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Charlie Tully Celtic’s Cheeky Chappie – The Weekend Long Read

13 February 2021


Charles Patrick Tully was born in Belfast on 11 July 1924 and died in the same city on 27 July 1971, a couple of weeks after celebrating his 47th birthday. Like many great Celts, it was Charlie’s fate to die young, but those who saw him on the football field would always consider him to be an immortal. Indeed, there was the famous quote on the occasion of his funeral when someone said to Jock Stein: “Charlie was immortal. And noo he’s deid!”

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He was a hero for Celtic at a time when a hero was badly needed. The immediate post-Second World War years were in Great Britain the years of the establishment and consolidation of the Welfare State. Probably in material terms, the supporters were better off than they had ever been before, even though it would be several years in the future before Prime Minister Harold Macmillan could honestly claim: “We’ve never had it so good”. But in terms of the performances on the field, Celtic were in a trough from which it seemed hard to emerge, apart from the odd rare but spectacular occasion.

In 1938 the club had experienced a high point with the winning of the all-Britain Empire Exhibition Trophy, but Celtic had a bad war and immediate aftermath, including a joust with relegation in spring 1948. There is little doubt that other teams, spearheaded by Rangers, would have launched all sorts of initiatives to prevent Celtic joining a lower division, and the team, as it happened, did save itself. But it had been a humiliating process for all concerned and questions were being asked about whether Celtic would ever rise again.

In addition, the ground itself, “that dear old Paradise”, was anything but what it claimed to be. It was large and spacious, with a well-appointed grandstand, but no-one seemed willing or prepared to do anything about the weeds on the terracing. Worse still were the holes in the roof of the only covered enclosure, an ugly barn-shaped construction which had earned the nickname of “The Jungle”, presumably because those ex-Servicemen from the Far East theatre saw certain resemblances.

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Enter Tully stage right. He joined Celtic from another Celtic, the Belfast variety. Belfast Celtic were doomed to extinction the following year, but Tully had done enough for them to convince the Glasgow version that he could play. He was a dribbler, a teaser, a fast runner, a ball-player and very definitely a crowd-pleaser. He was well worth the enormous fee of £8,000 which manager Jimmy McGrory convinced the reluctant and traditionally parsimonious board that he was worth.

It was possibly a crowd-pleaser that Celtic lacked most of all. Celtic’s team in 1948 mirrored the drab austerity of the times. There were utility players, committed players and hard-working players, but flair players were lacking. The Celtic crowd would sigh for someone like Gordon Smith of Hibs to entertain the fans. More poignantly, they would search their recent memories and come up with Jimmy Delaney, one of Celtic’s greatest ever entertainers but now plying his trade with Manchester United.

Tully’s Celtic career began miserably with a laboured 0-0 draw with Morton, then came defeats by Aberdeen and Rangers. The Glasgow Herald was forceful when it said: “The wearin’ o’ the green (and white) is still a tale of toil and tribulation”, “Celtic plumbed the depth of inefficiency”, although it does hint at future possibilities when it says that “Tully, from Belfast, was the most attractive ball player on the field but I cannot recall his delivering a single shot”.

It was a different matter when Rangers came to Parkhead in the League Cup on 25 September 1948. Tully had by now grown in confidence and under a headline of “Tully Bewilders Rangers”, Cyril Horne of The Glasgow Herald declares emphatically that Tully is “undoubtedly the cleverest forward in the last ten years of Scottish football”. In the 3-1 rout (it should have been a great deal more) Tully scored and the hitherto under-performing Gallachers, Willie and Jackie (sons of the peerless Patsy and the incomparable Hughie respectively) also found the net as the famous “Iron Curtain” Rangers defence was torn to shreds.

“Jackie, Willie, Weir and Tully

The lads that ran the Rangers sully”.

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Hyperbole has always been a facet of Scottish football fans, and on this occasion, Glasgow’s East End absolutely exploded with paeans of praise for Charlie Tully. Almost overnight on Saturday 25 September 1948, Charlie became a cult hero. He was the one who would restore Celtic to greatness. He was Patsy Gallacher, Jimmy Delaney, Jimmy McMenemy and Malcolm MacDonald all rolled into one. “The” Celtic, as they were called, were on the way back.

Such euphoria and rapture was hardly dispelled on the Monday afternoon, the Glasgow autumn holiday, when 87,000 were at Hampden to see Celtic win the Glasgow Cup by beating Third Lanark 3-1. The Glasgow Cup was a much valued trophy in those days and Celtic had not won it since 1940. Little wonder that the streets from Hampden Park back to Celtic Park were thronged with thousands of fans, treating the inspired genius Charlie Tully in the way that pre-war dictators had been feted in Germany and Italy. Chanting was not a regular feature of football fans’ repertoires in 1948. Nevertheless, the beat of “Tull-ee, Tull-ee” resounded all through the streets of Glasgow that Monday night, and there was (as there had been the previous Saturday) dancing in the streets of the Celtic heartlands, the Gorbals and the Garngad.

Songs were made and became current with rapidity. On the template of the song about the American millionaire wishing to buy the lakes of Killarney in Ireland and being rebuffed, came an imaginary reply to the manager of Arsenal enquiring about Charlie Tully:

“How can you buy all the Cups that we’ve won?

How can you buy old Ma Tully’s son? 

How can you purchase that son of a gun?

How can you buy our Charlie?”

Then The Wild Colonial Boy was adapted to Charlie Tully, who was “Celtic’s Belfast Bhoy:”

“There is a great football player

Charlie Tully is his name

He plays for Glasgow Celtic

And wins them all their fame.

He crosses and he scores a goal

To give the fans their joy

And that is why we all love him

He’s Celtic’s Belfast Bhoy”

In Scottish football, of course, as in the rest of life, there is “nothing easier gotten than a shitey drop”, as the vulgar put it, or as the more elegant might say “pride comes before a fall”. Indeed, the higher one climbs, the harder one falls, and the rest of the 1948/49 season was a grievous and heart-breaking disappointment for the huge Celtic support. This was not all the fault of Tully. Indeed, on many occasions he was the only bright light in the all-pervasive Stygian gloom that was Celtic Park.

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But he did lack support, as the rest of the forwards were Celtic players in name only, and would never have made the reserve team in previous or subsequent eras. Some 30 years later, Jock Stein would say: “The Celt shirt does not shrink to accommodate lesser players”. Had Jock not still been playing for Albion Rovers in 1949, and had he seen Celtic oftener, he might have had to suggest to the outfitters that a smaller size might have been appropriate in exchange for the ration coupons that were still required for clothing.

Tully must share some of the blame. He was never a great team man and not infrequently the Celtic crowd (which, hard times or not, seldom fell to below 40,000) was treated to the somewhat unedifying spectacle of the Irishman exercising his debating skills with his team-mates about how the game should he played. He also had a particularly annoying habit of beating a man, thus earning the acclaim of the denizens of the Jungle, then beating him again to earn even more acclaim, when a wiser option might have been to pass to a better placed colleague.

Yet the crowd loved his antics. “Cheeky Charlie’s capers” became the talk of Glasgow, and even Rangers fans, accustomed to their more direct and efficient, but less talented players, gave him on occasion some reluctant respect. He would take a throw-in and aim the ball at an opponent’s back to get the rebound; he would go down on his hand and knees before a linesman to beg for a corner rather than a goal kick for the opposition, and he would hold play up as he was about to take a corner to go to the crowd and shake hands with a ragged, ill-fed-looking wee boy whom the Welfare State had not yet reached.

Stories abounded about him, like the time when his car broke down outside a lunatic asylum and he asked for help saying: “I’m Tully”. One of the inmates with a speech impediment said: “But we’re all tully (sully, i.e. silly) in here!”. On another occasion the Celtic team bus broke down on the way to Ibrox, but Tully, who had made his own way there, took on Rangers himself and at half-time was beating them 1-0. But the team bus arrived at half-time – and then Celtic lost 1-2! And the most famous one, (which would have been considered blasphemous in the eyes of the Celtic support if it had featured anyone else) was the time that he met His Holiness the Pope on the Vatican balcony. The massive crowd of pilgrims all started to cheer as the two figures appeared on the balcony, but soon asked the question: “Who’s that chap with the funny hat up there beside Charlie Tully?”

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A more elevated note was struck in educational circles concerning the famous Latin author Marcus Tullius Cicero. He had been known by 19th century scholars as “Tully” but that nomenclature had faded in the 20th century and the man who defeated Verres and Catiline was known as Cicero. Suddenly, from about 1950 onwards, Latin teachers, particularly in Roman Catholic schools, began to talk once again about “Tully”!

But all this could not disguise the fact that Celtic were going nowhere with a poor team. Indeed it was often said of the story about the Pope that when the two heroes were on the Vatican balcony, His Holiness was asking Charlie: “When are we going to win something again?” Indeed, the halfway point of the century was reached with nothing to show apart from the slightly irrelevant Glasgow Charity Cup, won thanks to two Rangers own goals.

Prior to this, there had been serious doubts about the continuation of Old Firm games. Nastiness and violence had reached a serious pitch. The Glasgow slums were still the disgrace of Western Europe, and no sociologist would be surprised to discover that young men from such provenance could turn aggressive. There was to be added to the cocktail Glasgow’s traditional sectarian background, a legacy to Scotland from the bad old days of John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, and a feature of industrial Glasgow for the past 100 years since the victims of the Irish potato famine first began to arrive seeking jobs. Also the 1950s represented the heyday of the Glasgow razor gangs, and there were still a large amount of young men who had learned rather too much violence in the khaki of the British army.

Tully had been the innocent victim in the first major incident. In a surreal and unbelievable moment at Ibrox on 27 August 27 1949, Rangers’ Sammy Cox had suddenly turned from chasing a ball and kicked Tully so high that he even missed his private parts! A kick in the stomach has no place in any kind of football, and astonishingly, the referee, Mr Gebbie, failed to send Cox off the field. This did little to dispel the notion that referees would condone any sort of Rangers thuggery against Celtic, and the Celtic crowd responded with a hail of bottles. The authorities later told Tully that he had to behave and not incite the crowd!

Less than three weeks later, Tully was not so innocent. After a few questionable decisions by the referee, a free-kick was wrongly awarded to Rangers, who were allowed to take it while Celtic players were mildly protesting to the referee, and before the official, Mr Davidson, had signalled for the kick to be taken. Rangers ran upfield and scored against a disorientated Celtic defence, and all hell erupted, with Tully quite clearly urging the Celtic players to leave the field in protest.

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Yet another game against Rangers was played nine days later. Celtic fans boycotted this fixture, and Tully was not playing. He was not even in Scotland, as he had gone back home to Belfast. Celtic tried to claim that Tully was injured, but few were convinced by this, and when he missed the next game as well, it was widely believed and never officially denied that he was serving a club suspension. Indeed, his whole Parkhead future teetered on the brink for some considerable time, but Tully was far too valuable a player in the eyes of the support to be allowed to slip away lightly.

The miserable form and the lack of success of the team continued until the bright spring day of 21 April 1951, when the Scottish Cup returned to Celtic Park. Tully’s finest hour in this campaign had come in the semi-final against the strong-going Raith Rovers, when before 84,237 fans he “played some delightful football throughout” and scored the winning goal immediately after Raith had equalised. In the final itself, against Motherwell (who were probably the better football team), the glory belonged to the captain, John McPhail, who scored the only goal of the game. But no-one would underestimate the role played by the all-Irish left wing of Bertie Peacock and Charlie Tully in the recapture of the old Celtic glory.

A tour of North America followed. Hysteria was the order of the day in Glasgow as Celtic departed and came back, and this atmosphere was in no way diminished as the Celts, with the Scottish Cup carried famously in a shopping bag (and once almost left behind), toured various American cities where folk of Irish or Scottish descent flocked to see this great man called Charlie Tully.

Now that Celtic were back among the honours, it was felt that with Tully approaching his best, Celtic could dominate Scottish football for the next decade. That this did not happen was due to several reasons. One was that there were so many other good teams around. Rangers were always able to present a robust challenge, but there was also the fine play of Hibs, for whom the “Famous Five” forward line were in their heyday, Hearts were also developing fast, and Motherwell, Aberdeen and Dundee would all have their moments of success.

The main problem as far as Celtic were concerned was the lack of good or even clear management. Jimmy McGrory, the hero of the Celtic support of the 1930s, was the manager, but a manager in name only, as the real power was wielded by Robert Kelly, the chairman. No-one could ever doubt his sincerity and love for the Celtic. What was in question was his knowledge of the game, and his inflexible obstinacy, particularly when it involved spending money.

Yet money was not really a problem. Celtic’s support stayed loyal. Indeed, it was vast, and huge crowds crossed the length and breadth of Scotland wherever Celtic were playing. The behaviour was often less than perfect, and more than once pictures appeared in Sunday newspapers of men like Charlie Tully, Bertie Peacock and Bobby Evans appealing to the Celtic fans to desist from throwing beer bottles. But the root cause was frustration – frustration at having a team, full of talented players like Tully, but which consistently failed to deliver trophies

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The man who would eventually change all that was Jock Stein, who arrived anonymously at the club, as an afterthought in an injury crisis in December 1951. For a long time it was rumoured that he and Tully did not get on. Whether Tully did not trust Stein because of his non-Catholic background has never been proved, but it took a long time before a good relationship was established.

They were each what the other wasn’t. Stein was a reliable (but no more than that) centre-half; Tully was, on his day, the best forward in the world. Tully was cheeky, played to the gallery and showed off to an extent that wiser elements in the team like Bobby Evans and Jock Stein found unacceptable. But Stein also could bring out the best in players, and when he was appointed captain (to the initial dismay of Tully), he soon set about creating a businesslike atmosphere on the field.

Tully took a long time to adapt to that, but eventually grew to respect and appreciate Stein to such an extent that on the eve of the 1954 Scottish Cup final, Charlie was so besieged by fans importunately demanding tickets that he asked if he could stay with Mr and Mrs Stein. This request was granted and in later years, when Stein became the manager, he had no greater fan and supporter than Charlie Tully.

Tully played ten times for Northern Ireland between 1948 and 1959. On one occasion against England he scored direct from a corner, and on other occasions made life miserable for luminaries like Alf Ramsey and Billy Wright. Against Scotland he was less lucky, never being on the winning side. As has happened with other Celtic players, notably Anton Rogan and Neil Lennon in more recent times, Charlie was on the wrong side of the sectarian fence for large sections of the Ulster crowd and was often given a disproportionate share of the obloquy when things went wrong. Yet many Irish fans were ashamed of this treatment given to a star player, and it would be wrong to say that he was ever deterred from playing for Northern Ireland for that reason. In any case the bigots were well and truly silenced when Bertie Peacock, a Northern Ireland Protestant and a fine player, became captain of Celtic – and Northern Ireland!

The year 1953 saw the great Tully incident, the story of which has been retold from one generation to another, clearly losing nothing in its telling, but in some ways a suitable metaphor for the Tully career. Charlie frequently disappointed in his attitude and his commitment, but just occasionally something happened which betokened brilliance. It was at Brockville, Falkirk on 21 February 21. It was a Scottish Cup tie and Celtic were deservedly 0-2 down. Early in the second half, Tully took a corner on the left and scored direct. The small ground erupted and the pitch was invaded, several youngsters being injured. The celebrations were premature, as the linesman had his flag up because Tully had not put the ball properly inside the arc.

Waiting patiently for the crowd to get back on the field, Tully prepared to take the kick again, this time handing the ball very politely to the linesman to place it for him. The linesman obliged, the referee blew his whistle, Tully took the kick and scored again. If Brockville had erupted the first time, it exploded this time, and indeed some crush barriers collapsed, causing mainly minor injuries. This time the goal was given, Charlie performed a little sand dance before disappearing under adoring team-mates and fans, and Celtic, now only 1-2 down, went on to win the tie 3-2.

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That same year saw the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In honour of this event, a football tournament was held in Glasgow to which were invited the best eight teams of Great Britain. Celtic could not really have claimed in 1953 to have been among the best 20 teams in Great Britain, after their piteous performances in that year, but they could hardly not have been invited, given their huge support and financial drawing power, especially as all the games were to be played in Glasgow.

History tells that Celtic upset all the odds and won this tournament, and that the fans had a song which had a refrain: “Tully-ee-Tully-aye-oh-Tully-ee-aye-oh-ee”. Unfortunately, Charlie was injured and did not play in the final against Hibs, but it was as much Tully as anyone else who put them there through fine wins against Arsenal and Manchester United.

And then there was the epic season of 1953/54, in which Celtic at long last realised their potential and won the Scottish League and Cup double, for which their fans had been craving since before the First World War. Unfortunately, Tully was carried off with a nasty leg injury in a 1-1 draw against Hibs on 7 November, and did not reappear until the beginning of February. But he was there when it mattered, and took part in that epic Scottish Cup final victory over Aberdeen in 1954, an encounter often regarded as the best final of them all.

But for fans who expected now the “promised land” of sustained Celtic success, this proved illusory. Two Scottish Cup finals were lost, one in 1955 through a goalkeeping error and another in 1956 through a static Celtic performance which had the fans puzzled and which leaves the uncomfortable feeling more than 50 years later that the whole truth has not yet been told. The prickly Tully was certainly out of sorts that day, as were several other players, and it was on a day like that that some Tully magic might have been expected. Sadly none was forthcoming.

All through this time, nothing had happened to diminish the cult following of Charlie Tully, even though little was happening on the field to justify its continuation. Tully had certainly slowed down as a result of general old age, loads of injuries (many of which were caused by cynical defenders) and the undeniable fact that Charlie was none too energetic in his training. He would frequently find excuses for not lapping the track, saying things like “you don’t learn to play snooker by walking round the table”, and the impression of ageing was encouraged by the fact that he was prematurely bald. This did, of course, happen to men in the 1950s, thanks to overuse of hair oils like Brylcreem and the permanent wearing of bonnets, but in the case of Charlie Tully, he seemed to have been old for a very long time, even though in 1956 he was still only 32.

He was also no innocent on the field. He was seldom a dirty player in the blatant sense, but he did know how to niggle, to chat, to undermine an opponent’s confidence by remarks about his wife and other things. He did get off with a great deal from referees who possibly sensed that a riot might follow if Tully disappeared up the tunnel, and in any case Charlie, with his natural Irish blarney and disarming smile, was often able to talk himself out of it. Naturally, jokes circulated about how Jack Mowatt, a famous referee, had threatened to send Tully to the pavilion. There was in Glasgow a famous theatre called the Pavilion, so Charlie said to Mowatt: “Can you no’ make it the Empire or the Regal, instead, Mr.Mowatt? There is a better show on there this week!”

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Yet there was at least one occasion when a sending-off might have been called for. It was in his best ever game, namely the one already referred to involving the twice-taken corner at Brockville in 1953. Just at the start of the second half, a cynical body-check on a Falkirk player left the man on the ground, aroused the Falkirk fans to justifiable anger and hushed the Celtic fans into embarrassed silence. The Falkirk player, you see, was one Jimmy Delaney, who had been one of Celtic’s greatest ever players in the years before the Second World War.

Tully’s last three seasons for Celtic between 1956 and 1959 were even more injury-plagued than the previous ones, and although he was still loved by the fans, it was clear to everyone that Celtic’s future interests might be better served without the Belfast Bhoy. Not that he didn’t have his moments, of course. In October 1956, when the whole world was holding its breath fearing World War Three in the wake of the Suez crisis, Celtic at last won the Scottish League Cup, after ten years of constant disappointment. Heavy weather was made of it in the final against Partick Thistle. Tully looked out of sorts in a 0-0 draw in which Thistle were the better side, but then in the replay the following Wednesday afternoon, in front of a miniscule crowd, Tully took charge and although he did not score, he was instrumental in helping Collins and McPhail to do so.

Then came the most famous game of the 1950s, very much involving Charlie Tully. It was the Scottish League Cup of 1957/58 when, for the first time ever, the Old Firm met in the final. The run-up to this game contained an incident in the Parkhead dressing room at training which everyone tried to hush up, but this being Glasgow (the biggest gossipy village in the world), everyone got to hear about it.

Two weeks before the final, Scotland had played Northern Ireland in Belfast and had been lucky to get away with a 1-1 draw following a feckless performance. Tully was not playing for Northern Ireland, but was writing a column for the Glasgow Evening Citizen. Whether or not the column was ghosted by a journalist (as often happened) was irrelevant, it was Tully’s name at the top of it. Tully saw fit to criticise the Scottish team, and said that despite having a few fine players (whom he named and exonerated) the chances of Scotland making the World Cup finals of 1958 with that team were slim. The “exonerated” list failed to contain Bobby Evans or Bobby Collins.

Collins, a feisty wee character, did not seem to be too upset about this sneer, but Evans saw a personal attack in this (as well he might have) and relations between himself and Tully (which had never been great in the first place) took a dip, culminating in a bout of fisticuffs at training on the Thursday before the final. Such things are not unknown in football teams, but this did seem to be a problem before a major final against Rangers.

Fortunately Celtic had a fine diplomat in captain Bertie Peacock. Peacock had himself played in that international match, and once everything had calmed down had a word with the two men individually, then together, then in front of the rest of the team. Handshakes were exchanged, and although the incident was not exactly forgotten, it was put on the back burner until the final was over.

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The League Cup final of 1957 was a famous, yet galling and frustrating occasion. Celtic, as any fan will tell you, won 7-1 and it was a brilliant exhibition of that team at its best. It showed the world what that side containing such fine players as Fernie, Collins, Evans, Peacock, McPhail and Tully could have been. Sadly, there was only that brief October encounter which showed Celtic at their best – then the team dissolved soon after. But it was a glorious sunset.

Injury meant that Tully played only another seven games that season, and by 1958/59, clearly one of the worst in the history of the club, the emphasis was very much on a youth policy so the veteran played only 15 games. His last was a 4-0 win over Albion Rovers in the Scottish Cup on 31 January 1959, and he was given a free transfer in the following summer. He had played 11 seasons for the club, made 319 appearances and scored 47 goals.

His subsequent career saw him as a boss with Cork Hibs, Portadown and Bangor (twice), but he was never really cut out for the serious side of football management. He did return once to play at Parkhead and that was for the Irish League against the Scottish League in season 1960/61. He was given a great reception by the Parkhead crowd, who clearly retained their love for their “cheeky Charlie,” singing songs about “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, the likes of Will ye no’come back again? and Clap hands, here comes Charlie.

It is, indeed, a shame that Tully left Celtic with a fairly miserable total of one Scottish League medal, two Scottish Cup gongss and two Scottish League Cup medals. Other lesser players have won more, but Tully came at a bad time in Celtic history, with a weak manager and a dictatorial and pig-headed chairman. Events after the departure of Tully would prove how bad things were. Perhaps for this reason a little credit must be given to Charlie for his ability to hold the line and arrest this decline.

Tully was very much a man of the 1950s. Things were changing fast, with new team formations and more tactics coming into the game. Tully would have found it very hard to adapt to the new ideas, and certainly would not really have fitted into Jock Stein’s great Celtic team of the mid-1960s. He was, of course, delighted with the team’s triumph, and when asked where would he have fitted into that side, he said (perhaps only half as a joke): “I could have taken the corners”.

He continued to take a great interest in the team and in football, writing a column for various newspapers, like the Daily Record, talking about “Tullyvision” and saying things like “You’ve seen it on television, now hear comes Tullyvision!” “If you don’t like it, then turn your Tully off!” “My son wants to come to Britain and to play for two teams – Manchester United are the other one!”

He died suddenly in his sleep in the summer of 1971. The Falls Road area of Belfast, with the British Army looking on, saw scenes of grief and mourning which presaged, in some tragic way, the funerals in subsequent years for victims of paramilitary terror or British Army repression. As the cortege made its way to Milltown Cemetery, goalkeeper Johnny Bonnar looked at all the huge crowds and said to Jock Stein: “Charlie would have loved all this, Jock”. “Aye, he would that” came the reply.

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Born in 1948, David Potter first saw Celtic at Dens Park, Dundee in March 29. It was a 3-5 defeat, which equipped him admirably for the horrors of the early 1960’s. He had “followed” Celtic for a few years before that and recalls having been called upon to impersonate Jock Stein and receive the family silver teapot which had to do for the Scottish Cup as it was presented on April 24 1954, after he and his father had spent a nerve wracking afternoon listening to the radio!  Since then, he has “followed” every Celtic game with bated breath, and has written extensively about the club in magazines and books. His favorite team was that of 1969 (which he rates marginally better than 1967) and his favorite player was Henrik Larsson.

His ambition for Celtic is for them to keep on winning silver in Scotland and to be something in Europe once again. His other interests are cricket and drama. He is 70, a retired teacher of Classical Languages, married with three children and five grandchildren. He now travels on the Joseph Rafferty bus from Kirkcaldy. He also loves Forfar Athletic.


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