Interview: Stevie Chalmers, Celtic legend

A COUPLE of years ago, en route to another football rendezvous, my Glasgow taxi driver wanted to know why I wasn’t interviewing his friend from the golf club, an ex-player with a unique story to tell, though the cabby had to concede that Stevie Chalmers probably wouldn’t want to tell it, seeing as he was such a modest fellow.

A COUPLE of years ago, en route to another football rendezvous, my Glasgow taxi driver wanted to know why I wasn’t interviewing his friend from the golf club, an ex-player with a unique story to tell, though the cabby had to concede that Stevie Chalmers probably wouldn’t want to tell it, seeing as he was such a modest fellow.

“A shame,” he said, “because some of the other Lisbon Lions have had more than one book published and yet Stevie scored the goal that won the European Cup. Think about that; it’s probably something we’ll never see a Scottish team do again.” I asked the cabby for Chalmers’ phone number, hoping I might get the chance to meet him one day, and now I do.

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Chalmers lives in Troon, the prim and perjink and pampas grass-resplendent little Ayrshire town dominated by his other great love. The golfers are all wearing woolly hats today as protection against the stiff breeze but the Celtic legend, still sporting a fine head of hair at 76, doesn’t need one. He’s waiting for me at the train station, his VW parked in a prime spot. “The taxi boys don’t normally let you stop here but, ach, they saw it was me,” he says. Don’t go thinking, though, that Chalmers lords his fitba’ fame around these parts. As we’ve established, he’s not that kind of guy.

“I wasn’t going to write a book,” he continues as rain pitter-pats on the roof of the small conservatory to the rear of his bungalow and his wife Sadie fetches tea. He doesn’t say what changed his mind but you get the feeling that changing it back again and not lending his name to The Winning Touch wouldn’t have been a tragedy for him. The memoirs, ghostwritten, have been serialised in a tabloid and Chalmers is perturbed by the headline on the very latest extracts: “I hated Jock for Celts axe.” He winces. “I would never say I hated anyone.” The offending word does appear in the book, in the chapter on the sad end to his Hoops career in 1971 when he was moved on to Morton, but it’s clear from the rest of the text that his relationship with the Big Jock wasn’t straightforward and of course neither was winning European Cups.

At one point in the book Chalmers says: “I did not find him [Stein] to be the most supportive of people.” Four pages later comes the revelation: “He never spoke to me at length about anything.” But six pages after that there’s a description of the manager’s revolutionary approach to team-talks and how, through, detailed analysis of the opposition on the tactics board, each player left the briefings with a “mini-movie” in their heads of how the upcoming game was going to unfold.

Chalmers was never the type to mump and moan and bang on the manager’s door so, he reckons, was easier to drop than others. The only time he was hugged by Stein was after a lonely and extremely bruising shift as the solitary striker away to Dukla Prague, the 
semi-final tie that sent Celtic to Lisbon. Jock was the boss “and that was that,” the book confirms. He could make players do exactly what he wanted. On the rare occasions they didn’t, and they were sat beside him on the bench, he’d point to those playing in their places and 
rubbish the new men. “He was so cute it was incredible,” says Chalmers now. Just one hug and yet “he knew better than anyone what was good for me”. To sum up: a genius.

We’ll return to the Stein Years but let’s go back to the very start for the old centre-forward because he almost didn’t see Lisbon or anything of his glorious 1960s when he was Celtic’s pre-eminent goalgrabber. At the age of 20, then playing for Kirkintilloch Rob Roy, he was struck down by tuberculosis meningitis. “I didn’t know what it was, or what it meant for me.” Tuberculosis bacteria had entered the fluid surrounding his brain and spinal cord and ironically Chalmers was holed up in the Belvidere hospital a goal-kick from Parkhead where he’d 
really wanted to be.

“I was getting lumbar punctures: kneeling on the bed, a nurse holding me in position while a doctor went in with his syringe,” he recalls. “Boy, that was tough, although in the early days I still didn’t think my condition was too serious. Then I noticed how my fellow patients kept disappearing. The curtains would be dragged right round their beds before they were wheeled away. I wasn’t allowed to do very much which for a young sportsman was hard. When no one was looking I’d drop my legs over the side of the bed to try and get them moving. I’d like to think my good health and fitness helped me. I know that Dr Peter McKenzie helped me. He was the head consultant at the Belvidere and after I’d made a full recovery he let me see a film he’d made of my treatment which he was going to show round Canada and the United States. He told me that no one with tuberculosis meningitis had been walking out of the hospital alive. I suppose I was his star patient.”

Chalmers’ idol, in football and in life, was his father David. “I worshipped him and wanted to emulate him. He played alongside [future Celtic legend] Jimmy McGrory at Clydebank in the 1920s and was capped for Scotland as a Junior.” Born four years before the outbreak of war but not restricted by it, he’d practice heading against the walls of his bomb shelter whenever the Luftwaffe threatened Glasgow. The family’s tenement flat overlooking Glasgow’s Alexandra Parade came with a rope, to be used for canal rescues. “I couldn’t swim so I avoided that canal. Being the baby of the family, I suppose my father was quite protective of me. He was a quiet man by nature but he’d take me on long walks and tell me stories about Jimmy McGrory and we always had a ball with us. He also told me how important it was to avoid trouble and I’d like to think I’ve always heeded his words.”

Chalmers’ time in Paradise, 12 years all told, has two drastically different phases: before Stein and after. Pre-Big Jock was a strange interlude; he labels it “eccentric”. “We were a big club with a big support but we were run like a small business. On match-days the rumour was that Desmond White, the secretary, would take a quick look across the terraces and mutter the first figure that came into his head – 23,000, say – and that would be recorded as the official attendance.” Even though McGrory was the manager, it was chairman Bob Kelly who picked the team. And when Chalmers was first to arrive for training – “I reckoned I had to work harder than the other guys because of my illness” – and he’d try to sneak in some ball-work in the gymnasium, the heavy sphere would be snatched from him and locked away. “You’ll see enough of it on Saturday,” he was told.

When training properly got under way, two balls would be used. “But if one was punted over the stand you’d be struggling,” he continues. “Under Jock, though, everybody had a ball. That made us feel more professional. Celtic at that time needed a revolution and we couldn’t have had a better man for it. The board knew that they weren’t to bother him; he’d run the team his way. And he was as anxious as we were to win something. Just winning the Old Firm game would have been a start.”

Chalmers had scored on his Old Firm debut, the 1960 Scottish Cup final, and would be congratulated for the goal in a letter from Dr McKenzie, a Rangers fan, hailing him as “a triumph of modern medicine” – but Celtic were beaten in the replay and got into a losing habit in the fixture. So when he netted a hat-trick for Stein in the 1966 Ne’er Day game, the Hoops coming from behind to win 5-1, he was delighted and thought the boss would be, too.

“What manager wouldn’t throw you up in the air, catch you and give you a cuddle? But Jock just glowered at me!” he laughs. “Then he told me he wouldn’t have picked me as man of the match, that Yogi [John Hughes] deserved it. Maybe he did that for my own good, in case I got a big head. I’d like to think I wouldn’t. But I do understand Jock’s motives much better now when maybe I didn’t at the time.”

Did Stein have favourites? “All managers do. I don’t think I was one of them but he held Billy [McNeill] in great regard. He had a special relationship with Wee Jinky [Jimmy Johnstone] as well although there were times he could have killed him! I remember how he used to gather us round for a talk and as he was speaking Jimmy would be playing keepy-uppy at the back and then the wee man would dribble round him. Jimmy wasn’t being deliberately disruptive; he just needed to be playing with a ball the whole time. No one else would have gotten away with that.”

Did any of the players speak at these meetings or dare challenge Stein? “Well, if anyone did it would probably be Bertie [Auld] and maybe Tam Gemmell was second-bravest. I don’t think I ever spoke. I knew my place!” And Chalmers’ place on 25 May, 1967 – the glorious conclusion to a season where before every match Stein had urged “Go out and entertain these people” and Celtic had won every trophy available to them – was bang on the six-yard line making a brilliant nuisance of himself in front of Inter Milan’s fine 
goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti for the strike which would win the European Cup.

Chalmers suffered disappointments in football, not least in the dark blue, and although he was happy to win a Junior cap like his dear old dad, five senior appearances for Scotland is a small return for such a prolific centre-forward. On international trips he roomed with Denis Law and as the squad broke up the Lawman always thanked him in front of the others for being such a good butler – but he scored in his first two appearances only to be omitted by the selectors; he netted our first-ever goal against Brazil but was dropped for the next game; and he was down as 12th man for the “unofficial champions of the world” win over England until Celtic team-mate Willie Wallace nicked his place. These are familiar tales, though. Chalmers knows many were similarly frustrated and he’s careful not to complain too much. For he will 
always have Lisbon and what happened in the 84th minute.

Long before then, Chalmers had been everywhere a poacher shouldn’t be: right-half and even right-back as he and Bobby Lennox deferred to the thunderous shooting of Gemmell, Auld and Bobby Murdoch. “We will attack and keep on attacking until we win this game,” had been Stein’s promise. But, watching on fuzzy black-and-white TV as a boy, your correspondent was convinced Murdoch had scored the winner.

“Do you know we practiced getting these wee nicks in training? Balls would be fired across, deliberately miscued, and Yogi, Willie and myself and, before he got injured, poor Joe McBride would try and steer them in. I even remember Jock swinging his big left leg at a couple. Against Inter, I’d been all over the pitch – we all had – and their defenders were great markers but they were getting tired. I knew what Bobby Murdoch was going to do – pile it in – and I’d made up my mind what I was going to do, too. I waited on the blind side of their sweeper and nipped in front of him at the very last moment.”

Chalmers still gets asked about the 84th minute. Every matchday at Parkhead, he’ll drive up with the Saltcoats-based Lennox for hospitality duties. A hoary argument over why Chalmers didn’t pass to his chum for the last goal in another final will be re-enacted on the journey and they’ll count the Bentleys in the players’ car park before meeting up with the other £45-a-week immortals. “Bertie always wants to hug you; some of the guys just shake hands. And one of us will aye remark on how we’re shrinking and getting that bit closer to the ground.” Chalmers has his own chair, which given he was perpetual motion that famous day seems fitting, and it’s the guests who do the rounds, all of them keen to know: “How did you feel scoring it ... what like was it?”

The unassuming hero smiles. “One of the players who came after me, George McCluskey, will shout at them for a laugh: ‘Look at you lot, queuing up. What’s he done? He only scored one goal!’” And some of the liggers will be quite bold, daring to suggest that Murdoch’s shot hit off his right instep, that he knew very little about it. But Stevie Chalmers knew a lot about that goal and his manager knew even more. What did Stein say to him after the final whistle, freed from the embraces of Bill Shankly and dozens of delirious fans? “Nothing. He never mentioned the goal. But I didn’t expect him to, and nor was I especially upset about that. I was the centre-forward; it was my job.”

• The Winning Touch is published by Headline, price £19.99.