Forgotten star of South Uist and Celtic

BY KEITH MACKENZIE
keith.mackenzie@whfp.co.uk

To those who saw him play, Malcolm MacDonald was among the greatest to have worn Celtic’s green and white hoops — a Parkhead star of the pre-war years who helped the club win the fabled Empire Exhibition Cup, and who was known to have featured in nine outfield positions for the senior team.

He was also a Glasgow Gael, whose roots in South Uist have inspired a new biography of his little-known but fascinating sporting life.

MacDonald was born in Glasgow to South Uist parents in 1913 — his father originally from Loch Eynort and his mother from South Boisdale. It was in Glasgow’s impoverished industrial ghetto of the Garngad where MacDonald grew up, but football offered him a way out of destitution and over a career which spanned the 1930s to the 1960s Malky would play for or manage Celtic, Kilmarnock, Brentford and Scotland.

2163-Malky-He remained someone immensely proud of his island background, and was well known to folk in South Uist. Malky’s parents returned to Lochboisdale during the war and he was a frequent visitor to the islands right up until his death in 1999. Journalist and broadcaster Alex O’ Henley, who has pieced together the story of MacDonald’s life, said it was entirely fitting that his book “Rionnag Chaillte – Forgotten Star” should be published in both Gaelic and English.

But for the outbreak of the Second World War it has been suggested MacDonald would have comfortably cemented his place alongside the legends of the Scottish game. As it was he only appeared in the dark blue of Scotland in three wartime matches — games which were used to rally the war effort but were never afforded “official”  international recognition, in spite of the vast crowds and attention they attracted.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities MacDonald had starred in league- and cup-winning Celtic sides of the 1930s. But perhaps his most memorable medal was won in 1938 — Celtic’s golden jubilee year — at the Empire Exhibition Cup tournament arranged to mark the festival held in Glasgow. In those times before European competition the tournament held significant prestige, and brought eight of the best teams from Scotland and England together to take part. In front of a crowd of over 80,000 at Ibrox, Celtic beat Everton to claim the trophy.

In his obituary for ‘The Herald’  in 1999, Scottish sportswriter Bob Crampsey described Malcolm as “a synonym for grace… blessed – or perhaps cursed – with almost an excess of talent… above all the purist’s footballer”.

Jack McGinn, the former Celtic chairman and SFA President, went further, hailing MacDonald as the best player he had seen.

“I know there have been many great players over the years at Celtic, men like Jimmy Johnstone and Henrik Larsson, but how many of them played in all the positions Malky did and played them as well as he did? Not one,” he said. “Malky could walk into any Celtic team, including the Lisbon Lions. So, yes, I will go to my grave saying that Malcolm MacDonald was the greatest footballer I have ever seen.”

Alex O’ Henley remembers first hearing the name Malcolm MacDonald mentioned while growing up in South Uist in the 1970s.

“I assumed at first folk were talking about the other Malcolm MacDonald, Supermac, who played for Newcastle United,” he recalls. “But after learning this was a guy who played for Celtic, it’s a story I’ve always been interested in finding out more about. I think the idea to do a book was hatched two years ago when Kilmarnock, who Malcolm had managed, beat Celtic in the final of the Scottish Communities League Cup.”

In two spells as manager, MacDonald would help haul Killie — whose ground had been dug up and used as a munitions dump during the war— from the old Scottish B league to the first division.

He would carve out a reputation as a footballing pioneer with ambitions to bring European competition to Rugby Park. In order to help do so he asked his wartime international contemporary Matt Busby to bring his Manchester United side north for a friendly, staged to aid the purchase of floodlights at Rugby Park.

Starring in one of his early appearances for United was the great Duncan Edwards — later tragically lost in the Munich air disaster. Alex suggests Edwards’ performance that day would be crucial in persuading Busby to promote several of his other young “babes” to the club’s first team.

Another curious anecdote was discovered when Alex learned that the great Hungarian Ferenc Puskas made his last European appearance for Real Madrid at Rugby Park. MacDonald’s Kilmarnock — then Scottish champions — drew 2-2 with the Spanish giants in a memorable European Cup tie of 1965.

“It’s little nuggets of information like that which make the story so fascinating,” Alex says. “It shows just how high a place Malcolm MacDonald had in the Scottish game.

“Over the years there have been  others such as John Collins who had links to the islands. But I don’t think anyone with as close a connection to the islands as Malcolm MacDonald has come near to achieving what he did in the game.”

Malky’s career also included a successful eight-year period as the manager of Brentford, but at the end of his time at Kilmarnock he settled in Troon. There, he worked as a physiotherapist and chiropodist for many years, remaining actively involved in football as a scout for Tottenham Hotspur and Celtic.

Alex O’Henley added: “In this the 100th anniversary of his birth it’s appropriate that the memory of Malky, or Calum as he was known to his family and team-mates, is kept alive and brought to a new audience.

“He was one of the greatest players in the first 50 years of Celtic Football Club and were it not for the advent of the Second World War his place in Scottish football folklore, already assured, would surely have been even greater. From humble roots, Malky’s story is one of triumph over adversity and as another son of South Uist it’s one I am proud and privileged to tell.”

Celtic director Brian Wilson, who wrote the foreword to the book, added: “It is excellent that one of the great Celtic players is  being celebrated in this way particularly while there are people around, not least in South Uist, who still remember him as a player. It will also be good to get a bit of Gaelic into the Celtic boardroom for the launch!”

“Rionnag Chaillte – Forgotten Star” will be launched today (Friday) at 10am at Celtic Park  and during the National Mod at the Glynhill Hotel, Renfrew, at 6.35pm on Wednesday (16th October). It has been published by The Islands Book Trust    www.theislandsbooktrust.com