Bobby Evans And the Coronation Cup

Bobby Evans And the Coronation Cup

The club and the support are gearing up to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of overcoming the odds and winning the European cup.  Arguably, fourteen years earlier, Celtic had overcome arguably greater odds to continue their dominance in all-British cup competitions

Yesterday,  (11th May) is the 64th anniversary of the start of the Coronation Cup – which many consider the equivalent of a British Cup.  Ironically, the memorable cup final in a tournament to celebrate the accession of “a German queen to the English throne” was between two Scottish clubs with Irish associations.  Certainly, of all the star players who participated Bobby Evans emerged as the most complete footballer of them all. 

Tom Campbell explains how it all happened , and for more about Evans and that particular era, you need to pick up his book, but remember to pay for it before you leave the shop. 

Or you can buy it online from the CQN bookstore..

img_3167-3.jpg

The Charity Cup was frequently an end-of-season affair but sometimes interest was high. It could be a club’s last chance to get a tangible reward from the season; it could be the rounding-off of all the honours. This latter scenario did not apply to Celtic in the early 1950s, but the 1953 edition of the trophy was different.

Queen Elizabeth had been crowned in Westminster Abbey and, with the customary lack of imagination, the authorities decided to celebrate the event with a football tournament. Fortunately, this one was different: four teams from Scotland (Aberdeen, Celtic, Hibernian and Rangers) were invited to compete with four from England (Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur). Much of the ‘proceeds’ was destined for various charities, and this was probably the main consideration in extending an invitation to Celtic because once more they had slipped down to mediocrity (and worse).

However, considerable controversy broke out regarding the invitation. Critics, and there were many, pointed out accurately enough that on football form and accomplishment that season Celtic did not deserve inclusion. As a rebuttal it was suggested that the Celtic support could be relied upon to turn up in numbers for the first-round tie against Arsenal, that they would watch their team being eliminated and hopefully not embarrassed, and that their money at the turnstiles would be of benefit to the charities. Quite a few Celtic supporters also dreaded the prospect of humiliation at the hands of the reigning English champions but…

The Charity Cup offered one last chance for Celtic to re-arrange the side and come up with a combination suited to their talents and current form, or, in the case of some players, their mood.

On a miserably wet Tuesday night in early May they outplayed Clyde by 4-0 at Celtic Park, and performed well enough to raise hopes of a respectable end to the season. Third Lanark provided different opposition in the semi-final, a desultorily played contest that ended 1-1 and Celtic’s captain Jock Stein was fortunate enough to guess correctly in the toss of the coin that settled the outcome.

There may have been some reason for such an insipid display and it probably involved the appearance money for the players in the Coronation Cup.

The organisers felt that £10 a player per match would be adequate; the players, at the end of a gruelling season, felt this was a shabby reward for a tournament that was generating so much favourable publicity.  John Hughes, the secretary of the Scottish Players’ Union, became involved by claiming that the players should be paid £100 per match, given that the ties would attract mammoth crowds.  Celtic players had never been encouraged to be union members, the club generally paying higher-than-average wages and, in a paternalistic manner, occasionally handing out bonuses, but showed greater interest in the SPU for this occasion..

Certainly there was much unrest within the Celtic camp and word reached the chairman who was incensed at the reaction. A formidable man, a stubborn man – and one who almost literally controlled the football careers of players – he decided to meet the players individually to determine if their resolve to hold out for better rewards was genuine. Predictably, the players crumbled; all agreed, some unwillingly, to play for the agreed amount, suspecting and fearing that the chairman was willing to field a team of reserve players if necessary to fulfill the engagement.

Speculation was rife later about the reactions of the players to Bob Kelly’s inquisition:  Jock Stein, while a man who knew the value of money, was still grateful enough to Celtic for having rescued his career from the backwaters of Wales and he would not have objected; Charlie Tully, of course, would have protested vehemently in the dressing-room but would have assured the chairman he would have played for nothing apart from the honour of wearing the green-and-white in a prestigious tournament.

Bobby Evans? He retained his enthusiasm for the game on match-day and at training, would have shrugged off any inconvenience caused by an extra game (or two), and looked forward to the chance to match his talent and wits with new and formidable opponents.

Bobby, recognized as an outstanding international half-back, still remained a quiet man, preferring to let his actions on the pitch speak for themselves. He may have been too quick to react to criticism but it did not seem that money was terribly important to him at this stage in his career. He remained a working-class Glasgow boy, a respectable young man and, grateful for the opportunities offered him, did not think of questioning the semi-feudal ways of football.

Apart from the issue of players being unhappy with the money on offer for the tournament, Celtic’s directors had to face up to the fact that their club, frequently inconsistent, might be humiliated on the pitch. In last-minute moves that betrayed their panic they attempted to sign new players in time for the Coronation Cup.

Their first target was Scotland’s goalkeeper, Jimmy Cowan of Morton, and they submitted a bid of roughly £4,000 for him – but this offer was summarily rejected. Throughout the season Celtic had used four goalkeepers: Bell, Bonnar, Hunter and McMahon. John Bonnar was the most frequent selection but doubts about his lack of height persisted; George Hunter in his appearances after the long-term illness never looked like maturing into the keeper he once promised to be, Andy Bell always seemed to be considered as a back-up, while Eamon McMahon, in his only appearance, had given up a bizarre goal against Queen of the South. So, Celtic did have legitimate doubts about their keepers.

Another position that defied the club’s collective wisdom was centre- forward. Nobody, apart from John McPhail at his physical best, seemed right for the role and Celtic were considering Neil Mochan, once of Morton but now with Middlesbrough.

Mochan’s appeal lay in his goal-scoring ability, and that was what Celtic lacked but the directors had one major problem. Years later Desmond White told me: “The fact is that the chairman (Bob Kelly) simply did not fancy Mochan as a player, and was unwilling for us to spend too much money on him. With the Coronation Cup looming the other directors had to persuade Bob Kelly that he was a good investment. After the bid for Jimmy Cowan fell through, the chairman finally gave in.” (1)

The deal for Neil Mochan was completed the day before the Charity Cup final against Queen’s Park, and the news was greeted enthusiastically by the support. So much so, that a crowd of more than 40,000 turned up at Hampden Park for the final. The match was played in brilliant sunshine, and Queen’s Park put up a spirited resistance before losing by 3-1. Two of the Celtic goals were scored by Mochan who, despite looking a shade rusty, showed he still had an eye for goal.

Celtic’s opponents in the Coronation Cup attended this match and some of the Arsenal players tempted Fate by suggesting that Celtic would pose little danger on the Monday night. Allegedly, Celtic’s manager Jimmy McGrory showed the newspaper cuttings to his players in order to motivate them for the tie.

Bobby Evans did much to win this cup-tie for Celtic within the first few minutes.  He looked like a player determined to prove the Scottish selectors wrong once more in having dropped him for the recent international match against England at Wembley (when Tommy Docherty was given the preference this time).

Arsenal, immediately after kicking off, moved the ball from man to man in an almost leisurely manner, keeping possession without posing any threat. In the 1950s this was an unusual approach; teams tended to go on the attack directly, and slow, careful possession play until an opening presented itself was an unpractised tactic. However, the English side appeared arrogant and almost contemptuous of their Scottish opponents … but the crowd were silenced, and some Celtic players appeared over-awed.

At last, after almost two minutes’ play, Arsenal condescended to mount a real attack, and Evans ended it by pouncing on a slightly underhit pass, advanced into the Arsenal half, and released Jimmy Walsh with a searching pass. Walsh raced through the middle and fired a fierce shot that grazed Swindin’s post. Stirred into life, the crowd roared its collective approval; the English champions had almost been caught out by the speed of Celtic’s response. Perhaps, they were not supermen, after all.

Shortly afterwards, an ‘incident’ (as newspaper accounts tend to describe such events) took place on the Arsenal right wing a few yards from the corner flag, and probably after only six or seven minutes’ play. Evans, preparing to defend a throw-in and marking an Arsenal forward, abruptly – and with no previous warning – made for another English player and his intentions were clearly hostile. Alec Forbes of Arsenal, like Evans a red-head but with a reputation as a combative wing-half, was the first to sense the danger and he intercepted Evans in his charge. He grabbed his fellow-Scot forcefully, halted his advance and, almost gently, he led him, away from the scene, clearly trying to defuse the situation and succeeding in his attempt as an unlikely peacemaker. 

 

What had happened? The newspapers tended to ignore the incident completely (apart from the Glasgow Herald which pointed out “a minute elapsed before peace was restored”but something must have taken place: the game was only a few minutes old, no fouls had yet been committed, no intimidating tackles made … but yet Celtic’s international right-half had for a moment clearly lost his temper. In hindsight it is obvious that something was said and Evans had taken personal objection to it immediately. Fortunately, he had been calmed down by a fellow Scot playing for Arsenal and ironically a player with a reputation for a hair-trigger temper and serious on-field offences.

 

For me one of the significant features is that for the rest of the game          Bobby Evans was his usual immaculate self, and almost certainly did not give away a single foul.

On a personal note, I should say that I saw about 90% of Celtic’s games between 1948 and 1955 and I had never seen such a reaction from Evans. Without exaggeration, Bobby Evans – always in the thick of the action – went through match after match without a foul being awarded against him and he rarely questioned refereeing decisions. In addition to his superior skills, he was a model sportsman.

After about 15 minutes Celtic took complete charge of this game, and Bobby Collins scored direct from a corner kick, as Swindin fumbled his swerving delivery. The crowd, initially exultant at this, waited for the Arsenal response but Celtic gave them no opportunity. Wave after wave of Celtic attacks kept Arsenal defending desperately. George Swindin, their veteran keeper, anxious to make amends for his lapse, made several fine saves.

The second half was even more of a revelation as Celtic, so disappointing for much of the season, turned on the style. One interchange of cross-field passes between the wing-halves Evans and McPhail, starting in their own half and ending with yet another Swindin save, had the crowd roaring in approval. In view of the fact that the London side had been overwhelming favourites the Glasgow Herald journalist could perhaps be forgiven for gloating a little about the gambit: “the ruse was employed again and again with comparable success … as English tongues hung out”

 

Alec Rollo, the left-back, at a time when such defenders were conditioned to stay in their own half of the field broke through only for Swindin to dive at his feet to save his side yet again. Charlie Tully was at his most thoughtful, spreading the play beautifully and never letting the defenders relax. In a letter to me and Pat Woods, Joe Mercer (the legendary Arsenal wing-half, a man who played against Celtic in the 1937 Empire Exhibition Cup as well as the Coronation Cup), wrote: “Charlie Tully! Playing against Charlie was an education.”

Cyril Horne in the Glasgow Herald had particular praise for two Celtic players “once again Evans and McPhail, those wing-halves of contrasting styles, inspired their side to victory.  So fine a player Evans has been – and for so long – that anything but a distinguished display from him would be a matter for wonderment.  Consistency should be his middle name.”

 

The next opponents, on the Saturday, were Manchester United – who had come from behind to defeat Rangers by 2-1. Throughout the first half, played in brilliant sunshine, Celtic again attacked incessantly with Evans and John McPhail at left-half adding to the attack. An interesting duel was taking place down Celtic’s left wing where Tully and Peacock were pitted against McNulty and Carey, all four of them Irish internationalists.

The crowd was announced as 73,000; Johnny Carey, years later as a guest speaker at a Celtic Supporters’ gathering, mused about the Coronation Cup attendances: “We played Rangers on the Tuesday, and had lots of supporters in the crowd; when we played Celtic on the Saturday, they seemed to have disappeared. I wonder why.”

Bertie Peacock scored for Celtic with a raking drive after receiving a clever pass from Tully, and Celtic might have been disappointed with such a slight lead at the interval after all their pressure. However, early in the second half Neil Mochan scored a second goal; Rollo lofted a clearance upfield, Tully, with another subtle touch, diverted it further forward, Mochan had anticipated this and raced through from the centre-circle, and slipped the ball neatly past Crompton.

The game looked over, but the last twenty minutes were agonizing for the support. Manchester United, clearly a more resilient outfit than Arsenal, re-grouped and started to attack; the sunshine disappeared and rain, accompanied by a strengthening wind in their faces, put Celtic under more pressure. The veteran centre-forward, Jack Rowley, scored near the end and Celtic were just managing to hold on.

In the very last minute Charlie Tully, apparently wasting time near the corner flag by holding off challenges, went down in a heap clutching his leg. Many in the crowd assumed this was another time-wasting ploy but Charlie indeed was injured – and would miss the final against Hibernian.

This semi-final against Manchester United showed both sides of Bobby Evans’ play at their best. In the first half, he was an excellent attacking wing-half, winning the ball, spreading play, and urging on his forwards; after the interval, forced back, he was a resolute defender, tackling like a demon and breaking up attack after attack.

Against Arsenal and Manchester United he was clearly demonstrating exactly how a Scottish wing-half should perform against top-class English opposition – an opportunity inexplicably denied him at Wembley.

The Coronation Cup final of 1953 was probably the most joyous Celtic occasion since pre-war days, even eclipsing the Scottish Cup triumph of 1951.  Certainly the spectators were given a match to savour.

CELTIC: Bonnar; Haughney and Rollo; Evans, Stein and McPhail; Collins and Walsh; Mochan; Peacock and Fernie.

HIBERNIAN: Younger; Govan and Howie; Buchanan, Paterson and Combe; Smith and Johnstone; Reilly; Turnbull and Ormond.

A fine evening in mid-May, the pitch softened by the earlier afternoon rain, and a crowd well over 100,000; in fact, the gates had to be shut because the traditional Celtic ‘end’ was dangerously overcrowded with the spoke-like passage-ways having disappeared.

Celtic’s fans were dismayed to learn over the loudspeakers shortly before the teams appeared on the pitch that Tully would indeed be missing, his place being taken by Willie Fernie.  But, within minutes of the start, they were roaring approval as the Fifer twice raced past Jock Govan, baffled initially by his change of direction and latterly by his pace.

‘Pace’ was the word, as Celtic stormed into attack – the same sort of speed and controlled aggression that had so surprised Manchester United.  Hibernian were hard-pressed to hold on, and conceded several corners, their famed forward-line, with inside-forwards Johnstone and Turnbull forced backwards to help out in defence, unable to pose any threat.

Fernie was unstoppable on the left wing.  Criticised in the past for holding on to the ball too long, he was mixing up his play; he clearly had the beating of Govan – and the Hibs’ defenders knew that – but he was also passing the ball admirably.  Peacock at inside-left, was his usual willing work-horse, winning the ball time after time and a constant threat in the goalmouth, apparently inspired by his strike against Manchester United.  Mochan was putting in an admirable shift and his strength was worrying the Hibernian defenders.  Walsh’s speed and hard running caused more problems and Collins, as always, was direct and dangerous.  Behind them Evans and McPhail, naturally attacking players, were plying the forwards with the ball and itching to join in the attack; Jim Craig, in his assessment of the Coronation Cup campaign accurately described John McPhail as “Celtic’s play-maker”…

For the first twenty-odd minutes Celtic bombarded Hibs’ goal; twice Younger had to dive bravely at Fernie’s feet as the Celtic winger broke through.  Corner after corner was conceded, but the goal survived until …  Stein broke up a rare Hibernian attack and swung the ball out to Fernie, on the left wing and just inside his own half; Fernie surprised the defenders by a first-time pass towards Mochan, breaking at speed from the centre circle; and Mochan raced forward another fifteen yards and then shot – with his right foot.  No Celtic player has ever hit a ball harder than that effort; Tommy Younger, Scotland’s international keeper, could not get near the shot from almost thirty yards and it exploded into the net, high up and to the keeper’s right. 

A goal to remember!  A moment to savour!  And how the Celtic supporters celebrated behind Younger’s goal!  The happiest of Bedlams!  Eugene MacBride, long-time editor of The Celt, used to speak of that goal:  “The terracing behind the goal seemed to explode but almost a full second after the ball hit the net, such was the shock.  Utter pandemonium for more than a minute as we celebrated, and then it died down to a mere roar.  And then the strangest reaction I’ve ever seen or heard.  There’s always noise at a football match – and Celtic matches are often the loudest – but several minutes later the crowd behind the goal started to cheer and applaud, unrelated to what was happening on the pitch.  I always thought that all those thousands after the initial outburst of joy at Mochan’s goal had somehow replayed the event in their minds, re-lived the moment, and were appreciating it all over again.” 

Celtic continued the onslaught on Hibernians’ goal in much the same way they had pressed Manchester United but Hibernian held out, and a minute before halftime Hampden Park, previously a cauldron of noise, was silenced.  Gordon Smith, who had spent a lot of time in his own half trying to contain Fernie, gathered the ball and took off on a run; he slipped past McPhail and outpaced Rollo and sent over an inviting cross into the goalmouth; Lawrie Reilly powered his header towards goal and John Bonnar, idle up to then, dived smartly to his right and diverted it for a corner. 

It was a chilling reminder to the supporters that the match was far from over…

The second half, only the regulation forty-five minutes long, must have seemed like an eternity for every Celtic supporter.  No forward-line in Scottish football has ever been as celebrated as Hibernians’ ‘Famous Five’:  Gordon Smith, the perfect right-winger, Willie Ormond, a quiet and dangerous goal-scorer on the left wing… Bobby Johnstone, an inside-right who “could pass the ball with his arse” and a prolific scorer, Eddie Turnbull of the thunderous shot and a dynamo at inside-left, and Lawrie Reilly at centre-forward, quicksilver in reactions and regularly Scotland’s leading scorer.  And they set about Celtic with a will!

From the kick-off Celtic’s inside-forwards, Walsh and Peacock, were forced back to defend; even the wingers, Collins and Fernie, had to drop back.  Hibernian had picked up the pace, determination added to their collective skill – and Celtic had to defend.  And they had to defend for almost every agonizing one of those forty-five minutes.

Immediately after the final whistle Celtic’s captain Jock Stein galloped into the goalmouth to hug John Bonnar and no wonder.  The Celtic goalkeeper had played the game of his life: he clutched some Hibernian corners, and finger-tipped others away, he dived to his right to parry a free kick from Turnbull and dived bravely at his feet to block the rebound, he diverted a snap-shot from Reilly for another corner and almost miraculously twisted in mid-air to save close-in headers from Johnstone.  After one of those saves, as Smith raced over to take the corner, Bobby Johnstone actually applauded the goalkeeper.  Only once was he beaten when Ormond cutely deflected a hooked Reilly shot but John McPhail headed clear from underneath the crossbar. 

Willie Ormond in a conversation years later with Celtic historian David Potter shook his head ruefully: “We would have won if it hadn’t been for that wee bugger Johnny Bonnar.  He was unbeatable that night.”

Gordon Smith was equally disbelieving:  “We outplayed them in the second half and might have scored five or six goals…”

Jock Stein was typically matter-of-fact:  “John played very well that night, and made some great stops in the second half.  He saved us at times, but that’s what a goalkeeper is supposed to do…”

Eddie Turnbull, who emerged later as an outstanding manager with Hibernian and Aberdeen, was perceptive in his summing-up:  “Celtic surprised us; Fernie ran us ragged in the first half and Bonnar was great in goal in the second half but their best man throughout was Bobby Evans.  He held them together whenever we threatened:  he had to nurse Mike Haughney, who hadn’t too much experience at right back, he stood alongside Jock Stein who had his hands full with Lawrie (Reilly), and every now and then he had to help big John McPhail who played well but was feeling the pace in that second half.  I’ve never seen Evans play better.”

The Glasgow Herald agreed with Turnbull: In all his career for Celtic and Scotland, Evans has never served a side better.  When the speed of Smith and Johnstone threatened to engulf the slower-moving McPhail, Evans was a left-half as well as a right-half … and it was he who set his forwards in motion for the score that would settle the tie.”

 

In one of the Sunday papers the following weekend it was reported that Evans – who must have covered every inch of that Hampden pitch – had lost almost eight pounds in weight attributable to de-hydration during the final.  If the report were accurate, nobody would have been surprised.

 

Astonishingly, it was Celtic who scored the only goal of that dramatic second half; Evans, in action everywhere when danger threatened, dispossessed Gordon Smith with less than a minute to play and, instead of punting the ball aimlessly away from Celtic’s goal, found Willie Fernie with an accurate pass.  Fernie, nominally the outside-left, was back in defence helping out and he was the perfect outlet.  From inside his own half and on Celtic’s right wing he embarked on a typically long, meandering run; he may have looked for another Celt to pass the ball to, but nobody it seemed was available.  Some sixty yards further on he found himself in front of Younger and slipped the ball past him, but it was scrambled off the line by Ormond only for Jimmy Walsh, following up Fernie’s run, to lash the ball into the net. 

Bobby Evans had been with Celtic for nine years and in 1953, fully established as a right-half, was at the height of his powers – a fact which makes it even more puzzling to explain his omission from the Scotland side.  The Coronation Cup, in which rank outsiders Celtic took on and deservedly defeated the best sides in both England and Scotland, probably marks the high point of Bobby’s career.  Against Arsenal, Manchester United and Hibernian he was magnificent – and there is no other appropriate word.

And, significantly, while being at times ignored by George Graham and his selectors, he was elected as “Scotland’s Player of the Year”.  Nobody ever deserved that honour more.

 

Footnote

 

1  Frequently throughout the next few seasons Neil Mochan, one player who could be relied upon for goals, was dropped from the side to the bewilderment of the supporters.  Bob Kelly’s initial opinion of his value may have been the key factor.