Belfast Celtic 1891 - 1949

The Birth of the Greatest Team in History



Andersonstown News 7th January 2001

by Fra Coogan


This article is about Belfast Celtic, the team whose very name brings a lump to the throat and a tightness in the stomach to the people of my generation and many before. It conjures up memories of sunny days and of bygone youth. What would we give to be able to relive them?

There was a freedom about Celtic Park that outshone anything in the country. There was not another park that could give you that rush of adrenalin when you first glimpsed the magic green playing surface.

The great Sir Stanley Matthews stated it was the greatest surface he had ever played on.
That says it all. Somehow ‘paradise', as it was called, overrode all the sectarian bigotry that marred and still mars the game to this day.

I suppose Celtic's greatest moment occurred in the USA in May 1949 when they beat the Scottish international side 2-0 at Forborrough Stadium Randalls Island, New York. The man who scored both great goals was Johnny Campbell from Derry and the man of the match award went to Kevin McAlinden, who pulled off a couple of miracle saves in the first half.

For the benefit of those who still argue about the Celtic side that day, here it is: McAlinden, McMullen and Aherne , Walker, Burne and Lawlor, Moore of Glenavon, Dorman of Ards, Campbell, O' Flannagan of Bohemians and Paddy Bonnar. Yes there were three guest players.
Glasgow Celtic's Bobby Evans was captain of Scotland that day. I saw Billy Wright's hundredth international match at Wembley against Scotland and Evans was centre half for Scotland. He was the best reader of the game I ever saw.

I don't intend going over the well documented events like, the Jimmy Jones tradegy of 1949 that ended Celtic participation in the Windsor Avenue-run Irish League. Sad but inevitable as this was it was by no means the first time Celtic and their followers has been subjected not only to barbaric and hostile treatment during games, but also one sided judgment as with most of officialdom's decisions on the outcome of these so-called investigations.

Over many years I have been in arguments and discussions on how Belfast Celtic came into being, and here and now I will admit that over all these many years I was wrong. I was not alone I got a great Belfast Celtic book as a Christmas box and it has clarified the lot as far as I am concerned.

I know this might sound either hilarious or ridiculous but it was a game of cricket in the Falls Park one bright Sunday afternoon in August 1891 that brought about the advent of the greatest team ever to grace these islands: Belfast Celtic. I know I wouldn't have believed it either but I assure you I have double checked and that is nearly a first for me.

A cricket team called Sentinel who claimed to be the Don Bradmans of the road played a globe-trotting side called ‘The Model' who had a great reputation for fielding world class cricketers who had played in the sun baked pitches of India and Africa.

Despite the build up, the Falls team walloped them. I know that's a pause for thought as I cannot name one Falls Road man noted for his skill at the English tea and biscuit game, the only life saver for me is that it all happened a million years ago.

The elated ‘Sentinel', overjoyed at their victory, got together and decided there was a dearth of untapped talent in the cricket and soccer fields and decided to exploit it. Two men well known in soccer circles were Bob Hayes and Frank Lavery, who played for the local Milltown team and along with Alex Begley and James Keenan they decided they had enough talent in and around the Falls to form a junior side to tackle anybody. The first official meeting was held in the rooms of Mr James Henry on the Falls Road.

This historic meeting decided the new team should be called Belfast Celtic after their famous Glasgow namesakes. Belfast Celtic's fraternal association with their Glasgow counterparts lasted through their entire history and was initiated at this first meeting.

Secretary Bob Hayes' first job was to write and ask Glasgow Celtic for their patronage, not only did they agree but they sent a sizable donation to help the newly formed Celtic become established. The men responsible for the origin of Belfast Celtic are President James McCann, Honorary Secretary Bob Hayes, Match Secretary Alex Begley, Treasurer James Keenan and Captain Frank Lavery. Celtic's first ground was below the Beehive Public House, it was called “Boghead” because of the woeful state of the ground.

“Boghead” was of course also a variation of Parkhead home of the Glasgow giants. The team had a poor start losing to Glentoran II who where one of the best junior sides in the city. In their first match the crowd following the team where suitably impressed by the team's performance as more of the players had yet to be tested in this standard of play. Before the end of the season they had two notable victories that dispensed with any pessimism which might have been setting in.

Celtic beat top Junior league team Linfield Swifts 9-2 and notched up a brilliant 3-2 away victory over local rivals Milltown. The next season saw them finish runners up to Distillery II. Then for the next three seasons they completely dominated they entire Junior scene: a hat trick of league titles Robinson & Cleaver shields and in the 1894-95 season they won the league undefeated with 66 points in 33 games.

Their reign as a Junior side ended when they beat Distillery 3-1 at Cliftonville to win the Co. Antrim shield, Senior status was assured. One month later they beat Linfield 5-1 in a friendly game. Celtic's last game as a junior side was against Linfield Swifts on May 30 1896, Celtic won 2-1 with goals from McConville, McAuley. The rest, as they say, is history.