· Nov 30, 2015

Interview: Paul John Dykes on ‘Celtic’s Smiler’, his book and documentary about Celtic Legend Neilly Mochan

What attracted you to Celtic as a fan?

What has always appealed to me is that Celtic were born out of oppression and a sense of community. Like many football fans, there was never a decision to make. I was born into supporting Celtic and my parents both fed my obsession from an early age. My father took me to the games and my mother bought me old football books on an almost weekly basis. She would scour car boot sales and second-hand shops and I would devour the pages of these books to find out more about football in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

My mum is from High Valleyfield, of Donegal McGuire stock, so I was regularly regaled with stories of the great George Connelly when I was growing up. I was always mystified with his unbelievable ability and wondered, like the rest of Scottish football, why he threw it all away at the age of just 26.

I remember in third year at high school my guidance teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I left the school. My reply was that I wanted to sign for Celtic. The teacher told me not to be so stupid. 20 years later, I signed for Celtic as they decided to release The Quality Street Gang. I always chased that dream, no matter how impossible it seemed.

How did you get into writing and how did this lead to your debut book, The Quality Street Gang?

My older brother has played drums in bands for years and my parents were always massive music fans. The sounds of my childhood ranged from my father’s tastes of David Bowie, Cream, Talking Heads and The B-52s through to my brother’s collection of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd. Music has always been a huge part of my life from celebrating in song at the chapel and Celtic Park to the protest songs we would sing on the way to day-trips during the miner’s strike. It was perhaps a natural progression that my own writing began with music reviews and interviews and I was lucky enough to speak to members of some of my own favourite bands including The Stone Roses and Oasis during that time. Writing music articles and reviews was also a great way of getting free tickets and CDs so it worked well on two levels.

After a couple of years of blagging free tickets, I decided to write something more substantial; a document that would stand the test of time. I had an idea for a music autobiography, which is still a work-in-progress, but I realised that it would be more of a long-term project as musicians spend so much time gigging, writing and recording. That is when I decided to turn my attention to my life-long obsession with Celtic history and, in 2010, I began to write a book on the Quality Street Gang.

How did you approach the story of The Quality Street Gang?

My interest in the career of George Connelly led me to The Quality Street Gang. The photo on the back of the book shows a Celtic youth team from 1968 lining up for a tournament in Casale Monferatto in Italy. I made it my mission to track down all of those players and speak to them about their memories of that period. I traced them all by hook or by crook. Some of them scaled the highest peaks of world football and others ended up on the soccer scrap heap. It was such a bittersweet tale.

I didn’t wish to write a conventional or predictable book about that group of players. It was an unconventional and unpredictable story and I felt that it should be told as such.

Chapter 11, Exile On Kerrydale Street, was a study of sorts into the background and makeup of George Connelly. If the chapter didn’t sit too comfortably within the body of work then that was the intention. As George was an anomaly in Jock Stein’s masterplan, I wanted this chapter to be a bump in the road for the reader. I wanted it to be questioned and for it not to run in tandem with the story, just like George himself.

What led you from writing The Quality Street Gang to telling the story of Neilly Mochan?

We had a fantastic evening at Celtic Park to launch the first book back in 2013 and I invited all the players who had contributed to it. To my great delight, 17 ex-Celts were in attendance that night and it was a really overwhelming experience. John Sludden was there to represent the late Brian McLaughlin and he brought along his cousin, Neilly Mochan Junior. I was then introduced to young Neilly and we discussed writing his late father’s biography.

I have always been a real student of Celtic’s history and Neilly Mochan was a figure that I’d admired from a young age. By the time that I started going to Celtic Park, Neilly was the kitman. However, my father told me all about his exploits as a player and trainer, so I fully appreciated his legendary status in the club’s story. To be given the opportunity to work on such an iconic Celtic man’s life story was an absolute honour and privilege.

How did you then go about writing Neilly’s biography?

In order to do Neilly justice, I had to immerse myself in his story. This began in early 2014 through discussions with his youngest son, Neil. I also spoke to other family members like his brother Denis, his other siblings, nephews and his widow, Mary. Then I took possession of family photographs and newspaper cuttings to get a real flavour of Neilly’s early life. I was also shown his incredible collection of jerseys, medals and other memorabilia, which was an experience in itself.

I studied the Mochan family tree, the history of Neilly’s hometown of Carron and also the Irish immigration of the 1840s that brought his ancestors over to Scotland. I visited the site of his childhood home, the remnants of the Carron Ironworks and his graveside to get a real feel for Neilly’s roots. I needed to do all of that before putting pen to paper in order to achieve a sense of authenticity.

The final part of my research included around three months of intense library archive research and I also interviewed over 50 people who knew Neilly, including Kenny Dalglish, Davie Hay, Bertie Auld, Jim Craig, Stevie Chalmers, Bobby Lennox, John Fallon, Charlie Nicholas, Davie Provan, , Brian McClair, Peter Grant and many more.

The cover of the book displays a striking portrait of Neilly. What is the story behind the cover?

The book cover is so important to me. I will always insist on having a creative influence in the design process of my books because the cover is a representation of the author. The artist, Duncan Mattocks, has been a friend of mine since the late 90s. We used to work together and had shared interests, particularly in music and art.

Duncan moved to Brisbane to follow his dream of pursuing his fine art craft and I followed his progress online, not just due to our friendship but because I love his work and think he is a supremely talented individual.

He offered me a painting as a wedding gift at the end of 2014 and I asked if he fancied tackling a portrait of Neilly for the book cover. I gave Duncan a small black-and-white photo and the painting that he created was just incredible. It has a vintage 50s warmth about it and adds a touch of class to the book. Duncan is such a modest guy and I would like to think that we can collaborate again in the future.

What did you hope to achieve with the release of your second book?

Celtic are unique in so many ways. I feel a great sense of pride in groups of fans like the Celtic Graves Society. What a remarkable role they play and they are such a credit to our club. We also have an unrivalled collection of historians and writers and the canon of Celtic literature must be unmatched in world football. My favourite Celtic authors of the past include the holy trinity of Pat Woods, David Potter and Tom Campbell. More recently we have had outstanding offerings from Richard Purden and Stephen Sullivan so that tradition shows no sign of waning. With all of these talented writers prolifically producing important additions to the collection, I was always surprised that no one had written the story of Neilly Mochan because his Celtic career spanned five different decades and was something of a fairytale.

My greatest aim in writing Neilly’s story was to produce a tribute that the Mochan family would be proud of. That was my priority. I also believe that there are a lot of younger Celtic fans who are unaware of Neilly’s post-war importance to our football club and so it was an opportunity to bring his story to a new audience.

This is a man who played his first four games for Celtic at Hampden Park, scoring four goals and winning two trophies, including the one-off Coronation Cup. The following season, 1953-54, Celtic won their first League and Scottish Cup double in 40 years and Neilly was their top scorer. He then kicked Scotland’s first ever ball in the World Cup finals, when he led the line in Switzerland. Above all of his playing achievements, he will be forever immortalised for scoring a double in Celtic’s record-breaking 7-1 League Cup victory over Rangers in the Hoops’ final 1950s success.

Moving into the 1960s, Neilly’s playing career wound down at Dundee United and Raith Rovers but he returned to Celtic Park as assistant trainer in 1964 and was then made Jock Stein’s first-team trainer in 1965. Neilly coached the Lions and the Quality Street Gang and was part of our golden era when we reached two European Cup finals and two semi-finals as well as winning the 9-in-a-row.

His role changed again with the departure of Stein and he remained at Celtic Park as the club’s kitman for such triumphs as big Billy’s first managerial success when ten men won the league, Davie Hay’s final day league win at Love Street in 1986 and the centenary double of 1988. He was still an integral part of the backroom team when Fergus McCann took over the club in 1994 but he sadly passed away soon afterwards.

Neilly Mochan must have had one of the greatest Celtic careers of all time and it is high time that his tale was told in print and in film.

How did you become involved in the documentary adaptation of Neilly’s story?

Luke Massey is a film maker from Stratford-Upon-Avon and he’s a Liverpool fan who caught the Celtic bug. His previous work was in feature-length movies but he developed aspirations to make football documentaries and he wanted his subject matter to be Liverpool or Celtic-related. Luke picked up a copy of The Quality Street Gang over Christmas 2013 and thought that the story would translate well on to the big screen. We started work on that documentary early in 2014 and it’s a work-in-progress that is now planned for a 2016 release.

During that near two year period, I was working on the Neilly Mochan story and Luke devised a plan whereby we could produce the book and a biopic simultaneously. It was a rather groundbreaking vision on Luke’s part, and a huge undertaking, but we achieved it and they will both be released on Tuesday 01st December 2015.

How did you thereafter adapt the story into film?

Luke and his False 9 Media team came up to Glasgow for three weeks over two separate shoots. They based themselves just off Glasgow Green and we set off every morning on a route that deliberately took us passed St Mary’s in the Calton. We were recording Celtic history and gave the chapel a wee nod as we started our journey every day.

A lot of the documentary was filmed at Hampden Park, as that is where Neilly enjoyed many of his Celtic triumphs, but we filmed in a number of locations that were key to his story including Dunipace and Barrowfield. We interviewed Neilly’s friends, family and ex-Celts as well as football journalists, Celtic authors and club historians. There are interviews in the film that don’t appear in the book and vice versa and that was important to ensure that they both offered something different to the fans.

My main role was as researcher and interviewer and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the movie-making process. I met Andy Walker at Lesser Hampden’s reception and, as we made our way up to the area where we were filming, I had a confession to make to him. He once told the story of receiving his first item of fan-mail after signing for Celtic. The young fan described how much he admired him as a goal-scorer before asking him to try and get ‘s autograph for him. That eight-year-old fan was me and I still have the signed photograph (of Andy) that he sent me. That wee story broke the ice and Walker painted a poignant picture of Neilly throughout his interview.

What has been the reaction to early screenings of the documentary and where will Celtic supporters be able to get a copy of the book and DVD in time for Christmas?

The reviews have been fantastic. Every person we interviewed spoke so passionately about Neilly and that really comes across in the film. There is some brilliant archive footage in there, as well as bespoke animation of the 1953 Coronation Cup final strike. I’m sure the old heads will really appreciate it and younger fans will learn more about the role that Neilly played in the magnificent history of our football club.

The book and DVD can be purchased from smilerdoc.com and Amazon, as well as from all good retail stockists. The Celtic Superstore will also stock copies in time for Christmas and I truly hope fans of our club will enjoy the story of Celtic’s Smiler.

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