Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Brothers

The Brothers

Michael grinned at his older brother with that infectious smile of his, ‘You mean Saturday? I’m going on Saturday?’ he asked excitedly in that nasally tone of his. ‘Aye, Michael. I got two tickets aff big Andy the bus convenor and he’s cool with it.’ Michael took his brother by surprise by standing and throwing his arms around him. ‘I love you, John, he said in that unrestrained and honest way of his. John held him close, feeling a little emotional but also feeling a genuine affection for his brother, ‘I just need tae clear it way my ma and we’re good tae go.’ John left an obviously delighted Michael sitting in the living room and headed into the kitchen to talk to his mother.

He watched her unseen for a moment from the door of the kitchen, busy as always, cutting potatoes and carrots for another pot of her famous soup. Her long dark hair was tied into a pony tail and he could see a few silver threads here and there. She was still a fine looking woman even if she was in her late forties and he often wondered why she’d never shown any interest in men after his old man had died. It was six years ago now that John Snr had the misfortune to be crossing the road when a speeding drunk had shattered all their lives. ‘Ma,’ John began, ’can I talk to you a minute?’ She turned to face him gifting him that smile which he remembered even as a small child. ‘Of course son, whit is it?’ He sat by the kitchen table as she finished putting her chopped vegetables into the big soup pot. ‘I’ve got two tickets for the cup final and I wanted to take Michael.’ He face creased but she said nothing as he continued, ‘Andy on the bus is happy with it and he’ll help me with Michael if I need it.’ She put the lid on the pot and turned to look at her son. ‘John ye took Michael tae a game last year and he came home in tears. You know how some idiots react to a boy with Down’s! I won’t have him hurt again!’ John exhaled, ‘Ma, he’s 18 now, he can’t spend his days between this house and his club and you know he loves Celtic. There’s more tae life than that. Besides, it’s the cup final and it’s Celtic’s centenary year.’ She closed her eyes momentarily as if thinking before opening them again with a sigh and nodding, ‘Aw right John, but promise me you’ll look after him.’ John smiled at her, ‘You know I will ma, I’ll guard him with my life.’

The days leading up to the 1988 cup final hobbled past like old soldiers as the two brothers waited on the big day. Michael was so excited and had travelled with his mum from their home in Pollok all the way to the Celtic shop at the stadium to buy a new scarf for the occasion. At last Saturday 14 May arrived, bringing with it sunshine, blue skies and the hint that something magical was in the air for Billy McNeill and his centenary Celts. Michael was up at 7am and pestering his brother to get out of bed. ‘Michael, it’s 7 in the morning, the game isn’t for hours. Will ye go back tae bed?’ Michael sat on his brothers bed, ‘I’m too excited, John. I can’t sleep.’ John sat up in bed and looked at his brother, ‘Look, go in the living room, get some breakfast and watch the Celtic videos, I’ll be up in a while.’ This seemed to settle Michael who headed out of the room, muttering to himself, ‘I can’t wait, I can’t wait!’

John sat up in bed, lit a cigarette and exhaled. He had no worries that Michael would be fine at the football, he loved Celtic. Rather it was the attitude of some people to Michael and his Downs Syndrome that was the problem. One guy in particular on the supporters’ bus, an ignoramus called Aldo, had joked about a ‘Mong’ being on the bus and John had almost come to blows with him. John knew him from school and he was a moron then just as he was a moron now in his mid-twenties. If he started any of his pish John wasn’t sure he could contain himself. He had taken Michael to Tannadice earlier in the season and most of the guys on the bus had been brand new with him. Aldo though asked John with a stupid grin on his face, ‘does he bite?’ It took the strapping form of Andy the bus convenor to stop John and Aldo coming to blows. He had told Aldo to sit on his arse and stop behaving like an idiot before quietly whispering to John, ‘Never mind that prick, not the sharpest tool in the box.’

John didn’t get the dumb prejudice some folk had about people who were different. Michael was funny, loving and kind. He had a wicked sense of humour and could always sense when people were in need of a laugh. Prejudice, John figured was just that, pre-judging people before you actually knew them. It often told you more about the people doing it than the intended target of their scorn.

As lunchtime approached on that sunny Saturday in the spring of 1988, Michael was sitting at the kitchen table in his centenary Celtic top, scarf in hand ready to go. John loved his enthusiasm. Michael never hid his joy when something good was happening. Before they left to catch the supporters’ bus to Hampden, they both hugged their mother who whispered in John’s ear, ‘look after him, son.’ He smiled, ‘He’ll be fine Ma, he’ll love it. We’ll be home by six.’ John knew that in some way she carried some guilt for Michael’s condition despite the fact it was a random genetic mishap, an extra chromosome in each cell which causes the condition. He turned to Michael who stood waiting by the door, ‘Right you, let’s go and win this cup!’

They climbed onto the supporters bus in bright May sunshine. Andy grinned at them as they passed his seat, ‘Alright lads, a great day for it.’ Michael smiled back, ‘Hi Andy, I can’t wait. We’re gonna win!’ Andy nodded, ‘Damned right we are, Michael!’ As they headed towards the back of the bus Michael’s smile faded a little as he saw Aldo sitting swigging a half bottle of cheap wine. John guided Michael towards the back of the bus and ignored Aldo who he heard mutter to his mate, ‘ Oho, I see Robert Downey Junior is back.’ John gritted his teeth, one day he thought, he’d fix that bastard.

The journey to Hampden was one of those happy trips where everyone was singing and up for it. There were smiling, green clad fans on every street streaming towards the stadium. The centenary year had been excellent so far, could Celtic top it off by adding the cup to their league title? They got off the bus and headed towards the turnstiles at the Celtic end. The fans crowding the entrances were noisy and boisterous. John stood behind Michael, guiding him through and into the stadium. As they topped the stairway and saw the great bowl of Hampden spread out before them; three quarters of it covered in the green favours of Celtic and the far end a sea of tangerine, they both felt that exhilaration cup final day can bring. They made their way to a section of the terracing to the right of the goal as the teams came out to a great roar. A sea of red cards was held aloft to greet Margaret Thatcher who took her seat in the stand. ‘Here we go Michael!’ John said with genuine excitement.

As the game began, John heard the familiar voice of Aldo behind him. Of all the places on the terrace he could have stood he chose this. He glanced around him but the packed terrace offered little scope for moving. As the play raged from one end to the other John could hear the jibes behind him, ‘Good of him tae take the boy out wi normal people.’ Aldo’s friend was not responding to his stupid comments and focussed on the game, John tried to do the same. It bugged him but he ignored it for Michael’s sake. In the second half though Dundee United scored and Aldo said audibly, ‘See, telt ye the mongo would be bad luck!’ John spun around, ‘You shut yer fuckin’ ignorant mouth or I’ll punch yer lights out!’ Aldo snarled back, ‘Go for it ya fuckin fud!’ As John was about to swing a punch, Michael grabbed his arm, ‘No John, No!’ John, fuming turned back to the match as Celtic centred the ball to restart the game. He could hear Aldo’s mate telling him to calm down and behave but the half cut moron was still firing out stupid remarks. John bided his time until on 75 minutes Frank McAvennie scored the equalising goal. As the packed Celtic end jumped around in wild ecstasy and Michael was roaring in joy at the players on the field, he deliberately threw his elbow back with all the force he could muster smashing it into Aldo’s face. Aldo crumpled to the floor as the fans roared and danced around him. He looked at Aldo’s mate to see if he would do anything but he just shrugged as if to say, ‘he deserved that.’ The ambulance men showed up to help a bleeding and groggy Aldo away as John and Michael settle to watch the final stages of an enthralling game.

John placed his hands on Michael’s shoulders as the game neared its tension filled end, tied at 1-1. Would it be extra time in the sunshine? Would Celtic have the legs to make it a centenary double? With time running out another Celtic attack swept down the field and the ball and the ball pinged around the United penalty box where McAvennie was waiting to smash it home! John and Michael grabbed each other in a bear hug and shouted for joy! They had done it! Celtic had won the cup in the dying moments of the game and there were no happier people on God’s green earth at that moment than the two brothers locked in an embrace as around them thousands celebrated their team’s victory.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Witches Cauldron

The Witches Cauldron

There was a moment midway through the second half of Thursday’s epic encounter between Celtic and RB Leipzig when the German side were starting to push Celtic back and looking more menacing.  The Celtic fans in the near 60,000 crowd realising their team needed them began to rock the stadium with their chants and songs and the team responded, fighting like tigers for the ball and putting their bodies on the line in order to block shots and thwart the German side’s attacks. It was an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between Celtic and their supporters. Those fans get so engrossed in the game, the kick every ball, respond to every incident and give their team unconditional support.

It’s a unique environment in European football and German newspaper, the Leipziger Volkzeitung, described Celtic Park as ‘Der Hexenkessel’ (the witches cauldron) and praised it with the following words…

‘Sorry Borussia Dortmund, sorry Besitkas but Celtic Park and the Celts top everything that Red Bull has experienced since its inception in 2009. The fans of the Scottish side live up to their reputation as the world’s best fanatics, driving their Bhoys in green for 94 minutes to a deserved victory, celebrating every tackle, profane interjections at corners. They also celebrate themselves, their loyalty, and their songs. The history of this cult club founded in 1888 by the Irish clergyman Brother Walfrid, looms over everything. The score is a decorating accessory, the big picture is more important. Celtic season tickets are traded like gold dust and carry an inscription, ‘A club like no other!’ Yes indeed; a club like no other.

The atmosphere at Bundesliga games is among the best in the world so praise from experienced German press reporters is praise indeed. Another German newspaper painted a picture of the scene as kick off approached, stating in almost poetic terms…

‘Before the game, the entire stadium was bathed in a light show as the green and white hymn "You'll Never Walk Alone" was sung so loudly that probably everyone in the stadium - including the 2200 travelling along Leipzig fans - got goose bumps. When the nearly 60,000 sing along and everyone in the oval raises his Celtic scarf, it creates one of the most powerful and exciting scenes you can experience in a football stadium.’

Nor was the epic atmosphere lost on players experiencing it for the first time. Celtic’s on loan defender, Filip Benkovic, was similarly impressed….

“When we went out on to the pitch at the beginning our fans were on fire. The atmosphere was crazy and they gave us the wings to play. The memory of it will live with me forever and I want to enjoy as many of them as I can.”

If results go Celtic’s way in the next round of matches we should be set up for an incredible evening when runaway group winners RB Salzburg come calling in December. That will be an incredible occasion too.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Thursday’s match was the fact that the players believed in themselves and matched their more fancied opponents in every aspect of the game. The tactics were good, the effort and application superb. To see young Scottish players who have come through the Celtic Academy playing so well was pleasing. Ryan Christie too has been a revelation of late and his return after loan spells away from Celtic has been like signing a new player. Callum McGregor too has stepped up of late and shown that he can do an excellent job in midfield. With Brown recuperating, Rogic and N’tcham on long term contracts, the Celtic midfield is looking powerful indeed.

In defence Boyata and Benkovic looked a solid pairing although in a worst case scenario the club could lose both in January. Celtic should try to persuade Boyata to sign another contract, even if they acknowledge that he’ll leave in the summer. If he refuses then they would be wise to sell him in January and at least get a few million pounds for him which could be used to buy in a replacement. Benkovik would I’m sure be up for staying for at least the rest of the season if the alternative was warming the bench at Leicester? Either way the January transfer window needs to be handled in a more effective way than the summer one after which even Rodgers admitted the team was weaker.

I had a Swiss friend with me who was visiting Celtic Park for the first time and it was interesting listening to what he thought about the game. He was most impressed by Tierney and Forrest who he thought could play in any league successfully. The atmosphere of course impressed him and he told me that he’d never seen a crowd so involved, so focussed on the game and driving their team on.

 The passion Celtic fans bring to these big European games is recognised the world over. It drives the players to new levels and helps them compete with teams most feel are too strong for them. The link between the players on the field and the fans in the stands is the key to so much this remarkable club has achieved down the decades. That passion still makes little miracles happen now and the as Barcelona found when they came to Celtic Park in 2012. The late Tito Villanova said at the time…

The stadium was spectacular. I have been lucky in my career to have been to many grounds but I have never seen anything like it.’

Leipzig is not yet at the level of Tito’s Barcelona but they are a very good European side and Celtic did exceptionally well to overcome them. It isn’t often Scottish teams defeat Bundesliga sides so we can take pride in a fine result. I’m glad the ‘twelfth man’ played an important part in that victory by creating that ‘witches cauldron’ which so infuses the team with energy and confidence. As Tommy Burns once said of the Celtic supporters; ‘They’re there and they’re always there and God bless every one of them.’

The great man was spot on with that comment. We’ll always back Celtic; they are our club, part of the fabric of our lives, part of our very being and they always will be. For all of us they are indeed… a club like no other.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Calling it out

Calling it out

In an episode of Line of Duty, the BBC’s excellent police drama, Superintendent Ted Hastings played by Adrian Dunbar is asked if he could be letting race play a part in his motivation as he pursues corrupt black cop Tony Gates. As a Catholic former RUC officer, the experienced cop is having none of it and snarls, “Nobody’s blacker than me, son,” By that of course he means that as an Irish-Catholic he has had to endure his share of prejudice in his life.

I thought of that scene as I watched Neil Lennon speak so frankly on what he has endured in Scotland since joining Celtic in the year 2000. The former Celtic player and Manager has been verbally abused, assaulted in the street on more than one occasion and also in a football stadium, he has received bombs and bullets in the post and has to live with low level hostility on a permanent basis. Why does he receive such treatment? He is no more combative than Scott Brown or Graham Souness. He enjoys the banter with fans and does get on their nerves at times but nothing which would warrant the naked hatred and aggression he endures in his life. He spoke earlier about never receiving any abuse for club or country until the day he signed for Celtic. He gave up playing for Northern Ireland after sustained abuse from his team’s own supporters and credible threats to his safety from more sinister forces.

Lennon is clear why he has faced such hostility and calls it by the name our media seems determined to avoid; racism. He said…

"Everyone tries to skirt around it but that’s the basis of it, has been since 2000. The first day I stepped onto Windsor Park (Belfast) as a Celtic player I was booed every time I touched the ball having previously played 36 times and had nothing. But with my association with Celtic being high profile, there’s no in my mind that that was behind it and it’s what you want to call it; you call it sectarianism here in Scotland, I call it racism. If a black man is abused, you are not just abusing the colour of his skin, you are abusing his culture, his heritage, his background. It’s the exact same when I get called a Fenian, a pauper, a beggar, a tarrier by these people with their sense of entitlement and superiority complex. And all I do is stand up for myself.”

The latest ugly scenes come as Scottish football has been on the up; crowds are increasing, stadiums are looking transformed from the dark days of the past when fans were herded in and out like cattle and some of the games on show are genuinely exciting. Underneath the layer of modernity though, age old fissures and hatreds remain. Celtic has since its very inception had to deal with the contempt of those with no love for the Irish living in Scotland, nor the faith the majority of them professed. That overt hostility may be less obvious than it once was but it still lingers in the dark corners of our society.

Most of us from an Irish Catholic background could relay countless anecdotes of insults blatant and subtle and the stories of our parents and grandparents convinced us that this behaviour has some history to it. The older generation spoke of ‘keeping your head down’ and not making too much of a fuss about the petty discrimination they faced although some, weary of the effect it could have on the life chances of the new generation. One man of courage was Head Teacher John Breen of St Patrick’s High School, who marched into various banks in and around Coatbridge in the 1950s and asked why they never recruited young people from the Catholic school he was in charge off. He shamed them into changing their ways and enhanced the chances of some of his youngsters having a better life.

According to the 2011 census, Scottish Catholics are still almost twice as likely as any other group in Scottish society to live in areas of deprivation. They are also over-represented in our prisons and on our unemployment lists. These are the fruits of poverty and disadvantage.

2011 Scottish Census

Neil Lennon is symptomatic of that younger generation no longer accepting a seat at the back of the bus. No longer ‘keeping their heads down’ but increasingly calling out the bigotry they experience. He has been accused of bringing the troubles he deals with to his own door and one ill-informed guest on a debate show said of this latest assault on Lennon…

“Something that comes to mind with me is that Neil Lennon needs to take responsibility for Neil Lennon. I thought his conduct, before this incident, was shocking and, quite frankly, I will be amazed if the football authorities and even Police Scotland don’t decide that they need to have a word in his ear to say ‘Look, you can’t do that in these circumstances.’

Thus are victims blamed for the treatment they receive. Lennon was boisterous and even a bit silly gesturing to the Hearts fans behind him after a late goal was called offside but it was in no way ‘shocking.’ He did nothing which excuses a physical assault. Some people really need to start controlling themselves at football matches. I’ve written in the past about the throwing of missiles at football and the fact that sooner or later someone is going to suffer a serious injury.  Every club, including Celtic, has its share of less bright individuals tagging along and the decent supporters need to persuade them to wisen up.

There has also been more talk of introducing limited liability whereby clubs take more responsibility for the behaviour of their fans. Sanctions aimed at clubs for any poor behaviour of their fans would follow in domestic games as they currently do in European matches. Scottish clubs will no doubt resist this as fines, the closure of stands or even the deduction of points could jeopardise their season. If that isn’t a road clubs want to go down then the avenues left to combat sectarian behaviour at football remain self-policing by supporters, more robust law enforcement; which treats symptoms but not cause, or education which at the end of the day is the best way to get it through to the upcoming generation what is acceptable and what is not.

Neil Lennon has been the lightning rod for a Scotland which is slowly changing from the stuffy, conservative country it once was; a place where everyone was expected to know their place. The courage and determination he shows in standing up to the moronic minority is remarkable. This wealthy young man could shrug his shoulders and say, ‘you know what, stuff this’ and move himself and his family to a more sedate life elsewhere. He takes comfort in the fact that it’s a minority who engage in racist and sectarian behaviour in Scotland as most Scots abhor such nonsense. He said back in 2011, in the midst of receiving bombs and bullets in the post…

"Yet I know that the Celtic support is very protective of me," Lennon continues, "and I am very humbled by that. I've had hundreds of letters too from Rangers fans, from Hearts fans, from Aberdeen fans, all saying that they have been outraged by some of the abuse directed at me and that it doesn't truly reflect their views. That's also been very humbling

Scottish society needs to exorcise these ghosts of the past and it will only do so by looking the problem squarely in the face and recognising it for what it is. The Irish-Catholic community in Scotland has long faced prejudice from a vociferous minority which if directed at Jewish people, Muslims or any other group would be met with outrage. The fact our mealy mouthed media passed it off as ‘sectarianism’ and a symptom of the ‘Old Firm’ rivalry, stopped people seeing it for the racism it is.

It is now 14 years since Martin O’Neil stood in the dugout at Ibrox and listened to a tirade of sectarian and racist abuse aimed at Neil Lennon. He spoke openly about it in the aftermath of that game and a few honest journalists printed his words without the obfuscation of that unwritten rule of sports journalism in Scotland: when writing about sectarianism, it’s always both sides of the same coin, both as bad as each other. As I watched from the Broomloan Stand that day, O’Neil put his arm around Lennon and led him to the Celtic support, clenching his fist in a gesture of defiance and solidarity. It was a powerful moment. One which said, we won’t be bowed by this anymore.

The fight against hatred is a constant one but the tide is starting to turn and one day we might look back and thank the likes of Neil Lennon for calling it out.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

A time and a place

A time and a place 

Like over 30,000 other Celtic supporters, I travelled through to Murrayfied in Edinburgh for the League Cup Semi-Final with Hearts. The sun was shining, the team showed up and the atmosphere was excellent. From my seat near the halfway line I had a good view of a terrific second half performance from Celtic who really put their opponents to the sword when the game opened up. Ryan Christie scored an excellent goal but there were good performances all over the field; Benkovic strolled through the match like the class player he is, Scott Sinclair showed flashes of his true self and even the much maligned Mikael Lustig had a good match.

The fans were in good voice too although the songbook is drifting back towards a less enlightened time. Maybe it was the opposition, maybe it’s the lingering effect of the now defunct Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, but there has been a distinct increase in political chanting at Celtic games. This is especially true at away games as I noticed on Sunday and at Kilmarnock recently too. The joyous ‘Beautiful Sunday’ song belted out after the victory over Rangers earlier in the season has been converted into homage to the IRA. Songs such as the Boys of the Old Brigade, the Broad Black Brimmer and Sean South were also aired. Surely we can do better than this? If folk feel the need to sing these songs then they should be saved for the pub, the home or other more appropriate venue. This is mostly young people with no memories of the Troubles and the utter carnage and horror of those years singing such songs at a Scottish football match. How is this appropriate in 2018?

I saw one online debate where a chap raised the issue and stating that it took the shine off of a good display for him. He was expecting to be harangued by those who enjoy the ‘Rebs’ but it seemed to me the majority agreed with him. Of course for a minority he was a ‘snowflake’ or a ‘soup taker’ but he raised an issue that is troubling some Celtic supporters.  There will always be a minority who couldn’t care less about the opinions of other fans or the damage this does to Celtic’s reputation. Nor do they care about the victims and relatives of victims of the Troubles very much with us still. Nor yet about the youngsters in their midst listening to them. Like it or not, these songs give the media every opportunity to play the ‘both sides the same’ card they often do when discussing sectarianism in Scotland.

A few years ago I was at Rugby Park watching Celtic play Kilmarnock. Kenny Shiels was the Killie boss then and as a percentage of Celtic fans began singing a modern rebel song, I wondered how many knew that Kenny’s brother had been killed in the troubles? Yet here he was in a Scottish football ground listening to supporters singing about the organisation which killed his brother. Do we really think that’s right? The legacy of those years is very much with us still. It may be 20 years since the killing stopped but many on all sides still live with loss and grief. There were awful things done by all sides and many innocents have never received the justice they’re due. If healing and reconciliation is ever to have a chance then perhaps the war songs are better not aired in public, particularly from those with no experience of the bad days of the past. Of course every community has its stories and its songs and no one would argue such expressions should be outlawed, merely that people consider the right time and place to air them.

I come from a traditional Celtic supporting family with roots both Irish and Scottish. I enjoy the traditional songs as much as anyone but there is a time and a place and it isn’t in a modern football stadium. My Irish grandad fought for his country’s freedom but always taught me that all the people of Ireland had to reach agreement to live together. He would say, ‘You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.’ He loved the songs he learned in his homeland and would sing the Rose of Tralee, Kevin Barry  or the West Awake at family parties but if there was what was once called a ‘mixed company’ in the house he’d respectfully avoid any political or nationalist songs. That was considered decent behaviour then.

I understand the cultural and historic circumstance which brought the Irish to Scotland and the roll Celtic played in giving that community pride and hope in a better future. It’s natural to want to celebrate the club’s Irish roots but we are a much more diverse support these days with followers from all walks of life, all faiths and none and no one should ever feel uncomfortable among us. The songs I mentioned earlier aren’t in my opinion sectarian but for many they are offensive and there are so many good Celtic songs which could be sung instead.

It’s now 45 years since Jock Stein invaded the terraces at Stirling Albion to tell supporters that they should keep their songbook focused on Celtic and not politics. That was in 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles when 479 people were killed and almost 5000 injured in a province with a population no bigger than greater Glasgow. Here we are in 2018; 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and we’re still talking about what is appropriate to sing at a football match.

There will be those who will sing what they want regardless of the damage it does their club’s reputation. There will be those who think politics and football have always mixed and see no problem with singing any songs. There are of course, those with a visceral dislike Celtic and use these songs to legitimise their hatred.  There is also, I believe, a large group of Celtic supporters uncomfortable with it who’d rather Celtic fans sung Celtic songs. There will also be those who will not be happy reading the words I’ve written. But do you what? This club belongs to all of us and each of us has a right to an opinion on the issues which affect us all.  

I know the club would rather not hear these songs at games as it does damage to the image of our support. So how about keeping it to Celtic songs  and leave the war songs at the turnstile?

Friday, 26 October 2018

Ordinary Angel

Ordinary Angel

One of my earliest memories as a child concerns a time when I was about 7 years old. My mum was struggling on her own with six demanding young children and we were living in a damp flat in a decrepit tenement building which stood near the Tennent’s Brewery in Glasgow’s east end. I recall one dark, winter’s night when the money had run out and the cupboard literally was bare. There was a knock at the door which I answered to a well-dressed, polite man who smiled and said, ‘a friend told us you might be in need of this.’ He then handed me a rather heavy box which I could barely carry before turning around and heading down the dark stairway.

I took the box into the living room and explained what had occurred to my mum. She opened the box and to our delight it was full of tinned food, fruit and all manner of nice things. It was like manna from heaven to us coming as it did at our moment of greatest need. My mum explained as she read a small card she found in the box that it came from the Society of St Vincent de Paul. She told me that in life sometimes we meet people whom she called ‘ordinary angels;’ People who do good things for others and ask for nothing in return.

Recently we lost one of those ‘ordinary angels’ with the passing of Michelle McFarlane. Those of you who know the work of the charity, ‘The Invisibles,’ will know that it is at the forefront of supporting the homeless who sleep on the streets of Glasgow. Michelle brought drive, energy and organisation to the charity as well as her knowledge of the various ways to help those on the streets with advice on benefits and other useful information. She joined The Invisibles at a time a rag-tag team of earnest and decent people were doing their best to help those in need. She brought organisation, allotted tasks which suited the skills of those who did them and helped forge a much more cohesive and effective organisation. Those who knew her well spoke of a woman with a heart of gold allied to a steely determination to do the very best she could for people she sought to help.

Michelle was a fighter in a variety of contexts and as a life-long Celtic fan saw the injustice of the Offensive Behaviour at Football act and the heavy handed way it was being implemented. She did all she could to support ‘Fans against Criminalisation’ and was pleased when the Act was eventually scrapped. One colleague who worked closely with her said of her…

‘It was in her DNA to help people, not just the homeless or football fans, but everywhere she saw injustice. She did all of this and still remained a very humble person.’

Her passing was marked in a very poignant way outside the Invisibles centre in Cadogan Street, Glasgow. Volunteers, family members and some of the homeless people they and Michelle have helped along the way gathered to pay tribute to a remarkable woman. They created a makeshift display using her picture which was surrounded by the light of candles which brought light to the darkness of an autumn night in Glasgow. The symbolism was very apt for a woman who in her life brought light to those in need. The comments on the Invisibles web page when her death was announced speak volumes about the sort of person Michelle was. Here are a few….

‘Gutted for you all and for those Michelle cared so deeply about.
Michelle was at the heart of so many campaigns, fighting for justice tirelessly.
Such a sad loss.’

‘One of life’s good troopers, she will be working tirelessly up there too.

‘Rest in peace my friend, you will always be in our thoughts. God bless.’

‘The Lion sleeps tonight, RIP our dearest friend and volunteer, we will continue our fight to support the most vulnerable in our city.’

‘Goodbye friend. You made the world a better place and not many can say that.

‘Just can’t believe she’s gone, a true woman of principle and we were all lucky to have known her.’ 

‘The saddest news. I have been sitting right in front of her, Mark & Michael at Parkhead for about 20 years. I am heartbroken. R.I.P My friend

‘Such a truly wonderful woman with a heart of pure gold; you will be sadly missed.’

As balloons drifted into the dark, night sky over Glasgow in memory of Michelle, a group volunteers, family and some of those Michelle helped on the streets had gathered to honour her. Of course they were saddened at the loss of one whom they held so dear but were also proud of this feisty lady who fought for those less fortunate, for the poor, the harassed football fan, for those in need. 

Michelle made a difference and won the trust and respect of the many clients she worked with. She also won the affection and admiration of many who came into contact with her and could see she was the real deal, a genuine person who not only cared about people society had marginalised but actively fought for them. She would have smiled at the Green Brigade's banner flown in her honour at Celtic Park. No doubt she would point to the others who worked with her and share the recognition.

Rest in peace, Michelle and thank you. You were indeed a Champion of the people and in the words of my old mum, one of life’s ordinary angels.

Friday, 19 October 2018

The Know-Nothings

The Know-Nothings

The nature of prejudice and its role in the subjugation of groups in just about every human society has long been discussed by social scientists. It remains a cultural heirloom passed down the generations and as such can be difficult to eradicate. Abraham Lincoln once wrote to his friend Joshua Speed using words which could fit any number of conflicts today…

‘“As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

More years ago than I care to remember, I sat in a bothy on a building site nestling in a Glasgow scheme which was being renovated. To my left was ‘Chelsea’ so called because he wore a Chelsea top to work each day; on my right was ‘Ian’ who wore an England top and liked to spend his breaks using felt pens to decorate the bothy walls with child-like artistic impressions of Loyalist insignia. Both young men were Glasgow born and bred. What surprised me was the fact that the mixed group of workers in the Bothy barely batted an eyelid at behaviour and language which was overtly racist and sectarian. It was as if this was the way things were and nothing could alter it.

‘Ian’ was a particularly nasty person with what some call ‘wee man syndrome.’ His daily anti-Catholic remarks and bitter little jokes could perhaps be excused as he was also clearly, ‘not the full shilling’ as my dad used to say. He didn’t like my humorous putdowns and was far from happy when my response to another of his predictably moronic statements; ‘Ain’t no black in the union Jack’ was, ‘Aye but there’s blue and red so can Smurfs and native Americans get in yer wee club?’ His face was as scarlet as the red hands he liked to sketch, particularly as the bothy laughed at him. Humour remains a powerful weapon when used well against those seeking to spread division.

Chelsea was a brighter if somewhat misguided young man. He seemed desperate to find an identity and a world view to guide him in life. I told him one Monday morning that I saw him at the weekend fighting with Celtic fans at Duke Street railway station. He tried to explain himself with the old. ‘Aye Tims like you are OK but those other ones deserve it.’  I pushed him to say why the others deserved it and he fell back on tired old tropes like, ‘They’re all IRA supporters’ etc. He was bright enough to see how hollow his words were even as he spoke them; in honesty, he just liked the excitement of violence. I got to know him quite well and it struck me that his life revolved around cultural, sporting and social events which restricted his interactions to those he called his ‘own people.’ Getting to know people from other backgrounds personally through work though introduced him to the idea that they weren’t so different to him. ‘Ian’ may have seemed to be beyond redemption back then but Chelsea was potentially a good guy despite adopting shallow tribal postures and attitudes which helped him fit in to his chosen sub-culture. You got the impression he never fully bought into the nonsense he sometimes spouted.

We all know people like Chelsea and Ian; young men looking for purpose and meaning in their lives and through the more malign influences around them, find it in worn out attitudes and prejudices which in reality can blight their lives. I met Chelsea in a totally different context a couple of years back and he was thankfully a wiser man who had shed the worst of his prejudices and lost the friends that needed losing. Some people learn and grow in life; some follow the same old groove all their days.

I thought of these two chaps as I watched footage of England fans in Seville for a match with Spain. A minority displayed all that old ignorance and arrogance which makes them as popular as the plague.  Their prejudices have been weaponised by Brexit and are now portrayed as less absurd than they should be by some. We had the usual ‘fuck the Pope and the IRA’ no doubt learned over the years from those other Brit-Nats further north. There was also an utterly obnoxious ditty about Scott Brown and Madeleine McCann. Jack Pitt-Brooke, writing in the Independent with characteristic candour said of them…

‘We all know inside ourselves that the behaviour of so many of England’s fans abroad is no aberration and no accident. It is not at odds with our national character and mood but entirely at one with it: insular, arrogant, confrontational, territorial, unable to see anything through the eyes of anyone else, suspicious of minorities and foreigners, increasingly dependent on national myths and purity tests. Do not be too surprised by the behaviour in Seville. Just turn on the news.’

The current national discourse regarding Brexit is undoubtedly feeding this xenophobic fringe in the UK. The so called ‘Football Lads Alliance’ march in London demonstrated that a group set up as ‘anti-extremist’ has in fact drifted to the far-right itself. People of my age have seen these types before. They have gone by many names but the values they espouse are always the same; exclusively nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and reactionary. We saw then in George Square in 2014 after the referendum on Scottish independence. We saw them try to march into the Jewish quarter of London’s east end in 1936 when the Jews, Irish and others stood up to them. They never change,’ it’s always some minority’s fault, never the fault of the so called ‘elites’ who work them like puppets.

No matter your politics, your view on Brexit or the team you support, there are limits to what is acceptable. Overt racism or bigotry is going too far and we must stand up to it as individuals and as a society. As Abraham Lincoln said of the bigots of his time…

'When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except Negroes…. and foreigners…. and Catholics….'

The ‘Know nothings’ exist in every group, every community and yes, every support. That’s why it’s everyone’s business to call it out and shame those who practice the sort of ignorance and racism we saw from a minority of England fans in Spain. It’s not about being anti-English; it’s about being decent human beings. 

These are challenging times in our world and we need the good folk to be heard now more than ever.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Days like these

Days like these
Tony McIvor looked at the battered old Ford Fiesta, ‘Ye think that’ll get us tae Dundee? Looks like a feckin antique.’  His good friend Johnny Mullin shook his head, ’Oh Ye of little faith! Just get in and we’ll go pick up daft arse.’ Tony had a look of mock shock on his face, ‘daft arse? That’s my brother yer talking aboot!’ He thought for a second before continuing, ‘but yer right daft as a brush.’  Johnny jumped into the driver’s seat as Tony opened the creaking door of the passenger side. The interior smelt vaguely of urine. ‘Where did ye get this dream machine?’ he said as he buckled himself into the seat. Johnny started the engine which whined into life, ‘Bought it for £250 aff a guy in Royston, a good year or two in it yet.’  Tony was less than convinced but added, ‘As long as it gets us tae Dundee, we’re not missing this game.

They cruised down Mill Street on Glasgow’s south side heading for Tony’s brother’s place in Castlemilk. The bright May weather and Celtic’s imminent chance to seal an unexpected league title after a remarkable end to the 2007-08 season had the friends buoyed up. Tony pushed a cassette into the tape player on his left and the familiar sound of the Wolfe Tones filled the car…

 ‘He was me brother Sylvest, got a row of forty medals on his chest
 He killed 50 bad men in the west; he knows no rest!
He’s got an arm like a leg and a punch that would sink a battle ship,
it would take all the army and the navy to put the wind up Sylvest.’

The car headed up the steep incline of Castlemilk Drive and stopped at the close where Tony’s brother Dom lived; the balcony of his second floor flat was draped with an Irish tricolour. ‘Hope yer brother’s sober, he nearly got us jailed at the last game wi the currants.’ Tony smiled, ‘I telt him if he’s oan the Don Revie he’s no coming.’  On cue Dom McIvor came out of the close, a plastic bag clearly containing alcohol. ‘Mon the Celik!’ he shouted as he came towards the car. He wanted to come along despite not having a ticket, saying he’d get in by hook or by crook. He was wearing his usual Celtic top and jeans. Tony grinned, ‘Never changes oor Dom.’ A slightly tipsy Dominik McIvor plonked himself in the back seat of the car and greeted them with a cheery smile, ‘Right boys let’s get up tae Dundee and see the Celts do the damage!’ The car pulled off and as the first ring pull was popped in the back seat. The car glided through the streets of Glasgow and headed for the M80 motorway.

Like thousands of other Celtic fans they were headed north to see if Celtic could pull off the final part of a remarkable comeback. The team had been streets behind their rivals Rangers until two victories against the Ibrox club coupled with their loss of form had seen Celtic climb to the top of the table. Now all they had to do was win this last match and the title would be theirs. As the three friends headed north they passed numerous buses and cars loaded with green clad fans. It was going to be a special night. As they neared Stirling, Dom leaned forward and said, ‘Here Johnny boy, any chance ye could stoap for a minute, am needin’ a Lillian Gish?’ Johnny smiled; he always found Dom’s ability with rhyming slang amusing. ‘Nae bother mate, there’s a layby up ahead. ‘Cheers big man, I’ll no be long, just need tae syphon the python then we’re back on the road tae Dundee.’ Tony and Johnny watched Dom head off into the bushes. They were parked less than a mile from the imposing sight of Stirling Castle which had stood on its volcanic rock for centuries. ‘Nice part of the world this,’ Johnny commented. Tam nodded, ‘Aye till some mad weegie shows up and pishes oan it.’  Johnny laughed and nodded towards Dom who was heading back towards them. ‘William Wallace country here boys, bet he’d have been a Jungle Jim if they had fitbaw back then! I could see him in the Hoops.’ With that bizarre image in their heads they were off again and heading for Dundee.

A warm spring night greeted them as they parked near Tannadice Park. Thousands of supporters were already milling about, most of them seemingly sporting the green of Celtic. ‘Right,’ Tony said, ‘We need wan mer ticket, ask at the buses and keep yer eyes opened.’ As the game came closer they had no luck. Hundreds seemed to have travelled without tickets. Dom was in magnanimous mood and said, ‘It’s no happening wi the Celtic end. I’ll head roon tae see if any the locals will part wi a Wilson Picket for their end.’ Johnny shook his head, ‘No wi the hoops oan. The cops will chase ye even if ye get wan.’ Tam took off his light jacket and gave it to his brother. ‘Zip this right up and try yer luck. If ye don’t get in we’ll get ye at the motor.’ They clubbed together a few more pounds to give Dom more bargaining power with any local with a spare ticket. ‘Good luck Dom!’ Tony shouted as his brother headed off towards the home end of the stadium.

Dom wandered among the milling throng of tangerine and black clad supporters outside the George Fox stand. He could clearly hear Glasgow accents among the crowd and the ever vigilant Police were on the lookout for Celtic supporters trying to access the Dundee United end. He approached a group of United fans who stood chatting to his left and put on what he thought was a decent Tayside accent, ‘Here pal, ye ken where any tickets are fur sale ay?’  One of them laughed out loud; ‘Where the fuck is that accent from?‘  Another smiled at Dom, ‘Good try pal but this isnae Fife.’  An older chap touched Dom’s elbow, ‘My boy didnae make it tonight, ye can come in wi me.’ Dom was about to offer him money but the grey haired man shook his head, ’Put that in yer pocket son. I might be a United supporter but I’m a Lochee man aw the same.’ Dom wasn’t quite sure how being a Lochee man made this old chap so generous but he was delighted to be getting into the match. He might have to sit on his hands for 90 minutes and keep his mouth closed but it’d be worth it if Celtic won the title.

As he took his seat among the Dundee United fans he couldn’t help but look at the packed ranks of Celtic supporters filling half the stadium. Their banners draped over the stands, their songs filling the air, it was going to be a special night. The game passed in a blur; there were chances at both ends, a good penalty shout for Celtic and a huge roar which greeted Aberdeen’s first goal against Rangers 70 miles to the north. Then on 72 minutes Celtic won a corner and Paul Hartley lined up to take it. As Dom watched the ball, a white blur, flashed across the penalty box where Celtic’s big striker Jan Venigoor of Hesselink met it with his head. The ball smashed into the net and a wall of noise swept across the pitch. It was obvious there were hundreds of Celtic fans dotted around the United stands and a few were ejected by the Police for celebrating the goal. When the game ended the old fella shook Dom’s hand. ‘Well done son, enjoy yer night.’ Dom smiled, ‘Thanks Pal, that was very good of ye.’

As the Dundee United fans drifted away hundreds of Celtic fans who had been in their end were left to join in the songs of victory filling the Tayside air. It had been a remarkable end to a remarkable season and Dom gazed across the field to the celebrating throngs of Celtic supporters taking it all in. Days like these made it all worthwhile. He unzipped his brother’s jacket to display his hooped shirt and joined in the songs of victory.