by The Shamrock here: https://the-shamrock.net/the-shamrock-online/

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3 Thoughts

  1. Lovely stories even at my age 72 still learning about Celtic long may it continue ☘️☘️☘️

  2. Brilliant story! Best wishes to Frank and all his family. I was born in the Gorbals and have family and many, many friends that still live there.
    Thanks to everyone at the Shamrock .net YNWA, Hail! Hail!

  3. A great historical record, some memories of my own and many handed down through family.

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