The year of 1981 did not start well for me. In January I was rushed into hospital for an emergency operation with a burst appendix. There was no keyhole surgery in those days and it took a fair time to recover. As a schoolboy, just short of 15 years, this was quite an ordeal. At the end of 1980 Celtic were in a really bad way. Heavy defeats to Aberdeen (twice), Rangers and Dundee United (in the League Cup) had saw Celtic confidence drop to a low ebb as they found themselves a poor third in the league race, behind Aberdeen and Rangers. Then something funny happened. After my operation Celtic found form and went on a great, long unbeaten run. It was almost symmetrical, as I found my way back to good health off the park, so did the bold Celts on the field of play.
By April 1981 it was clear that Celtic could only throw the league title away, they were so far in front of the other teams. I well remember Good Friday 1981, on April 17th, with Celtic due to visit Rangers at Ibrox the next day. Ibrox was currently under reconstruction with the new Govan stand in the process of being built. That work reduced the capacity to 36,000 spectators and saw a mad scramble for tickets. Celtic’s allocation was approximately 12,000 which wasn’t enough to satisfy the huge demand for them.
I had given up hope of getting a ticket when my Dad arrived home from work on Good Friday. As always he always left his wages on the kitchen table but there was also another envelope with his name on it. I took no notice of it until he told me to look inside and there was two blue coloured enclosure tickets for the big game the next day. I was ecstatic and it’s interesting to note that in all the time my old boy went to Ibrox he never once entered the Broomloan stand, always preferring the standing area in the enclosure. When Rangers stopped Celtic fans going there in 1989 my Dad gave up going to Ibrox.
Easter Saturday was a brilliant sunny day. These days I can’t recall what I did a few days ago but I can still recall vividly what I did on that day. In the morning I went into Glasgow city centre. The purpose was twofold; firstly to pay Dad’s Celtic pools in West Nile Street and then a visit to HMV in Union Street to buy the ‘Manifesto’ LP by Roxy Music. After a dash home it was off to Ibrox in short sleeve weather. Staying in Govan it was a short walk and many Celtic fans of a certain age will recall the old St Anthony’s juniors football ground and social club. As always it was packed with Celtic fans en route to Ibrox and in need of a refreshment on a sunny day. My Dad was a member at that time so we were able to gain entry.
Celtic were on a fine unbeaten league run which had now extended to 12 games. The poor form of 1980 was now a distant memory as Billy McNeill made changes to his team. Mike Conroy, a very under rated player, had been brought in to add steel to the midfield. This allowed the flair players in midfield, Tommy Burns, Davie Provan and Dom Sullivan to perform. They in turn made a host of chances for the front two of Charlie Nicholas and Frank McGarvey who were in outstanding form. Experienced players like Peter Latchford, Roddy MacDonald, Murdo MacLeod, George McCluskey and Johnny Doyle couldn’t find a place in the side such was the strength of Celtic’s squad at that time.
Billy McNeill made surprising tactical changes for this match. Very unusually he played a back three of Tom McAdam, Roddy MacDonald and Roy Aitken with Danny McGrain and Murdo MacLeod employed as wing backs. McNeill had banked on Rangers not playing with a right winger and his tactics worked a treat. Rangers were having a poor season although they still had some fine players such as Davie Cooper, Jim Bett, Bobby Russell and Derek Johnstone. Celtic’s back three were there to cope with the dangerous aerial threat of Johnstone and Colin McAdam.
The game was a hard fought affair and it was always felt that one goal would win it and in 56 minutes Celtic made the breakthrough. Provan and McGarvey played a neat one-two and Provan slipped a pass to Nicholas who cracked a first time shot past the Rangers’ keeper Jim Stewart. There was always a great atmosphere in that old Ibrox enclosure and the goal had saw a melee of Celtic supporters sway back and forth in celebration. The goal came at the Rangers end of the ground and Danny McGrain was the first to get to Nicholas. In later years, Nicholas would recall that Danny, ever the wise head, had prevented him running towards the Rangers fans to celebrate at their end of the enclosure. This was less than a year since the 1989 Scottish Cup final riot at Hampden, so feelings were still running high and Danny showed a responsible attitude.
There were a few nail biting incidents before the end. Pat Bonner made his customary Ibrox blunder when he dropped a high ball ten yards out. This allowed Colin McAdam to prod the ball goalward only for Roy Aitken to clear as far as Jim Bett, who then hit the bar with a header before Celtic cleared the danger. Celtic saw out the game and this win all but gave them the league title as their the fans sang ‘Won the league at Ibrox, we’ve went and won the league at Ibrox’. Technically Aberdeen could still catch them on goal difference and that made Billy McNeill, the consummate professional, temper any premature celebrations. The party would have to wait for four days at Tannadice by which time the gentle spring weather had been replaced by the last remnants of bitterly cold winter weather.
It is still a great memory to recall 15,000 Celtic fans marching along Edmiston Drive and down Helen Street towards their buses, flags flying, scarves waving, and singing their hearts out. A sea of green, white, and gold, in the spring sunshine. I was highly fortunate enough to see Celtic win at Ibrox on a fair number of occasions. But this victory on Easter Saturday 1981 will always be my favourite memory in that old stadium. And I never did find out how Dad obtained those tickets.