UNSUNG HERO – DENIS CONNAGHAN

In October 1971, Partick Thistle created one of the biggest shocks in football history when they beat Celtic 4-1 in the League Cup final. Within days Celtic manager, Jock Stein, reacted to that defeat by buying striker Dixie Deans from Motherwell and goalkeeper Denis Connaghan from St Mirren. Denis immediately went into the first team as Evan Williams, somewhat unfairly, took the rap for the Thistle defeat.

Denis was an immediate success with his agility and safe handling. In January 1972 he played in his first big match when Celtic won the traditional new year fixture against Rangers, courtesy of a dramatic, late Jim Brogan goal. Pictures from the time show Brogan’s goal with Denis, at the far end of the field, leaping high in the air with unconfined joy.

Sadly for Denis, he injured himself in training in late January 1972 at a time when he looked to be consolidating his place as Celtic’s first choice goalkeeper. This injury kept him out for the rest of the season which meant that he missed out on being part of Celtic’s league and cup double side.

In late 1972, Denis competed with Evan Williams for the goalkeeper’s jersey until Jock Stein swooped for Kilmarnock goalie, Ally Hunter. Hunter was then Stein’s preference until he was injured in March 1974. Denis had been patiently awaiting his chance in the Celtic reserve team and he grabbed this opportunity, aptly for a goalkeeper, with both hands.

He made up for lost time by winning league and cup winners medals in the closing months of the 1973/74 season. The league was won at Brockville, in late April, courtesy of a 1-1 draw when Kenny Dalglish’s goal had saved the day. However, it was in the Scottish Cup that Denis excelled. Celtic were faced with difficult games against Motherwell in the quarter finals and Dundee in the semi final. Celtic only prevailed against Motherwell courtesy of a replay and the Steelmen played so well that Denis was deemed as being one of Celtic’s best players over both ties. He had a similarly impressive game against Dundee, who were full of confidence after having beaten Celtic in the League Cup final just three months earlier.

Jim McLean’s Dundee United side were Celtic’s opponents in the final with United playing in their first major Scottish final. McLean caused controversy beforehand by claiming that Celtic only had two genuine class players in Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain. It was ironic then that the Celtic heroes on the day were Denis and Harry Hood, two old teammates from their days playing for Holyrood secondary school on Glasgow’s south side. Hood scored once and created another goal for Steve Murray, whilst Denis made the save of the game, diving full stretch to divert Andy Gray’s powerful close range header. Celtic won 3-0 and at this time teams were barred by the SFA from going on a lap of honour after they had received the cup. Celtic’s players cleverly got around this by going on one before receiving the trophy!

In April 1974 Denis was part of the Celtic team who played Atletico Madrid in the European Cup semi finals. The first leg at Parkhead is remembered as one of the most disgraceful football matches ever to take place. Atletico’s brutal tactics disgusted all decent football fans and they had seven players booked and three ordered off. Despite this the game finished goal-less. In the second leg in Madrid, Celtic fought against the odds with Denis denying the Spaniards for 77 minutes before two late goals sunk the Celts.

In August 1974 Denis made the headlines for hugely contrasting reasons. At Broomfield, against Airdrie in the Drybrough Cup, he inexplicably threw the ball into his own net on a day when even Jock Stein is said to have laughed. The Celts won through to face Rangers in the final and after a 2-2 draw the game went to penalties. Denis was the Celts’ hero when he saved two of the Rangers penalties to allow Celtic to win the shoot out by 4-2.

Denis appears to have lost Stein’s favour after a 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos in the European Cup in October 1974. Despite losing his place he stayed faithful to Celtic by staying for two years, playing only sporadically, before moving to Clydebank in 1976.

Denis Connaghan was a life-long Celtic fan and gave great service to Celtic during his five year spell. He is fondly remembered for his contribution during a hugely successful era.

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