The Mavericks

Tommy McInally: Celtic's clown prince

December 29, 2011
By Robin Hackett
(Archive)

For decades after he left Celtic in the late 1920s, the fans would chant Tommy McInally's name. Willie Maley - the man who spent 43 years in charge of the club - said he was the best player he ever had. However, his alcoholism, obsession with showboating and refusal to bow to authority ultimately ruined his undoubted potential.

Tommy McInally was considered a huge talent in the 1920s
OtherTommy McInally was considered a huge talent in the 1920s

The details surrounding McInally's early life are shrouded in mystery, but it is believed he was born around 1900 and lost his father at the age of three. Certainly he was of Irish ancestry and a firm Celtic fan. He began playing football at school, initially as a centre-back, but was banned from schoolboy football for a year after fouling a sprightlier opponent. During the ban, he signed up with the Croy Celtic junior team, where he became a forward on account of his slight frame, and won a move to the St Anthony's junior side in 1918.

His skills were sufficient to have attracted interest from south of the border - Manchester City made a big-money offer at the time - but he was handed a trial at Celtic in 1919. Celtic were, at the stage, the dominant team in Scotland, having recorded 15 league titles - more than double Rangers' tally - but the young McInally did not bow under the pressure. In his first appearance for the club, a friendly match, he scored a hat-trick in a 6-0 victory.

Maley, already 22 years into his reign, subsequently snapped him up for the 1919-20 season. McInally rewarded him with another hat-trick in a 3-1 win over Clydebank on his competitive debut, and then contributed two goals and an assist as they defeated Dumbarton in their next game. Soon afterwards, he scored what the Glasgow Herald labelled an "overhead shot" to give Celtic victory over Partick Thistle in the Glasgow Cup final.

He was unable to maintain this incredible form throughout the season, and injuries would later restrict his involvement, but he ended the campaign with 36 goals, plus the Glasgow Charity Cup, and was already being billed as a prospective legend. His second season was remarkably similar - McInally scored 36 goals and won the Glasgow Cup and Glasgow Charity Cup - but the 1920-21 campaign offered the first glimpse of the problems that were to unfold.

His fitness was a concern. McInally had great pace, and in David Potter's excellent Tommy McInally: Celtic's Bad Bhoy? he recounts a tale of an advertisement near Parkhead offering a Chevrolet for sale that billed the car "the fastest thing on wheels"; in response, someone had scrawled: "Aye, but is it as fast as Tommy McInally?" In McInally's second season, the car would not have been unduly troubled. He was also briefly suspended for an "indiscretion", thought to be alcohol-related.

It had been an up and down season, and he missed the start of the 1921-22 campaign through injury. When he returned, he took part in the Glasgow Cup final against Rangers, but looked disinterested in the battle, contenting himself with keepie-uppies and showboating as his side slumped to a 1-0 defeat. In a victory over St Mirren the following week, his attitude had improved little. He was booed by the fans, and responded by pretending to put cotton wool in his ears.

Maley told him to mend his ways, and McInally responded with an improvement in form, but several English clubs were interested and Celtic were open to offers. Manchester City returned with a bid, but McInally turned it down on the advice of his mother. McInally later wrote in the Scottish Football Digest that the "cash offered to me made me think of cruising in my own yacht in the Mediterranean", but on discussing the offer returned to the managers of both clubs "with the information that my mother wished me to stay at home".

He stayed on, but a lacklustre showing in a 3-1 Scottish Cup defeat to relegation-threatened Hamilton - during which Maley had kept the team on the field for a half-time rollocking - ultimately spelled the end of his first spell at Parkhead. He barely featured again amid claims of non-existent injuries as Celtic went on to take the league title in his absence. McInally turned increasingly to the bottle, and was placed on the transfer list for £2,500 - a significant sum at a time when the highest ever transfer fee was £5,500.

He joined Third Lanark, the winners of the league in 1904 as well as two Scottish Cups but by this stage struggling to maintain their top-flight status. McInally was a cut above his team-mates, but the lack of quality around him was a clear source of frustration, and he continued to make headlines for the wrong reasons. In January 1923, in a Scottish Cup game against Partick Thistle, he won a penalty, claiming his leg was broken, only to spring from the stretcher and offer a 'thank you' to the medics after the spot-kick was converted.

Thirds finished fourth from bottom, but their enterprising manager, Alex Bennett, still managed to secure a lucrative trip to Argentina during the summer. Scottish football was then viewed by many as the finest in the world, but the representative Scotland team that travelled was made up primarily of the sub-standard Thirds squad, and the Argentine press were less than impressed. McInally's clowning earned an appreciative audience, at least: he earned cries of 'Ole!' from the home fans when dancing around several rough tackles from a brutish defender before eventually picking up the ball and mockingly handing it to his assailant.

While the trip had been beneficial financially, it took its toll on the team in the 1923-24 campaign and, although the familiar questions over his fitness and attitude arose, Thirds were reliant on McInally's goals to avert the drop, finishing just a point clear of relegation.

Things became worse when Bennett left the club; his replacement, John Richardson, showed less patience. McInally was in and out of the team and pining for a return to Celtic, and it appeared he was willing to do whatever was necessary to bring himself back to Willie Maley's attention. In a game at Celtic Park in early January 1925, McInally tripped the referee as the official went to mediate in a scuffle. The referee sent him to the Pavilion, to which McInally replied: "Could you no' make it the Empire, ref? There's a better show there!" Thirds lost the game 7-0, while McInally was suspended and allowed to leave the club.

His wish to return to Celtic was no secret - indeed, he was watching the Bhoys beat Rangers 5-0 in the Scottish Cup semi-final on the day Third Lanark were relegated in March - and Maley, still hopeful of providing a positive paternal influence, re-signed him in May 1925.

McInally promised to work hard and stay off the drink, and 1925-26 proved one of his most successful campaigns. Celtic won the title for the first time since his departure in 1922, and reached the Scottish Cup final. McInally won his first cap for Scotland in February 1926 in a 4-0 win over Ireland and, although not selected for the following game against England, he was restored to the team for a 3-0 win over Wales in October.

Willie Maley
OtherWillie Maley said Tommy McInally was the best player he ever had

The good news continued. In 1926-27, Celtic won the Scottish Cup - then the most prized competition in the land - and McInally was at his impudent best in the final as they saw off East Fife. The Second Division part-timers actually took the lead, but Celtic won 3-1 and it was a game in which, The Guardian noted, they were "never seriously threatened". During the contest, McInally performed Charlie Chaplin impersonations, played keepie-uppy and deliberately fired his shots high into the crowd for the amusement of the spectators, if not his manager.

The 1927-28 campaign saw a return to his impudent worst, with his weight ballooning intolerably. Although he helped the side defeat Rangers in the Glasgow Cup in October, he was sent off in the Old Firm clash in the league a week later for persistent complaints to the referee. His actions provoked trouble in the stands and he was suspended for two weeks.

There were off-field problems when he returned - presumably alcohol-related - and he was suspended for a further three weeks, but begged to be given another chance during the festive period. He came back into the side, and was part of a New Year run that involved a win against Rangers and a 9-0 defeat of Dunfermline.

A Scottish Cup game at minnows Keith followed, and a local tailor had apparently offered the Keith players a free suit if they could score against the mighty Bhoys. Celtic ran up a 5-0 lead, but McInally apparently then deliberately provided an assist for an opponent for his own amusement. Celtic went on to win 6-1, but McInally went AWOL for several days in the aftermath.

He returned in March but, when his team-mates played a prank on him, stormed out again. In April, he was back in the team after Maley again offered a pardon, but it had a disastrous effect on form and Rangers were able to take the title. Worse, Celtic lost 4-0 to Rangers in the Scottish Cup final in front of a 118,115-strong crowd.

At the end of the season, he was sold to Sunderland for what the Daily Express called a "heavy fee". McInally was named captain, but it was clear that his heart was still with Celtic and his poor fitness and work-rate saw fans turn on him by the end of the campaign.

He was given a free transfer, and, in an interview with the Sunderland Echo in which he was largely complimentary about his team-mates and the club, mentioned that he had been kept out of the team by "novices", provoking further controversy among the Roker Park faithful. He would be competing with novices once more when he joined Bournemouth and Boscombe in Division Three (South) in November 1929, and he then moved on to Scottish top-flight side Morton and Derry City in Ireland, but his best days were palpably behind him.

He had the chance to appear before the Celtic Park crowd at Patsy Gallacher's benefit match in 1932, but was reduced to the role of linesman - even so, he managed to play the clown for the crowd that day.

He would return to Glasgow at the end of his playing days, and would later work briefly as a scout for the club as well as writing articles on the game. Alcohol, though, remained a lifelong problem, and he died, unmarried, of throat cancer on December 29, 1955. "That he was a great player there is no doubt; that he could have been even greater, there is equally little doubt," the Glasgow Herald obituary read. "No player however derived more enjoyment from his football, and in the days when his playing career was over, he did not hesitate to say that he 'lived' football."