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Willie Maley is Celtic's longest-serving manager, but there is no memorial to him in the town... could it be because his father was a soldier in the British Army?

The man dubbed 'Mr Celtic' spent an incredible 43 years in charge at Parkhead. Now, local historian John McCabe hopes current Hoops boss Brendan Rodgers can help rekindle interest in erecting a statue in his honour

By Ivan Little

He's been hailed as 'Mr Celtic' - the man who shaped the Glasgow football club into one of the world's most famous teams, leading them to 30 trophies during an astonishing 43 years as manager.

But in Newry, where Willie Maley was born nearly 150 years ago, the Celtic icon is a largely forgotten figure - despite efforts in the past to honour him.

A junior football competition and a Celtic supporters club were named after him, but some observers have speculated that the lack of any major recognition for Maley could be due to the fact that his father was a British soldier.

Willie Maley was also a self-avowed monarchist, who even introduced the Union flag into the design of an early Celtic pennant.

But now Newry historian John McCabe has revived a campaign to have a statue erected to Maley, whose historic links with the city he thinks should have been marked long ago.

John, a former member of Sinn Fein, says: "The council actually approved the idea in principle 16 years ago, but nothing ever happened. There was one delay after another, like funding, and the whole thing was put on the long finger."

John adds that some republicans have been reluctant to embrace the statue plans because of Maley's family links to the Army. "If that is the reason, it is very sad," he says.

"Newry is a Celtic town and without Maley there would never have been a club like the Hoops."

Maley's father, Thomas, who was from Ennis in Co Clare, was a soldier with the 21st (Royal North British Fusilier) Regiment, based at barracks in Newry in the old White Linen Hall, where the Mourneview Park housing estate now stands.

It was in the barracks that Willie was born in 1868, but the Maleys moved to Scotland when he was just three years old.

They were invited to Glasgow by a young Irishman whom Maley snr had helped during an uprising and who had become a successful businessman in Scotland.

Willie Maley, after a flirtation with athletics, showed promise as a footballer in Glasgow, joining Celtic in 1888 and becoming their first secretary/manager nine years later.

John said he was convinced that the stunning achievements of Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers as Celtic's current supremo could help rekindle interest in a memorial to Maley.

Rodgers' all-conquering Celtic team recently established a new record after going 63 games undefeated in Scottish football, overtaking one which had been established by Maley a century ago.

Brendan recently acknowledged his predecessor's crucially influential role in the Celtic story.

He said: "Willie Maley created a lot of records. He was at Celtic for 43 years - you are lucky to get 43 days now.

"Knowing he was the first manager and from Newry, I've looked into his history. He was the guy who started it all rolling and put us all under pressure to win. It's a club with immense history and Willie was a pioneer."

Maley learnt accountancy and book-keeping and his business acumen helped to mould the club off the pitch, while his football knowledge and tactical skills created glory days on it. Several years ago, a book - The Celtic, Glasgow Irish and The Great War: Gathering Storms, by Ian McCallum, a former soldier, included references to significant parts of the Maley story.

McCallum also drilled down into the social history, political atmosphere and wartime experiences of Glasgow's Irish Catholic community at the time.

He said Maley was dubbed 'Mr Celtic' and he described him as the club's most striking figure, who had no time for the sectarian nature of the rivalry with Glasgow's Protestant club, Rangers.

McCallum argued that Maley's close relationship with his British Army sergeant father had had a major impact on his thinking about life in general and about making Celtic different from other Irish clubs in Scotland, like Edinburgh's Hibernian.

The Maley philosophy was that the Glasgow club needed to be more inclusive and encourage the integration of Irish Catholics into Scotland.

A Celtic website said that Maley didn't subscribe to the views of many of the club's Irish nationalist supporters, though he did support the idea of Home Rule for Ireland - going so far as to speak on nationalist platforms.

It added: "Having been born into a British military family, he was very sympathetic to the royal establishment, being very proud on those opportunities when he met their members."

Maley's oft-quoted mantra, which was once sewn into a Celtic playing kit, said of any prospective Hoops player: "It's not the creed, nor his nationality, that counts. It's the man himself."

Nowadays, the Glasgow club's supporters are, in the main, Catholics, whose controversial Green Brigade have opposed the wearing of the poppy and have sung pro-IRA songs and displayed republican banners.

But, in Maley's day, Celtic's support included many soldiers, who were offered free entry into games and Army bands played before kick-off. Maley organised football matches against military teams and there was even a Celtic cricket side.

During the First World War, Maley used his connections to place his players in "reserved" occupations, such as mining and the shipyards, to guarantee they wouldn't have to fight overseas.

And he sent telegrams after games to regimental offices so they could distribute details of matches along the trenches to their men in a bid to bolster morale.

One observer said of Maley that he was "a devout Catholic and ardent royalist, an Irish nationalist, imperialist, socialist and supporter of the British Army and establishment."

Maley unearthed great Celtic players, like Jimmy Quinn, Patsy Gallacher and Jimmy McGrory, but Parkhead associates from the era said he was autocratic and obsessed with money.

One biographer wrote: "Financial parsimony was only one aspect of Maley's character. Another was sheer obstinacy and stubbornness; that he - and only he - knew what was best for Celtic and he would decide."

Maley, however, had to cope with a number of tragedies in his own family life and at Celtic, including the accidental death of goalkeeper John Thomson, who was involved in an accidental collision with a Rangers player during a game in 1931.

John McCabe says that Maley, who died at the age of 89 in 1958, was a fascinating man, whose statue could become an important tourist destination in Newry.

He said that councillors had backed his proposal in 2001.

"My thought back then was that the statue could be erected close to where the Army camp stood between 1800 and 1929, not far from the historic White Linen Hall arch."

John says that the Ulster History Circle had expressed an interest in putting up a blue plaque to remember Maley.

And there were rumours that the statue project would be bankrolled by wealthy figures south of the border.

"But the plans never materialised," adds John.

"However, I think the time is right to look at the idea again.

"We have a new council in place now, so I would hope there would be massive support for the statue and I would be happy to see it going up anywhere in the city."

John says most other towns and cities would jump at the chance of developing the tourist potential of a Celtic giant.

"Like Willie Maley, the statue would be a winner," he says.

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