In XI issue two, Tom McCabe recounts the story of Hugh O’Neill, an American raised a Celtic fan who signed for Rangers in the 1970s. Check out this excerpt and subscribe now to receive this and 10 other stories on Americans abroad for issue two of XI.
Sitting on a stool inside the Irish American Club in Kearny, New Jersey, in between sips of his $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon, Hugh O’Neill talks about 1966 as if it were yesterday. His beloved Celtic Football Club of Glasgow, Scotland, visited the members-only social club during a summertime tour, and a 13-year-old Hughie met his sporting heroes in the flesh. “I stood outside the front door on Kearny Avenue and got them all to autograph a team photo. When they beat a New Jersey select team at Kearny High School, 6-0, in front of 7,500 fans, I was the ball boy,” he recalls. “Jimmy Johnstone was my idol, but he didn’t play that day because he had horrible sunburn. That tour helped build a team that went on a great run.”
Celtic supporters call that magical 1966-67 season “The Quintuple” as a side made up of players all from within a thirty-mile radius of Celtic Park won five different competitions: the Scottish League, Scottish League Cup, Scottish Cup, Glasgow Cup and, most importantly, the European Cup. Celtic became the first British team to lift the prestigious trophy when they toppled Inter Milan at Lisbon’s National Stadium; they have been called “The Lisbon Lions” ever since. The barroom at “The Irish” still pays tribute to those green and white heroes of 45 years ago: a replica of the European Cup sits behind the bar, and pictures of the historic team hang on the walls.
O’Neill knows his Celtic F.C. history—he can still rattle off the starting eleven from 1967—but few people know that he is part of a little known chapter in Scottish soccer history. In 1976, after his first year in the North American Soccer League, a 21-year-old Hugh went on loan to Celtic’s bitter crosstown rival, Rangers Football Club. Although Maurice “Mo” Johnston is often recognized as the first “known” Catholic to play for Rangers when he signed in 1989, Hugh O’Neill was really the first. If Hugh had broken into the first team during his six-month spell at the Glasgow club, he would surely be recognized as one of soccer’s great trailblazers.