There are some memories that stay vividly in the mind and I will always recall one dark morning from early March 1977.
My Father always departed to work before I wakened each morning but not before he popped over to the newsagent for his Daily Record (I know, I know !). As I lay in the warm comfort of my bed he woke me up and urged me to come and see the paper. Both of us looked on incredulously at the sight of the ex Rangers player, AlfieConn, signing for Celtic. These years later I think that Dad woke me up because he wanted to share the moment with someone and discuss it with his boy before he left the house that morning. He only ever did this once more and that was six months later when Kenny Dalglish signed for Liverpool. Not such a great memory that one….
It’s difficult now to describe just how sensational a signing Jock Stein had pulled off back then. Alfie Conn had been an ‘arch-Hun’, with his long flowing locks, facial hair and side burns he was a player of note on and off the field and had been a member of the 1972 Rangers team which had lifted the European Cup Winners Cup in Barcelona. Stein’s transfer coup was all the sweeter because he pulled it off at a time when the Scots media had been making noises about Alfie returning to Glasgow, not to Parkhead but to Ibrox. In truth it is fair to say that Alfie Conn was the last player Celtic fans would have expected Stein to sign at that time.
He was a headline writer’s dream and predictably the papers ran with the banner headline of ‘What’s it all about Alfie ?’ after the popular Burt Bacharach record of the period.
Stein was not entirely sure about making the move for Alfie. He took aside Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain, his captain and vice- captain, to ascertain if there were any potential problems and was assured by both that there were none whatsoever and that Conn would be a great addition to the team. Alfie was to be judged on one thing only and that was talent which was something he had in abundance.
He had been a thorn in Celtic’s side in the past. In 1973 he had scored a dramatic last minute winner in the traditional New Year fixture and the same year he had scored for Rangers in their 3-2 centenary cup final win over Celtic. He had moved to Spurs for a huge fee and the only reason Celtic were able to acquire him from North London was that Terry Neill had become the new manager at White Hart Lane and both men had a clash of personalities.
Alfie made his Celtic debut as a late substitute in a 2-0 defeat at Pittodrie on a day when Celtic dominated the game but could not finish off their great build up play. It has to be said that he looked a different man and not only because he was in the unusual colours of green and white. At Stein’s express request the scruffy wavy hair and facial growth had gone and he now sported a clean shaven, smarter image. He was now a different man in more ways than one.
His home debut was a midweek fixture against Partick Thistle and I can recall the reaction of the Celtic crowd to his appearance. The Jungle went absolutely mad and took to him immediately although the older fans in the Celtic end and main stand remained a bit more suspicious. It has to be said that Alfie quickly won everyone over with his fine technique and flair. He scored on his debut with a great run and shot past the Scotland goalkeeper Alan Rough and looked one of the few Celtic players who was on the same wavelength as the great Dalglish. The Celtic fans lapped it up and cheered his every touch and there were even humorous arguments on the terraces as some fans noisily debated whether Alfie’s real name was Alfred or Alphonsus !
The first fixture against Rangers at Ibrox was always going to be a difficult hurdle for him and predictably both sets of fans turned their attention to him. The Celtic supporters regaled him with:
‘He used to be a Hun but he’s alright now, Alfie, Alfie, he used to be a Hun but he’s alright now, Alfie, Alfie, Conn !!!’ (To the tune of Camptown races).
The Rangers reply was rather more crude:
‘Alfie’s a barrel, Alfie’s a barrel of s****!, s****! s****!, s***** !!!’ (to the tune of roll out the barrel). It’s to the shame of Celtic fans that we later adopted that same vile chant for Aberdeen’s Joe Harper.
The Glasgow Herald reported when Celtic were leading 1-0:
I am sure that more than a few Rangers fans had turned to the exits after 15 minutes when Alfie Conn jinked his way inside the penalty area and curled a shot round Stewart Kennedy towards the net. Even Alfie turned round to receive the congratulations of the Celtic players, but the ball came back off the post and Rangers took over.
It’s a pity that one didn’t go in but the game finished 2-2 with Alfie giving a great account of himself in the hoops.
Alfie created history in 1977 when he was in the Celtic team who beat Rangers 1-0 in the Scottish Cup final and thus became the only man to win medals in Old Firm cup finals for both sides. Celtic’s winning goal came from a penalty and when it was awarded there were many Celtic fans in the ground screaming, ‘Gie it tae Alfie !!!’ Andy Lynch scored the winner from the spot and Alfie had helped himself to the ‘double’ of league and cup medals.
In the summer of 1977 all looked well for Celtic and Alfie Conn. However Kenny Dalglish jumped ship for Anfield in early August and there are those of us now who believe that Jock Stein had seen the writing on the wall and anticipated Dalglish’s departure with the arrival of Conn as his eventual replacement.
As if Dalglish’s departure was not bad enough, on the first day of the 1977/78 season Alfie was carried off with ligament damage after badly twisting his leg on the Parkhead turf. He missed almost the entire season and even when he returned as a substitute against Innsbruck in the European Cup he had to hobble off and be replaced. His absence was one of the contributing factors to Celtic’s worst season for many years.
Billy McNeill returned as Celtic manager in the summer of 1978 and Alfie had a purple patch early in the season with 10 goals in the first two months and some of them were virtuoso efforts such as the goal against St Mirren at Parkhead when he controlled a long ball from defence, beat two defenders, rounded the goalkeeper and slipped the ball into the net, all in one flowing movement.
McNeill wasted no time in changing the playing personnel and he seemed eager to offload some of his more experienced men such as Ronnie Glavin, Joe Craig and Paul Wilson. In early March 1979 Alfie scored a highly important winning goal against Aberdeen at Parkhead and yet by mid April he had been released on a free transfer by the club. In later years he was to lament that he and McNeill did not see eye to eye and therefore his departure was inevitable.
During his period at Parkhead it was said Johnny Doyle humorously referred to Alfie as ‘The Currant Bun’ and Alfie would respond in kind by whistling the sash. All of this much to the delight of the other Celtic players who were entertained by their two team mates winding each other up.
In later years Alfie could be found working in the Captain’s Rest pub on Great Western Road. A friend of mine was in that establishment one day and said that Alfie spoke warmly about his Celtic days and recalled his memories of Stein, Dalglish and McGrain amongst others.
Alfie Conn was a man of many clubs and only played for Celtic for a short time in his career. However he won himself two league medals and a Scottish cup medal so it was certainly a successful period for him. He was made welcome at Parkhead and for those of us who witnessed his talent in the hoops it was a pleasure to have seen him play.
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