The cries were as robust and muscular as the player they were seeking to inspire. This Jungle clamour of ‘Feed the Bear’ was regularly rewarded by John ‘Yogi’ Hughes indulging in something vibrant, powerful and spectacular.
The Celtic player, who has died aged 79, won seven league titles, four Scottish Cups and five League Cups in his spell at Parkhead but was always rueful of the two that got away.
He played in five European Cup ties in the 1967 campaign but declared himself injured before the final, becoming a bystander on Celtic’s greatest day. He played in the European Cup final of 1970 but missed a great chance in extra-time before Feyenoord won 2-1.
‘Stein never forgave me for that,’ he told me two years ago on the 50th anniversary of that campaign.
Hughes was sold to Crystal Palace a year later, then moved to Sunderland before a knee injury cut short his career.
His antipathy towards Stein endured but his disappointment over not playing in Lisbon was leavened by time and the reaction of the other Lisbon Lions, who always brought him into the fold at official events. And by fans who appreciated his gifts, which were mercurial, unpredictable but regularly devastating.
Born in Coatbridge in 1943, he was a talented schoolboy who quickly became a star of St Augustine’s and earned a clout over the head from Jimmy Johnstone’s mum for his precocious talents.
‘She did not believe I was under 12 and eligible for the primary school team,’ says Hughes after his school had beaten Jinky’s St Columba’s of Uddingston. ‘She whacked me with her brolly after the match.’
After a brief spell with Shotts Bon Accord, Hughes signed for Celtic in 1959 and played for the club he loved throughout the sixties. He played 416 matches for the club, scoring a highly creditable 189 goals.
But this statistic, however impressive, does not give a true gauge of his greatness. Standing 6ft 2in and robustly constructed, Hughes was best measured in moments and in outstanding performances.
He was good enough to make his debut as a 17-year-old in 1960 as Celtic endured a time of consistent underachievement. Hughes was strong enough in mind and body to survive until the Stein era began in 1965. The medals then flowed even if the disappointments could not be fully staunched.
Hughes was capable of playing on either wing or as centre forward. He was most regularly employed as an outside left where he complemented his excellent scoring record by providing chances for such as Willie Wallace, Stevie Chalmers and Joe McBride.
The highlights of a career strewn with honours can be picked out quickly by those who saw him in full flow. He was calm enough to score two penalties, aged 22, in a League Cup final victory against Rangers in 1965.
He was deft enough to score five times in an 8-0 victory against Aberdeen on an ice-bound pitch in 1965 that would not pass muster nowadays. It was said that Hughes played in training shoes.
‘It was a pair of sannies,’ he confided much later. ‘And they belonged to Billy McNeill.’
He also scored a great goal against England at Hampden in 1968 but only earned eight caps.
‘I was never too bothered about playing for Scotland,’ he said. ‘Celtic players would play and be booed by our own support. That’s a fact. Many of them wanted a team full of Rangers players.
‘I pulled out of squads regularly. I was not the only one in those days and it was not just Celtic players, too.’
His greatest performance, however, was against Leeds United in the second leg of the 1970 European Cup semi-final at Hampden Park.
Celtic had won the first match at Elland Road 1-0 but Billy Bremner had squared the tie in Glasgow with a wonderful shot.
Hughes, deployed at centre forward, then turned the tide in Celtic’s favour. He outmuscled, out-thought and outplayed Jackie Charlton, the mainstay of the Leeds defence, and scored with a diving header. Celtic went on to win the match 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate) and reach the final against Feyenoord.
The irrepressible power of the Hughes performance was not a surprise, though his manner of scoring was slightly unusual. ‘I ended up Celtic’s seventh greatest goalscorer,’ he said. ‘Yet I doubt if I scored double figures with my head. I used to say Wee Jinky was better with his head than me.’
Hughes was always at the centre of Celtic pub arguments in the sixties and these debates could continue on the terracing. Some viewed him as inconsistent but his figures suggest this is unfair. His size and rampaging style made him conspicuous, so runs that ended in failure were obvious to the support.
However, he regularly galvanised the massed ranks with extraordinary contributions. He was indubitably a Celtic great for several reasons.
First, his longevity at Celtic Park meant he played with Willie Fernie and Kenny Dalglish. Yet he was sold aged only 28. Second, his list of honours brooks no argument. Third, and perhaps most importantly, he was a player who could lift a crowd, create a roar by simply lying in wait for the ball.
‘Feed the Bear’ was chanted often in hope and expectation but also in desperation as fans believed Yogi would deliver them from perdition. Their faith was regularly and amply rewarded.
After retiring from playing, he managed Baillieston, Stranraer and the Scottish Junior team for short spells before immersing himself in the licensed trade with an interlude as a drugs counsellor.
His demeanour could seem brooding, even forbidding, but he was a convivial character with a dry sense of humour and a huge reservoir of generosity. He gave of himself quietly but consistently.
In that interview in 2020, I told him that, as a schoolboy, I had written to him requesting tickets for a European match. He had sent me two, with a note saying no payment would be accepted.
He waved this off, saying that was simply what Celtic players should do. As I left his house in Shettleston, he slipped a copy of his autobiography into my hands with a thoughtful inscription.
There was an affecting softness in the Bear. I asked him then what his greatest memory was as a Celtic player.
He considered this banal inquiry carefully before saying: ‘I don’t really have one. I wouldn’t want to be remembered for one goal or game, even that match against Leeds. You know what? I would just want it to be known that I was a Celtic man.’
He was all of that and more.