Sunday, 8 December 2019

The History Bhoys



The History Bhoys

Following Celtic for many years has taught me that there will be frustrating days, there will also be days when you don’t get the result your team’s play merits. There will also be times when the team clicks, the chances are taken and the opponents battered. It’s a passionate game too and the fans who identify so strongly with their club often go through an emotional rollercoaster in a match. We saw that earlier in the week as Celtic defeated Hamilton. At 1-0 and with over 20 shots peppering the Hamilton goal it looked a simple matter of simply scoring the clinching goal and moving on to the next challenge. However 1-0 is a dangerous lead and Hamilton broke away to make it 1-1 in the last minute. Some supporters were caught up in an anger born of frustration. They knew well that Aberdeen were holding Rangers at Pittodrie and the opportunity to go two points clear of the Ibrox club looked like it was being thrown away and their anger was directed onto the field. Scott Brown of course popped up with a dramatic injury time winner to clinch the points and Celtic was two points clear at the top. The mood changed in that instant from frustration to joy and players lambasted by certain individuals moments earlier, were once more heroes. Such is the fickle nature of the game we love and some of those who follow it.



 It was bemusing to see some take their frustration out on a team on 9 successive trophies, with a cup final a few days later and sitting at the top of the league but such is the nature of some who follow football. Didier Agathe, Celtic’s pacey wing back of the Martin O’Neill era once said of the occasional frustrated barracking he got at Celtic; ‘It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they care too much.’  Of course you pay your money and you are entitled to voice your opinions but some perspective is always required. Everything you win in football has to be earned and nothing should ever be taken for granted.

Later today Celtic will run out at Hampden into what will no doubt be a raucous and compelling atmosphere. Hampden is a much reduced stadium since the redevelopment of the 1990s but when it’s full and Glasgow’s big two meet it can still be an atmospheric and noisy stadium. The much maligned Scottish game can still produce atmospheres which eclipse any in the mega rich EPL. The Manchester derby this weekend was played in front of a lethargic and only sporadically noisy crowd. That will not be the case at Hampden where supporters will be fully committed to driving their team on to victory.

Today’s league cup final could have been sold out twice over and many supporters will have to settle for watching on TV in homes, pubs and clubs all over the world. It is important that the Celtic players approach the match in their usual professional manner and aren’t hustled out of their normal style of play. If they turn up and there are no extenuating circumstances such as refereeing errors or silly red cards then I expect Celtic to win as in my opinion they remain the better side. On paper they have better players but as the great Brian Clough once said ‘football isn’t played on paper’ and there are so many variables which come into play in a match of this type. It will be tough and it’ll require a solid performance to win but I believe the team know what’s at stake here and won’t give anything less than 100%. Neill Lennon will ensure they are motivated and organised and of course the supporters will back them all the way.

We all know what this match means to Celtic as they continue their relentless domination of Scottish football. A Celtic victory would send out a clear message that the Hoops have no intention of relinquishing their place at the top of the Scottish game and would be a blow to the morale of an improved Rangers side. Neil Lennon said after his side’s 2-0 win at Ibrox in September that if you’d have believed what was written in the press then Celtic shouldn’t have bothered turning up. The sort of cheer leading in some quarters which masquerades as journalism has been a feature of Scottish football for as long as I can remember. Lennon rightly let his players do their talking on the field at Ibrox and they shut a few up with a fine display. More of the same today would do nicely.

Rangers are going well but their second half display at Pittodrie must have been worrying for their supporters. Celtic are a far more effective side than Aberdeen and have strung together 11 successive victories so confidence is high. It didn’t go unnoticed either that the Lazio side Celtic beat twice in Europe last night defeated Juventus 3-1 and are unbeaten in their last 12 Serie A games so it’s clear Celtic are no mugs these days. Of course the old adage about form going out the window in derby matches comes into play and on a wet pitch with 50,000 screaming fans in attendance it will undoubtedly be a tense and nerve jangling match but if Celtic play well then that tenth successive domestic trophy could be coming home to Paradise and that would be an astonishing achievement. Even Stein’s magnificent team couldn’t do that although they did come close in the 1967-69 period where they won 9 out of 10 major trophies competed for. (They lost to Dunfermline in the early rounds of the 1967-68 Scottish Cup) History is tantalisingly close for this crop of Celtic players and if few think they could match the Lions they can at least write their own page in Celtic’s history. I’ll raise a glass to that.

Come on you Bhoys in green!




Saturday, 30 November 2019

A different level



A different level

This week has been a good one for Scottish football with the two Glasgow teams continuing to do well in Europe. Celtic played with assurance for most of the game during their 3-1 win over Rennes and won a group which at the outset had people worried that they’d struggle to qualify. They are undefeated in four games against teams from two of the so called big leagues and have already recorded their highest ever points total in a European group. They have played in 13 European ties this season and their record is currently P13 W10 D2 L1. Their solitary defeat came in the home tie with Cluj in the Champions League Qualifiers and cost them a shot at a place at the top table of the European game.

There is a school of thought that a reinvigorated Rangers has spurred Celtic on to better things but that is only a small part of the story. Lennon and Rodgers before him have been building a squad which has cover in every position and are being trained to play good, passing football. They now have the best young Scottish talent at Celtic Park and have steeled them with quality additions like Chris Jullien. This Celtic side is young and growing in self-confidence and experience. All of this augurs well for the rest of the season and the challenges it will bring. Reaching the last 32 of the Europa League in such style is a positive sign and if few harbour realistic hopes of winning the competition we do at least have hopes of progressing further once the draw is made in December.

It did not go unnoticed that Alfredo Morelos scored two goals against Feyenoord to eclipse Henrik Larsson’s 12 goal haul in European competition in 2002-03 season. Only the most zealous Celtic supporter would deny that Morelos is a good striker. He is clearly is and seems to have reined in his rash behaviour this season. Some though have taken Morelos’ goal haul to mean he is a better striker than Larsson as they did when Kris Boyd became the SPL’s top goal scorer. Morelos, like Boyd, is a penalty box striker who knew where the net is but comparisons to Larsson are wide of the mark. This is a player who’s goal to games ratio eclipses both Boyd and Morelos and who has scored at the highest level of the game. Larsson is a Champions League winner, a World Cup Semi Finalist and the UK’s all-time leading scorer in European competitions. He is on a different level to Boyd and Morelos and was coveted by teams like Barcelona and Manchester United and his loyalty to Celtic kept him in Scottish football despite many offers to move to more lucrative leagues.

Larsson’s goal scoring exploits saw him hit the net against teams like Juventus, Liverpool, Celta Vigo, Valencia and Blackburn Rovers and Porto’s best ever side. In 2002-03 season Larsson scored against Basel, FK Suduva,(3) Blackburn Rovers, (2) Celta Vigo, Liverpool, Boavista (2) and FC Porto.(2) Only Suduva could be considered minnows among that group of clubs. Morelos has scored against St Joseph’s (4) Mitdjylland (3) Legia Warsaw (1) Feyenoord (3) and FC Porto (2). More than half his goals in Europe came against the third best side in Malta and a team ranked 114 in UEFA’s co-efficient table. This is no slight on Morelos who it must be said is a real talent but it is a decade too early to compare him to a player like Henrik Larsson.

Celtic fans will of course point to the fact that Morelos has yet to register a goal against the Hoops in 11 games against them. Indeed Kris Boyd scored just once against Celtic in almost 40 games for Rangers and Kilmarnock and was characterised as a striker who scored most of his goals against smaller teams. That may be a little unfair but what is undeniable is that neither Boyd nor Morelos is the all-round footballer Larsson was.

The form of both Celtic and Rangers in Europe this season is helping Scotland’s co-efficient and in the next couple of years we could see two Scottish clubs having a crack at the Champions League. That is an encouraging sign for our game and much as Celtic fans have enjoyed this period of unprecedented success, competition is what will make the team sharper. December begins tomorrow and it will see Glasgow’s big two lock horns in the League Cup Final and an important SPFL match at Celtic Park. These two games will have a huge bearing on how the rest of the season pans out. Celtic fans know that Rangers have improved under Gerrard but most still feel Celtic are the better side and should both teams play at the top of their game then it’ll be the Hoops who will prevail.

Football though thrives on uncertainty; a refereeing error, a silly red card or unexpected penalty can turn a game. So too can teams who batter opponents but fail to take their chances; Feyenoord could have been 3 goals up on Rangers at half time this week but poor finishing and good goalkeeping cost them in the end. It’s up to Celtic to continue to play with the style and fluidity they have demonstrated in recent months and remind everyone why they remain the Champions and best side in Scotland. Only Cluj and Livingston have beaten Celtic in almost 30 competitive games this season. Celtic have defeated both of them since and under Lennon are playing good football and reminding us all that there’s life after Rodgers.

Lennon looks a more experienced and more pragmatic manager than he was the first time around at Celtic. He’ll also know what it means to the fans to dominate the derby fixtures and push on for that magical 9 in a row. We can never be certain of much in football but we can rely on Lennon to send out a team with fire in its belly to fight for every ball. He’ll keep the players focused on the next games at Ross County and then on the home tie with Hamilton and ensure that they keep up the pressure at the top of the league. He wasn’t everyone’s choice as Manager after Rodgers jumped ship but his team is shaping up well and he now has the full backing of the support.

November saw Celtic win every game they played in. If they can replicate that form in December it could be another great season. All things in life worth having need to be earned though and the Hoops will need to battle hard to keep their winning streak going.  We’re in for some exiting times before 2020 dawns so let’s get right behind the team and roar them on in every game.

When Celtic and their fans are united they make a formidable opponent for anyone.




Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Ten



The Ten

One of life’s ironies is that it often makes sense when you look back at it but it has to be lived going forward. 22 years ago this coming week Celtic faced up to Dundee United in the League Cup Final at Ibrox.  Celtic had stuttered in the league that November losing to Rangers and Motherwell before playing a second game with Rangers which had been postponed from earlier in the season because of the death of Princess Diana. Few of us in Celtic Park on a raucous and turbulent night could have foreseen the importance of Alan Stubbs’ last minute equaliser which salvaged a deserved point for Celtic.

New players had been arriving at the club as Wim Jansen recruited the men he felt would stop the dreaded ‘Ten’ from Rangers which would eclipse Jock Stein’s record. Men such as Larsson, Burley, Lambert, Brattbakk, Blinker and Rieper arrived at Celtic Park to stem the blue tide which had washed over the club for nine long years. Celtic supporters knew the importance of the title but with just one solitary trophy won in the previous 3000 days, they badly wanted to get their hands on the league cup. They knew they were a better team than Dundee United having beaten them 4-0 a week before the final but the ghosts of Raith Rovers and Falkirk hung heavy in the air. Celtic had faltered so often in the key games in that era and although their form was improving they had shown in the first half of season 1997-98 a nagging inconsistency which worried some of their supporters.

Often in a football season we look back and say ‘that was a turning point.’ We saw one such pivotal moment when on form Rangers marched towards a home fixture with Celtic in fine form only to be broken by Odsonne Edouard’s stunning winning goal in a 3-2 win at Ibrox. Scoring first and playing for a long period against ten men couldn’t prevent Rangers from crumbling against a bold Celtic side that had a centre back sent off and then had the courage to throw on another striker. The psychological damage done was incalculable and Rangers title challenge petered out.



That league cup final held on St Andrew’s day in 1997 was won well by Celtic with Rieper, Larsson and Burley scoring as Celtic comfortably defeated Dundee United at Ibrox. I was in the Copeland Road that day and the scenes were amazing. The Ibrox main stand was festooned in Celtic flags and banners as two thirds of the stadium roared out their songs of victory. As the Oasis hit of the era ‘Roll with it’ boomed out and the players danced around the field with the cup I remember thinking, ‘We’re back, this’ll do this team the world of good, they can push on from here.’ I threw my scarf at the players as they paraded past the Copeland Road stand and Tom Boyd picked it up. By chance I spoke to him at the Celtic Sleep-out a couple of years ago about that day and he said that winning that cup and the arrival of quality players made them think that they could win the league that year. There would be a few twists and turns along the way but in the spring of 1998 Celtic finally ended a decade of pain for their fans by stopping the Ten.

December’s League Cup final has the potential to be a very telling match. Celtic are going for their tenth domestic trophy in a row; a feat unheard of in Scottish football. For Rangers the game offers an opportunity to win the club’s first major trophy since the new club’s inception in 2012. They have invested tens of millions of pounds over the past few years to try and wrest Celtic’s supremacy from them and have so far failed miserably. As a Celtic fan I obviously want Celtic to win and win well and if both teams perform at their best I think Celtic have the players to win the match. For once the fixtures are a little kinder to Celtic as they approach the match. They have Hamilton at home on December 4 while Rangers are at Pittodrie the same night. That being said the Final is four days later and both teams will have time to recover. Perhaps Celtic will use the squad to ensure key men aren’t injured whereas Rangers will need their best team to get a result at Aberdeen as the Dons seldom give them anything other than a hard match in the north east.

Nothing lasts forever in sport; not success and not failure. The 1990s taught Celtic fans that lesson and one day this incredible trophy winning streak will end. Neil Lennon and his team will be determined to ensure that this winning sequence doesn’t end in the upcoming league cup final. Celtic are going for their own ‘Ten’ trophies in a row and pushing for another nine in a row in the championship. These are incredible times to be a Celtic fan and every last one of us should enjoy it to the full.

We know that this incredible trophy winning streak will inevitably end one day but hopefully just not yet.



Saturday, 16 November 2019

What is truth?



What is truth?
It is recorded in the New Testament that around two thousand years ago the Roman Governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, during his questioning of Jesus asked him if he was a King. Jesus is reported to have said to him, 'For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.' Pilate responded by saying, 'What is truth?'


Truth used to be viewed as a verifiable, indisputable fact but it seems we have entered a ‘post truth’ phase in our public discourse where people’s views are shaped by their emotions and what they would like to believe rather than any verifiable facts. ‘Fake news’ abounds and elements a cynical media count clicks on their advert filled websites rather than the number of distortions in their stories. American linguist and social thinker, Noam Chomsky in his book ‘Manufactured Consent’ theorises that the powerful elite who control much of the media and guide political discourse are able to manipulate the masses into doing as they see fit. Thus we see incongruity everywhere; from the child of immigrants with no empathy for modern migrants or the poor man living in a sink estate voting for a political Party which gives tax cuts to the rich and austerity to the poor.  Malcolm X once said….


“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”


This week saw a ludicrous story about HMRC being responsible for the death of Rangers in 2012 doing the rounds. We were informed that a decision by the tax authorities not to pursue the corpse of the old club for punitive fines and interests meant that they had ‘miscalculated’ the amount Rangers owed and therefore frightened off any potential investors. This absolute fantasy was destroyed by the usually silent HMRC who informed the bemused and confused that there had been no such miscalculation and that their decision not to pursue the money owed by the old Rangers was based on the fact that they were unlikely to get anything other than a few pence in the pound as will the long list of creditors owed millions.


A classic bout of confirmation bias then ensued where this story was seized upon by some Rangers followers as proof of some great conspiracy against them. Some fairly laughable comments appeared on social media demanding their £50m back! That is- demanding a rebate on money which was never paid in the first place and never will be paid! Never forget that among the spin and distortion this football club ripped off businesses small and large for tens of millions of pounds. Not least the tax payers who cough up to fund public services and watched rich men avoid paying their fair share. In an act of consummate irony, the Sun newspaper which so readily pumps out distortions of reality actually brought in an independent tax expert who blew the whole ‘HMRC miscalculation killed Rangers’ fantasy out of the water. There was no miscalculation; they merely decided not to pursue monies they knew they would never see.


Of course wiser heads could see through this whole attempt to deny the death of Rangers and spin the mythology that a jealous cabal in Scottish football and society had it in for them. The more prosaic truth is that greed and arrogance brought the house down. The hubris of the Murray years was inevitably followed by the nemesis of liquidation. No U-turns by a media with an eye on the blue pound, no historical revisionism by supporters who can’t accept that their club died in disgrace, will ever change the concrete reality of what happened to Rangers in 2012. It was inevitable that many Rangers fans would find this reality hard to deal with and the spin would begin. Being ‘demoted’ to the fourth tier of Scottish football and missing out on a European place were cited as punishments rather than what they actually were; the consequences of going bust. Rangers didn’t start in the fourth tier; Rangers ceased to be in 2012. The new club had to seek permission to join the league and thus were allowed to do so starting at the bottom rung of the professional game.


The irony is that those who deny this verifiable truth would be arguing the complete opposite had it been Celtic FC which was liquidated in 2012.


Harper Lee in that great American novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has one of her main characters, Atticus Finch explaining to his daughter why some people can’t see the truth before their eyes. He says to her…


People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.’


We all must use our conscience to cut through the distortion, lies and agendas which seem to make up so much of our public discourse these days. There will be people reading these words who will decide that I’m just another Celtic supporter having a go at Rangers by creating my own distorted narrative. All I ask is that they look at the verifiable facts of what happened to Rangers in the Murray years. Think for yourselves and check the sources and facts before coming to a logical conclusion. 

If you do you may well conclude that the target of your ire shouldn’t be people who point out the holes in the current counter-factual narrative being spun around why Rangers were liquidated, but those who brought Rangers FC to ruin in the first place.














Saturday, 9 November 2019

A labour of love



A labour of love

Celtic’s victory of SS Lazio in the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday night was one of those occasions which will live long in the memory. Not since the epic events of seven years earlier to the day when a truly brilliant Barcelona side was beaten at Celtic Park has a victory been celebrated so enthusiastically. Of course Lazio are no Barcelona and some of their defending will show you why but that being said, for an SPFL side to beat the fourth placed side in Serie A home and away is no mean feat. Of the 26,155 at the match a good 10,000 were Celtic supporters and they had a ball despite isolated incidents when local cowards used knives to injure three innocent people.

Some have played down Celtic’s achievement but consider Lazio’s performances since losing to Chris Jullien’s towering header at Celtic Park; Lazio have defeated Fiorentina (a) 2-1 Torino (h) 4-0 and most impressively AC Milan (a) 2-1 to record their first win in the San Siro in over 30 years. They sit 4th in Serie A in one of the Champions League positions and have in Ciro Immobile the current Italian national side centre forward. They are no mugs and for Celtic to beat them twice in a fortnight is quite an achievement. Italian Newspaper Corriera Della Serra reported on the night’s events with the following words…

‘N’tcham’s goal unleashed wild enthusiasm among the 9000 Scots who filled the south curve. The north curve was closed for racism and listening to the intensity of the cheering you’d have thought you were in Glasgow. The strong ideological opposition between the supporters of the two teams had moments of tension especially away from the stadium on the night before the game. In the city centre two Scots were stabbed and a German accompanying them. In Trastevere a group of Celtic fans had to barricade themselves in a pub. Police arrested eight: three Scots for resisting a public official and five from Lazio who were found with sticks and knives near the bar.’

Sad as it is that three supporters were injured, the Italian Police were clearly on the ball and prevented further incidents. This is to be praised as visiting supporters have on occasion found the Carabinieri to be just as dangerous as any local hooligans. Predictable excuses from Scottish based tabloids that Celtic supporters were targeted because of the banners in section 111 at the home leg of the tie seemed spurious given the reputation of football fans in Rome for violence. Numerous supporters from Spurs, Liverpool, CSK Moscow and Manchester United have all been stabbed or badly beaten in the Italian capital in recent years. A game between Roma and Manchester United back provided one of the worst examples not only of organised attacks by local thugs on visiting supporters but of the dreadful behaviour of the local Police towards the away fans. One UK reporter wrote about what he had witnessed that night…

‘Eighteen United fans were ambushed by ultras, ten of them were stabbed and another fifty fans had to be bandaged up and repaired after unforgivable scenes when the Police embarked on a military style attack. Their batons hit pretty much everything that moved. Some images show riot sticks being used the wrong way round, heavy handle first, in a way which seems premeditated to cause maximum damage. The Carabinieri that night were having their debrief in the same part of the bus park and we could see them embracing and high fiving. One guy, sweaty and breathless with his helmet tucked under his arm was swishing his baton through the air re-enacting his best shots. His colleagues were laughing and clapping-celebrating it seemed.’

A young female supporter at that game was videoing the police brutality when at least three policemen, faces covered, identification numbers removed from their uniforms punched her and snatch her camera, she is then hit with a baton for no other reason than filming police officers behaving brutally.



It’s perhaps correct given the prevailing culture of violence which hangs around Italian football to say that Celtic’s trip to Rome was relatively speaking trouble free. Perhaps the much reported ‘ideological differences’ between Celtic and Lazio fans meant the Police were well prepared and worked to a plan in order to prevent trouble. They themselves have been under scrutiny after events at the Roma v Manchester United match outlined above and thankfully behaved more professionally when Celtic fans were in town.

It’s a labour of love following Celtic around Europe and something I did more of in my younger days before the demands of work and life curtailed those opportunities. Those supporters who do travel abroad to back Celtic occasionally endure poor treatment in places they visit but  more often than not their infectious good humour and passion for their club makes them friends abroad rather than enemies. There are clubs who have real nasty elements following them, we all know who they are, but Celtic supporters are not generally in Europe looking for trouble although they have in the past responded to violence meted out to them. We saw this in Amsterdam a few years back in the notorious ‘Fenian lamppost’ incident when plain clothes police officers behaved despicably towards visiting fans. Celtic fans abroad may drink a lot and some may be a bit uncouth at times but aren’t generally looking for bother.

Some of the incidents I’ve seen or heard of about Celts on their travels have made me smile. The rush hour commuters on the Brussels underground treated to hundreds of Celtic fans singing ‘Walk with me oh my Lord’ as they headed to Anderlecht. Or the disabled school kids on a cross channel ferry, who initially looked nervous as scores of football supporters entered the lounge. They were soon singing, laughing and sporting Celtic souvenirs as the fans interacted with them. Their teachers were given a good amount of money collected from among the supporters for the children. Then there was Seville. Was there ever a more joyous celebration of what Celtic is all about? The colour, the noise, the sheer good humour of 80,000 Celtic fans there for a fiesta. Their reaction to defeat that night was telling too as FC Porto supporters were applauded on the long walk back to town after the game. Compare that to events in Manchester in 2008.

For younger fans, following Celtic to some European city is a bit of an adventure. You might never go to Romania or Kazakhstan again but you can say you were there backing the hoops. Some funny stories from those travels include the Celtic fan in Germany who was making progress chatting up a young lady in a bar only to find that ‘she’ was in fact a guy. The online banter with Fenerbahce fans when two of their misguided supporters posted threatening pictures with faces covered and cruel looking knives in hand. Celtic fans responded with faces covered pics brandishing everything from a spoon, a packet of Turkish delights, a toothbrush and a hoover. The decent Fenerbahce fans joined in with images of them brandishing items such as hair straighteners, a fishing net and a food mixer. It was good to see two sets of rival supporters using humour to relate to each other. Needless to say Celtic supporters enjoyed their trip to Turkey and there were no problems.



The availability of cheap air travel has made reaching far flung European cities easier for fans than it was in the days when it took 36 hours to reach Madrid on a bus with no toilet. I hope supporters of the grand old team continue to follow their team all over Europe and make friends on their travels. There will be places where caution is required but overall they will find a warm welcome. Tommy Burns once said "When you pull on that jersey you're not just playing for a football club, you're playing for a people and a cause" Most Celtic supporters know that they too are representing Celtic when they travel abroad and keep that in mind. 

Thankfully the vast majority do and impress the locals with their passion for their club and their friendliness. That’s the Celtic way and long may it continue.






Saturday, 2 November 2019

The Green Thread



The Green Thread

There were some interesting online debates this week about the place of politics in football. This was of course stimulated by the incidents which took place when Lazio came calling in the Europa League. Their supporters marched through Glasgow engaging in fascist salutes to rather bemused workers on their way home. At the stadium they were met songs and banners which left them in no doubt what Celtic supporters thought of their particular brand of fascism and racism.

There is no doubt that Celtic’s unique history is one of the factors which makes a large element among their supporters among the most politically aware in football. The community which gave birth to Celtic was in the main, though not exclusively, Irish and Catholic in its make-up and in the early years of the club’s existence there was huge involvement in Irish politics by leading figures at Celtic. It’s not unusual for the first generations of migrant communities to be interested in events back ‘home’ but as time moved on and the Irish became more assimilated in Scottish society their political horizons widened. Of course the songs heard at Celtic games still echo the Irish strand of the club’s identity and probably always will.

Celtic’s identity raised and still raises the hackles of some in Scotland who find any manifestation of Irishness or Catholicism offensive. Few countries in Europe adopted the reformed faith as completely as Scotland did and Catholicism was all but banished from the land, hanging on only in a few Highland and island communities. The influx of tens of thousands of Irish fleeing the horrors of the great hunger caused alarm in some quarters. The vast majority of them would find themselves in the poorest parts of Scotland’s towns and cities struggling to get by but at least there was work for some and a chance to feed their families. Scotland’s dormant anti-Catholicism was revived in a vociferous minority by the sight of these new arrivals and the faith many brought with them.

One of the most visual symbols of that community was the football club they founded to help feed the poor and its meteoric rise to prominence was a source of irritation to many. Some early sporting newspapers yearned for a ‘good Scotch team’ to put the Irishmen in their place. Much of the discourse in the 19th and early 20th century was by the standards of today, racist in its overtones and stereotypes of the ‘feckless and drunken’ Irish abounded. They were less enlightened times although there is little excuse for much of the vitriol which was aimed at Celtic and the community which created and sustained it.

Celtic may have been a symbol of pride to the impoverished and often despised Irish community but it was also an important vehicle in the assimilation of the Irish-Scots. Through education, sport, commerce and old fashioned hard work the Irish in Scotland have rightly taken their place in every strata of Scottish society. The national tartan now has a discernible green thread.

One event which demonstrated the road Scotland’s Catholic community had travelled was the visit of Pope John Paul to Glasgow in the summer of 1982. Scotland’s 800,000 Catholics come from a variety of places and if the Irish formed the bulk then the native Scots, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Italians and many others were proud parts of that community too. Today all of them would describe themselves as Scots, proud of their heritage but also proud of their native land too.

The spring of 1982 was in some ways a tense time. The announcement of Pope John Paul’s visit brought out the best in some and the worst in others. For the extreme Protestants like Pastor Jack Glass it was a chance to stir up old animosities but in truth most Scots of all faiths and none found his ranting to be a little embarrassing and he looked increasingly like a man born in the wrong century. There were protests of course and we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of those opposed to the Papal visit chaining themselves to trees in Bellahouston Park which were to be temporarily removed to allow the expected 300,000 crowd a clear view of events when the Pope arrived. Civic Scotland though was determined that the country wouldn’t be shown up as a backward and bigoted place on the world’s tv screens and the Police dealt robustly with any who went too far. The war between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands threatened to scupper the trip but John Paul arranged to visit Argentina too and all was set for what was to be a remarkable day.

I recall as a skinny lad walking along Paisley Road West towards the park in a great tide of humanity. The sun was shining and there was a feeling of real history being made. Such a visit would not have been possible even just 20 or 30 years previously and for many people it was like a dream come true. Older people in particular were astonished that they were actually going to see the Pope in Glasgow and some were moved to tears. As we walked past certain bars on the journey to Bellahouston there were some less than happy faces hanging around the doorways. One man spat at some nuns and was pounced upon by plain clothes Police officers. Another shouted ‘fuck yer Pope’ and was greeted with smiles and pitying looks. Those incidents were rare though and most people wore smiles on that warm June day.

Bellahouston Park was laid out beautifully and the vaulted blue skies added to what was an amazing scene. Perhaps the largest gathering of people ever seen in Scotland filled the park. When the Pope began to speak he recognised the journey Scotland’s Catholic community had been on and said….

‘We are gathered here on this Scottish hillside to celebrate Mass. Are we not like those first disciples and followers who sat at the feet of Jesus on the hillside near Capernaum? What did Jesus teach them? What does our divine Master wish to teach us, each and every one of us, today?  Dear beloved Catholics of Scotland, the prayers of your forefathers did not go unanswered! Their firm hope in divine providence was not disillusioned! A century and a half ago the tide of repression turned. The small Catholic community gradually gained new vitality. The advent of numerous Catholic emigrants from nearby Ireland, accompanied by zealous Irish priests, enlarged and enriched it spiritually. What was a dream a century ago has become the reality of today. A complete transformation of Catholic life has come about in Scotland, with the Catholics of Scotland assuming their legitimate role in every sector of public life and some of them invested with the most important and prestigious offices of this land.’

The Pope’s sermon was a call for Christian values to be present in the daily lives of believers and he spoke to the wider Scottish community with the following words…

‘Before concluding, I wish to address for a few moments that larger community of believers in Christ, who share with my Catholic brothers and sisters the privilege of being Scots, sons and daughters alike of this ancient nation. I know of the veneration in which you hold the Sacred Scriptures, accepting them for what they are, the word of God, and not of man. I have reserved until now and should like to read to you the remaining words from that passage of Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “There is one body, one Spirit, just as you were all called. There is one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, and one God who is Father of all, over all, through all and within all”

John Paul’s assertion that all Christians have far more in common than dividing them was a telling one and it was noted at the time that the Moderator of the Church of Scotland met him under the statue of John Knox in Edinburgh and addressed his as ‘Our brother in Christ.’ The strident voices of anti-Catholicism were on the wane and despite being given amplification beyond their importance on modern social media continue to wane.

Just as Celtic supporters are proud of the Irish and Catholic roots of the club, and indeed of many of their families, there can be and should never be any exclusivity around Celtic. This is a club for all and it should remain so. Some of the greatest players and greatest supporters of Celtic I’ve had the privilege to watch or meet have been neither of Irish or Catholic extraction. Long may that continue. I would echo the words of Bob Kelly who was asked by a supporter at an AGM long ago if the club should limit the number of non-Catholic players in the side. He replied….

‘It has been the founding Fathers’ doctrine and Club policy that Celtic fields the best possible team regardless of denomination. Non-Catholic’s had throughout the club’s history played their hearts out for Celtic and the policy of the founding Fathers’ would continue! With the new school of youngsters there is no doubt that Catholic youth will show up well and have every opportunity to show its worth but the principle (of a mixed team) will remain the same as always.’

Kelly’s words were greeted by a storm of applause from those in attendance. That is the Celtic spirit; that is the Celtic way. All you need to follow this club is a love of the green. Others have gone down the exclusivist route in the past and its poison lingers yet. To paraphrase John Paul’s sermon of 1982…

There is one club, one support, one people marching forward with hope in their hearts. Amen to that.




Saturday, 26 October 2019

Suits and Soldiers



Suits and Soldiers

Celtic’s tumultuous late win over Lazio on Thursday night demonstrated why there are few places in Europe which can match Celtic Park on those European occasions. The noise which pours from the stands onto the pitch at times is incredible and there is no doubt that it lifts the players to greater exertions. Make no mistake about it this was a victory gained against a streetwise and very professional side who know well how to break up the play and interrupt Celtic’s rhythm. They are also defensively strong and tactically astute so Celtic’s win was earned the hard way. There were times in the middle of the game when Celtic sagged a little but the team never stopped fighting, pressing and harrying the Italians and in the end got their rewards.

The Italian sporting press was generally complimentary to Celtic and their supporters with leading newspaper Gazzetta Dello Sport saying…

‘Before the starting whistle there was a unique show, a display of lights to illuminate the stadium. White and green are the only colours and a shiver runs along your back when the whole stadium raises the scarves and sings ‘You'll never walk alone.’  It was an explosion of emotions that many Lazio people immortalized with smartphones. Then the choreography of the Green Brigade paints area 111, where the heart of the green-and-white fans resides. Then the deafening and frantic scream of Paradise is heard. Not surprisingly one of the three hottest stadiums in Britain.’

The Italian press were quick to pick up on the political nature of the day’s events and most were critical of the ‘Roman salute’ Lazio fans had engaged in as they marched through Glasgow to the stadium. One report stated…

We again saw Roman greetings in Glasgow, before the Europa League match against Celtic. The ultras of Lazio, on the road, were immortalized by a user - who shared the video on Twitter - while they were singing the chorus "Avanti ragazzi di Buda"(an anti-communist song about the Hungarian uprising of 1956) in the city centre. All seasoned with Roman greetings much to the perplexity of passers-by.  What has happened is not surprising, given that the Lazio region has always had the reputation of being linked to extremism on the right.’

The reaction of some Celtic supporters came in for comment too with the ‘Lazio F**k off’ banner and one depicting Mussolini hanging by his feet after his execution by partisans in 1945 particularly prominent. One Italian newspaper said that the Celtic fans obviously knew who was coming to town and were prepared in advance. It was too good an opportunity to miss in terms of demonstrating the anti-fascist and anti-racist sentiment at the heart of the Celtic ultra-culture.

The rise of the ultra -groups among most of the big clubs in Europe combined with the ease of modern communication has meant that fans are much more aware of the political leanings of elements of each club and have developed loose alliances as well as arbitrary lists of those clubs whose supporters think very differently about politics. Thus Celtic’s ultras having fraternal links with the likes of St Pauli, Livorno or Feyenoord but are unlikely to have much time for the likes of Lazio, Hamburg or Ajax. Of course when viewed through a political spectrum such black and white reductionism ignores the fact that all clubs have a wide view of political opinion among their support base. Lazio do have a problem with racism and fascist attitudes among some of their fans but to say all of them are fascists is not borne out by facts. Similarly there are Celtic fans who don’t always agree with the messages on banners they see at Celtic Park. To the unthinking though the messages they see and hear from ultra-groups defines their opinion of a club and all of its fans and that can have consequences.



In two weeks upwards of 10,000 Celtic fans will descend on Rome for the return match with Lazio. It will of course give many a chance to visit a fascinating city and I’m sure places like the Vatican, Colosseum and Forum will see their share of hooped shirts. There will also be a huge police operation to ensure those visiting the city remain safe. Violence is not something Celtic fans go looking for at football, especially their trips around Europe but it is a sad fact of life in Italian football. Tobias Jones, a British author who specialises in writing about the dark world of Italian ultras wrote….

‘As with many Italians, the ultras are fixated on appearance and pageantry; for major games they spend tens of thousands of euros on stadium mosaics, taunts, flags and flares. In that sense the ultra-world seems folkloric; the ultra-world view in Italy is a faux-medieval defence of their ‘campanilisimo (attachment to the local bell tower). In fact many ultras say they care nothing for football, it’s about territorial defence, the colours, the fights and the mentality.’

Italy was only unified in 1871 and remains a country of fierce regional rivalries. This finds expression in football rivalries as well as politics and the many Italian ultra-groups are overtly political. They are also organised on scale as yet unseen in the UK. Some have their own clothing ranges while a few have their own radio stations. Italy’s parliamentary anti-mafia committee concluded that some ultra-groups use ‘mafia methods’ and are involved in petty and serious crime. The head of Lazio’s ‘Irriducibili’ group was recently convicted of dealing hundreds of kilos of cocaine.

Ticket touting is also an issue as some clubs actually give Ultra-groups tickets to keep them ‘sweet’ as they can do without problems with UEFA when they misbehave. One Juventus capo-ultra was said to be making £25,000 a game on tickets given to his group by the club. The ultras make money and the club is untroubled by hooliganism. It’s an arrangement between ‘suits and soldiers’ which seems to suit them all.

The goading and taunting which went on between some Celtic and Lazio supporters at the game last week was a minor distraction to the majority of fans who were there to watch the football. Hopefully there are no problems in Rome when Celtic visit in a fortnight but it is wise for supporters travelling there to be careful and be aware of their surroundings. Spurs fans were attacked there 2012 for being ‘Jewish’ and abhorrent Anne Frank stickers were used to insult rival teams only a year ago. Most Lazio fans will be there for the football but a minority will have seen the display of banners at Celtic Park and will have taken note. This is where fan groups need to be careful with displays as they can cause problems for others who had nothing to do with them.

I hope the match in Rome is remembered for the football, the passion and colour of the Celtic support and nothing else. Well, maybe a good result for the Hoops too.