Benny Rooney- An Obituary
By Russell Gordon
After leaving Cappielow on Saturday in fine spirits after Morton secured progression to the last sixteen of the League Cup, I was saddened to see a message pop up on one of my group chats to pass on the news that Morton’s greatest ever manager, certainly in the modern era had left us at the age of eighty.
I can’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Benny Rooney’s time in charge at Morton between 1976 and 1983, given that I was born in 1979, and have always relied on second hand anecdotes from those who were fortunate enough to witness his fantastic Morton side, the last to enjoy a sustained period in the top flight of Scottish football, winning promotion as First Division Champions in 1978, and eventually going down in 1983.
Whilst he started his career with Celtic in 1959, he was never to make a senior appearance for the Parkhead side, embarking on loan spells in the junior ranks with Cambuslang Rangers and Petershill, before making his senior debut on loan at Dumbarton. He would eventually move onto Dundee United on a free transfer at the age of 20.
In spite of his fine goalscoring record in the Tannadice club’s reserve team, Benny would struggle to break into Jerry Kerr’s first team before making a £3500 move to St. Johnstone in 1966. In a nine year spell in Perth, he would establish himself as a defender of some repute in what was, until recently perhaps the best team in St. Johnstone’s history- achieving a third placed finish in the old Division One in 1971, and gaining a place in the UEFA Cup where they would overturn a 1-2 first leg deficit in Germany against the mighty SV Hamburg, winning 3-0 at Muirton Park, before taking care of Hungarians Budapesti Vasas 2-1 on aggregate and eventually falling to Yugoslavians Zeljeznicar Sarajevo 2-5 on aggregate, having lead 1-0 from the first leg in Perth. Benny himself did give the Saints a brief moment of joy though, scoring their goal to give them an away goals lead in Bosnia before the roof fell in.
He was also to captain St. Johnstone in the 1969 League Cup Final defeat to Celtic- with Jock Stein famously banishing Benny’s father Bob, one of his coaches at the time, from the Celtic dug out on the day, such was the conflict of interest in wishing such success for his son, against his professional responsibilities!
A celebrated footnote in his St. Johnstone career would be an appearance at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, as St. Johnstone were invited to face Real Madrid in a warm up match ahead of the Spanish club’s European Cup Winners’ Cup Final against Chelsea. St. Johnstone would take the lead before Los Blancos eventually ground out the 3-1 victory.
He would move to Firhill in 1973, making 89 appearances for Partick and winning the First Division title before taking up the reins at Cappielow as player manager of Morton in July 1976 at the tender age of 33. He was to quickly realise that combining the two roles was never going to work, and after the League Cup sectional ties were completed, retired from playing to concentrate solely on his role as manager.
With Allan McGraw’s reserve side producing a raft of young players that would provide the backbone for a team that would go on to enthral a generation of Morton fans- Mark McGhee, Neil Orr and John McNeil were among those who caught they eye, and were promoted into the first team to supplement a squad that already included young prodigies such as Davie Hayes and George Anderson.
It was in October 1976 though that Benny made perhaps his most inspired move- with Celtic chasing goalkeeper Roy Baines, he engineered a swap deal with Baines heading to Glasgow and Celtic’s enigmatic winger Andy Ritchie heading west, with a few quid also coming to Cappielow as part of the deal. With Jim Holmes reverting back to left back, Morton would put in a credible performance in the league, finishing fourth. Unfortunately though, the eventual champions were none other than Alex Ferguson’s St. Mirren, who enjoyed one of those seasons many Buddies could only have dreamed of, with one of their highlights undoubtedly being a 6-3 win in the New Year derby at Cappielow. Morton did, however, get some consolation, dispatching the Paisley side 3-0 at the same venue later in the season, providing hope that they could be following their county rivals into the land of milk and honey in the not too distant future.
And that they did. In a division with the more fancied Hearts and Dundee in 1977-78, Morton came out the traps in style, dropping only one point in their first eleven fixtures, with a notable 5-3 victory over Hearts at Cappielow, only three days after falling 0-3 to the same opponents in a League Cup game in Edinburgh, being the obvious highlight. In spite of another victory against Hearts, by 2-0 in the second leg of that League Cup tie, our interest in that particular competition ended there, and the Scottish Cup campaign was to be halted in a replay defeat in Aberdeen. But a 3-1 victory midweek over Airdrie in the penultimate game of the season had the champagne corks popping! Morton were champions and going to the Premier Division for the first time ever! A final day defeat to Dundee only saw tears amongst the Tayside clubs’ fans as they fell just short of Hearts, who joined Morton in the top tier.
All this in spite of losing star striker McGhee to Newcastle United for a club record of £150,000- the signings on Jimmy Millar and Bobby Russell, for a fraction of that fee were enough to help Morton over the line.
As Benny planned his assault on the Premier Division, he brought in Queen of the South Manager Mike Jackson as his assistant, an inspired move, along with the on-field signings of Ally Scott, Bobby Thomson and Jim Rooney. With Jim Tolmie and Joe McLaughlin breaking through, and the return of Roy Baines from Celtic, Morton endured a sticky start to the season, but would comfortably survive before embarking on a blistering start to the 1979-80 season. They were to reach the League Cup semi-final, only losing 2-1 to Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen, but it was in the league that they really caught the eye, incredibly topping the table in November after a disappointing 0-0 draw with St. Mirren. Celtic’s defeat to Kilmarnock had seen Morton reach the summit, and a 2-1 victory at Pittodrie only went on to strengthen Morton’s credentials.
Alas, disaster was around the corner, and how else could it possibly come round other than being the victim of a controversial refereeing decision in a pivotal game against Rangers? Bobby Thomson was ordered off for allegedly headbutting Rangers defender, and all round baddie, Sandy Jardine, an incident that to this day leaves a sour taste in the mouth of a number of Morton fans of a certain vintage. In writing what is supposed to be a poignant piece, I really shouldn’t dwell on such an incident, but by all accounts of Thomson as a man-mountain, and Jardine as a person, it would have been nice to see what would have happened if Thomson had butted the Rangers defender. Rangers of course won 1-0 after that and Morton’s season faded off, falling to sixth, a credible finish as Aberdeen went onto claim their first title since 1955.
But the following season, that great Aberdeen side were to know all about Morton. The league campaign started with a 1-2 defeat by Celtic, but in a campaign in which Morton didn’t enjoy such joy in the league, their Scottish Cup run was to provide the highlights.
Having already dispatched Hearts 3-1 at Tynecastle after a replay in the Third Round and enjoyed their best result of the season in beating Aberdeen 1-0 at Pittodrie the previous week thanks to a solitary Drew Busby goal, Cappielow was bouncing for the visit of the Dons on Valentine’s Day 1981. It was the Morton fans who were embracing on the day as Andy Ritchie planted Ian Considine on his backside before holding off Alex McLeish and Willie Miller to dispatch past Jim Leighton on what was arguably Cappielow’s greatest ever day. Morton would dispose of Clydebank 6-0 in a quarter-final replay at Kilbowie before bowing out to Rangers in a foul tempered semi-final at Celtic Park, with Benny controversially dropping Ritchie to the bench, anticipating a match that would be overly physical. Whilst he wasn’t wrong, it was Ritchie’s penalty that brought Morton back into the game, only to fall just short.
1980-81 would see Morton finish in eighth place, comfortably clear of the relegation spots, and it was similar scenario the following campaign, finishing seventh with a comfortable enough cushion. But in 1982-83, the ‘Ton would finally return to the First Division, garnering only 20 points (in those days of two points for a win) and finishing ninth above only Kilmarnock.
A fantastic era was to come to an inauspicious end, and whilst Chairman Hugh Currie was adamant that Benny and his assistant Mike Jackson weren’t sacked, their contracts weren’t renewed and they were free to move on.
He would briefly take charge of Albion Rovers before a fairly unsuccessful spell in the Firhill hot seat, and joining Billy McNeil’s staff at Celtic, winning the double in 1988 and the Scottish Cup in 1989 as well as the Reserve League West as reserve coach in 1990.
After football, he embarked on a career as a publican, running the Queen’s Park Café on Glasgow’s south side, and proving a popular host for the Morton fans on our Hampden visits in the 2002-03 Third Division season, before retiring to enjoy his son Kevin’s career as an actor.
Football also ran in the family, with great nephew Shaun currently plying his trade at Fleetwood Town and even eclipsing his great uncle’s St. Johnstone achievements in scoring the winning goals in both their cup final victories in 2021.
Only this year, Benny was inducted into the Morton Hall of Fame, and quite rightly so.
Everyone at The Morton Forum wish to express our sorrow, and pass on our condolences to the friends and family of Benny Rooney.
More Morton Greats, Graeme Ross, 2005.
Thanks to Chris McNulty @Chrismcnulty75 for supplying pictures for this article.