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.