Celtic’s Nine-In-A-Row: “Which One, Son?”

by | May 23, 2020

Former Celtic manager Martin O’Neill once told new Nottingham Forest team-mate and ex-Celtic full-back Tommy Gemmell: “That was some goal in the European Cup final.” To which Gemmell replied “which one, son?” as he scored “some goal,” pinging one in from outside the penalty area in the 1967 AND 1970 finals.

On Monday afternoon, Jamie Bryson, a person of no obvious importance, was clearly hurting that he now has to specify “which one?” regarding Celtic winning “nine-in-a-row,” nine consecutive Scottish titles. “Rangers won nine-in-a-row with a cross by Charlie Miller and a header by Brian Laudrup. Celtic were handed nine-in-a-row around a boardroom table. You can’t buy class,” he tweeted.

The tweet was nonsense, suggesting you can’t “buy” class, nine words after referencing Laudrup, whose class WAS bought (for £2.3m). And historically ignorant. Because Celtic “won nine-in-a-row” on 27th April 1974, with an excellent solo goal by Kenny Dalglish, whose class was BROUGHT through Celtic’s own ranks. Monday was Celtic’s SECOND nine-in-a-row. Yes, awarded round a (virtual) boardroom table…but because they were 13 points and 25 goals clear with nine games left.

In March 1965, Jock Stein took over a talented young side developing a reputation as ‘nearly men’ and transformed them into ‘nine-in-a-row winners from 1966-74, in a far more competitive Scottish football environment than now, or even when Rangers won their ‘nine’ from 1989-1997.

Celtic and Rangers were Scotland’s top two overall. But Aberdeen (twice) and Hibernian were league runners-up during that nine. Hearts, Dundee and Kilmarnock had been champions between 1960 and 1965 And Celtic were taken to the last day of the season three times. And even the all-conquering ‘Lisbon Lions’ of 1966/67 only clinched the title on the penultimate day, with a 2-2 draw at Rangers.

The 1966 title was a last-day affair, which only added to the joy of clinching their first title in 12 years and only their second trophy of ANY kind in eight-and-a-half years, since an ageing Celtic team famously beat Rangers 7-1 in October 1957’s League Cup final.

The ‘nearly men’ tag hung by a thread after Celtic’s 1965 Scottish Cup triumph. And on 3rd January 1966, Celtic beat Rangers 5-1 at Celtic Park, despite being 1-0 down at half-time, to take control of the title race. But three away defeats in-a-row, in January and February, gave Rangers an unexpected sniff. They lost at Aberdeen, Hearts (after a gruelling midweek in Kiev) and Stirling Albion (as big a shock then as now). But Celtic had won the respective home games 7-1, 5-2 and 6-1. And that fine early season form and nine wins and two draws in their league fixtures after Stirling, regained that control.

The title was clinched at Motherwell on 7th May. Celtic needed only a point but Bobby Lennox netted late on to give them the title by the two points (it was two points for a win throughout this nine). And Rangers showed a grace in defeat which the new Ibrox club has yet to approach. Their congratulatory letter(!) acknowledged that “the chase is over,” which would be an instant trending hashtag in certain parts of Glasgow, if written nowadays. But they couldn’t have known how long that “chase” would be.

Dundee United fans can forever clear their throats obtrusively when Celtic’s “all-conquering” 1966/67 team is mentioned. Because both Celtic league defeats were 3-2 to the Tangerines; at Tannadice on New Year’s Eve and a potential ‘sliding doors’ moment at Celtic Park on 3rd May. This very specific allergy to taking points was more perplexing as Dundee United finished ninth in an 18-team division.

Celtic lost NO other domestic matches that season, although they still only drew at Stirling. And their early season form was again scintillatingly goal-laden. Joe McBride top-scored, with 31 goals (sharing league top-scoring duties with Dunfermline’s Alex Ferguson). And he didn’t play from January because of a serious knee injury.

But with class forwards Lennox and the soon-to-be European Cup-winning goalscorer Stevie Chalmers, Celtic still managed 111 goals in a 34-game league. None of them bagged the crucial brace, though, when the title was satisfyingly clinched at Rangers, four days after the second Dundee United defeat; Jimmy Johnstone capping a virtuoso display on an Ibrox mudheap with both Celtic goals in a 2-2 draw.

Celtic’s 1967 winning margin was three points. But it was two again in 1968, with the title won this time DESPITE their early season form, even though it included a 4-0 win at ultimately-relegated Stirling in September. They only took one point off Rangers, which gave Rangers a two-point lead after a 2-2 draw at Celtic on 2nd January.

However, Celtic won their remaining 16 games. And Rangers only loss all SEASON was on Cup final Saturday, 3-2 at home to Aberdeen, in their…last game. Celtic were effectively champions as the sides were level on points but Celtic’s goal average (ask your parents) was irretrievably superior, and formally clinched the title with Lennox’s double in a 2-1 win at a dangerously packed Dunfermline, who had just won the Cup. This avenged the Fifers’ 1-0 win at Celtic in the Cup’s opening round.

1969’s title was part of Celtic’s second domestic treble in three years. They lost both ‘Old Firm’ league games (though Rangers were beaten home and away in the League Cup and 4-0 in the Scottish Cup final, an afternoon which reportedly ended Alexander Chapman Ferguson’s Ibrox career. But they went 29 league games unbeaten either side of losing 1-0 at Ibrox on 2nd January, before clinching the title in their pre-penultimate fixture, a 2-2 draw at Kilmarnock on 21st April, coming from two-down with Bobby Murdoch’s deflected cross and Gemmell’s 90th-minute right-foot drive.

1969/70 was by far the most comfortably-won title of this nine, as they finished 12 points ahead of Rangers (20 in the three-points-for-a-win era). They won only one of their first four games. But a 1-0 win at Ibrox in September, with Harry Hood’s deft 49th-minute goal, was a particular morale-booster, as right-back Jim Craig was dismissed on 67 minutes. It was Celtic’s first league win at Ibrox in 12 games and Stein’s first league win there ever. And they only lost twice more all season, both at home, including a loss to Aberdeen in March, a result replicated in April’s controversial Scottish Cup final.

The league was clinched in their next match, four games from the season’s end; a goalless draw at Tynecastle, against a Hearts side which had inflicted Celtic’s other home league defeat. It was a distracted celebration, with the title won in uncharacteristic comfort and fans and manager Stein focussed more on the European Cup semi-final in Leeds four days later, Stein resting four players, including captain Billy McNeill and the mercurial Johnstone.

There are two telling chapter titles in Tom Campbell and Pat Woods’ excellent ‘The Glory and the Dream” (the 1987 history of Celtic’s first century). 1966-70 were, as suggested, “Those Glory, Glory Days.” And Celtic were, relatively at least, “Struggling at the Top” from 1970 to 1974. And symbolism abounded when the ‘Lisbon Lions’ took the field for the final time, before 1971’s season-closer, at home to Clyde with the title won. 39-year-old keeper Ronnie Simpson only led the team out, at a Celtic Park undergoing renovation. Indeed, Celtic clinched the title with a 2-0 “home” win over Ayr United at Hampden(NONEATCP).

Celtic finished 15 points clear of Rangers (24 in new money). But they only won the league by two points, as Aberdeen realised their Celtic-challenging potential of the year before. They were only a point behind when Celtic visited Pittodrie on 17th April, having won at Celtic in December. But Hood’s fourth-minute goal set up a 1-1 draw. And though Celtic drew at (and thus relegated) St. Mirren in their next match, Aberdeen lost a trickier fixture at seventh-placed Falkirk in-between. And the point at Pittodrie proved pivotal.

However, the season was overshadowed by events at Ibrox on 2nd January, when 66 Rangers fans lost their lives in a post-match crush on a stairway, the disaster uniting Glasgow football in grief.

Celtic clinched a Scottish record-breaking seven-in-a-row in 1971/72, beating their own six-in-a-row (1905-1910), outpointing nearest challengers Aberdeen by ten (17 nowadays). Scotland’s new big two twice drew 1-1. Celtic completed their first league double over Rangers since 1914. Clyde, who lost 6-1 at Celtic Park on the last day of 1970/71, lost 9-1 on the first day of 71/72, including Dalglish’s first league goal and a Lennox hat-trick.

In October, Celtic lost their unbeaten record, at home to mid-table St Johnstone. But their second, and last, league loss was 4-1 at Hearts, on the season’s penultimate day. This was also odd. Fans boycotted the game. Stein was at Wembley for an England match (!). And most of the team didn’t ‘show up’ either. But the league was clinched three games earlier, with a 3-0 win at East Fife, John ‘Dixie’ Deans, in his first Celtic season, netting twice.

Eight-in-a-row was a struggle, with Rangers seen off by only a point. Celtic stuttered at the turn of the year, when, not at all coincidentally, the overworking Stein was hospitalised. On 27th January, Celtic lost 2-1 at eventually relegated Airdrieonians. And a clear lead had shrunk to goal average after a 2-2 draw at Dundee United on 10th March. But Celtic won their last seven games, clinching the title with a 3-0 win at fourth-placed Hibernian, Deans bagging another title-clinching brace.

Hibs came closest to stopping the nine, finishing four points off the top in 1973/74. Even on the day, Celtic’s 4-2 win at Easter Road on 23rd February was considered a title decider. Hibs came back from two-down after Deans had netted with a minute gone. And Deans also netted with a minute left, after Paul Wilson had restored Celtic’s lead. The win was especially vital as Celtic had lost their previous two games. Another league double over Rangers also helped, the 1-0 September win at Ibrox courtesy of a rare Johnstone headed-goal. Although that good work was undone by a loss at St Johnstone in the next game.

Indeed, it was a more troubled season than the league table and the record-setting suggested (Deans nearly threatening some individual record setting with a double hat-trick against Partick in November). Dalglish’s title-clincher was an equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Falkirk. And the failure to seal ten-in-a-row was ultimately not a huge surprise. The current Celtic are certainly better placed to do so.

Rangers sealed nine-in-a-row by buying their class, which they continued doing long after it was financially sensible. So, Jamie Bryson. Stick your snark where the sun don’t shine. And now you know your history, you’ll know that when you refer to Celtic nines-in-a-row in future, you’ll have to specify “which one.” Son.