Central defence has been something of a problem area for Celtic in recent years; but it has not always been so, as, over the years, the club has often been exceptionally represented at the heart of defence.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, a succession of commanding figures have filled the “Centre Half” role, more commonly referred to nowadays as Centre Back.
None more so than the great “Cesar”, Billy McNeill, figurehead and captain of the most successful Celtic side of them all, who has faithfully served Celtic as player, manager and now, as elder statesman and club ambassador, for over half a century. Who’s going to quibble about him as a “shoo-in” in this category?
Others with a mighty claim to be listed amongst our latter-day Ultimate Centre Backs include a certain Jock Stein, who would never have claimed to be in McNeill’s class as a player but proved to be an inspiration on his return to Scottish football from Wales at a time when Celtic were at a low ebb.
The classy Bobby Evans, converted from wing half, or, right midfield in modern parlance, succeeded Stein and dominated the role for Celtic and Scotland until McNeill was mature enough to step in. Evans is another all-time great, whose rewards for such wonderful service were paltry.
John Cushley and John MacNamee, contemporaries of “Cesar” would surely have figured more prominently had it not been for their great mentor’s domination of his era; and the enigmatic, outrageously gifted George Connelly, for a tragically short , promised to be McNeill’s natural successor and Celtic’s “Franz Beckenbauer”.
At various other points in time, we have seen a succession of variably formidable lesser lights such as Roddy MacDonald, Malky Mackay, Centenary Season stalwart, Mick McCarthy, Willie Garner, Pierce O’Leary, Steven Pressley; and that great contradiction, Olivier Tebily, whose cruel nickname, “Bombscare”, only tells half
the story of a fatally flawed talent. Each in his own way made his contribution to the Celtic cause but I fear they are unlikely to make it into the elite squad.
Another quartet that very well might are the exciting mobile powerhouse that was Paul Elliott, despite the brevity of his service and the ultimately unfortunate manner of his departure under a contractual cloud; silky Scouser, Alan Stubbs, so reminiscent of the unfortunate Connelly, particularly in his pin-point, long-range, high-altitude passing; and the uncompromising and intimidating duo so often at the heart of defence in the scintillating Martin O’Neill era, Johan Mjallby and Bobo Balde, despite the prolonged pantomime of his eventual departure.
At the risk of being howled down here, I must make a speculative case for someone who, like Bobby Evans before him, was really a converted wing half and hardly physically equipped as a centre back in the strict sense but was absolutely pivotal to Celtic’s central defence in the golden era of the Lisbon Lions. I refer, of course, to John Clark, the archetypal “Sweeper”, who was unsurpassed in that speciality role and is therefore entitled to at least passing consideration in the interests of defensive flexibility.
Going back to earliest days, a key acquisition in ensuring the instant impact of the new Irish “Kids on the Block” was Scotland international Centre Half, James Kelly, who, after joining from Renton, not only steered Celtic through its formative years but also went on to be a director and spawned part of the powerful but ultimately discredited family dynasties that dominated the boardroom until they were deposed by the Fergus McCann revolution of 1994.
Another of the most prominent incumbents of the traditional No 5 berth in the first six-and-a-bit decades of The Celtic Story is the great Willie Loney of the fabled Six- in-a-Row squad of the nineteen-oughties, whose nickname, “The Obliterator”, in itself speaks volumes about an awesome competitor. An all-time Celtic “great”.
Billy Cringan, once heralded as “the finest pivot in Scotland” was the kind who would walk through walls for Celtic. Playing in the era of giants like Patsy Gallacher and Jimmy McMenemy, he starred in two Championship squads and lifted the Scottish Cup in 1923.
Jimmy McStay, younger brother of full back Willie, was nothing if not steady. Lack of style belied his formidable defensive ability and his quiet approach tended to make much of his good work go unnoticed. Seldom caught in possession, he snuffed out the legendary Dixie Dean when captaining the Scottish League to victory over the
English at Celtic Park in 1931. A great Celtic servant.
Willie Lyon was a magnificent skipper and an all-time Celtic great. Leading by example, he brought Celtic back from the dead against Motherwell in the Scottish Cup semi-final on St Patrick’s Day 1937, securing the right to lead the team to cup victory over Aberdeen in front of a British record gate of almost 147,000. He also lifted the historic Empire Exhibition Trophy at the head of a Celtic team widely acknowledged to have been years ahead of its time.
Willie Corbett was the direct successor to the great Lyon and tackled the challenge with great gusto and not a little success. Phenomenal in the air and a tenacious tackler, he was unfortunate in being at Celtic during what was hardly its most glorious era. Corbett helped stave off the looming threat of unprecedented relegation in season
1947/48, with a last-minute penalty conversion against Falkirk, Jerry Dawson and all, at Brockville.
Flame-haired, gap-toothed Alec Boden, despite the stop-start, injury-blighted nature of a Celtic career that spanned the period, 1943-1956, was an out-and-out jersey man and gained immortality as pivot of the Evans, Boden and Baillie half-back line of the 1951 Scottish Cup winning side.
Okay, cutting to the chase, from the modern era I am going for my shoo-in, Billy McNeill, closely supported by his great predecessor and mentor, Bobby Evans. Joining them I select the rugged, mobile and aerially dominant Elliott, along with the multi-talented playmakers, Connelly and Stubbs.
From days of yore, I simply cannot bypass James Kelly, who was so pivotal to the success of the fledgling Celtic. The other historical bankers for our squad are the mighty Loney and the inspirational Lyon. Beyond those three certainties, I’m inclined to give the nod to Billy Cringan, just ahead of the luckless Corbett.
So, the 25thMay1967 Ultimate Centre Backs are:
James Kelly … Willie Loney … Billy Cringan … Willie Lyon … Bobby Evans … Billy McNeill … George Connelly … Paul Elliott … Alan Stubbs
Get past that lot!