Sunday, 26 May 2019

The laughter and the songs

The laughter and the songs

After yesterday’s cup final I stood on the Gallowgate waiting with thousands of others for the Celtic bus to make an appearance. As the minutes passed and the crowd got bigger it became apparent that it wouldn’t be possible to get a bike up the Gallowgate let alone a double decker bus. It was dreadfully organised and the Police on duty simply gave up trying to keep fans off the road. Pictures suggest it was the same on the Saltmarket and at Glasgow Cross. A bit of forethought and some barriers to keep folk on the pavement would have been useful but even the disappointment of the bus parade not happening and the rain pouring down couldn’t dampen the joy of the thousands of Celtic supporters who made their way to the east end after the match. As the younger element scaled the roofs of local bars or danced on top of worryingly high walls and those old enough to know better climbed onto traffic lights and other slippery looking vantage points, the overwhelming feeling was one of happiness.

As I looked around yesterday I could see wee ones in prams or on their father’s shoulders and older supporters who no doubt thought they had seen it all in their many years of watching Celtic. My old man was brought up a mere corner kick from where I stood. I recall as a child visiting my old Irish grandad’s house in Bain Square and the area has changed a fair bit since then. Conditions in Glasgow’s east end were a bit more Dickensian in those days. Life was tough for the people living there and my old man would tell us tales of his youth which had us shaking our heads. He recounted how the Calton boys had to sign on at Bridgeton dole office in times when the territorial disputes of the Glasgow gangs made this challenging. They’d head for the dole a hundred strong knowing what awaited them there. He’d get angry when he’d recount that hundreds of unemployed Glasgow men would be fighting each other rather than the forces in society which threw them all on the scrap heap.

Life was tough then; tougher than most of us experience now but they had strong communities and looked out for each other. If someone was struggling they knew they’d get half a loaf or a cup of sugar from next door. My old man told me of the time he was in a pub on the Gallowgate when the local Priest walked in and told a man beside him to stop drinking and get home and give his wife the money she needed to feed the kids. The man, the worse for drink, got stroppy and the Priest pulled off his collar and assured him he’d be leaving the pub to pay his wife of leaving it to fight him. The woman got her money.

In those times men like my dad would troop along the Gallowgate to Celtic Park and lose themselves for a few hours watching Celtic play. The bad times were endured, the good times celebrated loud and long. They’d introduce their children to all things Celtic and the rituals of following the team would be passed on. Like many Glasgow boys, my brothers and I would be hanging around outside pubs on match days waiting for our dads to appear; wondering when we’d be old enough to sneak inside the pub. Those noisy, smoke filled places looked quite exciting to our young eyes and we’d glimpse inside when the doors opened listening to the laughter and the songs. The men would appear, often the worse for wear, a few minutes before kick-off time and we’d head down to Celtic Park together.

The drinking culture at football then meant the party lasted throughout the match and alcohol was all around us. Some of us got a taste for it while others left it alone. We’d focus on the match and the players wearing those magnificent hooped shirts would transport us out of our ordinary lives for 90 minutes. The songs would pour from the terraces as we tried to drive the team on. Some days it was as if the whole Celtic end was trying to suck the ball into the opposition net. They were good times and I guess they helped form us into the people we became. They gave most of us a love for Celtic which lasted a lifetime and if life takes us far from the places we grew up, that affection for our team went with us.

Yesterday was a day of joy for all who follow the fortunes of Celtic as the team showed the resilience of champions to come back from a goal down against a stuffy Hearts side which in fairness gave Celtic a real game. To win a treble is a fine achievement but to do it in three successive seasons is astonishing. The team has stuttered at times and is in need of renewing and there will no doubt be a busy summer ahead but for now we can bask in the feel good factor and enjoy looking back on another successful season.  

Neil Lennon looks like he’ll be the man to lead Celtic into the new campaign and if he wasn’t everyone’s first choice, he is at least deserving of our backing. Peter Lawwell was described in one Celtic blog as; a third rate hack who’s offered the job to a third rate manager in a fourth rate manner.’ That opinion is a bit extreme and frankly insulting. We were, to a degree, spoiled by Brendan Rodgers taking the job in 2016. It is difficult to attract managers of his calibre to the Scottish league. Talk of the likes of Benitez or Mourinho coming to Celtic Park was always highly speculative and in truth it was unlikely they’d ever abandon the money and exposure they get in wealthier leagues for the SPFL. Whoever is sitting in the dugout next season should have the backing of the support. We are on the cusp of more remarkable times and need a united front to achieve them. There will be challenges in the coming season and we’ll need to stick together to overcome them. Like it or not, Lenny is the Boss and I for one will be behind him and the team 100%.

We didn’t get to see the open top bus make its triumphal procession along the Gallowgate last night but we did see the Celtic community celebrate a remarkable success in the very streets Brother Walfrid knew so well. His people have come a long way and the remarkable saga of his club still has many chapters waiting to be written.

Yesterday was a good day to be a Celtic fan. I get the feeling we’ll have more days like that in the future.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Calling it out

Calling it out

The decision of Glasgow City Council to allow an Orange Parade to pass St Mary’s church in Glasgow’s east end last weekend caused much debate online. Two schools of thought seem to be prominent when people discuss such events. The first is that in a city with over 2000 streets why do they want to march down one of just over 60 streets with Catholic churches situated in them? Some feel they deliberately choose these routes to intimidate and show the Catholic community that they are still a force to be reckoned with; it’s triumphalism flavoured with bigotry in the eyes of many. For others, a minority it has to be said, they are nothing more than a peaceful organisation exercising their civic right to walk the streets and celebrate their history and culture.

There was also a bizarre episode recently when a dozen or so Orangemen and their supporters stood outside Glasgow city chambers to protest about the infringement of their civil liberties following the re-routing of a march away from St Alphonsus church in Glasgow’s east end. This was the church you may recall where the Priest was spat upon and parishioners verbally abused by hangers on following a passing Orange walk. The spokesman for the small group outside the city chambers, an inarticulate man who seemed ill at ease throughout, stumbled through a poorly worded and frankly nonsensical statement the gist of which suggested they were a persecuted minority being harshly treated by the SNP ruling group in the council and denied their civil rights. The truth of course is that the Police had a major say in the rerouting of their parade as they feared there could be disorder.

As I watched this stumbling performance on social media I honestly tried to see things from their perspective thinking of that quote from the book ‘To kill a Mockingbird’ which states…


You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’


There seemed a real disconnect between how those folk perceived their organisation and its parades and how the majority of Scots of all faiths and none see them. To most they are an anachronism, a leftover from days long gone and in truth something of an embarrassment. No one would deny the right to practice and celebrate religious faith but is that really what we are seeing when these parades are stomping through our streets? There is precious little Christian humility and piety on display when the drums are thumping.

During my student days in the late 1990s, I completed my final thesis on the future of denominational schools in Scotland. During the research part of the process I interviewed a diverse group of people from Cardinal Winning to the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order to gauge their opinion on such schools. The latter was a strangely old fashioned man who informed me that his organisation’s role was to ‘uphold the Protestant view and preserve the union.’ He predictably thought that Catholic schools had no place in Scotland and that Cardinal Winning had the Labour Party in his pocket and thus preserved them. He seemed blind to the role his organisation played in polarising communities and offering a fertile breeding ground for petty hatreds to grow.  

I remember thinking that his views were so outmoded that it was like listening to someone beamed forward from the 1930s. As a student teacher at the time of the interview, he informed me in serious tones that modern religious education in schools seemed to be more interested in telling children about other religions rather than their own and that this was treason against Christianity. I wondered if he included the Catholic brand of Christianity in that opinion. It was as if Scotland he knew growing up had changed without him noticing; as if the arrival on these shores of people from a variety of backgrounds and faiths hadn’t occurred.

He was careful what he said when the tape was running and was adamant that they were not a sectarian organisation. Indeed I had a glimpse into his world view and how it jarred with reality, when he said, ‘You can stand for something without necessarily being against something else.’  This line of thought was at odds with my experience of Orange Parades in my home city which tended to be triumphalist and intimidating spectacles where drunkenness, violence and sectarianism were common. In recent years walks in Glasgow have included banners depicting a convicted terrorist who set off bombs in Irish bars in Glasgow in the 1970s. We hear the ‘Famine song’ being played by bandsmen who know exactly what they’re doing when they play it. Despite this, I was assured by this chap that the order was a law abiding and peaceful fraternal organisation. Ironically the man telling me this was dismissed from his post by the Orange Order a few years later for suggesting that any moves towards Scottish independence would see…

‘The Orange Lodge become a paramilitary force, if you like. It obviously implies recourse to arms. We’d have a group of people who would be pro-union.’

The mind-set which views Scotland and its place in the union through the prism of orangeism is at odds with the views of the vast majority of Scots who would not contemplate the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics. Whether Scotland chooses to exercise its right to self-determination or not there is no correlation here to the events we’ve witnessed in the north of Ireland over the past 50 years. Orangeism might have found a new bogeyman in the shape of a resurgent Scottish nationalism but they were marching through the streets in the days when the SNP were getting a few hundred votes in elections. They are at heart a relic from a bygone age when petty privilege and keeping people ‘in their place’ were important.

Today we are seeing the first real stirrings of opposition to Orange Parades and their insistence on marching past Catholic churches. Groups such as ‘Call it out’ are organising what have so far been peaceful and dignified demonstrations to protest at the routes parades are taking. They have not called for the banning of parades or any draconian measures, merely that they are routed away from Catholic churches. Hatred comes in many forms and it’s the job of all good people to call it out.

Some reading these words will of course think my own bias on this subject is apparent. They might even recall Harper Lee’s other quote from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.’ I try to be objective but since childhood my experience of orange parades and the behaviour of some (not all) attending them has not been positive. One of my earliest memories of them was being in the religious shop in the High Street with my mum as a parade passed. Some of you may recall the shop; it sold statues, devotional items and religious literature. As I waited with my mum for it to pass I couldn’t help but wonder why grown men would be banging the grill and spitting on the window. The adults in the shop simply locked the door with a resigned look and waited for the storm to pass. I reflected years later that had such things taken place against Jewish or Muslim stores something would be done. Scotland seemed to have a blind spot when it came to anti-Catholic prejudice.

The numbers attending these parades is continuing to diminish and the age profile creeping upwards. The wider organisation has in fairness tried to distance itself from the wilder spirits which attach themselves to it and even attempted a rebranding exercise which was something of a PR disaster when their cartoon superhero ‘Diamond Dan’ was discovered to have been plagiarised. At heart though, orangeism is struggling for relevance in the modern world and as Scotland continues to be a more inclusive and secular land, that is unlikely to change.

I look forward to a day when displays of colour and music on our streets become an inclusive event which we’re all able to enjoy. Those who spread hatred do no one any good, least of all themselves. There should be a place for everyone in a modern country but there should be no place for creating false boundaries and divisions between people. We all want a better land for our children and the best way to do this is to work together to create it. As Harper Lee said in her classic book…

‘I think there’s just one kind of folks; folks.’

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The laughter and the tears

The laughter and the tears

St Mungo’s parish Hall was packed with Celtic supporters from the local supporters club who had gathered for their players of the year celebration. A cheer went up when the player they had chosen hobbled in, a plaster on his ankle but still determined not to let the fans down. That was the sort of man Tommy Burns was; if he said he’d be there an injured ankle wouldn’t stop him. My uncle Frank was excited to see him and determined to have a word with him as they both hailed from the same part of Glasgow and he knew the player's dad. He waited patiently as Burns signed autographs and posed for photos with supporters before making his move. He ‘nipped’ his cigarette and put it into his pocket and headed towards Burns. He clearly didn’t fully extinguish his cigarette for even as he walked up to Burns it smouldered in his jacket pocket and a distinct whiff of smoke was visible as he reached to shake Tommy’s hand. The young Celtic player smiled and said, ‘I think yer jaiket’s on fire pal.’ My uncle dealt with the emergency and spent a happy 5 minutes chatting to Tommy who treated him with great respect. Old Frank talked about those 5 minutes with Tommy all his days.

A couple of years back I attended one of those charity ‘Tommy Burns Suppers’ at Celtic Park. Gordon Strachan sat on a stool in the centre of the stage between former Celtic players Tosh McKinley and Tom Boyd. He may have looked like a naughty schoolboy in the Head Master’s office but when he spoke people listened. His humour, cutting at times towards those he perceived as fake, was sharp and well observed. His observation that he ‘can’t be doing with those players who kiss the badge on the pitch and then after the match walk past fans who have waited an hour in the rain to see them,’ touched a chord with many in the room. Strachan also spoke of his time managing Celtic and stated that the best part of the job wasn’t working with the players or winning trophies, nor was it competing against the giants in the Champions League. It was, he said simply, getting to know Tommy Burns. He told one anecdote which had the audience laughing uproariously…

‘We were playing Manchester United in the Champions League and they had Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez running at us. We were hanging on a bit at the end and the crowd were getting on my back a bit demanding I change it. All I had was Ben Hutchison on the bench. I saw Tommy standing at the opposite end of the dugout watching the team hanging on. He comes walking up to me as the crowd think ‘Aye, Tommy will tell him what to do to sort it.’ Well he stops in front of me, puts his hand over his mouth so no one can see what he’s saying and I’m waiting for the tactical master plan, and he said, ‘By the way the blind section and giving you some abuse!’ I looked along and saw a blind guy on his feet waving his arms shouting ‘Strachan yer f*cking useless!’ He canny even see the game and he’s giving me stick! Even his guide dog had its paw over its eyes!’

We laughed at these tales from men who knew Tommy best and here and there the odd tear was shed too at the loss of such a great Celtic man.

The coming week will see the anniversary of one of the greatest Celts taking his leave of us. It was 11 years ago that Tommy Burns died and his passing, so cruel and untimely, still hurts those who cared about this remarkable man. No one in the cynical and clannish world of Scottish football had a bad word to say about Tommy Burns. He lived his life with a refreshing honesty and his Celtic side played football the way the fans love it being played. I first saw him as a flame haired teenager who showed a remarkable affinity and passion for his club.  

Tommy loved Celtic and loved playing for Celtic. There’s an old cliché about some players being a fan in the team but men like Tommy and John Doyle were just that. The fans loved Tommy Burns because they knew he was one of them. He felt elation at Celtic’s successes, pain at their setbacks and understood the sacrifices ordinary fans made to support their team. Former Celtic winger Davie Provan said of Burns…

The night against Juventus in 1981 turned into Tommy Burns against Liam Brady and Tam won the game for us. He bossed that game and I’ve never seen him in such form. He just stuck his chest out that night and decided that was his stage. He took the ball in all areas of the pitch, and I know we won trophies together but if I’m thinking of a football memory, that was Tommy at the very top of his game that night. I remember also the day we buried Johnny Doyle and we practically had to carry Tam out of the chapel that day. I’ve never seen anyone so distraught. He was in bits that day because he had lost his wee soul mate.’

It may seem strange to some that we Celtic supporters still sing his name on occasion and still remember with such fondness the way he fought for every ball when he wore those hoops, the way he told officials in no uncertain manner what he thought if they appeared to be giving Celtic less than a fair shake and the sheer joy on his face when his beloved team won another honour.

Tommy epitomised the values Celtic have at their core. He was a charitable man, a man who always gave his all for the team and a man who had time for the supporters. He had no time for petty hatred although no one loved beating Rangers more than he did but it was about rivalry and pride for him. He was of course a man of deep religious faith and that would have sustained him as he struggled with his illness in the spring of 2018. Gordon Strachan tells a story of that difficult time which epitomises the sort of man Burns was. He said…

‘I saw him at 4pm and he died at 3am the following morning. When we got to together at 10am the following day I spoke to the players. Scott Brown said, ‘Can I speak to you?’ I asked what was up knowing his sister was dying of cancer at that time, only 23 years old. Broonie asked when Tommy had died and I replied, ‘about 3am this morning, why?’ He replied. ‘Well my sister got flowers this morning at 10am with a note saying, ‘Good luck, and keep your chin up, from Tommy Burns.’

That was Tam; thinking of others even as he was taking on his toughest opponent. His great friend Danny McGrain spoke for many who knew Tommy when he said…

“I loved Tommy Burns. You meet some people and you like them, but Tommy was someone that I loved. I got to realise that during the early 1980s, although I wouldn’t have told him that. But he was just one of those people that you just can’t help but love. He was a helpful guy and his memory will live on within this club.’

Tommy left us on the 15th day of May in 2008. His beloved Celtic was rocked to the core by the passing of such a great Celt. The scenes around Celtic Park as supporters of Celtic and many other clubs left their colours as a mark of respect will live with me always. It was a sea of colour, predominantly green and white, which seemed to want to reach out and embrace him. His beloved Celtic was locked in a tense battle for the championship and the players racked up eight straight wins to seal the title on an emotional night at Tannadice. It was a fitting tribute to Tommy and how he would have loved watching Celtic win another trophy. Of course, we knew him as Tommy Burns the footballer but to his family he was a husband and a dad and their loss was and remains huge. They can take pride though in the sort of man Tommy was and the huge affection he still engenders among Celtic supporters.

It has been a difficult period for Celtic supporters with the loss of Billy McNeill and Steve Chalmers and they join the list of legends of this remarkable football club who will never be forgotten. Tommy Burns is there too; a fine Celt, a wonderful player and great human being.

Sleep well Tam. We won’t forget.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

A Hero Going Home

A Hero Going Home

The outpouring of genuine emotion over the passing of Billy McNeill reminds us of how closely we Celtic supporters are bonded to our stars of the past. Billy and his long time playing comrade, Steve Chalmers left our lives but the echoes of their achievements will long reverberate in the hearts of Celtic supporters. Not only did they help Celtic to a veritable cupboard full of honours and put the club on the European and World map; they did it playing a quintessentially Celtic style of football. They attacked with pace and skill and it is testimony to that great side that they scored so many goals. In that breakthrough season of 1965-66 they hit 106 league goals in 34 games. In their finest season of 1966-67 the tally was 111 league goals in 34 games. This was a side built to entertain their supporters and they did so in a manner which still has people who saw them play looking back wistfully.

There was genuine emotion at the passing of Billy McNeil and for all the eulogies and praise rightly heaped upon him by the great and the good of British football it was the ordinary fans who spoke most eloquently about what he meant to Celtic. It was the ordinary Celtic fan who worked hard all week and trooped along to Celtic Park in all weathers to roar their team on. They knew a player when they saw one and they knew that unique blend of talents, skills and attitude that made a good team. There were better ball players than McNeill in Stein’s fabulous side, better passers of the ball too but no finer leader. Billy McNeill was imperious in the air and carried himself in a manner which spoke of dignity and determination in equal measure. As a boy, I’d stand in the old Jungle as anticipation built ahead of a game listening as the songs echoed around the stadium and the butterflies filled the stomach. Then I’d see Billy leading the team out of the tunnel, chest puffed up, filling those hoops like a real Celtic captain. You knew then you had a chance against anybody.

Those of us who invest so much of our lives in following the fortunes of Celtic know well the place men like Billy and Steve Chalmers have in our history and in our hearts. Football is a unique game in the sense that it grew from the working classes whose teams represented their communities. Few clubs in world football are as embedded in their community as Celtic is. This goes back to their very foundation when a marginalised, impoverished and often despised section of Scottish society created something uniquely their own. Celtic Football Club wasn’t just a vehicle for entertaining people on a Saturday afternoon; it was the physical representation of a community and it carried their hopes and dreams on their shoulders. The initial success of Celtic was so spectacular that a community took delight in them as it gave those with little a chance to be winners in what was a harsh time for those caught at the bottom of the heap. For a couple of hours on a Saturday they could be transported out of their hard lives and had heroes to laud in song and story. The flow of Celtic’s history matches that of the people who founded and continue to support the club. That impoverished Irish ghetto which gave birth to the club has long gone and its people have rightly taken their place in every echelon of Scottish society.

There are of course still echoes of the sort of prejudice the club and its community faced in its early days but they are the death rattle of a slowly dying culture which the vast majority of Scots reject utterly. The rise of Celtic from those humble east end streets to the sunlit uplands of Lisbon in May 1967 has what Billy McNeill called a ‘fairy tale’ aspect about it. The sporting importance of Lisbon is of course to be found in Celtic’s destruction of the smothering defensive football of Inter Milan. The social importance of what McNeill and his comrades achieved then was a seminal moment in the history of the Scots-Irish community and signalled that they had arrived; that they were now a fully integrated part of Scotland and no longer the ‘invisible people’ to be marginalised and ignored.

 The years following Lisbon saw many more people from wider Scottish society identify with Celtic as their team and that fact would have filled the hearts of the founding generation with pride. This club isn’t about where you come from, the school you attended or your ethnicity; it’s about sharing a common vision of being a force for good in society and living up to its founding principles of charity and inclusion. Those ideals are at the heart of what we should strive for as Celtic men and women and as a club.

It is fitting that on this weekend when we said farewell to one of our greatest sons that his club will have an opportunity to clinch what will be their 50th league title. They will then have an opportunity to create their own piece of modern history by going for an unparalleled treble-treble. McNeill was in the end not just a Celtic player, Manager and ambassador; he was at heart a Celtic fan and the club’s successes will have delighted him as much as any of us who back the club from the stands. We say goodbye to a truly great Celt and take pride that such a man wore our green and white shirt with such distinction.

The great Native American leader Tecumseh once spoke of how a warrior should die without fear or regret and said…

‘Sing your song of death and die like a hero going home.’

One of our great heroes is now going home but his deeds will live on. His people will take pride in telling their children and grand-children, ‘I saw him play and he was one of the greats. He was our Cesar.’

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Farewell to the King

Farewell to the King

What can you say about Billy McNeill that hasn’t already been written?  He was a leader, the alpha male of a pride of magnificent Lions who mauled all comers in Scottish football for a decade and led Celtic to a place among the most feared teams in European football.  Billy was man in whom his team mates and the supporters had supreme confidence. Jimmy was the brilliant virtuoso, Bertie and Bobby the engine of a fantastic side, Lennox and those wonderfully swashbuckling full backs tore into teams but it was Billy who inspired, cajoled and led them with such dignity and pride. Here was a man you were glad you had on your side; a man the famous hooped shirt was made for. Some players you admire for their guile or their trickery but with Billy the first impression you got was that here was the natural leader of the team.

In memory’s view he is eternally young, standing proudly on the marble dais of the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon, the sun glinting of the polished silver of the European cup as he hoists it towards the azure sky. John Clarke, his lifelong friend said of that magical moment…

‘The look on Billy’s face lifting that trophy; It says: ‘I am the ruler. We rule the world. We are the best.’

In those magical years at Celtic, Stein and his green machine smashed record after record as the trophy famine and disappointments of the hungry years were replaced by a banquet of exquisite football and a cabinet full of honours. McNeill, ever his Manager’s officer on the field, led Celtic to 9 titles in succession 7 Scottish Cups and 6 league cups and all of this whilst remaining true contenders on the European stage. No one wanted to be paired with Celtic in the draw for the European Cup in those heady days when Scottish football was reaching its zenith.

For Billy McNeill though the road to the sunlit uplands of footballing glory could have been very different. His father, Jim, was a fitness instructor in the army and Billy spent two years of his childhood in England as his old man was posted there. He played rugby at his English school for two years and showed some promise at the game. Fate though would take the family back to Scotland and if his father wasn’t interested in football, his aunt Grace was and took Billy to see Celtic for the first time in 1949. For the young boy standing at the old Celtic Park watching Tully, Collins and McPhail defeat Aberdeen 4-2 it was to be the start of a love affair with Celtic which would endure all his life. As a Bellshill boy he did watch Motherwell play on occasion but at heart he was a Celtic fan. Football in the late 1940s was a physical game played on pitches the modern player would baulk at. For spectators the conditions were Spartan and Billy said in later life that his aunt Grace actually lost her shoe on the terraces on that October day when he first saw Celtic play. That didn’t stop her bringing Billy back though and like many a young boy of that era he saw a Celtic side capable of brilliance at times but also frustratingly inconsistent.

Like most boys of his era he played football and developed into an imposing defender for his school, Our Lady’s High in Motherwell. As a teenager, he was soon playing for Scotland at schoolboy level an impressed a watching Celtic scout enough in a match against England that he was signed by the club. Celtic’s youth coach in that year of 1957 was a certain Jock Stein and Billy recalled Jock saying only half-jokingly to his mother, ‘If he steps out of line is it okay if I skelp him?’  Stein was already developing into a talented coach and young Billy could not have imagined then how their fates would be entwined.

His early months as a youth player at Celtic saw his look on as Celtic demolished Rangers 7-1 in the League Cup final of 1957 and he must have thought he was joining a club on the rise. However the archaic management structure of the club in which Chairman Bob Kelly told Manager McGrory who to put into the team and who to leave out took its toll. Good players were sold; wages were poor for such a big club and the one shining light at Celtic Park, the talented coach running the youth side was eventually allowed to leave for Dunfermline. McNeill developed into a very good centre half and represented Scotland in an era when his club was struggling badly. By 1965 he was at the peak of his powers but as a 25 year old with a wife and growing family to support he was actually contemplating his future. Spurs had shown some interest in him and it was well known that the very effective English side of the time paid well. Fate however intervened when Celtic’s autocratic chairman, Bob Kelly, saw sense and appointed Jock Stein as Manager. Things were about change dramatically at Celtic Park and Billy McNeill was about to lead Celtic into an era of unprecedented success.

Celtic’s first great test under Stein came in the final of the Scottish Cup in 1965. In a match which the Fifers had led twice, Celtic refused to wilt as they had done so often in the eight barren years which had followed the 7-1 league cup victory over Rangers. Bertie Auld, resigned by Stein, equalised as the huge Celtic support in the 108,000 crowd dared to dream they could at last win a trophy. Then as the game ticked down to the closing minutes Celtic won a corner and the ball was flighted into the Dunfermline box by the unerring right foot of Charlie Gallagher. What followed was one of those moments in football which signals that something had changed and changed irrevocably. McNeill leapt into the air with that determination and forcefulness which he was becoming known for. He connected with the ball perfectly and it crashed into the net behind Jim Herriot. The vast majority of supporters at Hampden let out a huge roar. It was a roar of joy, of relief, of release from the pent up frustration stored up during the bitter years of failure. Celtic were in the in the lead and nothing would stop them winning that cup. The dam had burst, Celtic were back and their young skipper had in that one iconic moment signalled that all things were now possible for Stein and his young side.

Few at Hampden on that spring day in 1965 could have guessed the heights those men in hooped shirts would attain in the years ahead. Not only did they embark on a decade laden with silverware and glorious memories; they did it playing wonderful attacking football in the best traditions of Celtic. Billy McNeill would become a familiar figure raising cups above his head and leading Celtic into so many new adventures. Lisbon in 1967 was of course the pinnacle of his career and on that shining day beneath the Portuguese sun Billy led his men onto the emerald turf of the Estadio Nacional and into immortality.

Following Celtic is an emotional journey on which we share all the joys and sorrows, ups and down, triumphs and disasters this fine old sport has to offer. Today at Celtic Park his beloved Celtic will hopefully take another step towards the league championship. For the tens of thousands of Celtic supporters attending the game it will be a day of pride and tears. One of our finest sons will be remembered in song, in 67 seconds of rapturous applause and in a thousand memories. There he stands at the bottom of the Celtic way immortalised in bronze so that future generations will always remember him. Children as yet unborn will ask their parents and grandparents who he was and will be told, ‘he was our captain, our leader and one of the greatest men ever to wear that famous shirt.’

Rest in peace, Billy; few men have worn that famous shirt with the distinction and honour you did. As long as there is a Celtic Football Club we’ll speak your name with pride and remember your deeds with a smile.

Goodbye Skipper and thank you.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

The day the music died

The day the music died

The first concert I ever attended took place at the old Apollo theatre in Glasgow. I still remember the excitement of waiting for the Eagles to take the stage and then that exhilaration which gripped the audience when they started to play. I was just 15 but found in that concert the ability to lose yourself in the music; to be so caught up in enjoying yourself that you forget all your worries for a while. I can remember heading home after it with my friends soaked in sweat from all the jumping around we did but totally happy. The only thing which matched that feeling was watching Celtic win a big game.

Growing up in Glasgow in the 1970s we were always aware of the struggle and suffering going on just a hundred miles away in the north of Ireland. I would come home from school and be greeted with news items about the latest tragedy and looking back the reporting of events there was always a little skewed. ‘Here are those two tribes of Paddies killing each other again while the good guys from England tried to keep them apart’ was the general drift of the narrative. However the Irish community in Glasgow always had a network of friends and family there and the tales we heard from folk on the ground often differed from the narrative on the news. No one who is being objective can deny that there were truly dreadful acts carried out by the para-militaries on all sides of the conflict but there remains an underlying conviction that the state forces at play were themselves fighting a covert and very dirty war. A war they tried to hide from the public and still remain very reluctant to discuss.

Those who were interested in what was going on in the six counties didn’t have to rely solely on the mainstream news outlets, back then you could always buy left wing or Republican newspapers at certain stores in places like Glasgow or from street vendors hanging around Celtic Park on match days for an alternative slant on events. There were occasional documentary series like ‘World in Action’ which gave a more balanced insight into events. I always found talking to people who travelled over for the football to be most illuminating though. The tales they told suggested the forces of law and order could be far from impartial at times.

This week I finally got around to watching the excellent documentary ‘The Miami Showband Massacre’ on Netflix and it delved into some dark places indeed. The band was made up of young men from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and was of mixed religion. They didn’t play political music but rather offered a safe space for young people of both communities to come together and leave the stress and worry of the troubles behind for a couple of happy hours and just enjoy being young. Footage of their concerts from the time shows a sea of happy young people lost in the music and finding that same escape and exhilaration I did at my first concert.

The band played a concert at Banbridge in County Down in July 1975 and after the gig loaded their mini bus up for the long drive back to Dublin. As they travelled down the A1 towards Newry in the darkness they were stopped by what appeared to be a British Army checkpoint. Stephen Travers, the band’s bass player who hailed from Carrick-on-Suir in county Tipperary was initially unconcerned as such checks were not uncommon in those times. The band were ordered out of their mini bus and lined up in a layby by the road side by men in the uniform of the Ulster Defence Regiment, a locally raised unit within the British army. Travers also noted a man with a strong English accent there too.

At least four of the men in uniform that night were indeed soldiers in the British Army’s UDR regiment but they were also members of the UVF. As the band waited by the roadside the soldiers attempted to load a bomb onto their mini bus with, it seems, the intention of it exploding as the group headed south. It is thought that the bomb was meant to explode en-route, so that it would appear that the band was republican bomb-smugglers and thus stricter security measures would be established north and south of the border.

Things went awry though when the bomb exploded prematurely killing two of the soldiers handling it. One can imagine the confusion and terror the band felt as the explosion blew them off their feet. The other members of the ‘army’ patrol then began firing their weapons at the band members killing three of them and seriously wounding two others. Steven Travers’ wounds suggest they used ‘dum-dum’ bullets which are filed to ensure they fragment on impact thus inflicting dreadful internal injuries.  It was, even by the standards of the time, a cynical and despicable crime.

Three men were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Two were serving soldiers and one was a former soldier; all were thought to be members of the ‘Glenanne gang’ a loose alliance of rogue UDR soldiers, RUC officers and loyalist paramilitaries. The role of British military intelligence in supplying and directing the gang in their activities remains a point of great contention. Collusion between state agents and loyalist paramilitaries during those dark years remains an area shrouded in disinformation and obfuscation but there is little doubt it went on. Many of the counter-insurgency tactics the British military employed in their colonial struggles were imported into Northern Ireland with deadly effect. The sheer hypocrisy of claiming to be upholding law and order, while assisting in, covering up or failing to halt serious offences occurring, remains an utter scandal.

What I took from the documentary though and subsequent reading about the attack on the Miami Showband was not just anger at the inexcusable behaviour of those who carried out and assisted in the execution of this atrocious crime but admiration for the courage and integrity of those who survived it. Stephen Travers was a man clearly traumatised and changed utterly by what he had suffered and witnessed that night but he used his pain to try and find some truth about what happened. The documentary revealed a little of the journey he has been on in his quest to find truth. It took immense moral and physical courage to meet and speak with a UVF spokesman about their version of events. Even when the man was not being entirely honest about what occurred, Stephen calmly told him so but also simultaneously assured him that their dialogue should continue and be carried out without rancour and recrimination. This ability to listen to the ‘other’ is something which was wholly missing in the dark days of the 1970s.

Remarkably he carries little bitterness and spoke eloquently about the need to confront the past with honesty something many, including the British establishment seem unwilling to contemplate as yet. He is rightly angry at delays, cover ups and barriers put in his path to stop him learning the truth of what happened that July night in 1975 and who ordered it. The victims of the conflict are often the ones who receive the least attention but long after those who perpetrated such crimes are gone and forgotten we’ll remember people like Stephen. Such voices speak quietly for the victims on all sides who were guilty of nothing save being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stephen Travers courage reminds us that there are still good people who can rise above tribalism and petty politics to remind us that the victims of violence aren’t statistics but real human beings who are physically and psychologically scarred for life by their experiences. The Miami Showband documentary reminded me in some ways of another documentary film I watched late last year. The Ballymurphy Precedent,’ which told the story of the army’s killing of civilians in Belfast in 1971, again reminded us of how the innocent suffer.

The words of Briege Voyle, daughter of Joan Connolly, one of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre echoed in my mind as I watched the documentary about what occurred on a roadside in County Down all those years ago…

‘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.’

Stephen Travers is closer to the truth now than he was in the past but some still hide behind their lies and cover ups. I hope one day he finds out the whole story and finds some sort of closure. Like so many others he was a good man caught up in dreadful events.

Rest in peace Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty, Brian McCoy and all the innocent victims caught up in the troubles. The best memorial to them all would be to ensure such things never happen again.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Mind the gap

                                                                                                                                                     Mind the Gap

There was a feeling of déjà vu among Celtic supporters after last weekend’s win in the derby match against Rangers. Once again the visiting side lost their discipline and finished the game with three players either red carded or, in the case of Ryan Kent, facing an inevitable ban once we got through the charade of an appeal which had no purpose other than to make him available for the Hearts game. The media of course presented it as an ‘Old Firm shame game’ despite Celtic’s players being guilty of little more than winding up more volatile Rangers players. Such gamesmanship is as old as football and to take the bait as spectacularly as Morelos did is just plain stupid. Scott Brown was accused of behaving like a ‘complete tit’ by Journalist Graham Speirs who was unimpressed by his winding up of opposition players but anyone who has played football at any level knows there are players out there who like to give the opposition the ‘verbals.’ They also know that the best thing to do is to smile in their faces not plant an elbow on their chin. Alfredo Morelos is responsible for his red card and no one else. Steven Gerrard said after the game of Scott Brown…

‘You're playing against a player who loves to antagonise. Morelos and Kent are both provoked. Celtic fans have the right to celebrate but not to do it right in your face. Halliday has the right to protect his own people. The guy who antagonised it all from the beginning deserves to be punished as well. When you're provoked, it's only fair that both sides get punished in my view. We've hurt ourselves badly this season with a lack of discipline.’
So Halliday was ‘protecting his own people?’ Against what exactly, someone smiling at them? Gerrard has played at the highest level for 20 years and was no stranger to winding up opposition players or fans on occasion during his playing career. He rightly fined Morelos for his violent reaction and in doing so admits his player’s guilt. His statement that Ryan Kent’s punch on Scott Brown wasn’t violent simply defies belief though. Does he actually believe this guff or is he just trotting out nonsense like that to justify his doomed appeal against Kent’s inevitable ban? Callum McGregor was close to the mark when he said... 
'If you look back to December's game, Rangers deserved to win and they celebrated on the pitch just as much as we did. We took it on the chin, we accepted that - we weren't going to shout about it and make a noise and try and deflect from the actual result.'
He really does have a lot to learn about being a manager as his utterances prove this season. His comment after drawing at Pittodrie this season that Aberdeen were not in Rangers class seems very hollow after the Dons dumped them out of both cups and defeated them at Ibrox in the SPFL too. Morelos continues to be an enigma who scores most of his goals against lesser opposition just as Kris Boyd did during his time at Ibrox. When the chips are down in the big matches with Celtic, the Columbian is either firing blanks or petulantly stomping and snarling his way through matches to no avail. Meanwhile the SFA continue to bumble along like the committee of an Ayrshire Bowling club and there was a risible reaction to their decision to send a notice of complaint to Scott Brown who is charged with breaching Disciplinary Rule 77 which states…
 ‘A recognised football body, club, official, Team Official, other member of Team Staff, player, match official or other person under the jurisdiction of the Scottish FA shall, at all times, act in the best interests of Association Football. Furthermore such person or body shall not act in any manner which is improper or use any one, or a combination of, violent Conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.’

Brown, who took an elbow to the face in the game as well as that punch from Kent, was guilty of nothing more than raising his hands in victory near those poor, sensitive souls in the away end who fill the air with bile every time they visit Celtic Park. We see players showing out to opposition fans every week in the SPFL, indeed Mr Halliday wasn’t slow to gesture to the Celtic supporters after his team scored a goal against Celtic recently. We’ve also witnessed Kyle Lafferty, openly celebrate in front of Celtic fans after scoring a rare goal. I’m not complaining about any of this, it’s all part of football and you take the rough with the smooth. The SFA have contrived once more to make themselves look foolish with this trumped up charge against Brown. It did not go unnoticed that his hearing comes in early May and if the charge is upheld Brown could well miss the game at Pittodrie and/or Ibrox.

Celtic will vigorously fight the charge of course and so they should as they have logic as well as video evidence on their side. Mind you when did logic ever influence the folk who make decisions at Hampden? They have led Scottish football into the wilderness with predictable ineptitude over the years and I have little confidence they’ll show common sense over the latest storm in a tea cup involving Brown. It’s fair to say that none of this would be being discussed had not Andy Halliday lost the plot and charged 40 yards to confront Brown like an emotional 5 year old. As their season turned to ash before their eyes, he behaved like a spoilt brat instead of leaving the field with that ‘dignity’ they’re always going on about. Contrast his behaviour with Celtic leaving the field at Ibrox after December’s defeat.

The common thread here is a team unable to take defeat with any grace. It’s plain to see that they really thought this would be their year and believed the press hype which surrounded their appointment of Gerrard and the signing of Defoe and Steven Davis in the January transfer window. Even former Celtic star, Charlie Nicholas, stated that they’d win the title. Disappointment, it is said, is to be found in the gap between our expectations and reality. The reality for Rangers is that despite spending millions on players and Celtic having a host of players injured this season they are still a country mile behind the Champions in the SPFL and out of both cups. Like any side they can rouse themselves when facing Celtic and give them a real game but they have spilled points against the better sides in the SPFL and that has killed any hopes of a title challenge. The frustration of their season ending is such disappointment is a more likely underlying cause of their poor behaviour than anything Scott Brown did.

Celtic will now march on to their eighth consecutive title and continue a once in a lifetime journey towards the magical ten. The Board has a big decision to make about who will lead the side next season and should Neil Lennon complete the treble it would be hard to bet against it being him. Whoever it is will deal with a squad requiring investment and reshaping to ensure this golden opportunity isn’t lost.

This season has been a tumultuous one on and off the field in Scottish football but as Celtic close in on ten in a row I get the feeling we will see much more controversy and discord. Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football is too much for some to take. We saw that last Sunday.