John Hughes has had a career and a life full of near misses and the catalogue is almost as long, twisty and dramatic as one of those thunderous charges up the left wing which exemplified his contribution to the Celtic cause, excited the faithful in the Parkhead Jungle and inspired one of Scottish football’s most evocative chants – “Feed the bear, feed the bear, feed the bear…”
He was nearly a sprinter, or at least running was his only interest as a kid in Coatbridge. “The 100 yard dash and I wasn’t bad in the 220 either,” he says. “The teacher who ran school football, Vincent Bradley, wanted me in the team. I said: ‘But, sir, I don’t even like football’. He said: ‘You will by the time I’m finished with you’.”
He nearly scored what might have been the winner in a European Cup final – 1970, against Feyenoord in the San Siro – and even though he has never watched a recording of the defeat and never will, he is convinced it was the reason Jock Stein ended his 11-year stint with the club, when he was 11 goals short of a double-century.
He nearly won Goal of the Season playing for Crystal Palace, but a typically slaloming run and dynamite shot against Sheffield United eventually placed him runner-up to Ronnie Radford (the one for non-league Hereford United which helped dump Newcastle United out of the FA Cup; probably it was the youthful parka-clad charge across the gluepot pitch which was the clincher there).
And he nearly shared a team-bath with blue-movie actress Fiona Richmond but by the time Palace manager Malcolm Allison contrived his publicity stunt Hughes had moved on to Sunderland for a long-cherished hook-up with his younger brother Billy, only to be crocked 15 minutes into his debut. He would never terrorise right-backs again.
He nearly came a cropper running pubs, facing up to extortion threats and Crocodile Dundee-type knives, and sometimes the only response was to laugh: “I got held up at 11 o’clock in the morning once when there was nothing in the till. ‘Look pal,’ I said, ‘why don’t you put the shotgun down, take off your balaclava and have a pint of heavy and we’ll say no more about it’.”
Hughes was nearly on the pitch in Lisbon, nearly a member of the immortal, false teeth-sporting, uncologned, Glasgow-and-environs XI who won the European Cup in 1967. Getting injured before the final against Inter Milan haunted him for a long time and he used to say it was the worst moment of his life.
But what happened six years ago changed his perspective, made him realise that it’s only a game.
I meet the original Yogi – well, that was Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon bear, forever ursine about in Jellystone Park, but you know what I mean – at his semi-detached in Sandyhills, Glasgow with the personalised-plate Audi in the drive and photos of the grandweans peeking out from behind the Greek columns in the sitting room. He is 71 and looks well. There’s a bit more beef about him than in his pomp, when there were still 14 stones, but at 6ft 2ins he can carry it. His father made breeze blocks – “He was a big man” – and so is Yogi, who must be glad to have the weight back after his cancer scare.
“It started with a sore ear and then a growth was discovered on my tongue,” he says, “When I was told it was cancerous I had a whitey.” Another near miss; he could have died. “My son Martin is a consultant at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and he was with me went I went there for my test results. He only told me recently that my chances of surviving had been 25 per cent.” And at this the colossus sheds a tear.
“I’m glad I didn’t know that, otherwise I might not have made it. Ken McKenzie of the ear, nose & throat department said it was my stoicism that pulled me through. I guess I’ve always been stubborn, but Ken was amazing: great sense of humour and such humility. I lost my hair, my teeth and four stone in weight, with tubes stuck up my nose the whole time. Pals would say, ‘My, Yogi, you’re looking great’, but I knew they didn’t really think that. I got used to the baldy – my wife, Theresa, reckoned I fancied myself as Kojak – and I was determined the cancer wasn’t going to beat me.”
Other ailing footballers will be pleased he did. “I was visiting my old Celtic pal John Divers in hospital the other day. He’s got dementia. I always tell him he’s a dirty, rotten, crabbit so-and-so. His wife Liz says it’s the only time he laughs. The amazing thing about JD is that he played football, scored more than 100 goals for Celtic, despite suffering from bad circulation. Folk thought he was lazy; a surgeon told him when he was 20 that he had the legs of a 70-year-old. But this was kept from the club otherwise he’d have been let go.”
Then there’s brother Billy, a fine player in his own right, just as lethal a striker and an FA Cup winner with Sunderland, who had the chance to follow Hughes into Parkhead but feared he would struggle to escape the comparison. “Now Billy’s got cancer; he’s in a bad way. It started with his prostate and he’s terrified it’s going to spread to his bones. I had a long chat with him last night. His wife Linda says he listens to me. We’re all hoping for the best, praying for it.”
Hughes, of course, is a green-blazered member of the regularly-reconvening survivors of Scottish football’s bright and shiningly greatest club achievement. I say “of course” but he hasn’t always enjoyed Lisbon Revisited. “I was sick to miss the final, to be there and not play. Folk say ‘Wasn’t it great?’ but having to watch was absolutely dreadful. I was happy we won but I immediately felt detached from it and that never changed.”
Surely the guys put an arm round his shoulder, reminded him of the part he had played and commiserated. “I don’t think anyone did. They were caught up in the emotion. Football doesn’t work like that; it’s a selfish game. But I don’t blame them. Maybe I was churlish, not enjoying the reunions, but I did think that only if you were a wonderful human being – and I’m certainly not – could you turn up at these events and go: ‘This is fantastic’.
“I have to say, too, that at one time I might have been excluded from them. There was a move to formalise the Lisbon Lions and make money out of ’67 and some who shall remain nameless suggested it should be just the 11 who played. I thought that was nonsense. By that logic Willie Wallace would have been included having played three games in the competition and me with my five games would not. Anyway, the fans complained – they wanted to see everyone.”
Now Yogi is laughing. “Me and Bertie are pally now but do you know that when we played I complained to Jock about him? He wouldn’t pass to me. He only gave me the ball when he was in trouble: ‘Go on, you look stupid’.” The next reunion at the end of the month will see the Lions return to the Portuguese capital for the Champions League final. “The relationship we have with each other can be difficult to explain. We were pretty close as a team but as the years have gone by the bonds have grown stronger. The reason is we’re getting old and some of us are dying.”
He chuckles some more because he is remembering Bertie gags. “We were in Belfast for a supporters function, Bobby Murdoch, Tam Gemmell, Bertie and myself, and a big armoured vehicle bristling with guns went past. ‘Look at that’, we said. Bertie said: ‘Aye and that’s just the breid van’!” Here’s another: “Jinky [Jimmy Johnstone] was nearing the end and I was visiting him and Bertie appeared, looking vexed. ‘What’s wrong?’ we said. He said: ‘I’m just back from Maryhill. They’ve pulled down my mother’s old shop and found a body’. ‘That’s terrible’, we said. ‘Aye’, said Bertie, ‘the poor fella was still wearing this medal: 1922 Hide-and-Seek Champion!’ ”
You want local colour? Yogi has a tale to match Bertie’s and his is true. In post-war Coatbridge, the fact the Hughes family had a car marked them down as exotic, all the more so when it trundled up to the house with a greyhound in the passenger seat. Yogi’s dad was a bit of a gambler and had driven over to Ireland to splash £800 on the mutt. It was the fastest thing on four legs, right enough, but only in solo trials. Up against other dogs it stayed quaking in the traps.
Hughes’ Parkhead career had two distinct chapters. He arrived a big lump of a boy and made enough of an impression, skittling defenders and thumping in 20-odd goals a season, to interest Juventus as a replacement for John Charles (another near miss for him). But he was disillusioned by the lack of proper coaching, fell out with assistant manager Sean Fallon, decided Celtic were “dreadful” and was planning to quit until Stein tipped him the wink about his impending return. Big Jock began with two big defeats – 6-2 by Falkirk and 5-1 by Dunfermline – but greatness soon followed.
Yogi won six championship medals, a Scottish Cup badge and four League Cup medals. He was most effective in mudbaths – “I can still hear [trainer] Neily Mochan shouting; ‘Run him, big yin, run him” – but wasn’t bad on skating rinks, once borrowing Billy McNeill’s sandshoes to net five against Aberdeen in an 8-0 icebound romp. In the 1965 League Cup triumph over Rangers, he scored both Celtic goals from the penalty spot – a result sparking a pitch invasion, players confronted by fans, which stopped future Hampden laps of honour. In another Old Firm game he kneed Willie Johnston where it hurts, expected to be sent off but wasn’t, a blunder which effectively ended referee Jim Callaghan’s career. Against Hibs he broke Bobby Duncan’s leg: “It was accidental, I’d never have done that deliberately, although I played with guys who would’ve.”
And in the Intercontinental Cup against Argentina’s Racing Club, he was one of the four sent-off Celts. “I kicked their goalie. The provocation was terrible. I was a sub for the second game and their fans peed on the guys on the bench. But I have to say that when I watched a video years later I was shocked by what I’d done. Jock asked afterwards: ‘What were you thinking of?’ I said: ‘Boss, I honestly didn’t think anyone would see me’. How stupid is that?”
So what was his relationship with Stein? A pause, broken by a wry smile. “I can’t say he treated me especially badly.” But even though football in Hughes’ era was a hard, hard game run by fearsome disciplinarians, you wonder if he means this. For instance, while he was in Bermuda on a close-season tour, his first wife Mary lost a baby. The fact he wasn’t back in Glasgow with her tells you this was a different age; nevertheless he only learned the sad news from a journalist. When he found out Stein knew and hadn’t alerted him he confronted the manager to be told: “Sort it out when you get home.”
When that marriage ended, Yogi was devastated. He blamed selfishness and booze and so quit drinking. “I don’t think I was an alcoholic, but those six years when I stopped probably helped me survive.” He met Theresa in a Majorcan karaoke bar and laughs that he’s glad this was before cancer robbed him of his singing voice. “Although,” he adds, “it’s coming back.”
Back to Stein: he recalls a game at St Johnstone’s old Muirton Park when he suffered a bad gash requiring stitches. The manager, though, was unconcerned and would go on to blame him for the defeat. Then there was Feyenoord. Yogi claims that compared to ’67 when Stein hoodwinked Inter on their spying missions, moving the team around and all but putting Jinky in goals, preparations for the second Euro final were nothing like as intense. “We were complacent. We thought Leeds had been the final [Hughes scored in the semi victory]. I remember saying we were going to win three or four-nil. The manager should have knocked that nonsense out of us but he obviously thought the trophy was in the bag. Did he spy on them? He said he did but I don’t know. And he changed the team, dropping George Connelly and leaving us short in midfield.”
Given all that, why does Yogi hold himself responsible for the defeat? I tell him his miss wasn’t so bad, that their goalie made himself extra-big. “That’s what folk say. That’s what Davie Hay said only recently. But it’s in my head that I could have won us another European Cup and that’s why Jock got rid of me.” Hughes learned later that bigger English clubs including Everton wanted him, but Stein was insistent he went to Palace. “He threatened to put me in the stand for six months if I didn’t.” And, Yogi adds with a chuckle, there was a sting: Stein was the TV judge who didn’t award him Goal of the Season. “That was what he was like.”
And yet, and yet…Hughes says Stein was “brilliant” at man-management and “great” for his career. He might have baulked at the disciplinarian stuff but there were times when it was needed. He might have questioned the lack of coaching but the evidence on the pitch was that the team did little wrong. As with the rest of the Lisbon Lions, his relationship with his boss was complicated. And possibly beyond the comprehension of you and me, the non-immortals.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “That was a magnificent team, I was fortunate to play for them, and if I’d been fit for Lisbon I might not even have been picked. For me it’s a long time ago – longer in view of what’s happened to me – and I’m just happy I’m still here. But I’ll enjoy going back with the guys.” If Auld makes good with the jokes, he may even give them a song.
Yogi Bare (£18.99) by John Hughes with Alex Gordon is available from the Celtic Shop.