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Down Memory Lane: Celtic were a grand old team to play for

How appropriate that Crusaders should win the Irish Cup for the third time last week coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the departure of Belfast Celtic, the club they replaced in the Irish League.

The memories of Celtic still linger with old-timers and the folklore surrounding their legendary players, classic football style, the intensity and passion of the fans has been passed from generation to generation. Belfast Celtic still holds a place in the hearts of many who wish they could turn back the clock to that sepia-tinted age. Their withdrawal in 1949 created a void never adequately filled.

Padraig Coyle in his book “Paradise Lost and Found” summed it up perfectly when he described Celtic “as a team whose symbolism and meaning for an entire community has never been erased by the ever-shifting political, social and architectural landscape of this deprived and troubled inner-city area (West Belfast)”.

The Celtic pull out followed the Jimmy Jones incident at the December 27, 1948, match against Linfield at Windsor Park where 20-year-old Jones was attacked by a mob at the end and found himself lying in the reserved enclosure with a leg fracture — a day of football infamy.

Repercussions and litigation followed, controversy abounded and Celtic eventually announced they would quit the Irish League on completion of their May-June tour of the United States in which they defeated Scotland 2-0 at the Triborough Stadium, Randall’s Island, on May 29, 1949. There have been many theories put forward for leaving the game but the Celtic board generally felt they had been let down by the authorities.

I was fortunate to be involved with Celtic from the mid-Forties as a young journalist covering their matches and getting to know their superstars, even socialising with them in football’s then favourite watering hole Kelly’s Cellars, Bank Street.

Their record speaks for itself: Irish League 14; Irish Cup 8; City Cup 10; Gold Cup 7; County Antrim Shield 8; Steel Cup 8; War-time Regional League 4; Regional Gold Cup 3; Intermediate League 7, and Intermediate Cup 5. In 1940 they played 36 matches without defeat and from the end of August 1947 to 1948 won 31 games.

Over the decades Celtic, like Linfield, Glentoran and Distillery, attracted the big names, among them the George Best of his era — Mickey Hamill, who played for Manchester United and then in the United States and was captain of the 1914 Ireland team which won the British championship for the first time. And whose pub, ‘The Centre Half’ on the Falls Road, was the haunt of football folk.

He was, however, just one of the many who wore the green and white hooped jersey and sang the anthem “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For”.

Study this list — the Mahood brothers, Jackie and Stanley, Harry Walker, the best player never to have been capped by Ireland, Tommy Bud Aherne, Charlie Tully, Jimmy McAlinden, Norman Kernaghan, Paddy Bonnar, Tommy Breen, Bertie Fulton, Jackie Coulter, Sammy Curran, Jackie Denver, Hugh Kelly, Liam O’Neill, Kevin McAlinden, Charlie Currie, Johnny Leatham, Robin Lawler.

During the war years Celtic signed Ron Greenwood, later to become England’s manager, Len Townsend and Tommy Best, the first black player to appear in local football, and whose ship was stationed in Belfast. Indeed. The list of stars is endless — Kevin McGarry, Billy McMillan, Joe Douglas, Reggie Simpson, Jimmy Turnbull, Davy Boy Martin, Patsy Gallagher, Charlie and Sid McIlroy, Mickey McWilliams, Peter O’Connor, who scored 11 goals in Celtic’s 13-0 win over Glenavon at Celtic Park in January 1941.

Few Irish clubs have been blessed with such consistent talent — Celtic possessed panache, crowd appeal and an avowed policy of their management, which included Austin Donnelly, President of the Irish FA from 1945-48, and legendary manager Elisha Scott, to keep the game simple. They were fortunate to have top drawer players capable of doing just that.

Their final game at Celtic Park — on Thursday, April 21, 1949 — ended in a 4-3 win over Cliftonville. Gradually the stadium, used for greyhound racing and the odd game, became derelict and on the site is a supermarket where a plaque, unveiled by Harry Walker, informs visitors they are standing on hallowed ground — Paradise.

Belfast Celtic still exists to-day as a limited company. Two lavish reunions were staged over the years at the Threepenny Bit, King’s Hall, and the Europa Hotel, but, sadly, heroes of the Celtic eras are a fast dwindling band and their last trophy, the Belfast Charity Cup, is held in the vaults of a city bank. Yes, it was a grand old team to play for — and support.

Belfast Celtic’s US Tour 1949: v American All Stars (Randall’s Island) 2-2; v Ulster United (Toronto) 5-0; v Kearney Scots 3-0 (New Jersey); v New England All Stars 1-2 (Falls Rivers); v Philadelphia Nationals 3-3 (Philadelphia); v Montreal All Stars 4-1 (Montreal); v Dave Kennedy Club 4-2 (Detroit); v Kamraterna (Sweden ) 0-3, (New York).

Teams for Scotland game: Belfast Celtic: McAlinden; McMillan, Aherne; Walker, Currie, Lawler, Moore, Dorman, Campbell, M O’Flanagan, Bonnar.

Scotland: Brown, Govan, Young; Evans, Telfer, Cox, Waddell, Redpath, Thornton, Steel, McKenzie.

Scorers: Belfast Celtic: Campbell, Moore.

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