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Remembering Gil Heron

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Even into the post-war era, the number of black players who had plied their trade in British football still stood in the single figures. When Celtic signed their first non-Caucasian player, Gil Heron, the press, ever prone to glibness, dubbed him “the Black Flash”. And the received wisdom regarding Heron is that he was rather a flash in the pan, an exotic wayfarer who briefly tantalised but ultimately failed to deliver on his promise.

So abbreviated in fact was the Jamaican-born striker’s impact at Celtic that there was little fanfare when he died a year ago, aged 86. Unquestionably, however, the memory of him resonates in Celtic folklore. When Heron came to Glasgow he left a son – Gil Scott-Heron – at home with his mother. Now 61, Scott-Heron would go on to become a radical jazz poet and soul singer and write a whole new chapter in the history of American music in the 1960s and 70s, but his father’s own life was, in many respects, just as remarkable.

Besides being a footballer, Heron was by turns a pilot, a boxer, a cricketer and a football referee. He was also a photographer and a jazz aficionado and later became a published poet in his own right. Born in Kingston, he moved with his family to Canada and as a young man enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. He showed promise both as an athlete and a boxer but in 1946 signed full-time for Detroit Wolverines and was their top scorer as they won the North American Professional Soccer League in its inaugural season.

By the time he was spotted by Jimmy McGrory’s scouts on a summer tour of North America in 1951, he was already 28 and playing for Detroit Corinthians in the more prestigious American Soccer League. Invited over to Celtic Park for a trial, he was offered a contract and made a scoring debut in a 2-0 win over Morton in the League Cup. But after netting twice in his first three games for his new club, Heron only made two more appearances before being released the following summer. And after short spells at Third Lanark and Kidderminster Harriers he soon returned to the States.

Sean Fallon, now 87, was Celtic goalkeeper at the time. “Gil had a lot of ability,” he says. “He was big, over six feet, slim, and he had good skill, but he didn’t really get on in the team for whatever reason.”

Tom Campbell, the Celtic historian, offers one reading of the situation in his book Charlie Tully, Celtic’s Cheeky Chappie. In it he states Heron was “a victim of the cliques operating within Celtic Park”, making it clear that Heron and certain others were not popular with Tully, winger Jock Weir and striker John McPhail.

“Five games and two goals is not a bad return,” Campbell says. “And they were two beautiful goals. I remember being in the jungle for his first game, a soaking wet night, and he beat Jimmy Cowan, who was the Scotland goalkeeper, from 20 yards. The next one, against Airdrie, again in the League Cup, was another spectacular goal.

“He was a wee bit of a phenomenon – I think there was an element of it being a publicity stunt when he signed. But to be perfectly honest I thought he had good potential as a player, he was tall and athletic and he had a good burst of speed, but his team-mates didn’t support him.

‘The official view was that he lacked persistence, he wasn’t chasing every ball or making wild tackles, and maybe he wasn’t quite adapted to the physical nature of Scottish football. He was probably more akin to a modern-day striker than the old-fashioned kind in that regard; he was a stylish player. But when John McPhail came back from injury Heron only played two more games.

“There were definite cliques within the club. McPhail was a charismatic character, he was the centre forward and he’d won the Cup for Celtic in 1951, but I think the other players kind of played to him, and almost visibly resented any player trying to take his place. There wasn’t quite the professionalism there should have been.”

Another of the surviving members of Celtic’s 1951 side, Willie Fernie, now sadly has Alzheimer’s, but his wife Audrey, who was McGrory’s secretary at the time, remembers Heron as “a very pleasant chap” who often carried photographic equipment with him and once took pictures of herself and others in the billiards room at Celtic Park.

And photography was but one of his interests: while in Scotland he managed to play cricket for both Poloc and Ferguslie, and when he stopped playing football, following a second spell at Detroit Corinthians, he became a referee. Later in life he devoted himself to music and poetry and in 1993 published a collection of verse which included a eulogy for the Celtic of his day (“a bit doggerel but very effusive about Celtic”, according to Campbell).

“We used to call him Mr Music,” says Fallon. “I think he was into the music more so than the football probably, which I think let him down a wee bit. He liked the bright lights.”

It is possibly true then that Gil Heron made as much of an impression on drab post-war Glasgow with his zoot suits, his yellow shoes and his appetite for jazz as he did with his football: besides being skilful and quick on the park, he was a dandy off it, a “flash” of colour indeed in a world of grey.

“He was exotic for the time,” says Campbell. “And he would be seen around town. The Celtic players used to hang around after training in Lewis’s on Argyll Street, where you could play the records on the pretext that you were going to buy them later on.

“Footballers in those days weren’t the peacocks they’ve become. They just had a couple of suits and a sports jacket. This guy was a bit different.” A fleeting presence in Scottish football, Gil Heron was nevertheless a pioneer, and in more ways than one.