Willie Wallace - The Lesser Lauded Lion!
William Semple Brown Wallace - “Wispy”- signed for Celtic from Hearts on December 6th, 1966, for a fee in the region of £30,000. The move came right out of the blue; Willie had been unhappy at Hearts for some time, unable to see eye to eye with manager Tommy Walker, and it was widely expected that Rangers would make a move for him. Willie was known to have been a Rangers fan in his youth, so Ibrox would seem to be his preferred destination. However, Jock Stein had other ideas. He saw Wispy as the perfect strike partner for Joe McBride, and he would provide competition for Stevie Chalmers in that role. Rangers were out of town, playing Borussia Dortmund in the European Cup Winners Cup in Germany when Jock struck. He met Willie, and it did not take him long to persuade the astute Wallace that his prospects would be much brighter in the east end of Glasgow than the west. A deal was swiftly concluded, and Wispy was a Celt!
Willie Wallace started out in football as a traditional right winger “with sawdust in my boots” as he put it, with Kilsyth Rangers before turning senior with Stenhousemuir at age 18 in season 1958-59. In 50 appearances with the Ochilview club, he scored 23 goals - an outstanding return for a winger! The next two seasons were spent at Raith Rovers, where a total of 56 appearances yielded another 23 goals. By this time, Heart of Midlothian were casting around for a replacement for their star centre-forward, Alex Young, whom they had just sold to Everton. Young would go on to become a cult hero at Goodison, where he was revered as “The Golden Vision”; he helped the Liverpool side to win the English League Championship and the FA Cup. Hearts boss Tommy Walker, himself a famous former centre-forward with the Tynecastle club, identified Willie as the ideal man to take Young’s place, and after settling into his new surroundings in season 1961-62, he firmly established himself into a very strong Hearts side which contained Scottish international David Holt at left back, and stars such as Willie Hamilton at inside left, future Celt Gordon Marshall Snr in goal, hard men John * and Roy Barry in the centre of defence. Willie played outside right in the League Cup final in October 1962, in which Hearts were somewhat fortunate to beat Kilmarnock, one of the other outstanding sides, in the early sixties along with Dundee, outwith the Old Firm, by 1-0. Poor old Killie, ever the bridesmaids, had a late equaliser by captain Frank Beattie ruled out for a foul. The Ayrshiremen had their revenge two seasons later, when they went to Tynecastle to play Hearts in the final league game of the season. The date was April 24th, the same day that Jock Stein’s Celtic won the first trophy of the new era, the Scottish Cup, at Hampden against Dunfermline. As Celtic counted down the final few minutes against Dunfermline, Kilmarnock were desperately defending a 2-0 lead over Hearts - enough to secure the title by 0.04 of a goal on the old “goal average” system. Only an heroic point-blank save by goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson from an Alan Gordon volley deep in injury time delivered the title to Kilmarnock, and thwarted Willie Wallace and his pals.
I first saw Willie play for Hearts against Third Lanark in the old Cathkin Park in season 1963-64, a game that Hearts won easily, 3-0. Early the following season, I recall Willie scoring a stunning goal against Rangers at Tynecastle, as Hearts hammered the Ibrox team 4-2, and he remained such a consistently strong performer that he won his first Scotland cap in a 3-2 win over Northern Ireland at Hampden in November 1964. His surprise move to Celtic did not come without personal ramifications. As Willie himself says in his biography, “Heart of a Lion”, in the week following his signing for Celtic, he visited a local pub near Kirkintilloch in the evening for his usual pint and game of cards with a few pals. However, he was greeted icily by the owner behind the bar, who advised him that they didn’t serve turncoats, and to “get oot!” Willie noticed that the table he usually shared with his card-playing cronies was deserted. He was clearly now persona non grata in that particular enclave of staunch Rangers supporters. His family, most of whom were Rangers fans, were fortunately more understanding and gave Willie their full support.
Willie made his debut for Celtic on December 10th, 1966, at home to Motherwell. Celtic won 4-2, with Stevie Chalmers grabbing a hat-trick. Willie had to wait another week to open his account, scoring the opener in a 6-2 home win at Celtic Park against Partick Thistle. Willie scored Celtic’s opener with a close in header, but his second was right out of the top drawer. I was in the front of the Jungle that day, and Celtic were attacking the Rangers end in the first half. As a half-cleared corner dropped at the edge of the area, I distinctly heard Wispy bark “Leave it!”, and he hit a glorious half-volley into the roof of the net, giving the keeper no chance. He was up and running! Jock Stein had always denied that Willie Wallace was signed to replace anyone in particular - he was simply seen as a quality addition to the squad. “I’ve signed a complete forward line!” he said, referring to Willie’s versatility. However, the following Saturday, Christmas Eve, at Pittodrie, Celtic lost the prolific Joe McBride for the rest of the season due to a serious knee ligament injury sustained in the 1-1 draw between the sides. McBride had scored a phenomenal 35 goals so far in the season, a staggering amount to tally up before Christmas. So much so that Joe still ended the season second-top top scorer in Scotland, (behind Steve Chalmers with 36 goals) despite missing half the season! So, suddenly, that firepower was lost and the value of signing a proven international class striker like Willie Wallace was shown in stark relief! For the remainder of the season, Wallace and Chalmers formed the main strike partnership. Willie ended the season with a very creditable 21 goals for half a season, with Bobby Lennox, Jimmy Johnstone, and John Hughes chipping in, Auld, Murdoch, and Gallagher adding goals from midfield, and of course Tommy Gemmell thundering in long-range shots and penalty kicks from left-back, ending the season with 16 goal from full-back - crazy!
Of course, Willie enjoyed a magical end to the season, beyond his wildest dreams…he scored two decisive goals against Dukla Prague in the first, home, leg of the European Cup semi final, then followed Stein’s instruction to the letter in completely nullifying the Czech side’s star playmaker, Josef Masopust, in the return at Prague’s Julieska stadium…a bleak, functional ground with a high proportion of spectators wearing military uniform (Dukla were the Czech Army team). Masopust was so frustrated by Wallace’s attentions that he brusquely slapped away Willie’s proferred handshake at full time, only to later apologise for his rudeness once the first bitter wave of disappointment had subsided. The Saturday after the first leg, he replaced the injured Jimmy Johnstone in the Scotland team who became “Unofficial World Champions” by beating World Cup winners England 3-2 at Wembley. Willie’s low drive led to Scotland’s first goal, as keeper Gordon Banks could not hold the shot and quicksilver Denis Law pounced to rap home the rebound. The final score may look close, but, as in Lisbon, the scoreline did not in any way reflect Scotland’s superiority.
The huge high of Prague was swiftly followed by a two-goal performance at Hampden in the Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen - his first, four minutes before half time a sharp reaction to convert Bobby Lennox’s low driven cross at the near post, and the second, three minutes into the second half, an unstoppable drive from around ten yards following a sparkling run and cross by Jimmy Johnstone. Celtic then had three bites at the cherry to clinch the league….a massive crowd crammed into Celtic Park on the Wednesday after the Cup Final, May 3rd, to see them hopefully avenge their only domestic defeat of the season, a 3-2 defeat against Dundee United at Tannadice on Hogmanay. Celtic had led 1-0 and 2-1, but two late goals by United had sunk them; remarkably, the scoring on that balmy spring evening exactly repeated the sequence at Tannadice! Twice Celtic led, their second being a smart interception of a bungled back-pass and clinical finish by Wallace, but again United would not lie down, and they again scored two quick goals to frustrate Celtic.
As a footnote to the United game, I was standing at a bus stop in Jamaica Street waiting for my bus home when the unmistakeable sound of “The Sash” came floating from the Jamaica Bridge, where an army of exultant Rangers fans were marching into the city centre celebrating their team’s qualification for the Cup-Winners’ Cup Final with a 2-1 home win over the Bulgarian side Slavia Sofia. The mob approached, and they appeared to be in an ugly mood despite their win; shop windows were smashed, and I’m afraid that discretion got the better part of valour as I quickly whipped off my Celtic scarf and stuffed it down my jacket before the swarm engulfed me and the older couple bedside me at the bus stop. Fortunately, the orgy of destruction swept onwards, round the corner and down Argyle Street towards Bridgeton Cross. I was never so glad to board my bus home to the south side! I expected the papers to be full of condemnation of this senseless vandalism the next day, but there wasn’t even a mention of it!! Funny, that….
The unexpected reverse against Dundee United meant that Celtic still needed one point from their last two games, against Rangers at Ibrox (postponed due to frozen conditions at New Year) and Kilmarnock at home. The Rangers game was played in an incessant downpour on Saturday May 6th, with Inter Milan boss Helenio Herrera an interested spectator in the Ibrox stand, and it was Jimmy Johnstone who proved to be the two-goal hero for Celtic with a scrambled equaliser to the young Sandy Jardine’s terrific strike for Rangers just one minute before, this just before half time, and then his unforgettable, mazy run across the eighteen yard line and sudden, thunderous left foot shot into the top corner to put Celtic 2-1 up with fifteen to play. Rangers equalised with nine minutes left, but Celtic held on comfortably to retain their title. A famous photo exists of the players of both sides mixing amiably as they left the field after the match - Bobby Murdoch even with his arm over Willie “Bud” Johnston’s shoulder! Perhaps some of this camaraderie would not go amiss these days!
With the League title secured, Celtic could relax in their final fixture at home to Kilmarnock on Monday May 15th, and they won comfortably 2-0, with a goal in each half from Lennox and Wallace. The previous Wednesday, seven Celtic players - Simpson, Gemmell, McNeill, Clark, Johnstone, Wallace, and Lennox, represented Scotland in a 0-2 defeat to Russia in a friendly international at Hampden. Tommy Gemmell inadvertently sealed victory for the Russians with a peach of an own goal, a neat lob over Ronnie Simpson’s head when the keeper had come off his line to clear a through ball. Unfortunately, big Tam got to the awkwardly bouncing ball first, but failed to look up before attempting to pass it back to Ronnie! Why Celtic allowed so many of their players to be involved in such a meaningless game only two weeks before the biggest match in the club’s history is beyond me.
Finally, the grand finale to the season in Lisbon, and Celtic’s finest hour. Even in his wildest dreams, Willie Wallace could not have envisaged, when he signed from Hearts - and he nearly didn’t, he initially rejected Celtic’s terms before his Hearts boss John Harvey negotiated a better deal for him with Jock Stein - that he would pick up Scottish Cup and League medals, play in a winning Scotland side at Wembley, and take part in a European Cup Final. No more needs to be said about Lisbon, other than that it was a 2-1 annihilation of the famed Internazionale, “Masters of the Cattenaccio”, in which every Celtic player had a dream game. At one point in the second half, Willie intercepted a slack pass back from Inter defender Burgnich to keeper Sarti, and in the act of side-stepping Sarti, had his legs whipped from under him by the keeper. It was the most stone-walled of stone wall penalties, far more of a stick-on than Inter’s first half award, yet the referee unaccountably failed to see the foul and waved play on. Fortunately, it mattered nothing in the end, but what if we had been awarded a penalty and missed it? Would Inter have taken heart? Would our heads have gone down? We’ll never know…
Willie fires in a shot against Inter
In season 1967-68, Willie’s first full term with the club, he shared the bulk of the goalscoring with Bobby Lennox, including one sensational performance against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park, where he scored four of Celtic’s six goals. The “Buzz Bomb” was on fire in the latter part of the season, scoring in each of the last 13 league games. In 68-69, Wallace began the season in sensational fashion, scoring both goals in the opening game of the season, a 2-0 League Cup win over Rangers at Ibrox, and then all 4 of Celtic’s goals in their 4-0 home win over Partick Thistle. He then notched the only goal in the 1-0 return home win over Rangers. He bagged another brace against the Ibrox men in the first Old Firm league game of the season at Celtic Park, but in vain as Rangers played well above themselves to win 4-2. Celtic had what appeared to be a legitimate equaliser by Lennox disallowed. Referee was a Mr Davidson of Airdrie. Nevertheless, Willie’s sparkling form continued throughout the term, and he only missed a handful of games in that treble-winning season, in which he finished as Celtic’s top scorer.
In his time at Celtic, Willie scored many brilliant and timely goals, including a cracker in the European Cup run of 1969-70, in the second round against Benfica at Celtic Park. Willie was an injury doubt before the game, but he made his presence felt when he outstripped the Portuguese defence to reach a long pass on the right, cut inside, and thrashed the ball past goalkeeper Henrique from a tight angle. This was a game that Celtic won 3-0, but they really should have been out of sight, at least five goals to the good. Gemmell scored in the second minute with a shot from Auld’s tapped free kick some 25 yards out, that I still think is the hardest shot I have ever seen. Wallace’s goal put us 2-0 up at half time, and Harry Hood scored with a simple header mid way through the second half. Somehow Benfica saw it through to the end without further loss, and as the records show, they replicated Celtic’s 3-0 scoreline back in Lisbon, their third goal coming two minutes into stoppage time. Celtic survived extra time, then won through on the toss of a coin - the last time such a ridiculous means of deciding a European cup-tie was ever used. Bob Kelly successfully lobbied for deciding drawn ties by penalty kicks thereafter. Willie scored Celtic’s third, killer goal in the next round against Fiorentina of Italy in the first, home leg of the Quarter-Final tie, to give us a 3-0 lead to take to Florence. “La Viola” exerted a lot of pressure in their home leg, but Celtic stood firm and held them to a 1-0 win, winning the tie 3-1 on aggregate. Willie played in the first leg of the Semi-Final tie against Leeds United at Elland Road, which Celtic won 1-0 with a first minute strike from George Connelly, but was surprisingly dropped for the second leg - Jock Stein’s reasoning being that John Hughes had a good record when playing against Jack Charlton of Leeds, and always troubled the England World Cup winner. So it proved, with Yogi nipping in front of Charlton to Head Celtic level after Billy Bremner had silenced the Celtic end with a terrific, swerving shot from 25 yards that gave Evan Williams no chance. Bobby Murdoch sealed the issue shortly after Hughes’s leveller. The season ended in double disappointment, as we know, with the Scottish Cup final defeat to Aberdeen robbing Celtic of what would then have been a unique double-treble. Aberdeen put in a strong performance on the day, and held Celtic at bay after gaining the lead thanks to the softest penalty you will ever see - Joe Harper’s shot ricocheted off Bobby Murdoch’s shoulder and over the bar; Bobby did not raise his arm, and could not get out of the way of the shot, but Mr Davidson still saw it as a penalty, which Harper expertly stroked home. Bobby Lennox appeared to equalise when Dons’ keeper Bobby Clark dropped the ball at his feet and Lennox knocked it over the line, but Mr Davidson ruled it out, saying that Lennox had fouled Clark. Aberdeen hit on the break to go 2-0 up with eight minutes left through their Scottish Cup talisman, Derek “Cup-Tie” McKay, and although Lennox scored a goal that even Mr Davidson couldn’t find fault with in the 89th minute, McKay struck again almost from the re-start to settle the issue. Jock Stein was quick to congratulate his opposite number, Aberdeen boss Eddie Turnbull, and his players, but this was yet another example of Celtic being done down by a referee, and Jock Stein was consistently critical of the way Celtic were treated by Bobby Davidson throughout his career.
Willie Wallace was re-instated for the European Cup Final against Feyenoord of Rotterdam in Milan, but this match was the “Yang” to Lisbon’s “Yin”. Despite taking the lead through a Tommy Gemmell shot on the half-hour mark, Celtic were never comfortable against a mobile and skilful Dutch side, for whom Wim Jansen and Wim Van Hanegem controlled the midfield. It came as no surprise when Feyenoord captain Israel headed the equaliser two minutes after Gemmell’s goal, and from there on Celtic fought grimly to take the match to extra time, and hopefully a replay. Evan Williams in goal saved Celtic from an embarrassing defeat. The fans, who had been comprehensively drowned out by their Dutch counterparts’ blaring klaxons, horns and cowbells, readjusted their aspirations from outright victory to hanging on for a replay; surely Celtic couldn’t be as bad again…Unfortunately, we never got to find out. Right at the start of extra time, John Hughes pounced on a mix up from kick off, and raced through the Feyenoord defence till he was right on top of veteran keeper Eddie Pieters-Graafland; he couldn’t miss…except, being big Yogi, he did. he seemed to be caught in about three minds, and rather than blast the ball past the keeper, he veered to his right and fluffed his shot across the face of goal. Even then, the rattled Feyenoord defenders nearly knocked it over the goal line themselves, Graafland flopping on the ball as it was about to cross the line. If Celtic had gone in front after all Feyenoord’s pressure, who knows how they would have reacted. As it happened, four minutes from the end of extra time and the reprieve of a replay, Billy McNeill, of all people, misjudged the flight of the ball and handled it in the box; before referee Mr Lo Bello of Italy could award the spot-kick, Feyenoord’s Swedish striker One Kindvall dashed round the stranded McNeill and lobbed the ball over the advancing Williams and into the net to give the Dutch a deserved victory. Willie Wallace was not the only Celt to perform way below par that night. It was a terrible collective performance. It would not be the last time Wim Jansen and a Swedish striker from Feyenoord would combine to create an impact on Celtic’s history!
Close, but no cigar for Willie or Yogi against Feyenoord in Milan...
Willie Wallace ended season 1969-70 as Celtic’s top scorer for the second season running, and although he shared striking duties with Harry Hood and Bobby Lennox in season 70-71, Willie still finished second top scorer with 28 goals, behind Hood with 33. This was to prove Willie’s last full season with Celtic, as it became clear that Jock Stein was beginning to introduce some of the brilliant reserve team of the time, the “Quality Street Kids”, into the top team. George Connelly and David Hay had already established themselves, and others, notably Lou Macari, Danny McGrain, and Vic Davidson were making regular appearances. The best of the lot would explode into the team in season 1971-72 - Kenny Dalglish! Willie was dropped for the Cup Final replay against Rangers, his place taken by Lou Macari, who opened the scoring for Celtic. Hood quickly added a second and Celtic won much more easily than the 2-1 scoreline suggests.
The introduction of the dynamic young Dalglish, then only 20, effectively brought the curtain down on Willie Wallace’s Celtic career. He made a few appearances as substitute, and a few starts, his last being in a 0-1 home defeat to St Johnstone on October 2nd. On October 16th, he and John Hughes departed in a joint transfer to Crystal Palace for a combined fee of only £50,000 in unfortunately acrimonious circumstances, and on Hallowe’en, Jock Stein pulled an apple out of the barrel when he signed Motherwell’s tearaway centre-forward John “Dixie” Deans for £18,000 while the striker was half way through a six-week ban!
So ended the Celtic career of one of the best strikers ever to wear the hoops; in a five-year Celtic career, Willie Wallace made 142 appearances for the club and scored a total of 89 goals. Although often not as highly regarded as Joe McBride, Stevie Chalmers, or Bobby Lennox, Willie Wallace was a strong, versatile performer who never let Celtic down. A Lisbon Lion and therefore, a Celtic Immortal. He has lived in Australia for the last 30+ years, but still regularly comes home and attends many of the Lions Re-Union events - always a welcome visitor!