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Empire Exhibition Trophy
The history of Celtic is laced with both moments of supreme triumph and wry irony. But seldom have both factors combined with such pleasing effect as they did in the summer of 1938.
That summer would see Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park play host to the Empire Exhibition. Costing £10 million to stage, the exhibition was intended as a spectacular showcase of the British Empire - an empire which covered a quarter of the globe. It would also be used by Glasgow in a bid to attract new investors into a city hit hard by the economic troubles of the 1930s.
Running from May to October the exhibition site covered 135-acres. It featured hundreds of attractions, with pavillons devoted to all the colonies and dominions as well as to art, engineering and entertainment. It would also be home to Glasgow’s first Indian restaurant.
A magnificent 300ft art deco tower was built on top of Bellahouston Hill and this stunning centrepiece of the exhibition would dominate the city’s skyline. An impressive model of the Exhibition Tower – also known as Tait’s Tower after architect Thomas Tait – would be offered as a prize in a football tournament to commemorate the event.
The Empire Exhibition Trophy was effectively a British championship with the top clubs on both sides of the border invited to compete. All games would be played at Ibrox Park, due to its proximity to the exhibition site at Ballahouston Park.
Scottish champions Celtic would line up with Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts, Brentford, Everton, Chelsea and Sunderland. In their opening tie on May 25th Celtic struggled to hold a highly rated and big spending Sunderland to a 0-0 draw after injuries reduced the Bhoys to nine men. But the Hoops would triumph in the replay the following day when they came from a goal behind to win 3-1.
An excellent Hearts side would be the Celts opponents in the semi-final. With the Celtic defence - and in particular keeper Joe Kennaway - in excellent form the Hoops thwarted the Edinburgh sides attacks before Johnny Crum hit the only goal of the game to book a place in the final. Everton now stood between the Celts and the trophy. The Goodison Park club had easily dismissed Rangers 2-0 in their opening clash before edging out Aberdeen in a 3-2 thriller.
So it was that on June 20th Celtic would take to the field in the final of a competition organised to celebrate the British Empire. That irony that the climax of such an event should feature Celtic would not be lost in those politically charged times.
Here, in this celebration of British – English? – imperialism was a club founded by members of a community which was Irish and Catholic. A nation and a religion this very Empire had often battled against. Indeed it was a battle still being waged on the streets of Scotland.
The inter-war years were a repugnant time in Scottish history. Sectarianism was increasingly rife in the shipyards and steelworks while Motherwell elected an Orange MP. The Presbyterian Church was calling on the repatriation from Scotland of Irish Catholics, using the same vile rhetoric which would later be used by Enoch Powell in his infamous “Rivers of blood…” speech.
In Glasgow The Scottish Protestant League and Protestant Action would take more than a quarter of votes in the local elections of 1933. Two years later Edinburgh would be the scene of ‘Anti-Popery’ riots after more than 10,000 people protested at Catholics celebrating a Eucharistic Congress in the city. Catholic homes and businesses were attacked while those attending the congress, including many women and children, were stoned and beaten by mobs of thugs.
Celtic and its support represented everything these people despised. How it must have then troubled them to see the Bhoys reach the final of a competition celebrating their beloved empire.
The game itself saw a crowd of 82,000 packed into Ibrox. They were to witness an enthralling and tense 90 minutes. The football on display was excellent and the game swung from end to end providing much more entertainment than the 0-0 scoreline suggests.
Everton were a side packed with internationals and would go on to win England’s championship. But they had met their match in a wonderful Celtic side.
Extra-time would decide the victor and with Celtic taking a firm control of the game Johnny Crum hit home the only goal of the game to claim the prize for the Bhoys.
Crum danced a jig of joy behind the net and at full-time the Celtic support celebrated a wonderful triumph with rousing choruses of patriotic Irish ballads such as Dear Little Shamrock.
Soon after the exhibition the British Empire would begin to crumble. Tait’s Tower would be demolished amid fears Nazi bombers would use the landmark as a guide on bombing runs. The outbreak of war and internal mismanagement would mean Celtic’s victorious and gifted team would also be dismantled.
Fortunately the handsome Empire Exhibition Trophy still survives. It remains one of the finest pieces of silverware in the Parkhead trophy room.
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