Northern Ireland

Belfast Celtic 75 years ago: Historic victory over all-conquering Scots during bittersweet American tour that marked end of a great club

Players were told the club was leaving the Irish League as they set sail for US and Canada tour, during which the team defeated Scotland 2-0

Belfast Celtic and Scotland parade prior to the game at New York's Triborough Stadium on May 29, 1949
Belfast Celtic and Scotland parade prior to the game at New York's Triborough Stadium on May 29, 1949

It was May 29 1949, New York - arguably one of the most famous days in the illustrious history of Belfast Celtic.

In front of a crowd of a 15,000, the west Belfast side, up to that point one of the most successful clubs in Ireland, defeated by 2-0 a Scotland team fresh off a sweep of the Home International Series.

But it was a bittersweet time as the team first set sail on the ten match tour of the US and Canada, they were told the news that the club had folded.

The Belfast Celtic board announced the decision as the party of players, officials and others set sail on the RMS Mauretania for the US earlier in May.

“It would be like Glasgow Celtic announcing we are leaving Scottish football. We are stopping playing,” said author and broadcaster Pádraig Coyle, who has written two books and a play linked to Belfast Celtic.

Author and broadcaster Pádraig Coyle
Author and broadcaster Pádraig Coyle

“The fans could not comprehend that this could happen. They knew nothing until the board took this decision,” he said.

“The players were not told of decision until they were on the boat to America,” Pádraig said.

Following the trip, the belief, the assumption, was strong that Belfast Celtic would be back, particularly as the legendary manager, Elisha Scott, was barred by the board from joining any other club.

But just two days before the Scotland game the Irish League invited Crusaders to join and Celtic never returned despite several attempts to do so.

This was a club that won 14 league titles, including five in row prior to the Second World War and then another in 1947/48.

Jimmy Jones, the club’s top striker, was not on the tour, the first by an Irish club of north America.

He was still recovering from horrific injuries suffered when attacked by Linfield fans following that season’s St Stephen’s Day clash.

Only top level medical care saved his leg being amputated.

The attack on Jones is often cited as the catalyst for the Celtic board making its decision to pull out of the league.

Belfast Celtic players walked behind the Irish tri-colour at an earlier game in the tour, causing controversy in some quarters
Belfast Celtic players walked behind the Irish tricolour at an earlier game in the tour, causing controversy in some quarters

But the team, boosted by several guest players, went out in style, stunning Scotland, the “wonder team of 1949″, on that late May day exactly 75 years ago.

Scotland had the choice of playing several teams, including Newcastle United or Gothenburg but chose the representatives of Ireland.

At the Triborough Stadium In New York, Derry man Johnny Campbell was credited with scoring both goals in the historic victory, though Pádraig said Alex Moore claimed the last touch for the second.

There were some afters during the game with Dubliner Mick O’Flanagan, a Bohemians player, Ireland rugby international and noted publican, going toe to toe with Rangers’ Willie Waddell.

Jimmy Jones
Jimmy Jones

But the two teams arrived at the stadium and left together, though it was noted the Belfast crew were in the back of the bus, celebrating. Scotland later complained about the hardness of the pitch. It was the country’s last ever clash with a club team.

The touring party returned to Belfast in June and the team dispersed. The name does live on with a Belfast Celtic side competing in the Ballymena & Provincial Intermediate League.

Jimmy Jones recovered and continued his prolific scoring, away from Paradise on the Donegall Road, and mostly with Glenavon. He was top scorer in the Irish League for ten seasons in a row.