Willie Wallace recalls a memorable Celtic career

Celtic legend and Lisbon Lion Willie Wallace. Picture: Robert Perry
Celtic legend and Lisbon Lion Willie Wallace. Picture: Robert Perry
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Willie Wallace is reaching for his glasses to look at a picture of the day he was stripped half-naked in Lisbon by a gang of Portuguese souvenir hunters.

Aye, that’s the one, he says, pointing to the cover of his new book, Heart of a Lion. The photograph is of Wallace being lifted above the invading masses on European Cup final day, a broad smile on his face as the reality of what he has achieved begins to dawn on him. “That’s when my pants disappear. See if you took that picture a few seconds later you’d be seeing a different expression. They lift me up and whip my shorts off. Then they put me down and pull the jersey over the top and they’re away with that an’ all. It was bloody mayhem. None of these people are from Glasgow. Well, the boy with the bobble hat at the back is, but look at the rest. You can tell. That tanned boy there. And that one. And them two over there, no way they’re Glasgow. They’ll be Lisbon. Where’s that jersey now I wonder.”

He is laughing at the memory of it. And the memory of what followed. He has made his way to the dressing room area in his boots and underpants. He has Jock Stein on one side of him, Bill Shankly on the other and some dishevelled mates from Kirkintilloch right in front and telling how they’d just been robbed amid the delirium of the greatest day any of them would ever know. “Money and passports away, Willie. Rifled.”

“What am I gonna do, boys? I’m lucky to have my pants,” says Wallace.

As if it was yesterday, Wallace recalls Stein’s hand dipping into his pocket and a roll of notes coming out and being handed over. “The lads counted it in front of the boss. ‘That’s a hundred pound, Mr Stein. Thank you. We’ll drop it into the park when we get home’. And they did as well. Two weeks later, in they came. It’s funny the things you remember, isn’t it? Me in my underpants, the Kirki lads with nae money and Jock and Shanks looking on. Ah, there’s a million stories.”

And he’s home to tell them, home from his home from home, Australia. The Gold Coast, to be exact. He’s been there for 31 years, has raised a family there, has grandchildren there, has Olive there, his wife for more than half a century. One day good, the next day even better. That’s what they say round his way.

On this Wednesday lunchtime in Glasgow he is talking about it all. The formative years at Stenhousemuir and Raith Rovers, the 127 goals in 239 appearances for Hearts, the 134 goals in 215 starts for Celtic, the trophies, the team-mates, the rivals. He was never the star of the Lisbon Lions and that suited him, he says. He’s been called the forgotten Lion and that has never bothered him. Jinky, Billy McNeill, Tommy Gemmell, they lapped up the limelight in a way that he never wanted to. “I was always happy just to slip out the side door.”

He tells of the difference between himself and his mate Tam Gemmell. It was the late 1960s and Celtic were in America to play a series of games against Manchester United. Some of the boys were at a cabaret evening in Fort Lauderdale. The Lions walked in and immediately everybody in the ballroom stood up and started applauding. “They all thought that Tam was [the American actor and comedian] Danny Kaye. They were going crazy. And what did Tam do? Only go along with it. He went up on stage with these lovely Hawaiian dancers pretending to be Danny Kaye. A couple of their skirts hit the deck. Tam lapped up the attention even when the attention didn’t have anything to do with him.”

Like his team-mates, Walace was brought up in harsh times. He was only a young boy when his father, a foundry worker, contracted tuberculosis and spent a year in hospital in Helensburgh. Quite a spin from his home in Kirkintilloch to his father’s bedside. Two buses and a whole lot of walking.

“Things were hard. We didn’t have anything. When I talk to kids today I say ‘life to you is money’. That was a word I never knew. I didn’t have any and I wasn’t going to get any. If you wanted something you went and found lemonade bottles or jam jars or you did a paper round. You’ve seen that Open All Hours? The boy with the bike? That was me. I did the messages on the bike from the age of 13. Then I’d play my football and then back on my bike and my legs would be sore, but you’d have to have the messages delivered by six o’clock at night.”

Wallace had a natural talent for scoring goals. In two seasons with Raith Rovers he banged in 29 goals in 63 starts and was promptly sold to Hearts as, one paper put it, “the extra pair of trousers in the suit” in a move that also saw Rovers’ Willie Polland move to Tynecastle. “Willie was the jacket and I was the extra pair of trousers, but the trousers got paid the same as the jacket, so I was happy.” He was a goal-scoring machine at Tynecastle, the leading scorer for five seasons in succession from 1962/63. He won a League Cup and almost won a league. He wanted a rise of a fiver but the manager, Tommy Walker, wouldn’t give it to him, so he left. He remembers sitting under a portrait of John Thomson (the Celtic goalkeeper who died after a collision during an Old Firm game in 1931) at Celtic Park in the autumn of 1966 while the deal was being done to sign him. He went in the door thinking his future lay in Newcastle. He came out as one of Stein’s canniest purchases. At a shade under £30,000 he was a steal to beat all steals.

Wallace used to frequent a pub in Torrance in those days. Every Tuesday night he’d be in there for a pint and a game of darts. The proprietor was a tough old bird, a Rangers supporter who found the news that one of her regulars had joined the other side too much to bear. “I went in there the following Tuesday and she says ‘Where are you going?’ I says, ‘I’m going to play my darts’. She said ‘No, you’re no’. Out!’ She was serious. I was barred.”

In football, there are fairytales and then there is what happened to Wallace in his first season at Celtic. In the space of six weeks he scored two critical goals in the European Cup semi-final first leg against Dukla Prague, played for Scotland in the storied 3-2 win over world champions England at Wembley, won the league championship and the Scottish Cup and then rounded it off by winning the European Cup.

The Dukla matches saw Wallace at his finest, not just as a predator in the first leg in Glasgow but as a team player in the second leg in Prague, which Celtic started with a 3-1 lead. “Jock had said ‘I’m gonna sacrifice a little bit today because if we come away 0-0 we’ve done something that nobody else has done in Britain’. He wanted me to keep an eye on their star player, Josef Masopust. I said ‘I hope I’m up to what you’re asking me to do’. ‘Just be with him’ he said. ‘If you’re with him they’ll think twice about using him and he’s their channel, he’s their everything’. I just shadowed him. Fortunately I got a chance early on him to give him a little rattle and he wasn’t too happy about that. He was a magnificent footballer, but he didn’t enjoy it. At the end of the game I went to change shirts and he whacked me. But to be fair to the man, it was his last chance to get to the final of the European Cup and he came in later and gave me the jersey. He said congratulations.”

Masopust’s jersey is up in the loft in Australia. There’s boxes of stuff up there. Jerseys, medals, newspaper cuttings. The odd time he’ll go there for a look and be reminded of how long ago it all was. And yet how vivid it all remains.

“You know the wardrobe story?” he asks. “Bertie Auld’s brother an’ that?” This is how daft life was at Celtic sometimes, a level of bonkerdom that makes him chuckle even now, 46 years after he opened the wardrobe door in his room in the hours after the European Cup final and found Bertie Auld’s brother in there.

“I was rooming with Bert. I said ‘Who’s this?’ Bert said it’s his brother, Ian. ‘I said ‘Aye, but what’s he doing in the wardrobe?’ Ian pipes up: ‘I got thrown out of my hotel’. ‘What for?’ ‘I broke up a table and chair and I was lighting a fire’. I said ‘Bert, get this bastard out of here’. He said he couldn’t. The wives were on the way back to the hotel from the airport because their aircraft couldn’t take off and if Liz [Auld] found Ian in the room she’d go mental. I think there was friction. So he was in the wardrobe when the wives came back and then he fell asleep and started snoring. Liz is sitting on the bed saying ‘What’s that?’ And we’re going ‘That’s Luggy [John Clark] through the wall’. Bert wrote in his book that his brother had hid under the bed, but it was one of they beds that you couldn’t get an envelope under. I met him years later and he said ‘Christ, you’re right. It was the bloody wardrobe!’”

At Celtic, goal followed goal and trophy followed trophy. Twenty-one goals in 1966/67, 25 the next season, then 33, 24 and 28 in the years after that. In his only four starts of the 1971/72 season he scored three times, two of them in the European Cup. He’d already been told that he was in the team for the next round against Sliema Wanderers of Malta when he got a knock on his door at 6am at Seamill and was told to meet Stein downstairs. ‘You gotta go up the park’ was the message. ‘Crystal Palace are wanting to talk to you’.

“I came down and had breakfast with the boss and he never opened his mouth. He never said a word all the way to the ground either and I wasn’t volunteering anything. The Crystal Palace thing just came out of the blue. No warning. I suppose it was building up inside me on the way in the car. ‘If they don’t want me, I’ll go. Stuff ’em.’ I had a terrible feeling. It was like being dragged out of your bed and being sacked. ‘If you don’t want me then I’m off’. I got it in my head that if they’ve brought me up here then they don’t want me and I’d rather be where I’m wanted. So I came out of the meeting with Crystal Palace and Jock asked what I was doing and I said I’d signed and he stormed off and muttered something underneath his breath. To this day I don’t know what it was.

“That’s the bit I couldn’t understand. I thought he’d say ‘Right, good luck’. I thought he wanted me to move but I understand a bit more now. He was under pressure from above. It was done in stealth. I had no inclination of leaving Celtic. I wanted to finish my career there and from what I hear Jock wanted me to stay but had to be seen to be presenting me with the offer to leave. Aye, I was hurt by it. I always wondered why he didn’t say something over breakfast or in the car to the park.”

Nothing ever lived up to Celtic in the remainder of his career. How could it? There wasn’t much glory, but there was fun and it shines through. The laughs. The great players. The privilege of having such a fantastic life in the game. He’s talking now of a match he once played in Melbourne, a charity game at a provincial ground involving local players and three big names – Wallace, George Best and Ferenc Puskas.

“There was a little Glasgow guy called Joe Docherty in charge of our team and he says ‘OK, is everybody here?’ And somebody says ‘No, Puskas is missing’. Puskas had walked through the gate and there was this Irish guy working there and he said ‘Woah, wait a minute, who are you?’ Puskas was a little fat man at this stage. He said ‘I’m Ferenc Puskas’ and the boy on the gate said ‘Aye, that’ll be f****** right. My arse’. We had to go and get him. That story always makes me laugh. He was outside the gate for ages. Ferenc Puskas!”

The memories flow on. Billy Bremner getting booed for kicking Pele at Hampden. Swapping shirts with George Best on his international debut. Alfredo Di Stefano’s benefit match in Barcelona. “There was a suite given over to Alfredo’s presents. Wall-to-wall gold. Clocks, watches, statues. Never seen anything like it.”

Riches, for sure. But none quite like Lisbon. “I’m off to see Tam in the morning. He doesn’t get out much these days. I’ll remind him of the Hawaiian dancers.” Tales to last a lifetime.

n Heart of a Lion: The life and times of Lisbon Lion William Wallace (published by CQN Books)