Neil McCallum’s place in history is secure for as long as there in an Old Firm in Scottish Football, because he was the first man to score a goal for Celtic against Rangers.
Neil was born in Bonhill in 1869 and when he died at the age of 51 in 1920, he was buried in Bonhill Churchyard. Although he went on to play for a number of clubs in England as well as Scotland, Neilly, as he was known, was a Valeman first and foremost. He had the distinction of being a member of the 1888 Renton FC World Champions team while still only 19, which was quite appropriate since it was at Renton FC that he started his footballing career. In that great Renton team he played outside right in a forward line which lined up as Neilly McCallum, Harry Campbell, John M Campbell, Johnnie McNee and Jamie McColl.
His obituary described him as “one of the trickiest and cleverest outside rights that the Vale has given to Scottish football, a real artist at corner kicking”, “a cheery character and popular accordingly”, and “famed for wonderful angled shots”. Like other members of the World Champions team, Neil joined Celtic in May 1888, immediately after the victory over West Bromwich Albion, and lost no time in displaying his skills. He could hardly have had time to lace his boots in May 1888 when he scored Celtic’s first-ever competitive goal and that it also happened to be against Rangers in what turned out to be a 5-2 victory for Celtic was no doubt an added bonus.
As well as Renton and Celtic, Neil played for a number of English clubs including Blackburn Rovers with whom he had a short interlude between spells at Celtic, Nottingham Forest 1892 – 95, Notts County 1895 and then Heanor Town about 1896, before, according to some accounts, going “back to the Celtic fold”.
McCallum won 1 full cap against Ireland in 1888 while playing for Renton, and was chosen by the Scottish League versus England in 1892. His Scottish Cup Winners medals came with Renton (1888), Celtic (1889) and he was a losing finalist in 1892.
A poignant note at his funeral in the Churchyard was that the mourners were led by his father, Dennis McCallum. The service was conducted by Reverend Father Murray of St Mary’s RC Church in Alexandria as it was called in those days, and amongst Celtic’s representatives were his former team-mate from Renton and Celtic days, James Kelly, and also Willie Maley of Celtic. There was also a big turnout by his surviving Renton colleagues.
Other family members also survived Neil and about 8 years later his brother, Denis, who would have been about 15 years older than Neil, appears in this photograph of Christie Park Veterans (mouse over image to enlarge).
Denis was in good footballing company in that photo since two Old Vale Team Scottish Internationalists, Sandy McLintock and John C McGregor also appear in it. The footballing tradition lived on as well in the McCallum family because Denis’s son Charlie McCallum was the Vale of Leven FC’s captain and centre half well into the 1920’s (the Vale were still a senior team then), while his grandson, also called Denis McCallum, played outside left for Celtic. Some family members still live in the area.
A few years ago, a chance conversation between local historian Billy Scobie and Tom O’Neill from Dumbarton, started a search for Neilly’s grave in Bonhill Churchyard. In one of life’s rich ironies, the minister of Bonhill Church, Reverend Ian Miller, is perhaps the only Celtic-supporting Church of Scotland minister, and Ian was delighted to join in the search. Together they enlisted the help of Eddie Docherty of Alexandria Cemetery, and under Eddie’s direction Neilly’s long-neglected grave was located in the crowded Bonhill Churchyard.