Since our formation in the small parish hall of St Mary’s in the Calton in the late 1800s, Glasgow Celtic have flourished and grown, first as a force for helping the impoverished people of the east end of the city, then as a successful footballing side in the Scottish game and across Europe.
The direction of the club both on and off the pitch has been driven by individuals, families, friends, players and legendary figures. Over the last 14 decades, a number of greats have helped cement the club’s place in world football. All of these accolades and honours were achieved as a team, but that’s not to distract from those players who had a little bit extra skill, craft and gallus style that entertained the masses on the slopes of Celtic Park over the years. There is also room for the men who struck up a partnership in different areas on the pitch and in the club management to take the team and the fans to new highs of footballing glory.
In this series, I will look at a number of partnerships over the decades that have ensured Celtic have stayed at the forefront of Scottish football and punched above their weight in the elite European club competitions.
James Kelly & Willie Maley
It is difficult to think of the footballing side of Celtic without these two key figures leading the club through our early years.
James Kelly and Willie Maley were on the pitch as Celtic took their first strides into the new footballing world on the 28 May 1888, with Kelly scoring as Celtic beat Rangers 5 goals to 2 in a friendly match. Both men played their part just four years later when Celtic overcame Third Lanark to win the Scottish Cup for the first time.
The pair would spend over 40 years together serving the club, initially as players and then as board member and manager respectively. During their time at Celtic Park, an incredible 17 league titles and 13 Scottish Cups were secured. This partnership guided Celtic through their formative years, achieving many firsts including 6-in-a-row and the first Scottish League and Cup double. However, their partnership wasn’t all about the silverware, the ethical standpoint which is still true today was forged during their tenure.
A quote as simple as “It’s not the creed nor his nationality that counts. It’s the man himself” from Maley ensured Celtic would not be hamstrung for years by a narrow minded signing policy and ensured an open mind for finding the best players and managers available throughout our history.
The Kelly family name would continue to be heard around Celtic Park for over 100 years, as the family controlled the fortunes of the club through the many highs and the difficult lows of our first 108 years.
Celtic were blessed with a number of strong leaders in those early years and they all played their part in building the foundations of the club we follow today. Willie Maley and James Kelly built on those strong foundations and helped propel the club into the 20th century and on to unrivalled success.
Martin DonaldsonListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast