Perhaps the most extraordinary fact about the career of John Divers, who played for Celtic for ten seasons from 1956 to 1966, was that he never won a major domestic honour or a full international cap. Apart from two Glasgow Cup medals, Divers did not feature in a trophy-winning team at a time when Celtic suffered a near-decade of under-achievement. Yet he was a hugely popular player who scored more than 100 goals for the Parkhead club in 232 competitive appearances – a strike rate that would see him valued in the millions nowadays.
He was also immortalised in the curious way that football has by having his name featured in a 1960s fans’ song, Celtic, Celtic, That’s The Team For Me.
John Divers – pronounced to rhyme with rivers – was the third man of that name to play for Celtic, the first being no relation who was at the club in 1890s, but the second being Divers’ own father, who was a member of the Celtic team which famously captured the Empire Exhibition Trophy in 1938, winning 1-0 in the final against Everton, who would become champions of England the nest season.
Educated at St Patrick’s High School in Dumbarton, now Our Lady and St Patrick’s, Divers seemed sure to become a professional footballer as his talent was outstanding from an early age. With his father having played for the club and his great-uncle being Celtic legend Patsy Gallacher, it was no wonder that the Parkhead club were watching his development in his teens.
After a spell with amateur side Glentyan Thistle in Renfrewshire, he signed professional forms with Celtic at the age of 16 in July 1956, before immediately going back to Renfrewshire to play for the local Renfrew Juniors.
In those days it was common for young footballers to be “farmed out” to junior sides where they learned from semi-professionals what the game was all about – football’s “rough and tumble” would be a euphemistic way of putting it.
Divers was a tough and skilful inside forward, and though his left foot was his stronger, he was quite adaptable and could play anywhere in midfield or up front – a talent he would maintain throughout his career.
He was quickly called up to first-team action, making his debut at the age of 17 against St Mirren on 16 November, 1957, scoring his first goal for Celtic in a 2-2 draw. Just one month earlier, Celtic had won the Scottish League Cup final by beating Rangers 7-1, still the highest ever winning score in a British major cup final. Sadly for Divers, it was to be Celtic’s last trophy until 1965.
He then returned for a spell to the reserve side who were coached by Jock Stein, but the following season he began to feature regularly in the first XI and the goals flowed regularly. He became an important member of the team which, under manager Jimmy McGrory, was developing slowly but surely into the squad that would become the Lisbon Lions.
Another quite extraordinary thing about Divers was that he was flourishing as a footballer despite suffering from a crippling disease that affected the veins in his legs.
A vascular surgeon told him at the age of 20 that he had the legs of a 70-year-old, but somehow Divers managed to play on after extensive massage treatment and he featured regularly in the Celtic team, and on the score sheet, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
His powerful shooting from distance allied to his skill and hard work made him a real asset to the club at that time.
He almost achieved international recognition, being named in the Scotland squad to play Uruguay in 1962 but not being selected, though he did play three times for the Scottish League, scoring four goals in matches against the Italian and the two Leagues in Ireland.
At the beginning of the 1962-63 season, Celtic played Hearts at Parkhead and Divers was due to be in the team. He forgot his boots, however, and despite a frantic dash home, he was unable to return in time and Charlie Gallagher took his place while a certain Bobby Murdoch made his debut.
Not surprisingly with the talent that was emerging, Divers’ appearances for Celtic began to decrease, though he secured his second Glasgow Cup medal when he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win over Clyde on March 25, 1964.
The team that day was John Fallon, Ian Young, Tommy Gemmell, John Clark, Billy McNeill, Jim Kennedy, Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Murdoch, Steve Chalmers, John Divers and John Hughes, six of whom would play in the European Cup triumph in Lisbon a little over three years later.
Divers had already felt that his future lay elsewhere and even outside of football, and the return of Jock Stein as manager in 1965 accelerated that process as Stein was insistent that his players be fully fit – something that Divers could not attain due to his continuing vein problems.
By the time the victory over Inter Milan was achieved that made Celtic the first British club to win Europe’s supreme trophy, Divers had already left for pastures new, but not before scoring one very significant goal. It came against Dundee United at the start of season 1965-66 and it turned out to be the first goal of Celtic’s nine-in-a-row championships. He did not play enough games that season, however, to qualify for a league winners’ medal, and missed out on Celtic’s 1965 Scottish Cup and League Cup wins as well.
Though he joined Partick Thistle in 1966, Divers was already looking ahead to the future and had no qualms about retiring at the age of just 28.
He graduated from Strathclyde University as a teacher, and his first appointments were at Braidhurst High in Motherwell and St Bride’s High in East Kilbride before he returned to his alma mater, Our Lady and St Patrick’s in Dumbarton, where he mainly taught economics for 30 years.
He also took charge of various football teams at the school, and maintained that his biggest success in the sport was coaching the under-15s to the league and Scottish Cup, going unbeaten in 28 matches in 1988-89.
He is remembered by his former pupils with great affection. “He was a really nice guy, and always had time for you,” said one yesterday.
That indeed is how his many friends and colleagues from his footballing days also remember him.
He may have been the “nearly man” in that he just missed out on minor honours, but John Divers will always be remembered as a Celtic hero and one of football’s finer and more gentlemanly practitioners.
Celtic have announced that a minute’s applause will be held before tonight’s League Cup match against Hearts at Celtic Park in memory of John Divers and also Hearts supporter Gordon Wilson, who died after becoming ill during the Championship game against Cowdenbeath on Saturday.