Tom Campbell reflects on a previous encounter between Celtic and Lazio in Glasgow. It was raining.
During World War 11 (and for some years afterwards) a popular song by Vera Lynn (‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’, and apparently still alive at more than 100) contained these words: “We’ll meet again, Don’t know where, Don’t know when … but I know we’ll meet again, Some sunny day …”
Well, the last time we played Lazio was on September 4, 1950 …. and it was a miserable dreich day in Glasgow, rain falling steadily all day long … but it could not stop a crowd estimated at 47,000 turning up at Celtic Park to see Lazio, the first Italian club to play a match in Scotland.
Celtic’s team lined up: Bonnar; Haughney and Milne; Evans, McGrory and Baillie; Collins and Fernie; McPhail; Peacock and Tully, (and, sad to retate, all of those Celts are now dead). Lazio looked a stylish side, wearing sky-blue jerseys (similar to Manchester City), and started off playing attractive one-touch football) … but eventually they were over-powered by a hard-hitting Celtic, revelling in the Glasgow rain.
Celtic latterly swept aside their Italian opponents to win by 4-0 … and all four goals were scored by ‘Big John’ McPhail There was a pleasing symmetry about the goals rhat buried Lazio: two goals in each half, a matching header and penalty kick (awarded correctly by Scottish referee George Mitchell).
John McPhail, only recently given an extended run at centre-forward, was a man with something to prove and turned in a remarkable performance. What had Celtic’s captain to prove? After several seasons as Celtic’s most versatile player (with appearances at right and left-half (even long before his heroics in the 1953 Coronation Cup of 1953), and innings at all three inside-forward positions … at last, he had been given the time to establish himself as Celtic’s centre-forward (arguably a problem position for Celtic to fll since the heady days of Johnny Crum back in 1938). And John seized that opportunity (eventually leading Celtic to the Scottish Cup of 1951).
But that was not his only motivation in September 1950.
Back in May, Bob Kelly had decided to award his players with a trip to Rome after the 1949/50 season. It was a Holy Year and Celtic could see the historic sights of ‘the Eternal City’, would be given an audience with the Pope … and play ‘a friendly’ with Lazio, based in Rome and celebrating their 50th anniversary.
Unfortunately, it was not much of ‘a friendly’. Bobby Collins, who in a long career in Scotland and England proved himself a fierce competitor, described the match as ‘the most vicious of them all’ … The Italian referee awarded more than forty free-kicks and ordered off John McPhail and his immediate opponent.
An urban myth has grown about John McPhail’s dismissal. According to John, the referee dismissed his marker for a series of fouls (and a scuffle with him) but then turned to Celtic’s captain and told him to leave the field “to calm down the crowd”.
It doesn’t quite ring true, that account. Almost certainly (judging by the number of fouls awarded by a capable referee who apparently performed well later as a World Cup official) and the rarity of matches between Scottish and Italian sides), this must have been a difficult match to referee. Certainly, there would have been a culture-clash on the pitch.
However, in 1950 Celtic managed a 0-0 draw in Rome, and a 4-0 win in Glasgow. In 2019 I would settle for a repeat performance.