This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.
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“I was supposed to play with the primary school team and I was in the class below the rest of the boys but on the day of the game they forgot to come and get me, so I was left in school, in my own class and never made the game. It really affected me and put me off and I never ever played for the school team after that. They would ask me to play and I would make up excuses so I didn’t have to.”
As a boy, Robert Lennox was so painfully shy that he often struggled to join in with all the other boys who were playing football at school. He would never play for St. Mary, his primary school, and the incident he details in the quote above affected his confidence severely.
That boy would go on to be one of the greatest-ever strikers and one of the most decorated players in Celtic Football Club’s history with 25 major honours to his name, including the most famous of all, the European Cup. A shy and modest man, he did almost quit football due to this complete lack of confidence in his early years.
After getting over his earlier fears of playing for the primary school team, Lennox went to St Michael’s College in Irvine and played for its secondary school team. After school and while working as a box maker in ICI Nobel, then the biggest factory in Ayrshire, he was spotted by Celtic scout Joe Connor during a game for Ardeer Recreational, his local junior side. Barely a week after his 18th birthday in September 1961 he signed for Celtic.
His first game was a League encounter with Dundee on 3rd March 1962, which Celtic won 2-1. Match reporter Cyril Horne of the Glasgow Herald described Lennox’s debut game as such:
“Lennox found the pace of his first Scottish League game overwhelming and none of his forward colleagues was capable of coaxing him into confidence.”
Mr Horne of The Herald did note that Bobby was denied a perfectly good goal in his debut (‘I did not detect that infringement’), and Lennox states in his own memoirs that Dundee defender Ian Ure tried to clear the ball, striking his chest, not his hand.
Despite what one gentleman of the press said, Lennox’s confidence would soon grow and he got his first official goal in a 4-4 draw with Third Lanark in September 1963, still only 19 years old. Only three days later he got his first game and goal in European football, away to FC Basel in Switzerland. There would be a total of 67(!) appearances in Europe for Bobby, six of them during that legendary 1966/67 campaign.
Despite all this, it’s safe to say that Lennox’s Celtic career never really got going under the leadership of Jimmy McGrory. In his first three seasons at Celtic he only made 18 appearances and was close to being sent packing to Falkirk. This, along with everything else at the club, changed when Jock Stein arrived in March 1965.
It was Stein who moved Lennox to an outside left position, asked to play there rather than through the middle when John Hughes suffered an injury. Lennox would score in both the semi-final and the subsequent replay against Motherwell that led Celtic to the most pivotal game in the club’s history; the 1965 Scottish Cup final.
This game will forever be remembered as the major turning point in the club’s most successful period to date. Without this victory there would arguably be no Lisbon Lions, there would be no Billy McNeill and there would have been no European Cup.
It was the club’s first piece of silverware since the 7-1 League Cup victory over Rangers in 1957. This was of course also Bobby’s first taste of silverware, and by God it must have made him hungry for more.
The following season Lennox scored 25 goals in all competitions, which included four in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. That season Celtic made it all the way to the semi-finals where they were narrowly knocked out of the competition by Liverpool. Bobby scored the only goal in the first leg at Celtic Park and with Liverpool 2-0 up in the return tie at Anfield, Lennox had a goal in the final minute disallowed, which has always being clouded in controversy. It was the offside flag that denied Lennox his moment of glory, as it often did.
Nicknamed the Buzz Bomb he was known for his blistering pace, and was even too fast for linesmen to keep up. There was one particular game against Dundee United at Tannadice in August 1967 where Bobby scored three goals, but had two of them chopped off for offside. In addition to the officials, it was known that Lennox often left even the spectators bewildered with his speed of movement. He later spoke of the number of goals he could have had in his Celtic career, stating:
“I’m chuffed to have scored 273 times in 589 appearances as a winger for the club, especially since I had about 400 good goals wrongly ruled out for offside!”
The club can be very thankful for the goals that did count. Especially his late winner away to Motherwell in the last game of the 1965/66 season which secured Celtic’s first league title in 12 years.
Lennox has always noted that a personal highlight of his from the 1966/67 season was the Glasgow Cup victory over Rangers at Ibrox. A lifelong Celtic fan, he scored a hat-trick in front of 80,000 people at Ibrox in a 4-0 win, his first goals against Rangers. To add salt to the wounds, Bobby would come back to haunt Rangers once again in the League Cup final in the same season, scoring the only goal of the game.
The Lisbon Lions were special for many reasons: their style of play; their world-class players in Johnstone, McNeill, Murdoch, Chalmers and Simpson; their greatest of all managers in John ‘Jock’ Stein; the supporters who travelled in droves, quitting their jobs and spending all of their life savings just to see the Bhoys underneath the Lisbon sun and the squad’s close proximity to Glasgow.
As the story famously goes the Lisbon Lions were all born and raised within 30 miles of Celtic Park. Every player bar one was born within 10 miles of the ground. That odd man out was Bobby Lennox. Brought up in the seaside town of Saltcoats on the west coast of Scotland he was not a Glasgow boy like the rest and he made a point of noting this in his 2007 autobiography titled ’Thirty Miles from Paradise’ (Jock Stein couldn’t even get Bobby to move from Saltcoats to Glasgow in all the years he played for Celtic).
When Celtic beat Inter Milan on the 25th May 1967 by 2 goals to 1, Bobby played outside left just in front of left-back Tommy Gemmell. He, like the rest of the team and the staff, become immortal that night.
The greatest disappointment of Bobby’s career was Celtic’s defeat at the 1970 European Cup final, describing it as ‘without doubt, the biggest sickener in my entire football career.’
But Celtic and Lennox continued to accumulate trophies and when the club won their ninth consecutive league title in 1974, Bobby had played a part in all of them. He also played in two further European semi-finals; against Inter Milan in 1972, which Celtic lost on penalties, and against Atletico Madrid in 1974 which Celtic lost 2-0 on aggregate when the Spaniards opted for aggressive intimidation and assault in order to turn the tie.
Lennox remains Celtic’s highest goalscorer of the post Second World War era and is the club’s second highest goalscorer, behind Jimmy McGrory. He also scored Scotland’s second goal in the famous victory over the reigning World Champions England at Wembley in 1967.
Bobby departed Celtic, initially, in 1978 when he made a move to the United States of America to play for Houston Hurricane. It was a remarkable given his reluctance to even move to Glasgow. The impact that Bobby had in the six months he spent in Houston is felt today; the Houston CSC is affectionately known the world over as the Bobbly Lennox CSC and the man himself is the Honorary Chairman of the club located almost 5,000 miles away from his home town in North Ayrshire. He played there for all of six months and scored 15 goals in 36 games.
He returned to the club and played his final European tie in March 1980, 17 years after his first, a testament to his longevity at the club. His last ever game was on 2nd May 1980 when he came on as a substitute for Johnny Doyle in the 76th minute of the 1980 Scottish Cup final against Rangers, which Celtic won 1-0 in extra time. Although the lasting memory of the game, for most, will be of the ‘Hampden Riot’ which ended in 210 arrests and 100 injuries, and was the catalyst for the banning of alcohol in grounds up and down the country, it was also the great Robert Lennox’s last starring role in a Celtic jersey.
Not many players can say they have played in three decades with the same club and, even more impressive, say that they have been successful in every decade they played. Bobby retired from football, and Celtic, at the age of 37. In addition to the European Cup, he won 11 league titles, 8 Scottish Cups and 5 League Cups. His mark on the club is indelible: A mainstay in the Lisbon Lions side of the 60s, present at development of the Quality Street Gang in the early 70s and a part of the famous ’10 Men Won The League’ side in the late 70s.
Despite having a mere 10 caps for Scotland, Bobby Lennox deservedly resides in the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. How he only accumulated so few caps for Scotland is baffling, but he joins a list of many great former Celtic players, especially from that era, who suffered the same treatment.
Putting aside the records and his glorious footballing prowess, Bobby’s contribution to Celtic goes way beyond his playing days. Immediately after hanging up his boots he moved into the Celtic coaching staff and worked with the reserves for 13 years. Beyond playing and coaching, Bobby is a Celtic man. He was Celtic daft and in the words of captain Billy McNeill:
“Bobby Lennox knows what it means to wear the Celtic jersey.”
He always had a smile on his face – still do – and even in the 1970s when he was frequently used as a substitute, he never complained. He was the last Lisbon Lion to leave Celtic, and the last one to retire from football all together.
From making excuses to get out of playing for his school team as a young awkward and shy wean to conquering the football world, Robert Lennox’s journey was an incredibly testament to his talent and human qualities.
On 18th November 2018, he was honoured with a statue unveiled in his beloved Saltcoats. The monument was campaigned for by The Bobby Lennox Statue Committee, who worked tirelessly over two years and raised the funds with the support of football fans across the world.
A fitting tribute to a shy, humble and great man.
God bless Bobby Lennox.
This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.
Download the magazine here: