This is such a vast and contentious area that it would be well-nigh impossible to treat it in the same way as previous categories. Therefore, instead of trying to make a sweeping analysis of potential contenders, I intend simply to express some personal preferences, allied to a broad-brush look at a range of other possibles across the decades. It is for you, our readers and listeners, to evaluate the selection and feed back
your thoughts and counter proposals.
There will be three broad categories … the defensive, ball winning, enforcers, sometimes referred to as “holding” midfielders; the creative playmakers; and the attacking types:
The defensive, or “holding” midfield role is a comparatively modern phenomenon, by
which I mean the past 30-40 years, or so. Therefore, I do not intend to have the usual
sub-divisions of latter-day and historical within that category. I am simply going to flag up what I believe to be the best examples of the speciality position from fairly recent Celtic history and just leave it at that – you decide and let us know!
The following is, in no particular order, though roughly chronological, a random selection of some of those I consider outstanding exponents of the art:
David Hay, Roy Aitken, Peter Grant, Paul Lambert, Neil Lennon, Paul Hartley, Barry
Robson, Roy Keane, Landry N’Guemo, Scott Brown and Beram Kayal
I exclude the phenomenal Hay, as he is already included in the squad at Full Back and
therefore available for service in the engine room, anyway, if required.
Peter Grant is a die-hard Celt, who gave everything for the cause at a difficult time;
but I exclude him, too, simply because I feel there are others in the group who would
bring more quality to the demanding role.
The same goes for the formidable but unexceptional Barry Robson.
Landry N’Guemo showed real quality in his brief stay at Celtic Park but was
something of a ship that passed in the night and I exclude him, too.
Present-day captain, Scott Brown, presents me with something of a dilemma.
Blessed with great qualities of tenacity, energy and drive, when focussed, he can
be inspirational … and truly daunting to any opposition. However, there are huge
question marks over his temperament and consistency; and perhaps controversially,
for me, those fatal inadequacies rule him out in a role that demands great discipline
and self-control. But more of him later.
So it’s down to a short leet of six, any of whom I would be happy to entrust with that
vital holding midfield role.
Remember, for this exercise, everyone is to be assessed on level terms, as at the peak
of their powers. On that basis, Roy Keane walks unopposed in this role into any squad
in the world and is therefore a “shoo-in”.
Roy Aitken and Keane could have been cut from the same lump of granite. From his
emergence at the tender age of seventeen, “The Bear” was a rock at the heart of Celtic
teams for 16 years, the sort anybody would want beside them in the trenches. He’s in!
Current Celtic manager, Neil Lennon always did and still does court controversy. As a
player, he wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea; but he was an integral cog in the machinery
of the formidable Martin O’Neill squad that resurrected Celtic from the doldrums
of the turn of the twenty-first century. I was a bit critical at times, myself, of his
sideways/backwards tendency; but on balance, most of the time, he was a master of
what he did and he’s in my squad.
I feel the cultured Paul Lambert and the industrious Paul Hartley would be something
of a duplication in the same squad, so I have to make a choice … and I’m inclined to
give the nod to the classier Lambert.
That just leaves our current midfield general, Beram Kayal, an impressive mixture
of muscle, vision and guile. I know it’s early days for him yet; but I feel there’s
something about the young Israeli that marks him apart. So, I’m going to stick my
neck out and pick him.
That takes care of the ball winning … now for the creativity.
The earliest creative Celtic player I can recall personally is the silky 1950s “dribbler”,
inside forward/wing half, Willie Fernie, so I’ll take it from there.
Fernie was a joy to behold, playing in the same era as wee Bobby Collins and
Ulsterman, Bertie Peacock and closely followed by John Divers III.
After the bleak years between the 1957 “7-1” game and the renaissance of the early-
to-mid sixties, such figures began to emerge as Paddy Crerand, Bobby Murdoch,
Bertie Auld and the vastly under-rated Charlie Gallagher.
The latter three dominated the epic Stein “Nine-in-a-Row” era, supported
and succeeded by such lesser lights as Tommy Callaghan, Stevie Murray, Pat
Stanton and Murdo MacLeod, amongst others, before the emergence, in the early
eighties, of a genuine superstar in the shape of the peerless Paul McStay, whose
nickname, “Maestro”, says it all.
Into the mix go three other great midfielders of very varied style and temperament:
the silky John Collins; the volatile genius that was the inimitable and unforgettable
Paolo di Canio; and the latter-day oriental wizard, Shunsuke Nakamura.
And if the venerable Dr Jo Venglos deserves credit for anything, it has got to be his
golden bequest to Celtic of the little Slovakian sorceror, Lubomir Moravcik, arguably
the most gifted Celtic playmaker of the past sixty years, or so. Just ask Zinedine
“Lubo”, along with the mighty partnership of Murdoch and Auld, are my
creative “shoo-ins”. Paul McStay runs them close and walks into the squad. Likewise
Nakamura, whose magical touches and blistering dead-ball skills lit up many a
domestic and European occasion.
Di Canio, too, demands inclusion, despite his hot Latin temperament and
eccentricities that got him into so much trouble, while endearing him to an adoring
Of the others above, the great distributor, Crerand, misses out … but only just, giving
way to his successor in the Hoops, the aforementioned Bobby Murdoch. Likewise,
Collins loses out in favour of McStay … no shame there. The same goes for another
wonderful player and fans favourite, Tommy Burns.
I cannot overlook Willie Fernie, who could turn a game single-handedly with his
blinding skill … and on a bit of a whim, I’m going to give the nod to the precocious
young talent of Ki Sung Yeung, surely a budding Celtic great.
Finally, let’s take a quick look at attacking midfielders, typified in recent years by
such as Massimo Donati, Shaun Maloney and currently, Joe Ledley.
With no disrespect to the above, in terms of the modern era, I nominate three
awesome attacking midfielders to supplement the holding and creative talents
They are, the above-mentioned Scott Brown, in my opinion at his best when freed
from the discipline of ball winning to burst into the final third and create mayhem
amongst the opposition defence; the late, powerful running, Phil O’Donnell; and
Martin O’Neill’s tireless Bulgarian workhorse, Stilian Petrov.
The mists of Celtic history, decades in which the game was much less structured and
tactical than it is today … more intuitive and reliant on decisive individual skills …
throw up a succession of legendary midfield characters (though, probably, no-one
had even heard of the term “midfield” when a lot of them were plying their trade).
Names like Peter Somers, Jimmy McMenemy, Patsy Gallacher, Sandy McMahon,
Peter Johnstone, Tommy McInally, Malcolm MacDonald, Charlie Napier, George
Paterson, “Jean” McFarlane, Chic Geatons, Pat McAulay … and a host of others,
any of whom could rightly lay claim to inclusion in this squad, or at least serious
To represent that army of football wizards, I necessarily rely heavily on historical
anecdote and the trusted reminiscences of ancestors privileged to have witnessed
some of them in action.
Following in the footsteps of “Darling” Willie Groves (centre forward and first Celtic
superstar) the gifted Sandy McMahon was a magician who lit up the early years and
came to epitomise that scintillating era of Scottish football.
“The Mighty Atom”, Patsy Gallacher and Jimmy “Nap” McMenemy are “shoo-ins”
from the early part of the twentieth century. Together with Peter Somers, they span
and epitomise the late nineteenth century and most of the first two decades of the
First World War casualty, Peter Johnstone, had a special place in the hearts of the
faithful of the time, a Celtic warrior first and foremost; and news of his death in the
Battle of Arras stunned the green half of Glasgow.
Tommy “Snally” McInally was the sort of lovable rogue Celtic and all football fans
hold dear … a brilliant talent, flawed in the way most sporting geniuses are.
Charlie “Happy Feet” Napier, George Paterson and Malky MacDonald are three all-
time greats who, together, span the latter nineteen-twenties, the thirties and well into
the forties, mightily representing those decades in our squad and effectively bridging
Celtic’s earlier and latter halves.
Let’s try and pull all of that together, then.
The 25thMay1967 “Ultimate Celtic Midfielders” are:
Category 1 (Holding)
Roy Keane … Roy Aitken … Paul Lambert … Neil Lennon … Beram Kayal
Category 2 (Creative)
Sandy McMahon … Patsy Gallacher … Jimmy McMenemy … Peter Johnstone
… Tommy McInally … Charlie Napier … George Paterson … Malky MacDonald
… Willie Fernie … Bobby Murdoch … Bertie Auld … Paul McStay … Lubomir
Moravcik … Paolo di Canio … Shunsuke Nakamura … Ki Sung Yueng
Category 3 (Attacking)
Phil O’Donnell … Stilian Petrov … Scott Brown
Now I’m really running for cover!