He has stood down from stand-up but Billy Connolly has gone into time added on in an exclusive interview with Sportsmail that reveals the laughs and the lessons offered by football.
Comedy is the focus of the Big Yin’s genius but fitba’ is his passion. Both unite to produce tales of how he marched towards the Jungle at Celtic in a Rangers scarf, how he was asked to autograph a police horse, how a player who could sing a bit was his favourite and how Ross County fans lifted his spirits after a dispiriting defeat.
There are also nods to Denis Law, John Greig and the Hunchback of Nuthin’ Daein’.
Connolly’s exit from the stage will be marked by a special programme — It’s Been A Pleasure — on ITV on Monday, December 28. But he’s still on the ball, still on form in this love letter to Scottish fitba’.
Billy Connolly, an avid Celtic fan and football supporter, opens up on his love for the game
Connolly, pictured with Rod Stewart at Celtic Park in 2011, has stood down from stand-up
What kind of player were you?
I was never really a great player. I was keen, always gave 100 per cent and, as the old saying goes: “Everyone loves a trier”. The last organised game I played in was in the mid-70s when I guested for a Radio Clyde select team in a charity match.
I think Jimmy Gordon, who later became Lord Gordon, was the driving force behind that one. We played at Blanefield and I think the cash we raised was to build changing facilities for the local team.
Didn’t disgrace myself but the best part was half-time when I could get a quick cigarette. Always the athlete. Changed days. I used to smoke back then.
Can you remember your first big match?
Attending? It was probably back in the mid-50s. Celtic had some good players but, to be honest, they weren’t a great side. They had guys like Bertie Peacock, Charlie Tully, Willie Fernie, Bobby Collins and Bobby Evans.
You would think with players of that calibre in the side, they might have won a few things. Willie Fernie was a great dribbler. The ball was stuck to his feet like a magnet. And I remember Bobby Collins had thighs like tree trunks. Wee Bobby went on to play for Leeds and was their Player of the Year and a bit of a legend down Elland Road way.
I also went to Firhill a couple of times with some pals, but don’t really have any stand-out memories of the Jags. Mind you, I have tried to forget their 4-1 victory over Jock Stein’s Celtic in the League Cup final in 1971 but it never goes away! Great result for the Maryhill Magyars.
The Celtic team of the 1950’s, including the likes of Bertie Peacock, Charlie Tully, Willie Fernie, Bobby Collins and Bobby Evans, was who Connolly first went to watch live
Who was/is your favourite player and why?
As a nation, we have produced some great players. Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Denis Law, to name but a few. All world-class players.
In recent times, Henrik Larsson was brilliant. Scored goals out of nothing. Ally McCoist did a similar job for Rangers. But for me, wee Jimmy Johnstone wins it.
Jinky was unstoppable. Absolute genius. He would get kicked all over the park by defenders who towered over him and yet just pick himself up and get on with it. I also have to say that the wee man wasn’t a bad singer either.
Jimmy Johnstone was Connolly’s favourite player, describing him as an ‘absolute genius’
When were you happiest at a football match?
I have quite a few happy memories from games I have attended. I don’t just mean Celtic games, either.
When Scotland qualified for the 1974 World Cup, the game against Czechoslovakia was amazing, as was the qualifier against Wales at Anfield for the 1978 World Cup.
I went out to Germany a week or so before the 1974 World Cup kicked off that year to entertain the Scotland team. Willie Ormond was the manager. It was early on in my career and, although I was getting quite well known in Scotland, a lot of the Scottish guys who played in England didn’t know much about me. I think I was a bit of a shock to some of them.
I remember Denis Law coming up to me and saying I was the funniest guy he had ever heard. I loved that. I was in among some of my footballing heroes and here they were telling me how much they had loved the gig. Great times.
As far as Celtic happy moments go, fortunately there have been many over the recent history but one that stands out was down at Love Street in ’86 when Celtic had to win by five clear goals and Hearts had to lose at Dundee. Celtic went five up and played brilliantly and then we all had our wee transistor radios on listening to events unfold at Dens Park.
Albert Kidd scored twice to give Dundee a win and Celtic, under David Hay, the title. It was mayhem and a memory I will always treasure. To this day, there is even a Celtic Supporters’ Club called the Albert Kidd Celtic Supporters’ Club.
Scotland’s qualifier against Wales at Anfield for the 1978 World Cup is one of Connolly’s fondest memories
When were you the most miserable? (We’re Scots, so there has to be a sad question)
I try to take the positives of life on board and I don’t dwell on misery. What is the point? You are not going to change it. Anyway, with football you always try and block out the bad moments with the happy ones.
Oddly enough, when Celtic lost the Scottish Cup semi-final against Ross County in 2010, my spirits were lifted almost instantly. I was walking past the County fans and they all started to chant my name. I went right in there and stood among them blethering away and signing things. I realised how much this win at Hampden had meant to them all. It was a day to remember for ever for them.
What was the funniest thing that happened to you at a match?
There have been a few. But a couple stand out. Some time ago, a Celtic select side were playing against a Manchester United select and a huge crowd turned up. I was there with a pal of mine and Celtic had kindly organised a car-parking space when the school was at the bottom of what is now Celtic Way.
We came out through the gates and were immediately swamped with fans. It was chaos. Everyone wanted photos or autographs. We were getting nowhere and my pal, Russell, pushed his way through the crowd and managed to get two security guards to help clear a path. That didn’t work. Next thing Russell arrived with two big Glasgow polis.
Progress was slow and one of the cops called in for support. Next thing was another two of Glasgow’s finest arrived but this time on horseback.
Now we were getting places. Just as we got to the fenced area at the front door, one of the Mounties patted the a*** of his horse and quipped: ‘Billy, would you sign this?’
Connolly (left) celebrates as Neil Lennon (centre) lifts the Scottish league title at Celtic Park
The other bizarre thing that happened was also at a Celtic match. It was a European tie, I can’t remember who was playing. I arrived in Glasgow from my home up at Braemar and parked my car in the Merchant City for a bite to eat with my daughter. Cara.
When I returned to my car, I discovered that it had been broken into and my bag with a change of clothes, my medicines and everything needed for a couple of nights’ stay in Glasgow, was gone.
I bought a change of clothes and made my way to Celtic Park, again with Russell. At half-time, we came downstairs from the stand when a big polis with the white braid on the cap collared me. He said that they had recovered my bag with everything intact and that we could collect it at London Road police station after the game.
Seems a wee woman in High Street had been having a famous Glasgow ‘windae hing’ observing everything going on around the Glasgow Cross area, including the wee gardens that used to be there. She spotted a guy opening a bag, looking at what was inside and then throwing the lot into the bushes. She phoned the police and they duly recovered the bag.
When we went to get the bag after the game, the big desk sergeant had it to hand. A lot of the police who had been on duty at the game were also arriving back. They were brilliant. I said: ‘I have been lucky enough to travel the world and I have never met a better police force than the Glasgow Polis’.
They retrieved my bag and had it returned to me before I even had the time to report it stolen. The big sergeant had a great reply: ‘Billy, with respect, the thief probably looked in the bag and thought who the hell is going to buy a green-and-white-striped suit to fit a 6ft 1in guy in Glasgow?’ Great stuff.
What was the funniest thing you heard at a match?
That is an easy one, not sure if it is the funniest, but it is a memory that will never leave me. There was a testimonial game at the old Celtic Park. Must have been the early 70s and Jock Stein got in touch asking me if I would referee the game for a couple of minutes.
Connolly meets George Best at a dinner at the Grovenor Hotel, London on February 6, 1977
Up I trot to the stadium and I am warmly greeted by the legendary Mr Stein, who shows me into the changing room to don the ref’s gear.
I am confronted with a Rangers tracksuit, Rangers scarf and Rangers tammy. I said to him: ‘I can’t run out there with this on, they will eat me.’ The Big Man laughed and said: ‘They will love it and it is only for ten minutes.’
Okay. Out I ran from the tunnel to be met with deafening jeers. I kept running straight out and I went to the old Jungle and produced a red card sending them all off. To this day, I don’t know how the hell it happens, but the fans seem to all have been equipped with some sort of strange communication device that they all tune in to. It happens in every stadium. Anyway, I am standing there frantically waving the red card when, to a man, they suddenly start chanting: ‘You can stick your f*****g wellies up your a***.’ A memory that will live with me for ever.
Your talent brought you into contact with some great football names. Was there one moment when you said to yourself: “This is unreal. I am talking to…”?
I mentioned a couple of the greats earlier and I have been fortunate enough to meet many superb players. Some players are great but for different reasons.
John Greig was a lovely man to meet even though when he played the corner flags wore shin guards. Willie Henderson is another gem. Wee man with a big heart. Always has a smile and life has thrown him a couple of lousy shots. Bertie Auld and Bobby Lennox are a great double act. They crack me up. Last time I met Bertie, he introduced himself as the Hunchback Of Nuthin’ Daein’.
Can you explain your love for Celtic?
I am not sure I can explain that. There is more to the club than just the team. The Celtic FC Foundation is the charity wing of the club and I am fortunate to be Patron of the Foundation.
There is more to the club than just the players. There are a host of great people who work there behind the scenes. Ultimately, the work they do reflects on the overall image of the club. I consider myself lucky to be a tiny part of that. Their work in the wider community is to be admired, especially at Christmas when they help many needy families, and especially in the East End of Glasgow.
Connolly is the Patron of the Celtic FC Foundation and considers himself ‘lucky’ to be involved
What do you feel football has given you over the years, emotionally and spiritually?
From a very young age, just about every kid in Glasgow — and Scotland for that matter — learns to kick a ball. Football is a big part of our culture. It means so much to the nation, both at club and international level.
Under Steve Clarke, the national side seems to be taking a nice shape. Football can generate a whole host of emotions and our qualification for the Euros next year gave us all a lift in what has been an extraordinarily difficult year. I can’t wait to see the stadiums full again and be part of the joys and agonies of football once again.