Back in 1999, then Celtic manager Jozef Venglos was famously – and shamefully – mocked in the media for cautioning against comparisons with the old adage that “apples are apples, plums are plums”. When seeking to set in context the possibility of Brendan Rodgers’ team equalling a century-old record this weekend, it can feel that different items in the fruitbowl are being judged as one and the same.
Should Celtic avoid defeat against Kilmarnock tomorrow they will extend their sequence without loss in the domestic domain to the truly remarkable figure of 62 games – 61 of these covering the entire tenure of their Irish manager. A man who really ought to be sponsored by Guinness for his ability to make records tumble across 16 months in Scotland when his club snared an unprecedented invincible treble.
As has been cited lately, a 62-game tally without defeat is what Willie Maley’s Celtic team racked up between November 1915 and April 1917. In recent days, this run has been reported as a British record. Crucially, though, one element of what gives it its cachet has been omitted from any mentions: all the games in the run came in the league. Indeed, the record of Maley’s side is listed as the fourth highest in the history of European football on Uefa’s website, some way behind the 104-league game top ranking achieved by Steaua Bucharest between 1986 and 1989.
Moreover, another aspect of Celtic’s 20th century 62-game sequence, which spanned more than a year and a half, that leads it to be so acclaimed, is that it ensured Celtic never lost a competitive match during that period. That extended to the two Glasgow Charity Cup and Glasgow Cup ties they played across that time.
These two aspects make it far removed from what Rodgers’ men have put together. Not necessarily more or less worthy; just different. Celtic are currently unbeaten in 49 league games, with seven League Cup and five Scottish Cup ties making up the total. During their dominance of the domestic scene, they have lost eight games in Europe.
Maley’s team couldn’t then add the Scottish Cup to their conquests as the ongoing First World War meant the competition was suspended between 1914-15 and 1918-19. Indeed, there had been calls to cease all official football activities as hostilities across the channel escalated. The sport, spared by being a welcome distraction from the grim news from the front, only continued with certain caveats.
The period is documented extensively in the Celtic tomes The Glory And The Dream and Rhapsody In Green written by Pat Woods and Tom Campbell. In these, it is charted how during that time players were required to do their bit for the war effort through working in munition factories, shipyards or other industries vital to the military machine. They were allowed to earn no more than £1 from their playing activities, and could play games only at weekends. All internationals were scrapped during war-time, as was Division 2.
These were not normal times and the impact of the war was most acutely felt by Hearts. A total of 16 players signed up to fight and joined up with what has become known as McCrae’s Battalion in November 2014. There is a certain quirk that the depleted Tynecastle team they left behind one year later proved the only team able to defeat Celtic for what seemed a footballing eternity.
On 20 November, the three-in-a-row chasing side from the east end of Glasgow beat Kilmarnock 2-0 at home. Not until the Ayrshire side scored a shock 2-0 win on 21 April, 1917 at the same Parkhead would Celtic, by then having already banked a fourth title, lose again.
Maley’s masterful side featured such club luminaries as Alec McNair, Charlie Shaw, Joe Dodds and the twinkle-toed, wispy winger Patsy Gallagher. It also included defender Peter Johnstone. The war would be cruel to Gallagher and Johnstone in very different ways. Johnstone enlisted in May 1916, and still played for the club during his initial training. He was killed during the Battle of Arras in May 1917.
Gallagher, in his weekly newspaper column, said of his team-mate: “He wanted to do his bit, and hoped, if he had to go under, he would have the satisfaction of knocking over a German or two.”
Gallagher had used an earlier column to rail against his treatment by the football authorities. For after being fined by the Glasgow Munitions Tribunal for “bad timekeeping” on the shipyards in November 2016, the Scottish League handed him their first ever player suspension in the form of a six-week ban.