Saturday, 18 January 2020

The hell where youth and laughter go

                                                                Glasgow 1916

The crowd was pressing in on all sides and there was an enormous din echoing around the great cavern of Glasgow Central station. It was as if half the city had come to see off the khaki clad sons of the city who were making the long journey south by train before embarking for France and then on to the ominous battlefields which had already claimed so many. Agnes Murphy craned her neck to see if she could catch a glimpse of her son Thomas but the milling crowds around the platform meant that it was all but impossible to see the men loading onto the train with their equipment. He was there somewhere, having completed barely a month’s training before the regiment was ordered to France. Somewhere out of sight  a piper was playing and the melancholy sound echoed around somewhere above the heads of the throng besieging the platform. It sounded like a lament to her, a sad, plaintive cry for those about to be put to the test in Flanders. She sighed, hoping that she would see her firstborn boy again and that God would spare him from this awful war which had claimed so many      already. At long last a shrill whistle blew and train doors were slammed. There were some cheers and a few tears as the train began to move. From every window of the train, heads stuck out calling their farewells to wives, mothers, sweethearts. How many of these fresh faced , smiling lads would not return home?  How many would find their final resting place far from those they loved?

As she turned to leave the station she saw her employer, Mr Fleming, regarding her. She cleaned his house every week and knew that he too had a son off to war. ‘I take it your oldest boy is off to France too, Mrs Murphy?’ He said in that educated accent of his which was neither Scots nor English       but        some quaint combination of both. ‘Aye Mr Fleming, my heart is sore at the parting.’ He nodded sympathetically, ‘it’s a bad business but I suppose they must do their duty to King and country.’ She nodded sadly, ‘there’s no choice in the matter now they’re conscripting our boys. The old men start wars and the young men have to fight them.’ There was a moments silence as they regarded each other before Mr Fleming spoke, ‘well good luck to you and to your boy. I hope you’re reunited when this sorry mess is over.’ She offered him a weary and worried smile, ‘Thank you Mr Fleming. I hope that your son too returns safe and sound.’ With that they parted and Agnes made her way through the busy station alone with her thoughts and worries.

It was three weeks before the first letter from Thomas arrived at Agnes Murphy’s crowded single end in the grimy Carlton district of Glasgow. Getting a letter was a rare event for families like hers so her five young children gathered round as she read Thomas’s reassuring words. He was well and hoping it would all be over soon so he could get home to see them all again. He asked how the Celtic were doing and told his mother not to worry. He was a good son and wrote to her every week. He even arranged for her to receive most of his army pay and if it wasn’t much it was still very welcome to a widow woman bringing up five children on her own. As spring turned to summer Thomas hinted of a ‘big show’ coming up which he hoped would end the war. She received a letter from him on the last day of June saying he was moving up to the line and then there was an ominous silence. Three weeks passed without any word from Thomas and she would scan the stree below her flat looking out for the postman. He would glance up at her window and shake his head indicating there would be no  mail that day.  It was on a wet Monday at the end of July when she saw the postman enter the close. ‘Thank God,’ she thought, ‘a letter from Thomas.’

The postman didn’t meet her eyes as he handed over the buff coloured envelope. He had delivered literally hundreds of these letters around Glasgow and knew they brought bad news. ‘Agnes Murphy looked at him mystified before realisation sunk in. ‘Oh God, no!’ She mumbledas she took the envelope in her trembling hand, tears welling in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry Mrs Murphy,’ the postman said in a sad whisper before turning and leaving her with her pain. She walked in a daze through to the modest little room which served as her living room and bedroom and  sat on the box bed which was built into a recess in the wall and stared at the official looking envelope. On the wall above her bed an image of Jesus, hands outstretched showing the marks of his crucifixion, gazed at her in sympathy.                                          She opened the envelope and began to read the typeface on the cream coloured paper... ‘Dear Mrs  Murphy we regret to inform you that your son Private Thomas Murphy was wounded in action on the Western front....’ Her heart leapt ‘wounded! Then he’s alive. My darlin boy is alive!’ She continued reading and saw that he’d be returning home the following week. The letter didn’t say how badly Thomas was hurt but at least she’d be seeing him again. In the days that followed she spoke to the local coal merchant who agreed to bring one of his carts to the railway station to give Thomas a lift home should he be as she expected incapacitated.

The days dragged past until it was time to return to the same railway station she has gone to to try and wave her son off. There was no cheering throng this time though. Just a morose, worried looking group of people waiting for their sons, husbands, brothers. In the distance a train whistle sounded and a wheezing old engine slowly drew up a the platform dragging behind it a long line of coaches and several cattle trucks at the rear. The men who got off the train were not the cheerful youths of six months earlier. Many looked haunted, thin and grimy. Some of the kilted soldiers were trying to smarten themselves up before seeing their loved ones. They combed their hair and helped each other with their tunics and caps. A few were using candles to burn lice out of the pleats of their kilts. Long moments passed before their officers allowed them to move forward to the gate to embrace their families. Agnes asked a soldier who passed her where the wounded men were. He told her the worst of the wounded were in the cattle trucks at the rear. She hurried along the platform to the first carriage and asked a seargent there where she might find a Thomas Murphy. He checked a list he carried before calling over an orderly. ‘Take this lady downstairs, McLean and be quick about it.’  She followed the man through a doorway and down some musty smelling stairs to a large poorly lit corridor. A pungent smell assaulted her nose as she turned to face a scene she had not envisaged in her worst nightmares. Laid out on the floor of the passageway were around forty stretchers. All of them contained a soldier completely covered in an  army  blanket. Some of the blankets were smeared red with blood. She turned to the orderly confused, ‘but my son is wounded. He’s not dead, he’s injured.’ The soldier looked at her, dead tees, ‘we lose forty or fifty of the wounded on every train journey north. Your boy will be here. I’m sorry.’ With that he left her in a corridor deep under the railway station among the dead.

Agnes Murphy looked at the soldier standing to her left who seemed to read her thoughts. ‘You need to look for your son. Then you can take him home.’ She was horrified, ‘what?’ ‘You need to lift the  blanket back and identify him before we can release the body. A lot of them have lost their identity tags.’ Agnes’s Murphy tasted hell that day beneath Central Station as she looked at the faces of the dead. Some seemed to be asleep, at peace. Others, faces set in terrified grimaces lay in the gloom shorn of all dignity. At last she eased the blanket back on one of the stretchers and saw the familiar face of her son. She gasped, ‘Oh Thomas my boy, what have they done to you?’ She sat on the cold ground beside the stretcher and cradled his head in her lap.

The above fictional story was inspired by my recent tour of Central Station in Glasgow. The temporary mortuary under the station was real enough in Wolrd War One as was the callous way the government of the day treated those who fought and died in their wars.

Siegfried Sassoon...

And you smug crowds with kindling eye
Who cheers as soldier lads march by
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go....

Saturday, 11 January 2020

252 Steps to Heaven

252 Steps to Heaven

Tony Bradley puffed as he continued his inexorable climb up the steep hill. ‘How many steps is it Cathie?’ he asked his diminutive wife who was demonstrating that determination she usually showed when bargain hunting around the shops or dealing with the council. ‘Two hundred and fifty two, Tony and we’re not stopping till we reach the top. There’s a queue behind us so stay oot ay that back pack.’ Tony’s eyebrows rose a little, how the hell did she know he had a half bottle of Bells in his backpack? His wife was a great loss to the KGB, he mused. She knows bloody everything. He glanced behind him to see people older than him struggling up the stairs and one young person who appeared to be doing it on her knees. With that sort of determination on display he knew he’d push on and make it to the top. Even at 60 and with his dodgy knee aching he would push on. He had his pride.

As Tony climbed the stairs in the heat of an early summer day in southern France, his mind wandered to thoughts of home. When Cathie pushed him to come with her to Lourdes his beloved Celtic were well out of contention for the league title. It had been a wretched, inconsistent season where moments of brilliance were often followed by poor displays. Hibs had knocked Celtic out of the cup after some calamitous defending and Hearts had powered to a strong position in the league so he had agreed to come to France. As spring arrived Celtic had finally found their form. A 4-4 draw at Ibrox was followed by seven straight wins which meant the final league match of the season at Love Street saw Celtic in with a slim chance of winning the title. It was slim, unlikely even, Tony mused but it was a chance. They needed Hearts to lose at Dens Park and Celtic to win well at Love Street. How he wished he was there with his son Sean and his brother Frankie.

At that precise moment, almost 2000km North West of Lourdes Sean Bradley poured the cool, amber lager down his throat feeling that familiar tang as he did so. The first pint of the day always tasted best. The pub by Gilmour Street station in Paisley was filling up with Celtic fans ahead of the final match of the season. They had travelled more in hope than expectation but the dull, damp weather couldn’t stop them hoping for a minor miracle. ‘My auld man will miss the game the day.’ he said above the noise of the bar to his uncle Frankie who was looking at his Guinness as if it were the love of his life. ‘Aye, Sean. Whit possessed him tae go tae bloody Lourdes?  Sean shook his head, ‘my maw talked him intae it. She’s always wanted tae go there and saved a few quid on the quiet. Said it’d dae him good and might even cure his sore knee.’ Frankie laughed, ‘A few pints of Guinness and my aches and pains vanish. Here’s tae the Celts winning and Dundee doing us a wee turn today!’ He raised his glass before pouring the cold, dark liquid into his mouth. ‘Ahhhh! Now that’s a pint!’

Somewhere out of sight in the crowded pub someone started singing and other voices joined in until the pub was filled with noise…. ‘In the war against Rangers in the fight for the cup, when Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up, we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, on Erin’s green valley look down in thy love.’ Sean and his uncle Frankie joined in, today was a big ask but hey this was Celtic, They knew they’d give their all and hopefully far to the north Dundee would too.

Far to the south Tony Bradley had completed the 252 steps to reach the grotto of Lourdes. Far below in the valley he could see the town and beyond that the patchwork of fields and forests which stretched into the distance. It was quite a sight. Cathie nudged him out of his thoughts, ‘mind and fill this bottle with water for your sister and if you do say a prayer can it be for something worthwhile like world peace and no fitbaw or the 3.30 at Ayr races?’ Tony smiled, she knew him well. They followed the line of pilgrims to the site where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to St Bernadette in 1858. Tony glanced at the scores of crutches and walking sticks hanging to the left of the grotto; left it is said by those healed by the miraculous waters of the spring nearby. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood in a hollow in the rock above them. Prayers were being said in a dozen languages and he and Cathie waited their turn to be close to the grotto.

When they reached the assigned spot Cathie took out her rosary beads and was soon lost in prayer. Tony stood silently contemplating his own beliefs. He was probably best described as a hopeful agnostic. Were those walking sticks and crutches left by people healed here or was the healing more psychosomatic? He grew up in a fairly religious house and of course that was reinforced in school. He recalled as a boy being sent on an errand by his teacher and stopping in the corridor to listen to a class somewhere singing a hymn. It was beautiful in its own way but as he grew up the hypocrisy of some ‘believers’ put him off religion a bit. The bible in one hand and the belt in another weren’t designed to inspire confidence. As he pondered these things, his mind slipped to thoughts of the match taking place in Paisley that very afternoon. Now there was something he could believe. Celtic had been part of his life since he could remember. His old man had taken him to his first game at Celtic Park in 1936 where he had watched Jimmy McGrory score a hat-trick as Celtic beat Ayr United 6-0 to seal their first title win in years. He had been hooked ever since. ‘Jeez, 1936?’ he thought to himself, ‘Man I feel old!’  He glanced at his wife, lost in her own thoughts to his left. Maybe she was right and folk shouldn’t ask God for unimportant things like their football team winning. He looked at the statue standing impassively above him, ‘Keep everyone I care about safe eh? 

Back in Paisley, Sean and Frankie were close to the halfway line in the shed opposite the main stand as Celtic in their lime green away strip were ripping St Mirren apart in a first half in which they had played some splendid football. McStay, McGrain, Aitken and Burns were dominating the game while up front McClair and Johnston were in superb form. They had raced into into a two goal lead before scoring a goal of sublime beauty. McGrain facing his own goal had calmly flicked the ball over his shoulder to McStay who exchanged passes with Aitken before slipping it back to McGrain who found Brian McClair with his pass. McClair glided forward, nutmegged a defender and squared the ball to Johnston who slotted the ball into the net. It was a goal of breath-taking beauty. A goal in the fine footballing traditions of Celtic; the game was won and all they needed now was Dundee to do them a big favour.

Sean and his uncle Frankie were delirious under the cover of the shed and sang their hearts out. Celtic were keeping their part of the bargain and now they just needed a break at Dens Park. Celtic went off to rapturous applause at Half time with a 4-0 lead and the job done. Hearts and Dundee were locked at 0-0 but you never knew in football what would happen. They still had hope in their hearts that Dundee would do something in the second half. The second half began in a strange atmosphere as the many thousands of Celtic fans there were intently waiting for news from Dens Park. Even the team seemed to be marking time waiting to see if there would be a breakthrough one way or another in the other game. The minutes ticked agonisingly past and it was still 0-0 at Dens. If it stayed that way Hearts would be champions. Sean looked at his uncle, the strain written on his face, ‘Hope to hell Dundee score!’ His uncle nodded, ‘It’s never over till it’s over.’ 

In Lourdes Tony Bradley was filling his sister’s water bottle at a line of taps which fed directly from the mountain spring at the grotto. Nearby was a pool it was said people in dire need bathed in to cure their ills. He finished and wandered over to the pool as Cathie filled her bottles. He put his right hand in his pocket and felt the metallic outline of an enamelled Celtic badge he had brought with him. He held it in the palm of his hand and studied it; it showed the club crest with a small silver European cup in the centre and the words ‘Lisbon 1967.’ His old man had given it to him and it was a sort of lucky talisman for him. Without thinking he glanced around before throwing it into the pool. ‘Aw right God, I know yer busy with wars and exploding nuclear plants but if ye can see yer way clear tae helping the Celts out today I’d be much obliged.’

2000km away in Dundee the home side were introducing their substitute, a boyhood Celtic fan who went by the name of Albert Kidd. It’s never over till it’s over.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Ugly Sisters

The Ugly Sisters

As I walked from Celtic Park towards the Gallowgate after last week’s Glasgow derby I could already hear the familiar sounds of sirens drifting on the chilly December air. These games bring out the worst in some and often there are more problems among those who watched the game in pubs and clubs than from the fans actually at the match. Scotland’s relationship with alcohol has long been a cause for concern but when mixed with the emotions a Celtic- Rangers match engenders then it can lead to problems.

The game itself wasn’t pretty to watch especially if you are a Celtic supporter. Rangers rightly edged a dour struggle marked by niggling fouls and a lot of nervous tension. We saw accusations of ‘racist’ abuse hurled at Alfredo Morelos although evidence of this has yet to be shown. One video shared around social media showed Morelos making cut throat gestures towards Celtic supporters as irate punters gave him a lot of verbal abuse. Among the terms clearly audible were ‘Hun bastard’ and ‘Orange bastard’ and Celtic supporters shouldn’t hide away from these facts. There was no discernible racist name calling but the terms used were nonetheless ugly in their own right. Ryan Kent also made an unsavoury gesture towards Celtic fans after scoring his goal to add to an already tense occasion. Supporters on both sides were struck with coins and the predictable songs were given an airing by an away support with seemingly few songs about football in their repertoire.

There has been much bleating from Rangers FC about treating their players with respect on and off the field. Their silence when it’s their supporters abusing people like Neil Lennon was noticeable. The abuse Morelos receives is despicable at times and should be condemned by any fair minded person but few will be taking lessons in morality from a club with Rangers’ history. 

For some people the spectacle, passion, noise and sheer visceral tribalism of these matches make them the highlight of their season. I know a good few folk who love these occasions especially as Celtic have been fairly dominant over the past decade. For others they are ugly, clannish confrontations which they are not enamoured with at all. Whatever you feel about the Glasgow derby it is certainly box office and you could have sold last week’s game out twice over. No comparable country of Scotland’s size can boast two clubs which attract such huge support and the historical genesis of what was once called the ‘Old Firm’ has probably been a mixed blessing for Scottish football.  They bring revenue, interest and at least historically, a modicum of respect in European football but that comes at a sporting and, some would argue, social cost. 

Their domination of the Scottish game is such that no other club has won the title since 1985. That is to say no one under 40 will have much memory of Aberdeen’s league triumph that year. Of the 123 Scottish top league titles since the inception of the league in 1890, the big two have won 105 titles. That is an incredible 85% of Scottish titles won by two clubs and that sort of domination is not healthy for the Scottish game. Their domination in the cup competitions is less pronounced given the one off nature of cup ties but they are both still streets ahead of the competition in these competitions; Celtic have won the Scottish Cup 39 times and Rangers 33. Given the fact that these two big clubs are portrayed as polar opposites in terms of the political, historical and cultural baggage which surrounds them it is all the more intense when they meet. 

It isn’t unusual for big teams to dominate in smaller countries; for instance Portugal’s big three (Porto, Sporting CP and Benfica) have won every championship apart from on two occasions. (1946 and 2001) In Scotland it must remain galling for smaller Scottish clubs to watch busloads of fans leave their towns and head to Glasgow to watch the big two.

St Johnstone, a side whose average attendance has hovered around 4000 for the past few years announced this week that it will allow visiting Celtic and Rangers fans to occupy three of the four stands at their stadium when they play there. This is common sense from a financial point of view as the sight of 3 or 4 thousand empty seats is neither gratifying nor sensible. Their stadium with a capacity of 10,696 will thus host around 7000 away fans for those matches and their fans response was mixed. One said online, ‘Aye, let the ugly sisters fill the lot. We put up with their songs so we might as well take their money.’ That feeling that aspects of the culture surrounding Celtic and Rangers are negative, even alien, influences in Scottish football is shared by a lot of supporters of other clubs. Both are lumped together as the ‘gruesome twosome’ in the opinion of many. 

It’s often interesting to see ourselves as others see us. Consider Celtic and Rangers supporters pitching up in your local town for a game twice each season. The crowd and atmosphere they bring might lend an air of excitement but some of the songs they sing have precious little to do with football. The players they can afford will more often than not be too good for your team although there’s always a chance in a game of football. Some argue Scottish football would be better without the Glasgow clubs and one newspaper used to print a league table ‘minus the Old Firm’ during the time it was thought they’d be heading for the English game. Others suggest Scottish football without them would become like the League of Ireland although given there is no major GAA sports in Scotland that is highly unlikely. Teams like Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts competing for titles would certainly fill their stadiums.

How do we make our game more competitive? In days past when most fans paid at the gate the money was split with the visiting club on a 50-50 basis. Those times are unlikely to return. One aspect which could be changed is pooling all revenues from TV and distributing to clubs equally rather than basing the amount received on league position. It is a fact of life that there is a food chain in football and the bigger clubs will pay more to attract the best players and thus continue to dominate. Scotland is unlikely to see a side out-with Celtic and Rangers win the title unless a rich benefactor buys into one of our better clubs. We saw the high hopes Hearts had with Vladimir Romanov but that dream faded quickly. It could be that the 35 years without a club out-with Celtic and Rangers winning the league could stretch to 45 or even 55 years and much as I love my club being successful that would be a tragedy for our game.

So these two clubs could be locked in their loveless embrace for the foreseeable future and the rest of Scottish football will just have to accept it?

Sunday, 29 December 2019

The Story of Celtic

The Story of Celtic

The end of a year is both a time to look forward and a time to look back. The teens are coming to an end and we are about to enter the twenties. The past decade has seen Celtic sweep to almost unparalleled success in domestic football. Three consecutive trebles, eight successive league titles and some amazing moments has made the past decade a wonderful time to be a Celtic fan. 

The previous decade had begun with the arrival of Martin O’Neil and Celtic’s first treble since 1969. His battles with a Rangers we now know to have been financially doped, were epic affairs and O’Neill’s team won 3 titles with two others lost by a single goal and a single point respectively. Strachan succeeded him and won 3 titles in 4 years to ensure Celtic’s place as the dominant side in the decade. In fact, Celtic have won more league titles than any other Scottish side in every decade since the 1960s with the solitary exception of the 1990s when the club was run into the ground and in need to rebuilding.

The current decade began with Celtic’s league challenge petering out in the spring of 2010 and temporary Manager Neil Lennon taking over following the departure of Tony Mowbray. Lennon did manage a victory of Rangers with Fortune and Naylor scoring the goals but the club’s last hope of silverware was in the Scottish cup and an inept display against Ross County at Hampden saw his team go out of the tournament in the semi-final. 

The following season Lennon led Celtic to within a point of the title but a disastrous 3-2 defeat at Inverness on the run in handed the initiative to Rangers who won the title by a single point. Success in the Scottish cup with a 3-0 win over Motherwell at a rain sodden Hampden couldn’t quite dispel the feeling that the league had been thrown away. That spring saw Neil Lennon the victim of bombs in the post, foul abuse at certain away grounds and a physical assault at Tynecastle. It was a disgraceful time for Scottish football and the worst elements of the media made things worse with ludicrous headlines such as one depicting an image of Neil Lennon and the Tax man with the words ‘Who is hated more at Ibrox?’ It was gutter journalism at its worse and inflamed an already tense situation further.

Season 2011-12 saw Rangers race into a seemingly unassailable 12 point lead in the title race and Lennon’s job looked to be on the line. In a pivotal match at Rugby Park the team trailed 3-0 at half time and Rangers were ahead against St Mirren at Ibrox. Things looked bleak for the Celtic Manager but his side demonstrated amazing tenacity to recuse a point in a stirring comeback which saw the game end 3-3. St Mirren snatched a draw at Ibrox and Celtic took heart and went on a run which saw them reduce Rangers lead to 2 points by the time the Ibrox club came to Celtic Park on a wild and windy December night in 2011. Joe Ledley scored the only goal of the game and Celtic went to the top of the table. Their position as the top side in Scotland has remained unchanged from that windy night to this very day.

The spring of 2012 saw Celtic clinch the title as their great rivals stumbled from financial crisis to administration and finally liquidation. Despite ludicrous press talk of a ‘Billionaire’ with wealth which was ‘off the radar’ coming to rescue them, Rangers suffered the ultimate humiliation of going bankrupt and owing creditors large and small tens of millions of pounds. It sent seismic shockwaves through Scottish football as the completely wrongfooted the SFA and SPL who demonstrated a complete lack of moral fibre and leadership. Their attempts to shoehorn the phoenix club which arose in Rangers place into the top league misfired and they badly misjudged the mood among supporters of clubs all over the land who demanded that any new entity should join the league at the lowest rung of the ladder. The clubs too, undoubtedly influenced by fans opinions, thought that fair play was more important than financial considerations and the new club started where they should in the fourth tier of the game. 

The death of Rangers allowed Celtic to power ahead and clinch title after title with relative ease. Aberdeen gave Celtic a run for their money but the Hoops were in no mood to ease off. By the time the new Rangers fought their way past the postmen and Joiners of the lower leagues and returned to the top flight, Celtic were well established as the dominant force in the land. Indeed, the Rangers arrival in the top flight was accompanied by the sort of hubris and arrogance which had contributed to the old club’s downfall. ‘We’re coming for you’ we were told. ‘we’re going for 55’ was the claim and it was with supreme satisfaction that Celtic not only completely dominated the new club but also completed an unheralded three successive trebles. Indeed, some of the thumpings handed out to the Ibrox club in the modern era match anything seen in the days of the Old Firm. In the past few years Celtic have won 5-1, 5-0, 4-0 and 5-1 and reminded the Ibrox men that football is played on the park and not in the blustering puff pieces of the press.

So, as we embark on a new decade which I hope is as successful for Celtic as the previous one, what are my favourite moments? There are so many to choose from in the past ten years and some will inevitably be tied to personal circumstances. But for what it’s worth here are my top five moments of the past decade, in reverse order…

5:  Rangers 1 Celtic 5. April 2017: Celtic’s destruction of Rangers at Ibrox was as much a delight to Celtic supporters as it was a shock to the home fans. The team played with verve and style and could have won even more convincingly. The scenes in the Broomloan Road stand after the game will live long in the memory.

4. Celtic 2 Barcelona 1. November 2012: On a night I’ll never forget, Celtic park celebrated the club’s 125th birthday with a tifo which was at once awe inspiring and beautiful. The team fought with that old Celtic spirit to defeat a Barcelona side at the peak of their powers and probably the best team in the world at that point.

3. Celtic 5 Rangers 1. 10th September 2016: The press built Rangers up for this match and the mouthy figure of Joey Barton had told Celtic he was coming for their title. Joey was anonymous as Celtic thrashed his side and gave Brendan Rodgers the perfect start to his derby record.

2. Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 6. April 2012: Celtic clinch the first of their current run of titles with an emphatic win on the ground where their rivals had clinched the title a year before. All the pain of the previous few seasons was washed away with a sparkling display of attacking football. It was the last match I attended with my nephew who sadly died in an accident. For that reason alone, this game will always live in my heart.

1. Celtic 2 Aberdeen 1: May 2017. The moment Tom Rogic picked up possession in midfield and glided towards the Aberdeen goal is fixed in my memory. The cup, the Treble, the Invincible season all hung on that one moment. In my mind’s eye, I can see the stand around me watch in spellbound anticipation and hope as he moved into the box and unleashed his shot. Then that roar, that joy, that knowledge that the Bhoys had done the seemingly impossible and gone through an entire season undefeated. The scenes after that goal were among the most amazing I’ve ever witnessed in all my years watching Celtic. It was simply astonishing, simply sublime, simply Celtic.

The new decade will doubtless see more memories to add to those above and who knows maybe today’s match will see us end this year on a high. What are your best memories of the past decade?  They may differ from mine but then we have so many to choose from. We are blessed indeed to follow this amazing football club. The history is so beautifully rich and there are undoubtedly many more chapters to be written in the incredible story of Celtic.

Monday, 23 December 2019

The Emerald Gem

The Emerald Gem

The early 19th century was a brutal and dangerous time to alive especially if you came from the poorer parts of society. Infant mortality was high and diseases like cholera and typhoid were still common in the poorer parts of the fast growing cities of the industrial revolution. Crime was rife too in the cities and anyone who fell foul of the law could expect a range of fairly brutal punishments. Flogging was common for a range of minor offences and public executions for more serious offences often drew huge crowds. Many took place on Glasgow Green in the city’s east end and had an air of a fair about them as food sellers and souvenir hawkers plied their trade to the tens of thousands who came to see the execution. It is said the last public execution on the Green attracted 80,000 people who were there to see a certain Doctor Pritchard hang for poisoning his wife and her mother.

Society also tolerated ‘sports’ like bear baiting, bull baiting, cock fighting and a host of other hunting activities. Bear baiting involved tying a bear to a post and setting specially trained dogs on it. Similarly with bull baiting the dogs involved were trained to draw blood from a tethered bull which would defend itself as best it could with its horns.

In this violent atmosphere, it is not surprising that one sport that was also exceedingly popular was bare knuckle prize fighting. Gambling on these bouts was rife and corruption not unusual. There was no real limit to the number of rounds the fighters would endure and some fights lasted for over 2 hours with over 100 rounds endured by the pugilists involved. There were no set rules and fighters would use their heads, knees and often throw opponents to the ground. The bouts were often supported by the powerful and wealthy in society and the authorities would often turn a blind eye to them. One such fight in England in the year 1830 had reverberations as far afield as Glasgow and Dundee.

Simon Byrne, known as ‘the Emerald gem’ was an Irish pugilist noted for his scientific approach to his chosen profession as much as his power and stamina. His opponent, Alexander McKay hailed from Glasgow and was a more direct and brutal fighter. Both men were contracted to receive £200 each for the bout, a sum equivalent to a year’s wages today for the average worker. Thousands turned up to see the fight and it was a brutal spectacle indeed as both men laid into each other for 47 bloody rounds before a baying crowd. In the end McKay collapsed after a thumping left hand from Byrne caught him in the throat. He collapsed and was dragged to his corner where he complained of pain in his head. He was ‘bled’ by a surgeon as the crowd looked on before being carried to a nearby Inn. It was there he died the following evening. The authorities were forced to act and Byrne was arrested and charged with manslaughter. The young Irishman was on trial for his life and the press and public crammed into the courtroom to hear the evidence.

The trial of Simon Byrne heard many testimonies about his good character outside the ring and one witness described him as a ‘very human and kind man.’ The case had the potential to cause scandal in polite society as many rich and powerful people supported and even organised fights. One witness told the court that McKay had fallen before the fight and hit his head on a stone. This unlikely piece of evidence should be viewed with suspicion as it was in the interests of many to see Byrne walk free. As it was the jury retired to consider their verdict and to most people’s surprise returned in ten minutes to declare Byrne an innocent man. He walked free to much cheering from the public gallery.
In McKay’s home country of Scotland, the death of their champion at the hands of an Irishman was not received well in some quarters. In Dundee a bar room brawl caused by a dispute over the fight led to widespread rioting. Thousands stormed into the Irish part of town and brutally assaulted any Irish person they could find. The Catholic chapel was destroyed and three people were killed and over 200 injured. A contemporary account of the disorder stated…

‘After putting any Irishman they could find to rout, the mob then proceeded into town and proceeded into the houses of all of those they knew to be natives of the sister kingdom (Ireland)  dragging them out of their beds and beating them mercilessly, smashing all their windows and even carrying away and burning the very wooden stairs that led to their habitation. Tuesday night was most alarming, the mob parading the streets and no Irishman durst be seen, if recognised they were instantly knocked down and maltreated, the Police not daring to interfere with so numerous a mob. On Wednesday 18,000 rioters gathered at the cross when the rioters proceeded to the Roman Catholic Chapel which was partially destroyed, breaking all the windows and other articles in the interior. The people assembled again on Thursday, seeking out the poor Irish and chasing them from the town from which many were glad to escape with their lives.’

It’s hard to believe that the pogrom in Dundee against the Irish community there was sparked by a boxing match far to the south in England. It suggests an underlying resentment which only needed the right spark to start the blaze. Similar scenes took place in Glasgow where four people died and hundreds were injured before the local Yeomanry (Soldiers) were called in to restore order. The larger Irish population in Glasgow was by all accounts ready to defend itself and serious rioting ensued for several days. Newspapers of the time describe the tumultuous scenes in the following manner…

‘The brawls that followed the intelligence respecting the result of the fight caused the apprehension of upwards of 200 persons, and led to the death of an unfortunate young man. This city, especially the lower parts of it, has been the scene of continual riot and fighting for two days past, and the Police Office was more crowded with offenders on Sunday than ever it has been in the memory of the oldest servant of the establishment. Early in the morning there were many regular pugilistic contests in the Green, and notwithstanding the difficulty of apprehending delinquents in such as situation, the officers succeeded in securing a number of the ringleaders. This most unseemly conduct is to be attributed altogether to the extraordinary excitement created amongst a certain class, in consequence of the boxing match betwixt Byrne and McKay (the latter of whom belongs to this city), as cried throughout the streets. But it is likely, if the report of McKay's death be true, that such a punishment may await some of those more particularly concerned in that affair as will put a check to such atrociously disgraceful and brutalising exhibitions in future.

The disturbances in the High Street and Saltmarket were attended with very fatal results, with the death of no less than four men, one of them a foot soldier, having lost their lives. When the dead body of the soldier was carried to the Barracks, the whole of his Regiment turned out into the street, adding frightfully to the previous disorder. The Dragoons, on the requisition of the Lord Provost, were now employed to quell the riot of the citizens and the tumult of the foot soldiers, and to apprehend the persons composing the mobs, and the murderers. A great number of persons were in consequence taken into custody, and lodged in the jail and other places of security. Before the tumult was effectually quelled, however, and while the exasperation continued, the mob had repaired to Great Clyde Street, and there broke the windows of the Roman Catholic Chapel, and otherwise destroyed that building.’

It seems astonishing to us that a boxing match could lead to such scenes but as with Dundee the underlying tensions in Glasgow contributed to the violence. It is also worth noting that the death of a soldier led to the ‘whole of his Regiment turning out into the street, adding frightfully to the previous disorder.’ It is very likely that the soldiers adding to the disorder were far from impartial during the rioting.

Simon Byrne, may or may not have known about the disorder in Scotland following his fight with Alexander McKay but what we do know is that just three years later he himself was to die in the ring after a brutal 99 round encounter with a deaf fighter named James Burke. The London Times was scathing about the whole bloody sport and said….

We condemn utterly these barbarous, filthy and swindling exhibitions called prize fights. We hope an example will be made of the more wealthy monsters in this affair of blood – the sanguinary cowards who stood by and saw a fellow creature beaten to death for their sport and gain!

As time went on boxing was to become more restricted and subjected to rules. There may still be the occasional tragedy in the ring but it is now far less likely than it was in the brutal days when Simon ‘The Emerald Gem’ Byrne fought for his very life.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Oh my days

Oh my days

Watching young players come through the ranks and prosper at Celtic has been a pleasing aspect of following the hoops over the years. Some, like Paul McStay or Danny McGrain, stay for virtually all of their careers and become club legends. Others like Dalglish, Nicholas or Kieran Tierney burst onto the scene and give us some amazing memories before the lure of the English league and all its trappings of wealth and fame turn their heads. Celtic supporters have always accepted that the Scottish game has its limitations and that some players will eventually move on. I can still remember how upset I was as a lad when Kenny Dalglish left for Liverpool. The £440,000 fee was huge for the time but even that amount of money was a bargain for a player some consider one of the greatest ever to grace the Scottish game. It didn’t help that the season after Kenny left was the worst in 20 years for Celtic. Danny McGrain was injured in the October and Pat Stanton out for a long time too. Shorn of their best players Celtic lost 15 league matches and finished fifth in the league, failing to qualify for Europe for the first time in a many years. This downturn in the club’s fortunes was partly responsible for the classless booing of Dalglish by a significant minority of the fans at Jock Stein’s testimonial match between Celtic and Liverpool in 1978.

Charlie Nicholas was another player who jumped ship for mercenary reasons and it’s difficult to blame him when Club Chairman, Desmond White’s opening line in contract talks was ‘you know, we’d understand if you left…’ White was clearly aware of the fee Nicholas would accrue in England and as it transpired he joined Arsenal in 1983. It could be hugely frustrating for fans that Celtic often made no real effort to keep players they held dear. The apparent lack of ambition of the board at times in the club’s history clearly hamstrung the team at times and positions of strength were often frittered away.

Others players like Paul McStay, Tommy Burns and Danny McGrain spent virtually their whole careers at Celtic and will always have a special place in the hearts of the fans which few of those who left can aspire too. In the modern era though the one club player has become a rarity as the Bosman ruling freed players to go seek the best terms they could find when their contract expires. James Forrest looks a likely a candidate to spend his whole career at Celtic and has developed into a very effective and important player for the club. He doesn’t receive the cult status or adulation others do at times but remains a key component in Celtic’s recent success.

The arrival of Jeremie Frimpong at Celtic went almost unnoticed at the time. Another ‘project’ was how one article described him suggesting that such modest price tags (£350,000) suggested he was a raw teenager with much to learn. The young player, who is of Dutch-Ghanian heritage, has impressed hugely during first team outings with Celtic and plays with pace, style and boundless enthusiasm. His energy levels drive him up and down the pitch for 90 minutes and the fans have really taken to him. His manager was impressed enough by his performances to say of him…

‘He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever seen at that age. He’s an outstanding talent and watching him makes me tired. The amount of runs he makes wears people down.’

It is testimony to Lennon’s confidence in Frimpong that he threw him into the League Cup Final against Rangers in front of a noisy capacity crowd at Hampden on a rainy, windswept day in Glasgow. He was up against the much hyped Ryan Kent and demonstrated that he could mix it with the best in Scotland by giving a good account of himself. Of course more experienced team mates put him in a difficult situation when their inability to clear their lines led to Frimpong being on the wrong side of Alfredo Morelos. The youngster laid hands on the striker and that was all the encouragement the Columbian needed to go to ground. It must have been a horrendous moment for the teenager to see the referee point to the penalty spot before flashing a red card in his direction. As he trudged wearily from the field his anguish was written on his face. His team were 1-0 ahead but were now facing a penalty and 30 minutes playing with ten men.

Frimpong described his feeling of what occurred next in a post-match interview which made even the most cynical fans smile….

‘When Fraser saved it, fans were shouting and I had my head turned and I’m like which side is…? So I turned around and it was our side and I was buzzing, I was buzzing. But then I had like the worst feeling ever. I’m like oh my days, the minute’s go so slow. I was like oh, I wanted to cry yeh, and then when he blew the last whistle. I was like oh my God I was buzzing, I was buzzing. Oh my days, best game ever, best game ever!’

Frimpong’s infectious enthusiasm and apparent boyish innocence masks a determined young man who learned from some of the best since joining Manchester City as a 9 year old. He spoke recently of how he would quiz the first team players at City and learn from them. He arrived at Celtic as a young lad in a new environment and Scott Brown noted immediately that there was no attitude problem from the youngster who was clearly here to learn his trade and work hard. The Celtic skipper said of him…

‘I think he’s been brought up properly. His mum and dad have done a great job with him. The way he is, he’s just passed his driving test at the 27th attempt. Or was it the fourth? Anyway the lads have been giving him a wee bit of grief for that but he takes everything in his stride. He’s happy as Larry and he comes in and puts a smile on all the lads’ faces. For the first couple of weeks he didn’t really speak to anybody. It was other people who were speaking to him. It’s not easy coming here, especially from Manchester City. We thought a wee laddie coming in here from Man City could have a big time attitude but he’s come in and been unbelievable. For me, you can see right away that the wee man is genuine. He has that energy and that smile and there isn’t a single person who has a bad word to say about him.’

Jeremie Frimpong has ambitions to play for the Dutch national side and is actually trying to learn to speak that difficult language. He will undoubtedly attract interest from the English Premiership in the years ahead if his progress continues and we should enjoy the infectious enthusiasm, energy and skill he brings to the team while we can. He has been a breath of fresh air and I hope he hangs around long enough to contribute to what could be a historic period for Celtic. He puts a smile on people’s faces with his personality and his play and that is to be savoured in these difficult times. He’s in the early stages of his Celtic career but the signs are good that we have a real player on our hands.

If he sticks around for a few years and continues his development – oh my days, I’ll be buzzing!

Saturday, 14 December 2019

The H Word

The H Word

Many years I go I lived and worked in England and being a keen Celtic fan it was hard not getting my weekly chance to see my team in action. Of course in every town and city in the UK you’ll find pockets of Celts meeting up in pubs and clubs to watch games or just talk Celtic with likeminded folk. I did travel north when work and family life allowed and took in as many Celtic games as I could and those trips took on a special significance. As a young man I recall the euphoria of games in the centenary year culminating it that magical, sunlit 1988 cup final. Absence clearly does makes the heart grow fonder when it comes to Celtic.Of course my English pals would try to entice me into coming along to back their teams and I did watch a fair bit of football there but once a Celt always a Celt. I saw matches in Birmingham, London, Oxford and even as far as Merseyside and the fan culture there was different from Scotland. I recall being at the old Upton Park to see West Ham play Spurs and it was a pretty poisonous atmosphere. Spurs fans were subjected to chants containing lines such as…

‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz- Hitler’s gonna gas em again…’

Spurs of course are said to have a large Jewish following so the import is clear. Working class football culture has always sought to goad the opposition but there are limits. Of course Manchester United fans were subjected to the despicable, ‘Who’s that lying on the runway?’ song which celebrates the Munich air disaster which killed over 20 people including 8 of their players. Such chants do go beyond what is acceptable even when the fiercest or rivals meet. There will always be room for the more witty chants even if they are politically incorrect in these sanitised days.  Opposition fans used to chant at Manchester United’s Ji Sung Park… (To the tune of “Lord of the Dance”)
Park, Park, wherever you may be,
You eat dogs in your home country,
But it could be worse,
You could be f*****g scouse,
Eating rats in your council house.’
Such a song plays on the usual stereotypes but is understood by opposition fans as part of football banter unlike songs about Munich or Hillsborough which most decent people abhor.
One of the great changes to occur in English football has been the gentrification of what was once a solidly working class sport. The more uncouth behaviours of supporters are now frowned upon by the new breed of middle class supporters who like their football experience to be more sedate. In Scotland the government’s ill planned attempt to control what was chanted at football matches ended in farce as the law was repealed. The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was fatally flawed in that it failed to set out precisely what made a song ‘sectarian.’ The more inane chants heard among sections of Rangers supporters were fairly obvious in their crude intent. Thus songs about being ‘up to our knees in Fenian blood’ or the racist ‘famine song’ were fairly easy to label as the filth they are but other unionist/loyalist or Republican songs had the judges confused and more than a few hauled up to court walked free.
Celtic supporters have always sung songs which reflected the Irish heritage of the club and most (though by no means all) of their supporters. Thus in early times the ‘Dear little Shamrock’ or ‘Erin’s green valley’ were sung. In later years more overtly political songs such as ‘The boys of the old brigade’ or ‘Roll of Honour’ were given an airing and there remains an ongoing debate about the nature political expression should take at football grounds. The labelling of rebel songs as ‘sectarian’ is not something Celtic supporters, not indeed most Irish people, would accept although there is no doubt that behind the faux-outrage we hear from some about them in our society, there are others who are genuinely uncomfortable about them.
Similarly the term ‘Hun’ has come to prominence again with the corrupted version of  Shakin Stevens' 'Merry Christmas Everyone' doing the rounds and containing the line, ‘Merry Christmas, f*ck the Huns.’ Some Celtic fans, myself included, have never considered the term sectarian. It always meant a Rangers fan or players and those of a certain vintage will remember the term being used about Celtic fans. Well-meaning anti-sectarian groups tend to use the word as an accepted sectarian term but this is disputed by many who see it as nothing more than a prop used to support the narrative that both sides are as bad as each other. I have a protestant friend who is Celtic mad and often uses the ‘H’ word so his intent it is clearly not sectarian? That being said, to some perception is as important as intent and if some of those on the receiving end of the word are genuinely offended by it then perhaps it is better in the dustbin of history?
Jock Stein once invaded the terraces at Stirling Albion’s little stadium to remonstrate with Celtic supporters who he considered to be singing songs that were distasteful and commented afterwards…
’There are enough good Celtic songs to sing without bringing religion or politics into it.’
He had a point but the culture of singing Irish songs at Celtic matches is deeply ingrained and has been from the club’s inception. There have been few songs sung by Celtic fans over the decades which were truly sectarian in nature; the moronic ‘Roamin in the gloamin’ comes to mind but that was never popular with the majority of fans who saw it for the trash it was. Celtic have sent letters and distributed leaflets asking fans to think about what they sing at matches. There have been many ditties and chants over the years which were uncouth, offensive or simply in bad taste but that has moderated in recent times. Supporters will always goad the opposition but the clever and subtle is always better than the blunt force of foul mouthed vitriol.
As the powers that be seek to make football more of a family experience then the pressure will continue to be on fans to conform to the standards they set. UEFA will continue to fine clubs whose fans they deem to have been overstepping the mark. It is important that they hammer the racism we have seen in European stadiums over the years and send out a clear message that this isn’t acceptable. There is much to be done to seriously eliminate it from football but stadium closures and increasing fines will get the message across. They have fired a shot across the bows of Rangers by closing a section of Ibrox for a recent European game and if attitudes haven’t changed among some at least they now think twice before spouting their bile.
The Scottish football authorities must bear some responsibility for the lingering poison which pollutes some games here. For decades Rangers sectarian signing policy went unchallenged. Similarly with the songbook at Ibrox, if the SFA talked about closing stands then perhaps real change would occur. The media too are too keen to play the ‘both sides the same’ card and fail to condemn fairly obvious racism and sectarianism at times. Graham Spiers wrote after one match between Celtic and Rangers…
‘On Sunday afternoon at Celtic Park, sports reporters myself included sat through the usual litany of bile spouted by visiting Rangers fans, with hardly a mention of it in next day reports.’
Therein lies the problem; call it out whenever it rears its ugly head even if it’s among your own support. That way bigotry will no longer be acceptable and the more lumpen types will get the message. There will probably be no real revolutionary change in the attitudes of some fans too thick to see their petty prejudices for what they really are but we do owe it to future generations to educate them in a better way to behave.
Football thrives on rivalries and the atmospheres they create but there are limits to what should be acceptable and each of us who loves this old game should ponder on what they are.