He was the quiet one among the Celtic immortals, for sure, and the different one for having another life as a dentist. He didn’t score many goals and was only capped once by his country. His nickname was someone else’s name – Cairney, after the actor John, star of the blackboard jungle telly drama This Man Craig. Rather than mementos from the career, his home is adorned with photographs of his daughter and four rugby-playing sons. But he was crucial to the plot for Scottish football’s greatest story and thankfully in Perthshire today it is not like drawing teeth to get him to tell me about it.
“I suppose there were a couple of happy accidents,” says Craig. “If I hadn’t given away the penalty from which Inter Milan took the lead they would never have sat back like they did, playing their catenaccio, and inviting us to attack them for 83 minutes. Who knows how 1967 would have turned out otherwise …
“And then,” he laughs, “there was that crazy game against Dynamo Kiev when I got myself sent off.” Crazy it may have been, but in a roundabout way the Cup Winners’ Cup tie a year before Lisbon changed how Celtic were run, allowing Jock Stein absolute power.
The excursion was definitely roundabout. The harshness of the Soviet winter was matched by the harshness of the Soviet regime who objected to Celtic flying Aer Lingus because Ireland didn’t have diplomatic relations with the old USSR.
Because of the snow the game had been switched to Tbilisi. Because of the dispute there would have to be tedious stop-offs in Moscow, one lasting five hours under armed guard. There was an emergency detour to Stockholm, and fear and alarm among the players during the pilot’s numerous attempts to get airborne, with the Munich tragedy an all too recent memory. But the match was played, only Craig didn’t manage to complete all of it.
“Their guy [Vitaliy] Khemlnytski threw a punch at me and I blocked it. He threw another and I blocked that, telling him in my best Glaswegian: ‘Gie us peace, for God’s sake!’ The referee, not wanting a Cold War incident, sent both of us off and we were escorted down the tunnel by the Red Army, guns at the ready.”
He shrugs at the memory. They bred footballers tough in Craig’s era. Once, his face a bleeding mess from a flying boot, he was unable to see properly until a trainer licked away the mud spattered on his eyeballs. A 1-1 draw in Georgia’s capital enabled Celtic to progress in the tournament but such were the delays caused by Moscow’s stand-off and the weather that the players didn’t arrive back in Glasgow until late on Friday night. Stein ordered an 11pm training session to loosen cramped limbs as Celtic were due at Tynecastle the following afternoon.
Craig was told he had to apologise to Parkhead chairman Bob Kelly, but when he refused, not believing he’d done anything wrong, found himself out of the side for the league game, which was duly lost. “It was a few years later that Big Jock told me I’d done him a good turn. Before, he would show the teamsheet to the chairman who might have screwed up his face at a name on it and shaken his head. But [secretary] Desmond White was angry [at Kelly’s intervention when Stein told him he’d wanted Craig to play against Hearts] and after that Big Jock had a free hand to pick the team.”
Craig is 79 and his powers of recall are remarkable. His wife Elisabeth has vacated their apartment in Gleneagles Village to go shopping – “She’s heard all my stories a million times,” he chuckles. But I’m all ears.
So this Celtic hit nine against Dundee United? His Celtic banged in ten against Hamilton Accies. “A great game [League Cup, 1968] for Lennox and [Steve] Chalmers who each scored five but for a right-back like me it was bloody useless!”
So this Celtic will begin their Champions League campaign trepidatiously against holders Real Madrid on Tuesday? His Celtic, a fortnight after Lisbon, beat the team who virtually owned the European Cup at that time, on their own patch in front of 127,000. “That was a testimonial for [Alfredo] Di Stefano but it was no friendly.” Glamorous Real wanted to re-assert superiority, put the pale, scruffy upstarts from Glasgow in their place. “No friendly,” Cairney repeats. “Bertie got sent off and, for going fighting, he totally deserved it!
“Some of the boys were against playing the game. We had a few nervous fliers in the team who didn’t want to be back in the air so soon after Lisbon. Plus, we were putting our reputation on the line.
“Big Jock was canny. He made a couple of changes, John Fallon and Willie O’Neill, so if Real won they wouldn’t have beaten the Lions. I was up against [Francisco] Gento - 37 but still clever. Jinky [Johnstone], though, was sensational. Every dribble the Spanish crowd shouted ‘Ole!’ But my best memory of that game was the morning after. Jinky, with his wife Agnes, had their suitcases all packed. ‘Where are you off to, wee man?’ I said. ‘Holiday, Cairney,’ he said. ‘Well, have a great time, the pair of you,’ I said and helped put the cases in the taxi. The driver turned round: ‘Aeropuerto?’ ‘Naw,’ said Jinky, ‘Benidorm.’ It was 535 miles from Madrid to the coast but he was the worst flier of us all and he was done with it!”
The Old Firm clash today. Does Craig have any stories about the ancient rivalry? Of course he does. His debut in the fixture was a 5-1 victory in 1966 and although Celtic would win most of the encounters in his seven years in hoops, the games were always keenly fought, often too much so.
In 1969 at Ibrox our man, far from the fiercest competitor in the fixture, tackled Willie Johnston while the winger was off the pitch retrieving the ball. “Another display of bad temper, petty fouling and open feuding,” went one match report. “Just what is causing all the trouble?”
Craig has a go: “The pressure in Old Firm games was off the scale. You quickly realise that you’re not only there to satisfy the desires of the Celtic fans inside the ground, but right across Scotland and right round the world. The same obviously goes for the Rangers boys. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy those matches, and I think anyone then or now who says they do is lying through their teeth.”
Later that season the rivals squared up in the Scottish Cup. There was another dismissal - Alex MacDonald - and after the aggro spilled onto the Parkhead terraces both clubs were summoned by the SFA, the police and Glasgow Corporation to explain why their meetings couldn’t be more peaceable affairs. “We all got fined but I don’t think that made any difference. Next time I’m sure we would have been at each other’s throats again.”
Craig scored an own goal in the cup-tie, Johnston ruffling his opponent’s hair in celebration. “I was going to clobber Willie but would have been spotted by [referee] ‘Tiny’ Wharton who’d sent me off in the earlier game - ‘Mr Craig, I would be very much obliged if you would leave the premises.’ So Wispy [Willie Wallace] punched him and got away with it. Later he said to me: ‘If he ever needs a whack again you’ll have to do it yourself – I think I’ve broke my hand.’ I reckon that must have been the first time Wispy had punched anyone. Avoid the jaw, go for the throat!”
When the madness had died down, Craig and Johnston at the final whistle would show their respect: “It was ‘Well done, ya wee bastard’ and ‘Same to you, ya big bastard’. Willie was greased lightning. I’d stand in front of him, try and show him inside to where Murdoch was waiting, or when I had the ball knock it ahead and hopefully tire him out. But in my career I played against Gento, Dragan Dzajic of Red Star Belgrade, [Renato] Cappellini of Inter Milan, [Pierino] Prati of AC Milan and the great George Best – and Willie in the mood was right up there with these guys.”
Craig smiles as he remembers how as a teenage prospect, captain of both the Glasgow and Scotland schools teams, he would tease the watching Ibrox scout, offering his services even though as a Roman Catholic he knew they wouldn’t be required. “His name was Jimmy Smith and he’d say: ‘Ach, you know how it is, son.’” Graeme Souness would erase the unwritten rule and Craig has a story about the Rangers revolutionary, too.
“He was this tubby lad from Edinburgh who trained at Celtic at nights, a skilful player but he wouldn’t run for the ball, almost as if it was beneath him, so I used to tick him off about that. A few years later when I was at Sheffield Wednesday I went up to Middlesbrough to see Murdoch. I asked him: ‘Who’s doing your running for you now?’ He pointed to Graeme and I was surprised. [Manager] Jack Charlton had told him: ‘Get your arse in gear or you’re out of this club.’”
We chat for an hour and a half and I know that today’s yarns are merely the equivalent of the loose change in Craig’s pocket, the spare studs and sock-ties in a trainer’s drawer. He’s greatly saddened by the passing of fellow Lions and the fragility of those who are left – Auld died last year and John “Yogi” Hughes last month – but if there is onus on him as the keeper of the legend then it doesn’t show.
A Celtic hero, indeed, but he’s the son of a Hibee. His father, Jimmy, was a furniture salesman in Leith’s Great Junction Street who worshipped the Famous Five. “Aged 89, just before he died, I told him: ‘Come on, Dad, we’re going for a wee drive.’ I’d arranged for him to visit his old school, Leith Academy. ‘That was lovely, son,’ he said, and then it was off to Easter Road for a tour. ‘Fantastic, are we going home now?’ ‘Let’s have lunch,’ I said. Lawrie Reilly was waiting for us in the pub.”
The old man possibly wasn’t enamoured by Craig’s last appearance for Celtic and especially his son’s surges late in the 1972 Scottish Cup final against Hibs which boosted the score to 6-1. Arthur Duncan was on the left wing that day – another difficult opponent? “Well, whenever we got hold of the opposition teamsheet, Hibs or before that Partick Thistle, Big Jock would turn to me and say ‘He’s playing’ and I would know he’d mean Arthur. The guy was quick but I think I was quicker.”
So why dentistry? “Aged 17 I got my first kick in the face playing football which broke my front teeth and I had to spend some time in the dental hospital, so: association of ideas.” Still, peering into hundreds of gobs, which became the full-time gig after football, doesn’t sound like tremendous fun. “Well, it was better than being a pathologist. At least I could talk to my patients.”
He’s laughing again, this time over Elisabeth’s theory for the possible cause of what she calls his “irrational moments”: “She says that either I’ve never got over that trainer holding open my eyelids and waggling his tongue about or I was exposed to too much mercury in the dental surgery!”
At Celtic and other clubs, players would ask him to look at troublesome gnashers but would stop sort of treating them. I can understand why, but wouldn’t it have been sweet Old Firm symmetry if, after Tommy Gemmell had located Willie Henderson’s contact lens in the mud on one flank, as legend has it, that Craig on the other side had quelled Willie Johnson’s toothache?
Craig only retired from dentistry six years ago and seems no less busy as a doting grandfather. He rates getting together with Elisabeth, 24 hours after Lisbon, as the greatest day of his life. The daughter of a Celtic director, she told him she was bound for France and a teaching job. Anxious to stall her long enough to make a good impression, he offered to check her teeth. Ten days later he proposed.
It sounds like he might have as many yarns about dentistry as he does football, though with the profession in post-Covid crisis he’s relieved to be out of it. “Last week Elisabeth came back from an appointment: ‘I’ve been quoted £2500 to have a bridge replaced,’ she said. ‘In the old days I just had to sleep with my dentist and that would be the bill settled!’”