In my final two years at school, I was chosen for the Scottish Schoolboys Under-18 side which played against England. We lost the first match, played at Turf Moor, the ground of Burnley FC, by two goals to one; but a year later, in the second fixture, at Celtic Park, we won 1-0.
That was an interesting night for me for two reasons. Firstly, I was captain of the side and secondly, I met Billy McNeill for the first time. Billy, who was centre-half for Celtic at that period ( also my position in the Scotland team) had played in the same match three years previously and he was brought in to meet us, the selectors keen to use him as an example of how we could all get in football. Unfortunately, of the players involved over the two years, only Andy Roxburgh and myself went on to have longish careers at top levels.
Shortly before I left school, Celtic approached me with a view to signing. Now, I had been accepted to study dentistry at Glasgow University and had heard of a number of guys who had dropped out of courses in first year for one reason or another, so, reluctantly, I said no to the offer. However, they came back again and we came to an arrangement. For the season of 1961-62, I would play, without signing any forms, for the 3rd Team which Celtic ran at that time, I would train on my own and only have to report to the ground on match days.
The offer suited me and I played for the full season, training at night on the roads near my parents’ house just along from Ibrox. If I was pushed for time, I would a quick sprint round Bellahouston Park ( 2 miles); and if I was feeling energetic, I would go round the park and up to Crossmyloof Ice Rink before turning to make the trip home ( 4 plus miles). It was great for stamina and stood me in good stead later.
By the time I was in the 2nd year of my course, the workload had very much increased and I just did not have the time to continue with Celtic. Apart from classes all week, we were also in on a Saturday morning, so, again reluctantly, I told the club that I would have to pull out of our arrangement. For about a year-and- a- half, the only football I played was for the Dental Hospital side in the Glasgow Colleges League, the matches being played on the likes of Glasgow Green, the Fifty Pitches ( both of them black ash) or the pitches in Bellahouston Park (grass).
At the beginning of season 1964/65 – either I was finding it easier to cope with the workload or I was getting better at it – I took part in the trials for the University football team. It was a successful trial and I was brought quickly into the side, playing in a variety of positions across the back and in midfield. At that time, there was a Celtic scout called Joe Connor, who was in the same parish as me. After Sunday Mass, we would have a chat and a laugh together and I thought he was a real nice guy. What I found puzzling, though, was that quite often, when I played my matches for the University, I thought I saw Joe in the distance, sometimes watching the game or getting out of his car. I couldn’t figure out why he was attending so many of our games!
Then, right out of the blue, Celtic assistant manager Sean Fallon got in touch with me. After asking all the proper questions about me, my family and my university course, he told me that Joe Connor had been keeping an eye on my form, had given the club a very positive report and would I consider signing for Celtic? He told me not to make an immediate decision but to go home and talk it over with my parents. Mum and Dad were pleased for me getting the chance and I phoned Sean back and told him I would be happy to sign for such a big club – especially as it was the one I had supported since I was a wee boy!
So, on this day in 1965, 49 years ago, I took a bus (the number 62 going to Auchenshuggle) from under the Heilan’man’s Umbrella in Argyle Street, got off at the foot of the driveway leading up to Celtic Park and made my way to the front door. I rang the bell beside the little window to the right of the door and Sean Fallon came out, shook my hand and took me along to the main office, where, with very little discussion about terms , I sat down to sign the appropriate forms.
At that time, I was getting 25 shillings (£1.25) from my parents to cover all fares, lunches etc for a week; at Parkhead, I started on £8 per week.
I was then introduced to another man who had come in – the incomparable Jimmy McGrory – and then the two of them took me along to the Boardroom, where I met the chairman, Bob Kelly. All of them were extremely complimentary and pleasant and as I made my back down to London Road to catch a bus into town, I thought that the evening could not have gone better. However, the one big worry in my mind was……had I made the right decision?