Saturday, 21 September 2019



Following disturbances at two Irish unity marches in Glasgow there was a somewhat hysterical reaction from some in the media who spoke of the scourge of sectarianism being back again and the usual nonsense was talked about the ‘divisive’ nature of Catholic schools. We even had a former high ranking police chief, Tom Wood formerly of Lothian and Borders Police, call for their abolition. The idea that the prejudice is taught in Catholic schools is of course risible nonsense just as the idea of ‘segregated’ education is demonstrably false too. In an increasingly secular society the idea of faith schools is anathema to some while in others they awaken old prejudices. Most Scots are decent, tolerant people but for a small and vociferous minority a latent prejudice persists. A look at the history of Scotland will demonstrate clearly that historical prejudice against Catholics predates Catholic schools joining the state system in 1918.

Few countries in Europe adopted the reformation as completely as Scotland did. So successful were the reformers that the Catholic faith which had existed in Scotland for a thousand years was extinguished from the land and only clung on in a few northern and western areas. Scotland’s conversion to Presbyterianism left a residual hatred of Catholicism which was strong enough to cause chaos when Charles the first attempted to reform the Church of Scotland in 1637. His reforms were regarded by many as being too close to Catholic forms of worship and were met with scorn and violence. In popular legend, a certain Jenny Geddes heard Charles’s ‘Book of Common Prayer’ being read out by the Minister in St Giles church and shouted ‘Daur ye say mass in my lug’ and threw a stool at his head. Violence broke out in the church and spread to the town as a mob gathered. In the end Charles used force to try and crush the people opposed to his attempted reform of the Scottish church and this eventually led to all out civil war across his three Kingdoms.

Whether the events surrounding Jenny Geddes happened in the manner described above or not the story illustrates the more puritanical nature of Scottish Protestantism in the 17th century. Anything which smacked of ‘popery’ could lead to violence and often did. Little more than a generation earlier in 1614, Catholic Priest John Ogilvie travelled to Scotland in the guise of a horse trader using the name of John Watson to secretly administer to the 20 or so Catholics left in Glasgow. Catholicism had been outlawed in 1560 and any found practicing it were breaking the law and likely to face severe penalties. Ogilvie was captured and tortured but refused to name the secret Catholics he administered to. As he was led to his death at Glasgow cross he is said to have kissed the gallows and threw his rosary into the watching crowd saying ‘If there be here any hidden Catholics then pray for me but I will not have the prayers of heretics.’ He was hanged, drawn and quartered.

In 1780 the UK Parliament sought to ease the repressive anti-Catholic laws particularly the harsh measures contained in ‘Popery Act’ of 1698.  The ‘Papist Act’ sought modest easing of the discrimination Catholics in the UK had to endure then. It led to a mob of 60,000 marching on Parliament carrying banners bearing the slogan ‘No Popery’ and in the ensuing rioting which took place across Britain, some 285 people were dead. Catholic churches burned and the Embassies of Catholic countries were attacked by the mob. The rioting affected Glasgow which was said to have 43 anti-Catholic societies at the time.

The 1798 rebellion in Ireland which saw the disenfranchised Catholic majority joined by significant numbers of Presbyterians under the banner of the United Irishmen would also have repercussions in Scotland. Scottish soldiers who fought to repress the rebellion returned home and set up the first Orange Lodges in the country. They had of course come into contact with Orangemen in Ireland and found their ideals close to their own. Orangeism with its strong strand of anti-Catholicism found parts of Scotland to be fertile soil in which to grow.

The Penal laws in Ireland which sought to force the indigenous population to accept the Church of Ireland as their church failed miserably. Under them Catholics and Presbyterians had to pay for Anglican churches most of them would never use. Catholics were banned from holding public office, being members of Parliament, owning firearms, excluded from voting, denied education and should one of a Catholic’s children change faith he would automatically inherit all his father’s property. These laws were designed to disempower and impoverish the Catholic majority in Ireland. The Penal Laws were, according to Edmund Burke...

 "a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.

It was the section of this population living close to poverty who were most affected by the calamity of an Gorta Mor which in the 1840s saw Ireland’s population fall by a quarter. The great hunger was the catalyst for mass migration from Ireland and tens of thousands arrived in Glasgow often to a less than friendly welcome. The industrial revolution needed their muscle but for the most part they languished in the poorest parts of town and suffered suspicion and hostility. For some native Scots, they were uneducated, uncouth and for the most part Catholic and this last fact reawakened dormant prejudices in some.

The Catholic Church in Scotland began to grow in and the hierarchy was restored in 1878 meaning that for the first time since 1560 the church had a formal structure in the land. Education was one of their chief roles and various religious orders were set up or arrived from abroad to try to educate their flock. The schools they set up were not ideal and were insufficient to meet the growing demand of a fast growing population. The 1872 Education Act made it mandatory for children of Primary age to attend school. The Act also saw rates levied on tax-payers to pay for the building of school board schools and something of a building boom commenced. The Act was interpreted in such a manner that the religious education to be taught in the board schools was to be Protestant in nature and for this reason the Catholic schools refused to enter the system. Thus in the years from 1872 to 1918 Catholic tax payers paid rates for schools which for reasons of conscience their children could not use. That 46 year period saw Catholic schools struggle as the state sector powered on and something had to be done.

The 1918 Education Act was designed to remedy this great injustice and finally brought Catholic schools into the state system. The ethos of the school and the religious instruction therein was to be decided by the ‘denominational body’ responsible. The 1918 Act doesn’t specifically mention the Catholic Church and thus Scotland has several Episcopalian schools and at least one Jewish School. Given the numbers of religious orders involved in teaching (Marists, Jesuits, Notre Dame sisters, etc.) the more strident bigots in Scotland decried the Act as ‘Rome on the Rates’ conveniently forgetting that Catholics were rate payers too and the 46 years during which those same Catholic rate-payers subsidised what were de facto Protestant Schools.

For Scottish Catholics the 1918 Act put their schools on a secure footing and the community began to use education as a vehicle for advancing in society. That continues to this day and Catholic schools do an excellent job particularly in areas of deprivation. In the last census back in 2011, it was noticeable that Scottish Catholics were more likely to live in areas of deprivation than any other group but also that they were despite this just as highly represented in higher education. For many, education was the engine of social mobility which improved their lives greatly.

Today Catholic schools are more diverse than they have ever been and some even have a non-Catholic majority attending them. They are popular with many because of the high standards they set and the religious ethos at their heart which contrary to the opinion of some who appear blinded by their prejudice are both inclusive and welcoming. Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian said recently of attempts to portray Catholic schools as guilty of creating sectarianism….

“You’ve got to distinguish between people who have done serious academic research on these issues and numpties.”

Devine cited the findings of the Scottish government’s advisory group on tackling sectarianism in 2013, which concluded that sectarianism did not stem from Catholic schools, nor would it be eradicated by closing them.

The above historical description clearly demolishes the idea of Catholic schools causing bigotry. That particular evil is learned at a father’s knee and perpetuated by people who have a very limited understanding of the conditioning they have gone through which makes them think like that. The sort of anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic rhetoric we still see occasionally in Scotland is an echo of a centuries old problem. It is on the wane and is increasingly seen as embarrassingly medieval by most Scots.

Those who caused trouble at recent Irish Unity marches were few in number and Professor Devine was scathing of them when he said…

‘The recent violence was driven by a hard core of bigots who felt threatened by renewed calls for a united Ireland and Scottish independence after the Brexit vote. Police should take a leaf out of the book of Strathclyde police, which dealt with the Ulster Defence Association during the Troubles of the 1980s.The chief superintendent responsible for policing them referred to the UDA as the Union of Dumb Amateurs. Infiltrating these people will be very easy, so they can be identified and face the courts. Intelligence, whether it is done by surveillance or undercover operations, will quickly bring an end to this problem. There were probably fewer than 50 people prepared to cause trouble and these are people with distant connections to Ulster on the Protestant side, some of whom belong to Orange lodges, many of whom support a certain football team, but they are a minority.”

As Scotland moves forward in the 21st Century and looks to find its place in the world it should leave some of its less savoury baggage in the past. When calls for the abolition of Catholic schools cease, we will know that we have reached a new reality. Some it seems will never change their ways but they are increasingly out of touch with reality and belong to the past. The future belongs to all decent Scots who utterly reject the dumb prejudice of the bygone days of yore.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Breathing Space

Breathing Space

There has been much talk about Glasgow City Council’s decision to call a halt to four planned Loyalist Parades in the city this weekend and one Republican march. The decision came in the wake of violence at two Republican marches in the previous week which were met by loyalist counter-protestors leading to ugly scenes on the city’s streets. The council stated that they needed some ‘breathing space’ to assess the situation, talk to the Police and try to find a long term solution to these contentious displays.

A letter to a Glasgow newspaper expressed an opinion which many in the city today would probably agree with…

’With the opinions of the Orangemen the public have nothing to do so long as they keep those opinions to themselves: but what right do the peaceful inhabitants of Glasgow have to be frightened out of their propriety by the wanders through the streets of a set of enthusiasts who are never against having recourse to violence.’

It may surprise you to know that despite the above comment sounding as if it was uttered yesterday; it was in fact taken from a letter to the Glasgow Courier and Chronicle in 1821. Such was the violence of those early Orange Parades the city fathers banned them for years. This occurred again later in the nineteenth century as Glasgow’s large Catholic population reacted to visceral displays of triumphalism marching through their neighbourhoods in a predictable manner.

Elaine McFarland dates the Orange Order’s first attempt at a Twelfth of July parade in Scotland to that troubled day in 1821…

‘Only three lodges took part on this first occasion, parading through the principal streets of Glasgow. Watched by ‘an immense concourse of spectators’ they were roughly handled and some had their sashes torn off. . . . In 1822 the pattern was repeated. Now seven lodges including those from Paisley and Pollokshaws assembled to march, contrary to the magistrate’s proscription, to Fraser’s Hall in King Street. The company met with little opposition during the march since it was unexpected. Once inside the hall, however, they were besieged by a number of ‘zealous Irish catholics, most ready to give battle’. Police and even military intervention was required and 127 Orangemen were taken into their safekeeping, returning home ignominiously ‘with sashes in their pockets’. A parade was again threatened for the following year but was cancelled and no public Orange processions seem to have taken place in Glasgow till the 1840s.’

It’s clear that the ‘zealous Irish Catholics’ of 1821 were not willing to play the passive victim but it’s equally interesting that in 2019 as in 1821 it is the threat of disorder on the streets which makes politicians sit up and pay attention to what is going on at these parades. In that sense those who attempted to disrupt two Republican parades in Glasgow this past month have unintentionally caused the cancellation of Orange Parades in the city this weekend.

The Order reacted angrily to the banning of their parades and as is their way continued to frame their response in a way which suggests they are the victims of political and religious intolerance in all of this. The language they use conforms to the terminology often heard in the north of Ireland and a ‘narrow minded band of anti-unionist nationalist councillors’ are blamed for the ban. (Glasgow has an SNP administration) The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland,  stated on their website…

‘It is a sad day for democracy when a narrow minded band of anti-unionist nationalist councillors, aided and abetted by Police Scotland, abuse the law and introduce illegal measures that curtail a citizen’s right of peaceful assembly. For over 200 years, Orange Lodges in Scotland have existed in many parts of Scotland, standing up for the rights of the working classes.  Our parades are the way we exercise our right of assembly, and our membership takes part in our parades with great respect and decorum.’

The idea that the Orange Order is a champion of the working classes and demonstrates ‘respect and decorum’ is laughable to many Scottish Catholics who hear tunes such as the ‘Famine Song’ and ‘Billy Boys’ played at Parades and see banners bearing images such as that of Bill Campbell the head of the Scottish UVF during the troubles. Campbell was jailed for bombing Irish Bars in Glasgow and in one darkly farcical episode his group blew up an Apprentice Boys Hall in Bridgeton when explosives they’d hidden in an oven went off when someone put on the oven to heat up pies. The actions of men like Campbell saw his group go to prison for a combined 500 years. His nephew was convicted in the 1990s for the shocking murder of schoolboy Mark Scott as he walked home from a Celtic match.

The Order has in fairness tried hard to disassociate itself from the rougher elements and there are many strands of opinion within it ranging from evangelical Christians who have no time for those who break the law through to those who use it as a vehicle for their prejudices. They would argue that their organisation had nothing to do with the disorder seen in Glasgow in the past two weeks but they are part of the context in which it all takes place. Perception is all and the manifestation of Orangeism most people come into contact with is the Parades which pass through our towns and cities each year and they are often unedifying spectacles. For those Scots with no time for such medieval triumphalism there is a sense that they are out of step with modernity and a leftover from times long gone. For many Scottish Catholics they are viewed as triumphalist and intended to remind them who ‘the people’ are.

The recent assault on a Priest at St Alphonsus church in Glasgow’s east end by hangers on at an Orange Parade demonstrated the atmosphere which pervades some of these parades. Despite all the protestations of the Orange Order about their innocence in this incident, the fact remains that their parades are often the focal point for less bright individuals who enact anti-Catholic prejudice in songs, words and actions. This is a responsibility they cannot shrug off.

Most people I’ve spoken to this past week are of the opinion that Orange and Republican Parades are divisive, whether they set out to be or not, and shouldn’t be allowed to disrupt their lives or the life of the city. Republicans will of course be angered by any description of them as ‘sectarian’ but as with Orangeism perception is all and most people simply view the spectacle of two groups playing tunes about the conflict in Ireland as an anachronism in modern Scotland. It did not go unnoticed that Glasgow now has more Orange Parades each year than Derry and Belfast combined. As Ireland stumbles towards a peaceful future do we really need camp followers in Scotland stoking the flames of old divisions?

Glasgow city council and the Scottish Police have a difficult task on their hands to reconcile the freedom of citizens to assemble and march with the possibility of disorder at such marches and all the attendant disruption they bring. One suggestion was to allow parades to take place only if those organising them meet the policing costs. With around 400 police officers, horses and a helicopter involved in policing the last Republican parade, that would all but end such parades. It is surely not acceptable that working class movements, however distasteful we find some of them, are priced out of demonstrating?  

I think a middle way will be found and that contentious parades will be reduced in number and routed away from areas of sensitivity such as Catholic churches. One suggestion was that parades should be allowed but should be taking place at times and in places where disruption is minimalised. The right to demonstrate is important in any society which calls itself free but so too is the right of people to go about their business without fear and alarm at the behaviour of some attending these demonstrations.

In a democracy the price of freedom is accepting that we may be exposed to views which we disapprove of. The old adage often ascribed to Voltaire pertains… ‘I hate what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’ Getting the balance between freedom to assemble and the rights of citizens not to be inconvenienced or worse remains a difficult task. Most Scots have no time for political extremism or religious zealotry and are quite frankly embarrassed by what they often see on our streets. They would echo the words of  a Glasgow newspaper which said almost 200 years ago….

What right do the peaceful inhabitants of Glasgow have to be frightened out of their propriety by the wanders through the streets of a set of enthusiasts who are never against having recourse to violence?’

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Football, Fascism and a young girl's diary

Football, Fascism and a young girl's diary

Celtic’s Europa League win at AIK Stockholm saw then safely through to the group stages where they will face old foes Cluj, Stade Rennes and SS Lazio. We are familiar with Cluj having played them so recently and the chance of some sporting revenge will be relished by all at Celtic. The team let themselves down defensively in the home tie with Cluj and losing four goals at home was fatal to Celtic’s Champions League hopes. The Hoops have improved defensively since then and can score against most teams so we will approach both ties with Cluj with confidence and a steely determination to show that Celtic are the better team.

The Hoops last played Rennes in 2011 when our Korean full back Cha Du Ri scored a memorable own goal in a 1-1 draw. Celtic defeated the French side at home and although they have improved in recent years the Hoops should show no fear when playing them at home or indeed in the opening tie in Brittany. Rennes city is a similar size to Glasgow and the supporters of the club are proud of the areas Celtic heritage. Indeed one of their Ultra groups is known as the ‘Roazhon Celtic Kop’ The RCK was founded by three young supporters in the 1990s and soon grew into a major ultra-group. They use tifos, flares and singing to add atmosphere to the stadium and will no doubt have a special display in mind when Celtic visit on match day one in 12 days. They also use Celtic symbols on their flags and banners and although not officially political in nature are in the main anti-racist and anti-fascist.

Lazio in contrast are struggling with an element among their supporters who in contrast to Rennes often indulge in racist and Anti-Semitic behaviour. Before one derby match with Roma stickers appeared in Rome showing Anne Frank in a Roma shirt. There was also a disgraceful banner at a match which read ‘Auschwitz is your home- the ovens your house.’ There was also a video posted on YouTube showing Lazio fans in Milan for a match unveiling a large banner praising Italian war time fascist leader Benito Mussolini with some raising their arms in fascist salutes. The Lazio supporters in the video would have known well that it was in northern Italy that Mussolini met his end at the hands of Communist partisans and it was in Milan that his lifeless body was dreadfully mistreated in the ‘Square of fifteen Martyrs’ where Mussolini’s black-shirt thugs had shot 15 local people.

SS Lazio and their more cerebral supporters were rightly horrified at the behaviour of a minority of their fans and condemned it outright. Indeed they had players warm up before a league match wearing t-shirts which bore the image of Anne Frank and a slogan condemning anti-Semitism. The Italian league ordered a minutes silence at games and in some stadiums excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary were read out on the PA system. Lazio stated they were determined to fight anti-Semitism and racism in every way they could and even stated that they would fund a project to take 200 young supporters to Poland to visit Auschwitz concentration camp. Their President also visited Rome’s main synagogue and laid a wreath to honour members of the Italian Jewish community murdered in the war years.

Academic Alberto Testa spent time among Lazio and other ultras groups to research his book ‘Football, fascism and Fandom’ stated that the anti-Semitism and racism he encountered there is sadly typical and depressingly common in sectors of Italian society. He said in a recent interview…

"Racism is a big disease in Italian society. There are cultural problems and they are problems connected with how society is structured. It is a very complex issue and when I speak about this I say that the stadiums in Italy, and let's not forget that this infiltration of the right is a problem across Europe, reflects what happens in society; if politicians don't condemn racism, if the media continue to use the 'N-word' and treat this episode as banter, then we will never resolve this problem.’

Celtic supporters travelling to Rome will of course want to see the sites of the eternal city. The Vatican and its museum will doubtless see a few hooped shirts as will other hot spots for tourists. Most fans know the score in big foreign cities and will take sensible precautions. The club’s supporters are known for their good humour and usually behave well on their travels. Celtic supporters are in the main the cultural and political opposites of the racists and neo-fascists among the Lazio support but hopefully everyone is there just to enjoy the football. The local Police will no doubt have a plan in place to ensure visitors are not in any danger from the wilder elements among the Lazio support. It’s to be hoped that everyone involved is there to enjoy the sights and the football and for no other reason.

This year’s Europa League is full of tough teams and Celtic’s draw could have been a lot harder. They will have a genuine chance in this group if they avoid any defensive calamities and approach each game in the right way. Let’s hope it’s a successful campaign and we’re talking about the football and not any off field nonsense.

As a young girl called Anne Frank once wrote in her diary...

‘It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Lancing the boil

Lancing the boil

Some years ago I was in the Broomloan stand at Ibrox for a Rangers v Celtic match. My ticket took me to within a few rows of the home supporters in the Govan stand with only a thin yellow line of police and stewards separating the two supports. Celtic won the match that day with a goal from Maciej Zurawski but any other details of the game have dissipated from, my memory. What remains in my mind though is the relentless storm or visceral hatred directed at the Celtic supporters from grown men just a few yards away. Many of these men will have jobs, children, lives outside football but for a couple of hours they allow themselves to behave in a manner which is little short of disturbing. It was as if all the frustrations, disappointments and petty hatreds of their lives had been save up for just this moment and spat out at the Celtic supporters a few yards away.

You all know the sort of things which would have been shouted and chanted that day and that they had precious little to do with football. It wasn’t a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and you do start to wonder why such behaviour is tolerated in any society. No one wants the competitive and tribal edge taken out of football; it thrives on strong rivalries but some things cross the line and stray into a much darker place. I recall as a boy my old man saying, ‘We don’t like them much but they hate us.’ He wasn’t referring to the decent supporters of Rangers and they do exist but to that lumpen group whose lives are guided not by the things they love but by the things they hate. There is no reasoning with unreasonable people and if they are allowed to continue their medieval behaviour unchecked then it’ll go on forever.

American Psychologist Laurence Kohlberg described moral development in people in his famous ‘Theory of Moral development.’ Put simply he stated that as we grow and learn the moral choices we make in life are guided by the responses and reactions they often provoke. His model (greatly simplified) is akin to this…

·        Stage1: We do the right thing because we fear punishment or act out of self-interest to gain some reward

·        Stage 2: We do the right thing because it’s conventional and we judge that it helps create a better more ordered in society. We conform to the law and other norms.

·        Stage 3: We do the right thing according to deeply ingrained principles and ethics we hold even if it brings us into conflict with others or the law.

Now all of that might seem a bit odd in a football related article but the bigotry we see and hear at some Scottish football stadiums will only stop if the authorities and wider society says that’s enough. We may never get through to the minority in whom hatred is deeply ingrained but there is a continuum to such things ranging from those who despise the poison they hear around them, those who get caught up in the atmosphere and join in and those who revel in it. We need to get through to everyone that it won’t be tolerated and hope that the decent supporters withdraw their tacit support for the more bigoted element.

Now that UEFA has acted and demonstrated the sort of leadership that the gutless SFA has so obviously lacked for a century or more it’s becoming clearer to many supporters that it will hurt their club and fellow fans if the racism and bigotry continues. In Kohlberg’s terms, fear of punishment is driving the decisions of the more lumpen group thus we didn’t hear certain songs at the game with Legia Warsaw. Of course many supporters just want this nonsense to be dispensed with and get on with supporting their team. On Rangers forums there is now a more heated debate about what constitutes an appropriate song at a football match and it’s good to see the often silent voices of many supporters say enough is enough. UEFA don’t mince their words in their judgement of songs heard at Ibrox state starkly that…

‘The Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body has decided to order a partial closure of the Rangers FC stadium during the next one (1) UEFA competition match in which Rangers FC will play as the host club, for the racist behaviour of its supporters. Rangers FC shall inform UEFA of the sector(s) to be closed, which shall at least comprehend 3,000 seats. The Scottish club is ordered to display a banner with the wording “#EqualGame”, with the UEFA logo on it.’

The inevitability of further sanctions means that even the most hard hearted bigot can be in no doubt of what will occur should such songs be reported to UEFA in the future. The European governing body’s code goes on to say…

‘The following disciplinary measures apply in the event of recidivism: a. a second offence is punished with one match played behind closed doors and a fine of € 50,000; b. any subsequent offence is punished with more than one match behind closed doors, a stadium closure, the forfeiting of a match, the deduction of points and/or disqualification from the competition.’

Any further offences may see stadium closures for more than one game, points deducted or offending teams being ejected from the competition. All of this is clearly spelled out on the UEFA website and leaves little room for saying ‘it’s our tradition’ because at the end of the day some ‘traditions’ are simply not worth keeping.

All big football clubs have their share of fools and knaves among their support and for the most part there is a self-policing aspect among fans which keeps them in check. Rangers problems are the historical hangover of pandering to a bigoted minority between the wars when new Chairman John Primrose Ure dedicated the Ibrox club to the ‘masonic cause’ and began the strict ‘no Catholics’ policy which continued for decades afterwards. In doing so the club attracted the worst elements of society to their support and now in more enlightened times those elements adhere to Rangers like barnacles on a ship.

For Celtic supporters too, the message from UEFA should resonate. There have been debates about the appropriateness of some singing Irish nationalist songs at Celtic matches and how these are perceived. Coming from an Irish background, I’ll never submit to any agenda which seeks to class such songs as sectarian because they simply aren’t but you can of course ask the legitimate question about why they’re sung at a Scottish football match. That debate is an ongoing one among the Celtic support is healthy and far from over.

UEFA’s actions have demonstrated that the SFA’s policy of doing very little to address the open sore of bigotry in Scottish football is untenable. The SFA is a members organisation and the clubs refuse to countenance strict liability for what goes on in their stadiums but perhaps there is a middle way where the SFA follow UEFA’s lead and lay out in plain terms what is and is not acceptable at a football match as well as the sanctions supporters can expect for transgressing the rules.

It remains a sad but true fact that it is hard to root out the bigots without hurting the decent fans too but that perhaps is a price worth paying for lancing the boil of bigotry. Then a new generation can grow up without being immersed in the sort of bile I experience in the Broomloan stand all those years ago.

 It is to be hoped that the fans of the future make the right choices but do so not out of fear of punishment but because it’s the right thing to do

Saturday, 24 August 2019

The Road to God knows where

The Road to God knows where

The supporters’ bus rattled along the A80 towards Falkirk and a trip to the quaint little stadium the Bairns called home. It was September 1992 and Celtic was already having one of those Jekyll and Hyde seasons. They started the month beating St Johnstone at home before being mugged 3-2 by Hibs at Celtic Park and then travelling to Germany where a lacklustre Cologne side beat them 2-0. As usual a well-worn tape of the Wolfe Tones greatest hits accompanied us on our journey and there was a definite comradeship among the supporters on the bus which had been fostered by the hard times their club was facing. The glorious, sun drenched centenary season of four years earlier seemed like a distant dream as the team swung from occasional brilliance to baffling ineptitude. As we neared Brockville the songs got a little louder and the whole bus was singing…

‘We’re on the one road, sharing the one load
We’re on the road to God knows where
We’re on the one road; it may be the wrong road
But we’re together now who cares?
North men, south men comrades all
Dublin, Belfast, Cork or Donegal
We’re on the one road swinging along
Singing a Soldiers song….’

The thousands of Celtic fans crowding the turnstiles at the James Street Terrace may have wondered if the line ‘we’re on the road to God knows were’ was written for them and their club in those difficult years.  1992-93 Season would see the club draw 12 and lose 8 of their league matches to finish a distant third behind Rangers and Aberdeen. Celtic Park needed rebuilding, the team needed strengthening and the Board seemed clueless about how to do this and compete with a Rangers side which seemed to have unlimited funds. Our bus load of hopeful fans joined thousands of others on the terraces to back their team although most were unsure of which Celtic would show up. As it turned out we saw Celtic’s many faces that day.

After a tense and foul littered start, Pat Bonner came fully 16 yards from goal to punch the ball clear and only succeeded in knocking it to a Falkirk player who instantly chipped the stranded keeper. Tony Mowbray punched the goal bound shot off the line and was sent off. The penalty was converted and the Hoops were 0-1 down. It was such a typically bad goal to give away. The team fought back and goals from Wdowczyk and Creaney had the Bhoys back in front. More suicidal defending followed and Celtic’s 2-1 lead was a 4-2 deficit by the 70th minute. It was unbelievable; Falkirk, a team who would be relegated that season, had hit four against Celtic. The stoics among the Celtic support hadn’t given up though and roared the team on. First Gerry Creaney scored with a fine header and then amid wild scenes Andy Payton equalised. In the very last minute with the game tied at 4-4 Celtic got a free kick about 22 yards from goal. We looked on as John Collins placed the ball. If anyone could curl it home he could! In the packed terrace behind the goal we watched and waited as he took his run up. Collins struck the ball well but it hit a defender in the wall. As a collective groan was about to emerge from thousands of throats, Collins raced onto the rebound and smashed an unstoppable shot into the net. The travelling support went wild. The team had fought back from 4-2 down to win the game and we trooped back to the buses happy.

In those times we really had hope after good performances that we might at last be turning a corner but in reality we were losing 4 goals to teams like Falkirk and were too inconsistent to challenge for the title. That late win at Falkirk sent us home happy though and we discussed our team on the road back to Glasgow. ‘Gillespie looks like he’s made of glass,’ someone said and indeed the former Liverpool player was so injury prone that he was known as the ‘Tampax.’ (In for one week then out for three) Collins and McStay were the match of any midfielders in the land but the defence was nicknamed the Sieve and it was a very apt moniker.

Celtic being Celtic, they lost the next match to an Aberdeen side containing Roy Aitken and then really hit a low point when Partick Thistle recorded a rare win at Celtic Park. Those two dreadful defeats came just before Cologne rolled into town for the return leg of their UEFA cup match with Celtic. The team roused themselves before a raucous Celtic Park crowd and smashed three goals past the stunned looking Germans to send them out of Europe. It was a scintillating display of attacking football and had us dreaming again that perhaps we could do something that season. Alas it was another false dawn.

Still, we rolled up to away grounds throughout the country and backed our team through thick and quite a lot of thin. There was the cup tie at Forfar where Celtic needed a late goal gave the team a 2-1 win. We arrived at Station Park to find joiners still working on the turnstiles. I spoke to a local who told me that winning the Forfarshire cup was the height of their ambition that season and that perhaps fans of big clubs didn’t appreciate the stoicism and loyalty of lower league fans who trudged along in all weathers with no hope of ever winning any major trophy. It put Celtic’s troubles into perspective. There was the Scottish Cup tie at Falkirk where we lost 2-0 as the Bairns defeated Celtic for the first ever time in a Scottish cup tie. It wasn’t pleasant losing such games but a sort of black humour was at play too and despite the team’s yoyo performances we still had a lot of laughs on the road. I recall Bryan Robson’s Testimonial in Manchester where over 12,000 Celtic fans headed south for a midweek match. Our bus stopped at the St Brendan’s Irish centre where the well-meaning locals had laid on a band. As hundreds of Celtic fans packed the room and started drinking the band began their set with Flower of Scotland. Nothing wrong with that fine song but one hooped fan waited until it was finished before whispering into the singer’s ear. His next song was the Fields of Athenry. We got home from that game at 4am and still made work at 8.

You needed a sense of humour in those times as Celtic’s league positions in the first 5 seasons of the 1990s were; 5th, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd & 4th. It is perhaps a blessing that there was no social media them as it would imploded under the weight of Celtic fans’ anguish. The Fanzines were of course available to offer a forum for discussing the way forward and Not the View was always particularly witty and darkly funny. One edition had a picture of a depressing looking funeral on the front page with the heading saying ‘End of season party gets into full swing.’ In a strange way though, those years though did bond the fans closer together in a common purpose and that was of course to rebuild our club and see it become successful again. There was a hunger, a real desire to get the club back where we all thought it belonged but there would be no quick fix to the problems besetting Celtic in those days.

1994 began with a truly depressing match against Rangers. The Ibrox club were 2-0 up inside 3 minutes and led 3-0 at half time. The cold January rain matched the mood as Celtic eventually lost 4-2 and some fans vented their anger on the Celtic board. There was a dark comic twist when one Celtic director was hit with a Mars bar thrown by a disgruntled fan. One Fanzine commented, ‘He was hit by a Mars bar on the whole nut in front of a Galaxy or reporters. Police say there is a Bounty on the Bandit’s head.’ Things on the field were far from funny though as Celtic played 7 matches that January; lost four and drew 3; it was in many ways the month which effectively sealed the fate of the old board. The fans were in open rebellion and the writing was on the wall. Change was coming.

That change would be led by an unlikely and abrasive little man with a Canadian accent and a plan to revolutionise Celtic. He bought a controlling stake in Celtic for £9.5m. Celtic had been perilously close to bankruptcy. The supporters again dug deep to raise the millions of pounds required to rebuild Celtic Park and at last try to rebuild the team. The hungry years wandering in the wilderness were coming to an end although there would be more pain before Celtic could reclaim the title. One friend told me after a particularly dispiriting defeat at Tynecastle against a mediocre Hearts side, ‘It’s character building, and you’ll enjoy the good times more when you remember days like this.’ Perhaps there’s a grain of truth in that as there are young Celtic supporters who’ve grown up knowing nothing but success. A couple of defeats sends a minority into a frenzy of condemnation. Perhaps age and experience lends some perspective to such things.

I can’t say I enjoyed Celtic’s struggles in the 1990s but they were my team and like so many others I stuck with them through some dark times. The passion and hunger to see them successful again drove us on and in many ways laid the foundations for the good times we’re enjoying now.

Supporting Celtic is akin to falling in love; they exasperate you at times and you may squabble and bicker but you always come back for more because you know when the chips are down they’re the only one for you.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

A bridge too far

A bridge too far

Celtic’s loss against Cluj was a severe blow to supporters who were keen for another crack at the Champions League. There was no doubting they were a competent side but Celtic, with vastly superior resources really should have defeated them. They were eminently beatable, of that there is no doubt but a variety of tactical and individual errors cost the side dearly. Of course a side with Celtic’s financial muscle should have been able to field a side with players suited to the positions they play and there are genuine questions about recruitment and team selection which need to be asked.

Celtic, in common with many big teams in smaller countries, find themselves in that frustrating situation where they are successful domestically but struggle to make an impact in Europe. The gulf is a hard one to bridge and the causes of it  are many. Football is essentially about players and there is no doubting that Celtic’s recruitment in the past decade has been only partially successful. There have been some gems unearthed like Wanyama and Van Dijk but too often we have seen players such as Pukki, Amido Balde and Dirk Boerichter arrive with high hopes and fail to make any impression at all in Scottish football. It is hugely frustrating for the fans to see millions paid for players and then watch the club tumble out of Europe to teams with far less resources. Of course football is about the team and not the bank balance but there is no doubting that Celtic is underachieving in European football when it comes to tackling the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. Losing to teams like AEK Athens, Maribor and Cluj in recent years

Europe is a good yardstick to measure a side’s capabilities. Celtic’s last three Group stage appearances in the Champions League have yielded just 2 wins (Anderlecht &  Ajax) with some absolute thumpings along the way. (Barcelona 6-1 & 7-0, PSG 5-0 & 7-1) We accept that football at the very highest level in Europe is a bridge too far for Celtic but just being among the elite of European football is enough to excite the fans and raise the profile of the club. The financial rewards are very important to a club like Celtic too operating as it does in a low income TV market. We should always aspire to getting there and then give our all to make an impression. That being said, fans aren’t stupid, they know when they watch teams like PSG pinging the ball about at Celtic Park that it is very difficult to compete with that but equally they know that we shouldn’t be losing 4 goals at home to teams like Cluj.

Supporter reaction to the club tumbling out of the Champions League was a mixture of frustration and anger. Some pointed at the board and its recruitment policy but in honesty millions of pounds have been spent on the team so it looks more like the identification and recruitment of suitable players is the problem. Celtic is a well-run club financially but the problem seems to be recruiting players who will translate that financial muscle into an improving team capable of reaching their potential in Europe. It isn’t helped by the bloated transfer market in England where over a billion pounds changed hands this summer.

The majority of Celtic supporters are rightly frustrated at the club’s underachievement and a series of recurring failures against sides they really should be beating suggest that it is more than an ‘off night’ which affects the side in Europe. Some suggest the lack of vigorous competition in Scottish football holds the team back as thrashing St Johnstone or Motherwell is hardly ideal preparation for playing in Europe. It is no coincidence that Scottish sides were at their peak in Europe when the domestic game was more competitive. We all know about Celtic’s glory years of the 1960s and 70s when they regularly performed well in Europe. Domestically they were pushed hard by a variety of sides in that era. This was a time when Dunfermline could knock Everton out of Europe and St Johnstone could master a very good Hamburg side. Of course Rangers, Hibs and Aberdeen could all give the hoops a real fight then and the competitive nature of the league drove standards up.

The undeniable improvement in Rangers under Steven Gerrard has not gone unnoticed and this should light a fire in the belly of Celtic players and officials. We are very close to breaking some long standing domestic records but if the team fails to perform then this once in a lifetime opportunity could be allowed to slip away. That would be unforgivable in the eyes of many supporters but as we have seen in Europe it is all about what you do on the pitch. Celtic supporters are a realistic bunch; they know that sometimes Europe is a bridge too far. A minority can’t accept this and demonstrate the kind of entitlement mentality we saw from fans of another club for years. There is no entitlement in football; you get what you fight for and earn and in my opinion you usually get what you deserve.

It is my hope that the increased competition Celtic face from Rangers and hopefully others will force the club to improve. There is no doubt that Celtic has superior players to any side in the league but good players can be bullied and harried out of their stride as we saw in our last two visits to Ibrox. A situation not helped by poor officiating but in truth the team got what they deserved there for being far too timid.

Celtic supporters have enjoyed a diet of unbroken success for eight years in Scotland. In football as in life nothing lasts forever; not success and not failure. The club is in a strong position to continue that success domestically but needs to be strong and sure in recruiting the right players and having the right management team to shape and motivate them into a winning side. One day the team will lose its domestic dominance but it should be because others have raised their standards enough to make it so not because Celtic has allowed theirs to drop.

The arguments and the angst among Celtic supporters at the moment are a sign that the supporters care deeply about their club. Football, like life, has its highs and its lows. Those supporters who have backed Celtic so well since the club’s birth are right to expect high standards and the club needs to steady the ship and give them a team to be proud of. We don’t expect to be in the later stages of the Champions League these days but we should expect to have a team capable of doing better against sides with a fraction of our resources.

This will be an interesting and pivotal season for those of us who follow the hoops. The club remains strong off the field but needs to translate this into a strong side on it. These early season disappointments may be painful but the business end of the season will hopefully see Celtic playing as we know they can and maintaining their place as Scotland’s premier club.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Quid Pro Quo

Quid Pro Quo

The emotional investment the average football supporter puts into his club often leads to some exaggerated reactions. The departure of Kieran Tierney to the riches of the English Premiership was a blow to those of us who want our club to retain the services of our best players and try to build a team to compete in Europe. Most wish Kieran well on the next stage of his career and thanked him for the effort, passion and skill he put into his Celtic career. Every time he wore that famous hooped shirt he was our representative on the pitch; the fan who got lucky, as Tommy Burns once said.

It doesn’t make Kieran any less of a Celtic fan that he wanted to test his mettle in one of the best leagues in the world. Nor is it wrong for a footballer to think of his future and to secure himself financially for the rest of his life. Arsenal’s reported £75,000 a week wage will do just that. It’s a short career and Kieran will no doubt have watched and conversed with the likes of Andy Robertson at Liverpool who has made a great success of his time in England. Most Celtic fans bear no ill will towards Kieran seeking a new challenge and wish him all the best. He was a fine player for Celtic who always had time for the fans and will hopefully show the ‘pub league’ brigade down south that Scotland can still produce good players.

Over the years watching Celtic we’ve had to deal with the reality that some of our favourite players will want to seek new challenges or more money in other leagues. Celtic was historically a relatively poor paying club compared to clubs of equal stature. Billy McNeill was once being paid less than the managers of Aberdeen, Dundee United, Rangers and St Mirren. David Hay tripled his wages when he joined Chelsea from Celtic in the early 1970s and others like Macari and Dalglish did likewise when they left Celtic. Players like McGrory, McGrain, McStay and Burns who stuck it out at Celtic Park may have sacrificed a lot financially but gained a status among the fans which will endure as long as Celtic exists.

Modern Celtic players are paid very well indeed compared to players in the past as finances in the game have changed so much. Fans are also paying much more to watch football than was the case and the commercial side of the game is now huge. Celtic’s top players will retire wealthy men so it isn’t all about chasing money in the modern era. Celtic fans have long known that being such a big club in such a small country holds back the development of the club overall. Relative revenues in Scotland and England mean mediocre teams in the lower reaches of the Premiership or even in the Championship in England can outspend a club like Celtic which has an average attendance of around 58,000. One report suggested that half the clubs in the English Premiership receive so much money from TV and other marketing schemes that they could survive with no fans whatsoever watching their matches!

The arrival of satellite TV and the financial bonanza it brought revolutionised English football and this coinciding with the Bosman ruling meant wages skyrocketed down south. Players at the end of their contracts could now simply leave and negotiate to join another club with no fee being paid to the club they were leaving. This probably cost Celtic a few million when Dedryk Boyata’s contract was allowed to run out last season and its one reason clubs like Celtic need to know when to sell players. Tierney was on a long term contract and didn’t need to be sold but if a player intimates that he wants to leave then it’s best to let him go and get the best possible deal done for Celtic.

Celtic will now face an expectant support who will rightly want much of the money received for Tierney to be invested in the team. Other clubs will no doubt inflate prices when the Hoops enquire about a given player but a bit of quality is required to meet challenges both at home and in Europe. Celtic’s policy in recent years has been to find talented young players and develop them with a view to selling at some point in the future but the club is in a unique position of financial strength at the moment and needs to capitalise on it. To the outside world the idea of Celtic reaching ten in a row is just another sign that there is a serious lack of competition in the SPFL. To Celtic fans sitting on 8 in a row this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-establish the club as record holders after Rangers equalled Jock Stein’s record in 1997. This is more than local bragging rights; this is Celtic regaining a piece of history.

The board would find the going very tough indeed if they did not invest from the position of strength they are currently in. It is absolutely imperative that they lay down a marker and state in concrete terms that they back Neil Lennon to deliver more success. Celtic has probably never held such a financial advantage over their competitors in Scotland and if they were to blow this opportunity of continuing their dominance in the domestic game then there would be repercussions. I remain hopeful those in charge of player recruitment at Celtic Park will see the need to replace quality with quality and give the fans a team to be even more proud of. The fans give their all for the club; they pay their hard earned money to watch the team, they get behind the Bhoys every game and many travel big distances each week to see the Celts play. All they ask for is quid pro quo; something in return. As another season gets under way Celtic hold all the aces; let’s hope they play them well.

Will Celtic miss Tierney? Well of course you will always miss a player of such boundless enthusiasm and skill. He was and remains a very good footballer but there is a school of thought that losing a left back, even a very good one, is less of a blow than losing a 30 goal a season striker or a natural leader like Scott Brown.

Players come and go but the fans remain and it is the fans that make Celtic great. They carp and complain sometimes but that’s just a symptom of how much they care about their team; it would be far worse if they quietly accepted mediocrity. They want the best for their club and will always make their voices heard on important issues. At the moment they expect significant investment in the first team and it is up to Celtic to deliver.

As for Kieran Tierney, he is a fan like the rest of us and will be no stranger to Celtic Park in the years ahead. The vast majority of Celtic fans wish him all the best and hope he succeeds in England. He was an excellent Celtic player and gave us some amazing memories.

Football is a fast changing game and the one club player is becoming rare. One aspect of Kieran Tierney leaving Celtic is a renewed appreciation of players like James Forrest who quietly go about their business and show no signs of wanting to jump ship. When the next match begins we’ll focus on the eleven players wearing those hoops and look to the future and not the past. It’s always about Celtic for us and it always will be.

The crest on the front of the shirt is always bigger than the name on the back.