BY KEVIN O’NEILL
It has been said that the true character of a man can be judged in times of adversity.
So, when we look back on the twenty-year, trophy-laden career of the Celtic legend Danny McGrain, it remains important to not focus entirely on his exceptional football capability.
For McGrain, it must be said, is more than just another sporting icon. Because as well as being one of the finest – if not THE finest full-back of his time – it should be that while recalling his teak-tough, robust defensive skills, we also pay enormous tribute to the impact his determined response to being diagnosed with the potentially restrictive diabetes – not long after breaking into a star-studded Celtic first-team – would have on the lives of others.
As for all his unquestionable playing prowess, which would see him claim 14 major honours and captain Celtic for a considerable period, McGrain would also replicate his lion-hearted, never-say-die on-field attitude in an off-field daily battle to ensure that diabetes could not derail an outstanding playing career.
The diagnosis, made in 1974, could alone have been enough to seriously hinder his ambitions. Yet, there would be other steep slopes to navigate too, for as much as having diabetes would test McGrain’s resolve and determination to continue to star for the Hoops, he would also sustain a fractured skull in a match against Falkirk in March 1972. Naturally, such an injury would place serious concern in the mind – whether sustained in sport or otherwise – about one’s ability to make a full recovery. And with strong and aggressive (but generally very fair) tackling being such a key factor in McGrain’s style of play, the Celtic coaching staff could not have been criticised for wondering if he could ever be the same player again. But McGrain’s response to the injury was, simply, to do what McGrain did best; put the head down, work hard and beat the odds.
Ultimately, McGrain would make a full recovery from the skull injury but the the 62-time capped Scotland international would also miss 18 months of football, in the late seventies, due to a nagging foot injury which cost him a place at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, where a highly rated Scotland side – tipped as contenders to win the trophy by Dutch legend Rinus Michels – flopped in the group stages and would be eliminated at that stage after taking just one point from the opening two group matches against Peru and Iran, leaving the Scots’ needing to beat the Netherlands by three clear goals in the final group fixture to reach the competition’s second phase. In almost typically Scottish fashion, they would manage to beat the Dutch team which had been far superior to either Peru and Iran, but the 3-2 margin of victory would not be enough to see Scotland avoid an earlier than expected exit.
Undeterred by the various setbacks early in his senior career, the tigerish McGrain would bounce back every time, adamant that any ailment suffered – through football or otherwise – would not prevent him from fulfilling his enormous potential.
Back then, it had been virtually unheard of for an elite footballer to be diagnosed with diabetes (fractured skulls were not overly common either), and even Celtic’s iconic manager at the time, the vastly knowledgable Jock Stein, had no answers for a panicked McGrain about what the player’s future might hold after the diagnosis.
Indeed, McGrain – renowned for his fearless approach to stopping some of Scotland’s trickiest wingers – would admit in an interview with the Daily Record in 2011 that he had been quite scared when the diagnosis was made. To make matters worse, he added, there had been no precedent in football and, thus, he had nobody in the game to turn to for advice.
Over time though, McGrain would get to grips with having to inject insulin into his body twice daily and with the highly organised and disciplined lifestyle needed to cope with the diagnosis.
And, in actual fact, the condition would ultimately play little or no part in the rest of his playing career which would continue uninhibited for 13 more years post-diagnosis.
Naturally, such was McGrain’s stoic reaction to the diagnosis – and his subsequent success in continuing to play at the highest level in Scotland – that his story served as inspiration to people in similar situations, particularly in the case of Gary Mabbutt, the long-serving Tottenham Hotspur defender who had been diagnosed with diabetes in his late teens and sought McGrain’s advice and friendship.
Both McGrain and Mabbutt can still be held up as shining examples of what can be accomplished by people with diabetes.
But, quite appropriately, McGrain will also be fondly remembered for doing what he did best – defending the Celtic goal and instigating attack after attack from deep – in an illustrious career in which his buccaneering style of play ensured he was head and shoulders above any other Scottish full-back of the era and, arguably, held in similar esteem when judged against the best full-backs in the world in the seventies.
As said by Derek Rae – a respected lead commentator for BT Sports Scottish football coverage (and a former BBC Scotland commentator) – McGrain had been well and truly in a league of his own.
“Danny McGrain is the greatest full-back that I’ve ever seen play for Celtic, as well as Scotland,” Rae told The Football Pink.
“In fact, I can’t see anyone surpassing him in my lifetime, that’s how highly I rated him. Had transfer fees in the seventies been what they are today, you would have been talking about a £30-£40million player. That’s no exaggeration for those who think I’m being nostalgic – because McGrain was a world class footballer,” he added.
Easily, McGrain’s undisputed class might never had come Celtic’s way had his boyhood heroes Rangers not passed up the opportunity to acquire his signature.
The story goes that when a Rangers scout enquired after McGrain – having watched him excel for his youth team, Queen’s Park Strollers and for the Scottish schoolboys – that his interest in the Finnieston native dissipated on hearing the talented young player’s name (Daniel Fergus McGrain).
The scout’s assumption was that he could not be anything other than of Roman Catholic stock and, given the Rangers policy of not signing Roman Catholics – until the high-profile capture of Mo Johnston in 1989 (from under the nose of Johnston’s former employers and childhood club, Celtic) – the scout would decline the opportunity to follow-up his interest in potentially taking McGrain to Ibrox Park.
The assumption, however, had been way off the mark, as McGrain was born in to a Protestant family, in 1950, and raised accordingly.
And although McGrain has always been loathe to confirm the pattern of events that led him to Parkhead – often claiming that his family supported neither of the Old Firm – the general consensus is that McGrain did indeed park some sort of affinity for the blue side of Glasgow when brought to Celtic by Sean Fallon and Jock Stein in 1967; only a couple of weeks before Celtic would claim an historic European Cup triumph against Internazionale in Lisbon.
Whichever way McGrain had leaned as a child, his adulthood would be dedicated to the green half Glasgow, beginning with a wonderful spell in the club’s second string.
There, McGrain (largely seen as a midfielder at that point) and several of his talented young team-mates – including George Connolly, Kenny Dalglish, Davie Hay, Lou Macari and Paul Wilson – would become known as The Quality Street Gang, whose enormous contribution to the club in the years to come would later be recorded in a book by the writer Paul Dykes.
The strength of the so-called Quality Street Gang has been championed through a couple of legendary stories, including when, in 1968, Celtic’s second-string had to beat Partick Thistle by at least SEVEN goals to pip rivals Rangers to the Reserve League Cup. A big ask, you might imagine. But Celtic, with Lou Macari bagging four goals, accomplished the task with relative ease, winning 12-0!
Later in the same year, the Scotland senior team manager Bobby Brown approached Jock Stein about providing players to play against the national team in a friendly. Stein would send along The Quality Street Gang, who would, unbelievably, defeat the national team. It had all pointed towards Celtic having a core of talented players waiting to replace the ageing Lisbon Lions, but as the Celtic team had been so strong, McGrain would have to bide his time before debuting for the first-team in a League Cup game at Dundee United in 1970.
Three days later his league debut would arrive, but Stein would use McGrain – by then transformed to a right-back – quite sparingly in his first couple of seasons in the senior set-up.
But when the Lisbon Lion Jim Craig departed the club before the start of the 1972/73 season, McGrain would be installed as Celtic’s first-choice right-back.
For the tenacious McGrain, it would turn out to be a successful first full season in the side, as he helped Celtic win an eighth successive league title.
His debut for the Scottish senior side would also occur, against Wales in May 1973, as his aggressive, speedy and intelligent approach to the game started to become synonymous with the Celtic and Scotland team.
“Danny was the first of the modern full-backs, in many ways, in that while he was the ultimate right-back, he would be used at left-back too, particularly for Scotland. He could attack with vigour yet first and foremost was an accomplished defender, always strong in the tackle. I genuinely don’t remember seeing Danny have a bad game. He must have done – but they were thin on the ground in the seventies and eighties,” recalled Derek Rae.
Indeed, such was the consistency displayed by McGrain that he was chosen as the winner of the Scottish Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award in 1977 – the same year in which McGrain had become the Celtic captain after Kenny Dalglish’s transfer to Liverpool.
Although a troublesome foot injury would deny McGrain a role in Scotland’s disappointing World Cup effort in 1978, he would return to the Celtic side for the title run-in, in 1979, helping Celtic clinch a dramatic title success on the final day of the season, at home against Rangers, who had been chasing back-to-back trebles.
That day, Celtic had needed to win the match to halt Rangers’ gallop to another title, but such an outcome looked very unlikely when Alex McDonald gave the visitors and championship favourites an early lead.
Celtic would push hard for an equaliser in the remainder of the first half – but it wouldn’t come. Then, Celtic’s John Doyle was sent-off shortly after the break leaving McGrain and his colleagues with a gigantic mountain to climb.
Displaying bundles of courage and team unity, a defiant Celtic fought back to level through Roy Aitken on 67 minutes. George McCluskey then put Celtic in front with 15 minutes left, only for Bobby Russell to restore parity.
With seven minutes to go, a McCluskey cross was diverted into his own net by the Rangers defender Colin Jackson, and in the dying moments, with Rangers throwing bodies forward, Celtic scored again through Murdo McLeod.
“Danny was never more influential than on that day, in seeing his team-mates through,” recalled Derek Rae.
“And then there was the final day title win at St Mirren in 1986, when Celtic swept aside their hosts at Love Street to beat Hearts to the title at the winning post. Looking on, i think Danny probably enjoyed that title win most of all, and as a young commentator covering it, I still remember the broad smile on his face after the game,” Rae added.
The 1986 title would be the last honour of McGrain’s terrific Celtic career, and a year later his hugely productive relationship with Celtic would reach an end, as the defender was handed a free transfer, a decision McGrain said would lead to ‘the worst day of my life’.
In all, McGrain played in 657 games for Celtic, winning seven league titles, five Scottish Cups and two League Cups. He would then help Hamilton Academical to win the First Division title (second tier) before his retirement in 1988. McGrain would later have a short and rather fruitless attempt at management with lowly Arbroath before returning to Celtic, as an academy coach, in the late nineties and, more recently, as part of the first-team coaching staff.
His inclusion too, in a Celtic Greatest All-Time XI – voted for by the club’s passionate support – confirmed the esteem in which the Hoops’ following holds McGrain, almost as much for his gentlemanliness off the pitch as his gritty and exciting on-field prowess.
“A nicer man you will not meet,” said Derek Rae.
“Whenever I bump into Danny, I still feel I’m talking to a superstar – he was that good as a footballer, and would be worth millions were he playing today,” he finished.
In the years after McGrain’s departure, Celtic would be fortunate to call on the services of two long-serving defenders, Tom Boyd and Jackie McNamara, for much of the nineties and early noughties, with the two stalwarts boasting over 550 appearances and 18 trophies for Celtic between them.
However, neither Boyd nor McNamara had come through the Celtic system and, unlike McGrain, had been recruited from other clubs.
And to date, there has been little sign of Celtic been able to bring through a homegrown successor to McGrain’s tag as the club’s greatest ever right-back.
For a while it looked like Paul Caddis, a club youth product, might have a chance to establish himself in the right-back position after debuting in 2007. But three years later and with less than 20 senior appearances under his belt, Caddis would be on his way out to join Swindon Town, and has since become an important player for Birmingham City in England’s second tier.
Otherwise, Celtic have relied heavily on foreign imports to fill the right-back role in recent years, aside from when Mark Wilson was recruited from Dundee United to make almost 100 appearances in a six-year period.
This policy has met with indifferent results, and from a plethora of distinctly ordinary right-backs to don the famous green and white in recent times, only Didier Agathe, Mikael Lustig and Paul Telfer have left any sort of lasting legacy. Even still, their contribution to the Celtic cause, in the greater scheme of things, would have to be described as nothing out of the ordinary.
On the other side of the coin, a string of right-backs like Jean Joel Perrier-Doumbe, Andreas Hinkel, Adam Matthews, Cha Du-Ri and Momo Sylla have failed to meet the required standard on a consistent basis (although Perrier-Doumbe did manage the winning goal in the 2007 Scottish Cup final).
And the latest right-back to fall short in a Celtic shirt was Saidy Janko, who had been signed from Manchester United but, after only ten appearances, was loaned to Barnsley this year.
So, while Celtic can be justifiably proud of recently bringing through the excellent left-back Kieran Tierney, the development from within of a class right-back in the mould of McGrain would appear to be quite some time away.