Christmas 1972 saw Celtic top of the league and looking dead certs to win their 8th successive league title under the stewardship of the legendary Jock Stein. The Celts were 4 points ahead of Eddie Turnbull’s fine Hibs side and 5 points in front of Jock Wallace’s Rangers. With an array of talent such as Murdoch, Johnstone, Dalglish, McGrain, Hay and Lennox, it seemed certain that no one could stop Stein’s Celts in their relentless pursuit of another title.
Then, at the dawn of 1973, something unusual had happened in Scottish football. Rangers began to win games; lots of games. The Ibrox men won sixteen consecutive league fixtures through winter into spring, and by early March Rangers had caught Celtic on points, joining them at the top of the table. Mediocre draws for Celtic against Partick, East Fife and Dundee United had allowed Rangers to pull level.
There were plausible reasons for Celtic’s loss of form. Lou Macari had been agitating for a move to the more lucrative English league and his eventual transfer to Manchester United had been acrimonious. This would no doubt have affected team morale and there was further bad news when Jock Stein was hospitalised for a fortnight in January with suspected heart problems. There had also been an injury to David Hay and his consistency and aggression in midfield had been sadly missed.
Celtic and Rangers were neck and neck throughout the months of March and April until 21 April. Rangers then blinked first by drawing 2-2 at Pittodrie to leave Celtic in the driving seat with just one game remaining. Their final fixture was to be played against Hibs at Easter Road on 28 April. Hibs had actually been in contention for the title at the turn of the year, but a series of injuries had affected their form and they had fallen away. With the exception of Ibrox, Easter Road was still the toughest ground in the country to go looking for a victory, so any title triumph was far from guaranteed. An astonishing crowd of 45,446 turned out on a bright spring day, with an estimated 40,000 of them cheering for Celtic.
Since Macari’s departure in January, Kenny Dalglish had been pushed into the Celtic attack, alongside Dixie Deans. They formed a highly effective partnership, sharing 31 goals between them, prior to Celtic’s visit to Edinburgh. Dalglish’s classy style and touches contrasted with Deans more physical approach, but they blended together extremely well, and it was this striking pair who did the damage to the Hibs defence on the day. Deans scored twice and Dalglish once, sending the Celtic fans into raptures, and a new chant was created –‘Eight in a row – Eight in a row – Hello! – Hello!’
The celebrations afterwards were joyous, with the streets around Easter Road a sea of green and white after the match, in sharp contrast to the gloom around Ibrox, as news of Celtic’s victory filtered through, meaning that Rangers 2-0 win over East Fife had been in vain. Thousands of Celtic fans took over the pubs of the capital until well into the evening in a celebratory atmosphere. Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was emerging from the North British Hotel in Princes Street, just as a huge contingent of Celtic fans arrived at Waverley Station after the match. His ministerial car was parked outside and was getting rocked from side to side, with his security men unable to do anything. Apparently Wilson looked apprehensive, but then the Celtic fans started singing, ‘Haaarold Wil-son, Haaarold Wil-son’, at the top of their voices, leaving a relieved Harold smiling and waving.
Ian Archer humorously summed up the happy atmosphere after the match in the Glasgow Herald: ‘So in the end the Celtic players ran around Easter Road applauding their own fans and eventually they disappeared down the tunnel. Jock Stein was already in the dressing room when they arrived. Half an hour later, from the corridor underneath the stand, we could hear them singing the same songs as their supporters beforehand. Reluctant as I am to criticise Champions, it has to be said that they were equally as out of tune.’
Goodwill messages poured in to hail Celtic’s fine achievement, with Stein’s great friend, Bill Shankly, sending his best wishes and jokingly remarking that, ‘They’ll have to stop that league!’ Stein then reciprocated by sending congratulations to Shankly, as his Liverpool team had clinched the English title on the same day. Stein was delighted to win what may have been his most difficult title of the eight so far, telling the press: ‘We have come through a transitional period. What made me happy was that so many of our players came back at the right time – Hay, Callaghan and Lennox.’
Sadly, for my own part, I wasn’t in Easter Road that day. My father travelled through to the east with family and friends and on their return that night they based themselves in our house in Govan where the celebrations were long and loud. When Sportsreel (the fore runner to Sportscene) came on TV, Archie McPherson introduced the action from Easter Road and we all watched engrossed, cheering as the goals went in. Brilliant memories for a Celtic mad youngster and good to know that another generation of young Celts will now have their own ‘8 in a row’ memories to cherish for many years to come.
The current Celts have now emulated Stein’s team. Let us hope that they will go on to surpass Jock’s achievement of nine and deliver the Holy Grail of ten in a row.