by Andrew Reilly
If Roy Aitken was around in the Celtic team today, he’d be responsible for some of the biggest online fights, twitter feuds and even bar-room brawls in Scottish football. Taking a look at his list of honours at Celtic Park would lead you to believe that Aitken was a player who would have the ‘legend’ title bestowed upon him. 6 league titles, 5 Scottish Cups, 1 league cup, 667 games and 55 goals is the sort of haul most footballers would have been delighted to achieve in their career. The chant “Feed The Bear” would commonly ring round Celtic Park and at away grounds but you’d have plenty of fans pulling their hair out at the same time.
There are certainly enough magic moments where Aitken would drag his team-mates into a game and forward ever forward in the hope of turning defeats into draws and draws into breath-taking late winners. However, there are also enough moments where Aitken’s lack of awareness or over-commitment would cost the team dearly. There is a tendency to consider the 1980s (at least until Souness arrived in the country) as being an era where Aberdeen and Dundee United roamed and conquered. These two teams had an excellent haul and record in this decade but so did Celtic. You could take the statistics to say that Celtic were the biggest team in the 1980s in Scotland, but there could have been so much more silverware at Parkhead in the decade.
A look at the centre-half pairings further north, where McLeish and Miller refereed the game in front of Leighton or where Hegarty and Narey played with class in front of McAlpine, certainly made many Celtic fans jealous. Celtic were never short of attacking endeavour, spirit and creativity but whereas you would expect Aberdeen and United to keep a clean sheet, there was always a fear about Celtic leaking a goal or two. Aitken was a prominent part of that, and a more cultured and calm figure at the back may have seen Celtic win more leagues and achieve European success in the 1980s.
That would be to overlook what Roy Aitken brought to the team, and I’ll be honest, I’m an unashamed fan of The Bear. So much of what I still love and look forward to in football was created on Saturday the 18th of May 1985 at Hampden Park. It was the 100th Scottish Cup final, it was my first ever cup final, and with 15 minutes to go, Celtic were trailing 1-0 to Dundee United.
Manager Davie Hay had already made a bold move, taking off Paul McStay and replacing him with Pierce O’Leary. On the surface, it seemed like a defensive move but in reality, it launched Aitken further up the park, and he pushed Celtic on at every opportunity. A stunning equaliser from Davie Provan, direct from a free-kick, ignited Hampden Park. Even when I close my eyes today, the sight of Tam McAdam swinging on the crossbar in celebration comes to the fore, but more was to come.
With about five minutes to go, the ball was ping-ponging around in the middle of United’s half when Aitken seized upon the Adidas Tango. He charged down the right hand side, swung the ball over and Frank McGarvey contorted himself, in the way that only Frank could, and connected with the ball, sending it spinning into the back of the net. United were shell-shocked, and I witnessed my first trophy win as a fan.
The following season, Celtic had a horrendous run of form in the middle of the campaign but clinched the title in the last couple of minutes of the season. An 8 game winning run was topped off by Hearts capitulation at Dens Park. It was the first title I was present to see us win, and you aren’t going to see many better. The following day, watching the TV highlights, the interview of Roy Aitken still sticks in the mind. His line of “we said with 8 games to if we win 8 games, we’ll win the league. We won 8 games, and we won the league.” It was simple football speak from an uncomplicated footballer, but it summed up the passion and drive Aitken had on the field.
Two years later, in the clubs centenary year, Aitken was the captain as the club clinched the double, again, the first double I witnessed as a Celtic fan. Again at Hampden, Aitken was a driving force as we trailed 1-0 to Hearts with two minutes to go. A scrambled goal from a corner kept us in the tie and there was palpable relief at remaining in the cup. Not for Aitken though, he sensed there was a winner in the game and he drove us forward. One more ball into the box, once more Henry Smith in the Hearts goal wilted under Celtic pressure and we were in the final.
That final, oh yes, we were 1-0 down to Dundee United, there was 15 minutes to go, and Celtic won 2-1 with a decidedly late winner. Different days but such a similar outcome and there was such a driving spirit in the team.
From there, things went downhill for Celtic and for Aitken, eventually leaving the club to go down south to Newcastle United.
I saw the Bear at Celtic for around 5 years and even I wouldn’t say they were his biggest years at the club. For older fans, Aitkens performance in 1979 when we beat Rangers 4-2 was the pinnacle. It was the night 10 men won the league after the dismissal of Johnny Doyle and Aitken was a hero. On the final day of the 1981/82 season, Celtic only needed a win at home to St Mirren to clinch the title. At half-time, it was 0-0 at Celtic Park and our nearest rivals Aberdeen were trouncing Rangers. If Celtic failed to win and Aberdeen could add one more goal to the four they had scored by half-time, Celtic would lose out. It was before my time, but even the video footage of the second showed how much it meant to Aitken and how much he drove the team forward. Celtic ended up running out 3-0 winners and Celtic Park celebrated once again.
Fans who didn’t like Aitken can write the same style of article as I have, swapping the bad for the good. The (harsh) red card at Hampden in the 1984 final, the inability to clear the danger against Partizan Belgrade and countless slips, careless passes and being caught out of position which cost us when a calmer head would have prevailed led many to take a dislike to Aitken.
I have absolutely no problem when people say that they didn’t actually like Aitken as a Celtic player. That’s their choice, not for me though. Even in the years I watched him play for the club, my formative years as a football fan, Aitken was a leader, an inspiration, and he was partly responsible for so many of the happiest days of my life. As a fan, there isn’t that much more you can ask for than that. Happy birthday Roy!