The sale that sparked Celtic’s decline

Published in The Evening Times on 19 December 2014

Celtic are often assumed to have peaked as a footballing force in 1967. Yet it was the start of the 1970s, with most of the Lisbon Lions still the right side of 30 and the Quality Street Gang coming of age, that the club was at its strongest.

This latter group of players, assembled by Sean Fallon, included the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Davie Hay, Danny McGrain, Lou Macari and George Connelly, and was described even by Billy McNeill as having more talent than the Lions.

By the time Jock Stein’s side beat Leeds United home and away in the 1970 European Cup semi-final, the outlook appeared clear. “Celtic,” wrote Brian Scovell, a Fleet Street veteran, “are surely destined to become Europe’s soccer supremos of the 1970s.”

McNeill had believed the same, saying the club – thanks to Fallon’s talent-spotting and Stein’s management – had in place “the basis for mastery in European football for many years”.  And yet, well before the end of the decade, Celtic were to be found crashing out to the likes of FSV Zwickau and SWW Innsbruck, and were soon grateful simply to qualify for Europe at all.

So, what changed? And when did the rot set in? Many fans remember the departure of Dalglish, the idol of that era, as the psychological blow from which their club never recovered. Yet results, both domestic and continental, show that Stein’s side had been on the slide for years before King Kenny left for Anfield.

Fallon and others within the club instead reflected on 1974 as a major turning point. It was a year in which Celtic reached the semi-finals of the European Cup for the fourth and final time and won the last of the club’s nine successive championships. And it was no coincidence that both were achieved in the months before Davie Hay was sold to Chelsea.


Hay was not the first of the Quality Street Gang to be offloaded. Manchester United had earlier paid £200,000 – a then-record fee for a Scottish player – to take Lou Macari to Old Trafford. But Macari, while undoubtedly a fine striker, operated in area where Celtic enjoyed an embarrassment of riches, with Dalglish, Dixie Deans and Harry Hood all well capable of maintaining existing standards.

Hay, on the other hand, was widely seen as the indispensable heartbeat of that early ’70s side. “People talk about the game’s hard men, the Roy Keanes and such like,” said Billy McNeill, “but Davie was harder and more talented than Keane.” Legendary sportswriter Brian Glanville was in full agreement, naming Hay in a his ‘Best of Britain XI’ and describing him as “the prototype of the player of the ’70s… the all-purpose player every manager dreams of discovering.”

Fallon, as the man who discovered him, was acutely aware of Hay’s true worth. Speaking in his authorised biography, ‘Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man’, he said: “Davie was only 16 when I signed him and it was Chelsea we were up against then too. I nipped in just when he and his father were due to meet Tommy Docherty, Chelsea’s manager at the time, at the North British Hotel.

“People say I signed him for the price of two footballs; actually, the footballs weren’t even needed. I just gave them to his boys’ guild team as a thank you for their work in developing Davie, and the two priests who ran the team were absolutely delighted. But it was such a small price to pay. Davie turned out to be a brilliant all-round footballer, one of those players you could rely on in any situation.”

Hay’s talents quickly established him as a key player for both Celtic and Scotland, and it was while on international duty that he learned he was earning several times less than colleagues south of the border. He had also discovered the hard way that Celtic’s bonus-heavy wage structure made no allowances for bad luck, with a serious injury having denied him the opportunity to top up his modest salary.

“Davie’s point was a fair one: that injured players were getting a rough deal,” said Fallon. “He wasn’t being unreasonable at all. I couldn’t say anything at the time but, having been injured a fair bit myself, I agreed with him. The board wouldn’t give any ground at all though, so Davie went out on strike with George Connelly later in the year.

“What annoyed me later, especially after he left, was that Davie was made out to be greedy. There was a comment made that he and Lou had fancied the bright lights down in England, when it had nothing at all to do with that. It was Celtic who had been slow to move with the times. I’m not saying the club should have matched what was being paid down south, but they could have at least narrowed the gap. That would have been enough for those players because both of them wanted to stay at Celtic.”

With industrial action having failed to achieve its objective, Hay was indeed prepared to cut a deal. But Chelsea had slapped in a bid of £250,000 and, despite the player excelling on his return from strike and starring at the 1974 World Cup, chairman Desmond White was eager to cash in. It would prove a disastrous decision. Danny McGrain, in his 1978 autobiography, wrote that with the departure of Hay, “a special bit of character left the club and was never replaced”.

For Celtic, it was the beginning of the end. Connelly, who had lost in Hay his only friend, began a self-destructive descent that mirrored the club’s inexorable slide. “I was at a board meeting when they were talking about selling Davie, and I told them then: ‘If you sell Davie, you might as well sell George too’,” said Fallon. “And I didn’t take any pleasure from being right on that one because, believe me, George Connelly could have been one of the best in the world.”

The same could have been said of that particular Celtic team. But its potential was squandered within a few short years, with Hay’s departure the point of no return.

‘Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man’ is available on Amazon and all high street stores; it is also available as an ebook in all formats


Burns & Fallon: Celtic’s Selfless Servants

I was in my first season as a Celtic employee when Tommy Burns returned to assist the then stand-in manager, Kenny Dalglish. While Dalglish moved on, Burns remained, continuing in various roles and emerging as one the few constants during my seven years with the club. I will surprise no-one by remembering him as a great man: warm, funny, hard-working and insightful.

More recently, Tommy’s name cropped up frequently during my research and interviews for the biography of Sean Fallon. Indeed, Sean himself spoke often of this favourite former pupil and, naturally, his memories stretched back considerably further than mine.

“I remember visiting Tommy’s house to speak to him and his family about signing him for Celtic,” said Fallon. “It was actually a car dealer who had tipped us off about him being a player worth checking out, and what a great recommendation it was. Tommy was a tremendous player for Celtic. A lovely lad too. I liked him from the start, both as a person and as a footballer. He was a Celtic-type player, I always thought. Jock took a bit of convincing on him initially. He didn’t think Tommy would make it at first, and I had to argue his corner. But Jock was never stubborn or proud about things like that; he would be happy if a player proved him wrong, as Tommy undoubtedly did.”

Burns’ death, like the earlier losses of Ronnie Simpson, Bobby Murdoch and Jimmy Johnstone, affected Fallon deeply. “I’m not ashamed to say I shed a few tears,” he confided. “What people maybe don’t realise is that these boys become like sons to you. You always keep an eye on them and all that they go on to do in life. Tommy was one we were all fond of. Just a lovely man with a lovely family.”

Sadly, Burns wasn’t around to return such compliments, or to share his memories of Fallon. Yet one of the most poignant moments in researching Sean’s story came in finding a speech from 2002, when Tommy had travelled to Sligo to attend his former coach’s 80th birthday party. The story he recounted that day proved that it wasn’t merely on the training ground that Fallon’s influence had rubbed off.

“The buzzword at any youth game when I was growing up was that Sean Fallon was there watching,” Burns told the guests. “Everyone at that time knew Sean was in charge of the signings at Celtic. And what a man he was. The way he treated the young players always stayed with me.

“I was 15 when I started working at Celtic Park, and Sean had obviously noticed I was coming in without a coat in the cold weather. One day he called me over and said [mimicking Fallon’s accent]: ‘Son, have you not got yourself something you can wear to keep yourself warm?’ ‘Not really, Mr Fallon,’ I said. Five minutes later he came back with £10, which was serious money then, and told me to go and buy myself a heavy coat or a warm jumper. That kind of thing you don’t easily forget.”

The tale was a reminder, were any needed, that these two men held a great deal more in common than unshakeable mutual affection. Staff and young players from Tommy’s era will be able to tell similar stories, of a man who treated everyone – from star players to office workers – with the same personal touch. Burns, like Fallon before him, took an interest in people. He cared, and it showed. Success, status – neither changed him.

These great men were also bound not only by decency and integrity, but by a genuine and uplifting love of Celtic. Though both had their pride hurt and hearts broken by the club, each willingly, selflessly and without hesitation accepted lesser roles to continue serving. And in their scouting, coaching and youth development work, there was the same devotion and diligence that had marked out their careers on the pitch and in the dugout.

Frank McGarvey, an old team-mate of Tommy’s and former neighbour of Sean’s, highlighted this likeness in an interview for Fallon’s book. “I always think of Tommy and Sean as the two Mr Celtics,” he said. “No-one ever gave more to the club than those two did.”

Burns and Fallon saw things differently. They viewed themselves not as giving, but as receiving. “A supporter who got lucky,” was how Tommy famously described himself. Celtic, Sean insisted, had “made all my dreams come true”. “All I can think is that the man upstairs must have looked down and thought: ‘Ah, he’s alright, let’s give him this one’,” the Irishman would say, smiling broadly. “I know I’ve been one of the lucky ones.”

As Celtic supporters, the good fortune was all ours. The debt we owe these humble giants remains incalculable.

Stephen Sullivan

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Big Jock’s frosty Celtic welcome

Today in 1951, Celtic made one of the most significant signings in their history, recruiting a centre-half by the name of Jock Stein. However, as Sean Fallon recalled in this extract from his authorised biography – published in The Herald – Stein was not afforded the warmest of welcomes.

“What the hell have they brought you in for?”

This was how the most revered figure in Celtic’s history was welcomed to the club. There was no playful nudge. No knowing wink. Jimmy Mallan, a tough and long-serving defender, was deadly serious. What’s more, he was only saying what everyone else was thinking.

Celtic were 12th in the table when Jock Stein arrived on December 4, 1951. They had taken just 10 points from their opening 11 matches, raising fears of a relegation battle to match their final-day escape three years earlier. What the fans craved was an injection of quality. What they were presented with was a journeyman centre-half from non-league Llanelli. As chairman Bob Kelly acknowledged years later: “The club was almost boycotted because I bought Stein.”

The signing baffled not only Mallan and the Celtic support, but Stein himself. “Celtic, after me? It was laughable,” was his recollection of hearing of the club’s interest. Even the player’s father was incredulous, considering his son to have found his level in the lower reaches of the game. Sean Fallon was one of the few not to be found asking: ‘Why?’ But he did have one question. ‘Who?’

“I had never even heard of Jock Stein,” he admitted in his authorised biography, ‘Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man’. “I was told he had played for Albion Rovers but I honestly had no idea who he was. I reserved judgment for that reason, but a few of the players definitely weren’t happy. Jock was seen as having no pedigree whatsoever. Plus, he was going on 30, so folk thought he was washed up. Charlie Tully was one of the worst. ‘Him? That old fella could be my grandfather,’ he’d say. The fans were exactly the same. Everyone wrote Jock off before they’d even seen him play. I thought he at least deserved a chance to prove himself, but I can’t say I was excited by him coming to the club. No-one was.

“I can still remember the day he arrived at Celtic Park and was taken to the reserve team dressing room. I actually think that was what Bob Kelly had in mind for him. We had four or five centre-halves already, so Jock was coming in – as I understood it – to help develop the young players by bringing a bit of experience to the reserves. Still, it was a strange signing. You have to credit to the people in charge for knowing better than everyone else.”

The man most deserving of praise was well known to Fallon. Jimmy Gribben might have been reserve coach, but he was an influential and respected figure among the first team players. Stein would later describe him as “my mentor”, and made a point of taking the European Cup directly to the former Bo’ness player’s boot-room on returning from Lisbon.

This gratitude was well merited. Having been a miner and part-time footballer before leaving for Wales, Stein anticipated returning to more of the same. It was Gribben’s recommendation that kept him out of the pits and set a course towards fame and glory.  Yet Fallon’s understanding of the signing had been correct. Years later, Kelly confirmed that neither he nor Gribben expected Stein to feature in the first team. Fate determined otherwise within a week, however, when three defenders – Mallan among them – were sidelined by injury.

“Once Jock got himself in the team he never looked back,” Fallon recalled. “The thing is, people underestimated him as a player. I honestly thought he was a great centre-half. I liked him from the start, both as a player and as a person.”


Having not been expected to make a single appearance, Stein went on to rack up 148. Fallon was alongside him for most of those, and joked that their on-field relationship was based on a simple understanding: “Anyone he didn’t kick, I did.” Naturally, there was a great deal more subtlety involved. With no direction from the manager, a small group of the more diligent and forward-thinking Celtic players began formulating tactics in private. At the heart of discussions were Stein and Fallon. A strategic partnership had formed.

“Sean and my dad were interested not just in going out to play, but in thinking how the team should play,” said George Stein, Jock’s only son. “Celtic didn’t have a great deal of leadership in that area and the two of them spent a lot of time together even at that stage, talking about how things could be changed and improved.”

“We’d always get together in Ferrari’s restaurant,” said Fallon. “We would work on moves and systems for our area of the park, talk about games coming up and any players we felt could steal a goal. When you’re not quick – and neither Jock nor I had much pace – I think it forces you to think more about the game. Jock and I were similar in that we could read situations and read opponents. Pace was our weakness, but our opponents had weaknesses too. We made it our job to find them.

“Neither of us were drinkers or great socialisers, so football was our big passion. We had similar ideas about the game and I was always impressed by what he had to say. We became good friends very quickly. Our ritual was always the same: lunch in Ferrari’s, talking football, and then off to the Paramount Cinema across the road to see what films were showing. We both loved our westerns, although that was one area we actually did have a bit of a disagreement on. Jock thought no-one could beat John Wayne, whereas I was more of a Gary Cooper man.”

The partnership between Stein and Fallon would, in time, become the most potent in Celtic’s history. But while the Irishman was the sidekick to Stein’s leading man in the era of Lisbon and nine-in-a-row, those roles were reversed during the early stages of the friendship. At that stage, Fallon was the senior player, the fans’ favourite and, by December 1952, the obvious successor to John McPhail as Celtic captain. Stein was not even a guaranteed starter. Yet when asked to select his deputy, the Irishman looked beyond Bobby Evans, a Scotland star of that era, and Bertie Peacock, his closest friend, to the bit-part centre-half signed less than a year before.

“I don’t think anyone, including Jock himself, expected it,” he said. “A few players weren’t happy because there were still a lot of people who didn’t really rate Jock at that stage, and some would certainly have expected be given the job ahead of him. But my reasoning was very simple: I saw him as being the best man for the job, and the best for Celtic. He wasn’t a star player but, as a man, I thought he had something special. He was a natural captain for the same reasons he was a natural manager: he was clever, determined, a leader and a winner. There were a few who didn’t believe in him like I did at that stage but he won them round in the end, as I knew he would.

“Being made vice-captain was important for Jock because it gave him a new status at Celtic, especially when I had to drop out of the team through injury. He captained the Coronation Cup-winning team and became very close to Bob Kelly around that time. That was very important in the years ahead when Jock became coach and manager. Making him my deputy strengthened our relationship too. Jock and I already got on well but after that we were very close. I think he appreciated that I took a big step in doing what I did, especially as it wasn’t the popular thing to do.”

Unexpected and unpopular as it was, the decision was typical Fallon. His uncanny ability to identify greatness was as evident here as it would be later in his career, spotting potential in young footballers such as Dalglish, McGrain and McStay.

The Irishman’s faith in Stein would, of course, be vindicated. As for Mallan, he was released just weeks before Celtic’s Coronation Cup triumph, his question having been forcefully answered.

‘Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man’ is available on Amazon and all high street stores; it is also available as an ebook in all formats