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The Weekend Long Read – JOHN “DIXIE” DEANS

13 March 2021


“Dixie” Deans was a very special footballer, the sort of personality player that the Scottish game frankly lacks at the moment. He was given the nickname of Dixie in conscious imitation of his near namesake William Ralph Dean, who played for Everton and England between the wars. Dixie Dean did not like being called Dixie. He felt that it smacked of the Negro slave trade of the 18thcentury, and that he had been given this nickname because of his swarthy complexion and his curly hair, as if one of his forebears had been a black slave. In Liverpool, of course, that was possible. But William Dean had become Everton’s greatest player of all time.

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It was, therefore, no disgrace to be given the same nickname as this great man, and John Kelly Deans, born at Linwood in 1946, was the sort of player who developed an instant affinity with the fans, a particular achievement for Dixie, whose background was anything other than Celtic minded. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a Rangers supporter, or at least was widely suspected of so being, but was hardly the first or the last with a supposed Ibrox-inclined childhood to perform outstandingly at Parkhead. Indeed, in the team that he joined, Danny McGrain, Kenny Dalglish and a few others (not least Jock Stein himself) “suffered” from that “handicap”. It was, of course, no handicap at all.

Dixie claims that he was a St Mirren supporter in his childhood. He admits that he came from the wrong side of the city and went to a different type of school (i.e. a non-Catholic one) from the majority of the Celtic fans but, if there was any kind of problem with being accepted by the support, it was never obvious. The legend that Deans was wearing a Rangers “bunnet” at the Linwood engineering works on the day that he joined Motherwell in 1965 is related in the excellent Rhapsody In Green by Woods and Campbell (published 1990) and has never been denied. Yet he is adamant that St Mirren were the team that he loved as a boy.

He was a player whose career was going nowhere fast in the autumn of 1971. Aged 25, he had been with Motherwell for five years, but had been plagued by injury and a bad disciplinary record. He was a fine player, capable of scoring goals, but performing in a Motherwell team whose performances were mediocre, to put it kindly. He did also have a reputation for self-indulgence, a matter which became obvious when he was once dropped for a game against Aberdeen in 1971 because he “overslept”. He might have earned a transfer to Rangers in 1968, but the Ibrox men, deterred presumably by his bad disciplinary record, went to Hibs for Colin Stein instead. In 1971 his career was fizzling out to a premature ending, so much so that he was considering emigration, reckoning that in Scotland he was a marked man in the eyes of referees.

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He might even have gone to Celtic earlier, had Jock Stein not decided to go to Hearts for Willie Wallace instead. This was on 6 December 1966. On 10 December, when Wallace made his debut at Parkhead, the visitors were Motherwell. The 40,000 crowd were happy with their banners of “Oor Wullie” to celebrate Wallace’s arrival, and saw a good Celtic side beat Motherwell 4-2. They would hardly have noticed that a Motherwell man called Deans was sent off after a tussle with Jimmy Johnstone, and they would certainly never have guessed that this insignificant youth would one day become one of their greatest legends.

The catalyst for Dixie’s transfer was the shocking League Cup final on 23 October against Partick Thistle. This 4-1 win for Thistle was one of the most famous games in Scottish football history, peppered with myths like the Rangers supporters departing Ibrox at half-time in order to be at Hampden at the end to gloat. Anyone with a knowledge of Glasgow geography and transport on a Saturday afternoon will realise the logistic impossibility of all this, but the myth persists.

Certainly, however, it was a shocker. It was caused by two factors. One was the absence through injury of Billy McNeill and the other was sheer complacency, both in the defence and in the attack. Stein may well have regretted his precipitate decision to offload Willie Wallace and John Hughes to Crystal Palace, but he decided that something had to be done to shock Tommy Callaghan and Harry Hood, whose contribution in the League Cup final had been, to say the least, disappointing. No second-half comeback had happened, and new blood was required.

Dixie Deans was the target. By the following Saturday, the Celtic team bus arrived back from a lacklustre 1-0 win at Ayr to find Dixie Deans waiting at Parkhead to sign. Dixie hadn’t been playing for Motherwell that day because he was serving a six-week suspension, a factor which had no doubt helped to reduce the transfer fee to £17,500. Celtic fans were glad to see that Stein was taking action after the humiliation of the League Cup final, but they were possibly a little underwhelmed by what they knew about Dixie Deans. A stocky, chunky sort of character who could score a few goals for Motherwell, certainly, but he didn’t always look fit and he clearly had a bad disciplinary record. At 5 feet 7 inches, he also lacked height for a centre forward, it was felt.

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Apparently Celtic were breaking some sort of regulation by signing a player who was under suspension, and were fined the not particularly inordinate amount of £50 for this breach of regulations. Clearly Stein thought that it was worthwhile, but he was determined that from now on, Deans’ discipline, both with referees and in the wider sense, would improve. This was a success, for Deans was never ordered off with Celtic, apart from once in a reserve game towards the end of his Parkhead stay and when he was sorely provoked.

Stein was just the right type of manager for Dixie. Jock’s strict, even obsessive teetotalism was exactly what was required for a man who might have strayed in the company of some of the wilder elements of the Celtic team. Deans, indeed, had an early taste of Stein. Even though he was not eligible to play, Dixie was taken to Malta the following midweek to soak in the atmosphere of Celtic playing a European tie, and to get to know the other players. If Deans had ever thought that he was in for a good time on the Mediterranean island, he was quickly disabused of the notion. He was made to train hard with the rest of the squad, and the night before the game, the social event of the trip consisted of being taken to the cinema where all the players were seated in one row, with trainer Neil Mochan at one end and the stern Jock Stein at the other. This was to make sure that nothing other than orange juice and Coca-Cola were consumed during the showing of the western Eldorado. Even a visit to the toilet was looked upon with grave suspicion!

It is often said that Stein could spot a good striker. He had less success with goalkeepers, but in the forward line, he had already chosen well with Willie Wallace and Harry Hood, and Dixie, he felt, might be what Celtic required. Deans would provide strength and aggression in the forward line, team up with the young but fast-developing Kenny Dalglish, and provide a foil for Jimmy Johnstone, with whom he had developed a friendship and affinity. In the meantime, however, the priority during what remained of Dixie’s suspension was to get himself fit. This would be achieved by the strict but enjoyable training regime for which Stein and his worthy assistants, Sean Fallon and Neil Mochan, were famous.

His suspension served, Dixie played his first game for Celtic on 27 November and scored a late and irrelevant goal in a 5-1 tanking at Firhill of Partick Thistle, ironically the team which unwittingly provoked his arrival. From then on, he was a regular goalscorer that season, teaming up perfectly with the talented but as yet inexperienced Kenny Dalglish, and almost instantly earning the love of the Celtic fans for his wholehearted approach to the game. He may have worried that “going to the wrong kind of school” might have alienated some Celtic fans from him. This was, and always had been, rubbish. Celtic fans will always accept as one of their own a player who gives his all for the club.

He scored in his next five games, one against Kilmarnock, two against East Fife, one against his old team-mates at Motherwell, then one against Hearts during a Merry Christmas followed by two against Clyde to make it a Happy New Year. The New Year of 1972 would bring immortality to Dixie Deans for the right reasons and for the wrong reasons, but it was already clear to Celtic fans that Jock Stein had turned up trumps once again in his choice of striker.

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Celtic won the League very comfortably in season 1971/72 for the seventh year in a row, thus beating the record set by the great Edwardian Celts from 1905 to 1910. The actual winning of the title was at East Fife on 15 April, although another four games yet remained to be played. Dixie scored two that day, and his celebrations at Methil showed that there was, indeed, a great relationship between the player and the fans. He had played a great part in the club’s success and Jock Stein was fulsome in his praise of his prolific goalscorer.

But Dixie’s relationship with the fans would soon be put to the test, only four days after the capturing of the Scottish League. It was one of the most memorable nights in Glasgow’s long football history, but for Dixie it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It was the night when two European semi-final second Legs were bring played in the city (such was the strength of Scottish football in 1972) – Celtic against Inter Milan in the European Cup, and Rangers against Bayern Munich in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Rangers duly won through, but for Celtic it was all frustration.

“Stalemate” and “war of attrition” were the phrases used, as the two teams who had drawn 0-0 in the San Siro also drew 0-0 at Parkhead, even after extra time, neither team having been able to pierce the other’s defence. Deans, often under-employed by Stein in European football, was only brought on late in the game for the tiring Kenny Dalglish. Arguably, Stein made a mistake there, because if Dixie had been on from the start he might just have upset the tight Italian defence. As it was, with the nation and the continent watching on television, the game went to Parkhead’s and Celtic’s first penalty shoot-out in a major tournament.

Ten players took penalties. Mazzola, Facchetti, Frustalupi, Pellizzaro and Jair did the business for the Italians, as did Craig, Johnstone, McCluskey and Murdoch for Celtic, while Deans was the only man who missed. He took Celtic’s first penalty but sent the ball over the bar, not “ballooned” as some glory-hunting newspapers said, but over the bar nevertheless. How Dixie suffered on that dreadful night of 19 April 1972, particularly when some morons in the crowd booed and jeered him. The emphasis is on “some” morons, as the rest of the Parkhead crowd were sympathetically, albeit silently, supportive.

Naturally the Rangers fans enjoyed this – understandably for they had had little else to cheer about for many years – but so too did some of the Scottish media, with all sorts of jokes about how Houston Space Centre had phoned Parkhead to say that they had got the ball, and a particularly unkind ditty based on Jesus Christ Superstar went along the lines of:

“Dixie Deans, Superstar

Kicked the ball over the Inter bar”.

It is the easiest thing in the world to miss a penalty. One could make a long list of players, particularly Celtic players, who have missed penalties at crucial times. Dixie’s sad miss prevented Celtic’s third appearance in a European Cup final, this time against Ajax of Amsterdam. One recalls the distraught Paul McStay in the League Cup final of 1994, and in 2006 Gary Caldwell, Kenny Miller and Evander Sno all missed penalties in a League Cup penalty shoot-out against Falkirk. And, of course, World Cups have been won and lost on penalty shoot-outs. It is the sort of thing that can ruin careers, and it is certainly a circumstance that will take a great deal of living down, particularly when the media refuse to allow the matter to go away.

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But Dixie had the character to come back. He actually made the matter go away, thereby relieving a great deal of pain and hurt from himself and the Celtic fans. In the first place, on the following Saturday before a cheering crowd, Dixie scored twice against his old team Motherwell in a 5-2 win. Celtic were awarded two penalties. On both occasions, the crowd chanted his name, wanting him to exorcise the ghost of Wednesday night, but Bobby Murdoch did the needful on both occasions as Dixie politely declined.

But it was on 6 May 1972, only two and a half weeks after Dixie’s European nightmare, that immortality beckoned. The Celtic team in the late 1960s and early 1970s were openly being compared to what was generally reckoned to be Scotland’s greatest ever team, namely Willie Maley’s Edwardian Celts of Adams, McNair and Weir; Young Loney and Hay; Bennett, McMenemy, Quinn, Somers and Hamilton. Now, in a very real sense, was there an opportunity to mention Dixie Deans in the same breath as the immortal Jimmy Quinn!

It was the Scottish Cup final against Hibs, a fine team in those days with Stanton, Brownlie, Blackley, Edwards and others. Dixie scored a hat-trick against them. Only Jimmy Quinn had done that before in a Scottish Cup final, and even Jimmy’s ghost would have marvelled at Dixie that day. There are times in Celtic’s history that some unseen power seems to be at work. Billy McNeill claims that Dixie had said the night before that he fancied himself to score a hat-trick, and that if he did, he would do a somersault. He did both.

The first and third goals of the hat-trick were superb, good, strikers’ goals showing his strength and accuracy, but “divine” is hardly too strong a word to describe his second. He rounded goalkeeper Jim Herriot, seemed to lose the ball, then regained it, beat Herriot again, then another defender, and slammed home before doing the famous somersault which endeared him even more to the exultant green-and-white hordes behind that King’s Park goal. Fortunately, in this age of videos and DVDs, this goal can be enjoyed time and time again.

Jimmy Quinn’s Scottish Cup final hat-trick had happened as long ago as 1904 in a 3-2 victory over Rangers. In addition, it was claimed half-heartedly that a few players had done the same in the 19th century, including Sandy McMahon in 1892 (depending on how one reads the newspaper reports) but these claims were difficult to prove. Quinn’s was for definite, while great strikers like Jimmy McGrory had failed to emulate that feat. Now, in 1972, there could be no argument – Celtic had another Cup final hat-trick hero to boast about.

Dixie scored 27 goals for Celtic that season, more than one per game, but it was that hat-trick in their famous 6-1 win over Hibs to win the Scottish Cup for the 22nd time which erased from most memories his penalty miss. Not only that, but Dixie had also made everyone forget the Partick Thistle fiasco, and one wonders what the people in Motherwell thought of all this. A fee of £17,500 hardly made up for what they were missing.

In the following season, he hit the net 32 times. That term, 1972/73, saw the narrowest title win of the famous nine in a row. A rebuilt Rangers side, winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972, pushed Celtic hard, and it was often Dixie Deans who would notch the vital goal, frequently at crucial times of the game when the opposition were threatening to equalise, or even go ahead. Many goals were simply the tap-ins of a born poacher, but Deans could head a goal, had a devastating shot and, surprisingly for a man of his build, had an unexpected turn of speed.

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Round about February, Celtic were suffering from a crisis of confidence. This was obvious in a game at East Fife in which three separate players – Dixie was not one of them – missed penalties. As a result East Fife were winning 2-1, but just at the death, Dixie appeared on the right to beat his defender and score the goal which gave Celtic a crucial point. As spring arrived Celtic’s last seven League games were all won. Just as well, as Rangers were breathing down their necks. Apart from the game against St Johnstone in which Deans was injured, he scored in every one of them.

As the season reached its breathtaking climax, Deans scored twice in the game at a packed, and not particularly well behaved Easter Road, and the title was clinched. The first was in the first half, he helped Dalglish score a second, then Dixie himself scored the goal which induced sheer delirium as the fans celebrated Celtic’s eighth successive League championship, and turned Edinburgh green and white. On the train back from Edinburgh that night, fans sang:

“Is it true what they say about Dixie?

Does the sun really shine on him?”

or the less wordy:

“Oh, Dixie, Dixie, Dixie,

Dixie Dixie Dixie Deans”

But if there was euphoria about the Scottish League, there was unhappiness in all three Cup competitions that year. Injuries to Dixie –  a bustling centre-forward like Dixie is always likely to pick up knocks – robbed Celtic of his services on two vital occasions. On 4 November against Dundee United, Deans was substituted by Harry Hood, and the slight injury to Deans persuaded Stein to go for a defensive formation on the following Wednesday against Uijpest Dosza in Hungary – a type of game for which Celtic are temperamentally unsuited when guarding a narrow 2-1 lead – and Deans was only brought on when the damage was done. Had he been fit, Stein might have gone for an early away goal to ease the pressure. As it was, Celtic simply did not cope with the loss of an early goal, and never came to terms with the game.

There was a similar tale of woe in the League Cup final where Celtic faced Hibs on the ridiculous date of 9 December 1972, far too late in the year for a major Cup final. It would have been nice to see Dixie’s hat-trick heroics of May repeated in the winter gloom. However, he had been taken off in the 6-0 defeat of Dumbarton the previous week, and was not risked for the final in which the good Hibs team got their revenge over a Celtic side deprived of their main striker, and relying too much on the as-yet-unripened talents of Kenny Dalglish to do the needful.

Hopes that Deans might reproduce his hat-trick in the 1972 Scottish Cup final a year later were to prove unfounded against Rangers on 5 May 1973. Deans had a fine game, and indeed the rest of the Celtic team had little reason to reproach themselves, but it was Rangers who scored three against Celtic’s two – and the Celts were just a little short of luck at vital points of the game. So 1972/73 came to a close with only the Scottish League on the sideboard. This was actually considered a failure!

The following season, 1973/74, Dixie even made Jimmy McGrory tremble, but with anticipation rather than fear. Jimmy had held the record for goals scored in a single match since 1928, when he had notched eight against Dunfermline. On 17 November 1973 in a game against Partick Thistle, as “Dixie! Dixie!” resounded around Parkhead, Dixie scored six, and frankly, it might have been more. McGrory, watching from the stand, would have been delighted to see his record broken, but it was “just” six. In a rare and perhaps unprecedented burst of extravagance, the Parkhead “biscuit tin economy” allowed Dixie to keep the ball and perhaps even provided the pen for the players of both sides to sign it!

The enthusiasm engendered by this fine performance had a touch of escapism about it, for late 1973 was a difficult time for the world. A Middle East war led to the price of oil being quadrupled and there was a threat of petrol rationing. In the meantime US President Richard Nixon, around whom the noose was tightening for his role in the burglary of his political opponents’ office, namely Watergate, showed every sign of cracking, putting his troops on a low-key state of nuclear alert. If this was not enough, the miners in Great Britain were on an overtime ban and threatening an all-out strike against the Conservative government. Football, and the goalscoring talent of Dixie Deans, provided some sort of welcome relief. But even in that area, the crowds were dwindling, possibly as a protest at the poor facilities and the problem of hooliganism, which no-one seemed prepared or even willing to tackle.

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Dixie was injured in a League Cup quarter-final at Pittodrie, and the tragedy was that he did not recover quickly enough to be fit for the final against Dundee. Thus for the second year in a row, Celtic went into a League Cup final without their star striker. For the second year in a row they lost, this time in the surreal atmosphere of a virtually deserted Hampden, hardly assisted by an unplayable pitch and a kick-off at 1.30 pm so that floodlights would not have to be used in the energy shortage. The Scottish League persisted in their moronic belief that December was a good month for a Cup final.

He celebrated his return with four goals against Falkirk on 22 December and from then on played his full part as Celtic surged to their ninth League title in a row, this time with remarkable ease as their challengers Aberdeen, Hibs and Rangers all collapsed woefully. Dixie also won his second Scottish Cup medal that season in a campaign in which he made three notable contributions – a hat trick against Clydebank which included the first goal scored in Scottish football on a Sunday, the only goal of a tight contest with his old mates Motherwell in a replayed quarter-final, and a goal almost at the death in the Scottish Cup final to make it 3-0 against an outclassed and overawed Dundee United.

Europe was a disappointment. A tense and spirited performance against the Swiss club Basle saw Celtic through to the semi-final against Atletico Madrid. On one of European football’s saddest nights, the Spanish side kicked Celtic off the park, being prepared to lose three men in the circumstances. Sadly their tactics worked, as Celtic were so put off by the violent tactics that they could not score, and the first leg finished 0-0. Deans did not play in the return leg, and the intimidated Celtic went down 0-2 in Madrid.

Deans scored 33 goals that season, and it remains a sore point that Scotland’s manager Willie Ormond did not employ him in the World Cup finals of 1974. Perhaps Ormond felt that Dixie’s disciplinary record counted against him, but Celtic supporters were mystified, particularly when Scotland went out, simply because they did not score enough goals that summer. It is hard to believe that the presence of Dixie would not have helped. Possibly he was a tad slow for international football, but on the other hand he was an unorthodox striker who might well have unsettled the Brazilians. It is certainly true, one feels, that had Deans been playing against Zaire, the goalscoring tally would not have been restricted to two.

Finally, he was given two Scottish caps the following season. He played well enough against East Germany at Hampden in October but fatally did not score in the 3-0 win. Then when Scotland lost the next game to Spain, Dixie was substituted halfway through the second period, was subsequently made one of the scapegoats by the press, and was never picked again. Dixie himself also felt that there was the influence of Jock Stein, who as Celtic’s manager was never too keen on his players risking injury with Scotland.

It was often Hibs who bore the brunt of Dixie’s scoring talent. He earned the title “the Hammer of the Hibs”. Indeed, he scored 19 times against that good Hibs defence in 14 appearances, saying that he did not “like the green jersey”. Significantly, when Hibs beat Celtic in the League Cup final of December 1972, Dixie was not playing. But he had another hat-trick to dish out to them in a Cup final, this time the League Cup final of autumn 1974. Two of the goals were strikes to be proud of, but one of them was truly phenomenal. A corner-kick came to Jimmy Johnstone at the edge of the penalty box. Jimmy drove hard for goal, the ball cannoned off a defender at full speed, and Dixie catapulted forward to head home the deflection. Exactly how quick Dixie’s reactions must have been, we do not know, but the reactions of the crowd were a little slower. There was definitely a split second on the terracing before the fans could actually believe what they had just seen.

A feature of that game was the understanding he displayed with Jimmy Johnstone. Indeed, they were very similar characters, neither of them exactly choirboys on the field or off it, but both with a heart of gold and both rejoicing in a tremendous rapport with the adoring Celtic fans, who chanted “Jinkie” and “Dixie” ad infinitum that crisp autumn day as Celtic lifted the Scottish League Cup. Dixie made a point on that occasion of talking to Joe Harper of Hibs. Like Dixie, Joe had scored a hat-trick that day, but poor Joe had ended up on the wrong end of a 6-3 scoreline.

It would turn out to be Dixie’s last big day. Injury plagued him during the 1974/75 season. He missed the Scottish Cup final against Airdrie, dropped to his intense disappointment in favour of Paul Wilson, and that was the campaign in which Celtic finally lost the League championship which had been theirs since 1966. All good things must come to an end, but the feeling was frequently expressed that if Dixie had played more games than his 18, the championship might well have been retained for yet another year, thus establishing a world record of ten in a row. He missed, for example, the crucial New Year game at Ibrox when Rangers won 3-0, and the game at Pittodrie when Celtic slid to a 2-3 defeat. On several occasions, he played only half a game, having to be withdrawn because of injury or the loss of form and fitness that being injured often brings. Europe, too, was a disappointment that year, with Celtic going out as early as October to a Greek team, Olympiakos, with whom the sterner Parkhead combination of a few years previously would have wiped the floor.

In the summer of 1975 Jock Stein was involved in an horrendous road accident, which he was lucky to survive. Thus he was out of action for a year. This was clearly a problem for Celtic, and particularly so for Dixie Deans, who lacked the firm guidance of Big Jock. Captain Billy McNeill had also retired. Assistant manager Sean Fallon tried hard, but something had gone from Celtic. The moment had passed, the magic had evaporated and Dixie was part of the general Celtic decline in 1975/76, the season in which Rangers won a treble that they would hardly have hoped to achieve over a sterner Celtic side.

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Deans was unlucky to miss through injury the League Cup final, and he would surely have made a difference to that dysfunctional Celtic forward line in the 0-1 defeat. Following the defeat in the Scottish Cup in January to Motherwell, the decline was steep, with Deans scoring only two goals (one of them a penalty) for the rest of the season. In the summer of 1976, Deans was off to Luton Town for £20,000 and then he played fitfully for Partick Thistle anmd Carlisle, and had a spell in Australia.

He will always be remembered, however, for his brief but phenomenally successful spell with Celtic. Indeed, it is salutary to remember that he played for less than five seasons as a Celt. He did seem to have been around for a great deal longer than that. He scored 125 goals for Celtic, many of them great individual efforts, more of them through the striker’s predatory instinct of being in the right place at the right time. He had speed, determination and strength – some of these qualities not immediately obvious from his somewhat chunky frame.

The memory will always remain of Dixie’s characteristic celebration, with arms raised and fist clenched, in the style of a Victorian boxer who had just knocked out an opponent. Perhaps he did not start off life as a Celt, but he very soon became one, acknowledged, accepted and admired. It was just as well, maybe, that Partick Thistle did win that dreadful League Cup final of 1971, otherwise Dixie Deans might have slowly disappeared onto the sunset, perhaps to Australia, and certainly to oblivion. He had much for which to be thankful to Jock Stein. But then again, we all have.

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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