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Bhoys are back

Historic Celtic FC made stop at Fenway in 1931

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / July 21, 2010

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Celtic Football Club played its first game on “an unusually cold evening in late May of 1888,’’ according to “Celtic: A Complete Record 1888-1992.’’ Celtic defeated Rangers, 5-2, beginning a rivalry that transcends sport, kicking off the history of one of the most widely-followed clubs in the world.

The Celtic right halfback in that match was Willie Maley, soon to become secretary-manager, essentially having the final say in everything from lineups to meals for most of his 52-year involvement with the club. In 1931, Maley took Celtic FC on a North American tour that included a May 30 stop at Fenway Park. The idea was to establish a transoceanic tie between the Irish/Scottish Catholic communities and also to test the team’s competitiveness.

Celtic lost, 4-3, to a team called the New York Yankees at Fenway and Maley apparently was not impressed by the opposing goalkeeper, John Reder, who would go on to play a season as a first baseman for the Red Sox. But the next day’s game in Tiverton, R.I., stuck in Maley’s mind, as this time Celtic was blanked, 1-0, with Fall River SC’s James Turnbull “Joe’’ Kennaway delivering a spectacular performance.

And when Celtic needed a goalkeeper later that year, following the death of John Thomson, Maley contacted Kennaway. In October 1931, Kennaway boarded a ship for Liverpool, arriving in Glasgow, where he would become Celtic’s starting goalkeeper until 1939, the end of the Maley era.

“They didn’t accept him for a while, he was Protestant,’’ said Kennaway’s son, James, who lives in North Kingstown, R.I. “But it is quite a bit of history.’’

Ties to New England
The ties between Celtic FC and New England are lengthy. There are enough passionate supporters and enough casual ones, many of whom identify with the club’s Irish Catholic origins, to likely fill Fenway for tonight’s exhibition against Sporting Clube de Portugal. Most of the associations are ephemeral, but the Kennaway connection proved to be crucial for Celtic, which won two Scottish league titles and three Scottish Cups with him in goal. After the ’38 championship, the club would not be Scottish champions again until 1954.

This will be the first soccer game at Fenway since it was home to the Boston Beacons in 1968. In the 1920s and ’30s, though, soccer rivaled baseball for fans, and New England professional teams contracted some of the best players in the world.

Kennaway’s parents were from Dundee, Scotland, and he was born in Montreal, where he played ice hockey and soccer. In 1926, Kennaway performed for the Canadian national team against the United States, and the next year he joined Providence in the American Soccer League. Kennaway’s rivals and teammates included most of the US players who reached the semifinals of the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay. Kennaway also would perform for Scotland’s national team against Austria in 1933, his further participation limited by his Canadian birth.

Professional soccer had declined by the time Kennaway returned to Rhode Island, but he remained involved in the game as head coach at Brown University from 1946-59. Kennaway died in 1969 and his sons, James and Bruce, continue to follow Celtic as fans “when they are on tour,’’ James said.

Few can trace their roots to the club as deeply as James Kennaway, who was born near the Parkhead stadium.

But Celtic FC has become much bigger than any individual, symbolizing Irish immigrant identity and also a commitment to a stylish, attacking philosophy of play.

The club was founded as a charitable organization by Brother Walfrid, a Marist priest. Though Catholicism was a driving force behind the club, Celtic has not been as historically exclusive as its rivals, Rangers.

“The fact is they are one of a handful of sporting teams in the world — Montreal Canadiens, Barcelona, Chivas — identified with a region, with a nationalistic tinge to them, and certainly a religious identification,’’ said Dick Johnson, curator at the New England Sports Museum. “They have an ironclad identity based on sociological, religious, economic factors — all these layers.

“And Celtic has a universal following. Unfortunately, the way the football world is working now they are a little on the outside looking in competitively and economically. But they can hold up their heritage to any of the great European clubs, Manchester United, Juventus, Milan, Real Madrid. And they will always be the first British club to win a European Cup.’’

Celtic horizons expanded in 1967, when the club defeated Inter at Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional to win the Champions Cup. The coach of that team was Jock Stein, who matches Willie Maley among the club’s transcendent figures. Stein and all of the ’67 Celtic players were born within a short distance of Celtic Park, their success against world renowned stars of Inter eliciting a unique combination of local and nationalistic pride.

Shifting playing field
Celtic has struggled to match those accomplishments in the face of the commercial advances of the game. Celtic (42 titles) and Rangers (53) have outgrown the Scottish Premier League, their dominance unchallenged since the mid-’80s. Both clubs have attempted to break away, proposing to join England’s Premiership or starting a transnational league of European clubs with similar ambitions.

“They have toyed with going to the Premiership, but if they leave that would effectively kill the Scottish league, and they have taken that under consideration,’’ Johnson said. “Also, they would be trading a midlevel placing in the EPL for a rather guaranteed place in the Champions League. It’s tricky for them.

“But the fact is, over the past half-dozen years, they have played some great games. One of those was four or five years ago against Barcelona, it finished nil-nil and it was a classic game, beautifully played. On a given day, they can play with any team in Europe, but they are always the underdog against the elite teams.’’

Celtic supporters are encouraged by the current team’s direction under Neil Lennon, a former Celtic player from Northern Ireland. The Bhoys (the team’s other nickname is The Hoops, for its horizontal-striped uniforms) lost to the Philadelphia Union (1-0) and Manchester United (2-1) in Toronto, then defeated the Seattle Sounders (2-1) on this tour in preparation for a Europa League opener at Sporting Braga in Portugal next week.

“I always liked their style of play, their attacking mentality and how they were always going forward,’’ Duke University coach John Kerr said. “That resonated with me, the way I like the game to be played. Neil Lennon personifies what Celtic is, he loved playing for the club and he loves what he is doing, and supporters really respect that. They feel like they are kicking every single ball along with him.’’

Kerr, whose father began his professional career in Scotland, played host to a weeklong Celtic preseason as coach at Harvard University in 2006 before Celtic played to a 1-1 tie with the Revolution at Gillette Stadium in only their second New England appearance since the ’30s.

Kerr expects tonight’s match to have an intimate feel similar to being in Europe or in some of the new soccer-specific stadiums in Canada and the United States.

“It should have the same atmosphere from a fan’s viewpoint as in Europe, a close-in stadium, great venue,’’ Kerr said. “For the American fan, they are going to say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the kind of electricity you have in a European environment or like they have in Toronto.’ If you had the same kind of environment in Boston, you could sell out a 20,000-25,000 stadium every week.’’

About 200 ticket-buyers will be from the crowd that regularly views televised Celtic matches at Bad Abbots pub in Quincy.

“I never thought in a hundred years I would see them at Fenway, of all places,’’ said Dennis Ruddy, a West Roxbury resident who has had season tickets to Celtic Park since the early ’90s. “When I plan trips home, I make sure they are playing, so I usually get to see them at least once a year. If not, my nephew over there uses the ticket. But the Bhoys are coming to me for a change.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

Celtic vs. Sporting Clube de Portugal
What:
Exhibition soccer
When: Tonight, 8
Where: Fenway Park
TV: NESN

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