In his latest interview, St Anthony talks to ex Celtic goalkeeper Denis Connaghan, a familiar face from Celtic’s latter 9-in-a-row days from 1971 to 1976.
What was your first Celtic game and who was your first Celtic hero?
I can’t remember a particular game but I used to go to the games as a boy and Johnny Bonner was the Celtic goalkeeper and Johnny, despite his lack of height he was a great goalkeeper. I liked to watch him play and in later years got to know him as he was in the licensed trade when I worked in the licensed trade. He was the first goalkeeper I watched of any standing.
You say you were at Celtic early on. What happened at that time?
I played schools football for Holyrood secondary and our PE teacher was a guy called John Murphy who was also the match day announcer at Celtic Park. Schools football was very high profile in those days and we had Harry Hood and Jim McCalliog in the team and just before that there had been Paddy Crerand, Charlie Gallagher and John Gallacher who had went to Third Lanark. It was through winning things with the school that John got me to Parkhead on trial. I signed as an S form at 17 before they let me go because there were too many goalies. Dick Beattie was still there, John Fallon and Frank Haffey. I actually played a few Celtic reserve games as a 17 year old and I remember playing in a reserve fixture on the night Celtic played MTK Budapest in the second leg of the ECWC in 1964 when they lost 4-0. In those days the reserves attracted good crowds and the punters had their radios and were shouting we were getting beat in Hungary and we could not believe it. So I was released and went back to playing junior with Yoker Athletic and Renfrew. From there I went to St Mirren and after a year or so I went to America for a time in 1967.
How did you get to America?
The manager who signed me for St Mirren was a guy called Doug Millward who had played with Ipswich under Sir Alf Ramsey. He was only there a few months when he was asked to go to America at the beginning of their new football league with Baltimore. He was at Love Street one night and I was talking to him and he said he had 12 or 13 different nationalities in his squad. I joked with him that he couldn’t have a good team without a good goalkeeper and he asked me to go over. I was signed to go to America in October or November 1966 but couldn’t be released and we kept it quiet until March when St Mirren were relegated and I went across.
That must have been a great experience.
It was and I thoroughly enjoyed it in Baltimore. Denis Viollett who was an ex-Man Utd player was in our team and the level of football was very good but they have rules in America where you can be transferred and have no say in the matter. At Christmas Doug Millward gave up his job and Gordon Jago took over. He wanted me to go to Boston and I’d spent a long time getting used to life in Baltimore and settling down. I came home at Christmas and St Mirren asked me to train with them to keep fit. The more I was here, the more Jago tried to push me to Boston, and I wasn’t happy. Alex Wright asked me to come back to St Mirren and I agreed. I was going out with my future wife at that point and it wouldn’t have been fair on her to be in Boston with me travelling all over the USA with the team.
When Celtic won the European Cup in 1967 where was Denis Connaghan?
I was in Baltimore and got a phone call from my parents who told me the good news and I was over the moon. After the final, Alfredo Di Stefano had his testimonial against Celtic and Santi Steba, a team mate who was from Madrid, was saying to me how fantastic Celtic and Jimmy Johnstone were when Celtic beat Real Madrid in Di Stefano’s game. My parents sent all the newspapers over from the Inter Milan and Real Madrid games and I gave it right hard to the English guys especially.
So it was back to Love Street.
I remember a cold, frosty day in 1968 when we beat Rangers at Love Street. Rangers had just signed Colin Stein and in his first three games he had scored something like three hat tricks in a row when we were next in line. We won 1-0 with a goal by wee Hughie Gilshan. It was one of those days were things went well for me and we had a young boy named Andy McFadden up against Stein. Andy played as well as me but I got the headlines as I had stopped Colin Stein from scoring.
Was Gordon McQueen around then?
He came just slightly after this and you could tell he was a player. He was great in the air, very left footed and a confident big guy. He was well brought up in football as his Dad and Uncle were very involved with Beith juniors. He had people around him to help at St Mirren, Willie Fulton was tremendous as a leader and Jim Kiernan was there too.
Saints had a few good players at that time.
Iain Munro was a terrific player. He started off on the left wing but went to left back and was capped by Scotland. Jim Blair, Bobby McKean, Tony Connell, Cammy Murray. Tottenham were said to have been after Cammy but he was loyal to St Mirren. Tony Connell was a great left back, he and I had actually played together at Holyrood. I was fortunate that I was playing with top class players.
When did you find out Celtic were interested in you?
I had an inkling a few times before this. Any time there was a problem at Celtic Park the goalkeeper usually took the brunt of it. The only goalie who never got the blame for anything was Ronnie Simpson because Ronnie would stand and point the finger at somebody else when he let in a goal! John Murphy, my old school teacher, had contacted me and I was also friendly with Jock Stein’s son in law, John Gartland. John and I, and Harry Hood, had kept in touch after school and occasionally went out together. John would tell me ‘I think the big man’s coming to talk to you’ but nothing ever materialised. Then the night after Partick Thistle had beaten Celtic 4-1 in the 1971 League Cup final, John contacted me to say that Jock would be in touch on the Monday morning. Stein called me right enough and we met in a car park in Rouken Glen Park for discussions. An hour later I was told to go to Love Street as Wilson Humphries wanted to speak to me and the deal went through. Money was never mentioned. I got the basic first team wage, the other guys earned more as they had been there longer.
Not long after signing you played in your first Old Firm game in January 1972.
Jim Brogan never scored a lot of goals but I remember that day as he scored the winner in the last minute. I also remember the delight of that goal and running towards Davie Hay and hugging him and Davie saying, ‘Oh no, we better get back into position.’ The atmosphere and the tension was something else and it was a huge day for Jim. I knew Jim Brogan well because his family stayed near mines in Pollokshields and they were in the flowers business. Jim’s brother, Frank, was there with me before at Parkhead as an S form. Jim was a great guy, although very strong minded and never shy at putting his point across.
Was there a lot of competition for the goalkeeper’s jersey between you, Evan Williams Ally Hunter and later on, Pater Latchford.
We were all professional and 100% fighting for a place. There was rivalry because we all wanted to play. I remember big Jock saying to us goalkeepers, that when he passed away he wanted to come back as a goalie, as Celtic did all the attacking and the goalies have nothing to do! Goalkeepers were his pet hate and he would say being the Celtic goalie was the easiest job under the sun but he worked us hard. There was never any animosity amongst the goalkeepers and I got on well with Evan and Ally. I was there for five years but was never left out due to bad play and I made a couple of howlers in my time. It was always through injury and that was frustrating. When I was out someone else was quick to take their chance.
Was there any specialist goalkeeper coaching at that time?
No, you did your own warm up then Jock took the ‘keepers when the rest of the boys were training and we did a work out. He always liked three goalies at any particular time and we had Gordon Marshall for a while, Tom Lally and John Fallon was still there when I arrived. There was a guy called Geir Karlsen who played against us for Rosenborg in the European Cup in 1972 and Jock brought him over too.
Who were the main characters on the dressing room back then?
Dixie was a character and also wee Jimmy. Jimmy loved to sing Rod Stewart songs. Pat McCluskey was another and they were at the wind ups. Lou Macari as well but they were all great. If you wore a floral shirt to training you get expect to get it but they were a good bunch. George Connelly and Davie Hay were pals and Davie looked after George. After training George would head back to Fife whereas the rest would go out in groups. George was a magnificent player, nothing ruffled him and he was similar to Beckenbauer in the way he read the game and glided across the park. It was such a shame he went out the game and what a loss to Celtic. I played with him later on at junior level at international level when John Hughes, big ‘Yogi’, was the manager and he picked me and George Connelly for Scotland juniors.
In 1974 Celtic came across Atletico Madrid but not happy memories.
It was a fiasco from start to finish. It wasn’t a football match it was just an excuse to kick lumps out of Celtic players. One of the most galling things was we had a goal disallowed early on when Harry Hood set Kenny Dalglish up to score but the linesman ruled the ball had went out of play. The annoying thing was their manager was Argentinian and he brought in six hatchet men and some of the tackles look worse now than they did at the time. Even now when I watch it on dvd I can’t believe the tackles on wee Jimmy. Kenny got hammered as well. They did everything to stop us. Ayala got booked after he threw his hands up just to stop me throwing the ball out. The Turkish referee couldn’t control it. It was frustrating that we couldn’t score against eight men but there was no fluidity to the game at any time, it was all stop start and a foul every thirty seconds.
What was Jock Stein’s reaction afterwards?
He was really angry at the way they played. We protested to UEFA and there was talk of the second leg being played in a neutral venue but the following week we were in Fife preparing for a midweek game against East Fife when Jock came in and told us we had to go to Madrid.
The Spanish media had actually portrayed Atletico as being the victims in Glasgow and turned it around in their favour.
We never left the hotel in Madrid after the threats to Jock and wee Jimmy. Anytime we were abroad we had free time to ourselves and the boys liked to go into the city to see the shops or Cathedrals and places of interest. We just trained and had dinner, we couldn’t even use the swimming pool due to the worry about getting sunburn. There were crowds outside the hotel making noises, not the best preparation. The atmosphere was horrendous, I had to report to the referee during the game that I was being hit by pellets they were firing from slings behind my goal. After the game, Calderon, their president, wanted to come and see Jock Stein to shake his hand but Jock told him where to go. For 75 minutes we held out well but couldn’t steal the goal we needed.
On a happier note we got nine in a row at Brockville the following Saturday and then won the Scottish Cup.
There was an aftermath after Madrid and we never played well against Falkirk and were 1-0 down at one point. Kenny equalised but we were still sore after Atletico. Jock told us to enjoy winning the league but it was hard. It’s a game I don’t remember a lot about and when the boys met up in later years we couldn’t even remember the score.
And you were one of the heroes in the 3-0 cup final win against Dundee United.
Andy Gray made a point of mentioning me in his book as I made a great save from him that day. It was a header and what made it for me was that he aimed it high whereas if he’d headed it low it would have been a different kettle of fish. It was a good height for me to throw my body across and get a hand to it. It was great for me as this was my first Scottish Cup medal and I had been injured before the 6-1 win over Hibs in 1972. I remember when we were in Seamill on the morning of the game and Jock read the team out and I was in it. Ally Hunter was kind enough to say ‘good luck big man.’ After the game we were celebrating and big Billy says ‘what about the save Denis made?’ and Jock replied, ‘Aye that’s what he’s there for’ but he later said well done to me in passing and that that was the way I should play every week. That was high praise from Jock Stein! Harry Hood was fabulous that day, he scored and created the other two. I remember at time up Harry made a run for me as he knew this was my first cup medal and we were old pals from school.
The Drybrough Cup tournament in 1974 saw perhaps your worst mistake at Broomfield and then your best saves in the final in the penalty shootout against Rangers.
It was so bizarre if I tried to do it again I probably couldn’t do it. I shouted to Danny McGrain before I threw the ball to him twelve yards from goal on the right hand side with Danny playing at left back. As I went throw the ball an Airdrie player ran to block my throw, so I tried to stop myself from throwing it and the ball flew out of my hand and into the back of the net. I made the front page of the Sunday Post and the Sunday Mail with a photo of the dugout with big Jock, Neilly Mochan, Bob Rooney and Sean Fallon and they are all laughing. The headlines said ‘What is big Jock laughing at?’ Billy McNeill said, ‘Hey Denis, you made it look ten times worse by running after it.’ I am still asked to this day about it. Stein said to me after it, ‘Denis, you’re worse than Frank Haffey at least Frank could sing!’
And the final against Rangers?
That was a fabulous game of football, a 2-2 draw in scorching weather. That was also the year there was the no offside experiment when you could only be offside 18 yards from goal. The players were exhausted as it was more like a game of basketball and it was a very hot day. When it went to penalties I was always quite confident of saving them as I had a good record. I used to try and guess where the penalty taker would put it and I am fortunate I guessed well that day. Our first player to take one was wee Bobby Lennox and he missed so that put the pressure on me. I saved Tommy McLean’s penalty then Derek Parlane hit the next one high to my right and I was fortunate to block the two of them. Wee Jimmy got the winning goal and he put everything into it and blasted at the Celtic end then ran to the corner. Jock never took the Drybrough Cup seriously as he used it as a means of getting the players fit for the season ahead. However, when we got to the final against Rangers all of a sudden it became more important and it was given greater coverage by the press. It was also the only time Celtic won that trophy.
Peter Latchford arrived in 1975 and was number one choice. Did you ask away or did you fight to get back in?
Newspapers reported at the time that I asked away but that’s not true. I didn’t ask away but Jock asked if I fancied moving. There were three of us there, Latchford, Hunter and me so I just wanted to play. Playing every second week in the reserves was soul destroying and you have pride that you want to play. Ally went to Motherwell then Roy Baines came in from Morton. Tommy Callaghan had just moved to Clydebank and Jock asked me if I fancied going to Kilbowie on loan as under study to Jim Gallacher and they were a good side at the time with Davie Cooper. I was working with Dunn and Moore who owned Clyde and Benny Rooney asked me to go to Morton. Big Andy Ritchie was doing well at the time and they had other good player like George Anderson, Davie Hayes and Jim Holmes. They then brought in an American goalkeeper called Dave Brcic and I told Benny I didn’t fancy reserve football at my age so I ended up with Clyde with Craig Brown. After a year at Shawfield I played junior with Arthurlie and we reached the Scottish Junior Cup final only to lose 1-0 to Pollok. Norrie Fulton scored the goal and his son, Stephen went on to play for Celtic. I kicked the ball out and their centre half headed it straight back over our defence and wee Norrie lobbed me. Then that was it.
Best wishes for the future Denis.
It’s been a pleasure.