MEMORY LANE: RANGERS’ ROOTS ARE BURIED IN ROSNEATH AND GARELOCHHEAD

NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY

 The late Moses McNeil, founder of Rangers Football Club, with relatives at Garelochhead.

I never thought I would see the day when I would take on the mantel of defender of Rangers Football Club. Celtic and Sons were always my teams, but as I stroll down memory lane, I feel I must say something on behalf of the Rangers, whose supporters these days include my grandson, Ben Morton, a wee blue devil if ever there was one.

These fans have been going through a tough time recently. Until a few years ago, Rangers were a justifiably proud football club – on and off the field – until the big money brigade stepped in and almost ruined them.

They had a proud history which took root from modest beginnings in Dunbartonshire.  In my previous book All Our Yesterdays: A look back at life in the Lennox, I devoted a number of chapters to football.  It would have been strange had I not done so since Dumbarton, Vale of Leven, especially the Renton, and Helensburgh have long been considered the cradle of Scottish football.

The national game took root and blossomed here with Celtic, through the skills of James Kelly, of Renton, and Rangers, by way of the determination of Moses McNeil, of Garelochhead, by whom the Ibrox club was founded.

Meanwhile, in the late 19th century, Dumbarton FC were winning championships and Vale of Leven FC brought home to the Fountain the Scottish Cup on more than one occasion. Renton FC, who were the leading team of their day, claimed to be Champions of the World.  Dumbarton and the Vale had remarkable resurgences in the 1950s with the Sons winning the Festival of Britain Quaich at Firhill and the Vale beating Annbank United of Ayrshire in the Scottish Junior Cup final at Hampden Park.  Meanwhile, Renton, who famously fed their players on “chicken bree” before matches  – a concoction of chicken broth laced with a large schooner of sherry – staggered and fell off their lofty perch.

Rangers and Celtic prospered, of course, to become the Old Firm – but Celtic too dallied for a time in the football departure lounge.  I know from personal experience how close Celtic came to going out of business. 

I was having lunch in the Bank of Scotland boardroom on the Mound in Edinburgh.  The Bank was sponsoring the Scottish Press Awards and I was one of the judges for that competition. The conversation turned from newspapers to football and the plight of Glasgow Celtic who had run up debts of more than £6 million with the bank, which was threatening to foreclose on them.

Celtic desperately need a white knight to bail them out of the financial mess they had found themselves in.  When the lunch was over I contacted a number of senior people in the finance and football businesses and personally got in touch with Sir Anthony O’Reilly, the Heinz billionaire, to inform him of the opportunity to take over Celtic.

I had then gone to London for the British final of the Press Awards and when I returned the next day my wife, Bernie, had a telephone message for me. It said simply: “Dr O’Reilly is not interested in Glasgow Celtic.”  His secretary pronounced the proud name with a K.

The European champions of 1967 looked doomed and there was a well-publicised power struggle which ended with exiled business tycoon Fergus McCann stepping in to save the Parkhead club.  Celtic have since prospered exponentially, but they have never been able to emulate the success of the Lisbon Lions, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of their success in May, 2017.

I am one of the football supporters lucky enough to have watched that Lisbon team and the many excellent football teams of that era and the fertile period of Scottish football which immediately preceded that victory.

The players were local then apart from a distinguished few including South Africans, Johnny Hubbard and Don Kitchenbrand, of Rangers, and John Hewie, of Hibernian. Scandinavians Eric Sorensen and Kai Johannsen came later through Hal Stewart, the chairman of Greenock Morton.

The Rangers’ team of the early 1960s was awesome – Ritchie, Shearer and Caldow; Davis, MacKinnon and Baxter; Scott, MacMillan, Miller, Brand and Wilson.  Davie Wilson was later to become the manager of Dumbarton. Jim Baxter was probably the best footballer ever to pull on a Scotland jersey.

Who can forget the day when he teased and taunted the English on their own hallowed patch at Wembley by playing “keepie uppy” with the ball to the sheer delight of the Tartan Army?

Looking back then, one wonders how it could ever happen that the mighty Glasgow Rangers with their Ibrox Park Blue Room and Board Room could fall so heavily into a barren period filled with misery and despair for their fans.  Unless you have been on Mars for the past decade, you  will know  how that came about, not on the field of play but in that same trophy-filled Board Room.

Helensburgh man Derek Parlane played for Rangers at the age of just 18 in the 1972 European Cup Winners’ Cup at Ibrox against Bayern Munich. Here he is being challenged by Roddy McDonald in an Old Firm game against Celtic.  Picture by RANGERS FC

The late, great Jim Baxter (left) and Eric Caldow, the legendary Rangers and Scotland captain, who has relatives in Dumbarton. Celtic ‘keeper Frank Haffey is behind him.

The millionaires such as Sir David Murray walked away when the safe was bare and the infamous Craig White marched in arrogantly with his chest puffed out. To Scottish football fans of all persuasions and affiliations it was an earth tremor on the scale of Donald Trump being elected to the White House, well almost.

WHITE SAID LATER HE DID NOTHING WRONG BUT IT WAS STILL THE BIGGEST MISTAKE OF HIS LIFE.

Helensburgh is a place where Rangers’ star players, from Scotland captain Tommy Muirhead to manager Walter Smith to Brian Laudrup and Mark Hateley, Graeme Roberts, Paul Gascgoigne and Basil Boli, chose to live over the years. Muirhead is not so well- known as Smith, of course, but his story is a good one.

Tommy, who lived at Ferniegair, near Kidston Park, was signed by Rangers for £20 from Hibernian in May 1917.  He made his debut against his former club, Hibernian, at Ibrox Park on 15 September, 1917, and went on to score 49 goals in 353 appearances for Rangers. Muirhead won eight Scottish championship medals and was captain of the club for a spell.

Dumbarton is where John T Robertson, pictured right, the Ranger who became the first ever manager of Chelsea, and Finlay Speedie were born.  These two were behind a ploy to give John Madden, the Celtic player who scored the first ever goal in an official Old Firm match, a Rangers’ identity to help him secure a coaching job in Prague, where he became a giant of Czechoslovakian football.

Celtic supporters sing about their history, which makes their heart both sad and glad, but mostly glad.  Rangers’ supporters, who are wound up mercilessly by Celtic fans, and the supporters of other clubs too, walk away from matches far more frequently than ever now with their heads bowed low after defeats and dull, drawn games.  What would their founder, Moses McNeil, of Garelochhead, and the Kilcreggan Peninsula think of this? He would most probably turn in his grave in St Modan’s churchyard at Rosneath.

He may have come again however at the weekend when the Ibrox club beat Aberdeen 4-0 and celebrated winning the Scottish Premiership.

A former colleague and friend, Iain Forbes, who is a dyed-in-the-wool Rangers’ fan, sent me some information about the Ibrox club and its Dunbartonshire connections.  It is 160 years ago since Moses McNeil was born at Clynder on the 29th of October, 1855.  His father, John, was from Comrie in Perthshire and his mother, Jane Bain, from Downpatrick in Northern Ireland. He is said to have been a natural athlete who was powerful and of stocky build with remarkable stamina and pace to burn.

A group researching Rangers’ history maintains that Moses McNeil is the name recognized by most people when talking about the club’s founders and there is a theory that he gave the club its name. The Founders Trail group are continuing to work on this and are hope to come up with something definitive soon.

For example, in the Ibrox trophy room there is a cup won by Moses for a half-mile race at the Garelochhead Athletic Sports on January 1, 1876, and it is the oldest trophy that the club has. Moses McNeil played for Rangers for ten years, taking part in the 1877 and 1879 Scottish Cup finals.  He was also a member of the first Rangers side to lift a trophy of any description, the Glasgow Merchants Charity Cup in 1879. Moses was the first Ranger ever capped for Scotland and took part in a 4-0 victory over Wales at Hamilton Crescent in Partick in 1876.  He was in the line-up again when Scotland defeated England 5-4 in 1880.

Although he was a member of Rangers’ committee during his playing days, Moses had little involvement at Ibrox after his football career was over. He did feature, though, on a number of occasions with his old pals in the Rangers “Ancients” team, who played many exhibition and charity matches.  Moses led a nomadic lifestyle mainly due to his 20-year employment with the Scotch whisky company, Langs. He travelled around Scotland promoting their brands and taking orders from hoteliers and publicans. During research for the Gallant Pioneers, a book produced by the Founders’ Group, an elderly woman was interviewed who, until her death, lived next door to Moses’s old house at Clynder. As a little girl, back in the early days she Rangers man,’’ and that he was always very dapper in his tailored suit and bowler hat.

The Garelochhead Sprint Cup and Moses McNeil in his playing days with Glasgow Rangers.

 It was said that McNeil would travel to Glasgow once a month to collect his pension from Rangers and then come home later in the day with a spring in his step and whisky on his breath.  He spent the last few years of his life living with his sister, Isabella, in Clynder at Craig Cottage. She died in 1935, to be followed by her brother, the last of the siblings, in 1938.  They were interred with their sister, Elizabeth, and Isabella’s husband, Duncan Gray, in the churchyard at Rosneath. Sadly, for the man who gave Rangers Football Club their cherished name, his own name was not inscribed on the family headstone.  This was due to Moses being the last of the family in the area and there would not have been anyone around to add his name to the stone.  The late, great Rangers and Scotland player, Sandy Jardine, who was a stalwart supporter of the Founders Group project, had been working on having a plaque with Moses’ name on it placed on the grave.  On Sunday, June 28, 2015, as part of the Rangers Graves Restoration Project, a plaque bearing the name of Moses McNeil was unveiled at St Modan’s during a ceremony of dedication conducted by the parish minister, the Rev Christine Murdoch.  While ordinary Rangers’ fans have much to be proud of, the directors whose greed brought them from victory to mediocrity have so much to answer for.  However, hopefully, for my grandson Ben Morton and dyed in the wool Bluenose pals the world over, including Ian Forbes and Billy Ferguson in Australia, their day will come again.

One of the great Rangers players, Ian McColl was from Bonhill. He died at the age of 81, and was one of the most admired and respected figures in post-war Scottish football. As an accomplished right-half, he was a member of Rangers’ “iron curtain” defence, giving away a minimum of goals in partnership with other famed Scottish internationals such as George Young,

Willie Woodburn and Sammy Cox.  After a notable swansong as a player in the Scottish Cup final of 1960, he became a successful manager of the national team. McColl was the grandson of another famous Scottish international, William McColl. His name was actually John Miller McColl, although in his football career he was always known as Ian.  Born in Alexandria, he attended Vale of Leven Academy – Vale of Leven Juniors was his initial club. When he went to Glasgow University to study civil engineering in 1943, he joined Queens Park club before signing for Rangers as a professional two years later.

 

Ian McColl from Bonhill, who was captain of the famous Glasgow Rangers

He remained at Ibrox for 15 years, during which time Rangers won the Scottish Championship half a dozen times, the Cup five times, and the League Cup twice. In 1949, the “iron curtain” defence made possible the first treble in Scottish football, and from 1957 McColl’s shrewd captaincy contributed to Rangers’ continuing success. Meanwhile, he played 14 times for Scotland from 1950 onwards, helping the team to reach the World Cup finals in 1958, although he was not involved in the matches in Sweden. By 1960, he had lost his regular place in the Rangers team, but when his successor, Harold Davis, dropped out, he stepped in for the Cup final at Hampden, when Kilmarnock were beaten 2-0 – a nice way to bow out, he observed. He then retired as a player, having made a remarkable 526 appearances for Rangers.  His managership of Scotland began with a flourish in November 1960, when Northern Ireland were defeated 5-2. Altogether, Scotland won 17 out of 28 matches (with three drawn and eight lost) under his management, an average of 60.7%, surpassed only by the 70% record of Alex McLeish in 2007.

Scotland, under McColl’s aegis, were unlucky not to reach the World Cup finals of 1962 in Chile, being eliminated in a play-off in Brussels against Czechoslovakia, who went on to reach the final in Santiago, losing to Brazil.

Other high points were winning the home international championships in 1962 and 1963, when McColl’s Rangers colleague, the left-half Jim Baxter, scored two goals to beat England 2-1 at Wembley, despite the loss of Scottish captain and full-back Eric Caldow, who suffered a broken leg in the second minute. That same year also saw a 6-2 victory against Spain in Madrid and a 6-1 win against Norway at Hampden Park. McColl became manager of Sunderland for three seasons. There he made the well-intentioned error of signing Baxter, whose career was on the decline. From Roker Park, McColl returned to civil engineering, but sadly died in 2008. The first great Rangers keeper of the modern era, Bobby Brown, played in 296 games – keeping 109 clean sheets – and had what was then the unusual habit of making sure he turned out with a new pair of white laces in his boots for every one of his matches.

For six years – between August 10 1946 and April 16 1952 – he never missed a league game, playing in an astonishing run of 179 matches.  Tall, blond and agile, Brown was the last line in a famous Rangers defence which became known as the Iron Curtain.  He played as a part-timer throughout his Ibrox career, combining football with life as schoolmaster, teaching PE for a time at Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh.

Brown was to win three Championships (1946-47, 1948-49 and 1949-50), three Scottish Cups in a row (1-0 in a replay against Morton in 1948, 4-1 against Clyde in 1949 and 3-0 over East Fife in 1950) and two League Cups (4-0 against Aberdeen in 1946-47 and 2-0 over Raith Rovers in 1948-49).  He was also ever-present during the historic 1948-49 season when Rangers became the first team to win the Treble.  In 1947, he won the first of his three full Scottish caps, making his debut against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.

Helensburgh man Bobby Brown who was a legend as Rangers first goalkeeper of the modern era and manager of Scotland.  This was Bobby being inducted to the Hampden Hall of Fame.

In May 1956, Brown was transferred to Falkirk for £2,200 but within a year he had retired and later became manager of St Johnstone, guiding them into the top division. In February, 1967, he was appointed manager of Scotland, a position he held until July 1971.  Although Scotland failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup, Brown had the satisfaction of a famous 3-2 victory over England in a European Championship qualifier at Wembley stadium in London. 

Copies of Bill Heaney’s books Two Minutes Silence, a social history of the Lennox, and All Our Yesterdays, which also looks at Life and Work in Dunbartonshire over the past century, are available by contacting the author at heaneymedia@btinternet.com. The price is £20 for each book including post and package at home or abroad.

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