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JOE CASSIDY – The Weekend Long Read

27 March 2021


In the desperate days of the 1990s, the beleaguered Celtic board appointed a front-man called Terry Cassidy who would be their spokesman for the media. The cynics said that they were hiding behind him, and in truth the man was a lightweight who had the annoying habit of answering a direct question with another question. A veteran supporter watched his television in disgust before saying that it would have been better if they had resurrected old Joe to save us.

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Joe Cassidy was one of the cult heroes of the early 1920s. The times were grim in the aftermath of the Great War, with the ongoing problems in industrial relations and in Ireland, both of which affected Celtic fans intimately as everyone struggled with the problems of adapting to a new life. In many cases this happened without the breadwinner, who was lying in the fields of Flanders or who was sitting in a wheelchair, effectively a parasite in a situation where the Government was cynically indifferent to his plight.

Joe Cassidy played his part in alleviating suffering. Joe had been a soldier himself – he was called “Trooper Joe” – in the Great War and had won the Military Medal in the last few days of the conflict in November 1918, while serving with the Black Watch. Born in 1896, he had made an insignificant impact for Celtic, both before the war and, whenever he had the opportunity, during it. But in the years immediately following the Armistice, he really began to make his mark.

He was not properly demobbed until summer 1919, although while home on leave he did manage a few games in the 1918/19 season. He was an inside-left and there was brisk competition for the inside-forward positions at Celtic Park in 1919/20, with Patsy Gallacher and Jimmy McMenemy consistently and impressively brilliant. But McMenemy left for Partick Thistle, Maley having erroneously considered that he was past his best, and opportunity knocked for the charismatic young Cassidy in 1920/21.

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The inside trio of Gallacher, McInally and Cassidy was a formidable one, and the team would have won the Scottish League that term had it not been for the fact that they were up against a top-class Rangers team. But they did win the Glasgow Cup and the Glasgow Charity Cup, and for Joe there was one particular occasion when he captured both the imagination and the hearts of the faithful.

It was New Year’s Day at Ibrox when Joe scored both goals in Celtic’s 2-0 victory in front of 70,000 fans. The goals were well taken and many contemporary accounts exist of the scenes in Glasgow after the game, as the horse-drawn carriages and charabancs returned from the game. The revellers were blowing bugles, roaring rebel songs and singing the praises of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army, the Mayor of Cork, who had died in a hunger strike a couple of months previously – and, in the next breath, Joe Cassidy!

If Joe had not been a cult hero before, he was now. A very handsome man with a touch of shyness about him, Joe was exactly what any mother would have wanted for her daughter. He was clean-cut, kept himself fit, was a war hero and, in footballing terms, he was a perfect foil for the wilder elements of McInally and Gallacher. Being an inside-left, he did not score as many goals as he might have (22 in that season), but he was very definitely the purveyor, the hard worker, the accurate passer and the man who could occasionally bring a cheer by the odd piece of football trickery.

Only a disappointing defeat at Raith Rovers on a day towards the end of the campaign when Celtic had a few players missing (as we shall see) prevented the winning of the League, but there would be better luck for the Celts the following season. Still, Joe’s success in 1920/21, particularly his high-profile performance on New Year’s Day, earned him international recognition. He had already played for the Scottish League when he was invited to play his first game for Scotland.

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This was on 12 February at Pittodrie when Scotland took on Wales. Joe was chosen to play alongside the tricky Alec Troup of Dundee, a man with whom he had struck up a rapport. Such games were big business in those days, and a crowd of more than 22,000 appeared at Pittodrie to see the first full International match of the season. Some reports of the game are hard on Joe, The Scotsman in particular singling him out for criticism, but the team won 2-1 with goals from Andy Wilson, and Joe retained his place for the next game.

This was a far more tricky proposition, but not for reasons that had anything to do with football. It was against Northern Ireland in Belfast. That year saw the War of Independence, as it is sometimes called, in full spate in Ireland, and for a Celtic footballer this might cause problems. The word “war” is no exaggeration. There were assassinations, bombings and a general atmosphere of terror and intimidation, as the Protestant North did its utmost to avoid home rule and protect their Protestant ascendancy, while the Roman Catholics were determined to join the South in independence. Was it a coincidence that no Rangers players were picked for Scotland that day? On the other hand, Joe Cassidy and Willie McStay of Celtic were in the Scottish team for the game that was to be played at Windsor Park, Belfast.

There was an additional complication for Joe in that he was an ex-serviceman, as indeed were many others in the Scottish team. Thus it could be that he was regarded as a legitimate target for both the Catholic side, the IRA, in that he could be associated with the Army and the Black and Tans, and for the Protestant Orange side in that he played for Scotland’s perceived Catholic team, the Glasgow Celtic.

While jokes could be made about this by some of the less sensitive members of the Scottish side, and while most members of the team like Alec Troup and Joe Harris shook their heads in amazement and bewilderment at what was going on, there seems little doubt that the security of McStay and Cassidy had to be taken seriously. In fact, the game was played before a mainly Protestant 30,000 crowd who did little other than behave in the way that most crowds do, namely cheering on their own men and booing their opponents.

For reasons that were never satisfactorily explained, Scotland wore white that day with navy blue shorts (if this had some connection with the political situation it was hard to fathom), and defeated Ireland 2-0, with Cassidy scoring the late clincher which killed off what little hope the hosts might have had of getting back into the game. The left-wing pairing of Cassidy and Troup was given a good press after the game, and both men confidently expected the call for the “big” international that year, namely Scotland against England at Hampden on 9 April.

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But the call never came. The team was chosen in those days by selectors, normally directors of various clubs. This was amateurish, to put it mildly, and not infrequently led to claims of favouritism and corruption. There were, therefore, many howls of anguish when the team to play England was announced and the left-wing pairing was not the expected and successful one of Cassidy and Troup, but the Rangers duo of Andy Cunningham and Alan Morton.

Celtic fans were frequently accused of not supporting Scotland, preferring the land of their forefathers. On the other hand, there were times when they had a definite feeling on injustice about them. It would be more pointed a few years later when Jimmy McGrory was frequently passed over in spite of his phenomenal goalscoring, but there were also grounds for complaint on this occasion. Joe himself maintained a dignified silence about it all. But he was clearly upset and did not play his best at Stark’s Park, Kirkcaldy, when Celtic went down to Raith Rovers on the same day that Scotland beat England 3-0 at Hampden, with both Cunningham and Morton playing well and scoring, thus justifying the opinion and trust of the selectors.

But in spite of the disappointment of the end of that season, including the double blow on 9 April of losing the League and not playing in the international, Joe continued to enjoy massive popularity with the Celtic fans. Cassidy scored 23 goals that season from the inside-left position, but he did a lot more than that for his team. He was an excellent harrier and forager, and provided many opportunities for that controversial and charismatic character Tommy McInally.

In early 1922 Tommy was going through a bad spell. Crowds turned on him, berating him for not using his undeniable ability to the full. Cassidy offered a contrast. Clearly Joe possessed less natural talent, but showed far more spirit, working hard, training hard and, unlike Tommy, not indulging in the more earthly pleasures, particularly drink, which was a mammoth social problem in Glasgow and all of Scotland. If alcohol is a problem in the early years of the 21st century (as undeniably it is) it was 100 times worse in the 1920s. Joe took a drink, but in extreme moderation, and was looked up to as one of the icons of society as a result of his sober demeanour, his handsome features and his good sense of dress.

Tommy McInally got injured and vanished from the first team in the waks of the Scottish Cup defeat at Hamilton in late February. This necessitated a change in formation, and Maley hit upon the idea of making Joe the centre-forward while bringing the immensely gifted young John (nicknamed “Jean”) McFarlane to the inside-right position. He was certainly fast, could take a goal and knew how to force his way through a defence. In the run-in to the 1922 championship, Joe was the mainstay of the Celtic attack, scoring goals against Hearts and Falkirk and two each in the difficult fixtures with Queen’s Park and Dundee.

Joe did not score in the game which decided the League title on the last day of the season at Greenock, but only because he was double-marked. In fact, it was his friend Andy McAtee who scored the goal which earned Celtic the draw and the championship.

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It was, indeed, a fine side with Gilchrist, Cringan and McMaster having now taken over the mantle of Young, Loney and Hay as the half-back line which dominated the field, sprayed passes and fed the hungry forwards. Behind them stood Shaw, McNair and Dodds, great men all who had formed the defence of Celtic for almost a decade now, and in the case of Eck McNair not far short of 20 years. In the forward line, as well as Cassidy there was Andy McAtee from Croy, Patsy Gallacher, quite clearly one of the best players of all time, and on the left wing Adam McLean was also making his mark.

It was, however, a far from happy atmosphere in that ground at Cappielow on that day of 29 April 1922. The troubles of Ireland had clearly been imported for the occasion. Ireland itself had now voted in favour of accepting the Free State (and allowing the British to keep control of the North) but the situation there was far from settled and a civil war between the two factions would last until well into 1923. A nation was being born but the pangs of parturition were long and grievous.

To say that this had nothing to do with Scottish football is true, but it is also facile and avoids the issues that were likely to arise whenever Celtic were playing. Here the Morton support were quite clearly playing the Orange card (having played the Fenian card two weeks previously when they beat Rangers in the final of the Scottish Cup!), and the play was stopped more than once to clear the pitch of invaders and missiles thrown by those whose years in the khaki of the British Army had taught them rather too much aggression and violence.

Once again, it is difficult to imagine the feelings of Trooper Joe, who had done so well in the British Army during the Great War, but now found himself the target of abuse by those who accused him of being in league with Sinn Fein. One hopes that he was able to smile at all that, and he certainly did have the last laugh as Celtic’s draw was enough to win them the Scottish League by one point over Rangers.

Cassidy would be thankful that he was a successful professional footballer. A wage that was more than adequate (unlike so many in those times), a steady job as long as he was young and uninjured, perks like foreign tours in the summer, and above all, the love and adulation of his many fans. He was playing for the team that he loved, he enjoyed the favour of the autocratic Maley, and life, for the moment, was sweet. 

Joe’s annus mirabilis in a Celtic jersey was to come in the next season, 1922/23. It was all the more remarkable a campaign for Joe because the team itself was going through a transformation, and there were quite clearly a few players who did not fit in well with Maley’s rigid demands on discipline. Joe Dodds had retired (perhaps prematurely); Tommy McInally, after a series of arguments with Maley, was transferred to Third Lanark to his own dismay and that of the Celtic supporters, and halfway through the season right-half Johnny Gilchrist also departed.

All this upheaval meant Celtic were virtually out of contention for the Scottish League. Cassidy was not scoring as freely as he or his fans would have liked. He had suffered a broken jaw in a clash with a Rangers player in late October, but was back three weeks later with his jaw in bandages and a week after his return scored a classic hat-trick against Third Lanark. He was then injured again, but was back to score twice on 30 December at Kirkcaldy when Celtic hanselled Raith Rovers’ new stand, a building which still stands to this day. But the defeat at Ibrox on New Year’s Day (in which, unlike the glorious occasion of two years previously, Cassidy failed to find the net) meant that, soon after the New Year, it became apparent that Celtic’s only real chance of glory that season lay in the Scottish Cup, a trophy they had not won since before the war.

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When the Cup began in January 1923, the draw was kind to Celtic. A trip to Fife was their first-round lot, to meet Lochgelly United, who had been relegated to Division Two the previous season. Celtic’s many Fife fans were delighted at the sight of Joe Cassidy and the hat trick that he scored in the 3-0 defeat of the locals. He went one better the next round as non-League Hurlford were beaten 4-0 and he contributed all the goals.

The opposition may not have been all that spectacular, but it could hardly escape the notice of Scotland’s selectors and others that Celtic had now scored seven goals in two games in the Scottish Cup, and that Joe Cassidy had notched them all. He had not been considered for any of the games in 1922, but now he was being watched again, particularly after he scored both of Celtic’s goals in the next game against East Fife.

It was now the quarter-final stage and no-one other than Joe Cassidy had scored for Celtic. Small wonder that the Celts were named the “Cassidy Cavalcade” in the sycophantic Glasgow Observer. It was even less to be wondered at when the Scotland team to face Ireland on 3 March was announced that Joseph (sic) Cassidy was in it.

But there was also a young man called David Morris making his debut in that international team. He was the centre-half and captain of Raith Rovers, Celtic’s next opponents in the Scottish Cup. Thus Cassidy faced Morris one week, and played with him the next. The Scottish Cup tie at Parkhead was well attended with more than 30,000 spectators (a huge crowd for an ordinary game in the 1920s). Morris was booed at the start because he had kept Celtic’s Willie Cringan out of the Scottish team, but gradually he won the fans over by the way that he, alone of centre-halves that season, kept Cassidy quiet. It was the one round in the Scottish Cup that year that Joe did not score. But he did have the last laugh for, the concentration on Cassidy allowed left winger Adam McLean to score the only goal of the game.

The week after that, Joe travelled to Ireland to play for Scotland. Since his last trip to Belfast two years previously, things had changed totally in that the South was now a free state, but the North had anchored itself in the United Kingdom, proclaiming their loyalty to the Crown and the Protestant succession. In these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Joe would be singled out for abuse, but he did not mind, for as he said afterwards, it proved that he was worth noticing. In truth, although Scotland won 1-0, it was Andy Wilson who scored and Joe did not have a good game. At least, that is what the selectors thought, because in the remaining two Scotland games of the season, the left-wing pairing was the Rangers duo Tommy Cairns and Alan Morton.

Joe had being playing at inside-left in that Belfast game, and this was out of position, as he was now a centre-forward. Indeed, there were those who felt that he might have been played in the number-nine slot for Scotland, but Andy Wilson could hardly be dropped as he was doing so well for both his club, Middlesbrough, and his country.

In any case, Joe had enough on his plate for Celtic, for next up was the semi-final against a strong Motherwell side. This time supporters dug deep into their pockets and more than 71,000 attended at Ibrox on 10 March. Motherwell had their own cult hero at the time – a fellow called Hugh Ferguson, who in 1927 would score the goal for Cardiff City that won the English Cup final, and thus became “the Scotsman who scored the goal which took the English Cup to Wales”. Tragically, during a later spell with Dundee, he would commit suicide by gassing himself in the stand.

To return to the narrative: at this stage both Cassidy and Ferguson were banging in the goals for their respective sides; much was expected of the pair in this epic tie and, sure enough, there was early drama. Barely 40 seconds had elapsed when Joe Cassidy latched on to a through-ball and scored. A good start is often crucial in a semi-final and Celtic remained the better team. Willie Cringan was able to bottle up Ferguson while Andy McAtee scored another goal for the Celts. Cassidy had now scored a record ten goals in this campaign.

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Ten was also a very significant number in another context of the 1923 Scottish Cup final, for if Celtic were to win it would be their tenth triumph in the competition, equalling the record of Queen’s Park, who had done so well in the earlier years, but who had found life so much more difficult after the legalisation of professionalism in 1893.

There were other issues at stake. Celtic had not won the Cup since before the war, and they wished to avoid the sort of complex that Rangers, for example, had about the trophy, which they had not lifted for 20 years. Then there was the case of Hibs, their opponents, who had not won it for 21 years. It had been Hibs who had been the opponents of Celtic in 1914, the last time that Celtic had secured the bauble. The managers were brothers – Willie Maley of Celtic and Alec of Hibs – and there was also the Irish dimension.

The newspapers referred to the game as the “all-green” final, or even the “Irish” final, and it is tempting to assume that the teams had a good relationship with each other. In fact, the relationship was anything but a cosy one, as Hibs had never forgiven Celtic for usurping their status in the game in the early 1890s by offering their good players better terms and conditions. 

It would prove to be the greatest occasion of Cassidy’s Celtic career, but it was a very poor game. Saturday 31 March 1923 was a dull but mainly dry day, and 80,000 appeared at Hampden to watch the contest. There were a great many more outside, unable to afford the entrance fee and compelled to follow the course of the game by the roars of the crowd. The Celtic crowd wore green rosettes with slogans like “Have A Go, Joe” or “Rumble Them Up, Cassidy” or “Cassidy’s Cavalcade”. It was clear who the fans expected to deliver the goods. Could he score twice to make it a dozen goals in this competition?

The crowd outside was like a carnival. As was the way in the 1920s, the roads to the ground were lined by beggars and singers with their Scottish and Irish ditties as they held up their placards of “Woonded (sic) in France”. A few soapbox orators were ranting at the iniquities of the capitalist system or telling everyone that the Free State Government in Ireland should be ashamed of itself for not attacking the Six Counties of the North. Pickpockets (often Oliver Twist-type gangs working for a Fagin or a Sykes) and prostitutes (most of them appallingly young) plied their trade, while at the same time more respectable tradesmen were selling their fish and chips, chocolate or macaroon bars.

A few artists sold drawings of the players, with Cassidy by far the most popular subject. The handsome features twinkled everywhere, as everyone discussed how he would play. The Celtic charabanc arrived, and people rushed forward to get a glimpse of the man who would make them forget the miseries and the realities of life in industrial Scotland in the aftermath of that dreadful war. 

Of course, both sets of supporters wore green and they sang the same songs about Ireland – The Dear Little Shamrock, The Wearing of the Green and Erin’s Green Valleys, that prayer to St Patrick to be nice to them: 

Hail Glorious St Patrick, dear saint of our isle

On us thy poor children bestow us a smile

For now thou are high in thy mansions above

On Erin’s green valleys, look down in thy love”

Half-time came and the game was deadlocked. Then, ten minutes into the second half, Jean MacFarlane punted a hopeful ball into the Hibs penalty box, which international goalkeeper Willie Harper should have dealt with very comfortably. But he came out and fumbled the ball, which fell to Joe’s feet, and the Celts’ hero did the rest. Some accounts say that he headed the ball into the net, but it matters not a great deal. Celtic were a goal up and Cassidy had scored again.

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The rest of the game was a poor one from a Celtic point of view, as attackers had to be brought back to help out the defence, and there were times when Joe was the only forward. But, well marshalled by Alec McNair and Willie Cringan, the Celtic defence held out and the joy of the Celtic supporters knew no bounds. They were as thrilled about the fact that it was Cassidy who scored as they were about the winning of the trophy for the tenth time, thus equalling Queen’s Park.

It was one of those great nights to be a Celtic supporter, with dancing in the streets of places like the Garngad, the Gorbals, Croy, Holytown and other Celtic strongholds. It did seem that now the Scottish Cup had been won the team could go on and establish yet again some permanent dominance of Scottish football. A huge crowd had gathered outside Hampden and Cassidy, being the goalscorer, was allowed to hold the trophy as the team climbed on to their charabanc. Life could hardly have been better for the illustrious Joe Cassidy.

But that was as good as it got for Joe at Celtic. An indifferent season followed in 1923/24. Willie Cringan headed a deputation to manager Maley about an increase in salary. This was not only refused but led to Cringan being branded a troublemaker and sent packing. Joe still scored the goals – 25 in the Scottish League – but occasionally hit a drought when he was marked out of the game by defenders. Three goalless draws in October hamstrung any offensive for the Scottish League and the team exited from the Scottish Cup at the first time of asking to Kilmarnock on 26 January. They did win the Glasgow Charity Cup, but by that time damage had been done to team morale.

Cassidy must take his share of the blame for this, and it was probably a mistake for the Scottish Selectors to pick him to play for Scotland against Wales in February 1924. The team lost 0-2 at Wrexham, and Joe, along with several others, never played again. A defeat by Wales always rankled with the Scots, as they were expected to do well against the Leek-eaters, as the Welsh were disparagingly called by the fans.

Cassidy was transferred to Bolton Wanderers at the start of the next season. This move was much criticised by supporters who wondered why their hero was being thus discarded. The answer was probably nothing other than money. Joe would might have been happy to play on for Celtic, but Maley, obsessed with money as always, reckoned that a transfer fee would be better than persevering with his marksman. In addition, there was a talented young man called Jimmy McGrory awaiting the call.

Joe “left home when he left Parkhead” as the Alphabet of the Celts puts it. He settled well enough with Bolton Wanderers and scored some goals, but he was never the same man as he had been with the team that he loved. By now playing more at inside-left than at centre-forward, Joe moved on to Cardiff City, had two years with Dundee, then joined Clyde before dabbling in Irish football with Ballymena and Dundalk, eventually finishing his varied career with Greenock Morton in 1932. His odyssey was not without its success, as he won an Irish Cup medal with Ballymena in 1929, but he never seemed totally happy and settled, and there seems little doubt, had Celtic changed their minds about him, he would have returned like a shot to those supporters who adored him. 

It was his old friend Alec McNair who, in his capacity as manager of Dundee, brought Joe back to Scotland in 1926. Both McNair and Cassidy would have loved to put one over their old boss Willie Maley, but this did not prove possible. Cassidy was visibly overwhelmed by the reception that he received from Celtic fans. Normally, ex-players returning to play against their old team can expect a frosty or even a hostile reception. Not in this case, however, as Joe was greeted warmly and clapped and cheered whenever he touched the ball. His  cult hero status had not in any way diminished, and how he must have wished that he had stayed with Celtic in 1924.

On 19 February 1927, Celtic were drawn to play Dundee in the Scottish Cup. They won comfortably 4-2, and towards the end of the game, a Negro slave song began to be heard:

“Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay

Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away,

Gone far away to a better place I know

And I hear their gentle voices calling 

Poor Old Joe.

I’m coming, I’m coming

Though my head is bending low

And I hear their gentle voices calling

Poor Old Joe”.

There was no mockery in all this. Rather it was a spontaneous show of affection for one of their greatest ever heroes, who was apparently nearing the end of his career (actually it still had another five years left to run) and visibly struggling to make any impact on the fine Celtic defence, which was to prove hugely influential in winning that year’s Scottish Cup. It was a very poignant indication of the great affection in which Cassidy was still held.

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About his life after football, little is known. He did not seem cut out for management. He was far too nice and kindly a character. He was seen now and again at Parkhead to watch the team for whom he played with such distinction, and in 1938 many Celtic supporters would attend the Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston Park because it had been rumoured that Joe was working there as an attendant. He would reward his fans with a smile, a modest handshake and a comment or two on the contemporary football situation. Like most real heroes, he had no problem in talking to fans, even though he was still considered a superman. 

Yet his career was curiously incomplete. Only four Scottish caps and one Scottish League Championship and one Scottish Cup (but what a performance in that one!) hardly justified the hero worship and adulation that followed him from the Celtic faithful wherever he went and which even transcended his early death at the age of 52 in 1949. The year of 1923 is indelibly associated with the name of Joe Cassidy in the eyes of Celtic supporters.

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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