Coronation that provided Britain with a battle royal

THESE days, the only remote parts of the globe shaded in red belong on a map in the commercial department at Old Trafford. The only empire worth talking about is Manchester United’s.

Half a century ago, it was all rather different. The world paid homage to Britain at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey,

but Britain’s celebration of football took place in the second city of the empire, whose work could be found in just about every corner of the Queen’s vast realm.

The Coronation Cup, however, is one trophy that did not find its way into Manchester United’s cabinet. Sir Alex Ferguson - who had not even left primary school in Govan when the tournament was staged - will not wish to be reminded, but this was an occasion when England’s most famous club found their name carried little weight in Glasgow.

It is highly appropriate that the 50th anniversary of this unique tournament should see Manchester United back in town on Wednesday night on an equally compelling mission at Ibrox.

The Coronation Cup, however, was probably the most extensive Battle of Britain football had seen. It was the best of British. Well, almost. Eight teams gathered in Glasgow, four from Scotland, four from England. Seven were worthy of their invitation, the other was Celtic.

The Coronation Cup sits alongside the European Cup in Celtic’s trophy room today, yet the glittering prize disguises the fact that it was won by one of the most ill-prepared sides in the club’s history.

Celtic would have been lucky to have obtained an invite to the Glasgow Cup that year, never mind a showcase for the best teams in Britain. One club history describes 1952-53 as "the most depressing season" ever known. They were even knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Third Lanark - yet managed to blossom in that eventful fortnight at the end of May.

England’s representatives comprised Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Arsenal, who had each won successive league titles between 1951 and 1953, while Newcastle United won the FA Cup in back-to-back visits to Wembley.

Scotland had its own champions of 1953, Rangers, while Hibernian’s credentials were even more impeccable, having claimed the two previous titles. Aberdeen were enjoying heady times and would contest the first of two successive Scottish Cup finals, when they lost to Rangers in a replay.

The last remaining berth could have gone to any Scottish team you cared to name. The stylish Dundee side of Bobby Flavell, which won back-to-back League Cups in 1952 and 1953, or the Motherwell side that won the League Cup in 1951 and the Scottish Cup in 1952. East Fife were an equally potent force in those days, twice finishing third in the league championship, as well as winning the League Cup twice in four seasons.

All of them were controversially passed over for Celtic. Jimmy McGrory’s side basked in mediocrity and were in the bottom half of the league that season. It was pulling power and past reputation - they had also won the Empire Exhibition Cup, another Anglo-Scottish venture, in 1938 - that earned Celtic a ticket to the Coronation Cup.

The venture seemed dogged by problems. Some Celtic supporters lobbied for the club to withdraw to avoid humiliation. Then the Celtic players staged a dressing-room revolt over bonus money: in keeping with their wretched form, McGrory’s team "lost" that one too.

The Celtic players had discovered that their counterparts at Rangers had negotiated 100 a man to win the competition. Parkhead’s parsimonious board would never sanction such a fee. Chairman Robert Kelly called in each of his first-team players for a personal interview and then ordered a meeting of the players, whose unanimity crumbled. Only four held out for better terms, and when Kelly said he would field a reserve team, the rebellion collapsed.

Money, however, was a thorny backdrop to the entire event. The organisers offered players only 10 per game, which may have amounted to a year’s pay in some parts of the empire, but was a paltry recompense for competitive games during the close-season. The Scottish and English players’ unions had to petition the Ministry of Labour for better terms.

Since the total attendance at the tournament would exceed 440,000, there is little doubt of the players’ box-office appeal. Newcastle would include their legendary striker Jackie Milburn; Manchester United would have Jack Rowley and Johnny Carey; Arsenal their captain Joe Mercer.

In the opening round, Hibernian and Spurs needed a replay before Lawrie Reilly popped up with a copy of the late winner he had scored for Scotland at Wembley a fortnight earlier. Newcastle - with a young Scottish keeper called Ronnie Simpson - thumped Aberdeen 4-0.

Just as now, Manchester United and Rangers were drawn together in what appears to be the only other competitive match between the two teams.

In front of 90,000 supporters at Hampden, the Scottish champions took an early lead through Hunter Macmillan, who headed a Johnny Hubbard cross past Jack Crompton. United drew level after half-time when a slack pass from Rangers defender Willie Woodburn failed to reach George Young, and Stan Pearson pounced to beat George Niven in the Rangers goal. Two minutes later, United scored the winner when Pearson fed Rowley, who drove the ball home.

"There was no questioning United’s superiority," reported The Scotsman. "Rangers relied upon a hit-and-run method of scoring, but it never came off, and at the finish their forward line was a thing of shreds and patches."

The biggest shock came when Arsenal lost 1-0 to Celtic. The Gunners watched McGrory’s team beat Queen’s Park 3-1 in a Charity Cup match and were foolish enough to voice their confidence to reporters, and the Celtic manager read out the newspaper clippings to his team before Bobby Collins went out and scored a 23rd-minute winner at Hampden.

On Saturday May 16, Glasgow went football crazy as 130,000 fans took in two semi-finals separated by just a few miles.

At Ibrox, Hibernian swamped Newcastle 4-0, with Eddie Turnbull scoring twice before Bobby Johnstone and Reilly sealed the success. At Hampden, 73,000 saw Neil Mochan score twice as Celtic overcame Manchester United 2-1.

So Scotland monopolised the final. On May 20, a crowd of 117,060 officially made it into Hampden and they saw a thrilling encounter in which the form book was mocked.

The Famous Five could not find a way past Celtic’s inspired goalkeeper, John Bonnar. Mochan’s fierce 35-yarder gave Celtic a lead to protect on the half-hour, and then Jimmy Walsh scored Celtic’s second three minutes from the end.

It was a moment which Celtic’s success-starved fans would have to live off for more than a decade, until Jock Stein walked into their lives.