All around the country, keen young students are now back at university, recovering from freshers’ week and absorbing new information.
For Danny McGrain and David Hay, their higher education was completed on a patch of grass just walking distance from Celtic Park, under the tutelage of men who had been there and done it.
Hay believes that the time can come again when a group of players break through en masse, now that clubs have been through the “foreign experiment” and are being forced by financial constraints to develop their own players.
But it is unlikely that they will be of the same high standard as those who came through in the late Sixties and early Seventies at Celtic. And it is almost certain they will not be tutored by a group of European Cup winners – as the young men dubbed the “Quality Street Gang” at Celtic were.
It says something that the Lisbon Lions, who they were being primed to replace, considered games against these prodigies at Barrowfield to be their toughest challenge of the week.
In recent times, only the influx of young players at Hibs under Tony Mowbray has seen such a group of youngsters break through at the same time, but there was not a Kenny Dalglish among them – nor was there a McGrain or Hay. And as good as Mowbray was for Hibs, he wasn’t Jock Stein.
“I don’t think we realised at the time how special that time was,” said Hay yesterday. “It’s only when you look back.
“We enjoyed training every day and we used to walk to Barrowfield there and back – although we’d try and get a bus if Jock wasn’t looking. We would play the Lions and they used to say that was their hardest game of the week.”
Ironically, such an occurrence as the Quality Street Gang phenomenon is now less likely to happen at Celtic than elsewhere. As Hay pointed out, other clubs are being forced to explore youth development again, while Celtic have the funds to invest in promising talent from abroad.
“I think it has come back in the sense that outwith Celtic clubs are having to rely more on younger players due to the economic climate,” said Hay. “Having said that I think Celtic’s academy is as good as any out there so if the quality is there then it will come through.”
It came through in the late 1960s. “It was a special group of players but we were fortunate that we were all at Celtic at that particular time which was one of the best periods in Celtic’s history with the Lisbon Lions,” recalled Hay, as he and his McGrain helped promote a book written about the regeneration of Celtic following two appearances in the European Cup final inside three years.
“The breaking up of the raft of the Lisbon Lions was made a lot smoother by the raft of talent that was waiting in the wings,” writes Paul John Dykes in the official club book, entitled simply The Quality Street Gang. The author notes that in 1968 Celtic’s reserve side was felt to contain so much talent that a proposal was made by Stein to install them in the Scottish Second Division.
By the time of the second European Cup final in 1970, which was lost to Feyenoord, those such as Hay had already begun to break through. McGrain, who at 63 is two years younger than Hay, made his debut early in the following season. He was, along with Dalglish and the exceptional George Connelly, the most talked-about of the up and coming young stars. Dalglish left to join Liverpool and the career of Connelly, as this book recounts, ended prematurely after bursts of brilliance and longer spells of injury and personal problems.
“We trained with them every day which helped with our development and, of course, we were working under the best manager ever,” said Hay. Over time, Stein melded the new players into another great side although they perhaps did not achieve everything that it was hoped they would – certainly not as a group at Celtic.
McGrain, though, lived up to his potential as a world class defender. “We’re talking about the Sixties almost 50 years ago and I can’t believe I played in that time.
“We were learning from the best in Europe at that time. Our entire squad numbered 30 players and every day you’d be training or have a game and it would be a mix of young v old.
“I’d maybe be playing with Jimmy Johnstone one day and against him the next. I wasn’t a full-back in those days but a silky midfielder. But I must have been a crap one as I was moved back to right back. I played against Jim Craig, Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Lennox.
“We were learning from these people. Playing against him Jimmy Johnstone meant you ended up being demented. He could jink by you. Bobby Lennox? He would fly past you so he would tell me to tuck in more, or encourage me to push him inside. Jimmy would tell me not to dive into him because he would know what I was going to do and then prepare himself to go by me.
“They were teaching us without sitting us down or taking us out for half an hour. We learned in the best place – the big board there, out on the park. It was a great hub of people wanting to learn, people teaching others unknowingly.”
“Mr Stein would never tell us to sit down and listen to these people, it just happened. If he did say it to them it was a well-guarded secret. They did it openly and freely and if you asked them any questions they would answer.”
McGrain is still at the club as a member of Neil Lennon’s backroom staff and is open to passing on what he knows, although he accepts it is not the same now. Many Celtic players tend to be seasoned internationalists and do not tend to look for advice. If young players come through at all, it is usually in ones and twos. Not like in the days of the Quality Street Gang.
l The Quality Street Gang by Paul John Dykes [£19.99 SportMedia]