When Arséne Wenger stepped down from the helm at Arsenal after 22 years, the platitudes came from far and wide, drowning out the minority of dissenting voices who claimed the game had left him behind. Yet Wenger’s exit signalled the end of an era for British football, five years after his old rival Sir Alex Ferguson brought the curtain down on his own 26-year spell at Old Trafford.
The two led lengthy, trophy-laden careers; contributions that the British game is not likely to see again, with Ferguson even outlasting fellow Scot Sir Matt Busby in the Red Devils hot seat by a year. But while Ferguson’s trophy haul dwarfed the other two, there was one gentleman whose achievements hold up even against the great man from Govan.
Willie Maley was born in Newry, Northern Ireland in 1868, one of three children. His father was stationed there as a sergeant in the Fusiliers before moving the family to a small village on the outskirts of Glasgow when Willie was three years old. The youngest Maley sibling showed a brief interest in athletics before football became his life, after a chance encounter with Celtic’s founder, Andrew ‘Brother Wilfrid’ Kerins. Shortly after the club was formed in 1888, the Irish Marist brother visited the Maley’s family home in Cathcart to invite the eldest son Tom to play for the club and, as legend has it, Willie was asked to accompany his brother to Celtic Park.
Maley had a fairly nondescript career over the next nine years and it wasn’t until he was asked to become secretary/manager in 1897 that his true impact would be felt at the club. Though the first decade of Celtic’s existence saw a hefty fortune spent on attracting professional players to Glasgow, it wasn’t until the 29-year-old’s appointment that the focus turned to the vast array of young footballers the area had to offer.
One thing Maley was keen to do was distinguish Celtic from other teams with Irish roots. This went not only for the fans but also the players, as Maley quoted as saying: “It is not the creed, nor his nationality that counts. It’s the man himself.”
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His impact was immediate, Celtic won the league in Maley’s first season at the helm, winning their fourth and his first league title. Despite this early success, Maley wasn’t a hands-on manager. He stayed away from the training pitch, opted against team talks, and left the players to read in the local newspaper whether they had been picked for the upcoming match.
Whilst this approach is unheard of in the modern game, Maley spent most of his time securing the future stars of Celtic Park. Scouting and procuring the best young talent became an obsession for Maley, who would dig deep into the well, repeatedly rebuilding during his time at the club. One such player was Jimmy Quinn. Maley prised him away from junior club Smithston Albion and, whilst it took some time for him to find his preferred position as a centre-forward, when he did, everything clicked into place.
Quinn first brought himself to the attention of all and sundry during the 1904 Scottish Cup final against Rangers. The Gers went into the break leading 2-0 until a hat-trick in the second half from Quinn secured a memorable comeback from the Bhoys. This provided a springboard for Celtic who went on a run of six successive league wins from 1906 to 1910, giving Maley seven titles in his first 13 years at the club. Despite the success, he refused to rest on his laurels and, aware of the increasing age of his side, he set about building his second team.
The likes of Jimmy McMenemy, James Young and Patsy Gallacher starred for the Bhoys as fans flocked to Celtic Park to witness Maley’s second wave of stars. Europe had descended into the turgid grind of war, and whilst Maley was a firm military supporter, he remained keen on keeping his players out of harm’s way, helping to secure positions in mining and shipbuilding for many of his side.
For those who faced the enemy at close quarters, Maley ensured telegrams of results were sent to the front line in a bid to keep morale up in increasingly difficult circumstances. Upon their return, free entry to Celtic Park was guaranteed to all serviceman, at the behest of Maley.
The second string of title wins began on the eve of World War One in 1913 and lasted until 1917. Within this run of titles, Celtic put themselves in the record books, going 62 games undefeated from November 1915 to April 1917. The unbeaten run, which set a British record, began and ended against Kilmarnock and consisted of 49 wins and 13 draws. The Bhoys plundered 126 goals whilst conceding a mere 16. The cycle of Maley’s second great side continued throughout the 1920s with many more trophies landing at Parkhead.
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Maley’s advancing years did nothing to dull his fervour as he approached his fourth decade in charge. His eye for talent still as sharp as a tack, outside right Jimmy Delaney arrived from Stoneyburn Juniors and, alongside the diminutive Jimmy McGrory, Celtic plundered another two league titles in the 1930s taking the total under Maley to 16.
By 1940, he was 72 and Celtic could be found languishing at the bottom of the table. Following a meeting with the board of directors, Maley stood down. The 16 titles along with 14 Scottish Cup victories during his tenure gave Maley 30 major trophies to show for his mammoth 43 years at the helm of the club.
Celtic’s post-war success under the likes of Jock Stein, Billy McNeill and Martin O’Neill risked putting Maley’s achievements in the distant, forgotten past. They were brought back into focus, however, when under Brendan Rodgers’ tutelage Celtic embarked on an unbeaten run of their own. The pinnacle came in 2017 when, a century after the original record was set, Celtic equalled it with a goalless draw against none other than Kilmarnock.
Out of the 62 games, 56 were victories, but the reaction when the record fell the following week emphasised what a remarkable feat Maley’s side had originally achieved. Rodgers spoke of Maley’s team in the national press: “That was a great team with great players, who achieved so much. For us to go beyond them and make it to 63 unbeaten is a special feeling. It is no mean feat.”
Whilst the game has changed since the time of Maley’s Celtic, the standard his team set lasted a century. All that Celtic have achieved over the years may not have been possible without the bar being raised by the man dubbed ‘Mr Celtic’.
By Matt Evans @Matt_The_Met