Saturday, 13 October 2018

Days like these

Days like these
Tony McIvor looked at the battered old Ford Fiesta, ‘Ye think that’ll get us tae Dundee? Looks like a feckin antique.’  His good friend Johnny Mullin shook his head, ’Oh Ye of little faith! Just get in and we’ll go pick up daft arse.’ Tony had a look of mock shock on his face, ‘daft arse? That’s my brother yer talking aboot!’ He thought for a second before continuing, ‘but yer right daft as a brush.’  Johnny jumped into the driver’s seat as Tony opened the creaking door of the passenger side. The interior smelt vaguely of urine. ‘Where did ye get this dream machine?’ he said as he buckled himself into the seat. Johnny started the engine which whined into life, ‘Bought it for £250 aff a guy in Royston, a good year or two in it yet.’  Tony was less than convinced but added, ‘As long as it gets us tae Dundee, we’re not missing this game.

They cruised down Mill Street on Glasgow’s south side heading for Tony’s brother’s place in Castlemilk. The bright May weather and Celtic’s imminent chance to seal an unexpected league title after a remarkable end to the 2007-08 season had the friends buoyed up. Tony pushed a cassette into the tape player on his left and the familiar sound of the Wolfe Tones filled the car…

 ‘He was me brother Sylvest, got a row of forty medals on his chest
 He killed 50 bad men in the west; he knows no rest!
He’s got an arm like a leg and a punch that would sink a battle ship,
it would take all the army and the navy to put the wind up Sylvest.’

The car headed up the steep incline of Castlemilk Drive and stopped at the close where Tony’s brother Dom lived; the balcony of his second floor flat was draped with an Irish tricolour. ‘Hope yer brother’s sober, he nearly got us jailed at the last game wi the currants.’ Tony smiled, ‘I telt him if he’s oan the Don Revie he’s no coming.’  On cue Dom McIvor came out of the close, a plastic bag clearly containing alcohol. ‘Mon the Celik!’ he shouted as he came towards the car. He wanted to come along despite not having a ticket, saying he’d get in by hook or by crook. He was wearing his usual Celtic top and jeans. Tony grinned, ‘Never changes oor Dom.’ A slightly tipsy Dominik McIvor plonked himself in the back seat of the car and greeted them with a cheery smile, ‘Right boys let’s get up tae Dundee and see the Celts do the damage!’ The car pulled off and as the first ring pull was popped in the back seat. The car glided through the streets of Glasgow and headed for the M80 motorway.

Like thousands of other Celtic fans they were headed north to see if Celtic could pull off the final part of a remarkable comeback. The team had been streets behind their rivals Rangers until two victories against the Ibrox club coupled with their loss of form had seen Celtic climb to the top of the table. Now all they had to do was win this last match and the title would be theirs. As the three friends headed north they passed numerous buses and cars loaded with green clad fans. It was going to be a special night. As they neared Stirling, Dom leaned forward and said, ‘Here Johnny boy, any chance ye could stoap for a minute, am needin’ a Lillian Gish?’ Johnny smiled; he always found Dom’s ability with rhyming slang amusing. ‘Nae bother mate, there’s a layby up ahead. ‘Cheers big man, I’ll no be long, just need tae syphon the python then we’re back on the road tae Dundee.’ Tony and Johnny watched Dom head off into the bushes. They were parked less than a mile from the imposing sight of Stirling Castle which had stood on its volcanic rock for centuries. ‘Nice part of the world this,’ Johnny commented. Tam nodded, ‘Aye till some mad weegie shows up and pishes oan it.’  Johnny laughed and nodded towards Dom who was heading back towards them. ‘William Wallace country here boys, bet he’d have been a Jungle Jim if they had fitbaw back then! I could see him in the Hoops.’ With that bizarre image in their heads they were off again and heading for Dundee.

A warm spring night greeted them as they parked near Tannadice Park. Thousands of supporters were already milling about, most of them seemingly sporting the green of Celtic. ‘Right,’ Tony said, ‘We need wan mer ticket, ask at the buses and keep yer eyes opened.’ As the game came closer they had no luck. Hundreds seemed to have travelled without tickets. Dom was in magnanimous mood and said, ‘It’s no happening wi the Celtic end. I’ll head roon tae see if any the locals will part wi a Wilson Picket for their end.’ Johnny shook his head, ‘No wi the hoops oan. The cops will chase ye even if ye get wan.’ Tam took off his light jacket and gave it to his brother. ‘Zip this right up and try yer luck. If ye don’t get in we’ll get ye at the motor.’ They clubbed together a few more pounds to give Dom more bargaining power with any local with a spare ticket. ‘Good luck Dom!’ Tony shouted as his brother headed off towards the home end of the stadium.

Dom wandered among the milling throng of tangerine and black clad supporters outside the George Fox stand. He could clearly hear Glasgow accents among the crowd and the ever vigilant Police were on the lookout for Celtic supporters trying to access the Dundee United end. He approached a group of United fans who stood chatting to his left and put on what he thought was a decent Tayside accent, ‘Here pal, ye ken where any tickets are fur sale ay?’  One of them laughed out loud; ‘Where the fuck is that accent from?‘  Another smiled at Dom, ‘Good try pal but this isnae Fife.’  An older chap touched Dom’s elbow, ‘My boy didnae make it tonight, ye can come in wi me.’ Dom was about to offer him money but the grey haired man shook his head, ’Put that in yer pocket son. I might be a United supporter but I’m a Lochee man aw the same.’ Dom wasn’t quite sure how being a Lochee man made this old chap so generous but he was delighted to be getting into the match. He might have to sit on his hands for 90 minutes and keep his mouth closed but it’d be worth it if Celtic won the title.

As he took his seat among the Dundee United fans he couldn’t help but look at the packed ranks of Celtic supporters filling half the stadium. Their banners draped over the stands, their songs filling the air, it was going to be a special night. The game passed in a blur; there were chances at both ends, a good penalty shout for Celtic and a huge roar which greeted Aberdeen’s first goal against Rangers 70 miles to the north. Then on 72 minutes Celtic won a corner and Paul Hartley lined up to take it. As Dom watched the ball, a white blur, flashed across the penalty box where Celtic’s big striker Jan Venigoor of Hesselink met it with his head. The ball smashed into the net and a wall of noise swept across the pitch. It was obvious there were hundreds of Celtic fans dotted around the United stands and a few were ejected by the Police for celebrating the goal. When the game ended the old fella shook Dom’s hand. ‘Well done son, enjoy yer night.’ Dom smiled, ‘Thanks Pal, that was very good of ye.’

As the Dundee United fans drifted away hundreds of Celtic fans who had been in their end were left to join in the songs of victory filling the Tayside air. It had been a remarkable end to a remarkable season and Dom gazed across the field to the celebrating throngs of Celtic supporters taking it all in. Days like these made it all worthwhile. He unzipped his brother’s jacket to display his hooped shirt and joined in the songs of victory.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

The Gap

The Gap

Disappointment is often found in that gap which exists between our expectations and reality. Watching Celtic playing in Europe in recent years has been a perfect example of this. Negotiating the preliminary rounds of European competition is fraught enough but the performances in the group stages of both the Europa League and Champions League in recent seasons have, for the most part, been poor. Most fans are well enough informed to know that it would take something special for Celtic to compete with sides like Barcelona, PSG or Real Madrid but when one considers Celtic’s 3-0 win at Anderlecht last season was the clubs first win in the group stages of European competition in 16 attempts it tells you something is wrong.

Supporters were of course full of hope after Brendan Rodgers arrival that at last we could mould a side capable of competing in the group stages of European football. His team glided through the Scottish game like a Rolls Royce in that unforgettable invincible season but results in Europe were at best patchy. The embarrassment of Red Imps away was put right as the team overcame Astana and Hapoel Be’er Sheva to reach the group stages of the Champions League. Two creditable draws with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were the highlight of a campaign which pitched the Hoops into possibly their toughest ever Champions League group. A 7-0 battering in Barcelona was the low point as the team barely laid a glove on the Catalans. It was this timidity; this acceptance of their fate in some European ties which so annoys some fans. It’s as if they don’t believe they can compete. No one expects Celtic to win in the Nou Camp but Celtic teams of the past would at least go down with all guns blazing, not stand off and admire Messi and co rip you apart.

Rodgers second season saw Linfield, Rosenborg and Astana despatched as the team reached the Group stage of the Champions League again. An excellent PSG side destroyed Celtic home and away hitting a dozen goals in the process. Bayern won narrowly at Celtic Park in a match Celtic should have taken something from as did Anderlecht although Celtic’s win in Belgium saw them drop into the Europa League round of 32 where a fighting performance saw them beat Zenit St Petersburg 1-0 at home before another one of those timid, error strewn performances away from home saw them tumble out of Europe.

This season saw the side knocked out of the Champions League in the final qualifying round by an AEK Athens side they really should have beaten. Shocking defending at every goal the Greeks scored cost the club tens of millions of pounds and fans rightly questioned what the hell was going on with recruitment if teams with a fraction of Celtic’s turnover can locate and secure the services of decent central defenders. It didn’t help that Boyata was seemingly in a strop about not getting his big money move and we can speculate about what might have happened if he had played in Athens but the whole team looked jaded and in dire need of new blood.

So it was that Celtic found themselves in the same Europa league group as RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg and Rosenborg. The narrow 1-0 win of Rosenborg at Celtic Park was Celtic’s first group stage win in European competition since they beat Dinamo Zagreb in 2014. It was also the first time Celtic had won an opening group game in all their years of competing in Europe. Up next was Red Bull Salzburg and some felt this was a tie Celtic could perhaps take something from. In reality this side had just won in Germany against their stable mates RB Leipzig and had in the past few seasons defeated the likes of Marseille, Real Sociedad, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio. They were also undefeated at their home stadium. This was always going to be a very tough tie. Celtic did well in the first half to snatch an early and defended reasonably well. Ball retention was poor though and this led to the team barely attacking the Austrians and as wave after wave of attacked flowed towards Craig Gordon you had that feeling something would give in the end. Salzburg is a good, dynamic young team but once more the inability of Celtic to do the basics well led to a predictable defeat.

Celtic now face a double header with German side RB Leipzig and defeat in both of these games would mean the campaign would almost certainly be over as Salzburg would most likely take care of Rosenborg home and away. It is vital Celtic pick up something on these ties with Leipzig so that they can at least enter the final two matches with something to play for. Salzburg and Leipzig share more than the same sponsor and the close links between the two clubs mean they will be doing Celtic no favours. European football is the big boys playground and is a harsh, unforgiving place. Celtic need to start performing at optimum level in these games and cut out the basic errors which so often kill our chances.

There is no point blaming individual players. We can all see that the team as a whole isn’t functioning well. The goals have dried up, the ball retention a problem against better sides and defending in crucial games is at best unpredictable.  The team has in reality regressed which is a huge disappointment to fans who thought that the bold appointment of Brendan Rodgers heralded an era where Celtic would build from a position of strength and improve season on season. The loss of good players like Roberts, Armstrong and Dembele would be a blow to any team but it’s more than that, players who performed well in the past couple of seasons are struggling for form and confidence and that combination is making the team vulnerable domestically and in Europe. With vital games coming up, it is to be hoped the manager sorts out the problems and gets the team back to some semblance of the form they have shown in his first two seasons.

January’s transfer window is now looking like an important one as the team needs an infusion of energy. We’d all like to see one or two class players arrive who can go into the team and make a difference. This team is capable of more than they are showing at the moment and it’s up to the manager to bring that out of them. There is still much to play for at home and in Europe, if Celtic play to their potential and get stuck in we’ll have no complaints. It means so much to the fans and it should mean the same to the highly paid players who wear those famous hoops.

As a banner once read; ‘We’re in here for you – be out there for us!’

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Jumping the Dyke

Jumping the Dyke

I got talking to a chap from Fife in the Chadwick stand at Rugby Park last week and he was telling me that he’d been following Celtic for over 40 years despite his old man dragging him to Ibrox as a boy. ‘I had a pal at school who was a Dunfermline fan.’ He told me, ’he took me along to watch the Pars play Celtic one time. Celtic were brilliant that day, especially Bobby Lennox. I just felt a wee affection growing inside me for them.’ I asked him how his old man felt about him supporting Celtic when he was a dyed in the wool Rangers man and he said rather wistfully, ‘He stopped going after the Ibrox disaster, it affected him a lot and he just lost interest in football after that. We never spoke much about football as I grew up but he knew I’d started following Celtic. He said one New Year when he had a drink in him, ‘I never thought you’d jump the dyke, son.

We were reminiscing about all the changes that had occurred at Rugby Park and indeed across Scottish football since we first started following Celtic; new stadiums, artificial pitches and some players becoming very wealthy men for kicking a ball around. Some things never change though and fan culture is one thing which evolves more slowly. There was a moment after the final whistle when Leigh Griffiths led a knot of players to the stand we were in to applaud the supporters, Most applauded back although one or two around me, angry at the loss of a late goal, actually booed. My friend from Fife commented, ‘these young bucks need to realise it’s not all cup finals and wins when you follow a team.’ He had a point, perhaps getting a bit older ads a bit of perspective to life? After all Celtic have won around 30 major honours in the last 20 years while clubs like Kilmarnock have won 2 or 3. Everything in football needs to be earned and heaven forbid any sense of entitlement growing amongst the Celtic support.

I occasionally pass a happy hour looking at old Celtic games on YouTube. They bring back memories of games I attended, great players I watched and some of the old stadiums before their renovation in more recent years changed them forever. The state of some the pitches is also an eye opener and one wonders how ball players like Johnstone and Lennox managed to play at such a high level on some of those mud heaps. The style of play has also changed greatly as the years passed. Footballers now are faster, fitter, bigger and teams are better organised but the skill factor and that freedom to go express yourself has diminished. Tackling too has become a lost art form as Referees are clamping down on things which were once accepted and commonplace. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing as there were some fairly brutal defenders plying their trade in the past who wouldn’t last long in the modern game. The pass-back rule has been a great change to the rules as it keeps games flowing and forces defenders to actually play some football. It seems strange watching matches were defenders pass it to the keeper who simply picks it up. Some European teams would even use it as a time wasting tactic.

As I listen to the crowd singing in those games from the past it also struck me that the songbook of Celtic fans has changed a lot. There are common threads and songs which are always there and I recall  standing in the old Jungle at Celtic Park and the tannoy would boom out ‘The Grand Old Team’ then it was ‘You’ll never walk alone’ as the teams came out. We’d chant the name of our keeper Peter Latchford until he gave us a wave. There was almost a ritual to things back then, a certain order we did things in.  As the game got under way we’d be engrossed in the action, roaring the team on, reacting to shots or fouls and totally living those 90 minutes. After some games you went home worn out almost as if you’d played.

Those old YouTube videos also show that Celtic fans were singing what English Commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme once called ‘revolutionary songs.’ In games as far back as the 1960’s you can hear ‘Sean South’ or the ‘Soldiers’ song’ being aired. Celtic have periodically asked the support to sing football songs and leave the politics at the turnstile and while many don’t join in these songs any more a significant minority do particularly at away games when it’s more of an outing and perhaps more alcohol is consumed. During the worst days of the Troubles some of the chants being aired at Celtic Park were strong enough for the club to hand out a leaflet to supporters which expressed in the strongest possible language that they wanted it to stop. Jock Stein had said in the 1970’s ‘There are enough good Celtic songs without bringing religion or politics into it.’ It has been a perennial issue for the club and the supporters and one which still causes debate today. My thoughts are that supporter culture will continue to evolve and songs will change over time. There will probably always be some Irish content in the Celtic supporters’ repertoire given the club’s identity and history but the debate about what is appropriate in 21st century Scotland will continue too.

I said farewell to the chap from Fife as we headed out of Rugby Park last weekend. There was of course disappointment in the air after another sloppy performance had cost the team the points but chatting to him had reminded me that when you follow Celtic, you stick with it. It’s a lifetime love affair which will have its ups and downs but will always leave you wanting more. As we shook hands and headed off in different directions, I asked him if he was glad he had ‘jumped the dyke’ as a boy. He grinned and replied, ‘Fuck, Aye! Once Celtic gets a grip of you, it never let’s go.’

He had that right.

Friday, 21 September 2018

For Peat's Sake

Much has been written this past week about the crass and rather cryptic comments of George Peat the former President of the SFA. He said in an interview with the BBC…

‘I remember when Rangers reached the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester I got a phone call from a prominent Chairman of a club requesting me not to help Rangers in any way. It so happened that I already had a meeting with Lex Gold at the SPL- what we were willing to do was extend the season because of the fixture pile up that Rangers had and I was most disappointed when I got back to the office to receive this call to ask me not to help them in any way. That really stuck in my throat.’

You’d have to wonder why an SPL Chairman, rumoured to be John Reid of Celtic, would phone Mr Peat about such a matter given that fixtures or proposed season extensions in the league wasn’t controlled by the SFA? Peat’s comments were also strange given what occurred during his tenure at the SFA. Scotland continued to fail to qualify for major championships, Referees actually went on strike, three clubs went into administration (Gretna, Livingston & Dundee) and the tax man was banging on the SFA’s door with regards to Rangers and their EBT tax avoidance scheme. There was also the matter of Rangers being granted a licence to play in Europe when all was not well financially at the club. All of this going on during his time in charge and yet the biggest disappointment for the head of the SFA was a chairman phoning up and asking that the existing rules could be applied without fear or favour? What does that say about a man tasked with overseeing the good of the game in Scotland?

Peat is a disingenuous old fox who knew exactly what he was doing coming out with unsubstantiated statements like that. It feeds directly into the current victimhood mentality held by many followers of the Govan club that the demise of Rangers was some nefarious conspiracy against them by other clubs jealous of their success. The creation of this myth relies not on verifiable facts but in denying the historical reality of cheating and greed on an industrial scale which in the end brought the whole edifice crashing down. The failure of the football authorities to adequately deal with the fall-out from the EBT years lead to an erosion in trust between fans of many clubs and the ruling body which lingers today.

What then are the demonstrable facts about 2007-08 Season? Firstly, the season was extended to help Rangers in a manner Celtic didn’t seem worthy of when they reached the UEFA Cup final in 2003. Indeed Celtic flew home from Portugal after a gruelling semi-final with Boavista on a Thursday night and had to face Rangers at Ibrox at lunchtime on the Sunday. Alex McLeish had at the time stated that Celtic should get on with it and wished he had their problems with fixtures as it was a symptom of success. Rangers had earlier requested a match with Gretna be postponed to help them prepare for a tie with Lyon in the Champions League, this was granted meaning it would need to be fitted in later in the season. It didn’t help in the end as they were crushed 3-0 at Ibrox by the French side. They also drew two Scottish Cup ties leading to replays. Just as Celtic found in 2003, Rangers success in Europe led to them playing more fixtures. It’s a natural situation which occurs now and then and successful teams have bigger squads to cope with it.

During the fraught run in to the league campaign in the spring of 2008, Rangers faced Celtic twice at decisive times and lost twice. They were also involved in a match with Dundee United at Ibrox which saw a succession of astonishing refereeing decisions hand Rangers a vital win. United manager, Craig Levein was later fined £5000 for his brutally honest assessment of what went on that day at Ibrox. The SFA found him guilty of ‘Bringing the game into disrepute and criticising the performance of match officials in such a way as to indicate bias or incompetence.’  Any honest assessment of the pictures below would suggest bias or incompetence was at play that day in May 2003; it is up to the individual to decide which.

In March 2008, Rangers had a ten point lead in the SPL following their 1-0 win over Celtic at Ibrox but the cracks were starting to appear. As Celtic began a fantastic seven match winning streak, their rivals faltered badly. In those final 9 SPL matches they won just three, one of them being the contentious match with Dundee United mentioned above. They lost to Celtic (Twice) and Aberdeen as well as drawing with Dundee United, Hibs and Motherwell. Celtic deservedly won the title that year and Rangers found, as Celtic had in 2003, that competing on various fronts is physically and emotionally draining but at the end of that day that’s the nature of football.

Of course Mr Peat’s comments have been picked up and amplified by the tabloids. His actual phrase was, ‘a prominent Chairman of a club requesting me not to help Rangers in any way’ but this has been spun in the press and become ‘demanded’ and ‘urged,’ words he used nowhere in the interview. We even have Lee McCulloch muttering about folk conspiring to hinder Rangers. All of this elicited from Mr Peat’s cryptic comments in which he didn’t even have the courage to name the chairman involved, no doubt as litigation might follow.

Scottish football has always been clannish with suspicions and conspiracy theories abounding. The demise of Rangers in 2012 was followed by a rewriting of history by elements of the media which completely contradicted the way they reported it at the time. The failure of the SFA to show real leadership and deal with the situation with honesty and transparency remains a blot on their already chequered history. Mr Peat’s comments are at best stirring the pot and at worse malicious. They don’t exactly help the SFA either in its desire to move on from past controversies. Men who held the position he did at the SFA should be part of the solution to our game’s problems, not part of the problem. The organisation needs fresh, dynamic leadership and Mr Peat and his ilk look increasingly like the same old blazer fillers who have led our game into the wilderness.

How fitting he kept a dinosaur on his desk while in office.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Truth to Power

Truth to Power

Few films I’ve watched in my life have moved me quite as much as Callum McCrea’s ‘The Ballymurphy Precedent.’ McCrea wisely lets those who were there and suffered grievously to tell the story of the massacre of ordinary working class people by out of control elements of the British Army in the summer of 1971. When the film ended there was spontaneous applause in the Glasgow Film Theatre. That applause was of course for those brave relatives of the deceased who not only endured the loss and trauma of the events of that awful weekend but then had to endure their relatives being branded as terrorists by a compliant media which printed the army’s version of events with barely a question asked. That applause I heard in the cinema was also for the fact that at last a filmmaker had the balls to tell truth to power about the actions of forces of ‘law and order’ during the troubles.

Those of you who saw the film at the cinema or on Channel 4 this week couldn’t fail to see that a huge injustice had taken place. To see counter insurgency tactics used so brutally on the streets of Belfast was horrifying. The people of Kenya, Aden, Iraq and a score of other places once under the imperial grip of the UK would have recognised what occurred in Ballymurphy. The government’s decision to use shock troops in a policing role was always likely to end badly but what occurred there was simply disgraceful as was the cover up which followed.

Those of you who read my articles will know that I’m not a supporter of any group which engages in violence to attain its ends. All sides committed acts in those sad years that simply cannot be justified but there is increasing recognition that the Security forces were culpable too. In the end the innocent are the ones who suffer most. Of course, one can easily see how a people denied basic civil rights and justice and suffering periodic pogroms would in the end seek to defend themselves when the forces of law and order wouldn’t. It’s ironic that the Paras’ brutality in Belfast and a few months later in Derry was the biggest factor in many choosing to take up arms against them and all they represented. Indeed Gerry Adams was quoted as saying that the impact of Bloody Sunday, ‘Saw money, guns and recruits flooding into the IRA.’

The human stories behind those 11 innocent victims though really got through to me. Joan Connolly, a mother of 8 and grandmother- shot in the face as she sought to help another victim. She might have lived if they’d given her first aid but they left her in a field for hours to bleed to death. Father Hugh Mullan, parish Priest at Corpus Christi Church, shot also as he was attempting to help the injured. Danny Taggart, a father to 13 children, shot 14 times. Joseph Murphy, father of 12 children, shot by soldiers and claimed on his deathbed that they took him into custody and shot him again. A claim not corroborated until his body was exhumed in 2015 and a second bullet found. What was the justification for this killing spree? There is zero evidence that any of the victims were involved with paramilitaries and not a single weapon or shell casing was found despite soldiers claiming hundreds of rounds had been fired at them.

All of this horrendous violence was entirely predictable when the Government ordered the army onto the offensive against the very people who thought they had come to protect them. The army were viewed as having taken sides and despite pious bullshit about upholding the law and keeping the two sides apart, were in reality adding to the oppression of the Catholic community as they sought to intimidate an entire population. The Falls curfew in 1970 saw them clear the area of any watching journalists before they saturated an entire area with tear gas and began carrying out brutal house to house searches which saw vandalism, looting, assaults, humiliations and destruction. They shot over 60 people of whom 4 died.

Internment without trial arrived a year later and despite some brutal killings by Loyalist groups was exclusively targeted on the nationalist community. That weekend in August 1971 saw 17 civilians killed by the army, 11 of them in Ballymurphy and many of the internees faced brutal and degrading treatment at the hands of the military which the European Commission on Human Rights called torture. Bloody Sunday followed a few months later and in July 1972 the Army used gas and rubber bullets to clear a path through a Catholic area of Portadown for an Orange Parade. The parade took place with 50 uniformed and masked UDA men accompanying it. Indeed the army carried out joint patrols with UDA units in those days. The same day as that march in Portadown, the army shot dead five Catholics in Belfast. One of them was a 13 year old girl; one a Catholic Priest, two of the others were teenage boys aged 15 and 16. To many it seemed clear that the Army saw an entire section of population as the enemy. The British media, to their shame, never seriously challenged the army’s version of events to any great degree and no one was held to account for some disgraceful crimes. They thought they were untouchable and that is unacceptable in any society which values the rule of law. 

There are many more incidents and actions I could list from collusion with Loyalist death squads like the Glenanne Gang, a group made up of military personnel, Police officers & loyalists, thought to have murdered over 70 mostly innocent people but anyone interested in the chronology of carnage can trace these events online. What often died with those innocent people was truth.

It remains difficult for some in the UK to envisage that their security forces could behave so badly. Surely the propaganda about 'our brave boys' keeping the two tribes of warring Paddies apart was true? The Irish have been lampooned for centuries as drunken, aggressive, feckless and disloyal, such stereotyping has a long lasting effect. The 1980's saw cartoons appear in UK newspapers which were clearly falling back on old, racist stereotypes. It sought to absolve Britain of any blame in what had occurred in Northern Ireland since partition in 1922. Yet successive UK governments had allowed political gerrymandering and discrimination to fester in the six counties until people had enough and said no more.

Following the collapse of the Apartheid regime in South Africa the new government set up the Truth and reconciliation Commission tasked with uncovering exactly what went on during the often brutal struggle against the white dominated government. Victims and perpetrators gave evidence and there was at least an attempt at restorative justice. It was far from perfect but it allowed a post conflict society to confront the past with some honesty and a will to forge a better future for all South Africans. Such a process may well have served the people of the troubles in Ireland but it seems things remain too raw to uncover many as yet hidden truths.

There were dreadful acts committed by all sides during those bitter years and there was barely a family in the six counties which was unaffected by the events unfolding around them. This article isn’t about apportioning blame; there are far superior minds to mine who can judge what went on more clearly, rather it is about remembering the innocents caught up in a war; those killed on all sides, who were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those left to grieve must also look to find some form of justice and perhaps truth about how and why their loved ones died.

Joan Connolly’s daughter, Briege Voyle, reminds us of a universal truth which echoes through all of our human conflicts…

 ‘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.’

I hope those who suffered such injustice in Ballymurphy all those years ago find some truth. It’s the least they deserve.  

Saturday, 8 September 2018

This is how it feels to be Celtic

This is how it feels to be Celtic

I had one of those moments you get now and then at last week’s Celtic v Rangers game. It came when around 58,000 Celtic supporters were booming out, ‘You’ll never walk alone’ in those last, tense moments before kick-off.  I roared out that famous old song with so many others and we transcended all that makes us unique human beings to become one, just for a few magical moments. As a wall of noise reverberated around Celtic Park, I looked past the green and white scarf I was holding aloft, towards the bright, azure sky. I thought, as I sometime do at such times, of those I once shared those moments with who are no longer around.

I thought of my old man who taught his boys to love Celtic. When we were kids, he’d bump home four sheets to the wind after a good win, singing some Celtic song for the neighbours to hear. My mum would hush him reminding him that not everyone up the close was a Celtic fan but more often than not he’d continue. My uncle who went to every game with us and loved nothing more than a good sing song and a few pints in the pub before heading down to watch the Bhoys. They’d grown up watching Celtic in the dire years after the war and stuck it out through thick and (mostly) thin until Stein arrived to give them more success than they could have dreamed of. They knew tough times and tough conditions but watching Celtic on a Saturday transported them out of their everyday lives for a couple of happy hours, giving them a chance to be winners.

As boys we’d sit outside the Straw House pub at Parkhead Cross before home games waiting for the men to finish their beer and whisk us down Springfield Road to Paradise. Now and then the doors would open and we’d glimpse the world of men in the bar beyond. A blue haze of smoke hung in the air and there was a buzz of noisy chatter and occasional laughter. Sometimes songs would flow from the bar out onto the street where we waited and listened enthralled. How we longed to grow up so we could join our dads and uncles inside.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has these moments of contemplation when they are at Celtic Park. Many of you who follow Celtic will come from families who have followed the club since its inception. Others will have discovered Celtic in their own lives and come to realise that it’s the club for you. Whatever route you took to being a Celt, you invest such much time and emotion in the club that it’s as if you leave an imprint on the place.  As ‘You’ll never walk alone’ finished and the Bhoys were in the huddle, that roar that goes up split the east end sky and I focussed on the pitch.  My nephew, who lost his brother just a few short weeks ago, said to me, ‘That was emotional.’ I could understand very well the pain he has been through of late but for 90 minutes or so we would let Celtic take our minds off life and all the joys and troubles it holds and they didn’t disappoint.

Celtic did all we could have asked and bossed that game in a convincing manner despite the closeness of the score. For periods they pounded Rangers who grimly hung on like a boxer on the ropes until Olivier N’tcham arrived to supply a long overdue knockout blow. Watching Celtic’s transition from defence to attack was a thing of Joy. Tom Rogic glided towards the Rangers defence with that elegance and assurance of purpose he has. His cushioned pass to Edouard was perfection and the Frenchman in turn fed Forrest who guided a tantalising ball across the six yard box where N’tcham was waiting to blast it home. It had taken Celtic just ten seconds to race from their own box and carve out a goal of sublime beauty. Of course, we went wild in our corner of Paradise, strangers were hugged, the air was punched with delight and smiles as wide as the Clyde only parted to let out our roar of joy. It was a beautiful moment, one you file away to smile at later. One where you smile quietly to yourself as the game restarts and say, ‘that was you da!’

We joined in the songs cascading from the stands onto the field, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life singing as one. What else gets you so passionate? Not politics, not religion and certainly not any other sport. ‘This is how it feels to be Celtic’ we sang and in those moments all the frustration of the transfer window, all the worries we have about life, work or other issues were blown away as we focused on enjoying the moment.

It isn’t easy to put into words what Celtic means to so many people. The club is deeply embedded in its community. It gives them a purpose, a sense of identity and belonging. The squabbling which goes on among fans at times is not a symptom of apathy, rather it is a sign that they care deeply about their team. As I left the stadium last Sunday elated that the team had played so well, I glanced at some of the thousands of names carved onto the walls of Celtic Park. So many names representing so many families who have followed Celtic down the years. Those names may be carved onto the bricks of Celtic Park but at a deeper level, Celtic is carved onto the hearts of many, many people. The soul of Celtic has and always will reside with the fans.

This is how it feels to be Celtic.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Fight for every ball

Fight for every ball

Big Archie wasn’t happy when I met him this week, ‘Talk about f*cking up a transfer window!‘ he began as he supped his pint, ‘what is it with Celtic, we get into a position to leave the other teams streets behind and we feck it up!’ His feeling that Celtic haven’t built on a position of strength is shared by many. The failure to land John McGinn and the ongoing situation with Moussa Dembele and Dedryk Boyata has left a sour taste for many supporters. With Patrick Roberts and Stuart Armstrong no longer at the club it could be argued losing Dembele or Boyata would leave Celtic weaker than they had been last season. As it transpired, Dembele left for Lyon and Boyata will enter the final year of his contract still grumpy about not getting a move after his World Cup appearances enhanced his reputation. He will probably move on in January as the club looks to recoup some money on him and by then they had better have a replacement lined up of fans will be asking serious questions of the club.

There is no doubt Celtic badly mishandled this transfer window and their communication to the fans about what was going on was poor. Having the best part of £20m banked for the striker and no replacement lined up is poor planning at best and negligent at worse. Moussa’s childish online strop perhaps demonstrated that his heart was no longer in it at Celtic and when that happens, you move them on. Dembele may only have started around half of Celtic’s games last season but he was a very effective player when he did play and terrorised Rangers in particular. These transfer window shenanigans will only encourage the Govan club to think Celtic are weakening and that is why it is imperative the Hoops turn up on Sunday and remind them of their place in the pecking order of Scottish football.

This transfer window saw Celtic spend big on Odsonne Edouard and the fans were virtually unanimous that this was a good move. He’s a talented young player who is developing into a powerful striker. The manager wanted and expected players of quality who would be involved in the first team from the start to join the club. Mulumba is a useful addition and his combative style offers a good option in the hurly burly of Scottish football. Filip Benkovic looks like the sort of defender who will add solidity to Celtic’s back line. The 6 foot 4 inch defender cost Leicester City £14m and should hopefully establish himself in the Celtic defence. Other additions to the squad like Lewis Morgan will take time to develop but looks like a promising young player. Celtic fans will look at the team on the park and ask, is it as strong as last year? Most would say not. They are primarily concerned with the playing squad and what has annoyed most this transfer window has been the apparent lack of planning and forethought. Surely they knew Dembele would be leaving in the near future and had a possible list of replacements ready? To allow it to run on so late in the window that there was no time to find a decent replacement was poor. The club has also failed to adequately transmit what’s going on to fans. No one expects them to make public targets given the complexities of modern transfer dealings but this window has been a public relations disaster.

The hard truth is that Dembele and his advisors engineered his exit in a pretty shabby way which was reminiscent of Paolo Di Canio’s ‘I have a little problem,’ back in the 1990s. Rodgers took a raw talent and moulded it. Celtic gave him a platform on which to show what he could do and the fans adored him. He was paid the sort of money most of those fans could only dream of and his petulance was disrespectful to the club, the supporters and above all to Brendan Rodgers. The manager has behaved with great dignity but has seen this sort of tactic before. He said…

“It is disappointing. I have seen some of the comments and you only need to look into that to see whether it is true or not. I am a Celtic supporter and as Celtic manager am I going to tell someone to go to Brighton because they are a bigger club? I’d be very disappointed if it was myself (Dembele’s tweets were aimed at) considering we took him in from where he was, developing him and giving him an opportunity. It is understandable as a tactic. I have seen it before. I have been it and seen it from the outside and it is unfortunate it has come to that. I have close relationships with all the players. The first thing I always promise them is open communication. It is always open. But of course if you’re trying to engineer something you can sometimes drop to that level of tactic in order to do it. I am experienced enough have been around it enough and seen it enough. You just have to get on with it. It is what it is. It’s disappointing it’s got to this stage and where it’s at. But that’s modern football. You just need to deal with it.’
Some may think Dembele was Celtic’s greatest asset but he wasn’t. Celtic’s greatest asset is the man who sits in the manager’s seat at every game. Dembele let him down and the Club’s recruitment policy let him down. This was demonstrated in the loss of John McGinn to a second tier English club when Celtic really should have secured his services. Celtic should do their utmost to match his ambition and be as professional in their outlook as he is. Of course there should be strategic planning to ensure the healthy finances of the club remain so but sometimes you need to speculate to accumulate and the lack of effective defensive cover probably cost Celtic their Champions League place and in excess of £30m To lose Dembele is a blow; but to lose Brendan Rodgers would be a far more damaging. He is, as he has often said, a Celtic fan but he’s no mug and he knows what he wants to take the club forward.

Among the hyperbole and bickering of the transfer window it almost escaped notice that Leigh Griffiths scored his 100th goal for the club.  He had been suffering with a bug earlier in the week and actually threw up at half time in the Suduva game. He’ll be straining at the leash to get at Rangers on Sunday and that is the sort of attitude we need now. Guys like Griff, Tierney, McGregor and others go about their business with quiet determination, wait for their opportunity and give their all.  The season ahead will be challenging and we now need to get right behind the team and the manager to ensure it’s another successful campaign.

I hope the club are already working on who we need to bring in to strengthen the team in January’s transfer window so we don’t have to endure another shambolic episode. The fans deserve better and above all Brendan Rodgers deserves better.

January though can wait. Tomorrow we have our noisy neighbours to shut up. A positive outcome there will at least end a turbulent period on a high note. The fans will bring the thunder as always and team needs to show up and fight for every ball.  

Over to you Bhoys…