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  • Where are they now? Denis Connaghan

    Where are they now? Denis Connaghan

    By: Mark Henderson on 03 Jun, 2013 12:31

  • OVER the past 12 months, the Celtic View tracked down some of the club´s unsung heroes to look back on their career highlights and discover what happened to them after exiting Paradise.
    So interesting were these stories that, during the summer, we will be reproducing these interviews on the official website. First-up is former Celtic goalkeeper, Denis Connaghan...
    Denis Connaghan was one of a select band of players to have had two spells at Celtic. On the books of the club as a youngster, the keeper was allowed to leave in 1963 just prior the most glorious period in Celtic´s history.
    Although no-one was more pleased than Connaghan to hear the Hoops had become kings of Europe in 1967, he always hoped that one day he would return to Paradise, the place where it all started.
    After years of rumours, his dream was realised as Jock Stein brought the shot-stopper to Celtic in the wake of the shocking 4-1 defeat to Partick Thistle in the 1971 League Cup final.
    For most of his Celtic career, Connaghan was in a fierce battle with Evan Williams and Ally Hunter for the No.1 jersey as the Hoops continued to dominate Scottish football.
    His treasured moments are winning the Scottish Cup against Dundee United in 1974 and being the hero in a penalty shoot-out in the Drybrough Cup final of that same year as Celtic defeated Rangers.
    In 1976, after making 56 appearances, Connaghan departed for Clydebank in search of first-team football. Spells at several clubs followed before he called time on his career and dedicated his free time to helping his three children in their sporting pursuits. At present, he continues to work, delivering medicine to chemists across Scotland, something he thoroughly enjoys.
    Some supporters may not know you were on Celtic´s books as a youngster but were released in 1963. What lay behind your initial departure from Paradise?
    At that time there were six goalkeepers. I was going to America for a short period of time for a family wedding and I think there were some crossed lines and they thought I was actually moving to America but I was only going for a month for my sister´s wedding. So I was allowed to go after a year. I was a provisional signing and I played a few reserves games as the reserve team was going then. I had been out at Yoker while at Celtic so I went back junior again and went to Renfrew.
    You must have been playing with a lot of talented young players in that reserve team, with the likes of Jimmy Johnstone and other members of the Lisbon Lions squad part of the youth set-up?
    The Lions were coming through and even the ones who were more experienced - big Billy was coming through with John Clark who were both in their early 20s. Dick Beattie, John Fallon and Frank Haffey were the keepers there at that time and then you had the likes of Duncan McKay, Jim Kennedy and Paddy Crerand, before he went down south. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Alec Boden was there and Johnny Higgins looked after the young players at that time when they trained at the park in the evenings.
    After you left and eventually went on to establish yourself at St Mirren, Celtic entered that period of dominance in Scottish football and won the European Cup in 1967. Did you feel a pang of regret watching it from afar?
    I actually made my debut for St Mirren against Celtic in 1966 and played against roughly the Lisbon Lions team. You often wondered what might have been, but you can´t dwell on it too much as what’s for you, won´t go by you. However, you always live in hope that the chance might come along again and in my case it did come along about four or five years later. You still want Celtic to do well, deep down. No-one more was amazed or delighted than me when Celtic won the European Cup. I was out in America when I got a phone call to say that they had won it. Even before I went to America, I was still going to the games. I remember going to the Vojvodina and the Dukla Prague ones. You did think what might have been, but you can´t dwell on it or it can hold you back. You have to be positive and do your best, and fortunately in my case I got the opportunity to return again.
    Not many players come back to Celtic. What were the circumstances of your move back to the club?
    It took around three years or something! I came back from America and I actually had a meeting arranged with Jock Stein as the announcer at Celtic was actually an ex-school teacher of mine called John Murphy. I had met him and he asked what I was doing. I had been home for a few months and my intention was originally to go back to America but the deal fell through. I decided to stay here, so John took my up to the park one day to meet Mr Stein but obviously it was a Saturday and Jock had other things on his mind pre-match. So it fell by the wayside and I went back to St Mirren. That was around March or April 1968, and during the course of the next couple of years, there were rumours of Celtic still wanting to sign me but things never materialised. Other goalkeepers got in front of me. Gordon Marshall was there and Evan was signed from Wolves, so you kept thinking if these were actually rumours or were people just telling stories. But after the League Cup final against Partick Thistle which Celtic lost 4-1, I got a call on Sunday to say that big Jock was going to get in touch with me about a possible move to Celtic Park. It was obviously unfortunate circumstances that it brought it along with Celtic losing a cup final, and one of their most surprising defeats in a cup final. I was actually playing that day at East End Park for St Mirren and you could hear the murmurs going around the crowd about the score and we could hardly believe it on the park. So that was how I ended up moving at the end of October, 1971.
    What was it like going back through the doors of Paradise as a Celtic player once again?
    I got a phone call from big Jock. He wanted to meet me at Glen Park as he wanted to keep it quiet and then he eventually said he would meet me at Love Street to save any hassle. So I went down and met him and discussed things and it was never going to be an issue of me about going there, it was just the two clubs being happy. So I went home and thought, ´God, I´ve finally made it´. Although it was disappointing circumstances for the club losing to Partick Thistle, I was just absolutely delighted at the chance to go back and play in such a strong Celtic team, and we proved that by winning the league so many times in a row. And some of the players who were there, I had been in contact with – I was friendly with Harry Hood and I knew Billy McNeill and Jim Brogan as well. I knew quite a lot of the pool, so become part of that was a dream come true.
    For most of your Celtic career, you faced a fierce three-way battle for the number one jersey with Evan Williams and Ally Hunter. What was that situation like?
    It was difficult. If you were in, you were virtually part of the furniture unless you had a couple of bad games. When I went there I played the first 14 or 15 games then I got an injury. Evan got back in again and took the opportunity. That was the year we went on to beat Hibernian 6-1 in the cup final and you were sitting there thinking that should have been me. There were always three goalkeepers at Celtic. Even when I was there as a youngster, as I said before, you had Frank Haffey, John Fallon and Dick Beattie. Down the years I always noticed that. Gordon Marshall, Evan Williams and John Fallon were there, then John went to Motherwell, Gordon went to Aberdeen and I came in, and then within a year Alistair Hunter followed. So there was always a nucleus of three goalkeepers. When Evan moved away, Peter Latchford came in. It was always a hard battle. When you were in it was great, but when you were out there was no bad feeling or animosity between us. The goalkeepers always got on great. It was big Jock´s thought that the goalkeeping position at Celtic Park was one of the easiest jobs going as the team were always doing that much attacking you never had much to do. So when you were out, it was really hard to get back in. But you could get back in when you least expected it. It was hard battle but there was no animosity. We always got on great together.
    Do you have a favourite game from your time at the club that stands out?
    My professional debut for St Mirren against Celtic, which was virtually the European Cup-winning team. We were expected to get hammered as the previous week we had got hammered 5-0 by Rangers, and I actually got told by the coach and that I would lose goals and not to worry about and just to enjoy myself and we ended up drawing 1-1! But as far as for Celtic, playing in the Scottish Cup final when we beat Dundee United meant a lot to me as it meant I now had a cup winner´s medal at last having missed out on the Hibs one. The Atletico Madrid game is always one that is brought up but that wasn’t an enjoyable one because of the way the game turned out. The two games I enjoyed most were the Scottish Cup win over Dundee United when we won 3-0 and the Drybrough Cup win over Rangers on penalty kicks. We had never won it before and I managed to save two penalties. It got me out of jail as the previous week I had thrown the ball into my own net against Airdrie at Broomfield from about 12 yards out - which is pretty hard to do when you are supposed to be a goalkeeper! People still say to that me today: ´Do you remember the day you threw the ball into your own net at Broomfield?´ and I say, ´How will I ever forget that!´ But they can´t remember the following week how I saved two penalties against Rangers in the Drybrough Cup. But those two games mean a lot to me.
    What lay behind your exit from Celtic in 1976?
    You were lucky if you were playing every second or third week and you were turning into a paid supporter. It was myself, Peter Latchford and then Celtic brought in another goalkeeper, Roy Baines from Morton. I had been the one who’d been there the longest and I was the obvious one who would go. And you miss playing. You missed being involved on a Saturday. Big Jock came and asked me how I felt about things and I said I wasn’t really enjoying myself due to the fact I wasn’t playing. So the opportunity came up to go to Clydebank for three months on loan for cover down there. That meant I would be at least getting a regular game every week whether it would be in the reserves or first team. So I decided to move on and take the chance. I had been at Celtic Park for five-and-a-half years and the possibility of getting back in a long-term was basis slim. Peter was well-entrenched and Roy Baines had come in as cover. Tommy Callaghan was at Clydebank at the time so I went down there for a few months. After Clydebank I went to Morton for about 18 months and Clyde for a year, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at those clubs as well, although the pinnacle of my career was at Celtic.
    And you had another period in junior football as well?
    After Clyde, I spent a year with Arthurlie. I said to Craig Brown, who was the Clyde manager at the time, that the younger players deserved a chance. I got involved in the licensed trade at the time and that took up a greater amount of my time, so I went back junior to keep myself ticking over and I ended up getting to the Scottish Junior Cup final with Arthurlie. It was one of these cross-border things – I live in Neilston and there is no love lost between the two! So I went and played for them and we lost in the cup final to Pollok but it was still a chance to play in a cup final at Hampden. Getting over the injuries was getting longer and longer, though, so I decided to give it up but at least I got the opportunity to play at Hampden again, albeit on a losing team.
    Do you keep in touch with any of your former team-mates?
    I speak to Bobby Lennox every so often. Sometimes I´m up at the park because I´m involved with the local junior team and a couple of charities, and I see John Clark. I might meet big Billy at a function or out shopping, while Harry Hood and I were at school together and played in the same school team. From time to time, you get the chance to say hello but unfortunately it´s sometimes more unfortunate circumstances.
    What else occupies your time at present?
    I was involved in the licensed trade for much of the latter part of my life but it had changed a lot and had become a bit of rat race so I had enough of it and took early retirement. After two months I was totally fed-up and now I work from East Kilbride for a pharmaceutical company delivering medicines and controlled drugs around West-Central Scotland to the chemist shops. I could be over the East End of Glasgow and then be down in the south of Ayrshire. I thoroughly enjoy it. It keeps out of trouble and fills me day. I love driving about and seeing a bit of the country. And I also love spending time with my grandkids.
    Next time, we speak to former Celtic defender Mark Reid.

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