Interview: George McCluskey recalls two Celtic wins over Rangers

Former Celtic striker George McCluskey now coaches the club's Under-17s. Picture: Wattie Cheung.
Former Celtic striker George McCluskey now coaches the club's Under-17s. Picture: Wattie Cheung.
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It is 1976 and the cream of Scottish footballing youth are in Cannes, having won their way through to the final of a prestigious Under-17s tournament. So what do they do after dinner the night before the big match – is it early to bed for Andy Roxburgh’s boys? Let George McCluskey tell the story…

“The meal was at six o’clock and we were soon hungry again so myself and Rab Hannah formed an escape committee to get some grub and bring it back to our B&B for the rest of the lads,” he says. “We found a wee place that was selling pizzas out of a window and, given that we’d never eaten them before, we were struggling a bit with the menu when this yellow 2CV screeched to a halt beside us and out gets Mick Jagger.

George McCluskey scores in a 2-0 European Cup victory over Real Madrid at Parkhead. Picture: Gordon Rule.

George McCluskey scores in a 2-0 European Cup victory over Real Madrid at Parkhead. Picture: Gordon Rule.

“Four or maybe five security guys come after him and I don’t know how they all fitted into such a small car. Then Ronnie Wood gets out! He was great, asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Cannes – the Rolling Stones were there for the film festival. So what does this cheeky kid do? Tells Ronnie he preferred him in the Faces. I asked him where Rod Stewart was. ‘I don’t know’, he said, ‘maybe LA?’ I kept up with this line of inquiry and eventually he said: ‘Listen, George, I’ve just joined the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world and you want me to get back with Rod? I love what you’re saying but I don’t think so!’

“Then he invited me and Rab to a party back at the band’s chateau but like good boys we said: ‘Sorry, Ronnie, but the team’s pizzas are getting cold’. And then what happened? Andy dropped the pair of us from the final against France. But I got on in the second half, went on a mazy run and set up Gordon Boyd for the winner.”

I love it when footballers have good musical anecdotes and McCluskey’s is right up there with “Are you the Dixie Deans who used to play for Celtic?” – reggae icon Bob Marley’s question to one of George’s predecessors in the Hoops forward line. Indeed, continuing with the theme, you might argue that at Parkhead McCluskey was the Faces and Frank McGarvey and Charlie Nicholas were the Stones. The latter were bigger but was George maybe just that bit cooler?

Certainly he had plenty of sympathy among the green-and-white faithful as Jock Stein handed over power to Billy McNeill for McCluskey was usually the member of this hotshot triumvirate required to start from the bench. But he made his mark, not least when his team-mates both suffered leg breaks in 1981-82 and his goals fired Celts to the Premier League title.

By then he had already written his name in Old Firm legend having scored in two famous clashes. Well, one that was famous and the other which was as notorious as they come. There was the championship decider of 1978-79 followed 12 months later by the Scottish Cup final. With Celtic and Rangers meeting at Hampden tomorrow let’s deal with that first.

“That’s still the goal everyone asks me about,” he says with a chuckle. “Folk either go: ‘Did you really mean it?’ or ‘You’re the guy who spoiled it for Scottish football fans forever!’ ”

McCluskey’s extra-time winner in the 1980 final, socks round his ankles, was a jab of the right boot to divert a Danny McGrain effort past Peter McCloy and of course it was deliberate. “Danny’s shot was going wide – they always did. I just tried to re-direct it, flick it and spin it, but as soon as I made contact I thought I hadn’t got enough on it. I turned round to see big Peter way out of his goal and the ball bouncing past him. After that it was pure pandemonium.”

Celtic collected the cup – McCluskey in a three foot-high hat – and as winners with the SFA’s blessing paraded the trophy on the pitch. Some Hoops fans in their delirium clambered over Hampden’s newly-erected fences to join them.

“I was met by a sergeant who said: ‘Get off the park, George.’ ‘How come?’ I said. ‘Turn round,’ he said. It was one big massive fight and I was straight down the tunnel. And do you know a few years ago I got invited to Perth, Australia by some exiled Celtic supporters where I met the guy who claims he started the riot. He told me he ran up the far end and booted a plastic ball in the net, which just annoyed the Rangers fans and they piled on to the park. I said to him: ‘So did they banish you to Oz for that?’ ”

Archie Macpherson in his TV commentary referenced Apocalypse Now and Passchendaele before declaring: “Let’s not kid ourselves: these supporters hate each other.” Questions were raised in the House. The upshot was the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act which outlawed booze at games, hence McCluskey being jokingly portrayed as some kind of temperance-society killjoy.

We meet in fellow Celt hero Harry Hood’s hotel, the Angel in Uddingston, Lanarkshire where McCluskey lives with his wife Anne. His career took him from Celtic to Leeds United then Hibernian, Hamilton Accies and Kilmarnock before winding up at Clyde in 1996, 21 years after it began. His nickname at Celtic was “Chicken George” after the character in the telly drama Roots whereas at Hibs it was “Beastie”. “Was that after the Beastie Boys? I think so. Right headbangers, that band were. A branch of the supporters’ club made me their president and gave me a Beastie T-shirt for the warm-ups. Alex Miller didn’t like me wearing it. ‘Shall I tell the fans that?’ I said. He had to win them round so he relented.” McCluskey is pretty sure the nickname was nothing to do with Peter Manuel, the serial killer known as the Beast of Birkenshaw, the village close to Uddingston where the player was born. “I hope it wasn’t. Manuel’s father lived just round the corner from our house.”

McCluskey is 59 and an in-demand grandad with four-year-old Ruari proving an especially lively charge. “Last night I was up the park with him. He’s football-mad. At seven o’clock I said I had to get home for my tea as it was getting dark. Just them the floodlights came on. ‘Papa!’ he shrieked. So we had to stay another hour.” This was privileged one-to-one tuition for the lad – McCluskey helps coach Celtic Under-17s at Barrowfield. Earlier yesterday he met Bobby Lennox off the train from Ayrshire to ferry the Lisbon Lion to a hospital appointment and later he caught up with Stevie Chalmers. “I love hearing these great guys’ stories,” he says, but his are pretty good too.

Earlier this year, when Johan Cruyff died, McCluskey had cause to remember a special night in Amsterdam in 1982 when Celtic overcame Dutch masters Ajax in the European Cup and he scored the late winner with a fine angled finish. “I went into the Ajax dressing room to swap shirts but no one was interested. ‘Stuff yez’ I thought, and then Cruyff piped up: ‘McCluskey, that was a great goal, you can have my strip’. He was getting a rub-down and smoking. He gave the fag to his masseuse and whipped off his top. Unfortunately I don’t have it anymore. My wee brother John borrowed it to show to his five-a-side team and left it to dry by the fire and it went up in flames.”

The brothers were once prodigies together at Celtic Boys’ Club and young George remembers the day he rushed home to tell his parents John and Teresa he’d been selected for a Spanish tour then immediately regretted it. “Everyone in the team had to have a green barathea jacket. Money was tight at home and I thought they’d struggle to afford it. I was a wee worrier as a kid and even thought I’d have to give up playing football because it might get too expensive for them. Somehow, though, they found the money. Dad told me later that they’d paid for the jacket by Mum pawning her charm bracelet and him working all the hours at Ravenscraig to buy it back.”

McCluskey was signed by Stein at 15 as Celtic’s youngest-ever S-form and he has a story illustrating the Big Man’s paternalistic attitude. “Jock came to the house with Sean Fallon while Mum was making soup. The pair of them could see it wasn’t quite a done deal – Mum mentioned that Manchester United were interested in me, too – so Sean took Dad down the pub and Jock stayed behind to butter up Mum. He told her that when Mrs Stein made soup she always put pepper in with the salt. Then he said: ‘Manchester United are a great club, Mrs McCluskey, but wouldn’t young George miss his home, his family and your lovely soup?’ He charmed her, alright. And she always used pepper after that.”

In 1975, after being given the last few minutes of an already handsomely-won Cup-Winners Cup tie against Icelanders Valur, McCluskey’s first start came aged 18 against Rangers. Stein was in hospital following the car crash which almost killed him. Unable to speak because the steering wheel had crushed his chest, he communicated with Fallon via pen and notebook. Celtic had just lost the League Cup final to their great rivals and fresh impetus was needed. There was some furious scribbling between the two men with Stein sat up in bed and pointing out: “Sean, I can’t speak but I can still bloody hear you!” Then came the instruction: “Play the boy on the right – No 7.”

That meant he was up against John Greig. The Ibrox captain introduced himself thus: “You might think you’re good, kid, but I’m going to be kicking you up and down this pitch.” McCluskey’s response was to laugh and say: “You’re an old man and you’ll have to catch me first.” The match finished all-square and afterwards Greig sought out the youngster to congratulate him on a fine debut. “He told me he’d only been kidding about wanting to kick me but that I’d have to get used to that sort of threat. He was right, too. A few weeks later I got the exact same warning from Tommy Gemmell at Dundee and him being a Celtic hero as well.”

From the start McCluskey revelled in the Old Firm blood and thunder. “I loved the tension of those matches and the fact that the club, the team and all those supporters were relying on you to have a good game, maybe score a goal. That wasn’t pressure; it was a privilege. And because I can no longer influence them I have to say that I hate watching Old Firm matches now.”

But if McCluskey’s Celtic debut was dramatic it had nothing on his first start for Hibs when Graeme Souness’s Rangers revolution stalled after after barely half an hour when the latter was red-carded for kicking out at him. McCluskey has never spoken much about that day in 1986 as he has hated the stupid culture which has glorified such “tackles”.

But he says now: “I respected Graeme before but when as I was carried off and he walked alongside me having been sent off I called him a coward. He made to apologise and, to be fair to him, he tried to do it again after the game but an old boy on the groundstaff armed with a broom chased him away.”

What were McCluskey’s talents? “I wasn’t the fastest but I thought I was pretty skillful. I liked to come short, introduce the midfield to the play and I was fond of a turn, wheeling in from the left and picking a spot at the goalie’s bottom right-hand corner. I scored a lot of goals that way and foxed Jim Leighton a few times.” Now, training the Under-17s, he insists all shots must hit the target. “If they don’t I send everyone on a run.

“I maybe wasn’t the fastest but me and Charlie were quite similar while Frank was the worker. I got on great with those guys – apart from when Charlie turned up for training in his ridiculous leather trousers – and had no beef with them when they were picked ahead of me. But I thought I was just as good as them and got frustrated when I didn’t start games.”

Parkhead loves a good conspiracy theory and there’s one involving George and Charlie. It suggests that George’s career was to some extent sacrificed while Charlie went into the team and the shop window. There’s an obvious flaw: Nicholas was irresistible. But the latter was always going to leave Celtic and command a higher fee. “Who knows?” says McCluskey. “One thing for sure is that Terry Neill when he was manager at Arsenal phoned me at home to say he’d bid £500,000 for me. I was to ask Billy [McNeill] about it but he said there had been no offer. Then at the end of the season it was Charlie who went to Arsenal. I’ve spoken to Billy since and he’s told me there was a bid but he wasn’t allowed to mention it. Ah well …”

When McCluskey got his chance he invariably took it. The bigger the game the better and he scored in a famous European Cup victory over Real Madrid, although his Euro exploits went from the sublime to the ridiculous when Celtic travelled to Albania to play Partizan Tirana. The bearded captain McGrain caused much consternation in an ultra-communist land. “The waiter kept looking at Danny, dead suspicious. I christened him Barabas.”

Those same waiters served foot which was inedible. “The soup was like melted lard – completely vile. I asked for my usual pre-match meal and this fish I’d never seen before arrived with all its scales and mad, staring eyes.

“Thankfully we’d all been advised to bring extra provisions. I always roomed with Tommy Burns and got back to find him spooning baked beans cold from a tin. His face was covered in tomato sauce to match his hair and he kept saying: ‘I’m starving, George, starving’. I produced a loaf and a tin of corned beef from my bag – packed by my good lady wife – and reckon I could have charged him a tenner a sandwich.”

Burns was a great friend, as was Johnny Doyle. “Do you remember Johnny’s perms? Anne was a hairdresser and she did them for him. He never wanted to go to a salon in case he was spotted. I took a photo of him in his curlers and he chased me round the garden. But what a terrible day when we found out he’d died.”

Doyle electrocuted himself working on his new Kilmarnock home. “He cut a cable in his loft with a Stanley knife. His wee boy holding a candle watched it happen. Jim Duffy, who’d trained as an electrician, recalls to this day that Johnny had asked if he could do the job. Jim reckons that if he had he’d have gone the same way.”

McCluskey loved playing with Doyle and Burns who dovetailed so well with the goalgrabber and he has one more game to summon from his personal archive – when “Ten men won the league”.

This was the 1978-79 showdown at Celtic Park when his team quickly went one down and then a man down. “Johnny kicked Alex MacDonald up the arse as he lay on the ground. As he was sent off I remember looking at him and thinking: ‘He’s completely gone’.” But Celtic roared back to take the flag. “The Jungle took over and won it for us,” reckons McCluskey. They became an extra man, like Ronnie Wood joining the Rolling Stones.

l Playing for the Hoops – the George McCluskey Story by Aidan Donaldson (Luath Press, £16.99)