In the mid 1970’s Celtic boasted a number of highly promising youth players at the club. Some of them went on to become players of considerable standing. Tommy Burns, Roy Aitken and George McCluskey all enjoyed fantastic careers at Parkhead whilst others like Robert Hannah and Peter Mackie, who were equally promising, never quite made it at Parkhead and had to move on elsewhere. Then there was Jim Casey.
Jim was nicknamed ‘Ben’ by his peers after the popular 1960’s TV drama show, Doctor Ben Casey, and was a Scotland youth international of note. He was highly regarded and made his Celtic debut in 1975 against Stenhousemuir and spent six years as a Celt. However, his Celtic career was to be remembered for three desperately unlucky events, which all involved games against Rangers.
In September 1977, the inexperienced Jim was given the responsibility by Jock Stein of playing against Rangers at Ibrox. The influential Pat Stanton had been badly injured a few weeks earlier and Jock Stein chose Jim to play the sweeper role, so capably filled by Stanton, in the Ibrox game. At half time everything looked so rosy for the Celts. They had stormed into a 2-0 lead at the break courtesy of two terrific headers by Johannes Edvaldsson. Rangers then pulled a master stroke at half time by pushing Derek Johnstone up field from centre half to striker. Stein responded by pulling Edvaldsson back into defence to mark Johnstone and pushed Jim into midfield. This gave Rangers the initiative and Celtic collapsed and lost the game 3-2. To this day it the most devastated I have ever felt in a Glasgow derby game.
After this game Jim fell out of favour and in the summer of 1978 Billy McNeill replaced the great Stein as Celtic manager. Just twelve days before Christmas in 1978 Celtic faced Rangers in the League Cup semi at Hampden with Jim replacing the injured Mike Conroy in the second half. With the game delicately poised at 2-2, well into extra time, Derek Johnstone looked offside as he bored in on goal. As Roy Baines came out, Johnstone hit the ball off the Celtic keeper and the ball inadvertently struck Jim Casey and was diverted into the net. A debatable fluke own goal had broken Celtic’s magnificent League Cup record of appearing in 14 consecutive League Cup finals. This was a desperately unlucky event and Jim had to show a lot of resolve to recover from this misfortune.
By 1980 Jim was still struggling to establish himself in Celtic’s first team. He was captain of a hugely talented and successful reserve side which boasted, Pat Bonner, Willie McStay, Mark Reid and Charlie Nicholas, all of whom would make their mark at first team level for the Celts. Fate conspired that Celtic’s first choice centre halves, Roddy MacDonald and Tom McAdam, were ruled out of the 1980 Scottish Cup final through injury and suspension respectively. This left an opportunity for Casey, who would have been keen to take the opportunity to show his worth. With just days left to the final Billy McNeill and John Clark took the cup final squad for a coaching session in Celtic Park. The players heard a yell and there was Jim Casey with a badly swollen knee. It was clear that this injury would take weeks to heal and would rule him out of the final. Legend has that McNeill, racking his brain to find someone to play centre half, turned to midfield man Mike Conroy and said ‘Ever played at centre half?’ Conroy replied in the negative and McNeill’s next question was ‘Would you?’ And thus Mike Conroy became the unlikely hero of the 1980 when he blotted the much vaunted Derek Johnstone out of the game and laid the foundations for a famous Celtic victory.
Conroy’s cup final glory could easily have been Jim Casey’s. For the third time involving games against Rangers, fate had been incredibly unkind to Jim and a favourable outcome on just one of these events could have transformed his Celtic career and led to him becoming a household name.
In late 1980 Jim moved to the American league with Phoenix Inferno and then returned to Arbroath. He appears to have retired early and disappeared from the radar. I have not heard of him being mentioned for many a year. Jim Casey can certainly be regarded as one of Celtic’s most unfortunate ever players. If only fate could have been kinder to him.