Bertie Peacock - Little Ant Genius

Cathal Coyle remembers the man behind the Milk Cup

‘As a boy growing up in Glasgow, I used to watch Bertie play for Celtic – he was one of my heroes even though I followed Rangers!’ – Sir Alex Ferguson.

Bertie Peacock made a major contribution to football in his native country and in neighbouring Scotland, where he wore the famous green and white hoops of Glasgow Celtic. He won Scottish League and Cup medals with the club in the 1950s; and had the distinction of being a member of the first Northern Ireland team in 1958 to play at the World Cup Finals.

In later years he became a successful manager, leading his hometown club Coleraine to their first Irish League title. He will also be remembered fondly for his organisational acumen, as he was the genius behind the successful Milk Cup youth football tournament.

A Celtic Legend in the Making

Born in 1929, Bertie Peacock began his football career in his native Coleraine. He played with the Bannsiders for several years, before moving to Glentoran in 1947. During this time playing at the Oval in East Belfast, Celtic noticed a star in the ascendancy. The Glasgow giants offered a professional contract to Bertie in 1949 and over the next 13 years became one of the most famous players in the club’s history, eventually becoming captain.

Bertie endeared himself to the Celtic support very quickly, gaining the nickname of ‘little ant’ due to his prodigious work rate. He could play in defence or midfield, and his arrival signalled a rise in the club’s fortunes, his versatility helping Celtic win a long awaited Scottish League title in 1954 after a 16-year gap. The Scottish Cup arrived in the same season to complete a remarkable double for Peacock and his Celtic colleagues.

More success was soon to follow, and it was the Scottish League Cup competition that served to create a Bertie Peacock legendary status at Celtic Park. Having defeated Partick Thistle in the 1956 final ,after a replay at Hampden to collect the trophy for the first time in the club’s history, Celtic defeated their Old Firm rivals Rangers 7-1 the following year to retain it. As Celtic captain, Bertie Peacock collected the trophy and the team made history by achieving the highest winning margin in a Scottish League Cup final.

Days in the Sun with Northern Ireland

Bertie also became a key player for Northern Ireland, and the pinnacle of his international career was the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden. Four of his 31 caps were gained during this tournament, and the Celtic player was an ever-present for his country as they reached the quarter-final having impressively defeated Czechoslovakia by 2 goals to 1 after a playoff game, and drew with the eventual winners West Germany. Unfortunately, the side managed by Peter Doherty were defeated by a rampant French side in the Quarter finals, by four goals to nil.

Bertie Peacock was an integral part of a team which included among others Danny Blanchflower and Harry Gregg. The 1958 World Cup witnessed these players at the peak of their playing abilities, and the immediate years that followed brought disappointment. The Celtic midfielder retired from playing in 1961 and a year later became a popular choice in succeeding Peter Doherty as team manager.

Managing Northern Ireland and Coleraine

The new manager soon realised that the team needed an injection of new players, and as fate would have it, a certain young player from the Cregagh area of Belfast, George Best arrived on the scene - gaining his debut in 1963. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland did not qualify for any tournaments during Peacock’s tenure as manager, although there were notable successes against the Netherlands and Switzerland in the qualifying stages.

Bertie transferred his managerial abilities to the local club scene, and his hometown club were the main beneficiaries. By the early 1970s, Coleraine were developing into one of the top teams in the Irish League under Peacock’s stewardship, and 1973-74 saw the provincial club edge out the Belfast big two, Linfield and Glentoran, to capture the title for the only occasion in their history.

To lead a small club of modest means to a league title was arguably Peacock’s finest achievement as a manager. Bertie later assisted his old team mate Billy Bingham with the Northern Ireland team for the World Cup in Spain 1982, helping to plot the defeat of the host team by 1-0 in a famous night in Valencia.

‘Praise youth and it will flourish’ – An old Irish proverb

It was during a meeting one December evening in the upstairs lounge of Bertie Peacock’s bar that the idea of an international youth football tournament based in Coleraine took shape. The idea had been proposed by local youth football coaches Jim Weir and Victor Leonard, and Bertie was a prominent advisor for the event, given his vast experience and involvement at the higher levels of football.

His presence as a respected international figure was crucial in establishing the tournament that is nowadays simply known as the Milk Cup. It traditionally takes place during the final week in July and attracts various teams and thousands of supporters to the Coleraine and surrounding boroughs from all over the globe. Famous footballers such as Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham have all featured at the tournament since its inception.

Sadly, Bertie Peacock died after a short illness in July 2004, just days before the Milk Cup tournament recommenced for that year. It was a terrible shock for his family and many close friends. A spokesperson for Celtic Football Club said that he was ‘a true Celtic hero’.

The Milk Cup has emerged as one of the finest youth football tournaments in Europe. In 2005,  clubs of the calibre of Barcelona, Manchester United, Benfica and Chelsea all participated. Bertie was asked in an interview in 2003 what the tournament meant to him personally and he replied:

‘It is always nice to bump into people who have been to watch it, or who have played in it. You can be anywhere in the world and meet someone who has been to the Milk Cup. That’s priceless!’