“Willie Maley was his name, and he brought some great names to the game, when he was the boss at Celtic Park.” These lyrics are near and dear to many Celtic fans around the world, and today we will discuss the gentleman behind them, the “man who made Celtic”, Willie Maley.
He was born in April 1868 in Newry, North Ireland, with his family moving to the outskirts of Glasgow the following year in Cathcart. Leaving school in his early teens, he worked at a printworks and telephone company for some time before being trained as an accountant with a local accounting firm in Glasgow.
While he played with Third Lanark in 1887, he would become one of Celtic’s first players in 1888 as a midfielder and defender until 1897. During this eleven-year span, he would make 70 appearances for the club. During this nine-year span, he would be a part of three league championships, two Scottish Cups, and four Glasgow Cups.
Maley would also make two appearances for the Scotland national team in 1893, in games against England and Ireland.
In 1897, the 29-year-old Maley would be appointed by Celtic as the club’s first manager, signaling a shift from the club’s recent vast spending on players to a focus on youth development from the area.
This new focus would immediately return dividends, with the club winning a league title in his first season as manager, the first of what would be 16 by the time he retired.
According to Matt Evans of the Football Times, Maley had a quirky managerial style, generally staying very hands-off with the team, letting them find out the starting XI from local papers, and avoiding the training pitch. He instead focused on scouting young players and future talent for the club.
Some of the talents found under Maley would include the likes of legends such as Jimmy McMenemy, James Young, Patsy Gallacher, Jimmy Delaney, and Jimmy McGrory.
The early 20th century would see immense success for the club under Maley, including six straight league titles from 1905 to 1910, with another five from 1913 to 1919. Over his 43 years as skipper of the Hoops, he would win at least one league title in each decade from the 1890s to 1930s, an incredible feat regardless of the period.
Unfortunately, the club’s success would sharply decline in the late 1930’s, and with the squad facing the bottom of the table in February 1940, Maley would resign his position as manager after an incredible 43 years in charge, with himself then nearing the age of 70.
Under his tutelage, Celtic also managed to break a record within British football for unbeaten matches in a row with 62 (49 wins, 13 draws) from Nov 1915 until April 1917, a feat that wouldn’t be matched until Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic squad passed it in 2017, a century later.
He would also guide the side to 14 Scottish Cups, with at least two in each decade, and 14 more Glasgow Cups during his 43-year tenure with the club.
With a whopping 1,754 matches managed, he lead the side to victory in 1,109 of them (63%), with 351 draws, making him unbeaten in 83% of the matches he managed. He would also retire with 45 total trophies to his name as a manager, and ranked as the 4th most successful manager of all time in terms of major trophies.
Maley’s longstanding success with Celtic paved the way for the club’s later success under the likes of Jimmy McGrory, Jock Stein, and Billy McNeill for the next four decades. The Celtic era under his leadership would set the precedent for the club ever since in terms of both playing prowess and youth development.