John Hughes was an enigma. No player had the ability to split the Celtic support to the same extent than he did. Arguments would rage in the stand, the terracings and supporters’ buses about the value or otherwise of John Hughes to the cause. Stein himself did not seem able to make his mind up about him, and to this day, it remains difficult to assess John.
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Born in 1943, John joined Celtic as a teenager in 1960 from Shotts Bon Accord, making his debut at the start of the 1960/61 season. Part of Hughes’s problem was that his start was a whirlwind one, and that the support kept expecting him to live up to this high standard, forgetting that he was merely a teenager, and a rather vulnerable one at that. With his huge physique and his hair sticking up, he very soon earned the nickname of “Yogi Bear”, a cartoon character of the time. Stories about him getting lost in a wood on a European trip in 1963 and earning the “bear” nickname on that occasion are false. He was called “Yogi” from a very early stage, and it was a nickname that he shared with his great opponent, Ian Ure, the centre-half of Dundee.
The Celtic team that he joined was young, enthusiastic and recognisably “Celtic” in the desire to attack and entertain the crowds, but crucially the players all lacked experience. The fine, experienced Celtic team of the middle 1950s had beaten Rangers 7-1 in the Scottish League Cup final of October 1957 but had evaporated almost immediately, leaving a youth policy in place. The trouble was that, although the players were good, there was by 1960 when Jock Stein departed to be manager of Dunfermline Athletic, no great guidance.
John scored on his debut as centre-forward in August 1960 against Third Lanark in the Scottish League Cup, then a week later played absolutely brilliantly as Celtic beat Rangers 3-2 at Ibrox. Cyril Horne in the Glasgow Herald talks about “much football ability” and a “splendid temperament” (he did not retaliate to much fouling from Doug Baillie). Then Cyril gives us the first Yogi Bear reference when he says “bigger- than-average man” and “better-than-average footballer”. This was because Yogi Bear would always say that he was smarter than the average, so naturally John was better than the average Ranger. Yogi Bear had come to Glasgow.
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Sadly it did not last. Rangers beat Celtic in the return match in the League Cup, then in the League game, and Celtic imploded miserably. Hughes soon found himself out of the team, whether through injury or being dropped, and it began to look as if he was about to disappear. But by the turn of the 1960/61 season, Hughes was back in action and although League form was inconsistent and patchy, a Scottish Cup run restored the spirits of the support. Hughes was beginning to play well, scoring freely, including two memorable efforts in the semi-final against Airdrie. There was some experience in the forward line as Willie Fernie had returned from Middlesbrough, and he was able to slow the game down and direct the enthusiasm of youngsters like Hughes.
The Scottish Cup final was against Dunfermline Athletic, who had never been in a final before. But their manager was Jock Stein, who not only knew football, but knew the Celtic team and managerial set-up as well. Yet with their huge support, and free-scoring John Hughes in the centre-forward position, it was difficult to see any other result than a Celtic victory.
Even though almost half a century has now elapsed since these two dreadful Cup finals (the draw and the replay) the Celtic chronicler finds it difficult to contain his emotion as his team’s forwards, Hughes in particular, missed chance after chance, then the slick professionalism of Dunfermline gained two goals in the latter stages of the replay. It was a profoundly depressing experience and what this did to the 18-year-old Hughes can barely be imagined. The supporters turned nasty, threw bottles (as they did rather too often in those dreadful days) and singled out Hughes for abuse as he collected his loser’s medal in the gathering murk and gloom which symbolically engulfed Hampden on that desperate night.
A more sober and reasoned reflection a day or two later would have found excuses in the youth of Hughes. The trouble was, however, that the team was in the iron grip of chairman Bob Kelly who, using the genial and legendary Jimmy McGrory as his shield, indulged his futile whims in team selection. The support remained large and committed, but there were clear signs that they had taken a great deal more than they were prepared to do. Often the frustration exhibited itself in the singling out of players for abuse. John Hughes, the speedy, powerful but sometimes clumsy centre-forward, was the obvious target on occasion.
The events of 1961/62 were mitigated for the support only by the fact that Dundee, rather than Rangers, won the League championship. The characteristic of Celtic was inconsistency in everything – team selection, performance and achievement. John Hughes played in the centre-forward position virtually all season, and had some really good days cheering up his fans. But on occasion he was disappointing, not least in the disastrous Scottish Cup semi-final against St Mirren, in which the whole team let the support down, but no more than the support let the team down with a late invasion of the field in a misguided crazy attempt to stop the game.
Such a background was hardly what Hughes needed. What was really required was a period of stability in which the young man could learn his trade. But the atmosphere was frenetic, the support was unforgiving and the back-up from the top of the club was virtually non-existent. Sometimes John had great days – there was a fine hat-trick against Stirling Albion in October and two terrific goals in the quarter-final replay against Third Lanark – but at other times he was leaden-footed, clumsily ineffective and seemed to give up far too easily.
Yet it was obvious from the way that he was marked by the opposition that he was very highly rated, and that the potential was certainly there. Season 1962/63 opened brightly, with Hughes scoring seven goals in the first six games, including two fine ones against Ian Ure of Dundee at Parkhead. But, crucially, he failed to score in the game against Dundee United at Tannadice Park that Celtic needed to win to qualify from the League Cup section, and depression set in again. Indeed, without Hughes, Celtic went through a purple patch in the autumn, hitting six against Airdrie and seven against St Mirren. Hughes was back in the team for the New Year, and had the misfortune to be part of the line-up that collapsed ignominiously 0-4 to Rangers at Ibrox.
Pat Crerand left Parkhead in the wake of that disaster. Indeed, he had been at least partially responsible. Pat had no great opinion of John, and in the game immediately after the Ibrox disgrace, Pat was left out and John flourished, scoring a hat-trick on a frost-bound pitch at Aberdeen. This was a feature of Hughes – he was a good player on bad pitches, whether they were frosty or waterlogged. He was such an unpredictable performer at the best of times, and problems with the pitch created even more problems for defenders in trying to read him. That day at Pittodrie, it was a perfect tonic to see the way that Hughes could run through defences. Perhaps the season could yet be saved.
But two things characterised early 1963. One was the big freeze which severely curtailed football for many weeks, and the other was the perpetual chopping and changing of the Celtic team. Hughes played only sporadically, but the side, although reducing their supporters to despair in the Scottish League, reached the final of the Scottish Cup. It was the first Old Firm Scottish Cup final for 35 years. Like the Dunfermline game of two years previously, the 1963 Final went to a replay after Celtic had deservedly earned a 1-1draw. Hughes had played tolerably well in the first game at centre-forward, then found himself on the left wing for the replay, in which he hardly kicked a ball as the team collapsed to a 0-3 defeat, which could have been even heavier.
The 60,000 Celtic fans who disappeared home that night blamed Hughes as much as anyone, but there would be little relief the following season for the club. That said, Hughes enjoyed some very fine moments during 1963/64. He started off that season in the centre, where he persisted in trying to run through a defender rather than beat him, but then he was moved to the left wing and began to enjoy the extra space. He scored at least two wonderful goals that term – a tremendous solo effort in the Scottish Cup against Morton at Cappielow in January and a great goal in Bratislava to guarantee passage to the semi-final of the European Cup Winners Cup.
But he and the team collapsed miserably against the Hungarians MTK Budapest away from home after being 3-0 up from the home leg. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Celtic could not shake off their Rangers complex, giving every impression of believing that they were not allowed to beat their city rivals, so paralysed and mesmerised were they by the impressive (but by no means) insurmountable skills of Jim Baxter, Willie Henderson and Ralph Brand.
Yet in spite of all this, the fans of Hughes (and there were many) did notice an improvement. He was still only in his early 20s and he had learned as well as he could in that dysfunctional Celtic organisation. When at last Celtic did beat Rangers, in the rain at Parkhead on 5 September 1964, Hughes was magnificent, netting what would have been one of his best ever goals in the first minute, only to find it disallowed for some mysterious infringement on the halfway line after he had run all the way from there to shoot. He did not let that upset him, however, and continued to play brilliantly that day.
But then it all stopped again. The loss of the League Cup final (against Rangers yet again) was hard to bear, but after that the team collapsed more or less totally. John was out for a while but then came back as centre-forward, and began to play well for the team in what became commonly known as the “one-man forward line”. Defeats were common, and people were now beginning to ask the question: “Are Celtic finished?”
In some ways, John Hughes typified Celtic in those years. No-one doubted his ability and potential, but ability and potential were all that we were getting. Consistent success seemed a long way off for both Hughes and the club. He was, of course, the marksman that Celtic needed. A great Celtic team usually has a great personality centre-forward – Quinn, McGrory, Larsson – and poor Celtic teams are characterised by the lack of one. Yet while this may have been a poor Celtic side, there were some fine players there, for all their lack of success.The problem was that they were being led badly.
January 1965 was the turning point. The first few weeks of that year were the absolute nadir, including an infamous day at Parkhead when Hearts fans outnumbered the home contingent. But then it all turned on 30 January. While Sir Winston Churchill was being buried in London, Celtic met Aberdeen at Parkhead on a frosty pitch before a paltry crowd of 14,000. Hughes, wearing sandshoes (as he had done against Motherwell on Boxing Day and scored twice) suddenly turned on the magic and scored five as a not-insignificant Aberdeen side containing fine players like Ally Shewan, Dave Smith and Ernie Winchester, were put to the sword to the tune of 8-0.
Bertie Auld had already returned to the fold, and his influence was important, but the following day came the really crucial announcement that Jock Stein was to take over as manager. The players had already known about this, of course – something that perhaps explains the zip in the performance against Aberdeen – but for the fans, it meant that in the course of one weekend, things had changed completely.
For several players, this meant that their futures would be on the line. A new manager always will make changes, particularly in the circumstances at Parkhead, where changes were so obviously necessary to bring the success that the desperate supporters craved with such intensity. Some players, like Hugh Maxwell, John Divers and Jim Kennedy, did not long survive the arrival of Stein. Jimmy Johnstone was removed from the team, and it looked as if he might not survive the “Big Man” either.
But how would Stein react to Hughes? Would he lose patience with the loveable Yogi Bear, whose performances caused such divisions in the support? Would he off-load him to a team like Newcastle, who would have paid a king’s ransom for his services? Or would Jock be able to bring out the best in Hughes, and add consistency and reliability to the cocktail of brilliance and flair that we already knew he possessed?
The relationship between Stein and Hughes was complex, but initially, at least, all went well. John earned a cap for the Scottish League against the English League at Hampden in March and roasted Jack Charlton of Leeds United. Then, under Stein’s guidance, Celtic’s trophy famine ended on 24 April 1965 when they won the Scottish Cup in an epic final against Dunfermline Athletic. John did not necessarily star in that game, but he was a fine team man, a “rumble-them-up” centre-forward with a fine shot and the ability to draw men out of position, and to lead his own line brilliantly.
With Stein in temporary charge of the Scotland team, John won the first few of his eight Scotland caps, playing particularly well in a creditable 1-1 draw in Poland. Things were going well for the 22-year-old and, in retrospect, 1965 was the peak of his career. At long last, he seemed to have matured, to have grown into a good, consistent player, and the word “great” was even beginning to be applied to him.
Certainly destiny called on him to deliver the Scottish League Cup in 1965. This was a vital tournament in the context of the long-term history of Celtic, as a failure to deliver would perhaps have indicated that the Scottish Cup triumph of the previous year was a fluke, and that the “Celtic Revolution” was an illusory, transient thing. On at least three occasions in that tournament, John Hughes delivered the goods.
With Joe McBride now at Parkhead, Yogi was played more on the left wing. Whether he was happy about that was unclear, but Celtic were having a dreadful struggle to qualify in a strong section containing Motherwell and the two Dundee teams. Celtic faced the last game of the section at Dens Park, needing a draw to qualify. Dundee were a good side, with men like Andy Penman, Stevie Murray and Charlie Cooke, and although Celtic scored first through John Divers, the issue was in doubt until John Hughes’s wonder goal, which even had the Dundee season-ticket holders joining in the warm applause.
The memory remains bright even after 40 years, of how John got the ball on the left wing, halfway inside the Dundee half, then beat Scotland international Alex Hamilton, charged across the field with Hamilton and another defender in hot pursuit, suddenly turned and fired home a brilliant unstoppable shot from at least 25 yards. As often happens in such cases, there was a moment’s pause to allow the 28,000 crowd to take in what had happened before Dens Park exploded in appreciation for such brilliance.
His second contribution came at Stark’s Park, Kirkcaldy, when he scored a late hat-trick in the quarter-final first leg against a sadly outclassed Raith Rovers, who were defeated 8-1. It was not so much the hat-trick that is recalled as the breathtaking football played by all the Celtic forward line, with Hughes very much part of it, as if to prove that he could be a team man as well as a brilliant individualist.
Then, after a couple of games to beat the strong Hibs team in the semi-final, came the final against Rangers. This was to be the acid test of the new Celtic. Victory would send out signals to Ibrox and elsewhere that Celtic had arrived; defeat would perhaps signal a backward slide and indicate that the bad old days of the Rangers phobia had not entirely gone. Rangers had the psychological advantage with a 2-1 win in the League a month earlier at Ibrox, and a record League Cup crowd of 107,609 were in attendance.
Reports of this game centre on the crude tackles and the pitch invasion at the end, and thanks to hyperbole like “orgy of crudeness” and “X-certificate” and “war correspondents rather than sports correspondents should have been there”, the Celtic victory tends to be ignored. In particular, little credit has been given to the ability of John Hughes to hold his nerve.
A quarter of an hour had gone when Rangers centre-half Ron McKinnon inexplicably handled in the box. Ron did not even argue, so clear cut was it. We Celtic fans behind that goal saw the burly figure of John Hughes lumbering up to take the penalty. We held our breath, for although John’s record with penalties had been good, we had seen rather too much of his tendency to blow up under pressure. No fear of that, though, as he beat Billy Ritchie from the spot.
Ten minutes later it happened again. This time Davie Provan brought down Jimmy Johnstone, and there ensued a long argument about it, partly, one felt, deliberately prolonged by the Rangers defenders with the express purpose of unsettling John. He stood calmly, the ball under his arm, then placed it on the spot. Once again, we held our breath, and once again John scored, although this time Billy Ritchie got his hand to it.
Two goals up after half an hour, and Yogi was the hero of the Celtic End. But anxiety crept into the battle hymns during the second half as Rangers pressed and pressed, and Yogi played as the one-man forward line while everyone else was back helping out the hard-pressed defence. Rangers did, in the event, pull one back but it was Celtic who won the League Cup.
Some misguided youths invaded the field at the end, trying to attack the Celtic players. It was perhaps as well that such idiots, undernourished in both body and mind, did not get anywhere near Big John. What that fit physique might have done to the physically and spiritually derelict of Govan and Larkhall really does not bear thinking about!
But Celtic fans, admirably restrained and without feeling that they had to retaliate, would sing for months after:
“We won the Cup, we won the Cup
High–oh–my-dadio, we won the Cup!
And who scored the goals, who scored the goals?
High-oh-my-dadio, big Yogi scored the goals!
Life was sweet for Celtic and for big John Hughes.
The Scottish League was won that year for the first time since 1954, and only bad luck prevented the lifting of the Scottish Cup. Then a far too energetic linesman denied Bobby Lennox the goal at Liverpool which would have beaten the home side in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Hughes had played in most of the games that season, and had every reason to feel confident about the future.
The problem was that this was a very strong side, and the following term, 1966/67, saw six forwards vying for five places. Johnstone, Wallace (after McBride was injured), Chalmers, Auld, Lennox, and Hughes would have been an embarrassment of riches for anyone. Hughes was injured in the League Cup final in October – he was replaced by Chalmers, the first substitute in a major Cup final in Scotland – and was out for some time after that. He returned on Hogmanay to play against Dundee United at Tannadice, but unfortunately that was one of the few games that Celtic lost that season, and thereafter his place was in doubt.
He did play off and on, including a few of the vital European games, but for the two biggest games of that season, the Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen and the European Cup final against Inter Milan, John found himself on the sidelines. There were at last two reasons for this. One was that Lennox was a far better player down the left in dry, hard conditions, although perhaps Hughes had the edge in the wet. But the main reason was that this Celtic team, the greatest in their history, was recognisably a combination who played cohesively, who fitted into a system, who read each other and who relied on each other.
John was far more of a loose cannon. Jimmy Johnstone was similarly unpredictable, and possibly Stein felt that one brilliant individualist in the team was enough. John, on his day, could be unbeatable. Fast, powerful, strong – he had all these attributes and he had improved dramatically with the arrival of Stein and the coaching methods of Neil Mochan, but he still remained far too unreliable at producing the performances. On his day, he could beat the world. Sadly his days were not as plentiful as Stein and the fans of Hughes would have liked.
It is important, however, to retain a sense of perspective in all this. Being a reserve for the Lisbon Lions did emphatically not mean that Hughes was a bad player. Indeed, had Stein been allowed more substitutes, there is little doubt that he would have featured at some stage of the action in Lisbon, or indeed any other game where Stein felt that a touch of the unpredictable was called for. Hughes remained one of Scotland’s great players, and there was no shortage of interest in him from English clubs, particularly Newcastle United, who repeatedly asked about his availability for transfer.
Things would have been different if John had gone south in the mid-1960s, but he stayed as part of the excellent Parkhead set-up, very much in the squad for Lisbon and clearly seen on the lorry going round Parkhead with the Cup the following night. But he would always say that it hurt not being in the actual team, and it was perhaps the beginning of the end of his good relationship with Stein, who may well have handled Yogi’s omission from the biggest game in Celtic history in a none-too-tactful fashion.
But his value to the side was seen in the following season, particularly in the latter half. Then the left wing of Charlie Gallagher and John Hughes (neither of whom had been on the field in Lisbon) carried all before them as Celtic, after a series of misfortunes and a long time to recover from disasters in the Ukraine and in South America, rallied to win the League with some absolutely breathtaking performances, particularly away from home at traditionally difficult places like St Johnstone, Dundee United, Hearts and Aberdeen. He was also good enough to earn a cap and to score Scotland’s goal in the 1-1 draw against England, but to all intents and purposes the draw was a defeat as it deprived Scotland of qualification for the European Nations Cup finals. John would have graced that stage in 1968, one feels.
The sight of John Hughes rampaging down the left wing, cutting a defence to ribbons and leaving defenders sprawling in the mud was the sight which inspired the song:
Feed The Bear, The Bear
Feed the Bear!
This song earned official disapproval in The Celtic View and elsewhere because of its offensive lyrics, but it was sung universally and with gusto as Celtic kept winning, and Rangers visibly cracked under the onslaught, even though the direct matches between the two teams had been played to Rangers’ advantage.
Yet there was a down side to Hughes as well that season. His er . . . challenge (some might say attack) on the goalkeeper in South America thoroughly merited his sending-off, and there was at least one other time when the referee might have pointed to the pavilion. This was against Hibs at Easter Road in January when John’s admirers in the 38,077 crowd found it hard to justify his tackle on Arthur Duncan, which saw that very fine player taken off.
Earlier in the season, on the eve of the trip to South America, he had won his third League Cup medal in a hard-fought final against Dundee in which he scored early, but that League Cup campaign will be remembered most vividly for his goal in the semi-final against Morton. The Ton were already beaten thanks to a fine team performance in the first half, when Hughes, having done the “team bit”, now showed his individual flair with a run from about the halfway line, the waltzing round of several defenders, then a screamer of a shot which had his fans in raptures. If only he could have done that oftener, Celtic could win the European Cup for years to come, we felt.
John had real bad luck in April 1969, as an injury sustained at St Johnstone prevented him from taking part in that magnificent April in which Celtic, uniquely, lifted all three Scottish trophies in a calendar month. It was a shame because he had performed so well that season, scoring goals at the vital times and teaming up so well with others in a side that, in the opinion of many observers, played even better football than they did in 1967, the only blot in the copybook being an unfortunate defeat to AC Milan in the quarter-final of the European Cup.
In August 1969 John was at the centre of a major incident. In an Old Firm League Cup game at Parkhead eventually won by Celtic, Willie Johnston of Rangers was seen to go down following a clash with Hughes. Hughes had already been booked and marching orders seemed to be the inevitable consequence, but to the astonishment and anger of Rangers’ players, directors and supporters, Hughes remained on the field. The consequences for the referee were dire, as he found himself suspended for failing to take action, but Hughes escaped any retribution.
There were several mitigating factors. One was that Johnston, who holds the Scottish record for being ordered off most times, was no angel. He had fouled Hughes originally, and he could certainly retaliate himself and fake injury on occasion. The incident had taken place in front of the Jungle, where stood all the Celtic fans. It could well be that the referee decided to take no action in view of the threat to public order if the hero of the Jungle was sent packing.
Celtic’s success continued. Hughes was playing in the centre-forward position when the League Cup was won for the fifth year in a row against St Johnstone (where he had a reasonable-looking goal disallowed for a mysterious infringement), and in spite of a few injuries, he played his part in another League championship win. But he will be best remembered in season 1969/70 for his brilliant header against Leeds United at Hampden, which helped propel Celtic to their second European Cup final.
This time Hughes was in the team, but there was clearly an attitude problem with the players before and after their game with Feyenoord. Perhaps it was just complacency and over-confidence, or perhaps there was something else happening, but there can be little doubt that this was a woeful display and that on the night the Dutch team were far superior to a Celtic side which lacked application, zest and flair.
John collected much of the blame (certainly in the eyes of Jock Stein, if not in the opinion of the disillusioned support) by missing a chance in the first minute of extra time in that dreadful final, and it was from that day that the relationship between Hughes and Stein, which had never been close or warm, and had been deteriorating for some time, took a marked turn for the worse.
Stein was clearly rebuilding that season and Hughes, like a few others, was not guaranteed a place. Stein felt that the player exaggerated an injury – even though he needed stitches in e leg wound – in a game that Celtic lost at Muirton Park, Perth, in February 1971. Hughes was off the field, leaving Celtic with only ten men at the time St Johnstone scored their second goal, then he insisted on returning before having to come off again five minutes later. A month after that, when he was left out of the team for a Cup tie against Raith Rovers, Hughes and Stein had an almighty row and Hughes either walked out of Parkhead or was sent home by Stein, depending which story one believes.
The feud continued. Hughes was taken down to Kilmarnock to be told he was not playing in a reserve match, something that he found deeply humiliating, and it did indeed look more than a little like sheer spite on the part of Jock Stein. At the end of the season when Celtic won a League and Cup double, Hughes did not feature. He did not help matters by asking for a pay rise, but it was now clear to all concerned that this feud helped nobody. It was also clear that John Hughes’s days at his beloved Parkhead were more or less at an end, even though he was still some two years short of his 30th birthday.
A temporary truce of sorts was patched up at the start of the 1971/72 season, but when Crystal Palace offered £50,000 for Hughes and Willie Wallace in October, both Stein and Hughes accepted the opportunity. He scored one spectacular goal for the Palace against Sheffield United, akin to the famous ones at Cappielow in 1964 and Dens Park in 1965. But he did not sojourn long at Selhurst Park, moving on to Sunderland for a spell to play alongside his brother Billy. Then he returned to junior (non-League) football north of the border, at one point being the coach of the Scotland Junior team.
John remains a curious, difficult-to-understand character. He is an archetypal Celt with loads of flair, individuality and class. He deserves respect for the way in which he came through the dreadful barracking and abuse that he suffered from so-called supporters in the bad days. On his day, like the little girl with the curl on her forehead, when he was good, he was very, very good, fully deserving comments like “unbeatable”, “world-class” and “great Celt”. What a pity it was that we cannot add the word “consistent” to his many other attributes.
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