“McGrory Stands Supreme” – Willie Maley
78 years ago today, James Edward McGrory pulled on the green and white Hoops of Celtic Football Club for the final time, scoring once in a 4-3 win over Queen’s Park. With this in mind, I felt it would be an apt day upon which to release the following excerpt from the chapter which is devoted to the great man in my first book, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” (released October 2013). Paperback copies of this work are still available, and should anybody be interested in this or its upcoming successor, please feel free to contact me for more information or click here. Regardless, grab a cup of tea or coffee, sit down and please enjoy the following passage. Rest in peace, Jimmy.
“In 1937, Celtic reached the Scottish Cup Final where they would take on an Aberdeen side who were debutants to such an occasion. Of course, Jimmy was used to playing in front of big audiences, but this was to be the largest of them all. To this day, that match, held on the twenty-fourth of April 1937, remains the highest attended national Cup Final in history. Debatably, it may actually have been one of the highest attended games of all time.
Officially, there were one hundred and forty-seven thousand, three hundred and sixty-five spectators in the ground that day but, having consulted with experts at the Scottish Football Museum who referenced the original architect’s plans for the time and this man’s own personal estimates, they believe that in all likelihood, the real attendance may have been “somewhere around the one hundred and eighty thousand mark”, with the aforementioned plans of Hampden predicting it’s true maximum capacity to have been about one hundred and eighty-two thousand at that stage (at a time when the stadium was as large as it would ever be).
The match itself was an engrossing affair. Celtic started well and took the lead after only eleven minutes through Johnny Crum. Only sixty seconds later though, Aberdeen equalised via Matt Armstrong, and so began a tactical battle for the Scottish Cup. In the second half, Celtic largely dominated, controlling the midfield against a determined and organised Aberdeen side which defended valiantly. In the end, with around twenty minutes to go, it fell to the great Jimmy McGrory to create the chance for Willie Buchan to score and win Celtic their fifteenth Scottish Cup.
Buchan himself said this of the match: “Even now I still remember the incredible volume of sound that greeted us as we ran onto the field. I have never heard anything like it and initially I found myself slightly overawed. The memory of my winning goal is still vivid in my mind too. The ball was played through from our own half, and Jimmy McGrory flicked it on, allowing me to move in on the keeper from the right hand side of our area. The two full-backs closed in and I remember as the keeper came out, the goal seemed to become smaller. I just managed to squeeze the ball past him, and it went in off the post.”
This was to be the final trophy McGrory won in his extraordinary career, and he eventually retired during the 1937-38 season, having only scored a mere six times in eleven appearances in that period. Jimmy made his final appearance for Celtic on the sixteenth of October 1937 against Queen’s Park and, typically, he opened the scoring that day, as the Hoops ran out four-three winners at Celtic Park. Nobody knew this would be the last time he would play for the Hoops, but one newspaper report did say the following of Jimmy’s goal and his performance: “McGrory appeared to concentrate too much on making openings for McDonald and Buchan, and although his scheming was always full of subtlety his methods were inclined to hold up the attack…White fumbled a ball from Crum to allow McGrory to head through Celtic’s first score.” And so, the footballing career of one of the greatest strikers of all time was over – on the field at least.
During his time with Celtic, the supporters coined several nicknames for McGrory. A prominent example of this was “The Human Torpedo”, because Jimmy was seemingly unbreakable, always heading for his target until the ball exploded into the net from his boot or head. He suffered an almost endless list of injuries, as opposition defenders knew no other ways of stopping him other than attempting to hurt him. For example, he suffered a broken nose on more than one occasion, and of course, he had his jaw broken at one stage after being kicked in the face. However, none of this could stop “The Mermaid”, the man who had such a talent for heading the ball, whether he was jumping or diving to do so, that he earned this slightly unorthodox tag for a footballer.
All in all, Jimmy McGrory from the Garngad scored five hundred and fifty goals in five hundred and forty-seven appearances for Celtic. He firmly holds his place within the top ten greatest goalscorers in the history of the beautiful game, and finished his career with the mind boggling statistic of boasting ‘goal to game ratio’ higher than one. He has been immortalised in song, and will always be remembered as one of the “football greats” who “have passed through Parkhead’s gates, all to play football, the Glasgow Celtic way!”
At the end of 1937, only weeks after another injury in his final match for Celtic had ruled him out of action for the foreseeable future, Jimmy became the manager of Kilmarnock Football Club, a position which he would hold until the end of World War Two. The highlight of his tenure there was a run to the Scottish Cup Final in 1938, where they lost by four-two to second division East Fife in extra-time. This was only the club’s fifth appearance in a major domestic final, and a notable piece of success for a team who were largely a mid-table side at the time.
When Willie Maley published his aforementioned book in 1939, he said the following of one of his greatest players, continuing on from the excerpts cited earlier: “Jimmy McGrory leaves memories of the finest and of deeds in our colours that will never fade. As a goal-getter, McGrory stands supreme.”
Some years after his final appearance as a player, tragedy would again strike the life of Jimmy McGrory, as his wife Veronica (often referred to as Nona) died during a medical procedure which aimed to determine why the couple had been unable to have a child thus far. The loss of his wife struck Jimmy terribly hard, and it was only his strong connections with his family, as well as his friends at Celtic Football Club, that kept him on the proverbial ‘straight and narrow’ through another tremendously traumatic period of his life.
In 1945, Jimmy McGrory returned to Celtic Park to become the Club’s third manager, replacing Jimmy McStay, the man who had taken over from Willie Maley only five years previously. Personally, his life would once again take a turn for the better in 1946, as he married his second wife, Barbara Schoning, with whom he would go on to have two daughters (Barbara and Elizabeth) and one son (John). During his time in charge of the Football Club, Celtic experienced some fantastic highs as well as some sobering lows. After all, at the end of the 1947-48 season, Celtic finished only four points clear of the relegation places.
In truth, part of the problem during this period was Jimmy McGrory’s good manners and overall amicability. The board of directors and Robert Kelly, who became the Club’s chairman only a couple of years after Jimmy took on his managerial role, incessantly interfered with footballing matters, such as team selection and which players were bought and sold. The players knew this all too well, and many of them voiced their anger about the way in which the Club was being run, even if many of them only did so once they were no longer affiliated officially with the Football Club (see Bobby Evans as an example).
Most managers, especially those in the modern era, would have walked straight out of the front door to the media in the face of such treatment. However, McGrory saw it as an honour to manage Celtic, and felt he could not walk away from the Club he loved. He did not rock the boat, and at times had almost as little managerial influence as you or I – well, perhaps that is an exaggeration, but you will understand my point. However, he always did his best and gave his all, and this must not be forgotten.
In saying all of this though, I must highlight the triumphs (albeit they were not as numerous as we may all have hoped for) that the Club achieved under Jimmy McGrory. With their greatest goalscorer at the helm, Celtic did win the Scottish Cup in 1951; the Coronation Cup in 1953; a league and cup double in 1953-54; the Club’s first League Cup in 1956; and of course, the famous seven-one League Cup Final victory in 1957. In his later years as manager, Jimmy would also lead Celtic to the semi-finals, and very nearly to the final, of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1963-64. While the Coronation Cup win and the day of “Hampden in the Sun” will forever be remembered with fondness by the Celtic support, Jimmy McGrory’s tenure as manager will never really be looked upon as some of the glory days of the Club. Granted, much of that was not Jimmy’s fault, with various factors affecting his ability to do his job.
In reality, to progress in footballing terms, Celtic needed a significantly more strong-willed, somewhat stubborn individual to lead them. In 1965, just that man, in the form of Jock Stein, became the fourth manager of the Football Club. It wasn’t exactly a proud moment for Jimmy, who was demoted by the board of directors to another position within the Football Club without much of a say in the matter, but he was still happy to be playing his part at Celtic Park.
In his later life, Jimmy continued to follow the Club he supported as a lad, reflecting on Celtic’s most famous victory of them all in Lisbon in a book entitled “A Lifetime in Paradise”, which was published in 1975:
“I actually broke down in tears that night, the first time in all my years in the game that I had cried. What a thrill it was to see young boys like Murdoch, McNeill, Johnstone, Gemmell, Clark and Lennox coming of age. What a thrill it was to the see club I had served all my life reach its pinnacle.”
Jimmy McGrory died on the twentieth of October 1982, at the age of seventy-eight years old, leaving behind him a legacy of goalscoring that will never be forgotten and, poignantly, one that will likely never to be beaten by another Celtic player. While the number of medals he accumulated throughout his career may not have quite lived up to his individual talent, and while his tenure as manager may not have been quite as successful as we all would have hoped, one thing is certain; James ‘Jimmy’ McGrory loved Celtic Football Club with all of his heart and soul, and he gave a tremendous amount of time and effort throughout a long, and at times difficult life, to that end.”