Saturday, 18 August 2018

A toss of the coin

A toss of the coin

In memory's view I can still see Chris Sutton control the ball under pressure and play it to his ever ready striking partner Henrik Larsson. The Swede controlled the ball and glanced up as Didier Agathe went through the gears and raced towards the Ajax back line. Larsson guided a perfect pass into his path and the Frenchman glided past the last Ajax defender with deceptive ease. The advancing goalkeeper had no chance with Agathe’s well-placed shot which flashed past him and into the net. It was perhaps one of the best illustrations of Agathe’s value to Celtic in that era. His road to Celtic Park though was one full of twists and turns and it is a remarkable saga of chance, luck and determination.

For any young footballer aspiring to play professionally, being told that a hereditary condition would mean that their career was virtually over would be cause enough for depression and it was no different for young Didier Agathe. He had travelled thousands of miles from his home in La Reunion Island, a French possession in the Indian Ocean, to join Montpellier FC. His tribulations began when he suffered a ruptured appendix which almost ended his life and saw him on the operating table for six hours. However it was a recurring knee problem which, upon investigation led to the discovery that he had no cartilage in his right knee, which threatened his footballing future. The condition meant his right knee was functioning bone to bone with no cartilage to cushion it and stop the inevitable grinding pain and problems it would bring. 

Agathe faced the harsh realisation that his football career might be over before it had really begun. The quiet, deeply religious young man who spoke the Creole language of his home island when he arrived in France took the news badly. The Doctors, who couldn’t believe he had got so far in football with the problem, told him he should have an operation to correct the problem but that it would mean his footballing career would be over. He went into a depression and during one particularly low point for him, sought solace in alcohol. He overdid it and crashed his car. He said of the accident…

‘I fell asleep at the wheel and my car went over a fence and landed on a barrier. The windows were blown out and the airbag went off and I was stuck on a quiet road on a Sunday morning with no one around. By sheer chance an ambulance on its way to another call found me. My car was totally destroyed. It was hanging over the edge of the road over a steep drop. I don’t know why it didn’t drop.’

Agathe decided after surviving this ordeal that once he had recovered he would try again to make a career in football. He knew that it wouldn’t be in France so took the decision to decide where to try and resurrect his career in a most unusual way. He took a map of Europe and flipped a coin onto it. Wherever it landed, he told himself, he would go there and play. It landed on England so he sold most of his possessions and drove to England. Initially he was sleeping in his car and using his fast diminishing savings to live and keep fit at the local gym. In the end a friend gave him a room and he arranged a trial for Stockport County. He excelled but alas failed the medical when they discovered his ongoing knee problem.

In another twist of fate, he met a Frenchman called Ludovic Pollet who was in England having a trial with Wigan. Pollet asked him to come watch him play and Agathe obliged. At this point Agathe had virtually no money little prospect of earning any through football. Pollet introduced him to his agent at the match in Wigan and he in turn introduced him to Willie McKay, a Scottish agent with interests north and south of the border. When Agathe explained he was available, McKay said, ‘Why not come try your luck in Scotland?’ Agathe replied in all seriousness with the words, ‘Where is Scotland?’ McKay had Agathe literally follow him up the motorway from Wigan to Fir Park Motherwell in his battered old Honda. He arrived in Motherwell at 11.30 at night to meet the Manager, Billy Davies. Agathe must have been wondering what if his luck was out when he was informed that Davies had been taken to hospital with, of all things, appendicitis!  So it was that Motherwell missed out on a chance to sign Agathe.

McKay was soon on his phone again and told Agathe to follow him across Scotland to Kirkaldy. The young Frenchman arrived in the Fife town at 2am and had soon convinced a struggling Raith Rovers that he was worth a trial. Manager John McVeigh needed a striker badly as the team was struggling for goals and asked Agathe if he could play there. Agathe lied and said yes so he was played up front in a bounce game against the first team and impressed with his pace and finishing, scoring two goals. He was then played as a trialist against Airdrie and hit a hat trick. He signed for the rest of that season and his play was soon attracting the attention of other clubs. Hibs boss, Alex McLeish, liked what he saw but foolishly only signed Agathe on a two month contract just to run the rule over him. Agathe impressed and during a game against Dundee scored a tremendous goal after slicing through the defence with that blistering pace. Watching from the stand that day, ostensibly there to look at Dundee goalkeeper Rab Douglas, sat a certain Martin O’Neil.

Agathe recalls the phone going in the week after that game and an Irish voice saying, ‘Hello, it’s Martin O’Neil here.’ He thought it was a wind up and hung up. Fortunately O’Neil persisted and due to Hibs negligently signing Agathe on such a short contract, secured his services for Celtic for a ridiculously low price of £50,000. It could be argued that this piece of business was the best value Celtic ever had in the transfer market. His pace was ideally suited to O’Neil’s favoured 3-5-2 formation and he had all the attributes a good wing back needed. O’Neil understood his knee problems enough to allow him to miss out on training if he was in pain and was rewarded with some fine performances. The Road to Seville saw Agathe perform well against top opposition and the big European nights under the lights brought out the best in him. His pace was electric and he used it in defensive as well as attacking roles. O’Neil asked him to mark the great Ronaldinho when Celtic Played Barcelona in 2004 and he did so to great effect as Celtic defied the odds to knock Barcelona out of Europe.

He spoke of his time at Celtic in an interview in a French Magazine and said he had an affinity with the club. He also spoke of the darker side of football in Scotland and was taken aback as a devout Catholic by the vitriol about the Pope he heard at derby matches and the off field pressures such as having his car vandalised or being threatened in the street. It was noted that on a trip to St Peter’s cemetery just along the London Road from Celtic Park, he invested time and money restoring religious statues which had fallen into disrepair or had been vandalised.

It’s a testament to his character that he made a good career for himself at Celtic and was part of O’Neil’s fine side of the early part of the twenty first century. He won three titles, three Scottish cups, one league cup and played in some of those dramatic European ties Celtic had in that era. He said of his time at Celtic…

‘I can’t explain the feeling I had playing for Celtic. I was like a child. I felt I was dreaming, especially when we played in the Champions League. I always knew how lucky I was to be there.’

For the supporters he could be something of an enigma. On his day he was simply brilliant but on occasion his speed and wing play wasn’t matched by the final ball into the box and he did sometimes appear to lack confidence. When some fans were getting on his back during a European game, he commented later; ‘they don’t do it because they don’t care, they do it because they care too much.’ His time with Celtic was successful and he did enough to be remembered as a good player in a fine side. The arrival of Gordon Strachan and a bad injury picked up after a savage tackle in a match against a typically bellicose Hearts side ended his time at Celtic Park.

I for one will remember him for his blistering pace and the balance he brought to Celtic in the O’Neil era. He was a good player and by all accounts a very decent human being. The road he took to reach Celtic and play in some of the club’s biggest games in recent times demonstrates his courage and determination. Plenty would have given up on football when faced with the obstacles he had to deal with but he battled on and made a decent career for himself and that is a lesson in life for us all.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Rocket Man

Rocket Man

Joe McLaughlin stomped moodily down the Celtic Way with his brother Peter in the chill of a November afternoon, ‘Fifty years he supported Celtic, Peter. Fifty years!’  His older and certainly less fiery brother nodded, ‘I know Joe but things have changed, they won’t let you do the things they used to.’ Joe shook his head, ‘Och, I know Peter but you’d think they’d let ye do it on the track or behind the goal, I mean I promised my Da when he was in the hospital and a promise is a promise!’ Before his brother could reply a voice to his right called over, ‘Aw right Joe? How’s tricks ma man?’ It was Joe’s erstwhile workmate Derek Duffy, a ginger haired ox of a man who had a long standing body odour problem leading to him being nicknamed ‘Bo Derek.’ Joe shook his hand, ‘How ye doing Bo, whit brings you up here?’ The bigger man, who seemed neither to know nor care why folk had called him Bo for years, held up a bag from the Celtic shop, ‘Getting the wee man a Celtic tap. Some price these days! What about you?’ Joe shook his head, ‘Up seeing yon PR wumin about getting my Da’s ashes spread oan the grass behind the goal. No chance, she chased us.’ Bo shook his head doubtfully, ‘I know how much Joe Snr loved the Celts but if they allowed that then hundreds of folk would do it. Why not get him wan ay yon bricks wi his name on it?’ ‘I thought of that,’ said Joe rubbing the stubble on his chin, 'but it was the old fella’s last wish that his ashes were spread on the pitch at Celtic Park.’ His brother Peter cut in, ‘We’ll think of something. Maybe spread them on the Celtic way or Barrowfield?’  Joe exhaled, ‘Aye, we’ll think of something.’

Later that night as a slow drizzle drifted lazily out of the dark Glasgow sky, Joe was gazing out of his window deep in thought. A mile away the sky over Glasgow Green was awash with colour as the annual fireworks display boomed and fizzed. He could feel the vibrations of the fireworks even from his Gorbals home and a quiet whining behind him reminded him that Jinky, his Border Collie, was feeling it too and didn’t like it one bit. A huge boom echoed towards him as the show reached its crescendo then all was quiet save a distant sound of cheering from the thousands who always attended the display. An idea was formulating in his mind and he turned to look for his laptop and googled ‘Fireworks.’

A week later Joe sat in his kitchen telling his brother Peter about his recent purchase. Peter looked at him as if he was completely insane. ‘A rocket? You’ve actually sent for a giant fuckin rocket? I’m beginning tae think you’re a fuckin rocket, Joe!’ Joe grinned and left the room. He returned moments later carrying a metre long cardboard box which he plonked down heavily on the kitchen table. ‘It came this morning.’ Peter opened the flaps on the box like a bomb disposal expert viewing a device for the first time. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he exclaimed, ‘It’s fuckin massive! Whit did this cost ye?’ Joe looked at him with a serious face, ‘Eighty five quid.’ Peter looked at the bizarrely shaped firework. It was shaped like a huge microphone with a bulbous head no doubt full of highly explosive gunpowder. The thick, wooden rod attached to it was at least 3 feet long. ‘This is one serious item, Joe. You need tae be very careful with this.’ Joe nodded, ‘I’ve read the instructions. It’s fine under ma bed.  Peter looked aghast, ‘Under yer bed? If ye farted and this thing went aff ye’d blow the close tae Kingdom come! Get it oot tae the shed!’ Joe shook his head, ‘Shed’s too damp. It might not work.’ Peter exhaled, ‘Joe, this thing is like an unexploded bomb. Ye cannae keep it in the hoose! Whit did ye buy it for anyway? Bonfire night was last week.’  If Peter thought his younger brother’s purchase of an £85 rocket sounded bizarre, what he heard next was simply astounding.

‘Celtic’s playing Spartak Moscow in a couple of weeks. We’re taking the firework tae that grassy area near the stadium at Barrowfield. When it’s quiet we fire it over the stadium and kaboom!’ Peter looked at him opened mouthed, ‘Kaboom? Whit the fuck are you oan aboot? What’s the point in firing a huge fuckin rocket at Celtic Park? Are ye mad? Ye could hurt somebody.’ Joe regarded him with a look of quiet determination, ‘It’s the only way to get my Da’s ashes onto the pitch.’ With this he turned the rocket around carefully in the box. On one side there was a piece of heavy duty duct tape stuck to the side of the sphere. ‘I bored a hole and poured some of the powder oot and got my da’s ashes in using a wee funnel.’ Peter was horrified, ‘Ye did whit? Ya fuckin madman, there’s no way you’re doing this, Joe. You’ve altered the rocket, it could go anywhere! Some granny in Helenvale flats might be sitting in her bubble bath when your fucking doodlebug crashes through the windae! Naw Joe, Naw!’  Joe looked at his brother, ‘It’ll be fine.’ He said unconvincingly, ‘It goes up 300 metres before exploding. I’ve read up on it.’ Peter was having none of it, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Joe there will be 60,000 people milling about the area that night. You cannae dae this, Joe! Promise me you’ll no be so fuckin stupid!’ Joe glared at him, ‘Nothing will go wrong. It’ll be fine. It’s what my da wanted.’ Peter raised his voice, ‘He wanted his ashes scattered on the pitch, no fuckin exploded over the whole east end!’ Joe said nothing and simply closed the big box hiding the firework from view. Peter looked at him intensely, ‘Joe, promise me! Promise me you’ll never light the fuse on this monstrosity.’ Joe sighed, ‘Aye, aw right, Peter.’

Wednesday 5th December found Peter McLaughlin in the huge north stand of a packed Celtic Park. The crowd were making an incredible din as Celtic and Spartak Moscow walked out of the tunnel. The noise increased even more as the Champions League them music pulsed through the cold night air. ‘Come on Celtic!’ Peter roared as he watched Celtic enter their pre-match huddle. The noise was deafening as the game got underway. This was it, a Celtic win coupled with Benfica not winning in Barcelona would see the Hoops through to the last 16 of Europe’s premier tournament.

The game thundered from one end of the field to the other as both sides sought to establish dominance. The breakthrough came on 21 minutes as Gary Hooper pounced on a mistake in the Russian’s defence to thrash the ball beyond keeper Pesiakov. Celtic Park exploded as the fans roared Celtic on. In the top tier of the north stand, Peter glanced at the empty seat beside him. Joe hadn’t turned up for the game. In fact he had barely spoken to him since their row about his insane plan with the rocket. Maybe he was still in a mood, thought Peter as he refocussed on the game. On 39 minutes the Russians equalised. It was going to be a grim struggle right to the end of the game.

In the second half, Celtic old boy, Aidan McGeady appeared in the red of Spartak but it was Celtic pushing and probing, looking for the winner they so desperately needed. Then late in the game a clumsy tackle on Samaras in the box saw thousands of heads swivel towards the Referee who immediately pointed to the penalty spot. Celtic Park was at fever pitch as Kris Commons placed the ball on the penalty spot. This was it, the moment of truth. He strode forward confidently and hammered the ball high towards goal. The goalkeeper spread himself well but was helpless as the ball smashed of the underside of the bar and into the net!

A tsunami of noise thundered from the stands onto the field. Peter McLaughlin was swept up in a bear hug by a fan to his right as they joined 60,000 others in roaring their heads off. He looked up at the dark Glasgow sky with a grin as wide as the Clyde on his face and punched the air triumphantly. As he did, he heard the boom of an exploding firework and saw a split second later a thousand green and golden flashes which sizzled and sparkled, momentarily lighting up the night sky. Peter’s smile faded as he thought immediately of Joe, ‘That screwball has gone and done it!’ he mumbled to himself!

As the final whistle sounded and the Celtic players and supporters noisily celebrated making it through to the last 16 of the Champions League, the last earthly atoms of Joe McLaughlin Senior drifted on the chill wind high above the streets he knew so well as a boy and man. 

At least a few of them drifted down onto that brightly lit emerald rectangle where he had watched his team play so often. He would have been happy at that. Joe had kept his promise.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

One of the best

One of the best

Flag Day is upon us once more and it’s always a time to reflect on the achievements of last season and focus on the challenges ahead in the new campaign. I’ve been lucky enough to watch a good few such days and always enjoy them. In days past Celtic’s old board would splash out on a hired limousine and it would drive to the corner of the Jungle where some invited guest would pull a rope to release the championship flag which would flutter above the Jungle for the rest of the season. Usually a board member or someone with connections would do the honours and I recall Jock Stein’s wife being the star guest one sunny August day. In modern times people who have made a significant contribution to the club have been asked to unfurl the flag. In recent years the great Sean Fallon has been guest of honour as was Fergus McCann and few could grumble about their credentials for carrying out the task.

Today the honour goes to a man who was in his prime one of the best full backs in the world and a Celtic great. Danny McGrain is well deserving of this honour having given over 50 years of service to Celtic. He overcame setbacks and injuries in his playing career which would have broken weaker men and demonstrated a physical and mental strength which all great sportsmen need. Yet, Danny might not have been around to do the honours today had it not been for a quick thinking Policeman….

The Police car slowed to a crawl as the young officer scanned the nearby cars for the one they were looking for. ‘Nothing’ he said to his colleague as they turned and headed for the Linthouse area which borders the huge Southern General hospital complex. Again the same pattern was repeated; check the parked cars in the area for a colour and model match, then move on to the licence plate. Just as they were thinking of moving on they spotted a likely car. ‘Colour matches…checking the plate.’ The driver slowed to a halt. There was soon no doubt that this was the car they were looking for. As they stepped from the vehicle they could plainly see a familiar figure slumped over the steering wheel. ‘That’s him, quick get the door opened.’ The door was thankfully unlocked but even if it had been locked they would not have hesitated to break in. This was an emergency. One of the officers quickly assessed the situation and used the sort of common sense long experience had endowed him with, ‘He’s hypoglycaemic, but still with us.’ He produced a soft, sugary sweet from his pocket and eased it into the man’s mouth. As life-saving procedures go it was undramatic and inexpensive but to a diabetic whose brain has been drained of sugar it was manna from heaven. It saved his life.

The man in the car was of course Celtic legend Danny McGrain. He had failed to show up at home after attending a meeting and his wife had the wisdom to quickly call the Police when her calls to his mobile went unanswered. Skipping a meal had meant Danny’s body was seriously low on sugar and in such circumstances the brain’s reaction is to close the non-vital bodily systems down and conserve what little sugar there was in his system. He had lost consciousness shortly after having the presence of mind to park by the side of the road and it then became a race against the clock to find him. Thankfully the Police did find Danny’s car and knew what to do to revive him.

Danny McGrain had to battle to overcome setbacks in his professional life which would have made a lesser man give up. He joined Celtic as a skinny teenager in the pivotal month of May 1967. He would have watched the Lisbon side rip the opposition apart at home and abroad and wonder if he had what it took to break into such a side. It says much for Celtic that the boyhood Rangers fan was welcomed by the club which was building a formidable reserve side to replace the Lions when time and injury deemed it necessary. Jock Stein, in his wisdom, allowed Danny and other up and coming youngsters like Davidson, Macari, Dalglish and Hay to train with the first team. They could hardly fail to learn the tricks of the trade watching the Lions in action every day. McGrain, it could be argued was the best servant Celtic gained from the ‘Quality Street’ group of youngsters. He served Celtic with distinction for 20 years and in that time dealt with a fractured skull, a serious ankle injury and a broken leg. On top of this he was managing his diabetes and still managing to be consistently excellent for Celtic season after season. His tally of 661 first team games has him fourth in Celtic’s all time appearances list with only McNeil, (790)  McStay, (678) and Aitken (669) ahead of him. That tally of games doesn’t begin to hint at just how excellent Danny was in his prime. He was blessed with great pace before injury and age took their toll and had the skill of a winger when it came to getting past opposing defenders. It would be interesting to see how many assists he had in Celtic goals in that era as he was constantly overlapping and supporting the attack. Younger fans at least have video footage to judge Danny but those of us who saw him will testify that this was indeed the real deal. Danny was a world class player at his peak and a man who grew to be a 100% Celt despite being raised as a Rangers fan. Indeed Celtic Historian David Potter recalls an incident with one of our less intelligent fellow Scots….

‘He was attending a reserve football match and was spotted and recognised by a Rangers fan. The bluenose was about to launch into a tirade about the Pope, Fenians etc. before he remembered that this was not appropriate for the Protestant Danny. Danny then says, "He searched what there was of a brain before shouting 'McGrain, you diabetic bastard!"

Danny became a quintessential Celtic player, combining tremendous skill with what Billy McNeil called ‘a cruel tackle.’ Among the plethora of cup and league wins, my memories of Danny return to that amazing night in 1979 when Celtic faced Rangers in a win or bust league match at Celtic Park. He and Roy Aitken drove Celtic on that incredible night despite setbacks in the game and won the Championship for their beloved Hoops. Danny won 62 caps, appeared in the World Cup Finals and had a career of great distinction. Despite this he remained the ordinary lad from Drumchapel who was welcomed into Celtic Park in 1967 by the best team in Europe. Few would have predicted then that the nervous 17 year old would in due course be voted into Celtic’s greatest ever side by the supporters who came to regard him as an all-time great.

I only met Danny McGrain on one occasion. He was signing autographs in the car park of the old Celtic Park. He signed my programme and I thanked him for all he did for Celtic. He smiled at me and said, ‘It’s been an honour playing here.’ I got the impression he meant it. He may have felt it was an honour to play for Celtic but we who saw Danny play with such flair and distinction know that it was we who were honoured to watch a footballing great wear those famous hoops. That brilliant sports writer, Hugh McIlvanney, said of Danny…

‘Anybody who saw him at his best had the unmistakable impression of watching a great player, probably one who had no superior anywhere in the world.’’

So today give Danny the sort of ovation he deserves. He gave all he had for Celtic and continues to pass on the skills and good habits he learned from the Lisbon Lions to a new generation of young players. The modest man from Drumchapel will no doubt take his seat after the fuss has calmed and will Celtic on to a wining start to a new campaign. It was always about the team, the club and the fans for Danny. Men like him are not just a link to the past for supporters; they are a reminder of the standards players can achieve with hard work, dedication and the honing natural ability until it is exceptional.

Take a bow Danny, you were one of the finest players ever to wear the Hoops and just as importantly a decent human being who demonstrated what can be achieved in life when you refuse to be beaten by setbacks and injuries. Those of us who saw you play can still see in our mind’s eye that wonderful overlapping full back driving up the line and whipping in a telling cross. The old Jungle would roar for more and the old ground would echo to the sound of your name being chanted by thousands of voices….. Danny, Danny, Danny, McGrain, Danny, Danny McGrain…..’

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Welcome to Paradise

Welcome to Paradise

One of the pleasing aspects of being a Celtic supporter of a certain vintage has been watching our fan base become more diverse. In the early days of the club the average Celtic supporter was a product of the Irish community which gave birth to the club in the first place. That is not to say that all supporters in the early days fitted that profile but most did. My grandad on my mother’s side came from what you might call an ‘Orange’ family but he loved Celtic and told me as a boy that they played the best football. He liked nothing more than watching McGrory, Scarff and Napier attacking the opposition even though his brothers ostracised him and on one occasion burned his Celtic scarf in the fire. It may appear strange to modern eyes that supporting a football club could lead to rifts in families but Celtic elicits strong emotions in some and some of the prejudice the club met in its early years lingers on yet.

Today we see Celtic supporters coming from a variety of backgrounds which reflects the diverse nature of modern Scotland. Those of you who attend games regularly will have noticed the banners of the Polish Bhoys and the Polska Number 1 CSC at Celtic Park.  Relations between Scotland and Poland stretch back over 500 years and one Polish study records that….

One of the greatest figures in Scottish history, Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, who led an ill-fated attempt to regain the British throne for his family in 1745, was half Polish. His mother was Maria Klementyna Sobieska, the granddaughter of Polish King Jan III Sobieski. But the blood-ties between Scots and Poles are far more extensive than this royal link. A long history of Scottish migration to Poland, starting in the 15th century, means the country boasts several villages and districts named Nowa Szkocja or Szkocja (New Scotland), and Polonised Scottish surnames are surprisingly common – MacLeod became Machlejd, for example.

In more modern times one of the more epic journeys of the 20th century was that of the Poles who ended up in Scotland during World War 2. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the UK and France declared war on Germany. The Poles fought gallantly but as the blitzkrieg cut deeply into their country things looked bleak. The final stab in the back came when Stalin sent the Red Army in from the east to brutally occupy eastern Poland. In order to pacify the newly annexed areas of Poland, the Soviets sent hundreds of thousands of Poles to the bleak gulags of Siberia where many perished in the dreadful conditions. In the spring of 1940, as Hitler launched his army against France, Stalin ordered the slaughter of more than 20,000 Polish army officers held prisoner in Russia. The Katyn Massacre is still commemorated in Poland today and remains one of the worst atrocities of World War 2. Things looked tough for Poland with the country annexed by two ruthless dictators. For the hundreds of thousands of Poles exiled in Russia the future was very uncertain but events in the summer of 1941 changed everything. 

Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 saw Hitler turn on the USSR with an invasion carried out by 3 million axis troops. Britain, who viewed the USSR as a despicable dictatorship now found itself an ally of Stalin. The Russians decided that the Poles in their country might as well go and fight the Nazis who were soon smashing their way towards Moscow. Many thousands of Polish men women and children under the command of General Anders began the long trek through Siberia, southern USSR and eventually through Syria to British controlled Palestine. The British happily enrolled the many thousands of former Polish soldiers into their own overstretched army and many of them were sent to Perthshire in Scotland for training.

Polish soldiers and airmen contributed hugely to the defence of the UK in the darker days of the war. The famous 303 Fighter Squadron of the RAF was made up of Polish Pilots and shot down over 400 German planes in the war. In Scotland the thousands of Polish soldiers were trained and formed into the 1st Polish Armoured Division.  Polish troops saw action in North Africa and in Italy where following a brutal battle the Poles stormed the German positions on Monte Casino and planted their red and white banner on the ruins of the old monastery. When the invasion of France came in June 1944 though, it was to lead to the finest hour of the Polish Armoured Division led by their beloved General Maczek.

By August 1944, the British, Canadian and Polish forces were closing in on the German 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army from the north while the Americans were moving up from the south in a huge pincer movement. The plan was to trap and destroy the entire German Army in Normandy. As the trap closed, it was the job of the Polish Armoured Division to be the ‘cork in the bottle’ and halt the German escape. They captured the vital high ground known as ‘Hill 262’ and then fought off a series of sustained and increasingly desperate attacks by Werhmacht and SS units who knew the trap was closing. The Poles suffered many casualties but inflicted many more on the attacking Germans and didn’t yield. This contributed hugely to the allied victory in France. After the battles for France, the Polish Armoured Division fought its way through Holland, liberating the city of Breda to scenes of great joy and eventually captured the German port of Willhelmshaven as the war came to an end.

For many Polish soldiers though their victories were bitter-sweet. The allies allowed Stalin free reign to dominate post-war Poland and the majority of Polish soldiers would never see their homeland again. Indeed the communist puppet government the USSR set up in Poland stripped many Poles fighting in the west of their citizenship. They gave so much defending their own land and liberating others and their reward was betrayal. Thousands of Poles who returned to Scotland after the war settled there permanently and after leaving the forces had to find jobs in mines and factories. Many married Scottish women and never saw Poland again. General Maczek ended up working in the bar of an Edinburgh hotel where former comrades would buy a drink and salute their former Commander before downing it.

The Poles in Scotland were generally made welcome as brothers in arms fighting a common enemy. They were grateful for the welcome they received and have left their mark in Scotland. In the Barony Castle Hotel in Eddleston,  (Scottish Borders) which was a Polish Officer training HQ in the war years. the Polish owner created a huge concrete map of Scotland in the grounds of the hotel in recognition of the welcome the Poles received in Scotland. 

In a quiet corner of Duns, a town in Berwickshire there is a memorial to the Polish Armoured Division which was unveiled by its former Commander, General Maczec. The old General lived to be 102 years old and when he passed on in 1994 he was buried beside his fallen comrades in the Polish military cemetery in the Dutch town of Breda which he and his men had liberated 50 years before.

So when you see the flag of the Polska Number 1 CSC or the Polish Bhoys CSC at Celtic Park, it’s worth remembering the contribution the Polish community made to this country. They join many other groups in Scotland who see Celtic as their team and we’re proud to call them fellow Celts.

Witajcie w rajskich chĹ‚opcach!  Hail Hail

Friday, 20 July 2018



Jim ‘Joker’ McCann’s coffin stood a little forlornly at the front of the small church. It was covered by a white ceremonial sheet which in turn was topped with a cross and a bible. A fairly sombre collection of friends and relatives shuffled in and began filling the pews. His two sons sat in the front row, looking a little uncomfortable in their suits and ties, and were joined in turn by their uncles and aunts. Joker had five brothers and sisters and they in turn had a dozen children between them and already a new generation of little ones was springing forth. Joker’s younger son, Barry looked at his older brother and whispered, ‘A good turnout, he’d like that.’ Tam’s face didn’t change from its usual glum appearance as he replied, ‘Aye, he was popular enough. Just hope his Will doesn’t cause a war.’ Barry exhaled, if there was one aspect of his big brother’s personality he disliked it was his continual obsession with money. The Priest entered as a bell rang somewhere refocussing Barry’s mind on the real reason they were there; to celebrate Joker’s life.

As the service progressed the Priest spoke about their old man’s life and was surprisingly well informed. ‘James Joseph McCann was born in Duke Street Hospital in Glasgow on October the nineteenth, 1957. It is said that his father James Senior was otherwise engaged as young James took his first breath on that bright autumn day being as he was at the League Cup Final between Celtic and Rangers. I think it’s fair to say that Joseph Snr was pleased with the result both at Hampden and at the hospital!’ There was a quiet laughter in the church at this as everyone knew how Celtic daft the McCann’s were. ‘He went to St Mary’s Primary school and it caused eyebrows to be raised when his father took him out of school for a few days in the spring of 1967 for a trip to Lisbon in Portugal where 9 year old James and his father watched Celtic winning the European Cup. Family legend suggests his father was part of a group of Celtic fans who invaded the field at full time and virtually dragged Billy McNeill’s shirt from his back. It was cut into pieces and everyone got a part of it to cherish, even nine year old James.’ Barry whispered to his brother, ‘Wonder where that bit of family history got to?’ As the Priest continued his description of Joker’s life Barry found himself smiling. His old man earned his nickname well and his constant steam of jokes and wind ups featured largely in life story

The Priest looked up and smiled a little as he continued painting a picture of the dearly departed Joker McCann,’ His humour and his practical jokes were a feature of his life and I was reminded of the time he decided to put a fresh spin on the old whoopee cushion joke by filling it with gravy. It was intended for his late wife but alas my predecessor Father O’Hara arrived unexpectedly at the house and sat on the aforementioned whoopee cushion with predictable consequences.’ At this there was more laughter from the congregation. It struck Barry that he’d always remember his old man smiling or wise cracking at parties or in the pub. He could be a very funny man and Barry recalled going to a garden centre to buy a Christmas tree the year before. A spotty faced youth looked at Joker and asked, ‘Are you going to put it up yourself?’ Joker replied with a straight face, ‘No, I was thinking in the living room.’

It was a strangely joyous funeral and he figured his old fellah would have wanted it that way. He had lived a full and happy life and the great loves of his life; his family and Celtic Football Club had given him a lot of pride and pleasure.

The following Monday morning Barry sat with Tam in the office of their father’s Lawyer, the grandly named Cornelius McBride. The Lawyer looked at them over the top of his glasses, his receding and rather unkempt grey hair and overgrown white eyebrows making him look like large bird of prey. ‘Gentleman, if we are ready to proceed I shall read the last Will and Testament of Mr James McCann.’ A hush descended on the room as old Joker was said to be worth a few quid and the sale of his home and life insurance policies would accrue even more. Money was never that important to Barry but Tam unconsciously licked his lips and stared impatiently at the old lawyer. ‘As a preliminary, I have calculated that the entire estate of Mr McCann including savings, interest, life insurance payments and the likely proceeds from the sale of his former home will, following the settling of his various creditors accounts, amount to a sum in the region of £210,000.’ Tam’s eyes lit up as he heard this and he audibly sighed. 

The lawyer opened a manila envelope and removed Joker’s hand written Will. ‘If you could bear with me,’ he said in a somewhat bemused voice, ’the will is one of the more… unusual I’ve dealt with over the years.’ The two brothers looked at each other a little bemused as the old lawyer continued. ‘I’ll read exactly what your father has written….’

‘Hello Tam and Barry, if you’re listening to these words then I guess it means I’ve gone to join your mother. Don’t be sad as I’m beyond pain and suffering. You’ve been two of the best sons a father could wish for and I want you both to be happy in the years God gives you so always be there for each other.

As to my treasure, well I couldn’t decide what to do with it so I’ve decided to set you a wee test. If you can answer three questions to Mr McBride’s satisfaction, he’ll give you the key to the small safe in his office and all it contains is yours. If you can’t solve the questions – you don’t get the key. Here are the three questions…

       I.            Who is sitting on the words ‘Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo?
     II.            Where is AMDG written in squares?
  III.            Where do angels look over the three T’s?

You know I liked a joke, boys so I’ll keep it simple. The first one of you to solve these three riddles and provide Mr McBride with the necessary proof gets the key to the safe and my treasure.

See you in a better place, Your Dad, Joker.’

The old Lawyer stopped reading and looked at them. ‘As I’ve said, it’s the most unusual will I’ve ever had to deal with but I’m bound to carry out your father’s wishes. The first one who answers the 3 questions successfully gets they key to the safe and all it contains.’ With that he handed them both a copy of their father’s letter. Tam looked at his brother Barry with a look of disgust on his face, ‘What the fuck is he playing at? Riddles? Can he not just gie us the fuckin money?’ Barry shook his head, ‘we could work on this this together, Tam, share whatever is in the safe?’ Tam shook his head, ‘I’m figuring this oot, Barry and I don’t need your help.’ With that he stood and stormed out of the room. Barry shook hands with the old lawyer, ‘Sorry about that, Mr McBride. He’s a bit headstrong oor Tam.’ The layer stood and shook his hand, ‘Good luck solving those riddles.’ As Barry turned to leave the old man added, ‘You know I can’t help you on your quest, but I can say that I was educated at St Aloysius School. We used to write AMDG at the top of every new page in our jotters.’ Barry smiled, ‘thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.’

Barry sat at home and opened his laptop; it flickered to life with its screensaver of the new Celtic way leading to Celtic Park. He quickly googled ‘Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo’ and it took him seconds to learn that it was the motto of the Marist Brothers and as any Celtic fan knows, the founder of the club was a Marist. He mumbled to himself, ‘but who’s sitting on those words?’  Then it clicked and he grabbed his car keys and headed for Celtic Park.

He searched the base of the Brother Walfrid statue and there he found the words, ‘Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo’ on one of the panels. Barry smiled, ‘Walfrid’s sitting on those words!’ He took a few photographs and headed back down the Celtic Way.  The first problem had been solved.

That night as darkness fell over Glasgow he looked at the second problem. ‘Where is AMDG written in squares?’ He recalled the old lawyer said he used to write those letters at the top of each page when he was a pupil at St Aloysius. He soon found out via the internet that ‘AMDG’ was an acronym for ‘Ad Majoren de Gloriam’ the motto of the Jesuit order but where is it written in squares? He wracked his brain, ‘St Peter’s Square? George Square?’ No solution came to mind and he drifted to sleep that night thinking it over.

His phone jarred him out of his slumber as another dawn crept in between his curtains. He could hear Tam’s voice as he pressed it to his ear, ‘Aw right bro, you solved any of those riddles yet?’ Barry focussed and mumbled, ‘aye, one of them. You solved any?’  ‘Aye one, tell me yours first then I’ll tell you mine.’  Barry sat up in bed, ‘The one asking about sitting on the words, it’s Brother Walfrid. It’s on the plinth of his statue.’ Tam replied a little curtly, ‘Aye, that’s the wan I solved as well. Catch ye later.’ With that he hung up and Barry felt just a little conned. ‘Mental note to self,’ he mumbled, ‘Tell Tam fuck all!’

The following afternoon Barry headed into Glasgow City centre. As he wandered up Buchanan Street he was stopped by a couple of brightly dressed tourists, ‘Excuse me,’ the American woman said with a not unpleasant accent, ‘we’re on vacation and wanted to visit Glasgow City hall?’ Barry thought for a moment, ‘You mean the city chambers?’ She nodded, ‘Yeh, the one with all the marble and mosaics.’ Barry smiled, ‘Follow me it’s just up here in George Square.’ He led them to the square and pointed out the unmistakable form of the city Chambers. The American man shook his hand, ‘Thank you, y’all have a nice day now.’ Barry watched them negotiate the traffic and cross the road into George Square but something was niggling at his mind. What had she said? ‘The one with the marble and mosaics!’ That’s it, the clue, ‘Where is AMDG written in Squares?’ It must be written in mosaic squares! He crossed into George Square and sat on a bench. His old man’s riddles were all about Celtic so he searched on his phone ‘Glasgow Celtic Mosaic’ and in less than a second saw an image on his phone of a mosaic on the floor of St Mary’s church in Glasgow’s east end. He enlarged the picture and carefully read the words around the edge of the mosaic. It read, ‘To the greater glory of God and in honour of his blessed mother commemorating the foundation of the Celtic Football Club in this Parish of St Mary’s Calton.’ There it was- AMDG - ‘To the greater glory of God’ written in squares. He’d solved it! ‘Two down and one to go!’ he said to himself with a satisfied smile.

Over the next few days, Barry thought long and hard about the last riddle; where do angels look over the three T’s? What did it mean by the ‘three T’s?’ Neither the internet nor discussions with his Celtic supporting friends could help solve the problem. His old man would be laughing at his struggles. His brother had phoned a couple of times fishing but Barry stonewalled him and said he was still stuck on the last two riddles. Tam was not happy- he could smell money but had no way of getting at it without the answers. In truth, Barry found his brother’s greed a little nauseating.

The following week Barry was taking his twelve year old cousin Kevin on a tour of Celtic Park. Despite being a lifelong fan he had never gone on the tour so was fairly excited himself. He put all thoughts of his old man’s riddles out of his head as he and a group of chattering fans followed the guide up the ramp towards the front door of the stadium. As they neared the front door Barry glanced at the bronze plaque on the wall dedicated to the memory of the great Tommy Burns. As he passed it he heard the man behind him say, ‘God bless ye T. we all miss ye still.’ Barry stopped in his tracks and the man bumped into him. ‘Sorry pal,’ Barry said pushing past him. He stopped in front of the Tommy Burns plaque and looked at it. It showed three images of Tommy, one as a player in that classic prayerful pose he had struck after scoring a goal, one holding the Scottish Cup as Manager and one in what could have been a coaching top. Young Kevin stared at him, ‘Are we going inside Barry?’ Barry didn’t answer as he glanced at the top of the bronze plaque. There he could see two angels, identical to the ones above St Mary’s Church!  ‘Of course’ he laughed, ‘three T’s- three Tommys!’  Young Kevin looked at him bemused, ‘we’ll miss the tour!’ Barry grinned and took a picture of the plaque before leading young Kevin into Celtic Park. He’d solved the last riddle!

Barry picked Tam up in his car early the following Monday morning. They had made an appointment to see Mr McBride and he wanted to be there early. Tam was beside himself, ‘So ye solved them? I don’t have a clue. Yer sharing with me aren’t ye? I mean anything my da left is for us both?’ Jesus Tam,’ Barry said, ‘is money all you think about? Yer da died a couple of weeks back and all you’ve rabbited on about is bloody money!’ Tam snorted, ‘Are ye sharing wi me, aye or naw? Because if yer no, I’m getting oot this car right noo!’’ Barry exhaled, ‘Aye Tam. You’ll get half of what’s there, now shut up aboot it.’

Mr McBride listened carefully to Barry as he went through the questions one by one. ‘Brother Walfrid is sitting on the words; they’re on a panel on the plinth of his statue. AMDG is on the Celtic mosaic in St Mary’s church and the angels looking over the three T’s refers to the Tommy Burns plaque at Celtic Park.’ Barry showed the old lawyer pictures on his phone to corroborate his answers. The old man nodded, ‘You satisfy the conditions so as per your father’s instructions, the key is yours.’ He opened a drawer on his desk and took out a small wooden box which he opened and removed a key from. ‘This is the key to the safe, if you’ll allow me?’ Barry nodded, ‘Go ahead.’ The old man stood and turned the key in the lock of the safe and opened the heavy door. Tam could barely contain himself, ‘Yasss Barry boy! You did it, you solved the riddles.’ 

Barry watched as the lawyer removed two brown envelopes from the safe and placed them on the table. He opened the first envelope and removed an A4 sheet of paper. Barry watched with interest as he unfolded it and prepared to read it. Tam was virtually rocking on his seat with excitement. The old lawyer began to read, ‘It is my settled will that all my assets be given in equal shares to the following….’ Tam waited for his name, after all he was the oldest, it’d be his name first. As the lawyer began to read out a list of charities, Tam’s face fell. ‘Whit, he’s giving his money tae fuckin’ cats and dugs and folk in Africa he’s never met!’ Barry laughed as Tam pointed hopefully at the other envelope, ‘Whit dis that wan say?’ The lawyer showed them the two words written by their father on the front of the envelope. It read, ‘My Treasure.’ Tam’s eyes widened, perhaps he’d get something worth having after all. The old man opened the large envelope and removed a poly-pocket which contained a ragged strip of green and white cotton. ‘This I believe is a piece of the shirt worn by Billy McNeill when Celtic won the European cup.’ Tam was aghast, ‘A rag, a fuckin auld rag! That’s his treasure, is this a fuckin joke?’ Barry laughed out loud, his old man had indeed set up one final joke and by God it was a good one. The old lawyer looked on with some amusement on his face at the two brothers. Tam was incandescent with rage, ‘You keep the fuckin rag, Barry! But just you remember when yer skint, yer old man gave thousands away tae feed fuckin abandoned Rottweilers!’ Barry was rocking with laughter. Good old Joker, he thought, he had played his hand beautifully.

He picked up the piece of Billy McNeill’s shirt and looked at it. His old man had kept it all these years. ‘I’ll look after your treasure Da, don’t you worry about that.’ He left the lawyers office still laughing to himself.


Monday, 16 July 2018


The fine city of Glasgow was host to two very different demonstrations this past couple of weeks. One involved members of the Orange Order marching through the streets in a rather hollow demonstration of triumphalism and was marked by the despicable assault on a Catholic Priest at St Alphonsus church. The other was the annual Pride, march celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender culture, which was led by first minister Nicola Sturgeon and this was marked by colour, music and positivity.

Celtic’s decision to post a message on social media wishing those attending the annual pride march in Glasgow a good day had the surprising effect of attracting some very negative comments from a vociferous minority. Of course there are those with no love for Celtic who seize on any opportunity to throw mud at the club but some of the comments I saw on social media came from people who claimed to be Celtic fans.  Celtic’s message was a simple one…

This however provoked some ire from a minority who seemed to feel that that Celtic’s Catholic roots were incompatible with such a message.  One person stated that Celtic’s message was…

‘Absolutely disgraceful. Our club was founded on Catholic principles. Brother Walfrid will be spinning in his grave.’

Celtic was of course founded on the Christian principle of charity and love and there seemed to be a distinct lack of that in such comments. Let’s be clear here, Celtic Football club is not a Catholic organisation, it is a modern, secular football club open to people of all faiths, all ethnicities and all sexual orientations. Through historical circumstance the majority of supporters are at least cultural Catholics but a large and increasing number of Celtic supporters come from other faith backgrounds or have no interest in religion.

The social attitudes around in 1888 when the club was founded have gone through revolutionary change. It was routine in the late Victorian era for Jews, Catholics, people of colour and others to suffer open and, by modern standards, pretty appalling prejudice. We will never know the opinion of Celtic’s founding father on those of a different sexual orientation although his actions in trying to feed the poor and alleviate suffering among the marginalised and poverty stricken community he served suggests he was a man of compassion.

Most Christians are familiar with the scriptures of their faith and in truth some have twisted them in the past to bolster their arguments in favour of things such as slavery and racial segregation. The most quoted passages concerning same sex relationships are found in the book of Leviticus and in the letters of St Paul. They were written in a very different context and culture from the modern one we must navigate in our lives. Leviticus is particularly unforgiving and brutal in its assertion that….

"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them." (Lev 20:13)

Compare this to the meeting Pope Francis had with a victim of clerical sex abuse. Juan Carlos Cruz meet the Pontiff to discuss the abuse he suffered at the hands of one of Chile’s worst paedophile’s. He told the press after the meeting that the Pope that Francis had said to him…

‘Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are,’

While official Catholic doctrine would still suggest that sexual activity with someone of the same gender is a sin, it’s clear that the compassion and love shown by Pope Francis is a million miles away from the harshness and cruelty of the book of Leviticus. People of faith need to judge for themselves what being a Christian means for them. For most it’s about love, forgiveness and accepting that none of us are perfect. For a few it means harsh rules, shame and guilt. I know which side I fall on in that debate.

This week also saw a very brave and defiant young man called Blair Wilson suffer a homophobic attack on the streets of Glasgow. He took a selfie of himself in the wake of the assault and for many who saw the image of his bloodied but smiling face it was a timely reminder of where prejudice can lead. His courage in speaking out though and the reaction to it is testament to how much society is changing. Most people are sick of petty prejudices be they aimed at religious or ethnic groups or people who are different from them. Societies evolve and the attitudes of the past can seem utterly ludicrous to a modern person. It is not denying your Christian heritage to be more tolerant of the ‘other’ in society-it is living up to it!

If you’re reading these words the chances are you’re using a phone, laptop or other computing device. All of this technology owes much to the pioneering computer work of Alan Turing. Turing was one of the key men who broke the German codes in World War Two and in doing so shortened the war and made an allied victory over fascism more likely. He was also a gay man who was dragged through the courts and charged with ‘gross indecency.’ His public shaming cost him his security clearance as well as his reputation. In the end he took his own life. We must never return to those days. Believe what you want to believe but allow others the same privilege.

So for those offended by Celtic’s message of support for Glasgow’s Pride march I say follow your conscience as you have every right to do but know that the vast majority in our society feel people should be free to live as they choose without fear or shame. We learn from the past or we’re doomed to repeat it and the past shows us very clearly the disgraceful persecution gay people endured. Times change and thankfully in some respects they’re changing for the better.

To any LGBT Celtic supporters out there, we're far from perfect but this is a club for all and you’re welcome here. In that we take Pride.