Scotland stirred slowly out of its massive annual Hogmanay hangover on 1 January 1969, to find to its surprise that it had a new football knight.
Scotland stirred slowly out of its massive annual Hogmanay hangover on 1 January 1969, to find to its surprise that it had a new football knight. For overnight Celtic chairman Bob Kelly had become Sir Robert, and even in the often poisonous atmosphere which swirls around as the curse of Scottish football it is fair to say it was an award which brought general approval.
If we are to have an honours system with all its anomalies, there is no doubt that no football legislator deserves it more. Thousands of people who were not even football fans, never mind Celtic supporters, were happy that a slight to Scotland had at last been rectified. Despite the awards which had been given to the leading members of the England outfit who won the World Cup there was a genuine anger and it was amazing that the Government seemed unaware of it for so long that Celtic as the first British side to win the European Cup had not received one paltry medal in three honours lists after Lisbon.
It was perhaps unfortunate from the public opinion point of view that Sir Matt Busby’s knighthood came only a week after his Manchester United had followed Celtic as the second British side to capture the European Cup. Busby’s award, of course, was not just for winning the European Cup, but try telling that to the fan in the pub who could only see it as another example of a deliberate snub to a Scots club.
Equally, Bob Kelly's knighthood was not just because he was chairman of a European Cup winning team. His services to football, even if Celtic had never reached Lisbon, would have merited an honour. He has been a director of his club since 1931, chairman since 1947, president of the Scottish Football Association and president of the Scottish League, with two terms as president of each body.
You can disagree violently with Bob Kelly, and many have over the years, but on one aspect of his life there is no dispute, his love of football. He has always put more into the sport than he has ever taken out. One national newspaper columnist greeted his knighthood with the tribute . . . ‘his stature exposes the pompous mediocrities who inhabit many boardrooms’. He could hardly fail to have become interested in football. His father, James Kelly, was Celtic’s first captain, after he had been successfully wooed from Renton, the world champions of their era.
‘Of course, they thought the world was Britain then,’ says Sir Robert. But, that was after all a long time ago, so how does he manage to maintain his interest in his sixties, at an age when most men confine their activities to feet up in front of a television set. It has meant sitting shivering in an open-air stadium in Belgrade or sweltering in the vast Los Angeles Coliseum. ‘I remember asking Alex McNair, who played 21 seasons for us and was a great student of the game, how he kept his interest,’ he said. ‘He told me “I’ve never seen a match yet that's not got something new in it." And that’s true. I’ve had a lot of pleasure out of watching Celtic, but any two teams would do, even a match on Glasgow Green.
‘When I was a younger man, and the senior season stopped I used to go on to watch junior matches, and then juveniles right through to July. I must have seen hundreds of them, just as long as it was a game of football.’ He can still recall vividly the first time he saw Celtic play . . . the forerunner of literally thousands of times he has seen his team involved. ‘It was a Scottish Cup game at Parkhead, around 1911 I think. Bobby Walker scored a great goal for Hearts to give them a 1-0 Victory.’ Suddenly the cutlery on the table is re-arranged to describe that goal, and he whisks me back to a time I never knew, of players with long pants, centre partings, and a whiff of an era packed with the men who are now football legends.
The move which brought the goal is described in detail, and he remembers at the end his father, the manager, Willie Maley, and the famous forward Jimmy McMenemy going out to examine a mudmark on one of the posts where some of the Celtic players thought the ball had crossed the line for the equaliser. His enthusiasm for one player, of all the hundreds he must have known, is still undiminished nearly fifty years later.
That player is Patsy Gallacher, the little inside-forward dubbed by the fans of his day as ‘The mighty atom’. Kelly looks back over a lifetime in football and calls him simply . . . ‘The greatest player I have ever known’.
He gets almost carried away on the memories of Gallacher. I have heard him defend furiously the legend of the inside-forward in one of those late-night discussions when people in football look back and perhaps sigh for their lost youth and old heroes. Someone had questioned whether or not Gallacher would have succeeded in present-day football, Bob Kelly, for one, had no doubts. He told me almost wistfully . . . ‘I wish he had been captured on film, he had the most perfect balance.’ Suddenly, Sir Robert Kelly, knight of the realm, swoops almost out of his chair in a crowded restaurant to demonstrate to me Gallacher’s perfect balance. He can tell you of moves which led up to Gallacher’s goals with such vivid descriptive touches that Jock Stein jokes gently: ‘Some times I think the chairman adds a defender to these stories.
’ Only one modern star has come near to Gallacher in his opinion, and that was Real Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano, the man Celtic unsuccessfully bid for in the twilight of his great career. He told me of a discussion he had with Matt Busby, just after Manchester United had brought Denis Law back from Italy to Old Trafford. ‘I’ve just signed the greatest player in the world, in fact the greatest player ever,’ said Matt.
He goes on, ‘I couldn‘t accept that.’ ‘You mean the greatest player you've ever seen,’ said Kelly. ‘Law is a great player, but not as great as Gallacher. There was one simple test I put to Matt. Gallacher made everyone around him an internationalist, right-half or right-winger . . . you could not say that about Law.’ He talked to me about some of the great Celtic teams, the pre-war Empire Exhibition side of 1938, the Coronation Cup side of 1953 and the European Cup winning side. Just when it seems he is indulging in the pleasant, but sometimes dangerous pastime of too much nostalgia, he says: ‘All great teams. But the European Cup team is the greatest. The other teams reached their peak for around three weeks, the present one has done it over seasons.’ And then he looks to the future, and there is as much excitement in his voice as when he was telling me about the great days so long ago. ‘I hope now that we are at the top we can stay on the plateau. We won’t win everything, of course, but I think we can recruit the players to keep us there. ‘The nucleus of the present team was being built when we were failing to win Cups. It should be easier to stay there now.’ I asked him how he reacted to the period in the sixties when success and Celtic seemed to have fallen out permanently.
When he sat tight-lipped in the front row of the directors’ box, and listened to the fans haying for his blood. ‘I think a great deal of it was unfair. We were on a youth policy, I personally believe it’s the only way for lasting success.
‘You can buy players, but to try and buy your way out of permanent trouble just won’t work. ‘We were beaten in Cup Finals during that time not because I thought we were the worst team but possibly because the players began to think there was a jinx over them.’ Then he traced the thinking which had brought back Jock Stein to Parkhead for the second time, and the real new era of Celtic. "Jimmy McGrory had been a magnificent servant to Celtic, as a manager and player. But like me he was getting on in years. ‘I had always been close to the players. The ones in the teams of the twenties and thirties were my friends.
‘I could still talk to the players in the fifties, the ones when Jock played. But by the sixties they looked on me as an old man. ‘We needed someone who could talk their language, and we needed to make the change when we had a chance of success.
‘It was important the new manager started with a success, and we were going well in the Scottish Cup at the time.’ So Stein returned, to his first triumph with Celtic the one perhaps forgotten now in the heady victories of Europe but just as important then to the club as any later conquest -- the 1965 Scottish Cup win against his old side, Dunfermline. Bob Kelly’s pride when the Celtic come-back was completed as they became the First-ever British team to win the European Cup was evident that night in Lisbon. Not even an official banquet turned into a babble of Latin voices and during which he had threatened to sit down if they didn’t shut up during his speech had dimmed his pleasure. That was evident when he arrived back at the team’s luxury hotel headquarters, the Palace Hotel in Estoril holiday home of millionaires after the game and that long drawn-out banquet. It’s doubtful if the lofty hotel had ever seen a night like it.
Yet such is the irony of success in football that possibly many of the fans offering him their congratulations would have been happy only a few short years before that to see him quit. However, maybe because the greater part of his life has been spent at a time when, both in a football and political sense, Britain did not need Europe, he has never fallen completely under the spell of the Continental trophies. That’s in contrast to his manager, Jock Stein, who thrives in Europe and sees it as the great challenge of modern football.
That fertile mind of the Celtic manager ticks over to find new ways of getting the maximum advantage out of the speed of jet travel . . . that’s why his team are now whisked home the night of a game in Europe if the kick-off is suitably early.
Just about Stein’s unhappiest spell in football was in the autumn of 1967 when Celtic lost first to Dynamo Kiev in the European Cup, and then the disaster of the World championship against Racing. It meant that Celtic were forced to take a back seat and clear off the soccer stage that Stein loves most of all for his team . . . Europe! However his chairman is more cautious. As far back as 1964 he was writing in a newspaper that he would like to see a British Cup not a British league but a knock-out competition with the top eight clubs from Scotland and England.
‘I think we have more to offer Europe than they have to offer us, so we should be very careful,’ Sir Robert told me. Perhaps one day the domestic fixture lists will be trimmed to allow a British Cup. Certainly clashes between teams from the two countries, in any of the Continental trophies, has aroused frantic interest. Yet it's precisely because his commitment to Europe is not so complete that his criticisms of the tournaments run just now have validity. ‘I don’t like two-legged ties, and I never have done. I think they are against the right spirit of football, which is to win over 90 minutes.
‘My father used to say: “It doesn’t take a good team to stop a good team.” And that’s what you get with emphasis on defence in these games. ‘And I don’t like either teams tossing a coin to decide who wins a game, or winning matches because away goals count double. These are not in the laws of football, they are only designed to avoid fixture problems.’ No one can deny that, at some time, the European authorities will have to examine all these points, no matter how much they are swept under the soccer carpet just now.
And if some of his campaigns, like the team selections when he was virtual boss at Parkhead, have seemed a little eccentric he has the comforting knowledge that other campaigns, for which he was wildly unpopular at the time. have been proved right. Sir Robert has a rich West of Scotland accent, and a habit of raising his voice to harangue his listeners. But it was never raised louder than in his long-running battle against the live televising of matches. as a menace to the future of football. He had seen the damage, on trips to America , that TV had done to attendances at actual sports events, such as boxing and baseball. And he was determined to fight it over here, although it meant putting himself in a position where at the time he had few friends. Now, although TV and soccer have learned to live, sometimes uneasily, with each other many would agree that he was proved right to point out the dangers ‘the box’ can have for sport.
Nearly nine years ago he wanted a total ban for one year on anyone Connected with football even appearing on TV, and he still holds to that extreme view today. His argument is simply expressed: ‘I think television needs football more than we need TV. A black-out for one year would prove who was right.’ He told me of negotiations over ten years ago with the TV authorities when they wanted regularly to show live league games, an event which has not yet happened.
‘They offered a trifling sum. I told them to come back and talk when they were ready to offer a sum, say Sixpence a head, for every viewer who watched the match.’ The man on the terracing has a champion in the Celtic chairman. ‘Football needs people in the grounds to make it successful, to give it atmosphere. I don’t see why the fans who go to a ground, pay for their travelling and admission, and in cases of big games probably have a lot of trouble to obtain a ticket, should subsidise TV viewers who are only prepared to watch football from their own home.’ The decision of the four home associations to allow their kick-off times of the British international championship to be manipulated for TV coverage was quickly dismissed.
‘I can’t understand it. It’s an incredible decision. I certainly would never have allowed it in my time as president of the S.F.A. or League.’ Yet Bob Kelly’s views, which must appear ultra-conservative to the TV authorities, can be surprisingly forward looking on other aspects.
He is devoutly religious yet I have heard him tell a press conference in America that eventually he considers some form of Sunday sport will come to Britain. And it is typical of the man that when I asked him what he would most like to see done to improve football there were no vague theories . . . the answer was swift and direct. ‘.An improvement in referees to stamp out rough play and the courage of the top authorities to back them up,’ he said. ‘My great fear is the growing number of young players who come up on disciplinary charges, I know that from the Referees Committee. ‘But you can’t blame them.
They go to watch international matches, and they see dreadful fouls committed by star players. ‘In the old days if a player misbehaved in an international there was only one course, he just wasn’t picked again. ‘I think that’s what’s got to happen now. The authorities have closed their eyes for too long to what’s happening.
Football is not a namby-pamby game. No one wants to see all the fire taken out of it. But I think there’s a limit, and it’s been reached... ‘This is not something which has just happened in a season.
I remember the “Battle of Berne” in the 1954 World Cup between Hungary and Brazil... ‘There was only one answer to that, both teams should have been expelled from the tournament.’ It explains why after that World championship punch-up in Montevideo between Celtic and Racing Club, the Parkhead players were each lined £200. And it was no window-dressing or exercise in public relations. The money was whipped off their wages. . . . That was perhaps his worst moment as chairman.
But there have been many, many more marvellous moments to make up for it since that winter’s day in 1911 when he first saw his team play. Some of us used to believe that his sometimes brusque and even autocratic manner with questioners made him almost unapproachable. But in recent years, perhaps because he had freed himself of the responsibility of running the team and it’s something many directors could copy he has mellowed into an elder statesman of football. Not one without a bite, no one could ever imagine that, and doubtless there will be times when he is wrong in his views. But anybody who has ever attended an S.F.A. council meeting, ‘the parliament of football’, and watched the quality of legislators knows how high Kelly stands above most of them, The development of modern soccer was something that not even the most visionary of Celtic’s founders could have imagined when they signed up James Kelly in 1888, but his son has adjusted to most of the changes.
Sir Robert Kelly summed up simply the centre of his thinking in an era when too many people look on football as a mere business sideline with attractive perks in the shape of big match tickets and foreign trips, by telling me. . . . ‘A director must be a fan as well.’
From Playing for Celtic no 1
By Rodger Baillie
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