Interview: Paul Wilson on Stein, Celtic and racial abuse in the 1970s

Celtic player and one time cap for Scotland Paul Wilson, 1977
Celtic player and one time cap for Scotland Paul Wilson, 1977
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Indian-born Paul Wilson was the only non-white player capped by Scotland in the 20th century. Yet his appearance against Spain barely registered

WHEN Scotland face Spain on Tuesday night, it should stir memories for more than Paul Wilson of the February 1975 night in Valencia that brought the then Celtic striker his one and only cap. The fact it doesn’t says a little about this nation’s ability to celebrate multiculturalism. Wilson’s appearance came as a substitute 75 minutes into an encounter Willie Ormond’s side drew 1-1. The creditable result is sometimes, if not often, recalled. But what has never entered the public consciousness is the momentous nature of Wilson replacing Kenny Burns.

Wilson was born in India to a Dutch-Portuguese mother and a Scottish father. He was, therefore, the only non-white player to be granted senior representation for Scotland in the 20th century. Even now, he is the only man whose background can be considered genuinely Asian to have been capped by any of the four senior British international sides. Moreover, as the academic tome ‘Race’, Sport and British Society notes, Wilson’s Scotland outing was a full three years before Viv Anderson became the first black player to play for England: “Anderson’s selection was heralded as a significant step forward for black representation in football; Wilson’s selection for Scotland was ignored,” write the authors.

In fairness, it wasn’t just outsiders doing the ignoring. Wilson himself, an unassuming but engaging storyteller, has never thought of himself as a flagbearer for ethnic diversity. Equally, the 60-year-old, who lives in Milngavie with his second wife and two daughters and now works for a car parts firm, hasn’t much told the tale of a career that required him to stand up to endemic racism that was accepted all too readily. Born in Bangalore, where his RAF-stationed father met his mother, he came to Glasgow as a one-year-old, and never asked his mother, who died in 1975, about her roots. “I know the reason I was called Paul was because there had been a church recently built near to where we lived and I was to be the first name on the christening register,” he says.

Wilson says he is Scottish and that his skin tone only marks him out as different when he has taken the sun. But he wasn’t sufficiently undifferent to be seen as another face in the crowd. Never was that truer than in Old Firm games, where he regularly excelled. Abuse, only sometimes, obliquely, reported, rained on him from the Rangers fans. But he had prepared for that all his life. “I got it right bad but was strong and able to never react, retaliate or gesture because I had grown up with all this racism. I got so much stick at school and beyond. I remember going for trials with Glasgow and it would be all that ‘whit are you daein’ here?’ I got terrible abuse from Rangers supporters – but no other fans – whether we were playing them at Parkhead, Ibrox or Hampden. But Big Jock [Stein] had a soft spot for me because I did the right thing and kept an even temperament, which was how he brought us young players up. Answer them by scoring, he would say. ‘How about if I score two?’ I’d say. And I did.”

The significance of his first derby brace was that it ensured Celtic shared the 1975 Glasgow Cup with Rangers and meant Wilson became the only Celtic player to score in four Hampden finals in a single season, following strikes in the Scottish Cup, League Cup and Drybrough Cup finales. His feat was accompanied by racist chanting from both supports. The Rangers fans twisted the jingle of a peanut advert that went “Golden Wonder, they’re jungle fresh” to “Paul Wilson, he’s jungle fresh”. There were other songs, which his own fans responded too in a fairly base manner. Wilson recalls: “There would be chants of ‘Wilson’s a darkie’ and then it would come back ‘Oh, I’d rather be a darkie than a hun’. But I loved playing in that atmosphere and just laughed it off.”

Wilson, though he speaks freely on the subject, clearly does not want to be defined by the colour of his skin, but rather on the company he kept. He was a member of the Quality Street gang at Celtic Park, a band of wonderfully talented contemporaries who were fully expected to outstrip the Lisbon Lions. Getting the 57 bus along to the park with Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain, the trio would feature in a reserve side boasting such luminaries as George Connelly, Davie Hay, Lou Macari and John Gorman. “If we had stayed together we would have won the European Cup, but it didn’t happen with Lou, John and Davie all leaving pretty early,” he says. “Big Jock used to have us play for a £1 against the Lions and we whipped their backsides every time.”

In all, Wilson played 212 games and scored 52 goals for Celtic. “I always thought it was more,” he says. Described as an elegant player, Stein, whom he “loved to bits”, would give him a “bollocking” if he tried to dribble à la Jimmy Johnstone from his hated position on the left-wing. “Only Jimmy was allowed to hold the ball up, beat a man, then turn back and beat him again,” he says. “I was ordered to hit the byline and whip the ball over.”

Until, that is, he was partnered up front with Dalglish in 1974-75. He outscored his more illustrious partner, bagging 29 goals in all competitions.

“Kenny and I got on great. In fact, I made him,” he says with a chuckle. “We had played from schooldays and knew each other’s runs and where we would be. I wish I’d played up front before that.”

When he was selected for Scotland it was in the presence of such greats as Charlie Cooke and Billy Bremner, and he fondly remembers the captain. “I smoked like a lum then and I remember Billy plying me with fags and us having a right good blether,” he says.

Later than year Wilson would reach another career high but he doesn’t remember it as others might. His mother died in the week leading up to the 1975 Scottish Cup final and, despite scoring with two headers in a 3-1 win over Airdrie and winning a penalty that Pat McCluskey insisted on taking, something changed then. He didn’t leave Celtic till just after Stein did in 1978. New manager Billy McNeill blocked a move to Newcastle which had been set up by Stein so the club could instead bank a £50,000 transfer fee from Motherwell. He spent a season there, and retired at 29 after a further campaign with Partick Thistle, before he was tempted to play again by a lucrative offer from Blantyre Celtic set up by old mucker Jimmy Johnstone. But he was never quite the same player after 1975. A niggling injury that required cortisone injections didn’t help but it was the loss of his mother that caused his enthusiasm to wane.

“I just wasn’t as involved as I should have been,” he says. “She was ill for a long time and Jock tried to help. I’ll never forget how good he was to me then. In fact, he had an instinct for any troubles and said to me ‘wee man, what’s bothering you?’ When I told him he said ‘you take some of the boys up to Harkins restaurant and get them a meal’. He knew I had three younger brothers to look out for with mum in hospital, and two young sons then. He made that a regular thing and I used to take Kenny. It turned out to be where he met future wife Marina, who was a waitress. My mum was in hospital seven times, she was riddled with cancer, and she said to me ‘seven for heaven’. No, no, I said, but she was right because the seventh time she didn’t come out. It put me off after that. I had lost my father three years before and I just got fed up, and stuck in a rut at Celtic.”

Wilson’s mother asked that her ashes be scattered in Bangalore. Instead, he put them in his father’s grave at Hillfoot cemetery. “I just thought that was right for them to be together,” he says. “I have never gone back to India and now I don’t think I ever will.”