Saturday, 23 March 2019

Jump the final hurdles

Jump the final hurdles

The bar was crowded and the noise and laughter was seemingly getting louder at the night wore on and alcohol took its effect. One man though sat silently nursing his pint his eyes focused on the man just a few metres away. His gaze was noticed and the man he was staring at and his companions were ready for any eventuality. As closing time moved closer the man made his move; he walked towards the group of friends his hand reaching inside his jacket pocket. As the group tensed he removed from his pocket a union flag and threw it into the face of his intended target. The incident was not reported in the press nor did the man involved make a fuss about it. It was just another day in the life of Neil Lennon.

The above incident took place a few years ago and was one of many involving Lennon in his time as a Celtic player and Manager. His persecution in Scotland still shames the country as did some of the reporting surrounding it. There is no need to recount the long list of assaults, insults, sectarian graffiti and vilification he endured during his years at Celtic. Yes, he is a fiery and sometimes confrontational character, but so too were players like Strachan and Souness and they never endured the off field harassment Lennon did. In that context you’d have to admire his decision to step into the Glasgow goldfish bowl again as Celtic’s interim manager.

Who will be Celtic’s manager next season remains open to debate but Lennon is in the box seat and if he manages to win the Scottish Cup and league title it will be difficult to deny him the job permanently. That being said online debate shows that many supporters are far from convinced he is the man to lead Celtic forward. There has been grumbling about the style of play and seeming inability to put teams away when dominating. Last gasp wins against Hearts and Dundee recently have been cited by some proof the team is labouring but to lay this at Lennon’s door seems churlish as some of the performances the team put in before Rodgers departure were similar in their lack of fluency. Virtually a whole team has been side-lined with injury this season and even a team with a squad as big as Celtic’s would feel the effects of key men being out. This has been particularly true in the engine room of the side with McGregor, Rogic, Christie and N’tcham being out for long spells.

Debate around who should be Celtic’s Manager next season has centred around a few clear frontrunners but then again no one saw Rodgers coming when Dermot Desmond pulled that particular rabbit out of the hat so we can never be sure who the club will appoint. That being said the supporters are fairly split on who should be the next boss. A hard-core remains convinced that Lennon has the passion and know how to lead Celtic to the holy grail of ten in a row. Others cite Marco Rose of Red Bull Salzburg as the man with the know-how and modern ideas needed to not only succeed in Scotland but to begin making a better fist of things in Europe. There is no doubt his RB Salzburg side play against Celtic in this season’s Europa League was impressive but then he is well backed financially and this is allowing Salzburg to dominate domestically and do so playing a quick moving, passing game which when it works looks very exciting. His team defeated Club Brugge convincingly in the round of 32 in the Europa League but were brought down to earth by Napoli though who won 3-0 in Italy. A spirited 3-1 home win wasn’t enough for Salzburg though and they went out. Rose is undoubtedly a good manager with modern ideas. He was well schooled in the German Bundesliga and worked as a coach with RB Salzburg’s youth teams so he knows the game. Tempting him to leave Austria though would not be easy.

Steve Clarke is another mentioned for the Celtic Job and there’s no doubt he has organised Kilmarnock into a stubborn side who seldom crumble in games and give anyone trouble. His much publicised statements about the nature of bigotry in Scottish society would of course mean joining Celtic might well bring him the sort of problems Neil Lennon has endured from the Neanderthal elements in our society. Would he want that? Clarke speaks well and knows how to set up a team to nullify opponents but some argue he can be too defensive minded and this might not suit Celtic’s attacking traditions. Then again some of Celtic’s away displays in Europe in recent years were crying out for a more pragmatic approach. You can’t go toe to toe with teams like Barca and PSG who are among the best in the world at what they do. There are many ways to win a football match and good managers choose the one best suited to the opposition.

Another name mentioned in the context of the Celtic job has been Roberto Martinez and the man who led Belgium to a third place finish in the last World Cup. This is a really long odds suggestion for despite having played for Motherwell in 2001-02 season and having a Scottish wife, he currently coaches some of the best players in Europe and is spared the day to day rigours of club management. It remains highly unlikely he’d swap his current lifestyle for the climate (literal and metaphorical) of Scotland.

Rafa Benitez has been mentioned but again the truck loads of money available in England make a move to Scotland where things are more frugal less attractive. Things are going fairly well for him at Newcastle and I really couldn’t see Celtic tempting him to the SPFL and even if they did would he, like Rodgers before him, soon have one eye of the ‘situations vacant’ down south? David Moyes too is an unlikely shout and would not be a popular choice among most supporters I’ve spoken to. His pragmatic and some argue unexciting style of play would not go down well amongst a support which saw Rodgers develop players and foster a possession based passing game which when it clicked was very good to watch.

There is a big decision ahead for Celtic and I’m sure the powers that be at the club are already weighing up the options and discussing candidates. The suggested £9m pay off they got from Leicester City for Rodgers would go a long way to funding a good quality replacement. Will the club surprise us with an unexpected appointment or stick with a more predictable decision by appointing Lennon or Clarke? Either way with the mystical 10 in a row at stake they need to get it right. Once they do appoint a permanent boss, they need to invest boldly to ensure a once in a lifetime opportunity isn’t lost.  Too often in the past Celtic failed to build on a position of strength.

For now though, we get right behind Neil Lennon and the team as they push for an unprecedented treble-treble.  Thinking too far ahead in football can risk losing focus on the task in front of us though so let’s jump the final hurdles of season 2018-19 and we’ll see what Mr Desmond and the board have in store for us in the summer. With the Champions League Qualifiers in July and a possible shot at 9 in a row in the offing, they’d best get it right.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

A little perspective

A little perspective

When I was a boy I queued outside Celtic Park on a bright August day for a Celtic match against Rangers. The rather inebriated supporter in front of me was told by a Police Officer he couldn’t take a bottle of wine he had into the stadium and that he should put it in the bin beside the turnstile. The chap unscrewed the bottle and drank all of it in two long gulps before throwing the empty bottle in the aforementioned bin and entering the stadium. That scene stuck in my mind all these years and reminded me that the perception of football fans in some corners of society hasn’t altered much since that day long ago.

There has been something of a moral panic in Scottish football after a succession of unsavoury incidents involving supporters of various clubs. Chief among them were the incidents at Easter Road where a bottle narrowly missed Scott Sinclair and then the following week we saw a rather stupid young man run on to the track and kicked the ball away from James Tavernier of Rangers. These incidents and a series of coin throwing occurrences, the most serious of which saw a linesman with a cut head at Livingston, led to the media having a severe attack of hyperbole. No one doubts there has been a spike in poor behaviour from a small minority at Scottish football matches but the reaction from the media and politicians has been over the top.

Football, we are told, needs to sort out this problem or the Scottish Government will have to act. The collapse of the dreadfully crafted and poorly implemented Offensive Behaviour at Football Act demonstrated clearly that Government action has on occasion made situations worse and not better. You can never separate what goes on in football stadiums from the wider society and to imagine that football is a haven for thugs in an otherwise calm society is simply wrong. A look at our city centres when the pubs and clubs close or even some big horse racing meetings will demonstrate that violence and poor behaviour exists well away from football grounds. That is not to excuse it or suggest that it is in any way acceptable but it remains a societal issue and not just a football one.

It may seem unlikely to the middle class hand wringers but behaviour at football matches in Scotland is far better now than it used to be. There was a time when Celtic v Rangers matches would see 200 arrests and degrees of violence in and around the stadium and wider city which today would seem incredible. The drink culture in times past meant far more supporters were drunk at football and many had carry outs with them which left enough ammunition on the terraces for the occasional ‘bottle showers’ I’d see in my youth. In those times some supporters went to the match wearing builders hard hats decorated with club colours to offer some protection as they watched the game.

As early as 1895 there were reports of trouble at Scottish football matches and it remained a feature throughout much of the history of the game. There was serious rioting at a Morton-Celtic league decider in 1922 when locals objected to Celtic fans carrying what the press called ‘Sinn Fein flags.’ Rivets from local ship yards were thrown and fighting spilled onto the field. Of course Celtic Park was closed in the 1940s for a month after serious disorder at a Celtic-Rangers game at Ibrox; this, in spite of the fact that both sets of supporters were involved. The level of disorder at certain football matches in the 1970s and 1980s could be frightening. Rangers supporters caused mayhem in Wolverhampton, Newcastle, Barcelona, Leeds and Birmingham on a scale which would shock modern day politicians. The riot at Villa Park in 1976 saw scores injured and two fans and a Police dog stabbed. One newspaper report said…

‘It is estimated that more than 200 Rangers fans invaded the pitch and running battles broke out on the field with some Villa fans joining the fighting. Two supporters were stabbed during the mayhem. In order to escape the pitch invasion Villa boss Ron Saunders and Rangers counterpart Jock Wallace waved their players back to the dressing rooms and both teams ran towards the tunnel. One witness said: “I have lived here all my life but never have I seen anything like this. They were behaving like wild animals, fighting and running riot all over the place. I was petrified and just didn’t know what to do.”
Of course alcohol played a major part in those events as it would again in Manchester in 2008. When you have thousands of predominantly young men drinking all day there will inevitably be some who behave poorly. Celtic fans had their moments too in that era with the infamous ‘Battle of Turf Moore’ in 1978 springing to mind. 10,000 Celtic supporters headed for Burnley for an Anglo-Scottish cup tie and many had been drinking all day. The violence that night was some of the worst I’ve seen involving Celtic fans. Yes, they were goaded by the usual moronic minority you find in most English clubs support but they responded by going onto the offensive in a pretty brutal manner.
This link between alcohol and trouble at football is a proven one and it is often a major contributing factor. When it was banned from stadiums after the riot at the 1980 cup final there was a calmer atmosphere inside the grounds although certain games still retained the potential for trouble. There was serious disorder in and around Celtic Park when Aberdeen arrived for a cup tie in the mid-1980s for instance and the Glasgow derby still had its usual quota of incidents but the average match was more peaceful. There was still the ‘casual’ culture in which organised groups carried out acts of violence away from stadiums almost as a recreational pastime but it never took root at Celtic although the supporters often had to defend themselves against such groups before and after matches.
The advent of all seater stadiums following the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster was a game changer in terms of behaviour in the stadium itself. Fans who misbehaved were much easier to spot and with most now having season tickets, they risked being banned. That being said, the atmosphere in Celtic Park on the day Rangers won the league there in 1999 was pretty hostile. Again though, the stupid decision to arrange a 6pm kick off time on a Bank Holiday weekend meant a minority of supporters had been drinking too much. The footballing authorities and Police should have told Sky TV that the kick off time wasn’t acceptable but they didn’t and a minority let their passions boil over.
No one is suggesting we accept the coin and bottle throwing we’ve seen of late but a little perspective is required. The Scott Sinclair incident took place in front of a dozen Police and stewards who appeared to be simply standing around watching the game. The Easter Road CCTV was seemingly unable to identify the culprit in a far from full stand. It’s in the interest of all decent fans that the dullards who throw things at football are rooted out but labelling all football supporters as thugs or threatening to close stands and punishing the many for the actions of a few is not on. A degree of self-policing would help too; just as the Celtic support shunned the casuals who attempted to attach themselves to the club in the 1980s, so too fans standing beside those launching things should tell them to give it a rest.
Limited liability has been suggested too as a way forward. Making the home club responsible for all actions which take place in their stadium is a difficult proposition. Those intent on causing trouble will find a way and it’s difficult to see how a club could stop them. Sanctioning clubs for unsavoury songs is another minefield with all the complexity, history and multi-layered identities our fan bases contain. It has been argued that no one was ever injured by a song but they can set the tone in certain games and clearly football clubs would rather the songs their fans sing to be about football.
There has been a gradual evolution in fan behaviour at football matches in Scotland over the decades. The better designed stadiums and the reduction of drunkenness have impacted positively on behaviour at games but in any scenario where thousands of people gather together there will always be a few who don’t know how to behave. Football is a tribal, passionate game which thrives on rivalries and controversy. The challenge is how to keep those more passionate aspects of fan culture while eliminating the less savoury elements. It should never become a sport for the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ as Roy Keane once called the more corporate supporters and I doubt it ever will in Scotland as there remains a rawness and clannish aspect to our game which is being diluted in the ‘tourist leagues’ of England and Europe.
Of course, we all want the bigots and coin tossers to stay away but they are not the norm in our game. Our media and politicians should consider the huge improvements made in supporter behaviour over the years and not use any modern misbehaviour to score petty political points. The vast majority of football supporters are decent and rational people.
There is always room for improvement but we’ve come a long way since the guy in front of me in the queue at Celtic Park drank a bottle of wine in under 30 seconds.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Fog

The Fog

Ian slipped off his Celtic scarf and tossed it into the back seat of the car. He was still on a high from Tom Rogic’s last minute winner in the cup final just a couple of short hours before and he was dying to tell his old man all about it. He walked towards the front door of the unit his old fella called home these day, the Glasgow drizzle failing to wipe the smile from his face. He heard the familiar buzz of the door locking system opening, pushed and stepped inside out of the damp air. It was comforting to know his old man was secure here and unlikely to wander off. He signed the visitor book, smiling at the slightly stern lady who manned the desk, ‘How has he been today?’ She shook her head slightly, ‘asking for Agnes again, Mr Reid. He also got a bit aggressive this morning.’ Ian sighed slightly and walked along the bright, modern corridor towards his dad’s room. This past couple of years had been hard on the family and as in most families the burden fell mostly on one or two members. In the Reid family it was Ian and his sister Cathie who did most of the running. His brother Terry always had something on, always had an excuse.

He had noticed his old man’s behaviour changing in subtle ways over the past few years; forgetting to put on the oven when it was full of food, getting lost on short, familiar journeys. On one occasion he drove all the way to Edinburgh for no particular reason he could recall. He had increasing word finding difficulties and Ian found him looking for what he called his ‘hand clock’ one morning. His moods shifted quickly from calm to angry with no particular trigger they could see and he seemed confused and even depressed some days. When he was ripped off for hundreds of pounds by a con man on the phone, the family persuaded him to see his doctor. He missed the appointment so Ian made another and took him personally to make sure he got there. Doctor Black had been reassuring about what he called the ‘normal processes of ageing’ but quietly told Ian that he suspected it could be early onset Alzheimer’s disease but needed a specialist to confirm it.

The following weeks saw Ian and his father visiting a consultant and after a variety of scans, physical examinations, blood tests and discussions on his symptoms it was confirmed as Alzheimer’s. He remembered on particular day at the hospital when his old man had been asked to draw a clock face with all the numbers in the right place and showing 4 o’clock. He tried so hard but the numbers were jumbled and one was missing. Ian was stunned at the implications, his old man was just 59 but further tests confirmed the doctor’s suspicions. That was two years earlier and things had deteriorated to the point where he needed specialist care and had gone into the secure accommodation.

One thing he did enjoy was talking about football and if his short term memory was poor, his long term memory was a treasure trove of memories about his beloved Celtic. Ian entered the room and saw his old man feet up on the bed reading a book. He looked up and smiled, ‘Ian, son, great tae see ye. Sit doon, yer Ma will be back any minute.’ Ian sat pondering whether to remind his old man that his wife wouldn’t be back at all as she had passed away 3 years earlier. He let it go and said with a smile, ‘Did ye watch the cup final? That was some finish ay?’ His old man shook his head, ‘was that today? Who was playing?’ Ian continued, ‘Celtic beat Aberdeen. Rogic got the winner in the last minute.’  His old man looked confused, ‘I meant tae watch it but I must have forgot.’ Ian noticed a shadow cross his father’s face, he looked a little sad when he was reminded of his failing faculties.

Ian decided to stay on more comforting ground by talking about memories of things long past, ‘Tell me about your first cup final?’ he said with a cheerful smile. His old man put the book down and sat up on the bed, ‘Ah son that a great day. I was just a boy and your old Granda Paddy took me to see the sixty nine cup final. We got the Phil Cole bus in Coatbridge, the singing was grand. Scudded the Rangers four nothing…..’ As he continued his story Ian watched his animated face, happy again reliving days past. It was amazing he could talk about a match from almost half a century before but couldn’t tell you what he did yesterday. They spent a good hour reliving games and incidents from matches they had seen and the adventures they had shared following their team around Scotland.

Ian would tactfully experiment by asking his old man about more recent matches to see if he could recall them. ‘Mind we beat Barcelona? You were going mental?’ His old man smiled, ‘that the night Alan Thompson scored?’ Ian shook his head, ‘Naw Da, Tony Watt and Victor Wanyama.’ His old man thought for a moment, ‘Don’t mind that, son. I must have been working that night’ Ian had sat beside his old man in the Jock Stein stand that night but rather than mention it, he sat on the bed beside him and opened YouTube on his phone and they watched brief highlights of Celtic beating Barcelona from five years earlier. His old man smiled, ‘what a night that must have been. I just don’t recall it son. You know the fog comes down sometimes.’ Ian nodded, his old man often called his absent minded episodes ‘the fog.’ He decided to stay on safer ground and showed him Celtic defeating Leeds United at Hampden in 1970 and again his old man’s face lit up, ‘biggest crowd I’ve ever seen, over 136,000 at that game. Jesus, wee Jimmy was a genius but what about Bobby Murdoch? What a player!’ They talked and laughed together before it was time for Ian to go. ‘I’ll be back tomorrow da, bring ye the papers tae read about the invincible treble winners.’ His old man smiled, ‘Good of ye tae come son. Sorry ye missed yer ma but she takes forever at the shops.’ Ian leaned over the bed and hugged his old man, feeling a little emotional. The man who used to carry him on his shoulders as a lad, who was always so strong, so dependable as Ian grew up was changing. ‘See ye the morra da.’  

Ian drove to the pub; it was after all cup final day and the party would be in full swing. He pushed open the door of the Cross Keys and a wall of noise hit him. The packed bar was a riot of green and white as the locals sang along with a man in a hooped shirt who stood on a makeshift stage, guitar in hand. Through the crowd he spotted his mate Paul Deans, known to one and all as Dixie. Dixie gave him a smile and a clench fist salute. He bought a couple of bottles of beer and squeezed through the throng to his mate’s side, ‘alright, Dixie, you still sober?’ he smiled handing him a beer. His friend grinned, ’Aye mate but no for long. How was your old man? Did he watch the game?’  Ian shrugged, ‘He forgot it was on. Comes and goes mate. Ye know how it is.’ Dixie nodded, his face a little more serious, ‘Aye, it’s tough, mate.’ Before they could continue their conversation the singer on the stage began to play a familiar song and the assembled crowd joined in. Ian smiled at his friend, ‘tonight’s a night for celebrating so let’s just dae that.’ Dixie nodded, he knew Ian would always be there for his old man but tonight he was having a night off. The two friends joined the hundreds of others in the packed bar as they roared out…

‘And they game us James McGrory and Paul McStay,
They gave us Johnstone Tully, Murdoch, Auld and Hay,
And most of the football greats, have passed through Parkhead’s gates
To play football the Glasgow Celtic way.’

For the next few hours Ian made some memories of his own as they celebrated another Celtic victory. He’d go and see his old man again the following day but for now he was happy to be among friends and singing their songs of hope and joy.

Stories that make a difference
Alzheimer Scotland are using our memories of football to improve the life of people with dementia. Whether you know someone who could benefit from attending our meetings, would like to volunteer, donate or raise funds, please take the time to find out more about this ground-breaking work and how to get involved.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

A different song

A different song

Celtic’s dramatic late winner at Tynecastle went down very well with the support, offering a much needed boost to morale following Brendan Rodgers abrupt departure. Neil Lennon led the team to a crucial win after a fairly turgid 90 minutes in which the home side’s physical approach had Celtic struggling to find their fluency. To win at Kilmarnock and Tynecastle in the dying embers of both games is testimony to Celtic’s fitness and mental toughness and augurs well for the business end of the season.

The match of course followed the departure of Brendan Rodgers which took place with indecent haste and caught us all by surprise. There was no little anger at his abrupt departure after spending two and a half years telling us he was a lifelong fan who loved Celtic. That being said, the few less bright supporters who sang that cringe-worthy song about him need to have a good look at themselves. They have to know in this day and age that they’re likely to be filmed doing such things and you’d conclude from that that they don’t care if it ends up on social media or in the tabloids who seem to actively seek out such videos to get more clicks on their advert filled pages. That being said, the vast majority of fans who are angry at Rodgers wish him no ill. It’s time to move on; all managers leave in the end one way or another. It wasn’t his departure which upset many it was the timing and manner of it.

This week has also seen two inquests taking place in these islands. The first is the inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre of August 1971 when members of the Parachute Regiment killed 10 civilians in Belfast. It seems at last the truth may be getting out as it did in the end about the events of Bloody Sunday. Nothing can assuage the anguish of those who lost loved ones but perhaps some truth and recognition of the huge injustice which took place might help them find closure. The other inquest taking place this week is that into the murder of 21 innocent people in the Birmingham Pub bombings of November 1974. There too families have never heard the full truth about what happened that night and justice is a distant hope. Ballymurphy and Birmingham both saw the innocent suffer and nothing is worth the misery inflicted on the families of those involved in these events.

Those of you old enough to remember the troubles will have those events and many, many more etched into your memory. My childhood and adolescence was marked by watching events unfold from afar and wondering how the ordinary folk living in the north of Ireland could live with such stress and such chaos going on around them.

I mention these inquests because again there is a fuss about some Celtic supporters singing Irish rebel songs at matches and they offer a stark backdrop to this. Each person must make his own mind up about what is appropriate at a football match in Scotland in 2019. Some are of the opinion that anything goes in a free society while others find it at best distasteful and at worse cringe-worthy and embarrassing. I know folk online who avoid this subject like the plague despite having strong opinions on it. They feel it’s not worth the hassle of bringing it up as they can be labelled a ‘soup taker’ or an ‘uncle Tom’ and generally find themselves subjected to abuse they can live without.

The football authorities and the Scottish Government are being pressured to act on what takes place in Scottish football grounds. The long standing issue of sectarian singing at Rangers matches appears to getting more flagrant and while many would correctly argue that rebel songs are not in themselves sectarian, the perception that they are is widespread as is the incredulity that football supporters in Scotland should be singing such songs in 2019. The arguments for singing such songs are usually about ‘expressing cultural identity’ and it’s countered by many who say express all you want, just not in a football stadium.  

Journalist, Tom English, himself an Irishman was challenged to spell out which songs are sectarian and replied, ’Roll of honour, sung endlessly by those clueless morons in the Green Brigade, celebrating men who targeted and killed Protestant civilians, including two babies.’ These are harsh words but that is the perception many have about singing IRA songs at Celtic matches. Journalists who criticised the behaviour of football fans and call for strict liability are accused of selective hearing and subjected to a tirade of ‘whataboutery’ which circles around meaninglessly instead of people actually stopping to think and engage with the issue. Of course supporters of several clubs have an issue to sort out regarding their songbook but the two Glasgow clubs dwarf the opposition in Scotland in terms of support and the issue is magnified with them.

I’m not telling anybody what they should do or what they should sing at a football match. That is up to each and every individual to decide for themselves. I am though laying out how it is perceived and damage it can do to a club like Celtic’s reputation. It hands those with no love of Celtic a big stick to beat the club with and the excuse they crave to lump Celtic supporters together with the worst elements at Ibrox. The old ‘two cheeks of the same arse’ argument does the rounds again and the lazy ‘Old Firm bigotry’ stories roll in the media again. That is so unfair to the vast majority of Celtic supporters who don’t have a bigoted bone in their body and want their club to be an inclusive and open organisation which lives up to its founding principles.

I’ll leave you with the words of, Briege Voyle, whose mother Joan Connolly was killed in the Ballymurphy massacre in 1971…

 ‘Everybody’s pain is the same. A soldier gets shot, his parent’s, his family’s pain is the same as mine. What makes people think that their pain is any worse than mine or any less than mine? We’re all suffering the same thing. So the truth needs to be told. That’s the only way you can draw a line under the past; tell the truth.’

People in the north of Ireland are slowly trying to draw a line under the past and trying to build a better future for all the people living there. The horrors of the past haunt so many and truth and healing are needed if that better future is to become a reality. I hope the families of the victims of Ballymurphy and Birmingham find some closure and perhaps some truth. 

In the end violence begets violence and the innocent suffer. Perhaps it’s time we sang a different song.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Long live the King

There is no perfect time for a manager to leave a football club but Brendan Rodgers’ decision to walk out on Celtic at such a vital time of the season leaves a sour taste. He was always going to head by south eventually but the manner of his leaving flies in the face of so much of what he has said during his time at Celtic. I can only surmise Leicester played hardball and told him it’s now or never. Such is the nature of professional football in the modern era, we move on quickly. There is a title to be won, a cup to be fought for and the best support in football waiting to be inspired.

I won’t be giving Brendan a hard time as I’ve seen it all before but it does still rankle that he could have taken Celtic to another level. Whether he lost patience with a board which allowed talent like Dembele and Roberts to go without adequately replacing them or whether they lost patience with his spending on players who haven’t exactly set the heather on fire, we’ll never know. What we do know though is that he gave us seven consecutive trophies and a hat full of memories. He brought organisation and self-belief to the team with many players showing huge improvement under his control. Some of the triumphs he engineered will live long in the memory; from the demolition derbies (5-1, 5-0, 4-0, 5-1) to the last minute cup triumphs, it was and remains a great time to be a Celt. History will record he performed exceptionally well in domestic football although he presided over some humiliations in Europe. Losing so heavily to PSG and Barcelona was one thing but that Red Imps result was appalling. Less than a year ago he said…..

"If you're happy, ultimately that's all that matters. The money's irrelevant. You can have 'X' amount of pounds in your bank every month but if you're not happy and you're not finding peace in what you're doing, it doesn't really matter. I love the Premier League, the quality of the players, the quality of the coaches. There are great challenges. But there are arms and legs flying off managers down there. You can come here and my genuine love is improving people and making them better, helping the club improve and getting the chance to develop and win things. I came here because I was asked by the major shareholder, Dermot Desmond, to be the architect of the club. I don't have to control absolutely everything because it is very difficult to do that now in the modern game. I don't need that. Celtic is one of the great clubs of the world. There's a pressure here that's different. You have to win every game. There's not a club in England that has that. I'm in a position where I'm in my dream job. As a guy from Northern Ireland who supported Celtic and worked in football, I'm living my dream here. There will be a time at Celtic where I’ve done everything I possibly can here and between the club and I, we will look at it and see where we’re at. I have to do the best with the resources we have here. That’s not a lack of ambition. That’s me at a club where I have a sense of happiness every day."  (March 2018)
He was always likely to head back south again but most of us thought he’d do it in the summertime and not leave the club as it gears up for the run in to a possibly historic season. That will annoy many but when the dust settles we all know it’s done and we need to move on fast and get on with the game. No one is bigger or more important than the club and we’ve survived worse.

I’ve seen a few Managers come and go in my time following Celtic. Stein’s shabby exit in 1978 was probably the worse example of the board mishandling a delicate situation. Others such as Barnes, Mowbray, Brady and Macari didn’t quite fit and left in due course to various levels of relief among the Celtic support. Tommy Burns and Billy McNeill found their employers less than patient when demanding success and they were harshly treated in the end. The fans loved them though and will always hold them in their hearts. Wim Jansen stopped the Ten and then wandered off leaving Celtic supporters to wonder why we always squander strong positions instead of building on them? Ronny Deila was perhaps one of the few who left in a dignified way and history might be kinder to him than many fans were during his tenure.

Neil Lennon steps into the dugout with the opportunity to clinch the title and cup which he knows might put him in a strong position to get the job permanently. Others in the frame will of course be the likes of Steve Clarke and an outsider like Red Bull Salzburg’s Marco Rose but should Lenny perform well and bring home the Treble, few would be anything other than delighted to see him become permanent boss.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Lennon left in 2014 as the club sold good players like Hooper and Wanyama without adequately replacing them. He was deflated by Celtic’s seeming lack of ambition. Striker Georgios Samaras hinted at the time that decisions about who went and who arrived weren’t always the Manager’s….

“I cannot lie to the people. I had a chat with the manager. He would have loved me to stay at the club. But me and the gaffer, we don’t make the decisions – there are people above us who make the decisions and they never approached me.”

But Lennon is perhaps arriving at Celtic at a good time. Few Celtic Managers have arrived with the club so far ahead in the league and so financially robust. He has a good squad to work with and has learned on his travels that to be successful in professional sport takes steely determination and organisation. He will be tested with trips to Edinburgh coming up which won’t be easy bit he’ll relish the challenge.

There is much anger at the way Brendan Rodgers exited the club he professed to love but I’m philosophical about such things. He’s an ambitious guy who brought us great success and left the club in a better position than when he found it. Finances will always constrain Scottish clubs from reaching the highest level in Europe but then for all their money, Leicester will never have a history like Celtic.

When all is said and done though, players come and go, Managers too but the supporters remain constant. We’re in it for life and as Tommy Burns said, ‘they’re there and they’re always there’ and as long as that remains the case Celtic will be fine. There is much to play for this season and it all begins tomorrow night. Once the whistle goes and the match begins so too will a new era for the club. The Rodgers era is over and by God it was good but all things come to an end. It’s up to Neil Lennon now to drive us on to more success.

The King is dead, long live the King!

Friday, 22 February 2019

The Dark Ages

The Dark Ages

This has not been a good week for Scottish football nor indeed Scottish society. The ignorance and bigotry which scars the footballing rivalry of the country’s two biggest football clubs has dragged the game through the gutter again. Steve Clarke, the manager of Kilmarnock, was subjected to sectarian abuse at Ibrox during his side’s Scottish Cup tie and said during a somewhat emotional press conference after the match…

"When I was approached by Rangers about taking over the job here I was assured that 'we don't have that in the west of Scotland any more. It's gone. They can call me a bastard or a wanker. No problem, thanks, guys. But to call me a Fenian bastard, come on. Where are we living in, the Dark Ages? They are not allowed to call my assistant a black bastard but they can call me a Fenian bastard. What are we doing in Scotland? I wake up every morning and thank Chelsea for coming and taking me away from the west of Scotland because my children don't understand this. Thankfully when I go down there my children, my grandchildren don't have to worry about this."

Clarke has been refreshingly honest and direct since returning to Scotland and has had the balls to hold a mirror up to the unacceptable face of Scottish football and ask us what we see. The events at Ibrox may have been depressingly predictable but nonetheless we owe Clarke a debt of gratitude for saying; hold on, what are we doing here? Is this being accepted as normal in 2019?  It is deplorable that Keith Downie of Sky Sports reported his statement as an ‘astonishing rant,’ when in reality it was a brave man calling out bigotry.

Reaction to events at Ibrox also came in depressingly predictable form as a storm of ‘whataboutery’ on social media drowned out the voices calling for change. It was, according to some, the fault of everyone from the SFA to the police and of course the denominational school system. In reality it is the personal responsibility of every single adult who engages in bigoted chanting. Every large football club has its share of fools and knaves following it and the club I hold dear is no different. There is no moral high ground from which to pour scorn on the bigots at Ibrox when some in the Celtic support behaved in a similar manner towards Kris Boyd at Rugby Park. I know this makes for uncomfortable reading to the vast majority of decent Celtic supporters who don’t engage in such chants but it has to be said, it was and remains hypocritical to engage in the very thing you claim to despise in others. There are very real issues about historical and current prejudice Catholics have had to deal with in Scotland but the moronic minority among the Celtic support give a cheap and easy get out of jail card to those in the media who like to say it’s both sides of the coin; both as bad as each other and thus avoid tackling head on the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice which still lingers in the dark corners of our society.

Catholic Schools, as usual, were held up by some as the reason for prejudice in Scottish society despite no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. Anti-Catholic prejudice in Scotland is centuries old and existed long before Catholic schools did. I did my final thesis at University many years ago on the subject of denominational schools in Scotland and interviewed people as wide ranging as Cardinal Winning and Jack Ramsay the then Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland. My historical research explored incidents such as the Gordon riots of 1780 when Parliament sought to reduce the level of official prejudice against Catholics set out in the Penal laws. This led to serious rioting by anti-Catholic mobs in London which soon spread to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Such was the fury of the mobs seeking to halt the lessening of Penal laws against Catholics that one historian spoke of events in Edinburgh with the following words...

‘From Bishop George Hay we have eyewitness accounts of the disturbances in Edinburgh in early February 1779, written a week later. He begins by saying that Roman Catholics had been forced to stay indoors as their appearance in the streets of Edinburgh would be met with calls of ‘Here is a papist, there is a papist, knock him down, shoot him. The mob soon returned to Bishop Hay’s new property in Trunk’s Close. They attacked the outer door with stones and hammers. They forced the doors and in a moment the house was full of rioters. Using stones and hatchets, they began breaking all the doors, cupboards and drawers. By now a huge crowd had surrounded the house and all its approaches. The cry went up to set fire to it immediately. Straw, tar barrels and other combustible materials were placed in all parts of the house. Before 10 o’clock that night, the whole house and most of the furniture, which belonged to the five families that lived there, was reduced to ashes. The mob expressed their delight with shouts of glee—their only regret being that they did not have one of the priests to throw into the flames.’
All of this was going on in Edinburgh long before Catholic school existed in any real form in Scotland. One historian noted that in 1790 there were just 39 recorded Catholics in Glasgow while simultaneously there were 43 anti-Catholic societies! The Orange Institution was introduced to Scotland by soldiers returning from fighting in the 1798 Irish Rebellion and found a fertile soil in which to grow. It is long past its peak but still offers a focal point for bigots despite their protestations to the contrary. I could continue in this vein but the point was to demonstrate that historically and indisputably anti-Catholic prejudice in Scotland far outdates Catholic Schools. Indeed in post reformation Scotland barely 1% of the population held onto the old faith and that was only changed by the arrival of thousands of Irish migrants in the years after An Gorta Mor.

It is also a matter of historical record that the success of the new ‘Irish’ club Celtic in late Victorian times led many in Scotland  to lament which Scottish club would put the ‘Irishmen’ in their place. Celtic’s strong links to Ireland and Catholicism touched a raw nerve for some in Scottish society and the club suffered prejudice from the start. Indeed their inspiration Hibernian FC, were denied entry to the Scottish game initially on the grounds that they weren’t a ‘Scottish club but an Irish one.’ As it transpired Rangers grew to be the main challengers to Celtic and around them gathered many decent supporters but also many who saw the club as a bastion of Protestantism and Unionism. Thus was born one of sport’s most eager and bitterly contested rivalries. Celtic had from earliest times played a mixed team but in the years after World War One Rangers avoided signing Catholic players. This situation continued until 1989 when Mo Johnstone joined Rangers in the Souness era. Scottish society and indeed the League and SFA should have had the moral courage to challenge Rangers on this blatant bigotry but instead they ignored it and in doing so gave it tacit approval. In discriminating in this manner, Rangers were mirroring what went on in other spheres of Scottish life at the time but it soon became a millstone around their necks as once the club attracted the more strident bigots to their support, it became impossible to get rid of them when more liberal days dawned.

The Church of Scotland debated the expulsion of Irish Catholics from Scotland in the 1920s and by the 1930s serious rioting occurred in Edinburgh when a Catholic Eucharistic Conference was being held in the city. Priests were assaulted and Catholic churches vandalised before the Provost sent in the Police to break a few heads and make arrests. He said at the time…

‘The sectarian spirit is a heady thing and some people seem to have lost their moral and mental balance over this subject. Every honest minded British citizen deplores Jew baiting in Nazi Germany, we want no baiting of Roman Catholics here. There is enough ill will in the world, even in our own country, without adding the fires of religious fanaticism to it.’

Nothing occurs in a vacuum and the situation we find ourselves in today is simply the next phase of a deep rooted problem that is, despite all the chatter, receding with every passing year. Many of those posturing and chanting at football matches are not particularly religious rather they are engaging in tribalism and empty gestures. A more dangerous minority does exist though and the sort of virulent hatred they have been taught needs to be rooted out. Education is part of the answer but when this fails the full force of the law should be brought to bear on those who go too far. Some zealots may be beyond redemption but the new generation must be taught a better way.

It is the task of everyone involved in Scottish football to help educate those who behave poorly at football matches to see that they not only damage the game but also the reputation of the clubs they claim to love. I accept that everyone has the right to believe in whatever political or religious ideology they want but there should be no scope for the expression of hatred or bigotry in a public arena like a football stadium. If it does rear its ugly head then the sporting and governmental authorities have a duty to act. For far too long we have accepted behaviour in football grounds which would be considered out of order anywhere else. I’m all for rivalry and passion at football but I’m also for leaving the politics, prejudice and other baggage at the door. We can be so much better than this. It’s up to the decent fans at all clubs to speak up and tell the bigots and racists that they belong in the dustbin of history.

Steve Clarke held up a mirror to the face of Scottish football and it wasn’t a pretty sight. We can wring our hands and then when things die down allow it all to go on as before or we can try to be an influence for change in our society and tell the bigots their time is up.

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

The Screamer

The Screamer

Have you ever had a screamer behind you at the match? You know what I mean; someone who spends 90 minutes screaming out utterly inane drivel in the general direction of the playing field in a high pitched, screeching voice? Sometimes it’s a man and sometimes it’s a lady but always it’s annoying. I and those around me had to endure a fairly inebriated female screamer during the Celtic v Valencia match and it didn’t improve our mood as the hoops stuttered to a deserved defeat. ‘Hit the fuckin’ baw!’ she shrieked early in the first half in a voice akin to someone drawing their nails down a blackboard. ‘McGregor, fuckin’ deck him,’ she screamed from just behind me as she advised our midfield General on his next move. It would be fair to say this lady had more shots than Celtic on Thursday night as this tirade of bizarre advice continued. ‘Get Rogic oan!’ she demanded of Brendan Rodgers despite the fact the Aussie is injured and sitting in the stand. ‘Ref, that was a corner, ya blue nosed bastard,’ she called in the general direction of Romanian Referee Ovidiu Hatigan.

All of this can be a bit wearing as it goes on minute after minute throughout the game although some of the folk around me found some of it amusing. One mumbled to his friend, ‘Find a woman who loves you like she loves Buckfast.’ Another said, ‘I’m off tae the snack bar, anybody want anything?’ To which his companion replied, ‘Aye see if they’ve got ear plugs.’ The screaming was one thing; the solo singing was quite something else. She was 20 minutes early with, ‘In the heat of Lisbon,’ and gave a bizarre rendition of ‘The fields of Athenry’ containing words she must have written herself. It all added to a challenging night in the North stand as the team faltered yet again in Europe.

There was a feeling of déjà vu in the air as Valencia defeated a Celtic side which seem determined to play the passing game Rodgers likes so much. I don’t fault the manager for sticking to his footballing principles as all the successful European teams play keep ball but then most of the successful teams in Europe are much better at it than Celtic. It’s to be expected that the elite teams from the rich leagues who roam the world in search of the best players will be too potent for Celtic to handle. Yes, the occasional victory over one of the big boys is possible but in general the gulf between the top teams in the big leagues and Celtic is a big one.

That being said, financially Celtic have in recent years been on a par with teams like Valencia and Red Bull Salzburg,  who have built solid, efficient teams who play with assurance and pace. Why then have both of these sides defeated Celtic without much trouble?  It’s down to more than money as Celtic turned over more than both clubs last year. Perhaps it is the footballing culture in countries like Spain which seems to develop players who are technically gifted and very comfortable on the ball. They also play the same way from the time they are coached as children, through the various youth ranks and on to the senior game. It is also easier to attract good footballers to La Liga than to the SPFL and it remains the top league in Europe despite what our English cousins think. The high standard in Spain demands that clubs such as Valencia play at a high level of competition every week. Celtic on the other hand is not tested in the same way, especially at home.

That being said, Celtic could have and should have been much better against Valencia. It’s the same story every year, sloppy defending, poor ball retention at key times and a lack of concentration. Both Valencia goals were soft; the first- a half arsed attempt at an offside trap- was really poor. The second saw a player run virtually unchallenged into the six yard box where he volleyed home with depressing ease. These goals had nothing to do with money, nothing to do with superior technique but everything to do with poor concentration and dreadful positional defending.

There is a school of thought which suggests that supporters should accept that Celtic will succeed domestically but generally fail in the group stages or knockout rounds of Europe’s elite competitions. One fan commented to me at the match, ‘This is all a bonus; I just want to do 10 in a row.’ We all want to see the ten done but you can’t help feeling Celtic should be so much better in Europe. Gordon Strachan’s side of a decade before were defeating top teams at Celtic Park and doing so with players which were, with a few exceptions like Nakamura, not superior to today’s side. He did it by being pragmatic about the tactics he used. He wouldn’t go toe to toe with a side which was clearly superior, he’d work out tactics to get behind them and make it difficult for them. Rodgers side seem averse to playing the odd long ball to turn the opposition defence and get our faster players running into space. Celtic had 62% possession against Valencia but most of it in areas which didn’t hurt the Spaniards. They simply waited for Celtic’s passing to break down and hit them with fast counter attacks. It wasn’t tactical genius, it was simply a case of looking at how Celtic play and setting out a game plan to nullify it. It worked as their goalkeeper hardly had a save to make all night and their forwards had twice the amount of attempts at goal on 38% possession than Celtic managed with 62%. It was never going to be easy against a Valencia side that held Barcelona to a 2-2 draw recently but you did troop out of the stadium feeling Celtic remain an enigma in Europe. The team is capable of more than we saw in that match but for whatever reason just didn’t play well.

Unless we see a minor miracle in Spain next week Celtic will be left to deal with domestic matters in the final phase of the season. We’ll all be delighted of course should they manage to win more honours this season. Rodgers’ domestic success is enough for some fans though, who sense that European football has moved on so much in recent years that teams like Celtic will likely always struggle against decent European sides. I tend to think we can and should be putting together a side capable of at least giving the better European sides a game. Too often we have gifted cheap goals in Europe and convinced ourselves the opposition was just too good. Sure, sides like PSG, Barcelona or Bayern will usually be too strong for Celtic but teams like Valencia, Zenit St Petersburg and a host of others who haven’t had to work too hard to beat Celtic in recent years should not be unbeatable.

It’s about adopting more pragmatic tactics, concentration, avoiding stupid mistakes and above all showing up and doing a good job on the night. Too many players were below par and seemingly lacking confidence as the game panned out and that is a recipe for defeat. This isn’t inevitable and we have seen Celtic build decent teams which competed well with top European sides in recent decades. We should never settle for just making up the numbers and a ‘happy to just be here’ attitude to European competition. 

A club like Celtic should be ambitious and able to field a team capable of doing better than we currently are. Even the ‘screamer’ would agree with that.