Over the years, there have been several instances when Celtic have been faced with a hazardous minefield of fixtures on the run-in to victory in the League Championship. One of the most famous was that of season 1967-68. We began the season as Champions of Europe, but although we prevailed over Rangers in a tricky League Cup section which also included Aberdeen and Dundee United, and eventually won the trophy in a highly-entertaining 5-3 win over Dundee at Hampden in October, our form in the early months of the season was patchy. We lost 1-0 to Rangers in a hard-fought league match at Ibrox, which gave the Ibrox men the early lead in the title race - a lead they would not give up lightly. To compound the loss, Celtic produced their worst European display since Jock Stein’s arrival when they went down 1-2 to the Russian Champions Dynamo Kiev in the first round, first leg European Cup tie at Celtic Park. Celtic were woefully out of touch, and although the real Celtic showed up for the second leg in Kiev and forced the Ukrainians to scramble for a 1-1 draw, it remains a moot point as to why Celtic, as reigning champions, were handed such a daunting draw in the first round, when convention of the time usually saw the holders paired with one of the “minnows” to ease themselves into the competition. We were very unlucky to lose the tie, but we should not have been anywhere near a side of the calibre of Dynamo Kiev in the first round.
The loss of two games in a row would, today, probably instigate Twitter meltdown and calls for Stein’s head. To make matters worse, Celtic dropped another point at home to St Johnstone on the Saturday following the first leg, the week after the Ibrox defeat, with a 1-1 draw. In fact, it took a late equaliser from Murdoch to rescue the point, made all the more difficult by Jimmy Johnstone’s dismissal for head-butting the Saints’ Kenny Aird in the first half. Jock Stein memorably chased Johnstone down the tunnel as he left the field! Over at Ibrox, Rangers shocked Scottish football by sacking their long-serving manager, Scot Symon, with the team sitting on top of the league. He was replaced by his assistant, the bright young coach David White, who had shown great promise with Clyde before being snapped up by Rangers. White, like Jock Stein, was a “Tracksuit Manager”, and Rangers clearly felt that a new approach was required to halt Celtic’s dominance. The crusty same old, same old regime run by Symon was no longer good enough.
The series of battles with Racing Club of Buenos Aires in October and November to contest the unofficial World Club Championship amazingly failed to drain the energy and resolve of the team, despite the harrowing ordeal they underwent, especially in the Montevideo playoff. When we consider that Ronnie Simpson was felled by an object thrown from the crowd before the second leg at Racing’s Avellaneda Stadium had even kicked off, it seems inconceivable to us now that the game even went ahead. Recently I read an account of the game in Buenos Aires, which Racing won 2-1, in which their star centre forward Cardenas, who scored the winning goals in both second leg and playoff, stated that the gash on Simpson’s head “wasn’t much to worry about. It probably didn’t even need stitches and he should have played”. Yeah, right. As far as I’m concerned, away goals should have counted, so Celtic were “Unofficial World Champions” without the need for a third game! Incredibly, the team didn’t miss a beat at home, running up a cricket score in the League Cup semi final - a 7-1 win over Morton at Hampden that saw the boys 5-1 up after only 21 minutes play, was followed by a straightforward 4-2 home win over Motherwell immediately prior to the Racing matches, then the 5-3 win over Dundee in the League Cup Final, in between the two legs, and finally, after the dust had died down on the team’s return home, a 2-0 win over Airdrie at Broomfield. Meanwhile, Rangers had dropped points in home draws with Hearts and Dunfermline, so the gap was down to a single point. However, Celtic slipped up again in a 1-1 home draw with Dundee United. Ex-Ranger Davie Wilson put United ahead, shortly after Willie Wallace had been sent off for punching him, but Bobby Murdoch equalised straight from kick-off. Rangers gave their goal average a boost by hammering Raith Rovers 10-2 at Ibrox, but no further points were dropped until the big two squared up at Celtic Park on 2nd January, 1968.
As was the norm in those days, Celtic played Clyde at Shawfield on Monday, January 1st, having squeezed past Dunfermline 3-2 at home on Saturday 30th December. Rangers thrashed Aberdeen 4-1 at Pittodrie on the Saturday before hosting Partick Thistle on New Year’s Day. Celtic won 3-2, but Ronnie Simpson sustained a rib injury which - crucially - kept him out of the Old Firm game the following day. Ironically, John Fallon was supposed to play at Shawfield, but instead Stein stuck with Simpson. It was a cold, frosty, misty day at Parkhead; John Fallon replaced “Faither” Simpson in the Celtic goal, and Celtic fielded this unusual line-up:
Fallon; Gemmell Cattanach; Brogan, McNeill, Clark; Johnstone, Murdoch, Hughes Lennox, Auld.
John Hughes replaced the suspended Willie Wallace at centre forward, and young Jimmy Quinn was substitute. Tommy Gemmell wore his usual no.3 shorts, but lined up at right back to better counter the strong-running Orjan Persson on the Rangers left, with young Davie Cattanach at left back. Bobby Murdoch moved up to the forward line to add power, and Jim Brogan filled in for him at right half.
All went well in the first half. Bertie Auld gave Celtic the lead with a free kick which deflected off Sandy Jardine and wrong-footed Sorensen in the Ibrox goal on 18 minutes, awarded for one of John Greig’s many fouls on Jimmy Johnstone, and it remained 1-0 at half-time. However, ten minutes into the second half, Fallon unfortunately allowed a shot from Rangers’ Willie Johnston to slither between his knees for a soft goal. Celtic had the better chances thereafter, and when Bobby Murdoch took a cross from Jim Brogan with barely ten minutes remaining to play, wheeled, and struck a magnificent left-foot drive past Sorensen, it looked like they were going back to the top of the table on goal average. We shouldn’t have counted our chickens. In a last desperate foray, Rangers’ right back Kaj Johansen surged up the wing and tried his luck from over 20 yards out. He had famously scored the winning goal in the 1966 Cup Final replay with a thunderous drive that beat Ronnie Simpson, but he didn’t connect well with his latest effort and the ball trundled towards the Celtic goal. Somehow, John Fallon let it squirm under his body and into the net to grant Rangers an unlikely, and undeserved, equaliser. Poor John - he had played well and saved much more difficult shots than the two which beat him, but he probably assumed that if Celtic failed to win the Championship, he would be blamed for throwing it away.
If Jock Stein was alarmed or dismayed by this setback, he didn’t show it. He encouraged Celtic to take one game at a time, and see how Rangers coped with the pressure of being front runner, a position they had not been in for some four years. On the last Saturday of January, Celtic suffered a shock 0-2 defeat in the first round of the Scottish Cup at home to Dunfermline Athletic. The Pars defended resolutely throughout, and scored two breakaway goals in the second half, so that was that. No distractions - only the League left to play for. The chase was on!
On the weekend of the second round of the cup, Celtic played a friendly at home against Newcastle United, who were also out of the FA Cup. In an entertaining game, the Geordies won 3-2 against a sputtering Celtic side without the subtle prompting of Auld or Gallagher in midfield. No matter, the choir in the Celtic End celebrated the news that Rangers had pulled out of the Glasgow Cup rather than face Celtic on the pretext that they had a pile-up of fixtures. “The Huns are scared tae play us” rang out, to general merriment!
On the following weekend, Simpson, Gemmell, McNeill, Hughes, and Lennox played for Scotland against England in the Home International decider which was doubling as a European Championship qualifier. Scotland had of course beaten the World Champions 3-2 at Wembley the previous April, but had lost 1-0 to a George Best inspired Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in October, so England needed only to draw to ensure progress. A terrific drive from Martin Peters gave Ronnie Simpson no chance, to put the English ahead, but John Hughes equalised soon after with a powerful header past Gordon Banks. Scotland, with Chelsea’s Charlie Cooke in great form, pushed for a winner, but to no avail. It ended 1-1, and England qualified for the latter stages of the competition where they lost in the semi-final to Yugoslavia, who in turn lost to Italy in the final.
Throughout January, February, and March Celtic kept doggedly on Rangers heels. The Ibrox men were undoubtedly playing well and scoring goals, with Johnston, Ferguson, Greig and Persson the main contributors. In March, both teams were rattling in goals. On the 2nd of March, Willie “Wispy” Wallace hit four as Celtic thrashed Kilmarnock 6-0 at Rugby Park. Four days later, Bobby Lennox scored a hat-trick as Celtic beat Aberdeen 4-1 at Celtic Park. March 9th was Scottish Cup Quarter Final day, and while Celtic were idle, Rangers were held 1-1 at Ibrox by Hearts. The replay was held at Tynecastle only two days later, on the Monday evening, and Hearts won through with a Donald Ford goal four minutes from time. For the first time in nine years there would not be an Old Firm team in the Scottish Cup Final. Rangers were still involved in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the forerunner of the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) so Celtic found themselves having played one game more than Rangers going into April. On Tuesday April 2nd, the first crack appeared in Rangers’ armour. They were held to a goalless draw by Dundee United at Tannadice. A furious John Greig sprinted down the tunnel at the end. Celtic were absolutely flying by now, and in consecutive games following the 4-1 win over Aberdeen, they beat Airdrie 4-0 at home, Falkirk 3-0 away, Raith Rovers 5-0 at home, then came a run of four difficult away games. They beat St Johnstone 6-1 at Muirton Park on March 25th, this time with Lennox grabbing four, Dundee United 5-0 at Tannadice on March 30th, Hearts 2-0 at Tynecastle on April 6th, and Aberdeen narrowly, 1-0 at blustery Pittodrie on Wednesday April 10th. In this time, Rangers were knocked out f the Fairs Cup in the Quarter Final by Leeds United, drawing 0-0 at Ibrox, and Leeds winning 2-0 at Elland Road. The Rangers fans rioted through the streets of Leeds following their defeat. On April 13th, Celtic beat Dundee 5-2 at home and Rangers beat Raith 3-2 at Ibrox, so Celtiic remained one point in front having played a game more. Rangers had to win their game in hand.
On Wednesday April 17th, Celtic played Clyde in the Glasgow Cup Final at Hampden, while Rangers travelled to the Tail O’ The Bank to play their game in hand against Morton at Cappielow. Celtic were in devastating form, and led Clyde by 7-0 at half time. The second half showed Celtic’s merciful side, and they were satisfied with one additional goal. Meanwhile sensational news was filtering through from Greenock - Morton were leading Rangers 3-1! such was the uncertainty of the bush telegraph in those far off distant days, we left Hampden unsure of the final score at Cappielow and it was not until I reached home that I heard that Rangers had salvaged a 3-3 draw. Still, that kept Celtic on top of the table, now with the same number of games played! The following Saturday, April 20th, Celtic welcomed Morton to Celtic Park, and what a welcome it was! The Greenock men were cheered to the echo by a massive crowd of 50,000 plus as they took the field. Celtic wore their smart change strip of green jerseys, white shorts, and green socks with white stripes round the tops. Morton wore all-white. Willie Wallace headed Celtic in front in 14 minutes, but Morton dug in, and Celtic couldn’t break them down again. There was a lot of anxious shuffling of feet up at the back of the Celtic End, and when Joe Mason equalised for Morton right on the stroke of half time with a 25 yard shot, the ground was filled with an anxious murmur during the interval. In the second half, Celtic laid siege to the Morton goal, but could not force a way through. As the minutes ticked away, hope faded and the pendulum looked to be swinging back in favour of Rangers, who were leading Kilmarnock 2-1 at Rugby Park. In the very last minute, Bobby Murdoch swung a free kick into the Morton box. It broke off a defender, and landed right between Wallace and Lennox standing on the six-yard line. Wee Bobby reacted first, and with the last kick of the game, slammed the ball into the Morton net! There was literally just time for Morton to re-centre the ball when the referee blew for full-time and Celtic Park descended into a state of mass delirium! Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned bush telegraph had wrongly advised the ecstatic Rangers support that the Celtic game had finished 1-1. It was not until they arrived back at Glasgow Central station and read the green and pink finals that they learned the truth, and their mood deflated like a burst bladder. Both teams now had one game left to play, Rangers at home to Aberdeen, and Celtic away to Dunfermline.
It seems astonishing to us now, but back in the swinging sixties, not only were there no “International breaks” - even the annual England v Scotland game was played with league games going on elsewhere - the Cup Final did not even have a day all to itself, as it certainly should have done, and has now. Thus it was that Jock Stein led his men to Hampden to “support the Scottish Cup Final” between Hearts and Dunfermline, and also to spy on Celtic’s opponents in the crucial league match coming up in midweek. Rangers, meanwhile, looked to complete their league programme undefeated as they took on Aberdeen at Ibrox. A Rangers win would pile the pressure back onto Celtic ahead of their game at Dunfermline. The Cup Final itself was a good game - Hearts had the better of the first half, but Dunfermline, managed by ex Blackpool and Scotland goalkeeper George Farm, showed the same resilience that had seen them eliminate Celtic from the competition, and they came on strong in the second half. Centre forward Pat Gardner scored the opener, and Ian Lister netted a penalty two minutes later. Moller scored for Hearts when his shot deflected off the Pars’ John Lunn and into the net to make it 2-1, but Gardner settled matters with a spectacular volley to make it 3-1. The Fifers were worthy winners. Meanwhile, more sensational news reached Jock Stein as he congratulated the Dunfermline players on their success. Aberdeen had beaten Rangers 3-2 at Ibrox! The Big Man nearly tripped and fell going down the Hampden steps, such was his eagerness to tell his players that they were effectively Champions for the third consecutive season - barring a Dunfermline win by around 16 goals to nil at East End Park. There was no mistake on the airwaves this time - twice, Rangers had gone ahead with goals by ex-Don Dave Smith and Alex Ferguson, only for the Dons’ Davie Johnston to equalise quickly each time. One minute from the end, Ian Taylor volleyed home at the back post to win the game for Aberdeen, and consign Rangers to another empty season. Their fans booed them off the field, despite the fact that they had only lost one league match throughout the campaign - and they were up against the European Champions playing at their towering best. Celtic duly completed their fixtures with a 2-1 win in front of a mammoth 30,000 crowd at Dunfermline, coming from 1-0 down at half time to win 2-1 with two goals from (who else!) Bobby Lennox. The Buzz Bomb scored in each of Celtic’s last 12 league games, netting a total of 19 goals in that run. Truly amazing! Bobby finished the season top scorer with 32 goals in the League, 7 in the League Cup, and 2 in the European Cup. Although he was top scorer in Scotland, he was still 10 league goals short of the great Eusebio of Benfica, who won the inaugural Golden Boot with 42 league goals. The Lions provided the bulk of Celtic’s League appearances throughout the season, with John Hughes notching 31 appearances to Stevie Chalmers’s 13, and Jim Brogan and John Clark each starting 18 games. Charlie Gallagher clocked up 13, and Bertie Auld 19. Other notable participants were Davie Cattanach, Willie O’Neill, and Joe McBride, who made four appearances as he fought to come back from the devastating knee injury that threatened to end his career.
To add a touch of contemporary flavour, this is what was in the news in 1968:
The year started with the “I’m Backing Britain” campaign, in which a group of office secretaries offered to perform unpaid overtime in a bid to boost the country’s flagging productivity. Of course, this initiative was praised to the heavens by the right-wing press…even PM Harold Wilson endorsed it!
In April, Scotland’s two-time F1 Motor Racing World Champion Jim Clark was killed when his car left the track and hit a tree at 170mph in a F2 race at Hockenheim. Also in April, Tory shadow cabinet minister Enoch Powell made his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech in which he predicted civil unrest unless immigration was stopped, or at least greatly reduced. He was immediately sacked by Tory leader Ted Heath, despite significant public opinion support at the time.
In May, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, by James Earl Ray, who was arrested at Heathrow Airport, London, two months later.
In sport, Manchester City won the English League Championship, West Bromwich Albion beat Everton 1-0 in the FA Cup Final, Jeff Astle scoring, and Manchester United beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley to become the first English side to win the European Cup. Bobby Charlton (2), George Best, and Brian Kidd (on his 19th birthday) scored the goals. Rod Laver won the first Open Wimbledon Championship, beating fellow Aussie Tony Roche in the final, while Billie-Jean King won the Ladies title. Gary Player won the Open Championship last Carnoustie, and Lee Trevino won the US Open.
While all this was going on, we were listening to discs like Cindrella Rockefella by Esther & Abi Ofarim, The Legend of Xanadu by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, & Titch, Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding, Lady Madonna by the Beatles, and rather appropriately in April and May from a Celtic viewpoint - Congratulations by Cliff Richard and What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong!
Top movies of 1968 were Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, with its famous breakneck car chase round San Francisco, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Funny Girl (Barbra Streisand), Oliver!, and Planet of the Apes.