The Celtic ‘huddle’: Champions celebrate 25th anniversary of enduring pre-match tradition

Ritual instigated by Tony Mowbray in 1995 to show unity is still going strong

The Celtic 'huddle' has been a familiar sight for the last 25 years. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS Group

It might seem practically decadent in this Covid-19 age of social distancing but a now renowned Celtic tradition that eschews such will celebrate its 25th anniversary today.

A pre-season encounter for Tommy Burns’ side against German club Kickers Emden in Jheringsfehn on July 23, 1995 was not the most auspicious of occasions.

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In front of a few thousand punters that seemed more interested in the beer and burgers being served at the side of pitch than the fayre on it, the home side served up a 2-0 defeat of their Scottish visitors. But, under the auspice of stand-in captain Tony Mowbray, it was what the Celtic players did before a ball was kicked that has proved the enduring moment of that afternoon.

For, before taking their positions, at the instigation of Mowbray, the Celtic players encircled together for what has become known as ‘the huddle’; a pre-match routine that they have conducted at every match since. It may be considered unfortunate for Mowbray that the custom is probably the one indelible mark he made at a club he played for between 1991 and 1995, and managed for an ill-fated eight months from June 2009.

Years later, the big Englishman humbly reflected that he had introduced a ritual that had become woven into “the fabric of Celtic”. “Every player likes to leave something that people can remember them by and maybe the Huddle is mine at Celtic. I’m delighted to see it’s still going strong, because it’s a brilliant way of uniting the players and the fans,” he said.

The desire to show a togetherness from the players was Mowbray’s motivation for introducing the huddle, which amounts to the players linking arms to form a circle and heads being leaned in for the captain to deliver a rallying address. It followed a grim season where the team was required to decant to Hampden as Celtic Park was redeveloped – alleviated by the Scottish Cup success that ended a six-year search for a trophy – and the previous years of turmoil in the lead-up to Fergus McCann’s 1994 takeover. 
Mowbray, who had suffered personal tragedy with the death of his wife Bernadette from cancer on New Year’s Day 1995, wanted to provide the club’s support with a visual indication that the team were a band of brothers bonded with themselves and those who followed them.

His inspiration is believed to have come from US ice hockey. Sporting huddles having originated in that part of the world, though American football is cited as the place they were born, with Wikipedia stating it was “invented by Gallaudet University quarterback Paul D. Hubbard in 1892”.

In terms of football as we know it, Celtic’s adoption of the practice undeniably helped popularise it. Ahead of their friendly against the Scottish champions in the French capital the other night, Paris Saint-Germain performed their own version, as countless other clubs do. It is also a common sight among international teams at major tournaments, with Brazil and the Republic of Ireland notable adopters.

Yet it transpires that Celtic weren’t even the first team in Scotland to “do a huddle”. That honour goes to St Mirren, who are credited with introducing it into their pre-match routine two years before the Parkhead side, in 1993, although they have long since discontinued the practice.

Legend has it that Ricky Gillies, who captained the Paisley club in the 1990s, was onced asked what he would say in the huddle - a subject that generates much mystique on the Celtic front. Gillies had a prosaic answer to the enquiry, though: “I just swore like f***”.

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