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The Jimmy McGrory Story – The Weekend Long Read

6 February 2021


“Tell me the old, old story

A hat-trick for McGrory

A victory for the Fenians

He will carry us through!

He’ll carry us through the hue

To beat the bastards in blue

Look forever to McGrory

He will carry us through”

So sang the Celtic fans throughout the 1920s and 1930s. There may have been unemployment and depression, there may have been the dismal sight of the war wounded and the fear of another conflict as the funny man with the moustache rose to power in Germany, there may have been some dreadful performances on the field from Celtic . . . but there was always Jimmy McGrory.

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McGrory gave the Celtic fans what they wanted _ the scoring of goals. The song which begins “They gave us James McGrory and Paul McStay” ends up with “to play football in the good old Celtic way.” He was what Celtic fans needed. He was the icon of the team. He was the man who scored the goals that sent the crowd home happy and helped them to forget the miseries of what might have been a fairly pointless existence.

He was from the Celtic stronghold of the old Garngad, and he cut his teeth playing for St Rochs. Maley, always on the lookout for new talent, was told of him and watched him. McGrory himself would say that he didn’t want to go to Celtic because of the pressure that would be put on him, but when the call came, he did not hesitate. “I grabbed my cap and ran all the way” he was reputed to have said.

It was Maley who looked after the youngster. McGrory’s own father had died in a freak accident soon after Jimmy came to Celtic in autumn 1924, and the manager, whose own family life had been far from happy, tried to be a surrogate father to the earnest young McGrory. Jimmy had attended his father’s funeral in the morning, and Maley suggested he play for Celtic in the afternoon. He did so, and scored a goal. Maley had already tried this paternal approach with Tommy McInally, but Tommy had been a bad boy and had let him down. McGrory, a decent lad from the traditional poor but honest home background, would not.

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The 1924/25 campaign was McGrory’s first at Parkhead following a year in which he had been farmed out to Clydebank. It was not a great League season for Celtic, with results being inconsistent and disappointing, and it was now becoming clear that the great Patsy Gallacher was ageing. In addition, the young McGrory picked up a few injuries as he was beginning to learn some unpleasant truths about brutal defenders in the top flight of Scottish football.

But he had recovered as Celtic had reached the final of the Scottish Cup. They had done so by astonishing the world and showing their fans what they were capable of, beating Rangers 5-0 in the semi-final. McGrory had scored twice that day, but the fans really craved something more tangible. Were they to win the Scottish Cup that year, it would mean that they would have won it 11 times, once more than the record of Queen’s Park.

The opponents were Dundee, who were 1-0 up at half-time. This was the day that Patsy Gallacher scored his remarkable goal. A spectator at that game has little great recollection of that goal, as it followed a melee with loads of players involved. It all happened quickly and very few of the fans got a great view. He did, however, have a clear recollection of the young McGrory’s winner. “It was a free-kick to be te’en by “Jean” McFarlane on the left. Jean pu’ed up his stockings afore he took the kick. The ba’ cam ower and hovered ower the tap o’ the line o’ defenders and forrits. Suddenly a green-and-white figure catapulted forrit and heided the ba awae inti far corner. It was a lang time afor the crowd realised that he had scored. It happened that quick”. McGrory himself claimed that he was stunned as he hit the ground and he thought he heard thunder. It was, in fact, the roar of the crowd, greeting a monumental Celtic goal.

The full-time whistle saw great scenes of Celtic rejoicing. Not only had they won the Scottish Cup, but they had also seen the emergence of a new Celtic cult hero, in this young, shy but courageous figure. He was still trembling long after the game when Maley came in with the Scottish Cup. In those days, the Cup was presented in private to the manager and directors of the club in the board room of Hampden and the best that the fans could hope for was the sight of some of their heroes with the trophy on the team bus.

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They lined the streets about eight deep that night, and great was the joy at the sight of the young McGrory holding the trophy. Maley had insisted on this. His young protege had won the Cup for the club. It was therefore right that he should be the man who carried it. “Give young McGrory the Cup” he had said.

Glory had thus begun for James Edward McGrory. Celtic fans do love a personality goalscorer, and they had clearly enjoyed this 20 years earlier in Jimmy Quinn, who had similarly marked his Celtic career with a triumph in a Scottish Cup final, namely the hat-trick scored against Rangers in 1904. There were remarkable similarities between the two Jimmies. Broad shoulders, speed, ability to jump and head, courage, wholeheartedness and, importantly, an irrepressible love of the Celtic and their supporters. “Once a Celt, always a Celt” it was said.

Jimmy Quinn had now been retired for about a decade, but was still very much part of the Parkhead scene, always there to help (unpaid) and attending every game. Like McGrory, he was modest and shy – characteristics which belied their enthusiastic and aggressive performance on the field. The elder Jimmy sought out the younger one, and offered advice, guidance and support. McGrory was possibly overwhelmed by all this. Here was this demigod seeking him out to talk to him. McGrory was delighted to discover that the man from Croy was just as shy as he was, but the two of them struck up an immediate rapport, and now McGrory had the greatest advice going.

He was also very quickly a Glasgow personality. Walking down the street was now a difficult operation as supporters sought him out to talk to him. Less pleasant ones would beg tickets or even money from him, and there would always be the odd abusive comment from a supporter of the other side. The kind-hearted Jimmy always found it difficult to deal with unpleasant people, and it would perhaps explain why he was never the greatest of managers in later years.

The year after the momentous Scottish Cup triumph saw the winning of the Scottish League. Patsy Gallacher had now gone, but in his place had returned the great Tommy McInally. The football played in that year was absolutely superb, McGrory scored 52 goals and the supporters were perpetually in raptures. The creative among the support made up songs for every member of the side, but the chorus was always:

“McGrory, McGrory, Hallelujah! 

The Celts go marching on”.

But things would not stay as good as that forever. Rangers had a fine side as well, and although McGrory seldom fell short of the mark, several other departments of the team did not do so well. McGrory was injured in the latter part of the 1926/27 season and thus missed another Scottish Cup final, but there had been compensation in the winning of a couple of caps for the Scottish League. Speculation was rife about the possibility of a full international cap for Scotland.

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The problem was a man called Hughie Gallagher, a superb centre-forward for Airdrie and Newcastle United. It was difficult to unseat him, as he was such a prolific scorer, but McGrory’s chance came on 25 February 1928 when he was chosen to play for Scotland against Northern Ireland at Firhill. It was felt that he could hardly be ignored, as six weeks previously he had set up a record by scoring eight goals in a single game against Dunfermline Athletic.

Playing for Scotland was a great honour, but Celtic fans were often very cynical about the lack of caps for their own players. Sunny Jim Young, for example, had only played once for his country, and although the great Jimmy Quinn had won the day for Scotland against England at Hampden in 1910, in both 1908 and 1912 he had been played on the left wing out of position to accommodate someone who was not quite so good. In any case, many Celtic supporters made it clear that they were Irish rather than Scottish.

Jimmy’s first big day for Scotland was a disaster. Scotland lost 0-1 to Northern Ireland, and that was considered a disgrace for a country that, not without cause, considered itself the best in the world. Scapegoats had to be found, and although Jimmy was not the only failure, he was not invited to play again for the national side for some time, the centre-forward’s spot returning to Hughie Gallacher for Scotland’s most famous International of all, the 5-1 Wembley Wizards’ beating of England on 31 March 1928.

It would be less easy to explain some of his other omissions from the Scotland squad, in particular why he never played for Scotland against England at Wembley. In 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936, Scotland travelled to London without McGrory. Apart from the last mentioned which was an honourable draw, these games ended in dreadful defeats in which England took full revenge for the Wembley Wizards game of 1928 which hurt them so much. Celtic fans could not understand it, and did little to hide their glee as Scotland were defeated time and time again while the solution to the goalscoring problem was ignored. In 1930 Jimmy Fleming of Rangers got the nod, in 1932 it was Neil Dewar of Third Lanark, 1934 saw the surprising recall of Hughie Gallacher and in 1936 came the astonishing choice of David McCulloch of Brentford. With all due respect to these men, they were not a patch on James McGrory.

Such was the paranoia of Celtic fans that the non-selection of McGrory was seen in terms of anti-Celtic or anti-Catholic prejudice. There may have been something in that in the minds of certain selectors, but it is more likely that incompetence rather than bigotry was responsible. McGrory did play twice for Scotland against England at Hampden. On both occasions Scotland won and McGrory scored. In 1931, in front of Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, McGrory netted in the 2-0 victory, and in 1933 he scored twice, the second the late winner when he picked up a pass from his friend Bob McPhail of Rangers and hammered home the goal which created the Hampden Roar and was heard clearly on the other side of the city. These two great McGrory occasions, which raised his cult status to all of Scotland rather than just among Celtic fans, did little, however, to answer the question of why he was never given a chance to play for Scotland at Wembley.

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Apart from the games already mentioned, he played twice each against Wales and Ireland. On the three of these four occasions he scored, which makes it even harder to explain why the great Jimmy McGrory played only seven times for Scotland.

But there was never the slightest doubt that he could produce the goods for Celtic, and the affinity he had with Celtic and their fans was proved in the incident when the despicable Maley tried to sell him. It was despicable because there was a slight feeling of underhandedness and subterfuge about it all. Maley and McGrory, good Catholics both, were going on a pilgrimage to Lourdes in the summer of 1928. As if by chance en route in London, they met Herbert Chapman, the newly appointed manager of Arsenal, a man with unlimited funds at his disposal to awaken the sleeping and grossly wealthy giant that was Arsenal. The sum of £8,000 (huge in 1928) was offered on the way down. The two managers were in agreement, but McGrory, the home-loving Celt, refused. On the way back from Lourdes, they all met again and this time the offer had been raised to £10,000, then more or less a blank cheque, with McGrory virtually asked to name his own terms. He still said no.

The background to all this was the need for Celtic to build their new stand at the London Road side of the ground. Celtic required money, and the transfer of their most priceless asset was required to pay for it all. Celtic without McGrory would have been completely unthinkable, but no more so than McGrory without Celtic. As he said himself: “McGrory of the Arsenal would not have sounded anything like McGrory of the Celtic.” When this story became known, McGrory was loved even more, if that were possible.

The goals continued to rain in. A grand total of 550, with 410 of them in the Scottish League, sounds impressive, but even that does not take into account the quality of the goals scored. As with so many strikers, a large percentage were simply tap-ins because of his ability to be in the right place at the right time, but so many were far more aesthetic than that. A high proportion were headers, as McGrory possessed the ability to time a jump, and he had powerful neck muscles, propelling it netwards as if it had been kicked. A goal scored at Arbroath in 1936 is much remembered. The ball was bobbing about on the edge of the penalty area about knee height, when McGrory hurled himself forward to head the ball home from about 18 yards.

One curses those who were far too late in inventing videos and DVDs, for very few, if any, of McGrory’s great goals are available for us to see. Ironically, one that is visible is the only goal of the 1933 Scottish Cup final against Motherwell, and it was a simple tap-in, a goal which he himself would dub in later years “the saftest o’ the faimilie” after the famous Harry Lauder song of the time.

In addition to his other attributes, Jimmy was also fearless. Not all the defenders in Scottish football were as sporting as he was, and he was not infrequently the object of brutal tackles from those who knew of no other way to stop him. There were some fair players as well, not least his great adversary Davie Meiklejohn of Rangers, with whom he retained a good relationship until Davie’s untimely death in 1959. Then there was the legendary goalkeeper of Queen’s Park and Hearts, whose very name is a byword for fair play. This was Jack Harkness.

There was the famous occasion at Parkhead when McGrory dived to head home, but the ball flew over the bar. Harkness momentarily relaxed, but then saw that McGrory’s head was about to collide with the upright. He dived and diverted McGrory’s head to one side of the post, thus preventing a serious injury. To the Celtic crowd, however, it looked bad and McGrory’s words of “Thank You, Jack” looked from a distance like a threat. Everytime thereafter that Harkness touched the ball, he was booed for his apparent violent assault on Parkhead’s darling Jimmy McGrory. The following week, McGrory made sure that the true version of events was printed in the programme, and every subsequent visit to Parkhead after that saw Jack Harkness cheered to the echo.

Harkness himself always told the tale of how one day he was walking down Buchanan Street in Glasgow when he saw McGrory on the other side of the street. McGrory nodded to him, and such were Harkness’s reactions that he dived into the gutter hoping to save the imaginary ball. This story, one presumes, was not entirely true, but the fact that it was repeated on many occasions at functions and dinners did give some indication of how popular and well known a figure Jimmy McGrory was.

The year of 1931 was momentous. Not only did Jimmy get married, and tour the United States and Canada, but also he was involved in one of Celtic’s most famous Scottish Cup finals, the epic struggle against Motherwell and its replay. Celtic were two goals down to a great Motherwell side, and supporters looked up at the huge clock which used to hang from the South Stand at Hampden and watched the minutes ticking away. McGrory had been subdued, but then a Napier free-kick was lofted over the heads of the defence and Jimmy was there to give a lifeline. McGrory disdained all congratulations and celebrations and ran back up the field pointing to the clock and telling everyone that eight minutes remained to be played.

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Once again, Motherwell dug in and looked to have weathered the storm until the very last minute, when a cross came over from the right. Everyone rose for the ball, as the Motherwell defence could not take the risk of leaving it for the peerless McGrory. But it was not McGrory who scored. It was his marker, Motherwell’s centre-half Alan Craig. “McGrory’s peal of delight was heard in the stand”, but he was also the first to comfort the luckless and distraught Alan Craig. In the replay, McGrory scored twice as Celtic ran out 4-2 winners.

There were bad times as well. The deaths of John Thomson and Peter Scarff cast a huge shadow over Celtic Park for several years, as indeed did the Depression and its consequent unemployment which seemed to hit Celtic supporters particularly hard. McGrory could usually be relied upon for a goal, but he was now getting older and increasingly injury prone as Celtic failed to make any impact on Rangers’ supremacy.

Far too often we read in accounts of dismal performance before poor crowds in 1934 and 1935 that “McGrory ploughed a lonely furrow”, “McGrory waited for the ball that never came”, “Celtic’s one-man forward line ran aground again”. The crowds dropped to alarming levels, with Maley berating publicly both the players for not living up to what they could be, and the crowd for not turning up in sufficiently large numbers to support them. Nostalgia for the great days of Jimmy McMenemy, Patsy Gallacher and Jimmy Quinn was the order of the day.

But the tide turned as it was always likely to with McGrory around, and by season 1935/36, Jimmy’s 13th in professional football, another superb Celtic team had emerged. McGrory at last had the support that his talents deserved, and the forward line of Delaney, Buchan, McGrory, Crum and Murphy was a truly phenomenal one. Buchan and Crum were superbly tireless inside-forwards, and the wing play of Delaney and Murphy was excellent. McGrory himself would later claim that all he had to do was to be there and the goals would come.

In this, Jimmy does himself less than justice, as a feature of that forward line was their ability to interchange, and that included McGrory, who would frequently appear on the left wing, in the inside-right position or even drop further back to change places with centre-half Willie Lyon for a spell. But he would never stray for long far from the centre-forward position where all the action was.

He scored 50 goals that season, as the Celtic fans rejoiced in the rebirth of their team. The crowds were now flocking back, for indeed the worst of the recession was over, and the standard of play was scintillating. McGrory’s admirers ran out of nicknames for him – “King James”, “The Golden Crust”, “The Goal-Scoring Machine” – as the goals kept coming. The team had a few stutters, notably when they crashed shockingly out of the Scottish Cup in February to St Johnstone, but League form remained impressively consistent. McGrory’s greatest day that year would be on 14 March when in a game against Motherwell he scored three times in three minutes in the middle of the second half, one of the quickest hat-tricks of all times.

“But, wait a bit, don’t be so fast,

We’ve left the star turn till the last,

There in the midst o’ a’his glory

Goal a minute James McGrory!”

This was the season in which McGrory beat the goalscoring record. In fact, he did it twice, as a mistake had been made by those who totted up the scores for records. On 19 October 1935, he overtook Steve Bloomer’s record of 352, and everyone congratulated him until someone discovered that Hugh Ferguson had scored 364 goals. It mattered little, as on midwinter’s day, 21 December 1935, Celtic beat Aberdeen 5-3 and McGrory’s brace was enough to bring him up to 366, one of them being the goal that was Jimmy’s own favourite.

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This time a seemingly irresistible tide swelled up for the inclusion of McGrory at Wembley. Now, as he approached his 32nd birthday, it did not take a genius to work out that he would not have many more chances of representing his country at Wembley, and no-one could say that he was not at the top of his game. “I can confidently predict that McGrory has already been pencilled in and will be in the team to-night, along with young Delaney” said a journalist the day that the team was to be announced. But the confident predictions proved false.

Still, McGrory continued to score his goals for Celtic, and the League was won for the first time in ten years, with Jimmy the only man to bridge those two momentous years of 1926 and 1936. It is often said that McGrory was the man who made the Celtic fans forget. Forget, that is, the horrible reality that existed in the world away from Parkhead. He had been with Celtic through the labour problems associated with the General Strike and its revengeful, vindictive aftermath, through the unemployment of the early 1930s, and now his role was surely to help them forget about the international situation. The strident bullies of Nazism were spoiling for another war, oblivious, perhaps, or little heeding, the potentially awful consequences and presumably little aware of the crowds of war-blinded or those in wheelchairs who attended Celtic’s home matches at Parkhead and whose only real joy in life was the sight of another goal for Jimmy McGrory.

Nightmare scenarios abounded of aerial devastation, of appalling casualties, of the famines and plagues predicted by the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse as the football season for 1936/37 began. War was already under way in Spain, and it was difficult not to believe that it was coming to the rest of us soon. This would be Jimmy’s last full season for the club. Celtic were unlucky not to retain the Scottish League, but there was ample recompense in the shape of the Scottish Cup, won in an epic final before a record crowd against the black-and-golds of Aberdeen in April 1937. It had been hoped that McGrory might score in the final as he had done in 1925, 1931 and 1933, or even score a hat-trick which would put him in the same bracket as Jimmy Quinn, but it was not to be. He may have been disappointed, but he needn’t have been. He had now collected four Scottish Cup winners medals, and his popularity remained untarnished.

He did not play many games for the club in 1937/38 as injuries were now taking a longer time to heal. On the other hand, Maley felt that even a half-fit McGrory at the age of 33 was better than anyone else and felt that another year could be eked out of him. No-one realised it at the time, but Jimmy’s last game for the club was against Queen’s Park in October 1937. He was yet again injured in that game, and disappeared from the team. In December Kilmarnock approached him to become their manager.

There is a certain amount of circumstantial evidence to indicate that Willie Maley was not best pleased with McGrory’s departure, even though the amount of injuries that he was sustaining would make one think that the decision was the right one. Luck would have it that his first game as manager of Kilmarnock was at Celtic Park on Christmas Day 1937. He received a tremendous cheer from the Parkhead faithful as he took his seat in the directors’ box (where managers sat in those days), but Celtic them proceeded to thump Kilmarnock 8-0, with Maley clearly revelling in the discomfiture of his old protege who had dared to disobey him.

It being McGrory’s first game in charge, he could hardly be blamed for it all, and very soon revenge came McGrory’s way. Having by now learned a little about his own Kilmarnock players and also knowing that some of his old team-mates would take the game too lightly in the wake of the Christmas Day result, he was able to mastermind a Scottish Cup upset by beating Celtic 2-1 at Parkhead.

It was the reaction of his old boss that astounded him. Although men like Jimmy Delaney and Willie Lyon shook his hand in sporting congratulation in spite of their disappointment, Maley ignored him even when Jimmy went upstairs to his room to talk to him. Yet Maley was the man who repeatedly said: “It is our proud boast that we can taste the fruits of victory in the same spirit as the bitterness of defeat”. In fact, he never had any huge problem in admitting that, on occasion, Rangers or Motherwell had been the better team. It was the fact that McGrory was an old Celt, a cult hero, that hurt. It was noticeable, too, that when Jimmy Quinn died in 1945, Maley went out of his way to stress that Quinn was the “best” and the “greatest” in circumstances that seemed to be a point being made to McGrory.

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In truth, Jimmy McGrory was no manager. He took Kilmarnock to the Scottish Cup final in 1938, but they lost a replay to East Fife, and when, after the war, he took over at Celtic Park, his record over the next 20 years was a poor one for a team of Celtic’s standing. His triumphs were as spectacular as some of the goals he scored – the all-British Coronation Cup of 1953, the 7-1 beating of Rangers in the 1957 Scottish League Cup final and a glorious League and Cup double in 1954 – but they were not nearly as many.

He was, of course, in some ways a glorified office boy for the dictatorial and ineffective regime of Bob Kelly, whose say over everything including team selection and team tactics was almost total. McGrory was far too nice a man to cause trouble, and went along with all that Mr Kelly said. It would be a different matter from 1965, after Jock Stein took over.

It was the fact that McGrory had been and remained a cult hero for Celtic that allowed Kelly and his henchmen to exploit this situation so cynically. It was very difficult for supporters to get angry at the saintly Jimmy, whose presence in the directors’ box, smiling benignly at all concerned as he puffed away at his pipe, or on a train journey to Aberdeen as he was seen in the restaurant car of the train enjoying his lunch, seemed to sum up all that was old and beautiful and almost sacrosanct about Celtic. A verbal broadside on McGrory would almost be like shouting at one’s granny. It was simply one of those things that was not done.

Yet results continued to be poor and disappointments intense. The inability to win the Scottish Cup in 1961 and 1963 (both finals went to heart-rending replays) led to massive street disturbances in August 1963 after a feckless game against Queen of the South. After it became known, however, that chairman Bob Kelly was away having attended the reserve game at Dumfries, the heat was taken out of the situation, as no-one felt like shouting at Jimmy McGrory. It was like the way that a garage proprietor, when he is aware that he has not done a job adequately and sees the irate customer approaching, will send out a sweet-faced 17-year-old girl to deal with the situation, knowing that it will be very difficult for the customer to rant, rave and swear at her.

It was arrant cowardice on the part of the Celtic board to hide behind their great hero. But the remarkable thing was that the hero status of McGrory did not diminish. Even after Stein took over in 1965, McGrory, by now in his early sixties, was not put out to graze, but given the loosely defined job of public relations officer, a move that was way ahead of its time and a job for which the kindly McGrory was eminently suited.

He continued, although plagued with ill health, to work until 1979 when he retired officially. He died in October 1982, an event which provoked an orgy of mourning among football fans everywhere, even among those far too young to have seen him play. Such was the cult status that he achieved – and it is no accident that in the Willie Maley song, much loved by the Celtic fans, that it is the name of Jimmy McGrory which comes first:

“Oh, they gave us Jimmy McGrory and Paul McStay…”

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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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