Interview: Evan Williams on helping Celtic win six in a row

The last time Celtic won six in a row, the greatest football team Scotland has ever seen had one final day in the sun together. But it lasted mere seconds before a scripted piece of sentimental theatre concluded and Evan Williams was able to become an honorary Lisbon Lion.

Evan Williams, now 73, was Celtics goalkeeper the last time they clinched six in a row. Picture: John Devlin
Evan Williams, now 73, was Celtics goalkeeper the last time they clinched six in a row. Picture: John Devlin

It was 1 May, 1971, the title having been clinched three days before. Picking their way across the rubble of the old Parkhead stand as the club re-built off the park as well as on it, the ageing European Cup-winning heroes faced up to Clyde with the 41-year-old Ronnie Simpson back between the sticks. “From the kick-off Wispy [Willie Wallace] passed to Stevie [Chalmers] and the ball was knocked back to Ronnie who booted the ball out for a shy,” recalls Williams. “Then the boss signalled for me to replace Faither, which was what we called Ronnie – and as I always like to tell folk, that was the day I got to play with the Lions.”

You can find footage of the 6-1 victory over Clyde on YouTube with the sagely Bob Crampsey making the observation that a “canny” Jock Stein was not prepared to risk Simpson even in such an inconsequential match, given that the veteran hadn’t played since Williams’ arrival the season before, and when there was an Old Firm Scottish Cup final to be contested the following Saturday.

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“If 6 turned out to be 9,” sang Jimi Hendrix, and for Celtic of course six did. Williams collected medals for four of those championships. He helped the club lift the cup in ’71, and to retain it the following year. And in mere months he went from performing in front a few thousand at Carlisle United, out on loan in England’s second tier, to a starring role in Celtic’s second European Cup final.

Celtic keeper Evan Williams holds up the trophy after his side defeated Hibs in the 1972 Scottish Cup final at Hampden. Picture: TSPL

But, as he reveals over a cheese and ham sandwich in a Dumbarton cafe, this brilliant man-manager known to all as Big Jock didn’t quite know how to handle the custodians of the game. “Here’s a funny thing: Jock didn’t like goalies,” says Williams, now 73. “Ronnie and I debated this a hundred times. To him it was like we were a necessary evil. He was never off our backs.”

Williams may not have been the 
daftest keeper in the world but he was definitely a member of the goalies’ union designed to protect this special breed. To go with his dark good looks he displayed a pronounced insouciance and this would confound Stein.

“I remember a game at Morton when I dropped the ball and that was us one-nil down. Big Jock got stuck into me at half-time and I said: ‘Don’t worry, boss, that’s in the past.’ He was speechless. I don’t think anyone had ever brushed off his criticism like that. We went back out and scored five goals.”

Then there was Williams’ first foreign assignment, the away leg of the quarter-final against Fiorentina on the road to the ’70 final of the European Cup. “They got a free-kick, which [Luciano] Chiarugi hammered over our wall and into the net. I didn’t move but that was deliberate. Jock rushed round behind the goal as I was fetching the ball. ‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’ he said, and he never swore.

Evan Williams in the thick of the action during the 1971 Scottish Cup final against Rangers at Hampden which ended 1-1, with Celtic going on to win the replay. Picture: SNS

“The Fiorentina players and crowd were celebrating like mad but the referee disallowed the goal as the free-kick had been indirect. I knew this, which was why I stayed still. I suppose that was a bit like the goalies’ Russian roulette: hoping the official remembers his decision in the mayhem.

“Afterwards when we’d won the ref came to our dressing room. ‘Well done, goalkeeper,’ he said. ‘It’s good that someone knows the rules’.” Now 
Williams is laughing. He’s remembering his antics in a Parkhead game against Hearts: “One of their boys chased a long ball, I trapped it and nutmegged him. Then a short while later I dribbled round Drew Busby.” Both pieces of audacity sprung moves which led to goals in another victory. “Both times the ground fell silent. ‘Is that goalie aff his heid?’ ‘Christ, he’s done it again!’” Stein’s reaction is not recorded.

Before replacing Simpson, Williams had to take over from Jocky Robertson at Third Lanark, no less daunting in its way. He retains a deep affection for the club, not least in the 50th anniversary year of their sad demise, and is looking forward to catching up with old Hi-Hi boys at an upcoming reunion. But Celtic were always his team. In return for helping with the gardening, a neighbour in Dumbarton took him to see Charlie Tully, Willie Fernie and Bertie Peacock and he was hooked. Stein was playing that day, too.

Williams journeyed to Wolverhampton Wanderers to play for a manager called Ronnie Allen. “He didn’t like Scotsmen, had no time for us.” The club had a goalkeeping coach, Fred Davies, who deconstructed Williams’ game and put it back together in better shape. “He told me I couldn’t dive properly, didn’t kick well, couldn’t throw the ball!” Williams was loaned out to Aston Villa in England’s old Second Division where at least there was a Scot in charge – Tommy Docherty.

Evan Williams looks despondent after Celtic's defeat by Inter Milan on penalties in the 1972 European Cup semi-final. Picture: TSPL

“The Doc was the complete opposite of Jock. He always had to be the glamour man. I met him for the first time in 47 years a couple of months ago and he was still yon chirpy way. When Celtic came for me he told me I was mad for wanting to sign for them and was annoyed I did. Later I reckoned I might have got a game for Scotland but when I met the Doc in [Glasgow’s] North British Hotel after he’d been made national team manager he told me I was never going to be capped by him. Jock heard this and told him to get out the door. ‘Don’t you dare talk to my players like that,’ he said. ‘He’s already playing for the best team in the world’.”

The Parkhead starting wage was £50. Williams would have earned more than double staying in England but his heart was set. On the day of the 1967 European Cup final he bet his Wolves team-mates £5 that Celtic would triumph – “A lot of money back then” – and the entire 18-man squad couldn’t resist the offer. “They thought Scottish football was hopeless.”

At hopeless Celtic he was introduced to a new team-mate whose nickname was “God” and after seeing Bobby Murdoch close-up he was moved to agree. This was after his first training session when Bertie Auld and Tommy Gemmell were asked by Stein to take him under their wing, a classic prank resulting.

“At Wolves I was used to being ready early but these two were farting around. ‘Och, I need extra pants,’ said Bertie. ‘These socks are awfie dirty,’ said Tommy. When we were eventually walking up the road to Barrowfield they asked me what I wanted for breakfast. I wasn’t sure about this but they said: ‘Come on, we always get a roll and sausage and a cup of tea from Maggie’s cafe.’ I was munching away just as Big Jock’s green Merc went past. Those jokers, who were behind me, had already chucked their rolls in a bin. Jock fined me 25 quid, half my wage. I couldn’t clype on Bertie and Tam otherwise I wouldn’t have been part of the gang.”

Celtic keeper Evan Williams holds up the trophy after his side defeated Hibs in the 1972 Scottish Cup final at Hampden. Picture: TSPL

Williams’ debut came in the Glasgow Cup when he fumbled a high ball and Clyde scored. The groans from the fans he translated as ‘Not another 
rubbish goalie!” But the laidback Williams shrugged off the error. There’s a funny story, too, from his first Old Firm match: “I took my place in the tunnel
at Ibrox behind Billy McNeill but 
Bertie squeezed in front. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘when you’ve done something for this club you can stand here. Billy’s the captain and I’m the general. I’ll go second today.’ He asked me if I was nervous. I said I was excited. I was keen to find out if I could play in front of 80,000. If 
I couldn’t I knew it was probably Dumbarton or St Mirren for me.

“We had to wait ages for the Rangers boys. [Referee] Tiny Wharton had to rap on their door. Bertie must have thought the delay would get to me. Then [John] Greig and the rest of that crowd appeared. ‘How are you doing, John?’ said Bertie. ‘Fine, Bertie,’ said John. ‘John, this is our new goalie. He says he’s not nervous, he’s excited. Can you believe that?’ Then Bertie said: ‘By the way, we’re on eight quid a man to beat you today.’ Greig said: ‘We’re on 32 quid to beat you.’ Bertie said: ‘Aye but our eight quid’s guaranteed!’” 
Celtic won, Williams keeping a clean sheet, and he’s proud of his Old Firm record. “I played against Rangers 18 times – 14 wins, two draws and only two defeats – and I think overall my shutout rate was 46 per cent.”

Williams didn’t oust Simpson from the team. “Ronnie got carried off in a League Cup semi-final against Ayr United the day I signed and that was him finished.” The man he rates as “the cleverest goalie there was” became a mentor and Williams’ rivalry for the position would be with John Fallon. “John wrote a book recently in which he criticised Big Jock. I don’t think you do that. He said he couldn’t understand how Ronnie and myself got to play in European finals when he was the better keeper. What was our relationship like? I tolerated him.”

Stein’s Celtic, post-Lisbon, were changing and evolving. The sixth title was won with telling contributions from Davie Hay, Tommy Callaghan and Harry Hood, who banged in 33 goals that season. The Quality Street Gang broke through from the reserve team and every Wednesday Kenny 
Dalglish & Co would play a match against the Lions. “They often beat us, one time 4-0,” recalls Williams.

Then there was the great enigma, George Connelly. Williams talks fondly of his brilliant but troubled team-mate – dubbed Scotland’s Franz Beckenbauer – who would walk away from fame at 26. “He was so different off the park from on it. On it, he was a genius. He could take the ball from me on my six-yard line and start an attack from there. He could make the ball talk.

“But when the game was done he could be so quiet. There could be a big group of us chatting and George wouldn’t say a word. He was a nice boy but very sensitive and when Davie Hay, his big pal, left the club [for Chelsea] he was lost.

Evan Williams in the thick of the action during the 1971 Scottish Cup final against Rangers at Hampden which ended 1-1, with Celtic going on to win the replay. Picture: SNS

“He didn’t join in the banter. If we were all telling rude jokes or swearing George was out of it. Wee Lou [Macari] would sometimes wind him up. On the flight back from playing Ujpest Dozsa George was having a sneaky wee beer. Lou shouted: ‘Another beer for 
Connelly!’ This caused Jock, who frowned on alcohol, to turn round. The rest of us had to tell Lou to shut up or we’d all get fined.

“George was the sort of guy who if you said ‘What’s wrong with your hair?’ he’d worry about it all day. You had to be able to laugh at yourself although some of the jokes went too far. 
Dixie [Deans] would put salt in your tea instead of sugar. That might be a funny thing to do as a laddie, but at nearly 30? One time Lou was annoying me. ‘You big dumpling,’ he kept saying. So I hooked him.”

Williams’ four daughters have 
given him nine grandchildren but he became a widower three years ago when his wife Anna died of breast cancer. The pair were childhood sweethearts and Williams is full of praise for her courage. “She fought the cancer for 20 years. The doctors were astonished. She took up golf late and won 23 
tournaments. In one of them she got three holes-in-one.”

After Fiorentina in the run to their second European Cup final, Celtic took part in the “Battle of Britain” with Leeds United. Williams, a key performer in the semi-final, had 
history with Leeds from his time in England. “Playing for Wolves, Jack Charlton had stood on me as 
Johnny Giles hit a corner and he nodded the winner, so in the first leg at Elland Road I sorted him out with a dunt in the back. In the tunnel at Hampden before the return he made all these big threats but never came near me.”

Williams was reckoned to be Celtic’s best performer in the final against Feyenoord in Milan, but to no avail. Were the team complacent? “I don’t know. We just didn’t play well. It was the best day of my football life and the saddest as well.” Four years at Celtic ended after another Euro defeat, away to Basel. By then Stein had signed Ally Hunter. Williams had acquired two pubs, which disappointed Big Jock, and he admits the boss’s concerns were proved right. “I’d pop into one of them on a 
Friday to show face and end up having a couple of pints. For a footballer, even a goalie sat on the bench, that doesn’t work.” His career wound down at Clyde and Stranraer, by which time his hands, the tools of his trade, were giving him shooting pains up 
his back.

Who’d be a goalie? Williams is glad he was. And so, ultimately, was Stein. “After I’d finished I was at a dinner with Ronnie and Jock sat down next to us. He wanted to apologise. ‘I didn’t realise how important you were to Celtic until you weren’t there anymore,’ he said. ‘And I didn’t realise that goalkeeper is the hardest 
position of all’.”

Evan Williams looks despondent after Celtic's defeat by Inter Milan on penalties in the 1972 European Cup semi-final. Picture: TSPL