The 1980 Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Rangers took on even more added importance in the weeks before the big match. Celtic had recently blown a considerable points advantage in the league race to surrender their title to Aberdeen and Rangers, after a hugely disappointing season, required to win the cup to give them a passage into European football for the following season. So both sides were desperate for victory and keen to make amends to their supporters.
Celtic had major problems before the final with regular centre back duo Roddy MacDonald and Tom McAdam both being suspended so Roy Aitken and Jim Casey were earmarked as their replacements. Disaster then struck two days before the final when Casey badly damaged an ankle in training and left manager Billy McNeill in desperate need to find another centre back. McNeill then asked midfield player Mike Conroy if he had ever played centre back. ‘Naw’ was the reply. He then asked if he would be willing to do so to which Conroy replied, ‘Aye’.
In view of Celtic’s defensive frailties Rangers were seen as slight favourites. On the day before the game McNeill had his players pummel Aitken and Conroy with high balls in training at Seamill to ensure they would know what to expect in the final. The Ibrox side’s captain, Derek Johnstone, was notably strong in the air and Rangers played with two fine wingers at that time, Tommy McLean and Davie Cooper, who sent in a regular supply of cross balls.
The game was played on a hot May day with the usual swirling wind blowing around the Hampden terraces. Both sides went for attack from the start and Celtic fans were reassured when Conroy got a few solid challenges in on Johnstone, who he was to be in direct opposition against throughout the game.
In truth the game could have went either way as both sides had fine efforts at goal. Conroy grew in confidence as the game went on and he and Aitken enjoyed a fine partnership on the day. He was a strong tackling midfielder and he put these talents to good effect in his new defensive role and although Johnstone had a considerable four inch height advantage Conroy lost very few challenges in the air and but for a couple of his timely interceptions Rangers may have scored.
The game was goal less going into extra time with the heat taking its toll on the players but Celtic made the vital breakthrough in 107 minutes through George McCluskey. Rangers then became desperate and threw everything at the Celts as the resolute duo of Aitken and Conroy continued to stand firm. Only a matter of seconds from the end, Celtic goalkeeper Peter Latchford and Conroy became tangled together as they both went for a hanging Tommy McLean cross but Latchford eventually held the ball as Conroy disentangled himself from his team mate whilst taking great care not to handle the ball in the process. Both of them could be seen laughing in the heat of the moment as Latchford playfully ruffled Conroy’s head in appreciation of his efforts. The referee then blew for time up with Latchford still holding the ball waving to the thousands of jubilant Celtic fans behind him in the Kings Pak end of the ground.
The majestic Celtic captain Danny McGrain was voted as the sponsors man of the match but some observers were keen to note that Mike Conroy was Celtic’s top player on the day given his inexperience in the defensive role he was required to cover. During the match he had given a faultless performance and although he had been perceived as the weak link beforehand he had performed admirably.
Mike Conroy was an unlikely hero in his centre half role and it’s a pity that the 1980 final is mostly remembered for the ugly riot that occurred afterwards as he was one of several Celtic players who were exceptional that day and made a great contribution to giving Celtic fans another memorable ‘Hampden in the sun’ occasion.