In the 1963/64 season Celtic had begun to show the pedigree in Europe that they would become known for over the following decade. In what was only their second season in European competition, they reached the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners' Cup.
Defeating FC Basel, Dinamo Zagreb and Slovan Bratislava along the way, they met MTK Budapest in the semis. A crowd of 50,180 packed into Celtic Park for the first-leg on the 15th of April 1964. A Jimmy Johnstone goal and a brace from Stevie Chalmers gave the Celts a fantastic 3-0 win over the Hungarians. In the Nepstadion a fortnight later Celtic came undone when MTK, inspired by right winger Karoly Sandor, overturned the deficit to win 4-0 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate. MTK would go on to lose in the final to Sporting Lisbon after a replay. The European run was the only bright spot in that season for Celtic as rivals Rangers won the second Treble in their history.
Celtic were going through a lengthy barren spell that showed little sign of abating. They had only qualified for the 63/64 European Cup Winners' Cup by being runners-up to Rangers in the previous season's Scottish Cup final. The Bhoys hadn't won the League since 1954, also the same year they had last lifted the Scottish Cup. It had been six years since they had won a major trophy, that being the 1957/58 Scottish League Cup. The opening day of the 1964/65 season didn't suggest things were changing. The 27,000 crowd booed Celtic off the pitch after drawing 0-0 with Partick Thistle in their League Cup section match.
Celtic had to respond to Rangers' dominance and on the evening of that draw in the League Cup Chairman Robert Kelly felt he had the answer in the short-term. Alfredo di Stefano had announced time on his career with Real Madrid and was now a free agent. Kelly decided Celtic would break the bank to sign him. With five European Cups and eight Spanish titles to his name di Stefano was one of the most famous players in the world game.
His last match for Real Madrid was the 1964 European Cup final in Vienna, where, in their seventh final, Los Blancos lost 3-1 to first-timers Internazionale. Di Stefano was now 38 years old, but even clearly past his best and lacking in pace Kelly felt he could do a job for Celtic. There was also the morale boost signing such a well-loved player would give to the Celtic support. Di Stefano certainly knew Glasgow well, first having played at Hampden for Spain against Scotland in a World Cup qualifier in 1957. Hampden was also the setting for Real Madrid's famous 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final. He would also have been well aware of Celtic. Real Madrid came to Celtic Park in September of 1962 to play in a fund-raising match in aid of the Jewish National Fund Charitable Trust. A crowd of 72,000 packed in to see the Spanish side win 3-1. The fans demanded a lap of honour from the young Celtic team despite the defeat.
Foreign players were not uncommon in Scottish football at this time. Danish internationals Kai Johansen, Erik Sorensen and Carl Bertelsen were with Morton, while Thorolf Beck, an Icelandic international striker, was then playing for St. Mirren. However, big name imports on sizeable wages certainly were not the norm and if Celtic could pull such a deal off it would justifiably be a sensational coup.
On the evening of Saturday 8th August 1964 a cable was sent off to Madrid outlining Celtic's interest. The following day manager Jimmy McGrory and coach Sean Fallon sat by the telephone in McGrory's office awaiting a reply. John McPhail of the Daily Record was following the story. McPhail had been a Celtic player himself from 1941 to 1956. McPhail spoke with Fallon, "If we don't get him before midnight we will try again to phone from Celtic Park tomorrow morning. Young John Cushley, our reserve centre-half, is quite a linguist and will be interpreter when we contact di Stefano by phone.”
John Cushley was signed by Celtic in 1960 from Blantyre Celtic. His first team outings were limited, due to his position being filled by Billy McNeill, he had up until now only made seven appearances in his two years at the club. Alongside his football career Cushley was reading for a modern languages MA Honours degree in French and Spanish at Glasgow University. He was a fluent Spanish speaker, and so seemed ideal for the role of interpreter.
“We are making a determined effort to sign di Stefano,” McGrory told Gair Henderson of the Evening Times. “We know we will have to offer big money and inducements to get him over here, but that will not stop us if he is prepared to consider playing in Scottish football. I am ready to fly at an hour's notice, and we are all hoping that something will come out of the cable we sent off on Saturday night.” There was nothing for McGrory to do but sit and wait by his phone. “There is no news so far, but we will stay at the end of this line until evening.” Cushley sat there with him, waiting to interpret on the line, should it be required.
In an opinion piece in the Evening Times Henderson outlined what the signing of di Stefano would mean for Celtic and the Scottish league. “It will be the greatest stroke of business pulled off by any club since the war,” he declared. The capture would be comparable in the club's history only to the signing of Charlie Tully he surmised. “...they will bring a much needed personality to Scottish football, and they will also bring goals and joy to Parkhead. And joy is something that is badly needed there at the moment,” he concluded.
Celtic were prepared to offer around £20,000 as a signing on fee. Espanol and Milan were the other clubs competing for his signature. The Barcelona based Espanol were thought to have offered £17,500 while Milan had tabled £15,000. Kelly and McGrory were confident di Stefano would accept Celtic's offer once he considered it fully. Real Madrid made it clear Alfredo was free to make his own deal. A club spokesman said, “We are not involved in the dealings to sign di Stefano. If he wants to join Celtic, Espanol or Milan the choice is entirely up to him.”
The Daily Record told McGrory that their reporter in Spain sent a cable confirming that di Stefano had been informed of Celtic's interest and was considering all three offers. “Everything is confused. I must consider all the offers,” he was quoted as saying.
On Monday August 10th McGrory checked in at Celtic Park to see if a cable had arrived from di Stefano. Finding that there was none, he checked again with the Post Office, who confirmed that no cable had been sent. “We have had no reply whatsoever from di Stefano,” McGrory told the Evening Times. “We even tried to contact him on the telephone, but his number is ex-directory and we have not been successful.” Kelly dismissed suggestions that Celtic's offer had been turned down. “We have heard reports that di Stefano has turned down our offer,” he said. “How can he when he doesn't know what the offer is? di Stefano is a businessman, and I can't see him doing any such thing. I don't believe he would reject our bid without hearing about the full details. We want to sign him and our manager will fly out tomorrow.” Kelly was happy to outline the reason Celtic were prepared to go out on a limb to acquire the player. “Our reason for wanting di Stefano is simple – he is the best available player. His style of play reminds me of our former great inside-forward Patsy Gallagher. He can make a team. I hope we can get him.” McGrory echoed his chairman's sentiments, “...the confusion and inconvenience of the past few days will have been worth it if di Stefano agrees to come to Parkhead.”
On the Tuesday morning McGrory and Cushley were at Renfrew Airport boarding a flight bound for London, the beginning of a nine-hour journey to Madrid, taking in Paris and Barcelona. “I feel like I'm going to be flying round the world to get there,” McGrory said. There were plenty of journalists and photographers at the airport to see the pair off. They were also on hand to let the Celtic boss know that he was probably wasting his time. Di Stefano had already agreed to sign for Espanol. McGrory however shrugged his shoulders. “We are not beaten yet. For I have still received no message from di Stefano that he has rejected our offer. We're still going out there to find out for ourselves.” Di Stefano said that he would begin training with Espanol later that month. “I was grateful for the Celtic offer.. I like Glasgow. I like the Scots. But I am promised to El Espanol of Barcelona. [If] we go to a new country then my family and I must learn a new language.” Celtic seemed so determined to land the forward that they were prepared to consider all angles. Reporter McPhail asked a Celtic official if di Stefano could live and train in Madrid but fly to Scotland for matches. Amazingly this suggestion wasn't dismissed by the unnamed official, “If that happened, and I am not saying that it will, then we must have a guarantee that he is match fit.”
When their plane landed in Madrid, McGrory, Cushley, and several journalists went straight from the airport to di Stefano's home. When they arrived they found only two maids. Cushley went to speak with them. “The maids eventually told us that he was in La Coruna – but nothing more,” McGrory told the Evening Times. McPhail of the Record was there with the duo and as they walked away from the house McGory told him, “I never expected anything like this. I must get in touch with the chairman to discuss things. I am due to return to Glasgow on Thursday, but I do not know about that after this move. I have been sent here to see di Stefano and at this moment that is what I want to do. Di Stefano hasn't heard our offer and I want to hear any refusal from the player himself. I won't listen to newspaper reports here or to anything I am told at his home. Di Stefano is the man I want to speak to and until I am told otherwise from the club, that's the job I'm here for.” They were given some hope when they discovered that Alfredo hadn't actually signed for Espanol, but had so far only given them a verbal agreement.
Once the party arrived at Madrid's Hilton Castelano, McGrory found that he was the centre of attention. Spanish TV crews surrounded him wanting to know about his mammoth flight and his bid to take the Blond Arrow to Parkhead.
The following day di Stefano was still proving elusive for the Celtic contingent to track down, “No contact with Alfredo so far,” McGrory reported back. “...We are still trying...we will not give up until either I meet him face to face or speak to him on the telephone.” But Celtic did have a lead on how to get in touch with the elusive di Stefano. The man to speak with they were told was Real Madrid centre-back Jose Santamaria. The Uruguayan was a business partner of di Stefano's and was thought to know how to contact him. At Celtic Park however, the cable they had been dreading arrived. “Very much recognise your offer transfer fee to sign for your club,” it began, “Sorry cannot accept due already committed to El Espanol, Barcelona. Thanks di Stefano.” This wasn't going to put Robert Kelly off however. “Mr McGrory will still be making efforts to contact the player,” he said. “We were prepared to make a very good offer, and I am surprised that di Stefano did not wait to hear the details. From the cable it is obvious that he has not yet signed for El Espanol – and it is just possible that Mr McGrory will yet be able to make him change his mind.” Kelly also took some time to ponder the reasons behind why Celtic's offer may be turned down. “di Stefano will certainly not get a better offer than the one we will make, but perhaps he feels the weather here in winter would be difficult when he is so used to playing in sunshine.”
Back at the hotel McGrory and Cushley were still hopeful of a positive outcome. “Di Stefano has not yet signed for El Espanol, and as long as he has not put his name to paper there is still hope for Celtic,” McGrory said. Around half a dozen Celtic contacts in Madrid and in the north of Spain, were scouring the country looking for di Stefano.
Finally di Stefano was tracked down in the north of the country at his holiday home on a farm in La Coruna. The Celtic party huddled round a phone as John Cushley interpreted McGory's offer and di Stefano's response. Years later, Cushley, who passed away in 2008, said, “Mr McGrory was telling me, 'Offer him this'. I couldn't believe the figures - it was more than the rest of us put together were getting.” The offer came much too late as di Stefano stuck by his verbal agreement with Espanol. “I told di Stefano we would pay him £500 a week for a month if he and his wife came to Scotland for a look around and to sample our Scottish game,” McGrory told John McPhail later. “We would also have put di Stefano and his wife up in the best hotel in the city. The fee for this four weeks' trial would have been independent of the £18,000 we would have paid him had he signed for the club.” If the trial was successful a one-year contract was to have been put on the table. Di Stefano was firm in his response, “I am very sorry about your wasted visit to Madrid. I cabled Parkhead on Sunday stating how delighted I was with your offer, but how my verbal agreement with Espanol tied me to the Barcelona club.” McPhail spoke to di Stefano himself, “I think a lot of that wonderful offer from Parkhead and I am particularly sorry I was not at home when Mr McGrory called in Madrid last night,” he said. “However, it was not money that was the big matter. The fact that I had said I would sign for Espanol was decisive and I could not break my promise.” McGrory took some consolation from the fact that di Stefano had promised him he would reconsider Celtic's offer once his deal with Espanol expired in April of 1965. McGrory and Cushley cancelled their Thursday flight and headed for the airport immediately.
In Stephen Sullivan's book 'Sean Fallon: Celtic's Iron Man', Cushley was quoted reminiscing about the trip. “I always thought the di Stefano thing was a publicity stunt” he said. “I would have loved nothing more if he'd said yes, because it would have been tremendous to have someone like that at Celtic. But the board knew there was no chance. If he had accepted their offer, they would have had a heart attack. There just wasn't money for a player like that floating around at the time. It was a story that got the fans excited but that wasn't a good time for the club and I felt it was put out there to relieve a bit of pressure.”
Celtic consoled themselves on missing out on a big name signing by going to Tynecastle and defeating Hearts 3-0 in the League Cup. The fruitless mission to sign di Stefano cost Celtic around £300. “However, we do not grudge one penny,” Kelly said. “It was worth it to try to bring di Stefano to Celtic Park.”
Celtic's fortunes were to change later that season when Jock Stein was appointed manager in March of 1965, and brought the Scottish Cup to Celtic Park the following month. Celtic and di Stefano would meet again, in June 1967, when the newly crowned European champions were asked to play Real Madrid in di Stefano's testimonial match as he played his last game at the age of forty. Celtic won 1-0 in front of 120,000 fans as di Stefano ended his career in style.
Tom is @TomBrogan.
Image by Josep Rosell.