In the summer of 1995, Celtic manager Tommy Burns was in the market for a centre half. In the previous season of 1994-95, Burns’ first as Celtic boss, he had struggled to find a decent centre back partnership in defence. Mark McNally, Mike Galloway, Malky Mackay, Tony Mowbray and even Brian O’Neil had all been tried in defensive roles but none had suitably impressed.
Burns believed the answer to his problems was Falkirk centre half John Hughes and Celtic paid £380,000 to bring ‘Yogi Bear mark 2’ to Celtic Park, John inheriting the nickname of his 1960’s Celtic namesake. The signing raised a lot of eyebrows as the big man was 31 and whilst his rugged style of play had been notable at Falkirk there were doubts that he was of the sufficient quality that Celtic required at that time.
John’s first appearance was in a pre-season friendly game against Liverpool, in only the second game played by the Celts on their return to the newly developed Paradise after their year’s hiatus at Hampden. He was up against the likes of John Barnes and Ian Rush and he coped well against such high calibre players on the night, making a fine impression as Celtic gained a merited 0-0 draw.
At this time Celtic were still viewed as being far behind a Rangers side who boasted a host of class players such as Laudrup, Gascoigne and Boli. The perception was that it would take Celtic a few seasons to become title challengers but there was a pleasant surprise for Celtic fans when the side hit form and actually became involved in a actual title challenge.
Part of the reason for renewed optimism was the defensive partnership forged between John Hughes and Tom Boyd. John was the orthodox centre half who attacked the ball, cleared any danger and dealt with the main centre forward. Boyd, with his tremendous pace, provided terrific cover for anything that got past big John and both players bonded well.
Hughes also installed more of a physical presence in the Celtic side who were short on hard tackling players. He had a fighting spirit which the fans responded to and this was shown one night in October 1995 when Celtic travelled to Brockville to face Falkirk. Mo Johnston was playing for the Bairns and the Celtic fans roared their approval as big Yogi repeatedly dealt out bone crunching tackles on the much despised Johnston. Then, with only minutes remaining, John scored a typically brave header to score the only goal and earn Celtic full points from the fixture. It was obvious at this time that Hughes had instilled some much needed backbone into the team.
As Celtic moved into 1996, optimism grew on their title chances. Hughes and Boyd maintained their good defensive form as Celtic, boasting their new foreign contingent of Pierre Van Hooydonk and Andreas Thom, went neck and neck with Rangers in the title race. In March there was controversy when Jorge Cadete’s transfer was held up by SFA incompetence. We will never know the outcome for certain but this was a major factor in Celtic just failing to win the championship that season and severely damaged their chances. In the end Celtic came desperately close, falling just 4 points short of becoming champions. The defence, with Hughes and Boyd enjoying outstanding seasons, had conceded just 25 goals in 36 games.
The highlight of John’s season had came in March at Ibrox. Rangers led 1-0 with just three minutes remaining when the big man scored with a powerful downward header from a Peter Grant cross. John showed his great delight in front of the Broomloan Road stand and his goal had kept Celtic in the title hunt.
The next season, 1995-96, saw Celtic sign the highly rated English centre half, Alan Stubbs, from Bolton for a club record fee of £3.5m. John’s Celtic future was now uncertain and it’s sad to recall that he was sent off in his final appearance in the hoops against Hamburg ,in Germany, in a UEFA cup tie. With his opportunities now becoming more limited, John moved to Hibs in late 1996. As a Leith boy and a Hi-bee at heart, he now had the chance to play for his boyhood idols and he gave great service to Hibs.
John Hughes only spent just over a year at Celtic. There may have been far more talented players at Parkhead through the years but few ever showed the level of pride, commitment and fighting spirit that John Hughes displayed in the hoops. He also played with a smile on his face and you got the feeling that he loved every minute of being a Celtic player and had made the most of his opportunity in the autumn of his playing career.
It was a pleasure to have watched him.