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The Sunday Long Read – PETER WILSON

11 April 2021


It is a sad fact that since the urbanisation of society there has been a certain contempt expressed of “rustics”, i.e. people who live in the country. They are perceived as slow, backward and ever so slightly uncivilised. In football terms this means that supporters of Aberdeen, Inverness or Forfar, for example, are accused of doing unlikely things to sheep, and even fans of teams like Dunfermline are asked if they remembered to milk their cows.

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Footballers tend not to come from a rustic background. Their haunts tend to be the teeming slums of the large cities (or at least industrial villages like Cleland or Croy) where their families have to scrape a living in order to provide them with football boots, and this life stands them in good stead for the rough treatment they will receive from brutal defenders and villainous and bigoted officials. 

Peter Wilson was an exception. He came from Beith in Ayrshire, and did not know very much about Glasgow or any other city when he joined Celtic in 1923, having impressed Maley’s scouts at junior level. In 1923 the move from country village to the second city of the Empire (as Glasgow was called) was an enormous step. It was not, geographically speaking, all that far, but culturally and in other ways it was light years away.  

The Third Statistical Account of Scotland, published in 1951, describes Beith as a “wonderfully self contained” village in that people lived and worked in the village without too many commuters to Glasgow. No doubt that has changed now, but the Statistical Account also says that rather too many of the houses are “working class” and that there is a variety of employment available, from net-making for the fishing industry to glove-making, and in particular furniture-making, which was to be Peter’s trade once he retired from football.

The first half of season 1923/24 saw Wilson on the fringes of the Celtic team and once or twice farmed out to Ayr United for the occasional game, but more often still playing for Beith Juniors, even though he was technically a Celtic player and paid as such to the amazement and delight of his family. He was a youth of unprepossessing appearance, with a red face, large ears (about which he would joke in later years but not at this vulnerable stage of his life), wearing on his first appearance at Celtic Park short knickerbocker trousers and a cap which was several sizes too large for him. He was shy and gauche, and there must have been times when he wondered whether he had made the right decision in joining Celtic among so many apparently worldly-wise players like Patsy Gallacher.

But there were supportive influences as well. Maley himself was kind and polite, if a little distant now and again, and there were older players like the kindly Alec McNair, now clearly past his best but still with enough football knowledge in him to benefit a youngster. In addition there were others in the same boat as himself, like Alec Thomson from a similar background in Fife, also learning the trade. Nevertheless he was always glad to get home to his native Beith after a day’s training for there he was with his own folk.

He once famously got lost in Woolworth‘s, the popular department store, a huge shop in the 1920s. Peter was so involved in looking at the goods on display that he wandered away from his team-mates before someone realised that he was no longer with them, and a rescue operation had to be launched. In addition, special care had to be taken when crossing roads and dealing with other hazards of urban life in Glasgow.

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But he never really got lost on the football field. All this time in training and in practice matches, he was impressing everyone by his footballing ability. His position was right-half, and he was particularly good at ball distribution, with many inch-perfect passes which impressed Joe Cassidy, Andy McAtee and even (eventually) that hardest of taskmasters, the quixotic and waspish Patsy Gallacher. He was tall and well built, and worked hard at his training, enjoying the physical challenges and the building up of stamina.

But all was not well at Celtic Park. Players like Johnny Gilchrist and Willie Cringan, good players both, but who had fallen out of favour, were very soon shown the door. Consequently the team were making little impact on the Scottish League. In January 1924, Celtic departed the Scottish Cup after a defeat at Kilmarnock, and after another defeat to Morton the following week, Wilson was given his chance in the first team.

It was, however, only in a friendly, and a strange friendly at that. It was 9 February, Scottish Cup day, and as both Celtic and Third Lanark had been knocked out, they were asked to stage an experimental game in which there would be two referees! That experiment was soon abandoned, but Peter Wilson played well enough to be retained at right-half, a position that would be his own, barring injury, for the next decade and more.

His first real game was the following midweek at Fir Park. Wilson had no idea where Fir Park was but merely turned up at Maley’s restaurant – The Bank in Queen Street – at the given time and was taken to Motherwell. He was not even sure whether he was getting a game or not, but eventually Maley approached him and told him with a tremendous degree of understatement that his direct opponents Stevenson and Ferrier were not bad players. “Watch them!” said Maley, in what was as near to a team talk as there was likely to be. Wilson did indeed keep them quiet, the team earned a somewhat fortuitous 1-0 win through an own goal, and Peter’s Celtic career had begun.

From then on he never really looked back, and very soon earned a place in the hearts of the Celtic faithful. Celtic fans began to like his funny walk, his face which always seemed to be smiling and his 100-per-cent effort. By the middle of the following year, inch-perfect passes were his trademark as well. Wing-half was a position which was vital in the 1920s. The wing-halves were the engine house of the team, the men who turned defence into attack and the men who, nine times out of ten, determined the success of the team. Peter enjoyed consistently good reports in the press with only one man, Alex James of Raith Rovers, able to claim that he had got the better of him.

It is always hard to break into a team, particularly an established team. Anyone who starts any job will know that, and will be appreciative of any help that can be given. It is even more true in the tough, competitive world of professional football, where so many players are performing under pressure, proving that old maxim: “You are only as good as your last game”. When the team contains acerbic characters like Patsy Gallacher, regarded by some as having been the best player in the world but now beginning to struggle with fitness and anno domini, it is even more difficult.

It may be that Patsy did not like Peter, at least in the early stages. Certainly there was one occasion when Wilson scored one of his rare goals and the crowd applauded, most of his team-mates joined in the congratulations, Maley in the stand beamed his pleasure, but Patsy snarled and growled, because Wilson was meant to be a midfield player, not a goalscorer. Patsy had been expecting a pass, so that he, and not Peter, could have scored the goal.

Peter, however unworldly and naÔve in the big city of Glasgow which contrasted so vividly with the Ayrshire countryside, could understand human nature. He knew that there were hierarchies and pecking orders, and that the only way to gain entrance to inner circles was to persevere, keeping one’s head down if necessary, and then discover that gradually one could be accepted. One or two beautifully accurate passes for Patsy would do the trick, as, indeed, could a simulated deferential attitude towards the great man. Very soon Patsy saw that there was something in the boy, and Peter became in every sense a member of the club.

Other onlookers were beginning to appreciate Peter as well. His apparently laid-back and lackadaisical approach to the game hid the fact that he was a deep thinker. All this added to the impression that the country boy was just a little slow on the uptake. Appearances however were very deceptive. A contemporary chronicler in the Glasgow Observer wrote: “I like the way that Wilson surveys the position before he makes a pass. He is cool, quick-thinking and a shrewd constructor. The crisp, inch-accurate passes to a well placed colleague stamp him as a half-back who knows just what is required . . . no flurry or hurry . . . just cool and calculating . . . he will be a top-notcher yet.”

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Season 1924/25 was the third poor League season in a row for Celtic, but Peter, not as yet the finished article, learned the game and visibly grew in confidence. His reputation as being ice cool and Mr Dependable was not harmed in a game against Hearts at Parkhead in October 1924. Celtic were on a downer having lost the final of the Glasgow Cup to Rangers the week before. They were as yet undefeated in the League but this game looked like fizzling out into a miserable goalless draw. 

The supporters were on the backs of the team, but then ten minutes from time Celtic were awarded a softish penalty. Patsy Gallacher took it, but the goalkeeper saved. However, there had been encroachment from some of the Hearts players, still upset about the award of the penalty, and the referee awarded a retake. At this point Patsy turned awkward, not happy at the jeering of the crowd. He refused to take the retake, and this time it was Adam McLean who earned the raspberries as he blazed it over the bar.

Incredibly, the referee ordered yet another retake. Hearts players and supporters would remark that the referee was called Quinn and would draw dark and damaging inferences from that name, but Celtic now had nobody who wanted to make himself the third Celt in a row to miss the same penalty. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and forward stepped the young Peter Wilson, looking for all the world as if he were about to load a cart with hay. Calmly, with the crowd in an uproar, he placed the ball, stepped back, then ran up and kicked. To his horror, he saw the ball hit the bar, for he had leaned too far back, but then his horror turned to joy as the leather bounced into the net. Parkhead then erupted in relief rather than bedlam, and a few drinks were drunk that night to Peter Wilson.

The League that season was lost after more than a few inconsistencies over the winter and the undeniable fact that Rangers probably were the better team that year, but there was ample compensation in the shape of the Scottish Cup campaign. In 1925 Celtic landed the trophy for the 11th time in their existence, beating the record of Queen’s Park. Three games were required to dispose of St Mirren in the quarter-final, and then Celtic found themselves up against Rangers in the semi. They were not given very much of a chance as this was a great Rangers team, but that equinoctial day of 21 March 1925 was one of the most famous in the history of the Parkhead club.

This Celtic side, which had not performed very well hitherto, suddenly turned it on, and beat Rangers 5-0. Legend has it that Patsy Gallacher masterminded the victory and young McGrory earned his spurs that day as well, but there were other stars as well, notably Peter Wilson, who controlled the midfield, nullifying any Rangers threat, breaking up attacks before they even started and passing the ball with stunning accuracy. “Peter Wilson didn’t pass the ball. He stroked it, caressing it lovingly as he delivered it to a good home”. 

The Celtic fans were in raptures about all this. They had had little cause to be happy for a few years, but they would never forget this day. It is often said that the song Hello, Hello is a Rangers ditty, borrowed from an American Civil War song called Marching Through Georgia. Not so, for Celtic fans would sing their version from this day in 1925 until a good 40 years later:

“Hello, hello, we are the Timalloys!

Hello, hello you’ll know us by the noise!

We f***ed the Rangers in the Cup, twas great to be alive

Not one, not two, not three, not four but five”.

And then there was the final on April 11, arguably the most famous in Celtic history, immortalised by Patsy’s great individual goal – he somersaulted into the back of the net with the ball wedged between his feet – and Jimmy McGrory’s glorious header which won the Cup. But there is a danger that not enough is said about the other players in that team. Standing 0-1 down to a stuffy Dundee outfit, many a team might have buckled when the breaks did not come. But this Celtic team had the young Peter Wilson earning his first Scottish Cup medal. Notice was here given that Celtic had an outstanding pair of wing-halves in Peter and left-half John “Jean” McFarlane.

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It got even better the following year. Patsy Gallacher was now more or less finished at Parkhead, but it hardly mattered as in his place came Tommy McInally, returning like the prodigal son from Third Lanark and setting the support alight by his exploits. But he would never have done so well if it had not been for the promptings of Peter Wilson, a man who quite clearly had now arrived as a top-class footballer. Playing at right-half, Peter was now part of a triangle on the right hand side of the field with the two forwards Paddy Connolly and Alec Thomson. Connolly has been curiously neglected by historians, but he was a fine right winger, and beside him was “Mr Reliable”, the “Ever Ready” Alec Thomson, whom Maley correctly credits for bringing out the best in the young McGrory.

With Tommy McInally in the side, there was no place for another clown, so Peter tended to play everything straight. This did not prevent him, however, from deliberately cultivating his rustic gait and bucolic look, and from responding appropriately to the cries of “Farmer George” or “Celtic’s Country Bumpkin”. Now and again, he would pretend to chew on straw, or scratch his head, and it was rumoured that in the dressing room he would say things like “Aar”. This was a mark of the confidence in himself and in his role that he had developed over the last year.

He was particularly good at passing a ball, knowing exactly the right amount of weight to put on it. He could also tell who would be in the best position to receive it – the moody but brilliant McInally, the reliable Thomson or the eager young McGrory. McGrory simply could not help but score goals that year, as he was fed by four sources, Wilson, McFarlane, Thomson and McInally, but he would always claim that it was Peter who provided the best service.

Fifty years later when Jimmy McGrory was writing his book, A Lifetime in Paradise along with Gerry McNee, he was picking his best ever team. He agonised for a long time about the right-half position and could not make up his mind whether to plump for Peter Wilson, whom he had played alongside, or Bobby Murdoch, whom he had managed and watched. Murdoch eventually got the nod, but only because he was a better finisher than Wilson. They were both as good at passing the ball and in general midfield play. Anyone who ever watched Bobby Murdoch in his prime will thus get some sort of idea about how good Peter Wilson was. 

Another example will point at Peter’s greatness as well. It was Dens Park on 4 November 1961 in a thrilling match between Dundee and Celtic. Dundee would eventually win this game and the 1962 Scottish League Championship, but today Celtic were possibly the better team. It was in the good old days when Dundee had a team, and when fans of both sides could mingle together in friendly good-natured banter and express mutual respect and appreciation of each other’s fine players.

Pat Crerand was at right-half, and at one point with Celtic pressing for an equaliser, he sent a 40-yard pass across the field right to the feet of Bobby Carroll. A veteran Celtic sympathiser in the stand purred his admiration and said: “Peter Wilson!” The young Dundee fans in his hearing were amazed, and had to be told who Peter Wilson had been. A few minutes later, almost on the final whistle, Bobby Seith of Dundee won the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and sent another brilliant 40-yard pass to Alan Gilzean. A Dundee supporter turned to the veteran Celt and said: “What did you say that guy’s name was?” 

The Scottish League was won by some considerable distance in 1925/26, clinched with a goalless draw against Kilmarnock in early April. Form had been consistent, and the team had been lucky enough to have avoided injury to any large extent. Also they all knew each other, and could cope with each other having a bad day without falling into recriminations and self-pity. “The team played as if they were comfortable with each other” acknowledged the Fife Free Press after a competent win over Raith Rovers in November. Maley and the rest of the supporters enthused about their performances, and it was widely expected that with the Scottish League in the bag, the Scottish Cup would follow it for the first Double since 1914. The confidence was hardly misplaced in view of the League form, and there had been some excellent results in the Cup itself to defeat Hearts at a dangerously overcrowded Tynecastle and then Aberdeen in the semi-final at the same venue.

Sadly, the team chose to put on one of their worst performances of the season to lose the Scottish Cup final to a St Mirren team who raised their game sufficiently. Wilson was at a loss to explain why. He himself was shut down, and when he did get the ball through, nothing happened up front. Celtic were without the injured Adam McLean on the left wing, but that hardly explained why so many other players were off form. It was a salutary lesson for a team which had come far, but perhaps not as far as they thought they had.

But Peter’s career had now come on by leaps and bounds. He was clearly a hero with the Celtic fans, earning all sorts of nicknames like “Peter the Great” after the famous Russian Czar, “Peter the Painter”, curiously enough after an anarchist involved in the Siege of Sydney Street of 1911, and even, incredibly and blasphemously considering the religious affiliations of most of the support, “Saint Peter”.

He had by this time won himself an international cap. This had come in February 1926 at Ibrox when Scotland had defeated Northern Ireland 4-0. In the same way as he was supplying the ammunition for McGrory when playing for Celtic, so on this occasion he did the same for Hughie Gallacher for Scotland. It was, therefore, all the more of a disappointment when he did not make it for the team to play England at Old Trafford the week after the disappointing Scottish Cup final. It would be some time before he played again for Scotland, and Jimmy McGrory is surely not the only one who considered that Wilson was ludicrously under-capped. 

To a certain extent, Celtic made up for their disappointment in losing the Scottish Cup by winning the Glasgow Charity Cup. This is one of the more interesting tournaments in Scottish football history, for it was played at the same time as the General Strike. The final against Queen’s Park was played in a poisonous atmosphere for reasons other than football, but for a change in Glasgow football politics, the issue was not religion or Irish infiltration as much as social class. Queen’s Park were identified with the ruling classes and the bosses, whereas Celtic had many players and supporters from a mining background. The boy from the village ignored this, got on with his job and Celtic won the Charity Cup. 

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In season 1926/27, Peter helped to win the Glasgow Cup with a 1-0 defeat of Rangers, and then his second Scottish Cup medal. The team failed to retain the Scottish League championship, losing a few important games in the run-in as Rangers strengthened their challenge. But once again Peter was one of the consistent stars of the team, something that made it all the more surprising that he failed to win another Scottish cap that season. The Glasgow Observer, lavishly pro-Celtic as always, took up his cause. But other periodicals, such as the Weekly News, asked the pertinent question: “Wilson plays once for Scotland, and the team wins 4-0, then it is down the plughole with him! Where is the justice in all this?“

It was the Scottish Cup that Wilson enjoyed the most that year. The semi-final at Ibrox did not seem likely to cause too many problems as Falkirk were the opponents. But the Bairns now had Patsy Gallacher playing for them, and Patsy had been instrumental in putting Rangers out in a previous round. This was the remarkable semi-final at which the Celtic crowd hijacked the community singing and chorused: “Will ye no’come back again?” for their beloved Patsy. But Patsy did not have a good game that day, being outplayed by Peter Wilson.

Wilson was even prepared to compromise on his normal game on this occasion. Normally an attacking wing-half, this time he was prepared to do his bit to nullify the potential menace of Gallacher, as everyone in that Celtic team knew how dangerous he could be, even at the age of 36. Patsy hardly got a kick of the ball, and Celtic ran out 1-0 winners thanks to an Adam McLean goal.

The final was Wilson’s, and Celtic’s, third in a row and it was against the Second Division part-timers from East Fife. This game was frankly a mismatch, as East Fife were still struggling to recover losses of support and finance in the wake of the General Strike and the miners’ strike, which went on a lot longer. The game finished with Celtic toying with their opponents, Tommy McInally clowning and Peter Wilson barely breaking sweat on the halfway line.

The next few years, however, were bad ones for Celtic. Rangers beat them 4-0 in the 1928 Scottish Cup final, and by 1929 the recession began to bite very hard at Parkhead. Celtic supporters often feel, rightly or wrongly, that they suffer more from unemployment that anyone else, but in truth there was little to attract them to Parkhead, as Maley, needing to pay for the construction of a new stand, sold McInally and McLean and tried to sell McGrory and the prodigious young goalkeeper John Thomson.

Peter plodded along, obviously frustrated with the lack of success and suffering, on a personal level, from being passed over for another Scottish cap, thanks mainly to the poor performances of the rest of the Celtic team. But he was at last chosen in summer 1930 to go to France to play for Scotland. It was Scotland’s first game against France, and only the second time that they had ever gone to Europe to play full internationals, foreign football having been considered “infra dig” for Scotland up to that point.

Thus it was that the boy from Beith found himself in Paris, an exotic and distant place in 1930. His Celtic colleague, goalkeeper John Thomson, was making his international debut that day, and both Celts played well as Scotland beat France 2-0. As remarkable as anything for Peter would have been that the game was played on a Sunday, something that was most unusual at that time and certainly would not have happened in Scotland itself. Be that as it may, Hughie Gallacher scored the two goals which defeated the French.

Wilson would have been disappointed that an injury prevented another Scottish cap against Wales in October 1930 (although he did win a Scottish League cap against the English League in November) but 1931 was a remarkable year for both he and Celtic. In the first place, Peter was chosen to play for Scotland in the goalless draw against Northern Ireland in Belfast, but was unfortunate enough to pick up another injury. He had generally been very lucky with injuries in his life, but now he had sustained two in the one season, this one in Belfast serious enough to keep him out of the game that everyone wanted to play in, against England at Hampden. His time would come, though.

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He recovered in time for the month of April and thus he took part in the extraordinary rollercoaster that was 1931 for Celtic. The Scottish Cup was won in a replayed final against Motherwell (Wilson was outstanding in both games, urging Celtic on in the first encounter, when they were 0-2 down and only ten minutes remained), the League was only narrowly lost, and the team then went on a groundbreaking and very successful tour of the USA and Canada. The country boy from Beith had thus travelled far, thanks to his football, but he remained a Beith boy at heart and was glad to get home. Then in September came the tragedy of the death of goalkeeper John Thomson in a game against Rangers at Ibrox. Wilson was involved on that occasion, which dwarfed everything else that had gone before in terms of tragedy. Naturally Peter was upset about the death of his friend, and his play, like that of everyone else at Parkhead, suffered accordingly. 

Peter had been asked to read the lesson on behalf of Celtic FC at John’s Memorial Service at the Trinity Congregational Church in Glasgow on the Tuesday after John’s death. Davie Meiklejohn of Rangers, in some ways the hero of the day for his brave attempt to hush his fans who were rejoicing at the sight of Celtic’s goalkeeper being injured, and himself an Elder of the Church of Scotland did another reading on behalf of Rangers FC, but sadly, such was the crowd outside the Church that Peter was unable to gain admission, and the Minister had to do the job for him. One can only imagine the anguish that Peter suffered at about this time.

But time heals, and Peter was to have a glorious swansong to his Celtic career in 1933. On 1 April, he was at last given his chance to play for Scotland against England at Hampden, in a game rightly considered in the 1930s to be the most important in the world. Even though 1933 saw Great Britain not yet entirely out of the depths of the Depression, and more than a little concerned about the funny little man who had recently become Chancellor of Germany, more than 134,000 were at Hampden to see what was possibly the best ever game between the two countries.

It was the day of the birth of the Hampden Roar, the noise that startled and alarmed all Glasgow until everyone realised that it meant that Scotland had scored a goal. Scotland were leading 1-0 late in the game and the strong England team were pressing hard until Peter cleared a ball which found Doc Marshall. He released Bob McPhail, who passed to McGrory and the lethal marksman unleashed a magnificent drive into the roof of the net. The noise around the stadium was immense and lasted until long after the final whistle. Peter, who had played well throughout, was treated as one of the heroes of the hour, and as if that wasn’t enough, he was back at Hampden a fortnight later to collect his fourth Scottish Cup winner’s medal as Celtic beat Motherwell 1-0.

He had one final season at Parkhead, but 1933/34 was a very bad one for all concerned. Wilson, now approaching his 30th birthday, began to slow down and to pick up more injuries. With Peter out of touch and several others clearly past their best, the team suffered, and Maley turned on his players, moaning in the Celtic programme about “players not possessing pride” and “teamwork being a lost art”. In addition, money was still not in great supply, and after a dispute about terms, Peter felt that he had done ten years at Parkhead and that was enough. He was put on the transfer list in May 1934.

He moved to Hibs at the start of the 1934/35 season, and spent four years in the grossly under-performing Easter Road. He was always given a great reception from Celtic fans whenever they played Hibs, but he probably realised that his best days were behind him. Nevertheless he did well enough for Hibs, playing his part in keeping them away from the icy finger of relegation, which had beckoned once or twice.

In 1938 Hibs released him and he became player-manager of Dunfermline for a year, but war then intervened and Peter joined the Royal Navy. He returned to Beith to resume his career as a cabinet-maker, and although he did a little scouting and coaching for various clubs, it was on a part-time basis. He died in Beith in 1983.

Those who saw Peter in his heyday were often surprised that more was not made of him, because he was as good as any player who wore the green-and-white during that decade. The reason probably lies in his character, as Peter Wilson was not a show-off, a headline-seeker or an attention-grabber. He was merely a shy country boy who loved his football, and was proud to wear the green-and-white. Like many an Ayrshire man, he was an expert on Robbie Burns and in the long tradition of Celtic players from that county (Sunny Jim Young, James Hay, Jamie Weir) he would always do his bit of Burns when Celtic were staying away overnight and Maley had organised one of his soirees. He would never have survived a big-money move to an English club; he was what he always wanted to be – Peter Wilson of Celtic. 

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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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