Bertie Auld: An appreciation

BERTIE Auld, who has died at the age of 83, was a footballer of great skill and finesse whose iconic status was created as a Lisbon Lion and sustained through the decades by the warmth of his exuberant personality. Bertie was a working-class hero whose authenticity was never at risk of being compromised.

He was a footballer from another age; signed by Celtic for a £20 fee then sold to England as a reluctant chattel before returning to a club where the impossible became reality. It was a golden career at a time when wealth did not follow fame. Bertie’s lifelong riches lay in the quickness of his wit, the tales he had to tell and the joy he created around him.

Through football and beyond, he rubbed shoulders with plenty of the rich and famous but invariably, the privilege was theirs – to be in the company of Bertie Auld; touching the hem of football greatness; sharing in the laughter he generated, with privileged access to fabled history through a man who had been there and knew how to tell a story.

Wherever these stories began, they often took him back to Panmure Street in Maryhill. Bertie was devoted to his roots and the richness of his formative years. His father, Joe, was a labourer who would turn his hand to anything that kept him in work. His mother, Peggy, was a hawker, selling fish, fruit and vegetables round the tenement closes of Maryhill.

When he had become a professional footballer, Bertie bought her a small shop, later replaced by a single-decker bus which sat in the shadow of Firhill Stadium. He recalled many years later: “I get people, grown-ups now, who approach me and tell me stories about Auld’s, the place where the nice lady always gave you chocolates and sweets for free”.

He spoke often, with unremitting fondness and humour, about his upbringing. He was one of eight children, the eldest of four sons, in a two-bedroom house. They were not well-off but neither were they poor. It was a community of equals and that was the assumption he carried effortlessly through life, into every company he kept. On and off the field, Bertie knew his own worth.

He went to Springbank Primary School and then East Park Secondary. His real education, however, was in the streets where children played football from morning to night with the occasional luxury of dreeping into Ruchill Park. His father strapped Bertie’s right foot, so that he would strengthen his left. By 15, he was playing junior football for Maryhill Harp, and seniors were taking an interest.

In 1955, Clyde offered him £60 to sign. Partick Thistle offered £50 and Celtic offered £20. His dad guided him in Celtic’s direction as the best bet for his career. It was a miserable time for Celtic supporters and the club was very much under the control of the chairman, Bob Kelly, who placed complete faith in a youth policy but also expected players to know their place. Bertie did not quite fit that bill.

He later wrote, in a book about the Celtic star, John Colrain: “It wasn’t unknown for a team sheet to go up at 1.45 and you would be playing, only for it to be changed by 2.15 and you were bombed out”.

Players like Auld, Colrain and later Paddy Crerand, who sometimes voiced their views about this capricious regime, were not popular in the boardroom and tended to find themselves up for transfer. In 1961, Bertie was sold to Birmingham City.

It proved to be a great move. His debut was against Inter Milan in a Fairs’ Cup semi-final. In his autobiography (with Alex Gordon) he wrote: “Before the game, [Birmingham manager] Gil Merrick and his coaches – one of whom was Spanish – were talking to the players in the dressing room. They were meticulously going through our team and telling us what they expected of each individual. They were talking tactics and suchlike and I was mesmerised. This sort of thing did not happen at Celtic”.

Bertie became a great favourite in Birmingham and he loved his time there, during which he married Liz. By his own account, his reading of a game and passing skills improved immeasurably, playing against top English opposition.

Yet the call of unfinished business at Celtic remained strong and by 1965 a revolution was about to occur. It was the assistant manager, Sean Fallon, who pushed for Bertie’s recall, despite resistance from Bob Kelly.

In the background, however, Jock Stein’s appointment was imminent and he saw Bertie as key to his plans – a player with the guile and hard edge required to bring balance to the team about to emerge. Within weeks, an eight-year spell without trophies ended when Stein’s Celtic beat Dunfermline 3-2 in the Scottish Cup final with Bertie scoring twice. The long run of success, in which Lisbon would be the apex, was under way.

Of all Bertie stories, none sums him up better than how he led his team-mates in the Celtic Song as they waited in the tunnel to take the field for that glorious European Cup final . Alongside the bronzed demi-gods of Inter Milan, it would have been possible to be overawed. Instead Bertie, the boy from Panmure Street, turned the tables with a brilliant piece of impromptu psychology.

His second spell at Celtic ended in 1971, having yielded six league titles, four Scottish Cups and five League Cups – as well as that European Cup medal. He had a decent managerial career with Partick Thistle, Hibs and Hamilton.

Subsequently, he ran a pub in Hamilton called The Buccaneer and became a regular on Celtic TV. In later life, his presence lit up the boardroom and executive lounges at Celtic Park, every guest honoured and delighted to meet him; a people’s hero who never let you down.

Bertie Auld is survived by his wife Liz, whom he met in the Locarno ballroom and married in 1963, daughter Susan and son Robert.