The summer of 1983 was arguably the most turbulent in Celtic’s history. Legendary club servant, Billy McNeill, felt forced into resigning as Celtic manager after a vitriolic public spat with the autocratic chairman, Desmond White. McNeill then headed south to manage Manchester City, leaving the Celtic support, who held him in such high esteem, absolutely devastated.
Celtic then turned to the inexperienced David Hay as McNeill’s replacement. Hay had been out of the game for a full year after a move from Motherwell to the USA had broken down in the summer of 1982. He inherited a hugely difficult problem after Celtic had recently sold their two prolific strikers, Charlie Nicholas and George McCluskey, to Arsenal and Leeds United, respectively for a combined total of £800,000.
McNeill’s last act as manager had been to sign Motherwell’s promising 19 year old striker, Brian McClair, for £75,000. McClair had ironically been a part of Hay’s successful Motherwell side which had ran away with the first division in 1981 so he would at least know one of his new charges well. With another striker required, Hay’s first venture into the transfer market had been to sign the experienced Scot, Jim Melrose, from Coventry City for £100,000.
Hay’s new Celtic tam were unbeaten when they travelled to Dens Park to face Dundee on September weekend Saturday in 1983. A hard game was anticipated as Dundee were enjoying something of a renaissance with such fine players as Iain Ferguson, Cammy Fraser, Tosh McKinlay, Stuart McKimmie and Ray Stephen at their disposal. Three days previously, Scotland had beaten Uruguay 2-0 at Hampden, with Frank McGarvey being injured and receiving seven stitches in a thigh wound. McGarvey was Celtic’s main striker and they very much relied on his ability and experience and it was a tremendous blow when he was declared unfit. This meant that the untried pairing of McClair and Melrose would now lead the Celtic attack at Dens.
Dundee took the lead in the 19th minute from a penalty from Iain Ferguson after Brian Whittaker, another recent Hay signing, had impeded Stuart McKimmie in the area. Celtic had recovered well by half time with Whittaker redeeming himself by setting Tommy Burns up to score with a powerful shot. McClair then gave Celtic a 2-1 lead at the break after Provan had been clearly fouled in the area with the referee surprisingly deciding against awarding a penalty.
The second half turned into something of the Brian McClair show. He scored a terrific second half treble to take his tally to four on the day and gave an impressive display of finishing. He scored Celtic’s third after a fine pass from the excellent Paul McStay. The fourth was a diving header courtesy of a Burns cross and the fifth came when McStay again had opened up the Dundee defence to create another chance for McClair to coolly finish. Melrose, not to be left out, scored the sixth with a chip over the Dundee ‘keeper, Colin Kelly. This was all to the satisfaction of the large Celtic support in the 12,000 crowd, who gleefully chanted – ‘We want seven….we want seven…!’
The second half had become a bit ill-tempered as Dundee’s frustrations grew. In 61 minutes Tosh McKinlay and Davie Provan were fortunate only to be booked after both men had aimed kicks at each other whilst on the ground and created a ‘stramash’ amongst other players. This was entirely out of character for both men, who were not known for their physical attributes. Dundee captain, Cammy Fraser, was ordered off shortly after this when he received a second booking after a foul on Burns. Fraser was rumoured to be a target for Rangers in the press and he was roundly jeered by Celtic fans as he trudged disconsolately from the pitch. Another Dundee penalty by Ferguson ended the scoring at 6-2.
This was Brian McClair’s day and he had given Celtic fans a taste of things to come in the years ahead. However, there is a postscript to this story. Three days after this game Celtic travelled to Denmark to face AGF Aarhus in the UEFA Cup, holding a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg at Parkhead. With McGarvey fit for the return, Davie Hay had the dilemma of perming two from the striking trio of McClair, Melrose and McGarvey. McClair, you would imagine, would have been a certain starter after his four goal heroics at Dens. But Hay eventually went with the more experienced pairing of McGarvey and Melrose and was vindicated with Celtic winning 4-1 on the night with an excellent display. Thus, Brian McClair probably remains the only player in Celtic’s history to be dropped after scoring four goals in a game.