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Rolando Ugolini

Former Celtic goalkeeper

Former Celtic goalkeeper

Born: June 4, 1924 Died: April 10, 2014

ROLANDO Ugolini, who has died aged 89, was "Celtic daft" during his early years in Scotland with his Italian immigrant parents, who owned a fish and chip shop in Armadale, West Lothian. After gutting and filleting fish in the chippie from the age of 13, he achieved his dream in 1944 when the Celtic manager Jimmy McStay signed him as stand-in goalie to the great Scotland international Willie Miller.

Unfortunately for Ugolini, although Celtic as a team were poor during the post-war recovery years and played second fiddle to Rangers and Hibs, Miller was outstanding and kept the young Ugolini out of the first team except when Miller was injured or on Scotland duty.

In the end, the Italian-born keeper played only five first-team games before reluctantly asking their then manager Jimmy McGrory for a transfer in 1948. It was a sad day for him but led to his greatest successes, notably in 335 appearances for Middlesbrough in their heyday. To this day he is a legend there and was one of the most popular former players along with the great Wilf Mannion and Brian Clough.

At Middlesbrough's old Ayresome Park ground, he was variously nicknamed Ugo, Lando or The Cat, always playing to the crowds with his classic Italian good looks and slicked-back black hair which stayed in place despite his acrobatics.

He later moved to Wales, where he made 83 appearances for Wrexham FC (1957-60) before returning to Scotland for two years (43 games, 1960-62) with the blossoming Dundee United, who had been promoted to the top flight under manager Jerry Kerr. His last game was during a brief pre-retirement spell at Berwick Rangers in 1963 before he decided, pushing 40, to retire.

He would later settle in the Lothians where, always a betting man himself, he successfully ran three betting shops. In retirement, he continued to follow Celtic and Middlesbrough, where he was treated like a hero during his regular guest visits to the newer Riverside Stadium.

Rolando Archimedes Giovanni Ugolini was born in the town of Lucca, near Pisa in Tuscany, to Giacondo Ugolini, from Chifenti in Lucca province and his wife Rosa (née Lucchese). Giacondo and Rosa had already emigrated and settled in the Bathgate/Armadale area with their son Romeo but Rosa went back to Lucca to give birth again and returned to Scotland with Rolando when he was six months old, as soon as he had been christened.

Rolando's father had fought during the First World War in the Italian army, at that time on the side of Britain and the allies. One of his old comrades who emigrated to Edinburgh suggested Giacondo and Rosa do the same, which they did, opening the popular Ugolini's Fish & Chip shop at East Main Street, Armadale, along with his older brother Romeo. Rolando went to St. Anthony's school in Armadale, leaving at 14 to work full-time in the family chippie. He was 15 when the Second World War broke out and this time Italy lined up alongside Hitler, causing difficult times for Italian-Scots. His dad Giacondo was interned on the Isle of Man for a year as an enemy alien.

Teenage Rolando and his mother were relocated to a camp in Cambuslang where, too young to fight, he was ordered to do war service at home, including delivering coal on a horse and cart. At the same time, his older brother Romeo served in Europe in the Black Watch. Rolando said in later years he was grateful to the people of Scotland for always treating him as one of them.

His daughter-in-law Dr Wendy Ugolini of Edinburgh University, is the author of a book about those days, titled Experiencing the War as the 'Enemy Other': Italian Scottish Experience in World War 11.

A football fanatic from an early age, Ugolini was signed up by Armadale Thistle ("The Dale") and found himself in goal at their Volunteer Park ground and helped them win a major junior championship in his first year. That attracted the attention of Scottish First Division scouts and he was chased by Rangers, Hearts, Airdrie, Motherwell and Falkirk. One day, he came home from a junior match to see his dad, "beaming all over his face, talking in the living room to a stranger".

He initially feared the man was from the council, the taxman or the police until his dad said: "Son, this is Mr Jimmy McStay, manager of the Celtic. He wants to sign you." Rolando never forgot his reply: "Where's the pen? Quick! ... and so I signed for the club of my dreams. I was chuffed to bits."

While widely respected for his acrobatics on the field and sense of humour off it, Miller's greatness kept Ugolini mostly in the reserves. Always fond of a wee wager, Ugolini became best known by his Celtic dressing-room mates as their "turf agent".

Desperate to get first team matches, he persuaded the reluctant manager McGrory to let him go.

After he turned down an offer from Chelsea, Middlesbrough snapped him up for £7,000, a major fee in 1948. "The fact Middlesbrough was nearer to Scotland played a big role," he later said. Ugolini won the hearts of the Middlesbrough fans with his athleticism, acrobatics and the kind of showmanship which would later rub off on goalies such as Liverpool's Bruce Grobbelaar.

He spent much of his retirement playing golf, mainly at Dalmahoy near Edinburgh (now the Marriott Golf & Country Club), where he played until his 80s and was often official starter on the first tee. He was widely respected as a gentleman, within or without the game he loved. Flags at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium were lowered the moment news of his death emerged.

A couple of years ago, a Glasgow family were in Ugolini's hometime, Lucca.

One of the Glasgow boys in the family was wearing a Celtic strip when a voice rang out: "Hey, son, that's ma team!" It was an elderly man shouting from a table outside a local café. It was Rolando Ugolini, on holiday to visit his Italian relatives.

Ugolini, who died in Edinburgh, is survived by his wife of 25 years Irene (née Lawson) and two sons, Rolando and Paul from his first wife Esther (née Gofton), whom he married in 1957 and who died in 2010.

A third son, Dino, from the same marriage, predeceased him.

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