Obituary: Bertie Auld, footballer

The only thing sharper than Bertie Auld’s tackling was his wit. The former Celtic midfielder, who has died aged 83, was the man who provided the steel to Jock Stein’s band of swashbuckling Scots as the Lisbon Lions conquered Europe. He was also a principal combatant in the so-called Battle of Britain of 1970, in which Celtic faced off against the English champions, Leeds United.

Bertie Auld with European Cup on display in the stadium boardroom at Celtic Park, Glasgow.

The only thing sharper than Bertie Auld’s tackling was his wit. The former Celtic midfielder, who has died aged 83, was the man who provided the steel to Jock Stein’s band of swashbuckling Scots as the Lisbon Lions conquered Europe. He was also a principal combatant in the so-called Battle of Britain of 1970, in which Celtic faced off against the English champions, Leeds United.

But Bertie was not some brooding thug, snarling sinister threats as he put the boot in; it was with his tongue that he would cause the most damage as he left his opponents stuttering in search of a retort.

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Few escaped a verbal lashing from this master of the one-liner. But his taunts were usually quickly soothed by a flash of his trademark toothy grin to show no hard feelings were meant.

Born in March 1938, he was the eldest son of eight children born to his father Joe, a crane driver, and mother Margaret, who would attempt to make ends meet by selling fish and fruit from the back of a horse-led cart.

Times were tight and he would often have to share a bed with his siblings in their tiny two-bedroomed home in Panmure Street – just a goal-kick away from Partick Thistle’s Firhill ground in the Maryhill district of Glasgow.

That continued even after he signed for Celtic in 1955 following a spell with the Maryhill Harp junior team.

Auld, whose ability to dish out meaty tackles was also matched by his ability to thread a pass and find the net, had two stints at Celtic Park but the first six-year spell coincided with a barren period for the team.

A number of run-ins with Bob Kelly – the all-powerful Celtic chairman who even on occasion had the final say on team selections – saw him sold to Birmingham for £15,000 in 1961.

It took time to settle in the Midlands and he is best remembered at St Andrew’s for decking England star Johnny Haynes during a confrontation with Fulham.

But Auld, who married his wife Liz during his time with the team, pined for a return to his first love, Celtic. That opportunity came as Kelly’s grip on the club loosened after Jock Stein was appointed manager in 1965.

Within weeks the Hoops’ eight-year trophy drought had ended as the Scottish Cup was claimed. That triumph would spark an era of domestic domination that stretched to nine straight title wins.

Auld was officially signed by interim boss Sean Fallon in January 1965 but it was on Stein’s orders as he served out his notice period with Hibernian before officially taking over at Parkhead.

If Auld’s first period with Celtic had coincided with a grim, trophyless spell, his second was positively glorious as Stein’s team swept all aside, climaxing in victory over Inter Milan in the 1967 European Cup final at the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon.

Auld famously left the Italians looking on bewildered as he burst into the Celtic Song in the tunnel before kick-off – and almost grabbed a bigger share of the limelight himself as he cracked the crossbar with a long-range strike but the 2-1 win ensured all of Stein’s men would have their names written into Celtic folklore.

There were regrets, however, such as his side’s failure to turn European glory into global domination as they lost out to Racing Club of Argentina in the Intercontinental Cup play-off.

And defeat to Feyenoord in Milan denied Auld and his colleagues a second European Cup winners’ medal.

Nevertheless, Celtic were in their pomp when they arrived at Elland Road in Leeds on April Fools’ Day, 1970, to take on a formidable Don Revie team in the first leg of the European Cup semi-final. Leeds United were hot favourites but found themselves a goal down in the first minute when Paul Madeley failed to clear a long ball into the box and George Connelly steered it into the corner of the net, past the home captain and fellow Scot Billy Bremner, and keeper Gary Sprake.

“That was the thing about that team – we could have scored in the first minute in any game,” Auld reflected years later.

“Everyone was boasting about Leeds United and how we would find it difficult against them. They had Bremner, a great player, and Johnny Giles, a magnificent player and they had Mick Jones, who was a good goalscorer.

“But we had Jimmy Johnstone and Bobby Lennox, Willie Wallace and Davie Hay – I would never have liked to play against him.”

A crowd of 136,505 packed into the national stadium at Hampden Park or the second leg two weeks later, but less than 4,000 of them from Leeds, and their voices were comprehensively drowned out in the 2-1 defeat to Celtic that followed.

Auld left Celtic Park the following year, after 279 appearances and 85 goals, and having claimed six league titles, four Scottish Cups and five League Cups.

Despite playing such a vital part in the Parkhead outfit’s historic achievements, Auld was only rewarded with three international caps, all in a seven-month period during 1959. Perhaps the fact he became the first Scotland player to be sent off when he lashed out in retaliation at a Dutch opponent on his debut contributed to his meagre appearance tally.

Before hanging up his boots he had spells at Hibernian and later managed the Easter Road side. He also twice returned to his native Maryhill to manage Thistle and had stints in charge of Hamilton and Dumbarton.

But his closest ties were to Celtic and in the years that followed he could be found on the club’s TV channels or holding court with fans in the Parkhead hospitality suites, reciting his never-ending repertoire of stories – and delivered always with a typically killer punchline.

He is survived by his wife Liz, daughter Susan and son Robert.