Once upon a time, there were three “Bears” …
Now, let’s make one thing clear from the outset – this story has nothing at all to do with cuddly bedtime storybook bears and bowls of porridge; and even less with the followers of a certain south side club, who sometimes like to style themselves as “bears” … though, in their case, often of a distinctly un-cuddly species.
No, the three “Bears” of our story all played for Celtic!
Coincidentally … or probably not … two of them shared the same name (John Hughes) and also a parallel nickname, “Yogi”.
The first, a powerful centre forward and winger … unstoppable and unplayable on his day, infuriatingly hopeless at other times … spanned the latter days of Jimmy McGrory’s stewardship of Celtic and deep into the fabulous Stein era, all the way from 1959 through to 1971. At 6′ 2″ and built like the proverbial brick out-house (well, this is a family-friendly blog!), it’s easy to imagine where the “Bear” tag came from; and on the surface, the “Yogi” bit seems fairly straightforward, too, being a simple link to the popular TV cartoon character of the day, “Yogi Bear”, who, with his equally hapless sidekick, “Boo-Boo”, inhabited the fictitious “Jellystone Park”.
Some say the Yogi Bear link went a little deeper than that, though.
Apparently, so the story goes, on an away European trip to play Dinamo Zagreb, of former Yugoslavia, in season 1963/64 and following lunch at a mountain-top restaurant that had to be accessed by cable-car, big John, being afraid of heights, didn’t fancy the aerial return journey. So he set off down the mountain on foot, not realising its woods were inhabited by wild bears, who might have fancied a bit of prime Scottish beef for their lunch.
Wilderness … haplessness … wild bears … you can see where this is going, can’t you:
Yes, “Yogi Bear” was alive and well and stalking Scottish football! And the rousing chant of “Feed the Bear!” that regularly rang around Celtic Park was a heartfelt tribute to a hugely popular figure, considered by many to be in the “all-time great” category, despite his legendary inconsistency.
That yarn may be no more than the figment of some wag’s fertile imagination -but hey, who cares! It’s a great piece of Celtic folklore, whether fact or fiction.
The second “Yogi” was a rugged, no-nonsense centre half, signed from Falkirk by Tommy Burns in 1995 in an ultimately fruitless attempt to shore up a leaky defence and turn his scintillating attacking side into genuine title contenders.
Although, at 6′ tall, not quite as much of a bear as the namesake from whom he inherited the nickname, “Yogi” Mark2 certainly added some much needed steel to the back line throughout his short stay at Celtic Park and became a crowd favourite for the total commitment he showed to the cause.
Solid and reliable, if limited, that John Hughes was duly moved on in fairly short order to his spiritual home at Hibernian, whom he also later managed.
Which brings us to, arguably, the most fearsome Celtic “Bear” of them all and another “all-time great” – the remarkable Roy Aitken, who oozed commitment and determination from the first time he pulled on a Celtic shirt in earnest, against Stenhousemuir in September 1975, at the tender age of 16, until his premature departure in rather acrimonious circumstances, to Newcastle United in January 1990.
And as is so often the case, Aitken’s worth to Celtic wasn’t fully recognised until he was gone.
In between his coming and going, he inspired successive Celtic squads, sometimes almost single-handedly, through thick and thin, culminating in captaining Billy McNeill’s “Centenary Double” winners of 1987/88.
Never-to-be-forgotten highlights of a legendary Celtic career include:
Scoring both Celtic’s goals in a crucial 2-2 draw at Ibrox in March of the double-winning season, 1975/76.
His man-of-the-match performance and opening Celtic goal when “Ten Men Won The League” in the now legendary 4-2 triumph over Rangers on 21st May 1979.
The following season, he was a rock at the heart of the Celtic defence alongside the inexperienced Mike Conroy in the 1-0 Scottish Cup Final victory over … surprise, surprise … Rangers.
Setting up Frank McGarvey’s sensational late winner with a surging run and cross, as David Hay’s Celtic came back from the dead to defeat Dundee United 2-1 in the 1985 Scottish Cup Final.
Captaining the Hoops to nail-biting title success, again under Davie Hay, in season 1985/86, as Celtic romped to final-day triumph at Love Street, while Hearts were capitulating at Dens Park.
Rather incongruously, big Roy also gloried in the alternative nickname, “Shirley”, presumably after the erstwhile child movie star Shirley Temple, on account of his curly hair as a teenager.
I doubt if anyone ever had the bottle to call him that to his face, though!