Friday, 22 May 2020

The Green Eyed Monster

The Green Eyed Monster

Celtic’s 9th successive title win this season was unlike any other we have experienced. The Covid 19 pandemic meant that the common sense measure of halting the campaign on 30 games came into effect. Much as we wanted the season completed on the pitch and our day with the trophy, there was little chance of any football being played between now and the late summer and the SPFL took the right course of action. Celtic finished on 80 points from 30 games; that is to say they only dropped 10 points during the entire campaign. A few misguided or just plain mean-spirited folk harped on about the fact that Celtic could still be caught. Are we seriously being asked to consider that Celtic would drop a minimum of 14 points in 8 SPFL games when they have only dropped 10 in the previous 30? Their domestic form in 2020 is 13 wins and 1 draw with zero defeats. Their main rivals who were throwing away points like confetti at a wedding during the same period would have needed to win all their games. Get real.

With football in abeyance until the pandemic is under control, France and Belgium declared teams with runaway leads to be Champions. The final standings were based on average points gained per matches played. PSG had a 12 point lead at the time the league was called and Club Bruges was 10 points ahead in Belgium. Only in Holland where AZ Alkmaar and Ajax were on the same points 25 games in did they not declare a champion.

The printed media enjoy stirring up a fuss as it gets more clicks on their advert strewn websites and have wheeled out a former Rangers player every other day to warble on about asterisks and tainted titles. The breath-taking brass neck of some of these EBT recipients is quite something. Alex Rae (EBT £569,000) suggested there would always be an asterisk against this year’s title as did Alan Hutton (EBT £364,000) while Barry Ferguson (EBT £2.5m) said recently…

I still believe strongly that the season cannot be declared null and void but I also feel that titles have to be won fair and square on the pitch. I realise Celtic fans will be up in arms at the suggestion and they’ll say I’m just looking at this through blue-tinted specs.’

His comment about ‘titles being won fair and square’ on the pitch hardly holds up to scrutiny when most of his medals were won with teams packed with players being paid under the table. All monies earned for playing football should be declared to the SFA. The Supreme Court stated quite clearly that the tens of millions paid out to Rangers players in the EBT years were earning and therefore taxable. The hiding of side letters from the SFA was another element in this scandal. What grates is that the same Rangers fans who defend their players and club on this issue would argue the complete opposite had Celtic been caught cheating on this scale. Objectivity is seldom part of their make-up.

One Rangers fans site even held a poll about whether their club should take legal action against the SPFL for calling the league. 85% said they should despite the fact UEFA, who frown on such things, might well throw Scottish clubs out of Europe if they did. The site’s author rather gave the game away by stating in rather strangulated prose, ‘Rangers should go down the legal route even if it means implications for our own Europa League participation, as long as Celtic lose out  on the Champions League.’ These small minded folk are quite willing to inflict more chaos and cost onto Scottish football at a time some clubs are struggling to survive as long as it hurts Celtic.

Thus we see similar begrudgers trying everything in their power to tarnish Celtic’s title win with only a few Rangers fans having the integrity to say publically what most probably think; ‘you know what, we were never catching them in a million years.

Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football is hard to take for some and the myth of the ‘journey’ back to their ‘rightful’ place at the top of Scottish football which was sold to them during their time in the lower leagues is proving very difficult to make reality. They arrived in the Premiership in 2016 with boasts of ‘going for 55’ and ‘coming for you’ and then proceeded to watch Celtic win every single trophy since then. Success isn’t guaranteed in football and the current Rangers are learning the hard truth of trying to live within your means.

This week’s league win marked Celtic’s eleventh successive piece of silverware and the club is still involved in the last 4 of the Scottish cup which will be completed sometime this year with luck. There has never been domination of Scottish football to this degree by one club. Struth’s Rangers of the 1920s and 30s racked up the trophies as did Stein’s Celtic in the 1960s and 70s but three successive trebles is new territory altogether. Indeed Celtic has potentially two more cup ties to make if four!

The multi layered nature of the rivalry of Glasgow’s two biggest clubs means there is seldom any magnanimity or generosity of spirit between them. Those with no love of Celtic would argue white was black rather than accept Celtic is the best team in the land. William Shakespeare understood this facet of human nature well and in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shylock, the money lending Jew is despised for his identity and mistreated by some of the other main characters states at one point…

‘He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated my enemies – and what's his reason? I am a Jew.’

There remain people today who laugh at Celtic’s loses, mock their gains and scorn the nation which bore this club. That may never change for some and Celtic supporters can expect few plaudits from them for any achievement, not that they look for them. Having endured the barren struggles of the 1990’s many Celtic supporters know too well the pain of being also-rans. They also remember the mocking, the goading and the triumphalism they endured in those years before Fergus McCann helped them lay the firm foundations of the club’s current success. There are those who dislike Peter Lawwell but any objective scrutiny of Celtic’s accounts will show the club has been well run under his tenure.

These are difficult times for Rangers and their supporters. There is no bottomless pit of money to bring in top players as there seemed to be in the 1990’s. How far they have fallen since David Murray’s hubris lead them to a vainglorious assault on the Champions League funded by his banker friends who let them run up unsustainable debts. A spineless board went along with a suicidal tax dodging scheme and a passive Scottish sporting media, with a few honourable exceptions, barely raised a warning.

Next season will prove seminal for both Glasgow clubs. For Celtic, the tantalising prospect of an unheralded tenth successive championship is the Holy Grail. For Rangers it is one last chance to stop Celtic’s dream and perhaps save their young manager’s Ibrox career. For their fans season 2020-21 will mark a renaissance or a nightmare they could never have envisaged in the Murray years. If Celtic does go on to make it ten in a row perhaps they’d best heed some other words of Shakespeare when he said…

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Neither King nor Kaiser

Neither King nor Kaiser
A few hundred yards to the south of Edinburgh Castle lies the Cowgate district of Edinburgh. Today it is a mixed area of modern flats, older buildings, bars and a smattering of restaurants. 150 years ago the area was very different indeed. Doctor Stark, a medical Officer, visited the area in 1847 and described it in the following terms…

‘The inhabitants of the Cowgate consist of labourers, porters, carters, scavengers and paupers. The families were each housed in a single room and instances were not rare of two or more families occupying one apartment. The  low Irish formed a large proportion of this section of the community. Among this class the ordinary comforts of life were sadly lacking. A heap of straw served for a bed; there was but the barest minimum of furniture and domestic utensils and that of a primitive kind, consisting of bits of wood, pieces of tin and course pottery; water could be obtained only by the laborious method of drawing it from the public well; and the people lived in a pitiable state of filth and vermin.’

Around 14,000 Irish people lived in those conditions and struggled to get by. They also had to deal with the prejudice which some Scots held for them. It was into this community that a boy was born in the summer of 1868. John and Mary Connolly, natives of County Monaghan, named their son James and did their best to keep him fed and healthy in very trying circumstances. He was a supporter of the local football team Hibernian, itself a product of the Edinburgh Irish community and it is recorded that young James would carry their hamper on match days. James had little formal education after the age of ten when he left St Patrick’s Primary School to enter the workforce. By the age of 14 he had lied about his age and joined the army under the name of ‘James Reid’ to escape the grinding poverty of his surroundings.

His time in the Royal Scots Regiment coincided with the so called land wars’ in Ireland when the rural population struggled to free themselves from virtual serfdom at the hands of Landlords. Connolly was aghast at what he witnessed in Ireland; soldiers and Police in trying to halt the spread of rural agitation used very rough methods indeed. Evictions saw family homes demolished and people put onto the road with no shelter and little hope. Connolly viewed with distaste the idea of working class soldiers and policemen being used, as he saw it, to oppress their own people. His political beliefs were forming and he fed them by reading avidly and talking to others. In the end he deserted before his Regiment was posted to India and returned to Edinburgh where he married Lillie Reynolds. They had six children together and it would not have been easy as James spent much of his time involved in the business of the Socialist movement. His brother John spoke at a socialist meeting and argued for an 8 hour working day. His employers at Edinburgh Corporation got wind of this and fired him.

James travelled all over the UK, Ireland and the USA organising, agitating and supporting the right of workers to unionise and collectively fight for better conditions. The living conditions he found in the slums of Dublin were as bad as any he had seen in the Cowgate. One description of Dublin at the time Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 stated…

'Irish workers lived in terrible conditions in tenements. An astonishing 835 people lived in 15 houses in Henrietta Street's Georgian tenements. At number 10 the Sisters of Charity ran a laundry inhabited by more than 50 single women. Infant mortality among the poor was 142 per 1000 births, high for a European city. The situation was made worse by the high rates of disease in the slums which was a result of a lack of health care and cramped living conditions.'

The great Dublin Lock out of 1913 when hundreds of employers, large and small, locked their gates to workers who were unionised saw Connolly active with Jim Larkin in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Together, with Jack White they formed the Irish Citizens Army to help defend demonstrating workers from the more brutal elements of the Dublin Police. Connolly had learned from the Tonypandy riots in Wales in 1910 and the Liverpool Transport strike of 1911 when workers fighting for better pay and conditions had been suppressed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill’s brutal use of the Police and army. The Citizens Army would be organised and ready to protect the workers. Its volunteers were mostly young, working class men who were trained by more experienced men with military backgrounds. Its role in defending the workers was to grow into a political outlook which sought a complete change in not just the way Ireland was governed but by who actually governed it.

As World War One loomed, the Home Rule faction in Ireland was being opposed by Unionists who signed the famous covenant and formed the Ulster Volunteers to resist militarily if necessary. The Irish Volunteers led by John Redmond grew to be a force over 200,000 strong. Civil war was a possibility but as conflict with Germany led to open warfare in the summer of 1914 the country was for the most part distracted from domestic politics. For Connolly and the socialist movement, the war was another capitalist struggle which would be paid for by the blood of the workers of Europe. His slogan of ‘Neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland’ was soon adorning the walls of the Transport Workers Building in Dublin where Connolly’s Citizens Army drilled. The British persuaded Redmond to commit the bulk of the Irish Volunteers to the fight against Germany. Most went on the understanding that Britain would honour its promise to allow home rule for Ireland at the war’s conclusion.

They died in their thousands in Britain’s battles from the Somme to Gallipoli. Many of them fought in the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions alongside the 36th Ulster Division in that fateful summer of 1916. Their casualties were horrendous as Britain’s big push on the Somme sought to break the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. However a minority of the Irish volunteers refused to fight in the British Army and stayed in Ireland. Many were active in the Irish Republican Brotherhood who, like Connolly’s Citizen’s Army, were committed to using force to gain Irish independence.

On Good Friday 1916 Connolly and Thomas McDonagh helped Padraig Pearse write the Proclamation upon which modern Ireland was founded. His socialism can be discerned in passages alluding to equality for women and the   openness to all the people of Ireland. It states in part…

The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

Connolly had been in Belfast many times and saw the toxic results of sectarianism on working class communities. It divided people who lived in equally poor conditions and weakened the trade union movement which sought to help them. He had felt its insidious effects as a boy in Edinburgh and despised how it created false divisions among people who had far more in common than they liked to admit.

The society the seven signatories of the proclamation sought to create would no longer be based on the privilege of a minority or the divisions or ordinary people. Within a few weeks all of the signatories would be dead. The Easter Rising provoked a predictable brutal and vindictive response from the British who in their rage failed to comprehend that shooting the leaders of 1916 would rouse many of the Irish people to anger than had previously been the case. Connolly’s execution was particularly callous. He has wounded in the fighting, his ankle shattered by a bullet and tied to a chair to be shot. He accepted death as the price he would pay to strike for freedom as he saw it. His last meeting with his family was particularly poignant (see below) and he told them that it had been a good life.

James Connolly was shot in the stone breakers yard of Kilmainham Jail on a May morning in 1916. He had spent most of his life fighting the social injustices he saw around him every day. The land of his birth barely marks his passing and that is a tragedy. He should be remembered as part of that generation who fought for the common man. People like john MacLean, Mary Barbour and Willie Gallagher were part of the ‘Red Clydeside’ of the early twentieth century and are remembered still by ordinary Scots. There remains a blindness to the contribution Connolly made to working class advancement and this stems in part from his Irishness and his actions in 1916. His memory is kept alive by ordinary people who recognise that his life was spent trying to better the lot of the common people of these islands.

His final testimony given to his daughter before they took him to Kilmainham to be shot contains the words he would want to be remembered…

‘Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress. I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest it with their lives if need be.’

James Connolly (1868-1916)

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Sowing the Wind

Sowing the Wind

Way back around about 1986 I attended a Celtic game at Clydebank’s quaint little Kilbowie Park. I don’t recall a huge amount about the match apart from Brian McClair scoring a second half hat-trick and Alan ‘Rambo’ McInally warming up as a sub enjoying the banter with the fans. ‘Rambo, get oan there and bang a few in!’ one fan shouted as the muscular forward warmed up within touching distance. Another added, ‘Naw, stay aff, you’re shite.’ The big forward took it all in his stride and did in fact enter the fray that day and scored a good goal. As he celebrated he ran to the fans he had enjoyed the banter with earlier and high fived one or two. He stopped at his erstwhile detractor who stood hand raised, and smiled, ‘no you, you said I was shite!’

Walking back through the town to the train station an older chap pointed out the bomb damage still prevalent on one or two of the buildings. The old bath house was pock marked with deep shrapnel gouges from the German air raids of March 1941. I was never taught that part of history at school and made a point of learning more about what Clydebank endured all those years before. We are often reminded that London bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s fury during the Blitz but places such as Coventry, Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast and the Greater Glasgow area took a pounding too. In all over 60,000 civilians died in air raids on the UK during World War Two. Perhaps in relation to size and population few places in the UK suffered as Clydebank did.

Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940 gained them access to air bases from which they could launch air raids on Scotland. There had been raids on the east coast of Scotland with towns like Peterhead being bombed more than 20 times but nothing on the scale of what was to occur in the spring of 1941. On Thursday 13th March, 240 German bombers droned over the North Sea and headed for industrial Clydeside. They flew over Loch Lomond and must have made a fearsome noise as they passed over built up areas. When they arrived over the town of Clydebank they knew exactly what their targets were to be. Clydebank and its environs was a hub of industrial activity with the Singers Factory, John Brown Shipyards, Oil storage tanks and a Torpedo making facility all in or near the town.

Sitting in the River Clyde was the Polish warship ORP Piorun (The Thunderbolt) which was undergoing repairs in John Brown’s shipyard. The Poles manned their guns and fired everything they had at the German bombers who were pounding Clydebank. As the bombs rained down it was obvious that this was a raid on a scale no seen in Scotland up to this point of the war. Of 8000 houses in Clydebank, barely 10 escaped undamaged. Many hundreds of civilians were killed and injured with thousands more made homeless. Clydebank was ablaze and as the German bomber fleet headed back to Norway, it was said you could see the fires in Clydebank from Dundee. It was a human tragedy on a huge scale.

The following night the Luftwaffe returned to a still burning town and pounded it again. It could be argued that the Germans were attacking legitimate targets and that the civilians caught up in the raids were collateral damage. Head of  RAF Bomber Command, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris had already committed his bomber force to the strategic bombing of German cities and scores of them were reduced to rubble. The raids on Hamburg in July 1943 killed 43,000 people and caused a firestorm which utterly destroyed whole sectors of the city. Berlin, Cologne, Kiel, Rostock and Dresden were among scores of German cities bombed repeatedly. The ‘butcher’s bill’ was in excess of 400,000 German civilians. There are those who quote Harris’ famous words, ‘The Germans have sowed the wind and now they will reap the whirlwind,’ feeling that anything was justified to win the war with fascism. It was a time of total war when any distinction between military and civilian targets was often ignored.

Watching the crass and often tasteless celebrations of VE night this week made me wonder if we had learned anything at all. Jingoism and flag waving were to the fore in parts of England and we had the remarkable sight of two grown men dressed as Spitfires doing a ‘fly past’ down a suburban street as people applauded. Celebrating the end of a brutal war is appropriate but as 75 years have now passed we should perhaps be more focused on sombre remembrance of the victims of war and not in jingoism or goading former antagonists.

Wars are awful things and must always be the last resort. World War Two unleashed a savagery on the world the likes of which had never been seen before. Civilians made up the majority of casualties with some 40 million perishing. Clydebank was but a drop in the ocean of suffering we humans inflicted on each other in those years. Yet every victim was a son, a daughter, a mother, father or friend with their own hopes for the future, their own stories to tell.

Today the German President gave a moving speech in Berlin about Germany’s crimes in the Hitler years and spoke of peace and reconciliation. Germany has confronted its past and recognises its sins with genuine contrition. That sort of tone is appropriate and best honours those who die in war. There are memorials to the victims of war in every land. Perhaps the greatest memorial of all would be to ensure that it never happens again. 

We live in hope.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

The laughter of our children

The laughter of our children

This week saw the anniversary of the death of Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands. Those of us who lived through those times remember with clarity the ratcheting up of tension as each successive day passed and the unbending British Prime Minister Thatcher refused to compromise. When Sands died there was an outpouring of anger not just in the north of Ireland but around the world. There were also those who said that he chose the path of violence and could expect only prison or death as a release from it.

The decision taken by the British Government in the 1970s to ‘Ulsterise, normalise and criminalise’ the conflict in Ireland was taken in the cynical belief that the deaths of locally recruited soldiers and policemen didn’t hit home with the British public as powerfully as the deaths of Scottish, English or Welsh soldiers. The ‘criminalisation’ of the conflict sought to deny any political motivation to those involved and treated them as criminal gangs. Thus the British government could try to label the conflict a fight against crime rather than what it actually was; a colonial struggle fought out amid the last spasms of a dying empire. Ireland, Britain’s first colony, was likely to be its last.

Whether a man is a freedom fighter or a terrorist will always depend on your perspective. To the Nazis the French Resistance were terrorists to the British they were freedom fighters. To say that men like Sands joined the IRA for criminal gain is hard to sustain. He knew at the outset that death or a prison cell were the likely outcomes of his choices. Men like him weren’t involved in the armed struggle for personal glory or financial advantage and the British knew this but to pursue their policy of criminalisation, they needed to portray their adversaries in a certain way. Criminalisation led to the withdrawal of political status of prisoners held for offences related to the conflict. Some refused to wear prison uniforms as it was an admission of sorts that the struggle was a criminal enterprise rather than a political one. Thus the ‘blanket men’ arrived. The lyric of a song of the time summed up their defiance…

‘I’ll wear no convict’s uniform nor meekly serve my time
That Britain might brand Ireland’s fight 800 years of crime.’

Any student of Irish history knows that the various rebellions and risings which occurred were not motivated by criminal intent but were in the main a response to invasion, occupation, dispossession and the deeply unfair nature of the society Britain had imposed on Ireland.

Operation Banner, the deployment of British Troops into the province in 1969 was portrayed in the British media as the good guys arriving to keep the warring tribes of Paddies from killing each other. The RUC and B Specials had lost control of the situation and were viewed as partisan by the Catholic minority in the north. The army was there to reassert control and prop up what was essentially a failed state.  Their initial welcome in beleaguered Catholic areas soon changed after incidents like the Falls Curfew, Ballymurphy Massacre, Operation Demetrius and Bloody Sunday. The army killed 306 people in the conflict, 160 of them were unarmed civilians; among this group were 61 children.

The use of sensory deprivation techniques on Republican prisoners by the British Army led to a conviction in 1971 of torture before the European Court in the Hague. This technique consisted of men being hooded and dressed in thick boiler suits and being made to stand against a wall on tip-toe and being subject to "white noise". The British military had used torture in various colonial wars - Fort Morbut in Yemen or Hola Camp in Kenya where the Army attempted to force 88 Kenyan detainees to work. They refused and were viciously clubbed. 11 men died and the other 77 suffered permanent injuries.   Caroline Elkins' details the British Army’s behaviour in Kenya in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya.’ It does not make pleasant reading. One of the victims had pins jammed under his fingernails and into his body. His testicles were crushed between two metal rods. His name was Hussien Onyango Obama and his grandson was to become President of the United States.

Elkins’ book is a horrifying catalogue or murder, castration, rape and torture and yet very few people in the UK today could tell you a thing about what their army did in Kenya. They are not taught in school about the dark side of Britain’s colonial past and are instead fed stirring tales of empire building heroes. Nor are they held to account by the press which for the most part tows the party line. It was only in 2013 that the British Government finally expressed ‘deep regret’ about their actions and gave £20m in compensation to surviving victims tortured by the army.

Some of the methods used in places like Kenya were used in Ireland. The myth that they were there to act as referee in a what was essentially a local conflict is palpable nonsense. Internment for instance was used almost exclusively against one community.  As author Fintan O’Toole said, ‘Ideologically and militarily, the army was a player not a referee.’

Ordinary people were caught up in all of this and had hard choices to make. Some, on both sides, took up arms to protect their people or their political position as they saw it. Others kept their heads down and hoped the spiral of violence wouldn’t affect them or those they loved. All the combatants involved committed acts of savagery which could rightly be called atrocities. None of them emerged with a military or indeed a moral victory.

Looking back through the lens of almost forty years there are those who look for heroes or use hindsight to try to justify some of the dreadful acts which occurred. I could write a long list of atrocities committed by all sides in the conflict and none of them could be justified. Violence begets yet more violence and as with all conflicts it is the innocent who bear the brunt of the suffering. It is those innocent victims who are most deserving of our thoughts and compassion.

Bobby Sands has been described by people with very different perceptions of him this week as both a hero and a terrorist. He himself would probably dismiss either title. He was a undoubtedly a courageous young man caught up in some extremely difficult times and like many others chose to try and change society by force. Those of us lucky enough not to be faced with such choices in our lives can count our blessings.   

He is quoted as saying, ‘our revenge will be the laughter of our children.’ I hope that laughter echoes around Ireland from all its children, north and south, from all faiths and none.

We’ve seen enough tears to last a lifetime.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

The Banter Years

The Banter Years

Napoleon is often credit with saying, ‘Never interrupt your enemy when he is in the process of making a mistake.’ It’s tempting to think Peter Lawwell has this phrase in mind as he quietly watches Rangers make a fool of themselves over their claims to have a dossier containing damning evidence against senior SPFL figures. Few of us doubt the SPFL made a mess of the vote on restructuring the leagues to meet the reality of the Covid 19 pandemic but weeks after the Ibrox club claimed to have such evidence we await it being produced. Their latest pronouncement has downgraded their damning evidence to ‘a lack of fair play.’ They look increasingly like a poker player who has a weak hand and tried to bluff his way through the game. Now people are demanding that the cards be laid on the table and they are still prevaricating.

Scottish football is famous for its factionalism, suspicion and conspiracy theories and you have to wonder why Rangers would make such claims at a time our game is facing an existential threat. More cynical voices have suggested it’s all part of that old psychological plan to foster a siege mentality. The outcome of this is that supporters feel their club is somehow being treated unfairly and will back the club financially via season tickets without questioning why their marquee signing manager has failed miserably despite spending millions on new players or what the club is doing to stop haemorrhaging money as it tries to stop Celtic’s relentless trophy collecting juggernaut.

The more sceptical among us often think of that old Roman phrase at such times, ‘cui bono?’ (who benefits from this?)  

What are Rangers causing such a fuss about and in what way will they gain from it? Are we really expected to believe they are now moral guardians of Scottish football fighting for the little guy? This from a club that in a former life cheated on an industrial scale by paying players millions via a tax avoiding, EBT scheme without informing the SFA as the rules demand? A club whose owner, Sir David Murray,  called in a debt for under £50,000 from Airdrie FC which forced a founder member of the Scottish League to go into liquidation and make their players redundant? A club which has yet to express any regret about operating a virtual apartheid system for over 70 years of its history? The moral voice of Scottish football- really? You could easily be forgiven for thinking that such an outfit in whatever guise they appear in looks out for number one first and foremost.

The reality that Celtic will complete their second ‘nine in a row’ series of title wins must weigh heavily on their minds. The Parkhead club are in decent financial condition despite taking an obvious hit from the ongoing Covid 19 lockdown and its consequences for sport. They will undoubtedly miss the revenue from 4 or 5 home games should the season be called and were also in the cup semi-final but generally the club is well run and in robust health. The team began 2020 in sparkling form and of 13 domestic matches played since January, won 12 and drew 1. Compare that form to a Rangers side which had something of a collapse in early 2020 where they also played 13 games but won just 7, drew 2 and lost 4. During that sequence they lost twice to bottom club Hearts and also at home to Hamilton. Most people who know football recognises that on that form far from turning around a 13 point deficit in the remaining SPFL games, Rangers were more likely to see the Hoops stretch their lead.

So is all this fuss about trying to somehow discredit Celtic’s inevitable title win? They know that when football resumes Celtic will be favourites to make it ten in a row and thus create a new Scottish record. That is too much for some to stomach and we have already heard much bleating about some of Celtic’s title wins being somehow ‘tainted’ as Rangers were not in the league when they were won. This palpable nonsense is the sort of desperate chain of thought  you’d expect from a jealous child in the playground. All of Celtic’s titles were won fair and square against the teams who deserved to be in the top flight and if Rangers followers want to talk about ‘tainted titles’ they need look no further than the EBT years. It is ironic that since they joined the top flight in 2016 boasting they were ‘coming for you’ and ‘going for 55’ Celtic has won every single trophy competed for and were on track to win another treble this season. They have also handed out some royal spanking to the Govan club along the way.

If Rangers produce their dossier next week and it turns out to be a damp squib then they will look very foolish indeed. You don’t shout about corruption and then refuse to hand over your evidence. The so called ‘banter years’ will continue as supporters of other Scottish clubs continue that great Scottish tradition of laughing at and winding up the opposition at every opportunity. Rangers have given opposition fans much ammunition over the past 7 or 8 years both on and off the field. Not only the calamity of administration and liquidation in 2012 which reverberates in Scottish football to this very day and in many ways poisoned the game here. There was also being turfed out of Europe by a team from Luxembourg to losing at places like Annan and Stirling. From the ball stuck in a hedge, to the ‘winter of discount tent’, Pedro in the bushes and cheering a cup draw against Celtic before being battered 4-0 in the actual match. The latest farce involved a poorly made fake invoice showing Dundee FC receiving funds from a former Celtic director. This led to some hysterical reactions online while others sat back and laughed. Then there are the endless, tedious statements. One wag commented if there was a statement league they’d be forty points ahead.

There is of course a serious side to all of this. The SPFL board need to be more careful and more professional in their handling of important issues. Scottish football is in a perilous state at the moment with income streams drying up and uncertainty over TV deals and Sponsorship. Sponsors want to be seen to be involved with positive organisations not squabbling factions pulling in different directions. Our prominent clubs need to set an example and demonstrate some leadership not act like spoilt children.

Celtic have played a blinder in all of this. Had they got involved in a war of words with Rangers it would have played into the hands of the more unhinged conspiracy theorists among the Ibrox club’s support. By staying silent they have followed Napoleon’s maxim of never interrupting your opponent when he is making a mistake. The week ahead is an important one if Rangers don’t produce a ‘smoking gun’ next week then they are going to look very foolish indeed but then that’s nothing new in these strange times.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

The Warriors

The Warriors

Tony Doherty slipped the VHS tape into the machine with the air of a high priest performing some ancient rite. ‘Can you believe we can watch this movie anytime we want? It’s like magic!’ His friend, Geezer, was less than impressed, ‘Aye alright, yer brother robbed the Radio Rentals van. Don’t go thinking yer Hugh Heffner.’  Tony refused to be put off his mystical moment, ‘first family in Camelon wi a video recorder, that’s the Dohertys!’  Geezer shook his head, ‘First guy called Tony Doherty tae get his haw-maws kicked the day if he disnae get the film oan!’ Tony laughed, ‘any mer ae yer threats and you’ll no be watching the Warriors!’ Geezer opened a can of beer and grinned, ‘Aw right, fuxake gonnae just start the movie ay?’ Tony fast forwarded the tape to the start of the film and the minor cult classic in the making that was ‘The Warriors; began.

For the next 92 minutes the two friends were spellbound by the journey of New York gang, the Warriors, who had to make their way home across the various gang areas of the city. Having been framed for killing a gang leader, every gang they met was hostile and it led to a protracted and violent journey home. Tony and Geezer barely said a word until the movie ended and the credits were rolling. It was Tony who spoke first. ‘That was fuckin brilliant!’ Geezer had to agree and nodded saying just, ‘mag-fucken-nificent!’ The spell was broken by Tony’s sister Karen who knocked on his room door. ‘Tony, can we use yer video when yer at the fitbaw the morra? Moira’s Da got her Rocky 2 oot the video van.’ Geezer looked at his beer disguising poorly the crush he’d had on Karen for a long time. Tony answered her, ‘Aye but ye need tae put a blank tape in and tape the match the morra. Deal?’

The following day was one of those hot Scottish days you sometimes got in the early summer. All roads would lead to Hampden as Celtic and Rangers squared off in the final of the Scottish cup. From Falkirk and the surrounding towns and villages cars and buses streamed west towards Glasgow. Some were festooned in the green and white of Celtic while others had a more blue tinge. Friends and neighbours had boarded the bus of their choosing and joined their tribe for the day. As rival buses passed on the motorways there was the usual cat calling and banter but things were still relatively good humoured and had that excitement and edge that only cup final days could bring. Adding to this was the realisation that whoever lost the 1980 cup final would finish the season with nothing. Aberdeen had won the league and Dundee United the League cup so it was win or bust at Hampden.

The great bowl of Hampden was a sea of faces as they topped the stairs at the Celtic end and looked around. Sunshine bathed the stadium and there was a growing sense of anticipation. From the far end of the stadium a rumbling song was heard, ‘and its colours they are fine…’ This was greeted by boos and jeers from the Celtic end and they in turn began to sing, ‘Hail Hail the Celts are here….’ The two Falkirk boys made their way down towards the front just as a roar went up to announce that the teams had come out. ‘Here we go Geezer boy!’ said Tony, an excited smile creasing his face, ‘the old butterflies are going! This will be tough withoot McAdam and big Roddy.’ Geezer was more confident, ‘We’ll do this mob today. They’re absolute keech.’ The players lined up to start the game; this was it, the defining game of the season for both clubs.

As the game kicked off the 70,000 crowd roared and seethed, they would kick every ball, cheer every tackle and hope to God their team would emerge victorious. The game was tense with players too wound up and too aware of the importance of the match to play much flowing football. There were chances at both ends but as the relentless sun beat down on the uncovered terrace it was obvious it was going to take a piece of brilliance or an error to win the game. As extra time commenced it was Celtic who looked more likely but where would a goal come from? Then after 117 minutes of football, it happened. A corner was headed out of the Rangers box where Danny McGrain, Celtic’s experienced full back was there to collect it. No noted for his shooting prowess, McGrain lashed the ball towards goal. At the other end of the field Tony watched as the ball zipped back into the box where George McCluskey was sharp enough to flick his left leg as the ball as it sped towards him. This deflected the ball beyond the despairing reach of Rangers keeper Peter McCloy and into the yawing net.

The Celtic support in the huge crowd exploded! Geezer grabbed Tony, ‘Yaaaasssss! We’ve done it!’ 

A great cloud of dust arose from the cinder terrace steps as it often did on dry days at the decrepit old stadium. The release of tension and joy in the Celtic end was in contrast to the sullen silence in the Rangers end. The Celtic supporters roared and rumbled for the remaining minutes of the game just wanting it to be over. As it neared its end, Rangers were throwing everyone forward and Celtic broke with four attackers bearing down on one Rangers defender. Davie Provan slid the ball to Tommy Burns who raced towards the keeper and waited for him to commit himself before deftly chipping the ball over him towards the empty net. The ball spun agonisingly just wide of the target. Thousands of whistles reminded the Referee that time was almost up but Rangers had one last assault on the Celtic goal. The ball was clipped high into the Celtic penalty box but Peter Latchford rose highest and clutched the ball safely. As he did so the final whistle sounded and Celtic had won the cup.

Geezer and Tony joined other excited young fans and clambered over the metal fencing onto the pitch to celebrate with their team. The mood was joyous and they hugged each other on the lush green glass of Hampden Park. As they danced and cavorted on the pitch with hundreds of others a more malevolent group entered the field from the opposite end. Tony nodded towards them, ‘Look at these bastards, worst fuckin losers in the world.’ The Celtic supporters retreated towards their own end of the stadium but a more hard core element on the terraces arrived to take up the challenge. Soon there was a full scale battle taking place on the pitch. A bottle whizzed over Geezer’s head and that was all he needed to encourage him to join in the fray.

The charging and counter charging went on and the air was full of flying beer cans and bottles. The Police finally appeared on their horse and rode among the fighting fans lashing out at them with their long sabre like batons. The battle was over, at least in the stadium, as both sets of supporters headed back to the terrace leaving just the injured and the litter of battle behind them. Tony and Geezer headed back towards the bus Park a mixture of elation and adrenalin coursing through them. However their time on the pitch meant that the bus to Falkirk had already left without them. ‘Fuxake!’ grumbled Tony, ‘We’ll need tae hike it tae Queen Street and get the train!’ As they headed along Aitkenhead Road towards the city centre they could see that there were still battles going on in the streets. The sound of sirens, shouts and breaking glass was filling the summer air.

They managed to avoid the worst of the trouble until they reached the Gorbals where another battle was already in progress. ‘This is like the fuckin Warriors trying tae get hame,’ said Geezer. A group of Celtic fans pushed past them to join the frey. One of them, a wine bottle in his hand, looked at the two Falkirk lads in their hooped shirts, ‘Better stick wi the Cumbie, boys, these liberty takin bastards are oot for a body!’  Geezer and Tony did as they were bid and joined the larger group. There was always more safety in numbers on such days. The skirmish in the Gorbals was more posturing and throwing things but as they reached the city centre things took a turn for the worse.

At George Square there was a real melee going on with fists and boots flying. The two friends stayed on the periphery and let the harder elements get up close and personal in the fight. At long last they reached the train station and climbed the stairs to the platforms. Noise echoed inside the station as Police tried to form Celtic and Rangers fans into two orderly if noisy lines. Songs filled the air as Tony and his friend squeezed into the line for the Edinburgh train which stopped at their town. At last it arrived and they poured on with hundreds of others. The journey back was at least a calmer one than the walk from Hampden. It seemed to be mostly Celtic fans on their carriage and the songs were soon flowing as was the beer. Tony exhaled and looked at Geezer, ‘Whit a fuckin day, man!’

They got off the train at Falkirk High and saw both Celtic and Rangers fans heading out of the station. Half a dozen cops watched them, ensuring there would be no repeat of what had gone on in Glasgow. Things had calmed though and the two pals relaxed as they walked back to Camelon. ‘Fancy a pint?’ asked Geezer. Tony smiled, ‘I’m exhausted mate. You’d think I played in that game. I fancy getting a curry oot the Wok and heading hame tae watch the game.’ Geezer agreed, ‘No a bad idea, mate. Might even watch the Warriors again.’ Tony smiled, ‘Seen enough warriors’ today tae last a lifetime.’

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Oh God that bread should be so dear

Oh God that bread should be so dear

Having more time to enjoy, if that is the right word, a movie during the current lockdown, I watched again the excellent ‘Black 47’ a film about a returning soldier seeking revenge on those who wronged his family. Set against the backdrop of the great hunger in Ireland in the year 1847 it is a brooding and at times harrowing film. The effects An Gota Mor had on Ireland reverberate to this day. It is only European country with a smaller population now than in 1841. In that year 8.2 million people lived on the island of Ireland. Today the figure is around 6.6 million. It also greatly affected the national consciousness of the Irish themselves.

At the height of the Brexit debate it was reported that Conservative MP Priti Patel had suggested that negotiations with Ireland over the backstop could see Britain use possible food shortages in Ireland as leverage to get a good deal for the UK. The insensitivity and historical illiteracy in her remarks caused a huge row at the time as commentators on both sides of the Irish Sea reminded her of Britain’s callous policies at the time of the great hunger in Ireland which contributed to the disaster which engulfed the country in the mid nineteenth century. Labour MP and descendent of Irish immigrants Jim McMahon asked the Prime Minister…

"In 1997, the British prime minister issued an apology to the people of Ireland for their historic role in the great famine. A famine that saw one million people die and a million people displaced from their homeland. That sent out a powerful and important message. Will the Prime Minister condemn any notion - or suggestion - that food shortages in Ireland will be used to strengthen Britain's hand during the Brexit negotiations?,"

The crassness of Patel’s remarks is all the more marked given that her grandparents came from Gujarat in India, a land which also suffered famine due to British mismanagement. She isn’t the first British politician to show a degree of ignorance about the turbulent history of British-Irish relations. Indeed the man Parliament gave the task of overseeing relief works at the height of the great hunger, Charles Trevelyan,  said that famine was an…

“effective mechanism for reducing surplus population and was the judgement of God The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”

The tragedy which befell Ireland in the years after 1845 was the culmination of long years of mismanagement and the treatment of Ireland as a colony to be exploited and not in fact a part of the UK which it was following the 1800 Act of Union. In 1846 around 90% of the potato crop failed due to the blight but there was surplus of oats and other crops and had these been distributed to the people rather than exported then mass starvation would not have occurred. Would the British government have allowed such a catastrophe to occur in Yorkshire or the Home Counties?

An archaeological dig at the site of Kilkenny Workhouse found the remains of almost a thousand victims of the great hunger. Modern scientific techniques demonstrated that they suffered from the effects of malnutrition and the diseases which come from it. The site at Kilkenny is sadly one of hundreds of such sites dotted across Ireland. One of the largest is of course to be found in Abbeystrewry graveyard in Skibbereen, County Cork. There the remains of 9000 victims of the great hunger were buried in a mass grave without coffin or shroud. Today there are poignant and fitting memorial stones but little can assuage the trauma An Gorta Mor caused there and indeed to the whole of the country. It led many to conclude that Ireland would be best served controlling its own destiny rather than relying on colonial masters who seemed only interested in what they could wring from an already impoverished land.

The Highlands of Scotland suffered to in the years of potato blight but to a far less extent than Ireland where a quarter of the population relied on the potato as their basic sustenance. There was great hardship in the Highlands but immigration, forced and voluntary, to places such as Canada or the growing industrial cities was an option for many. The Scottish crofters were not as deeply impoverished or disenfranchised as their Irish counterparts. There were even serious disturbances as food prices soared and the military became involved. As a bitter winter gripped the land, the Highlanders would have known of the calamitous famine ravaging in Ireland and did not want a repeat in Scotland. Grain carts were seized by rioters, ships boarded, harbours blockaded and a jail forced open before the military intervened. The army opened fired on one set of rioters and savage jail sentences were imposed on others however the people gained key concessions chiefly among them was cheaper food. Our old friend Charles Trevelyan said in a letter about the hardship in the Highlands of Scotland, ‘the people cannot under any circumstances be allowed to starve’ and the government forced Landlord’s to help their tenants, a far cry from the attitude in Ireland.

Trevelyan’s attitude towards Scotland was in marked contrast to his actions in Ireland. Scotland did suffer, grievously in places but the poor of Ireland were sacrificed on the altar of free market dogmatism and up to a million perished. Over a million others found escape on famine ships across the Atlantic or cattle boats to England or Scotland. There they faced an uncertain future in the harsh crucible of the industrial revolution.

In the darkest days of the great hunger there were those who tried help. The Choctaw Native American tribe who had themselves known hunger and hardship on their ‘trail of tears’ raised $170 for famine relief in Ireland. ($5000 in today’s terms) It was an incredible gesture from people living 4000 miles away who were themselves dispossessed. In 2015 a sculpture commemorating this event was unveiled in Midleton, County Cork. It is called ‘Kindred Spirits’ and shows huge steel feathers in the shape of a food bowl. A delegation of twenty Choctaw people attended the unveiling and received the heartfelt thanks of the Irish nation.

In the sad cemetery at Skibbereen there are various plaques commemorating An Gorta Mor. Perhaps the most poignant contains the following words…

‘Oh God! That bread should be so dear and human  flesh so cheap…’