Johnny Doyle (11th May 1951 to 19th October 1981) was a Celtic player who lived the dream and died long before his time.
Help us celebrate his life, for what a life it was. Share your memories with us and ensure that the name Johnny Doyle lives on in our hearts forever.
Born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Doyle started his senior career with Ayr United, whom he joined from juvenile side Viewpark in 1970.
He made his first (and only) appearance for the Scottish national team in December 1975 in a 1–1 draw with Romania. Four months later, Johnny was transferred to his beloved Celtic. He won two league titles and one Scottish Cup during his time at Paradise.
Johnny Doyle arrived at Celtic Park as a 24-year-old, in March 1976 from Ayr United. He hailed from the very same area of Lanarkshire where Jimmy Johnstone first pulled on a pair of football boots.
He wasn't the greatest player of his generation, but you'd need to search far and wide to find a more committed one. Nor was he adverse to the odd run-in with officialdom, and he wasn't unfamiliar with the odd red card or early bath.
His most memorable sending-off came in the momentous 4-2 title-winning game against Rangers on May 21, 1979 when the famous chant of "10 men won the league" was born. Another more sombre Doyle-related chant emanated after the league win of 1981/82, when The Faithful remembered their departed hero, with the sombre but celebratory chant of "We won the League for Doyle".
Johnny was tragically electrocuted at his home on October 19, 1981, at the age of 30, whilst rewiring the loft of his home in Kilmarnock.
He is buried in Grassyards Cemetery, Kilmarnock. As happens, when a player dies in his prime, his memory lasts longer than others, but in Johnny's case, we'd have remembered him as fondly even if the tragedy had not have happened.
In a gathering at Ipswich Town Hall before a friendly match a few days after his death, Manager Billy McNeill paid homage with the following memorial tribute:
"Johnny Doyle was the epitome of the phrase 'a true Celt'."
THE LEGEND OF JOHNNY DOYLE
Celtic Park erupted in joy on 15th May 1982 when victory over St Mirren won Billy McNeill his third league championship in four seasons since taking over from Jock Stein. As captain Danny McGrain was raised aloft by the players and the trophy paraded in front of 40,000 delirious Tims, a strange thing occurred. Starting in the Jungle enclosure, a chant swept its way around the ground: “Won The League For Doyle, Oh Yes We Won the League for Doyle...” Eight months on from Johnny Doyle’s sudden death in a domestic accident aged only 30, the Celtic supporters interrupted their celebrations to dedicate the victory to a player who meant everything to them. Ian Archer wrote at the time: “Three quarters of an hour after the match, the crowds were still on the terraces, shouting the name of Johnny Doyle. There were a few players who wept for him.”
After the winger’s death, Manager McNeill wrote: “The openness of his love affair with our club endeared John Doyle to the Celtic fans in a very special way and the rapport between them grew to a level that most players never achieve.” Twenty five years on from that terrible day in October ‘81, the affection in which Johnny is held by Celtic supporters remains undiminished.
A BHOY CALLED JOHN
Like most Celtic supporters, Johnny Doyle’s love for the club was in his genes. Born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire on 11th May 1951 he lived with his family in the miners rows at Tannochside until age 5 before moving to nearby Fallside. Johnny watched on in awe as a child as local Viewpark hero Jimmy Johnstone established himself in the pantheon of Celtic greats.
Johnny’s allegiance to all things Celtic came from his father William, a miner who sustained a broken back in a pit accident when Johnny was an infant and which ultimately led to his early death when Johnny was only eight years old. Johnny’s sister, Anne Marie, recalls that their father “was another one whose life was consumed by Celtic. John at one point, when he was very young would only kick with his right foot. My father sat in his wheelchair and held his right leg as he told John that unless he could kick with his left foot he would never be good enough at football to play for Celtic. He spent many hours doing that with John until he could use his left foot as well as his right.” Johnny’s dexterity with both feet and ability to switch wings proved an important feature of his game and a vital attribute at a critical juncture in his Celtic career.
The Viewpark area provided a number of well known footballers of Johnny’s generation including George McCluskey, John Robertson and Ian Munro. If Johnny was ever stuck for someone to play with it was his sister who was press-ganged into action: “I remember having to go outside and play football with him when we were kids because there were no other boys in our street and I had to wear one of his Celtic strips. Obviously I was the goalie because he told me I was rubbish at trying to kick the ball and I'm sure sometimes it was me he was aiming at and not the goal.”
Johnny recalled later in life that his father had had his spirits raised while in hospital by a visit from the then Celtic and Scotland captain, Bobby Evans. It came as no surprise that Johnny himself regularly made hospital visits to fans while a professional footballer. When a journalist visited his home in 1975 whilst an Ayr Utd player Johnny showed him one of his most prized possessions - a plaque of a famous Celtic eleven which his father had bequeathed to him.
Initially Johnny was happier supporting the Bhoys rather than playing the game. His mother Agnes made sure that his first visit to Ibrox in support of his team was a memorable one:
“I can remember getting belted across the ear by my mother after the first Old Firm match I went to. Actually it was in the early sixties and some people were killed on the terracing stairway at the game. She thought I had gone to watch Motherwell and she was worried for my safety when someone told her where I had really gone.”
Soon after Johnny joined the local Celtic Supporters Club. He followed the team home and away and the opportunity to play in famous hooped jersey would have been lost forever if he hadn’t been persuaded to join the St Columba’s Boys Guild Club. After a player broke a leg Johnny finally agreed to turn out for the youth team rather than go and watch the Celts play at Dens Park that day. He was reluctant because he’d already paid his hard-earned subs in full to the Supporters Association for that season: “It was one of the turning points of my life. I still supported Celtic, but now I wanted to be good enough to play for them.”
JOHNNY DOYLE - THE EARLY YEARS
Johnny’s exploits on the wing with the youth club led to trials with Crystal Palace among others before he agreed provisional terms with Ayr United in 1970 at £4 per week. He was signed by the mercurial Ally McLeod with whom he enjoyed an especially close relationship.
Making his debut in season 1971-2 Johnny carved out a reputation as an explosively quick and tenacious right winger in a team which McLeod, increasingly referred to as ‘Muhammad Ally’ in the tabloids, moulded into the most successful ever seen at Somerset Park. Their pinnacle was season 1975-6 when they achieved their highest ever position – sixth - in the top division.
That season had started off with a devastating 3-0 home victory against Rangers, followed by a standing ovation for Johnny for a performance against Motherwell in which, among other things, he walked the ball into the net after beating a defender and the keeper with outrageous cheek. Danny McGrain recalls what it was like to come up against the young Doyle: “Johnny played wide right and I was normally right back but sometimes he would float over. He gave as good as he got because in those days you were allowed to kick people, it was a contact sport and Doyley took it, but he would then come looking for you. He was always in your face, always tripping you up or trying to nutmeg you – he was a hard player to play against and I never enjoyed coming up against him.”
What made the achievements of McLeod’s team all the more remarkable was the fact that they were part-timers, with the players only being able to train together two nights per week. Johnny’s exploits on the wing led a number of under-23 caps and had McLeod promoting him for a Scotland call-up, which duly followed in December 1975. Johnny’s cap was earned in a European Championship qualifier against Romania– the last Ayr United player to receive international honours. In a gesture fitting of the man Johnny gave his international jersey to Ally McLeod. He also named his son Alistair Jason after the manager whom he felt had helped mould him into a feared winger and a true professional.
It came as no surprise that Johnny’s sole international appearance was marked by a yellow card, nor that 2 Romanians were also booked for fouls on him. During his time at Ayr he was sent off on four separate occasions and a hatful of yellow cards saw him subject to two lengthy suspensions. A fortnight after the Romania game he was sent off at Celtic Park for throwing a punch at Andy Lynch. His sense of injustice at his overall treatment regularly prompted him into retaliation in his early days: “I was a bad tempered so-and-so when I started. The trouble was I couldn’t take players kicking me. I was sent off four times because of what linesmen saw . . . it would have been a lot more if the referees had seen everything. I was hitting people off the ball because they had hit me, and it was always big guys.”
He was so dismayed at the decision to suspend him for 21 days that, with the support of the players’ union, he applied for an interim interdict against the SFA to prevent them enforcing the ban. He was frustrated at what he saw as his victimisation by the authorities and the failure of the Ayr Utd board to support him. Ally McLeod had been appointed the Aberdeen manager some weeks before. Also, despite interest having previously been shown by Celtic and others, including West Germany’s Schalke 04, he remained a part-time player and had to continue in his main job as a clerk at the Clydesdale steelworks. These factors made him go public with his grievances and his main ambition in life: “I’m fed up being kicked about for £30 a week, I want to go to the Celtic.” Within a matter of weeks Johnny’s dream was realised.
THE MAN WHO LOVED THE GREEN
Season 1975-6 was a traumatic year for those at Celtic Park. Jock Stein had narrowly escaped death in a serious car crash during the summer break and Sean Fallon took charge of team affairs against a resurgent Rangers. Trailing in the league at Easter - the only hope of domestic silverware - Fallon faced stiff competition for Johnny’s signature from Arsenal and Aberdeen. Ayr forced Celtic to significantly increase their original offer by holding out until the last day of the transfer window – so late that Johnny signed for Celtic at Glasgow airport while his new team-mates were awaiting a plane to a Cup Winners Cup quarter-final in East Germany. Nerves had been getting the better of him the night before the signing: “I was so excited I sat up 'til 4 in the morning playing my hi-fi. Status Quo helped to calm me down.”
On 15th March 1976, Johnny Doyle became Celtic’s record signing at the third attempt at a cost of £90,000. His full-time career in the Hoops got off to a bad start when he was injured in the first minute of his debut against Dundee, although he played on until he had to be carried off the pitch just before half-time. Johnny only managed a further five appearances in that first season which ended trophyless for the Bhoys. The next season, with Jock Stein back at the helm, Celtic rose to the challenge from the Dark Side. Celtic fans enjoyed their own Jubilee celebrations as the league title was won at Easter Road with five games to go. When Celtic went on to do the Double with a Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers – thanks to an Andy Lynch penalty - Johnny cavorted around Hampden with his new best friend who was also on the bench that day, a freckle-faced Tommy Burns. His first full season in the Hoops had ended in league and cup glory and Johnny scoring 11 goals in 50 appearances.
Season 77-78 saw Johnny’s appearances restricted to 29 and only 4 goals scored as the cartilage injury sustained on his debut re-appeared. Celtic suffered after the close season departure of Kenny Dalglish and a career-threatening injury to Danny McGrain which led to the club’s worst season in 13 years and the end of Jock Stein’s reign at Celtic Park. Overall, Johnny was dissatisfied with his own contribution in his early years at Celtic: “My first two seasons were a big zero. I played in a lot of games but I felt I hadn’t really taken part. I wanted to play for Celtic but I also wanted to play well, and I never strung any games together because I never felt fully fit.”
It took some time before the nature of the injury sustained on his debut was properly diagnosed and, although a regular in the first team, he failed to make the contribution to the cause he wanted. His position became under threat when new manager Billy McNeill signed winger Davie Provan in 1978. While many in the tabloids predicted the end of Johnny’s time at Celtic Park, he proved them wrong by relying on his father’s early lesson in versatility and slotting into a range of positions up front. His goal rate increased as did his importance to the team and Johnny’s career in the Hoops began to flourish.
LIVING THE DREAM
Johnny had quickly made a strong impression on the Celtic fans through his courageous and skilful wing play and openly revelling in the fact that this curly-haired Jungle Jim was living the dream. Tommy Burns recalled in his book, Twists and Turns that ‘there was no gesture too insensitive for Johnny to make, whether it was showing the crucifix he always wore underneath his jersey to the Rangers supporters or coming back to the centre circle after he scored a goal and performing the mime of flicking ash from an imaginary cigar in celebration’ – and this at time when Neil Lennon was still in hooped nappies.
Johnny soon established a rapport with those who occupied the Jungle enclosure where he had stood during the early 9-in-a-row years. When the chant of ‘Johnny, Oh Johnny Doyle, Oh Johnny Doyle on the Wing’ went up he would stop, point to himself innocently and ask ‘Are you talking to me?’ or urge them to sing louder by feigning deafness. Whenever he scored Johnny always acknowledged the fans in his celebration, eager to share the joy which was always evident on his face. None more so than when the diminutive Doyley out-jumped the Real Madrid defence to head Celtic into a remarkable two goal first-leg lead in the European Cup Quarter Final in March 1980, with Johnny almost making a bee-line into the Jungle in ecstasy. His behaviour entertained a generation of Celtic fans. One of them, Chic Charnley, recalled: “When I watched Celtic, I loved it when Johnny Doyle used to wind up the crowd.” Charnley once famously wiped his nose with an Ibrox corner flag, an act of showmanship which Johnny would not have sneezed at.
Although famed for his irreverent on-field nature Johnny’s willingness to give up his free time to attend supporters’ functions all over the country established him as a firm favourite with the fans. According to Davie Provan, “If you told him you were going to a supporters function in Aberdeen, he would go with you. Doyley was out there every Saturday night and loved it as well.” Tommy Burns recalled that Johnny would often stop his car to give a lift to Celtic fans thumbing their way back to Ayrshire after games, and invite them into his Kilmarnock home for some dinner.
Johnny treasured all the scarves, hats and other gifts given to him by Celtic supporters and stored them in a special room in his house along with his medals and trophies. Pat Stanton recalled with astonishment that Johnny would turn up at Celtic Park or on the team bus to away games wearing a Celtic scarf – in his career he’d never known a player to do that. This was in fact a scarf which had been thrust into his hand by a supporter when he was leaving the pitch in an early cup game. The gesture meant so much to Johnny that he not only kept it but wore it with pride to reflect his gratitude and love for his fellow Celtic supporters.
Just as important to Johnny as the club’s supporters were those who lined up with him in battle. Among his team-mates his courage and determination was greatly admired. “He was only about 5ft 4ins but he’d batter through defenders” said Murdo McLeod. His former foe, Andy Lynch, recalled that Johnny was electric from a standing start position and wouldn’t back down in the face of rough treatment, as many wingers often would. Dom Sullivan believed he was a one-off: “I don’t think I’ve seen a player willing to give his all like Doyley. He was fearless, totally fearless. For such a wee guy he was frightened of nobody.”
Just as important as his courage on the field was his demeanour off it. Johnny was a vital element in a dressing room full of big characters. He loved to mimic accents which were foreign to him, whether it was his big pal Johannes Edvaldsson’s stuttering English (he even kidded the Icelander into believing he named his daughter Joanna after him!) or Pat Stanton’s east coast ‘ken’ at the end of every sentence. He gleefully referred to ex-Ranger Alfie Conn as ‘the Currant Bun’ and was forever winding up his colleagues by stealing their car keys or blocking their cars in with his own. He thrived on his reputation as ‘The Man’ who would keep the young reserves in line as the first team’s enforcer. When Frank McGarvey arrived from Liverpool his team-mates wound up Johnny by telling him his time as ‘The Man’ was now over. Johnny did what came naturally – he challenged Frank to a wrestling match and put him in a headlock. Estimates vary as to how long the headlock lasted, some say 30 minutes other say 3 hours. The Manager’s presence didn’t deter Doyle, according to Dom Sullivan: “Big Billy came by about two or three times and they were still at it. He said ‘But they’re taking so much out of each other’.” McGarvey was finally released after two falls and a submission. Johnny remained The Man at Celtic Park.
His managers were just as likely to be on the end of Johnny’s gallus behaviour. Jock Stein would end his team-talks with a cursory “Any questions?”, clear in his own mind that no questions were necessary. Johnny regularly had a couple ready just to put the wind up The Big Man who wasn’t used to such impertinence from his players. When Billy McNeill received an MBE for his services to football in the late seventies Johnny asked him if he himself shouldn’t be rewarded – for being such good company!
It was known throughout the game that Johnny kept a black book of names of opponents who had subjected him to rough treatment, so that he would get his retaliation in first next time. Andy Lynch was relieved to find out that he was no longer top of the list after Johnny’s arrival at Celtic Park. Yet Doyle always retained an interest in the welfare and rights of his fellow professionals. He was an important figure in reforming the Scottish Professional Footballers Association in the 1970s - alongside Alex Ferguson, Tony Higgins, Jackie McNamara Snr and Rangers’ Alex MacDonald – and making the union more effective in fighting for its members’ interests.
Yet it was in a Celtic jersey that Johnny’s memory remains strongest. He reserved (and received) special treatment for the blue hordes who couldn’t have been more infuriated at his presence than if the Pope himself turned out in the Hoops. Besides urging Rangers players to kiss the crucifix he had taped to his chest during games, he famously brought the Rangers End at Hampden to heel on one occasion whilst out inspecting the pitch before an Old Firm final. The usual wails of abuse rained down as Johnny and co. appeared in their suits long before kick-off. Taking this in his stride the bold Johnny quickly turned round - and silenced the great unwashed by blowing them a tender kiss.
He hated the idea of losing to Rangers in any arena. The Ibrox striker turned media pundit, Gordon Smith-Must-Score, remembers a time when he was racing up the motorway fromKilmarnock, late for training at the Fortress of Darkness. He passed Johnny’s car on the inside lane and gave him a friendly wave. Johnny, assuming the gauntlet was being thrown down, hit the accelerator and, at speeds well in excess of the legal limit, made sure he got to Glasgow ahead of his rival.
Johnny was almost as fond of referees as much as he was of Rangers. One of his early red-cards at Ayr came when he threw his chewing gum at a linesman in disgust at a decision. In a game against his old club at Somerset Park in 1977 he picked up a loose ball and whipped in a ferocious cross – which smacked the referee square in the face, causing him to collapse in a heap. Humiliated, despite it being clearly unintentional, the pompous official showed Johnny a straight red card, which was ultimately overturned on appeal. Though usually more sinned against than sinning, Johnny’s temper could still prove to be his downfall – as it did on one of the most famous occasions Celtic Park has ever witnessed.
CELTIC 4, RANGERS 2
For those too young to be present, the events of 21st May 1979 have still left their mark. It was the last game of the season at home to the Forces of Darkness, and Celtic needed a win to secure the championship as a defeat or a draw would hand it on plate to the Dark Side. Rangers took a 9th minute lead through Alex McDonald, a favourite target of abuse for Celtic fans who enjoyed regular jousts with Johnny. Doyle once famously taunted McDonald claiming ‘You couldnae get a beachball off me in a phone box’. Johnny later said “We get on all right off the park, but its different somehow on the field. Let’s just say he’s for his team and I’m for mine.”
Early in the second half, with Celtic still trailing, MacDonald was flailing around on the ground like a harpooned whale, clearly feigning injury. Johnny remonstrated with him, tried to get him off the ground and MacDonald kicked out. The red mist descended as a swift kick was despatched to MacDonald’s ribs. “Alex hit me on the leg and I hit him back, but there was nothing to it” he complained. Even though MacDonald pounced to his feet to go for Doyle’s throat, only one of them headed for an early bath - with his name ringing out from The Jungle. “I was nearly spewing by the time I got to the dressing room. I thought we had lost the championship because of me … If Celtic had lost I had visions of collecting my boots and going. I thought I had reached the end of the road.”
There was half an hour to go and the Celts were one goal and one man down. Sitting in anguish in the dressing room, Johnny was initially unaware of the miracle which unfolded on the pitch as his team-mates went into a two-one lead only to be hauled back, before an own goal and then a wonder strike from Murdo McLeod led to an incredible 4-2 victory and green-and-white pandemonium on the terraces. George McCluskey, one of the goalscorers on the night, said that when he made it off the pitch there was Johnny, waiting to embrace him, saying over and over ‘Thanks, Thanks’. After much cajoling he was persuaded to join the others back out on the pitch where he finally forgave himself and enjoyed the party. But for his actions that night Celtic fans would have been deprived of the timeless chant of ‘Ten Men Won the League, Tra-La-La-La’.
I PREDICT A RIOT...
Johnny’s most prolific season in the Hoops came in 1979-80 when he was joint top scorer with George McCluskey, hitting the net an impressive 15 times in 35 appearances including his unforgettable goal against Real Madrid. He was an inspirational substitute as Celtic came back from 2-0 and a man down at Ibrox to snatch a draw in August. Yet the team contrived to throw away the ten point lead they held over Aberdeen in March, losing the title on the last day of the season. Further disappointment came in the team’s failure to defend the 2-0 lead taken to the Bernabeau in the European Cup quarter final.
There was some consolation for Johnny in the form of another cup winner’s medal against Rangers, in a glorious Hampden in the Sun in May 1980. So pleased were the Celtic fans with the extra-time victory that they rushed on to the pitch at the end to offer the blue hordes a drink and their deepest condolences. The riot that followed had devastating consequences for the marauding Huns: they had to endure those long, painful John Greig Years in stone-cold sobriety in their shiny new, half-empty stadium after the ban on alcohol in grounds was introduced.
In season 1980-1 Johnny’s first team appearances were increasingly restricted as manager McNeill relied on Aitken, Burns, Provan and MacLeod to provide the firepower for McGarvey, McCluskey and some new kid called Nicholas up front. At Tannadice in April 1981 a sensational TB goal earned the Celts a remarkable 3-2 victory and another championship party for the Bhoys was underway. Johnny was out there on the pitch at full-time, lapping up the atmosphere and parading the flame-haired maestro on his shoulders to the acclaim of the fans on what was an unforgettable Celtic evening.
In the summer break of 1981 there was media speculation that Johnny, frustrated at the amount of time he was spending on the bench, would leave Celtic Park. Approaches from Hearts, Dundee and Motherwell were all spurned (no surprise there!) as Johnny declared: “I don’t want to leave Celtic – it took me so long to get there.” He’d fought hard for his place in the first team before and was preparing to do so again.
In his last appearance in the Hoops, a Glasgow Cup tie against Queens Park, Johnny was again on the scoresheet. A week later he died in his home as a result of a tragic electrical accident. In 2001, his team-mate Dom Sullivan explained to Celtic author Eugene MacBride, what had happened: “At that time I was quite into DIY, and Doyley knew that. I did quite a bit with him. I actually went down to Doyley’s house two weeks before it happened and he showed me what he was going to do. He had me up in the loft and he showed me the layout but what the family didn’t realise there were two phases going into his house. He shut off one phase but didn’t realise the other was still alive.”
‘AND THAT MIGHTY HEART LIES STILL’
That was the headline in the Celtic View the week after Johnny’s death. More than 2000 people attended his funeral, including the entire Rangers team, and hundreds more lined the route from the chapel to his resting place at the Grassyards Cemetery in Kilmarnock. Days later, while in Ipswich for a testimonial match, Celtic fans held an impromptu two minutes silence outside the local town hall. The following week, away to Airdrie, they were singing ‘Doyley we love you’. And, at the end of that season, with the league flag again secured, they raised their voices in praise – and remembrance – of one of their most loved sons.
In the immediate aftermath of his friend’s death Tommy Burns looked for solace: “There were only two things that acted as any form of consolation to me after I came back from Johnny’s funeral: the realisation that, at last, he was truly at rest and that he had died while still a Celtic player . . . In life he was a Celtic man through and through and it seemed fitting to me that he should meet his death while still a Celtic man, and I know that would have been important to him too.”
Danny McGrain remembered him as a great shining light who exuded energy on and off the park. In 2005 Murdo McLeod told how ”a big part of the team left the day Doyley died. It took a long time for the players to get over it.” To Billy McNeill he was “the epitome of the phrase ‘a true Celt’. It was never a secret that as a young boy and later even as a player with Ayr United, his ambition was to play at Celtic Park. When that desire was fulfilled, Johnny showed his thanks in the way the fans love, by playing from the heart every time he wore the green and white hoops.”
For those who knew him best, and especially his devoted family and friends, it is hoped that time has somehow helped to ease their sorrow. For those of us who only witnessed glimpses of the real man from the terraces, the television or supporters’ functions – who share his undimmed passion for the football club – we fondly remember him as Celtic’s Johnny Doyle. He lived out his dream, which was also his father’s dream and our dream. And he did so with great courage, humility, humour - and tremendous pride.
“As long as it’s got green and white hoops any number between 1 and 11 will do me. I’d even settle for 12 or 13 sometimes. Numbers don’t bother me, as long as I’m playing for Celtic.”
Johnny Doyle, 1980
The Celtic Graves Society wish to thank Johnny Doyle’s family
for their support in this project and for the personal memories
shared by Johnny’s sister Anne Marie and daughter Joanna,
along with access to archive material kept by them.
‘They never die who live in the hearts of those they leave behind’
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