Smiler Mochan is a Celtic legend whose name doesn’t crop up as much as it needs to, but I have seen his portrait hanging at Celtic Park.
Celtic Football Club is quite simply the stuff dreams are made of. Started off to help impoverished and starving children in Glasgow, this club has gone on to become one of the world’s great football institutions. The achievements of Celtic players are part of the rich tapestry of this legendary club. Not many servants in the club’s history can boast the pedigree of the late Neilly Mochan, and the launch and release of a new book and documentary have bought this stalwart’s name and achievements right back to the fore.
The art of Duncan Mattocks greets you with a striking portrait of the subject on the front cover. As an avid follower of Scottish football, I decided to delve a little deeper and made contact with Paul John Dykes – author of Celtic’s Smiler, a fascinating biography of the life of one of the greatest players to have worn a Celtic shirt. Smiler is simply an exploration of the life of the amazing Neilly Mochan and his 40-year Celtic Park love affair.
Mochan, whose parents escaped Donegal – one of the most impoverished of areas during the Irish potato famine – has a vastly underrated status within the ranks of who’s who at Glasgow Celtic. He doesn’t make the all-time Celtic legends lists and it is a wonder why, considering his achievements with the Glasgow giants.
Having researched the great man one, of my first questions to Dyke was about Mochan’s worth in the modern game. He said: “A figure like Neilly Mochan would be priceless in the modern game. Not in respect of his monetary value as a player, but for the fact that he instilled so much in the players around him. He looked after young ground staff boys like George Connelly, Brian McLaughlin, Tommy Burns, Charlie Nicholas and Peter Grant and guided them through their early years as footballers. They all respected Neilly and owed a lot of their successes to him.”
Having made his name at Morton, the Carron Cannonball joined the Bhoys after a short stint in the north east of England, brought about because English legend David Jack took a shine to the Scots star and lured him to Middlesbrough. Over five glorious decades Smiler scored over 100 goals for the Bhoys, which assure him a place on the honour roll of the Hoops’ greatest players. He was also part of Jock Stein’s backroom staff and, alongside Jock Stein and Sean Fallon, Mochan trained the never-to-be-forgotten Lisbon Lions.
A the age of 23, Neilly was already known as “Smiler”. It was an affectionate moniker. He was a deceptive striker, and his first hat trick for his beloved Celtic was scored in front of 50,000 home fans. It was the first of many goals scored by Neilly Mochan in the hoops at Celtic Park, an occurrence that was often compared to the effects of a ring carronade cannon.
During the 50s Mochan scored the winner in the Coronation Cup Final, won the double in 1953/54 and hammered an unforgettable brace in the equally unforgettable “Hampden in the sun” 7-1 annihilation of Glasgow Rangers. Smiler made the Scotland squad for the World Cup finals in Switzerland in 1954. He gave unstinted and distinguished service to Scottish football. Mochan was a friend to all. The great Bobby Lennox described him as “a ‘buffer’, the cement between the players and management.” Dykes writes: “Mochan’s tale is Odyssean in its scale. His journey as rich as the passage of time itself, he would go on to become a fabled pioneer of the Scottish game, a progenitor of European trailblazing success, and an undisputed patriarch of Celtic Football Club.”
After retiring from playing the game, Mochan became a loyal assistant to Jock Stein, under whom he was Celtic’s first-team trainer throughout the nine-in-a-row era when the Club was feared throughout the continent, winning their most glittering prize in 1967 on an unforgettable afternoon in Lisbon. Neilly’s successes continued into the 1970s, when ten men won the league in 1979, and into the ’80s, when Celtic captured the 100th Scottish Cup Final in typically cavalier fashion. The following season, he watched from the dugout as Celtic clinched a last-day title win at Love Street, and he was again on hand for the Club’s emphatic League and Scottish Cup double in its centenary year of 1988. Mochan witnessed the dour 90’s and the Fergus McCann takeover. He saw it all until his passing in 1994.
With four decades service and 50 winners’ medals in his kitbag, the Mochan legacy is an indelible part of Celtic folk memory. This book and documentary is the unrivalled story of the man whom team-mates, reporters, opponents and fans alike affectionately referred to as “Smiler”.
Mochan’s brother Denis has the perfect description: “Everyone who knew Neilly Mochan will tell you that he was a joker and a smiler.” He also remembers the light-hearted nature of his big brother. “Our Neilly was never dour. His nickname of ‘Smiler’ was a football thing and we never called him that around the house. When you play football, your team-mates or newspaper reporters often give you nicknames and Neilly’s was ‘Smiler’. He was the oldest of the boys in our house and we used to call him ‘Our Big Yin’.”
The author does somewhat agree that Neilly Mochan has an underrated history at Celtic: “I think the importance of Neilly Mochan has been underrated as he played in an inconsistent and under-achieving team in the 1950s (even though their triumphs were spectacular).
“He was then part of Jock Stein’s back-room team and so he would always be in the shadows there. However, the historians have always lauded his role and I hope that the biography and documentary can keep that fire burning now. I think that the ’50s are not as extensively covered as the ’60s and beyond and for that reason Neilly’s story was in the vaults. Thankfully now I have told it in film and print and I hope a new generation of supporters can learn about Celtic’s Smiler.
“Neilly was a small, powerful, deceptively quick scorer of thunderbolt shots. He could play left wing, centre forward and even left back. There is no one like him! There are a few figures in the history of Celtic Football Club whose stories are legendary but for some reason no one has put them into print. Neilly Mochan served Celtic for 40 years and epitomised everything that was special about the club. It was an absolute honour to be asked by his son to write his story.”
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