Apr 01 , 2020 , 3:00pm
There was once some very witty banter had between two footballers, playing for the great Glasgow Celtic during the time of the Great Depression. One of them was a young goalkeeper, destined for the top, to become one of the best of his profession, only for his career and life to come to a sudden end in tragic circumstances. The other footballer, would go on to the be the all time top goalscorer in the colour of Glasgow’s Green and White. If that didn’t give it away the two were John Thomson and Jimmy McGrory.
Thomson was bemoaning one day due to the fact that he was labelled a ‘Fenian basterd’ by a member of the opposing team (Despite Thomson actually being a church-going Protestant.)
McGrory attempts to reassure his teammate: ‘John, I get called that every game I play.’
To which John responds: ‘I know, but it’s all right for you, you are one!’
It’s quite clear that the Prince of Goalkeepers was quick off the mark with a joke as well as being quick off his line.
Now, normally, when a guy racks up over 500 appearances for a Football Club, he’d be considered a legend. A proud milestone for anyone, of course. But what if someone scores 500 goals for a Football Club? Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are deemed as immortal for achieving such a feat in this present day. These are stats that are never again going to be beaten and so called football ‘experts’ are trying to get everything down to the minor detail and arguing over who is the better player instead of just sitting back and admiring two footballing juggernauts. But what people don’t know is that Celtic once their own 500 goal scoring machine, this is his story.
There was a large influx of Irish people fleeing their homeland to escape high levels of poverty that was caused mostly by the Great Famine and settling in Glasgow, along with other parts of Britain. This was the origin of Henry McGrory and Catherine Coll who arrived in Glasgow at the start of the 20th century. Their son, James, was born in the Garngad/Royston area of Glasgow in 1904. James or ‘Jimmy’ as he is better known, played for the local junior side St. Roch’s who are situated just along the Royston Road. At 16 years of age Jimmy was earning £2 a week and brought great success to Provanmill Park. Winning the junior League + Cup double brought happiness and joy to the local area. St Roch’s honoured McGrory by renaming their ground, Provenmill Park to James McGrory Park in 2013.
It’s only natural for a wee 16 year old boy, who is firing his team to League and Cup victories to catch the eyes of the big guns. Keen interest from a strong Third Lanark side and the likes of Fulham down south in London were looking at this promising, impressive youngster. However all expectation was extinguished when Willie Maley knocked on the front door of the McGrory household, trying to persuade young Jimmy to sign. He didn’t hesitate for a second, after all, he was a fan. McGrory signed for the Glasgow giants on June 10th, 1922 and was now on a wage of £5 a week.
It took a few months until McGrory could get a run in the side, perfectly normal for guy that was still only a teenager. He was limited to just 3 appearances in his debut season. Maley thought it would be best to loan McGrory off elsewhere to gain more first team experience, that club being Clydebank in the 1923/24 season. It would prove to be a move that would come back to haunt Celtic boss Maley, as the Garngad bhoy would score the winner for Clydebank against Celtic when the two sides clashed in March 1924. Jimmy would return to Parkhead that Summer, a lesson learned for Willie Maley. If you can’t join them, beat them.
Sad news would welcome Jimmy at the beginning of the ’24/’25 campaign when he would learn of the sudden passing of his his father, Henry. Perhaps Jimmy used this as a form of motivation because just hours after the funeral, he got off the mark for the season with his goal being the difference in a win over Falkirk. It added confidence to McGrory’s locker as he went on free-flowing scoring spree for the remainder of the season. His first domestic honour would be awarded that April, a header from McGrory again was the decider in the Scottish Cup Final over Dundee. This victory moved Celtic ahead of Queen’s Park on the honours list for most Scottish Cup triumphs. Jimmy would finish with just the 30 goals that season and it’s also worth noting he spent 8 weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury. A frightening stat.
Jimmy McGrory stood at just 5’6 inches tall, yet he was famous for having the finest header of a ball by his peers and opponents alike. He was christened ‘the human torpedo’ due to his trademark bullet diving header. Supposedly we’d have to think back to Robin Van Persie’s unforgettable diving header against Spain in the 2014 World Cup to have any sort of rough similarity with what ‘the human torpedo’ was doing to teams on a weekly basis.
For defences up against Celtic with McGrory leading the line, it wasn’t rare to see them revert to dirty tactics. With that added bit of extra aggression and physicality, leaving the elbow in or deliberately coming in late with the slide tackle knowing that you’d zero chance of getting the ball in that instant. These players wouldn’t hestitate, nor would they have trouble losing sleep at night knowing the probability that they’d assaulted the 5’6 striker on the field of play earlier that day, given the opportunity. McGrory has suffered various different facial injuries throughout his playing career due to the tactics of many of his opponents, actions that would warrant an arrest had they happened in the street. Dislocated eye sockets, broken nose, broken jaws, he has the injury record identical to that of professional boxer. It seemed the only way his rivals thought they could stop McGrory from scoring was by literally not having him on the park. There was no other alternative. However these attacks suffered on matchday never affected Jimmy mentally. He never let it get to him like it could with others. It was his bulldog fighting spirit that drove him on.
By the end of the 1920s, Jimmy McGrory was a wanted man. In 5 seasons with the hoops, he had netted an impressive 143 goals in 152 games and Celtic had rejected many offers for their prized asset. That was until English giants Arsenal placed a then world record bid of £10,000 on the table for McGrory. It was an astronomical amount of money. Money that Celtic simply could not say no too. In the meantime that Summer, McGrory and Willie Maley were on vacation in Lourdes. What Jimmy didn’t know was that Celtic had discreetly accepted the offer and had secretly organised a meeting with Arsenal Manager – Herbert Chapman and their Chairman – Samuel Hill-Wood MP in London. Little to Jimmy’s knowledge, he was blindly led by his manager, Maley to meet with the Arsenal delegates to sign for the London club. It was obviously a surprise to Jimmy to learn of his clubs intentions but the deal did eventually fall through because he had absolutely no interest in leaving Glasgow. Arsenal had failed in their efforts. There’s some things that money just can’t buy. Consequently in the next season, McGrory’s salary was cut at Celtic, from £9 to £8. It was meant to look like an act of punishment on the behalf of Celtic losing out on the £10k that Arsenal were willing to pay. Genuinely speaking, McGrory didn’t give a f*ck about the money. He was happy. Happy playing for the club he supported as a young bhoy, something Jimmy certainly didn’t take for granted. He was happy and that was that. He said ‘McGrory of Arsenal just didn’t sound as good as McGrory of Celtic.’
As the homegrown Hero chose to stay at Parkhead and as goals were plentiful, Celtic didn’t win as much as they should of in the 1930s. It was particularly at a low in 1931 as that tragic event happened at Ibrox when Sam English and John Thomson violently collided on the field, hospitalising the young keeper, and followed by Thomson’s heart-breaking death that evening after doctors did all in their power to save him. It left a massive void on the field as results got worse in the aftermath. The players struggled both mentally and physically. The go-to man was restricted to licking his wounds on the side lines from time to time too so Celtic’s inconsistency was apparent now more than ever. McGrory and Thomson were the spine of that Celtic team and Celtic lost out on a lot of leagues in that era.
Although there was league titles slipping away from Celtic, they had more joy in knockout competitions, i.e the Scottish and Glasgow Cups. The Scottish Cup in particular, was a tournament that McGrory excelled in. In 1936, he set the record for the quickest hattrick scored in Scottish football history as he scored 3 goals in as little as 3 minutes in a 5-0 rout of Motherwell in one Cup tie. Jimmy’s medal haul during his playing days consists of 5 Scottish Cups, 4 Glasgow Cups and 3 Scottish First Division medals. It was in 1937 when McGrory requested to pursue a career in management. He asked to leave Celtic to go and become the first ever full time manager at Kilmarnock. It was granted on one condtion, that he retired from playing. Jimmy humbly obliged.
Things couldn’t of started any worse for McGrory at Killie. His game in charge was a humiliating 8-0 thumping of the hands of his former employers, who were now managed by Jimmy McStay. A baptism of fire for the rookie Kilmarnock boss. He did eventually turn things around at Rugby Park though, guiding them to the 1938 Cup Final just before the beginning of the Second World War.
Celtic suffered in the austerity years after the war had ended. It was of no surprise to see fan favourite and immensely popular figure of McGrory returning to the club he cherished and to take over as manager in 1945. It was considered a no brainer and a pragmatic move to offer the job to the Celtic legend. Nevertheless, great players don’t necessarily turn out to be great managers. It must be a completely different ball game. The sudden passing of Chairman Tom White in 1947 had a major influence on Celtic’s progress going forward into the 1950s and not for the good either. White’s successor as Chairman at Celtic Park, Bob Kelly, his era has arguably left a scar on the football club. Metaphorically, it would be easy to mistake Celtic Park to like that, of a totalitarian state during Kelly’s tenure. He called the shots. Almost like a dictator, if you will and performances suffered in the long run. McGrory stood in the dugout but the reality was that he was merely just a pawn on the chessboard, Bob Kelly, was the king. The Scottish game was a lot more open than it is today. It wasn’t so much Rangers dominance, but more clubs were getting in on the action. The likes of Dunfermline, Third Lanark, St. Mirren, Killie and the two Edinburgh clubs all lifted silverware at some point. It wasn’t always about Glasgow and it reduced Celtic to just 1 League crown in 1954. You could ask why didn’t McGrory challenge Bob Kelly? The likely scenario is that Jimmy was blinded by his love and admiration for Celtic Football Club. There was some quality players in the squad that period, the great Charlie Tully, Bertie Peacock, Bobby Evans were all exceptional players but it just wasn’t good enough or acceptable for a club like Celtic. Something had to give and it did when Jock Stein returned to the club as manger and fortunes took a turn for the better. The rest is history.
Coming back to Jimmy though, if you search through the archives, his name will appear everywhere. The stats speak for themselves. Jimmy McGrory is the all time leading goal-scorer in top flight British football with 550 goals. He currently holds the record in Britain for the most goals in a single competitive season with 57 in the 1926/27 campaign. He holds the records for the most hattricks(55) or that could be argued as 56 as he once scored 8 goals against Dunfermline, yes that’s right, 8. He was also top goal-scorer across all leagues in Europe in 1927 and ’36. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Guiseppe Meazza, Dixie Deans and Gyorgy Sarosi, the world’s best. Yes a man that adored Celtic and gave his all for the club, beating teams on his own. He’s one of the greatest Celts to have worn the jersey. The only real shame is that none of us are no longer around to have witnessed him or to have appreciated him proper. Had McGrory been playing towards the end of the century, there’d definitely be a head scratching debate amongst fans to decide who was Celtics’ greatest striker. Fans just might of had him in the same breath as Larsson, if not, better?