Saturday, 17 August 2019

A bridge too far

A bridge too far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 9 August 2019

Quid Pro Quo

Quid Pro Quo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 4 August 2019

The strange case of the Carfin Emeralds

The strange case of the Carfin Emeralds

Jack Gillen was born in May 1916 in Moville, Donegal but like many folk from that fine county life was to bring him over the Irish Sea to Scotland. For many it was the allure of work in the mines, factories or fields which drew them, but for Jack it was to work as a Priest among the Catholics of Scotland. It was said that the loves of Jack’s life were his faith, his family, his Parish in Glenboig and Celtic football club. Football played a major part in his life and he organised teams in just about every parish he worked in and would regale folk of the tale of the all-conquering Glenboig St Joseph’s team who had swept all before them in 1947. It transpired one of their players had been economical with the truth about his age and when the football authorities found out they stripped the team of their Scottish cup and banned them from competing in the Lanarkshire Cup Final just a few days later.

Like many an Irishman spending time working outside his native land, he kept in touch and visited as often as his duties allowed. His brother owned a hotel in Moville and by the mid-sixties had organised an annual football tournament for Junior clubs (non-Professional) which was to be called the Kennedy Cup. It was thought that a summer football tournament might attract more tourists to Donegal. The prize money built up as the years progressed until by 1964 the amount on offer was £2000. (£38,000 in today’s money) This of course sparked great interest in the tournament with teams entering from all over Ireland and the UK. It also meant that the Junior clubs involved were not above using ‘ringers’ to improve their squads and as it was played in the summer there were professional players around willing to earn a bit extra by turning out for club’s involved in the Kennedy cup.

Father Gillen was of course well aware of the prize money available to the winners of the Kennedy cup and got thinking of how it might be of great use in his working class parish back in Scotland. A seed was germinating in his brain and he had a host of connections throughout the church in central Scotland who might know of some decent Junior players who might be put together to form a decent team. The decision about what to call the team was perhaps swayed by Father Jack’s knowledge of the area around his church. His parish; St Teresa’s in Newarthill, was but a short walk from the grotto to Our Lady at Cargin built almost 100 years ago by unemployed miners and builders. So it was that the Carfin Emeralds was born and entered into the Kennedy cup in 1963. They did well but didn’t win the cup that year. Perhaps a higher grade of player was required to make them successful the following year?  

The Emeralds of 1964 was to be strengthened by  professional players who had been approached by Father Gillen’s contacts in various churches across Lanarkshire and Glasgow. There was however the problem of professionals being forbidden by their clubs from taking part in amateur football matches in the off season as the risk of injury was obvious. We can imagine the priest’s eyebrows rising when he saw the list of players willing to help him out and play for the Carfin Emeralds in Ireland. Some of the names on the list played for his beloved Celtic.

So it was that in the summer of 1964 one of the stranger episodes in the history of Celtic took place when some of their star players took to Bay Field Park in Moville, wearing a variety of disguises. It is said some wore false beards, wigs and even make up to allay suspicion but Donegal being Donegal there were Celtic supporters in the crowd who would have looked on knowingly. That little winger jinking past defenders looked familiar? In their first game against the Tonnage Dockers, a tough tackling team from Derry they drew 1-1 but the replay saw the Emeralds win 7-3 as they got more used to the conditions. None of the Emeralds’ players were mentioned in press reports of the games as the tournament unfolded by rumours were spreading and the crowds increasing.

A team called the Rosemounts were defeated next as the Emeralds swept into the semi-final where Foyle Rovers awaited. It was a tight game decided by a goal scored by Neil Mochan, by then playing for Raith Rovers and still a very fit and capable player. The Derry Journal had by now recognised some of the players and Haughney, Mochan and Haffey were mentioned by name. As The Carfin Emeralds Lined up to face Manchester Athletic in the final before a large and excitable crowd a photographer caught the moment the Emeralds were being introduced to local dignitaries. When the picture was printed in the paper it was captioned with the words...

“Members of the Carfin Emeralds team, most of whom wore false beards side-whiskers and make-up are introduced to Rev. H Gallagher C.C. Moville before the kick-off.”

The final itself was a triumph for the Scottish side who crashed seven goals past the Manchester side to win the cup. So it was that Father Gillen’s team won the cup and the prize money which was put to good use in his parish and beyond. The team lines of the Carfin Emeralds were conveniently ‘lost’ back in the mid-1960s and we may never be sure exactly which Celtic players took part in the tournament. We might guess the reaction of Jock Stein had he found out that some of his players were  injury by playing in the Kennedy cup.

As for Father Jack, he served several Parishes in Scotland, his last being St Columbkille’s in Rutherglen, before retiring to his beloved Donegal in 1992. He passed away in 1995 and perhaps only he knew the full extent of his use of Celtic players in his team. He may have bent the rules a little but it was for a good cause. Footballers were more closely involved in their local communities than perhaps they are today. In those times if a local Priest asked a player to help out in a charity match or suchlike few would refuse.

It would be hard to imagine a modern day Carfin Emeralds taking the Field with Tierney or McGregor in their ranks. Perhaps the 1960s were more innocent times.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Arguing for our limitations

There’s an old saying which goes; ‘Argue for you own limitations are sure enough they’re yours.’ We who inhabit the clannish and internecine world of Scottish football should heed well those words. For too long we’ve listened to folk from south of Hadrian’s wall tell us that our football is akin to a Pub League and that their product is the best in the world. I have heard more than a few Scottish fans agree with them after some European disaster but that self-deprecating humour Scots are famous for is in no danger of becoming a permanent Caledonian cringe.  

That misplaced arrogance many English commentators and supporters have about Scottish football has become so deeply ingrained that it leads to knee jerk judgements about our game from people who have seldom if ever actually watched a game up here. We’ve all had it on holiday when we’ve been lectured by some ill-informed EPL acolyte about how poor our game is compared to the mighty Premiership. I even had it off a nice chap from Dublin who followed Arsenal. He didn’t see the irony that so many of his ilk following English clubs is actually stunting football in his own country. The island of Ireland has over six million people living on it and yet the top supported club side there, Cork City, averages barely 4000 fans at a home game. Even in Dublin, a city the size of Glasgow, clubs like Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians do well to break 3000 at a home match as does Linfield in the north.

100 miles away in Scotland, a country of similar size we have far higher engagement in domestic football. Celtic and Rangers are among the top 20 best supported clubs in Europe with the hoops 2017-18 average of 57,523 placing them as the ninth best supported club in Europe. Indeed they are just just 6 (yes six) fans behind Inter Milan who sit in eighth place with an average of 57,529. The SPFL is the seventh best supported league in Europe behind the big 5 and the Netherlands. As well as Celtic and Rangers playing to big crowds, we have Hearts (18,336), Hibs (17,964) and Aberdeen (15,633) all playing to decent average attendances. All of this in a nation the size of Sweden where the average top league attendance is just over 8000.

Where Scotland really loses out though is in the revenue television pours into football. If we discount the so called ‘big 5 leagues,’ comparable footballing countries to Scotland such as Portugal, Austria, Sweden, Greece, Norway and Denmark all receive significantly more money for TV rights that the SPFL. Even the BBC stitches Scotland up paying just £2.8m per year for the Sportscene highlights programme. (Gary Lineker earns £1.75m per year for introducing match of the day.) Meanwhile they pay the Premiership in England £68m per year for Match of the day. That is around 24 times the amount they pay for Scottish football. Given that Scotland pays 9% of the BBC licence fee this is hardly equitable. This lack of revenue is what really makes it difficult for Scotland to grow the game and develop the infra-structure such as coaching facilities, modern stadia and indeed a higher ratio of properly trained coaches. In countries such as Holland you fill find all weather football pitches in most towns and villages. In Scotland the few we have for our youngsters are over-priced and often booked out.

All of the above demonstrates that Scotland need not cringe about its footballing pedigree. We have a proud history in the game and our clubs have appeared in 10 European finals which for a small nation is no mean feat. We are the best supported league in Europe per capita and have some of the most committed and passionate fans around. Yes, the game here has its issues but it is nowhere near as poor as some of the ‘my Nan’ brigade down south would have you believe. Their condescension is as old as the game itself and leads to their clubs shopping for players in Scotland as if they were in Poundland.

We saw Arsenal begin their bid for Kieran Tierney, an experienced international and Champions League player at £15m. Meanwhile the same club purchased French youngster William Saliba from St Etienne for £27m. This is an 18 year old player who has played barely 25 competitive matches! This arrogance when it comes to purchasing players from the SPFL was seen when Virgil Van Dijk joined Southampton for £12m three years ago. Are we really expected to believe he improved so much since he left Celtic that he was worth £90m to Liverpool and became Premiership player of the year and a Champions League winner? Of course not; Virgil was an excellent player in Scotland too. We see the same nonsense with John McGinn who was purchased by Aston Villa from Hibs for around £3m. He is currently being touted as a £40m player in the Premiership.

It is to be hoped that Scottish clubs start valuing their players more realistically in the future and stop underselling them. Scottish clubs rely so much on money from the fans and from transfers that they sometimes sell too cheaply. This of course stems partly from our poor TV revenues but also from believing some of the guff written about our game. I watch a fair bit of football on TV and the best matches I’ve seen have not been in the over-hyped Premiership but in our own SPFL. There’s a rawness and an energy to Scottish games which I like and it is more often than not entertaining fare. I have watched Premiership games with hundreds of millions of pounds worth of talent on the pitch and the entertainment value has been dreadful. As Neil Lennon once said, ‘I’ve seen games in England which would make your eyes bleed.’

As a new season gets underway enjoy the football on offer and don’t be sucked into the circle of negativity about Scottish football. It’s been run down for so long that some of our own supporters believe the nonsense written about it. Whether it’s the thunder of an Edinburgh derby, the battles when the big two travel to Easter Road or Pittodrie, the excitement of the play offs or the unmatched passion and noise of a Celtic v Rangers game, our football has much to offer.

Enjoy the new season and hopefully it’s a good one for Scottish football as well as the Bhoys in Green.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

The Right Spirit

The Right Spirit
One of the features of modern football which exasperates me is the culture of diving which has become endemic. There were always players who went down too easily but it has grown in recent decades to become an almost accepted part of the game. In professional sport the prizes for success and the price of failure mean that some players will seek any advantage they can to succeed. Sportsmanship does still exist and even in highly competitive situations you can still find people prepared to play the game in the right spirit.

Celtic’s former chairman Bon Kelly was always very concerned about the club being seen to be sporting and playing the game in the right manner. Sean Fallon recalled being given a win bonus for a match they lost and being told it was because of the manner in which they played the game. Kelly would also tell the players to respect their opponents and accept the Referee’s decisions without complaint. When Jock Stein took over in 1965 he was adamant that he would run team affairs and the notoriously interfering Kelly should stay out of that side of the club. In one of his first big tests, the League Cup Final with Rangers in 1965 he did allow Kelly to address the team. The Chairman told the team to respect their opponents, play fair and remember they were representing Celtic. The pragmatic Stein waited till Kelly had left the dressing room and turned to his team saying, ‘You can forget that crap right now. We’ve been bullied for too long in these games. You let your opponent know he’s in a game from the first tackle.’ Stein wasn’t asking his players to cheat but merely to stop being soft touches. Celtic won the cup that day after a display which combined good football with a more streetwise attitude.

Some of the best examples of sportsmanship over the years have come in moments when players could easily have taken advantage of opponents. You may recall Everton Keeper Paul Gerrard lying injured in the box as a cross came towards West Ham’s Paolo Di Canio; the Italian could have headed for the empty goal but instead caught the ball in order to allow the injured keeper treatment. There was the famous incident in golf’s Ryder cup between Tony Jacklyn and Jack Nicklaus with the score tied and the players level on the last hole of the last round, Nicklaus holed for a par leaving Jacklyn a 3 foot put to ties the tournament. There was huge pressure on Jacklyn not to miss and as he prepared for the crucial put. Instead of making his opponent play the shot, Nicklaus picked up the ball saying, ‘I don’t think you’d have missed it Tony but I didn’t want to give you the chance.’ At such a decisive moment in the tie and indeed the whole competition is was a remarkable act of sportsmanship.

The essence of sport is in fair an honest competition and the Olympics in particular tries to promote these values. In the 1936 games held in Hitler’s Berlin, long jumper Lutz Long was up against Jessie Owens the remarkable American athlete. The American foot faulted twice and was set to be eliminated from the competition if he did so for a third time when his German opponent coached him on how to adjust his run up and not fault. Owens took his advice and qualified for the final. He won the gold medal and Long the silver and the two opponents walked arm in arm around the track laughing and joking together; a fairly symbolic act in a racially tense country at the time. Owens said years later…

"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have," said Owens and they wouldn't be plating on the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment."

Lutz Long was killed in Sicily fighting for Germany in 1943 and is buried there. Owens never forgot him and travelled to Germany after the war to meet Long’s family. They became friends and Owens was best man at Lutz Long’s son’s wedding.

In football, Robbie Fowler of Liverpool was awarded a penalty against Arsenal and to the surprise of everyone in the stadium told the referee these was no contact and he simply slipped. The penalty was rescinded. Such things are rarer these days with many forwards more likely to simulate in a shameless manner and take whatever the referee gives. We see it at every level of football and as youngsters seek to emulate their heroes and I was disappointed to see it in a schoolboy game I watched at the local park.  

One of the features of the recent Women’s World Cup was the much reduced level of simulation in games. It was quite refreshing to watch players compete without much cheating going on. You do get some Managers who will defend their players no matter what. Arsene Wenger was famous for ‘not seeing’ incidents when his players dived or claiming they were ‘avoiding injury’ by jumping out of the way. He’s no mug, he’s simply not one to criticise his players in public.

There will always be cheats in football and to be honest no club can claim to be free from it. Some are more blatant about it and seem to base a lot of their game on going down at the slightest opportunity. PSG’s Neymar rubs a lot of people up the wrong way with his antics while closer to home Kyle Lafferty seems to simulate at every opportunity. The incident where he got Charlie Mulgrew of Aberdeen sent off was a classic example as was Scott Brown’s yellow card when Lafferty rolls about holding his shin when there was clearly no contact. They’re not alone in this behaviour by any means and if it’s ever going to be stamped out (no pun intended) or at least reduced then referees need to issue a yellow card for every clear incidence of it. It should also be dealt with by the compliance officer when appropriate.

As the new season gets underway, I hope it’s remembered for good football, great goals and moments of skill not for controversy over simulation and inept responses to it from officials and the SFA. It’s a part of the game I don’t like and it has in my time watching football gone from a niggling rarity to a fairly common part of the game. Maybe I’m being old fashioned but I’d like to see football clean up its act and games decided on skill, effort and merit not on decisions conned out of referees.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Sword that heals

The Sword that heals

I took a break and drove down to south to visit relatives this past week and was of course aware that Celtic’s first competitive match of the season was due to be played while I was there. Thus I found myself in O’Neill’s Bar in Cardiff where I watched a rusty looking Celtic do a professional job on a fairly mediocre home side. One of the great things about being a Celt is that you’ll find like-minded fans in every major city in the UK and can join them on match days to talk about all things Celtic. Some like me are visiting or passing through these towns while others have made them their home and took their love of Celtic with them. It was nice to see the hooped shirts in that bastion of Welsh rugby and nicer still to see Celtic win.

Being away from Scotland for a week or so meant I missed the ‘celebrations’ associated with the Orange Parade in my home city. I returned to see images of a woman being pushed and spat upon for trying to cross the road and it made for a sorry spectacle in the ‘best wee country in the world.’ Other images showed a band stop deliberately outside a catholic church in the Gorbals to batter out some ditty about the ‘Volunteers of the UVF coming down the road.’  This was no error, they knew they were outside a catholic church and they chose to stop there deliberately and play their tune as their followers danced around on the pavement, singing along.

Canon Tom White, the Priest spat on at last year’s ‘cultural’ event said of the events…

‘The Boyne match on Saturday 6th July 2019 was rerouted by the Loyal Orders but they still insisted on passing a Catholic Church, Blessed John Dun Scotus on Ballater St in the Gorbals. Despite meeting with the clergy from Blessed John Dun Scotus and giving assurance that the Church would be absolutely respected we witnessed yet another Church targeted by mob mentality with complete disregard for the conditions imposed upon their march by Police Scotland and Glasgow City Council. Bands ignored the condition of not playing music within 100 metres of the church with one band, Bridgeton No Surrender, actually stopping very close to the Church and continuously playing despite Police Scotland requesting that they stop. This was accompanied by their followers singing and dancing on the pavement in a mob like fashion.

Canon White goes on to make a very valid point and one which the catholic community in Scotland has been making for a very long time…

‘This would certainly not be allowed if it targeted other minority communities such as Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Gypsy, Roma & Travellers or the LGBTQ+ communities and this is entirely appropriate. I am demanding no more than equality for the minority Catholic community.

Of course the great get out clause for politicians, police and others with the powers to curtail this sorry spectacle is to describe it as ‘sectarianism.’  This catch-all term allows some to dismiss what is in reality ugly prejudice against the catholic community as if it is in some was a problem created by both sides equally. The knee jerk responses we see every year about catholic schools are as predictable as they are risible. They exist all over the world without this sort of nonsense rearing its ugly head. Indeed England has over 2000 Catholic school with 10% of the school aged population attending them with no real bigotry problem. Make no mistake about it; this hatred is passed down the generations from father to son and is not in any way, shape or form learned in school.

If it is to have any future or any say in the public life of Scotland then the Orange Order needs to slay the dragon it created and not try to suggest that a few drunken hangers on are the root of the trouble. It is their bands and members who assault members of the public, play tunes with lyrics about being ‘up to their knees in Fenian blood’ or inviting their fellow Scots to leave the country with the words; ‘The famine is over, why don’t you go home.’ It is the Order which creates the space and the context where some think this is acceptable behaviour. If they really are the benign, Christian group they claim to be then they must surely act to end this yearly embarrassment to themselves and the faith they claim to be upholding. The hatred which swirls around their parades like a bad smell is the polar opposite of what the carpenter from Nazareth taught his followers.

As for our politicians, we seem to lack any with the balls to tackle this problem. It remains an act of cowardice and hypocrisy to allow this poison to be displayed on our streets every year. As Canon White suggests; if this was aimed at Jews, Muslims or other minority groups the jail cells would be full.

I love Scotland; it is a country full of good, decent people who care for their fellow citizens and I want it to become an even better land, a place where open displays of naked hatred are not only frowned upon but challenged by those we elect to represent us. I’m always uncomfortable with the curtailing or banning of demonstrations in a democratic society but the right to demonstrate and the right to freedom of expression must always be balanced against the common good. We are free to believe what we want to believe but we are not free to intimidate, threaten and insult those we dislike.

There is a school of thought that suggests a more violent reaction to these displays would force the authorities to act but that would play right into the hands of the haters who would portray themselves as victims. The dignified silence and unequivocally non-violent approach of the people who protest outside catholic churches is by far the best way to show the behaviour of the bigots in the worst possible light. Martin Luther King knew this and achieved far more through passive resistance than he ever could have by advocating violence. He once said…

‘Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.’

I firmly believe that the vast majority of Scots are embarrassed by this yearly exhibition of triumphalism and bigotry which goes against the values our country holds dear. The mace, which was created for the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament twenty years ago, is engraved with the words; ‘Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and integrity.’ Isn’t it about time we lived up to those values?

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

A turnstile click away

A turnstile click away

From a mile off you could see the floodlights
Illuminating the dark and brooding Glasgow sky
A lighthouse, guiding the people safely home,
From every street in Glasgow they came,
Each soul, a raindrop adding to the river
Flowing inexorably towards Celtic Park.
A small hand seeks the comfort of his father’s
Senses sharpened by his first night match,
The Gallowgate finds its voice as songs
Echo off tenement walls which have seen it all,
From strike, strife and Luftwaffe bombs,
‘What the hell do we care?’ is the refrain,
But they care, by God they care!
This is their team, their colours, their club.
Paradise is a breathless turnstile click away
The multitudes coalesce, become as one,
The great cathedral of football shudders,
As the team appears; gladiators in green,
The emerald turf glistens under the lights,
It has been like this for a century and more,
Since McCallum’s goal first made them roar,
Here Maley, Doyle and Quinn fought the foe,
Gallagher’s feints left defenders chasing ghosts
McGrory, sure of eye and fierce of countenance
Rippled the net more times than memory could recall,
Stein and Tully, Evans too made their mark,
In good times and bad the fans endured,
Stories of heroes and villains are retold
To wide eyed children, food for their Celtic souls
The Gemmell shot, the Johnstone dribble,
Imperious McNeill holding aloft the glittering prize,
Murdoch, a Napoleon in green and white,
Stein, limping away, like a proud father,
McStay, McGrain and others picked up the torch
Carried it proudly into a bold new future,
So too a dreadlocked Swede who grew to love
The green as much as they grew to love him,
The little boy who took his father’s hand
On a dark night so many years ago
Now he walks his own child down those streets
Smiling to see that same wonder he once felt,
Shining in those bright, young eyes.