Friday, 20 April 2018

A Harsh Reality

A Harsh Reality

Celtic’s stroll to victory over Rangers in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final at Hampden Park on Sunday was just about the most one sided and stress free derby I’ve ever watched. Rangers arrived at Hampden making noises which betrayed either an ill-conceived over confidence or perhaps it was some sort of cock-eyed attempt to push Celtic into a state of nervousness about the fixture. Tales of cheering in the dressing room at Ibrox when the draw paired them with Celtic seemed a lifetime ago as the blue half of Hampden melted away in the face of a Celtic onslaught which simply blew their side away. In those closing 15 minutes, a demoralised side was chasing shadows, as a dejected support was already on its way home. Sports Journalist, Graham Spiers, summed it up when he wrote…. ‘Utter humiliation for Rangers at Hampden. They were treated with contempt by Celtic.’

This, the latest in a series of defeats against Brendan Rodgers Celtic, was in some ways the most damaging. Hope, it is said, is the thing which kills. Many Rangers supporters approached the match at Hampden with a degree of unrealistic optimism based on their narrow 3-2 defeat to Celtic at Ibrox a month before. They did play reasonably well in that game but faced a Celtic side which gifted them the opening goal, played the last 30 minutes with ten men and still came from behind twice to beat them. Celtic did what they needed to do to win the match and Rodgers sorted out the defensive errors which made the Ibrox game tighter than it needed to be.

Celtic started the game at Hampden well and demonstrated a degree of footballing mastery over their opponents which had their fans confident that the real Celtic was yet again turning up when it mattered most. Brown was imperious, McGregor full of running and guile and Dembele demonstrating that when he is in the mood no defence in Scotland can contain him. The whole team played with conviction and a confidence which is born of belief in themselves, the team and the manager. Contrast a Rangers side, seemingly confused about the shape they were meant to be adopting, to a Celtic side moving the ball with ease around the pitch and simply playing around the congested midfield. Tactically and technically, Celtic was streets ahead.

Rodgers, who has 7 Hampden appearances under his belt and has recorded 7 wins there, had said in the run up to the game that Rangers should be, ‘careful what they wish for.’  He knows well that good teams should do their talking on the field and save the cheering until victory is certain. He also respects all opposition sides and prepares his team in a professional and thorough manner. His ten games without defeat against Rangers eclipses Walter Smith’s nine games undefeated in the period between 1995-97. One English based newspaper said of Rodgers’ hold over Rangers….

He is no longer a monkey on Rangers’ back; he is a two hundred pound boulder.’

I’m sure Brendan Rodgers felt a little sympathy for Graham Murty, an honest and seemingly decent man, who stood looking very alone amid a crowd, watching his team being dismantled by clearly superior opposition. Striker Leigh Griffiths though was less charitable and echoed the thoughts of many fans when he said…

“That was a game that they cheered for. Their manager said that, but you should be careful what you wish for in case it comes back to bite you on the arse. You always want to beat your rivals and, from start to finish, we dominated the game in every aspect.”

Murty may have deserved better than the squabbling and insubordinate reaction of his players in the wake of the defeat but it is hard to feel any sympathy for supporters who fix banners reading; ‘We Deserve Better’ to the training ground gates. Such an attitude of entitlement betrays a mind-set which has still to come to terms fully with the implications of the implosion at Ibrox in 2012 which saw the old club liquidated. There is a new reality in Scottish football which many of their followers have yet to grasp. Not only are Rangers now forced to operate within the same financial rules as the rest of the clubs in the league, they also face a Celtic streets ahead in both footballing terms and in business acumen which helps to sustain footballing success. There can be no big name stars brought in to Ibrox these days using dodgy tax avoidance schemes. There is no David Murray figure with access to pots of borrowed capital to boast; ‘if they put down a fiver we’ll put down a tenner.’ Nor is there a compliant and fawning media to uncritically peddle the puffed up pro-Rangers narrative we were fed in the bygone days of yore. Rangers are now learning the harsh realities of living within your means. Something Fergus McCann taught Celtic over 20 years ago.

Celtic now move forward confident that they will soon clinch their seventh successive title and with a realistic opportunity to complete a historic second successive Treble. Nothing can be taken for granted as Motherwell will line up at Hampden in May with their usual determined and direct approach to the game. It will be far from easy but Celtic have the winning mentality Rodgers often speaks of.

He is rebuilding his reputation at Celtic and has been linked already with the upcoming job at Arsenal when Arsene Wenger leaves his post at the end of the season. When asked if Celtic would allow Arsenal to approach Rodgers, Desmond replied:

"Absolutely. I don't think you can put handcuffs on anybody if they want to go to a club as good as Arsenal. It will be Brendan's decision and his decision only. I'm glad he's the favourite. He's an outstanding person. We wouldn't want him to leave but we won't force him to stay. Hopefully his love for the club and the setup here will induce him to stay at the club."

On the surface that statement by Desmond sounds ominous for Celtic fans but it contains two huge questions. Would Arsenal be interested in Rodgers and would Rodgers be interested in Arsenal? He is a young coach at 45 with plenty of time to move on to pastures new when he has completed his project at Celtic. I believe he is happy and committed to Celtic for a while yet. He has manifestly conquered Scotland but sees his real challenge in smashing through the glass ceiling Celtic currently encounter in Europe. He was asked recently about his future at Celtic and smiled as he replied…

‘There is still a lot of work for me to do, to achieve on the pitch and off the pitch. But you can only do that if you’re happy and as for me, I couldn’t be happier at this club. The support I get from the board is all very aligned, very clear and that allows me to work in confidence. It gives stability to the team and to the staff and everyone. I am looking for the next steps to take and we are already thinking of how we can improve next year. How we can be better in our form and game, in all aspects. I might get more money elsewhere but what I’ve learnt is that happiness is the most important thing. As long as I feel that way, then I’m really happy to be here. My ambition is for Celtic. I’m not worried about myself and my own ambition. I want to sustain this level of success for as long as I can.’

It may be somewhat ominous for the other sides in Scottish football to hear, but Rodgers sounds like a man likely to stick around at Celtic Park for a good while yet.  He is a top manager and brings all the skills and contacts which come with that but more than that, he is a Celtic supporter thoroughly enjoying his time at the club he has such affection for. He also knows that it is within his grasp to write new chapters in Celtic’s history and take his place among the greats who have served the club over the last 130 years.

As most of you reading these words will know, once Celtic is in your heart it is hard to walk away. I hope Brendan Rodgers stays around for a few years yet and joins the legends adorning the stadium walls.

Friday, 13 April 2018

The History of the Poor

One of the more incongruous images to emerge on social media in recent weeks was taken at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium a few years ago. It shows a group of City fans dressed in a variety of odd outfits and holding a banner identifying them as being from East Belfast. Nothing unusual in that you might think as many in Ireland follow teams in the English or Scottish Leagues. What struck me about the banner they held though was the phrase emblazoned on it. It read; ‘The Famine is Over’ a reference to a deplorable song which was declared racist by a Scottish judge as it poured scorn onto a particular group in Scottish society and invited them to ‘go home. 

Those who sing or refer to such a song in banners at a football match show a huge lack of self-awareness. They also demonstrate a complete lack of historical knowledge and indeed human empathy. The events known as an Gorta Mor (The great hunger) killed over a million people between 1845-52 and saw Ireland’s population plummet by almost a quarter as mass emigration combined with hunger and disease. The term ‘famine’ is still a subjective one as Ireland was an exporter of food throughout the period.  Great Hunger scholar, Professor Christine Keneally, tells us that:

‘Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women, and children died of starvation and related diseases. Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon, and ham actually increased during the Famine. This food was shipped from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland: Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee, and Westport.

What is clear is that many landowners, often from the detached comfort of England, saw the unfolding catastrophe in Ireland as an opportunity to be rid of peasants from their land. There was more profit to be made by turning the land into grazing pastures than smallholdings for Irish farmers so evictions on a huge scale were commonplace. A few Landlords tried to help the people resettle in places such as Canada but most demonstrated a degree of heartlessness which is difficult to comprehend unless viewed through the looking glass of contempt they held for most of the native Irish.  The penal Laws had reduced the majority of Irish people to virtual serfs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society. Some of these laws were changed in the decades before the great hunger but the Catholic Irish were expected to know their place and that place was at the bottom of society. A French visitor to Ireland in the years before the great hunger, Gustave de Beaumont, commented…

‘In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland. To explain the social condition of such a country, it would be necessary to recount its miseries and sufferings; the history of the poor is the history of Ireland.’

However, the poor treatment of the native Irish by many landlords was more than matched by a government in London which behaved in a manner which can only be described as callous. Ireland was a full part of the United Kingdom following the Act of 1801 which abolished the Dublin Parliament. The ‘Mother of all Parliaments,’ put a man in charge of famine relief who made public knowledge his disdain for the Irish. Charles Trevelyan stated at the height of Ireland’s suffering…

‘The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated… the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine but the moral evil of the selfish, Perverse and turbulent character of the people.’

Thus a people exploited, dispossessed, impoverished and mismanaged on a monumental scale are said to be architects of their own misfortune. Trevelyan’s government spent around £7m on famine relief and public works. These works included building docks and ‘famine roads’ which often went nowhere. The remains of these roads can still be seen today and bear silent witness to the suffering of a hungry people forced to do hard labour in return for barely adequate food. The £7m spent on such projects in the years of An Gorta Mor represented just one half of one per-cent of the UK’s GDP. Consider that the UK government paid out £20m to compensate slave owners when the barbarism of slavery was abolished in the decade before the ‘famine.’

The great hunger may have had its roots in the potato blight which robbed the poorest in society of their staple food but by simply closing the Irish ports to food exports as they had done in the past, the government could have averted disaster. Instead, the needs of exporters to make money took precedence over a people who were considered expendable.

Even those capable of fleeing the country to Liverpool, Glasgow or London were met by the sort of racism which by modern standards is simply appalling. Punch Magazine satired the Irish migrants in England in the following manner…

‘A creature manifestly between a gorilla and a negro is to be met in some of the lowest quarters of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of Irish Yahoo. When conversing with its kind it talks in a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover a climbing animal and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder laden with a hod of bricks.’

Nor was such racism confined to satirical magazines, often more ‘educated’ men were guilty of astonishing bigotry. James Anthony Ford, Professor of History at Oxford University was quoted as saying…

‘They are more like squalid apes than human beings; unstable as water. Only efficient military despotism can succeed in Ireland. The wild Irish understand only force.’

Such attitudes were common and helped shape the wholly inadequate government response to the catastrophe unfolding in Ireland. The potato blight arrived in Scotland, Wales and England too, causing much hardship, but only in Ireland did it lead to disaster.

The hunger and disease which claimed so many in those sad years paid no heed to the religious persuasion of those caught up in An Gorta Mor. In the north east of the country Catholics and Protestants alike suffered great hardships. In recent times there has been a growing recognition among Irish Protestants that the narrative of this being a disaster affecting Catholics only has been exposed as false. In the heart of Unionist Belfast lie the remains of hundreds of men, women and children buried in a huge pit. The grave lies in Shankill cemetery and is only one of several such graves in and around the city. Jim McAuley, vice chair of Shankill Area Social History group stated at a recent memorial service for victims of An Gorta Mor…

We were never taught this in school – never heard about it in any history. Occasions like this help reconcile people to realise that we all suffered.’

In one week in February 1847 the Lurgan workhouse reported an astonishing 95 deaths from famine related illnesses. Of 919 recorded deaths in Armagh workhouse in the year 1847, almost 55% were registered as Protestants. The myth that the famine was an exclusively Catholic tragedy does not stand up to scrutiny. That is why those football supporters with their ‘Famine is over' flag need to urgently learn some history as well as some empathy. They may think they are goading or disrespecting one side of the community but in reality they are disrespecting their own forebears who perished alongside their Catholic countrymen in those dark times.

The famine is over but the ignorance goes on.

On Monday 18th May 1840, a new born infant drew his first breath in a poor, rural cottage set in a land about to be visited by a calamity which still echoes down the years. That baby would spend his childhood in a country where a million would perish from hunger and related diseases while food was exported under armed guard. A million more would flee to Britain, Canada, America and many other places to escape poverty and destitution.

Eventually this child too would be forced to leave his native land and look to better his lot in Scotland. In time he would grow, educate himself and try to make a difference to the poor he found around him in his adopted city. He was to become a great humanitarian unlike those who oversaw the Irish catastrophe which occurred in his childhood and he spent his whole life working to help the poor. His name was Andrew Kerins but he is better known of course as Brother Walfrid.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Mickey Mouse League

The Mickey Mouse League 
Grim faced Merseyside Policemen watched the tightly packed fans press towards the turnstiles. Thousands had travelled from Scotland, Ireland and further afield to see if Celtic could overcome a strong Liverpool side studded with stars such as Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Sami Hyypia. It would be a big ask for Martin O'Neil's side to better the 1-1 draw they had to settle for in Glasgow in a match they dominated. The fans clad in green were in good voice and the Anfield Road echoed to a song born in Glasgow but much copied by Liverpool's rivals across Stanley Park. Thousands of voices sang in unison.... 

'For it's a grand old team to play for,  
for it's a grand old team to see 
And if you know the history,  
it's enough to make your heart go oh, oh, oh, oh ... 

Big Steph McLaughlan sang along but kept one eye on the Policeman at the turnstile in front of him. He and his long-time girlfriend, Kerry, had one ticket between the two of them and were preparing to 'double up' once they reached the turnstile. He had blagged his way past the cordon around the stadium with a colour photocopy of the ticket Kerry had in her hand. It might fool a bored cop but not a sharp turnstile operator. He was determined to see this vital match but to his dismay the cop ahead was asking individual fans to show their tickets. 'Here, Kerry,' he muttered through the noise. If I get chased I'll get ye in the boozer after the game.' She smiled that smile which first attracted him to her'Don't panic Steph, you're getting in and so am I.' At that point the young Policeman asked to see her ticket which she held up for inspection. The Policeman nodded at her and looked towards Steph, at that point Kerry distracted him, 'Here mate, can ye buy a pint in this stand?' As the cop momentarily re-focused on Kerry, the sharp-witted Glasgow girl surreptitiously slipped her ticked into his hand. Steph held the ticket up for inspection and was nodded towards the turnstile.  

The final hurdle faced them now as they entered the extremely narrow opening to the turnstile. Steph gave the ticket back to Kerry and squeezed as close to her as he could. The grey-haired turnstile operator had no doubt seen it all in his time but as they hoped, he took the ticket and the accompanying £20 note with no hint at all that anything was amiss. The turnstile clicked and they both squeezed into Anfield Stadium. Steph grinned and hugged his lady'Yass! Made it darlin!' 

At that precise moment Martin O'Neil had called his players to silence in the away dressing room under the main stand. He looked around at the faces staring back at him. Grim faced Lennon, ready for war. Thompson, quiet and determined. Hartson, focused as always. Larsson, the consummate pro, ready to give his all and young Maloney, fresh faced and un-phased by the challenge ahead. The Irishman waited for a second, heightening the tension before he spoke. He looked around the dressing room and pointed out young Shaun Maloney...  

'This is a European quarter-final and this boy is only nineteen, but he might never get this opportunity again.' He looked around the older guys and added: 'You guys in your thirties probably won't get the opportunity again to prove a point, to prove to England and Europe that you deserve respect, and that you are worthy of respect, and that you are worthy of a place in the semi-finals.'  

By the time he had finished the Celtic players were ready to go out onto the pitch and run through brick walls if they needed to. Henrik Larsson would recall that talk in later years. 'The talk he gave before the game made everything sink in for me. I said to myself 'Fucking hell, I will have no regrets after this game.'  As the Celtic players ran onto the field to be greeted by an almighty roar, there was a determination about them. They knew the arrogance of the English media and the way they regarded Scottish football. Now was the moment to shut a few big mouths and show them that Scottish sides could play the game at this level.  

There were Celtic supporters in every section of Anfield and they were making themselves heard. One half of the Anfield Road stand was packed with Celtic fans and Steph and Kerry were among them. There was no concern about where to sit as the entire away support was standing throughout the game. As the action roared from one end of the field to the other, they shouted, sang and just willed Celtic to score but it was Gerrard who flashed a shot past Rab Douglas' right hand post. They need not have worried about big Douglas on this night as former bricklayer was in supreme form and his confidence was spreading throughout the team. Celtic were creating as many chances as Liverpool and as half-time approached the hosts looked rattled. As Steph and Kerry looked towards the ominously quiet Kop, Alan Thompson lined up a free kick 30 yards from goal. The stadium held its breath expecting him to flight the ball over the wall. Instead the canny Geordie fired a low shot under the jumping wall which flashed into the net. As the Celtic fans celebrated wildly, the referee brought the first half to a close with Celtic deservedly leading 1-0. 

As Steph and Kerry sang their way through the half time break with thousands of other Celtic fans, Martin O'Neil was again marshalling his troops and finding the right words. John Hartson recalled... 

"The way he went around the dressing-room, every individual was given a specific talking to and the words certainly hit home and we went out in the second half and we were brilliant. That the team talk was special and hit home for every single player.' 

The expected Liverpool onslaught after the break didn't materialise as Celtic again gave as good as they got and in defence played with a fierce determination. As the game entered its final quarter, Liverpool became increasingly desperate and launched a series of attacks which were again repelled. Then with under ten minutes to go the decisive moment arrived. John Hartson played a one-two with strike partner Larsson and moved towards the Liverpool penalty box. He dropped the shoulder to gain a yard on the defender who was desperately trying to stop him shooting. Hartson then unleashed a venomous shot which flashed through the air and past the despairing hands of the diving Dudek. As the ball smashed into the top right- hand corner of the net, those backing Celtic exploded in sheer joy. This was the killer goal. Liverpool now needed to score three times in the remaining eight minutes and that wasn't going to happen. Celtic were through to the Semi-final and how their supporters roared out their victory songs. 

Steph and Kerry, along with thousands of other Celtic fans, floated through the last moments of the game on a cloud of joyous emotion. They had listened to the usual jibes of sections of the English media in the run up to the tie about Scottish football and were even informed by a few locals that Liverpool would take 4 or 5 off O'Neill's side. They had shut a few mouths tonight and that added to their joy. They knew that Celtic fans in Scotland and Ireland and indeed all over the world would be sharing their elation at that precise moment. As the final whistle sounded Steph and Kerry just hugged each other in silent delight as the thousands around jumped, sang and screamed out their delight.  

As the Celtic side ran to salute the fans and the red clad Liverpool side trooped off the fieldSteph, grinning from ear to ear, looked into Kerry's face. As the Celtic players danced and waved in front of the celebrating fans, Steph shouted above the din, 'Here Kerry, is it no time we got married?' She looked at him, her eyes wide in surprise, 'Is this the time or place for a proposal?' He nodded, 'the perfect time, whit dae ye say?'  She smiled, 'What do you think?' Before leaning forward and kissing him. 

In the aftermath of the match as Steph and Kerry headed back to their supporters' bus elated at both the football and their new-found status as an engaged couple, Paul Lambert was being interviewed by an English BBC reporter. 'Paul. You must be delighted with that result and display? The midfielder who held a Champions League winners medal from his time with Borussia Dortmund looked him in the eye and spoke words which had the watching hundreds of thousands of Celtic fans smiling in agreement, 'Aye, not bad for a team from a so-called Mickey Mouse league.' 

It was a famous victory for Celtic and that final in Seville didn't look like an impossible dream any more.