The changing of the guard
Paul Curran loved nothing more than the traditional family gatherings that took place every New Year for as long as he could remember. As a small boy he would perch on the couch watching as various family members drank, laughed, sang and on one memorable occasion, fight; but that episode involving his old man and Uncle Tony was never discussed. ‘Least said, soonest mended,’ as his mum often said. Now that he was 16 he held out some hope that his old man might finally allow him a bottle of beer. He stood in the bay window of the family flat in Dennistoun glancing down at the cold, dark street below. 1966 had begun with one of those freezing, foggy days and as darkness had fallen the temperature had plummeted further. ‘Taxi outside, ma,’ he called through to the kitchen where his mother was preparing food for the gathering. As the taxi opened he saw the familiar for of his Uncle Tony stumble out, carrier bags full of beer clutched in both hands. ‘It’s Uncle Tony, ma,’ Paul relayed to the kitchen. From the second floor window he could hear his uncle’s familiar laugh echo in the darkness as he shared a joke with his long suffering wife Sandra.
There was a family story told of the time Sandra had headed down to the Gorbals Pub where Tony spent a lot of his time and in front of the amused customers had plonked a plate of mince and potatoes onto the bar. As the they watched she took a knife and fork out of her coat pocket and placed them beside the plate saying, ‘You spend so much time in here you might as well have yer fuckin supper here as well!’ With that she stormed out of the bar amid good natured cheering from the locals. Tony, it is said, ate the lot without undue embarrassment. He was that sort of guy, Paul’s old man often said of his brother Tony, ‘He wouldn’t get a red face at a bonfire.’
Paul opened the door to Tony and Sandra who greeted him with a smile and a hug, ‘How’s young Tony boy? We goin’ tae see the famous Glasgow Celtic the morra?’ Paul grinned at him, ‘Aye, Uncle Tony, aboot time we won one of these New Year games.’ Young Paul was right there, it was 12 years since Celtic had last won one of the traditional New Year derby matches. His uncle grinned, ‘Jock has got the boys playing good fitbaw. We’ll gub them son, don’t you doubt it!’ Paul’s mum and dad greeted their guests too and they headed through to the living room. ‘You’re oan the records, son.’ Paul’s old man said to him, ‘nane ay that Bob Dylan stuff you listen tae and mind yer granda likes a bit of Jim Reeves.’ Paul sat by the six foot long radiogram which stood like a coffin on legs against one wall. He opened the lid and placed the first single on the turntable, ‘can’t go wrong with Sinatra’ he thought to himself as ‘Strangers in the night’ began.
More people arrived and the house was soon filled with laughter and noise. Paul knew it was his job to keep people supplied with drinks, empty ashtrays, bring in sandwiches and play the music. He didn’t mind any of it, he got to stay up much later than normal and enjoyed the family stories and songs he heard. As it neared 11 o’clock the music was turned off and family members took turns each at singing. The living room was crowded and a hush descended as Paul’s mum got things going with her usual rendition of Frankie and Johnny. He watched her as she sang before glancing around at the faces of various family friends and relatives. They seemed a little spellbound as her fine voice filled the room..
‘Frankie and Johnny were lovers, Oh Lordy how they could love.
Swore they’d be true to each other, as true as the stars up above,
He was her man but he was doing her wrong….’
There was a cheer when she finished singing and she smiled before handing the floor to her husband. There were unwritten rules about these events. You didn’t sing anyone else’s song, a man usually followed a woman singing and you only joined in when required. Paul watched his father begin his version of Sinatra’s ‘Chicago,’ which was well received too. He was surprised how well his old man was singing as he had downed a fair amount of alcohol. So it went on for a good half hour before Paul’s Uncle Tony’s turn arrived. He closed his eyes and began to sing…
‘In comes the Captain’s daughter, the Captain of the Yeos
Saying brave young Irishmen we’ll ne’r again be foes,
A thousand pounds I’ll give you and fly with thee,
I’ll dress myself in man’s attire and fight for liberty!
We are boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand,
to burst in twain the galling chain and free our native land.’
Paul glanced at his old man who had told his Uncle Tony in the past to cool it with the Irish songs at parties but tonight he looked on and smiled. Maybe the whisky had mellowed him. Paul could feel his eyes getting heavy as the party went on and headed for bed. His Uncle caught his eye and slurred, ‘See ye in the morning wee man, mark my words, we’re smashing that mob the morra!’ Paul smiled and entered his cold, dark bedroom closing the door to block out at least some of the noise from the party. He slipped into bed glancing at the pictures of green and white clad players which covered most of the walls in the room. The games with Rangers excited him; they had that unique flavour games between bitter rivals offered as well as an ever present air of menace. As sleep threw her veil over him he mumbled quietly, ‘Please God, just let them win, eh?’
Paul was well wrapped up in his heavy winter coat as he, his old man and Uncle walked along the Gallowgate to the General Wolfe Pub. Paul’s old man glanced into the crowded bar and nodded at him, ‘Inside the day son, too cauld to wait oot here.’ This was the first time Paul had entered a pub with his old fella and he felt a tingle of excitement. He stood in a corner of the smoky bar looking around as his father went to buy a round. His uncle looked at him, ‘I hear McNeill isn’t playing, that’ll upset the defence but I still think we have too much up front for the Huns tae handle.’ Paul agreed, ‘McBride is scoring some amount of goals, Uncle Tony.’ At that his father returned from the bar with two pints of beer and as Paul saw to his disappointment a half pint tumbler filled with lemonade. They spent an hour in the pub before heading out into the crowded pavements of the Gallowgate for the short walk to Celtic Park. This was the moment of truth. If Stein’s side were to finally win the title after 12 long and bitter years then they’d have to win matches like this and show they no longer had an inferiority complex when it came to playing Rangers.
As they stood in the packed Celtic end watching the game begin, Paul could feel the chill in the air and it got colder just 90 seconds into the game when Rangers opened the scoring. ‘Aw naw,’ mumbled his Uncle, ‘same old, same old.’ This was now a major test for Celtic and the team applied enormous pressure on the Rangers defence which through luck and bad finishing held on to their slender lead until half-time. ‘If we get wan they’ll crack,’ Paul’s father said, ‘they’ve hardly been up the park since they scored.’ Paul sure hoped so but so far it was the same old story; lots of Celtic pressure and nothing to show for it.
The second half began and Celtic picked up where they had left off. Wave after wave of attack broke on the Rangers defence as the huge Celtic support in the 65,000 crowd roared them on. Hughes was tormenting the Rangers defence on the rock hard pitch with his strong running and close control. Then a corner was clipped in from the left and the ever alert Chalmers met it with his head to equalise. A huge roar split the gloomy east end sky as the Celtic supporters celebrated. Paul and his old man locked in an embrace as Uncle Tony punched the air in delight, ‘Yessss! Come on Celtic!’ As the crowd settled a little and the songs began to cascade from the packed terraces onto the pitch, there was a feeling in the air that nothing would stop Celtic now. This was the changing of the guard, there were new masters in Scottish football now and they wore green and white hooped shirts.
So it was that that Celtic simply ripped Rangers apart on that gloomy afternoon in Glasgow’s east end. Chalmers scored three goals and Gallagher added another but the jewel in the crown was a magnificent shot from Bobby Murdoch which arrowed high into the net as Celtic Park celebrated wildly. Paul, his uncle and old man were in delirium as they watched it all unfold. The bitter years of defeat and disappointment were behind them, they all sensed that. There was no telling what Jock and his exciting young team would achieve in the years ahead but one thing was sure; Celtic were back at the top and no one would stop them now.