Saturday, 15 December 2018

Take me to your Paradise

Take me to your Paradise

A damp mist hung in the chill December air as the noisy crowd exited the Broomloan Stand at Ibrox Stadium. The 7000 Celtic fans were in good voice having just watched their side beat Rangers by 2 goals to 1. As they poured from the stadium they sang the praises of the player who scored the winning goal…

‘Oh Scotty Sinclair, oh he is so wonderful, When he scores a goal, Oh it is beautiful It's magical, When he runs down the wing, He is fast as lightning, It's frightening and it makes all the bhoys sing, Do do do dodo do doodododododo...’

‘You coming for a pint, the Gallowgate will be bouncing?’ Micky Stevens said to his long-time friend Andy Gallagher. ‘Naw Micky, going tae see my brother, he’s back from Malawi.’ Micky smiled, ‘I always liked Peter, give him my regards. Is he finished wi the missions?’ Andy shook his head, ‘Just back for a month or so. He’ll be helping oot at the local parish till he heads back in late February.’  Micky nodded, ‘Still amazed he became a Priest, he liked a swally and the lassies when we were younger?’ Andy smiled, ‘He did but then I’d catch him praying now and then so the signs were there.’ They boarded the supporters’ bus for the journey through the dark streets of Glasgow. The mood on the bus was euphoric after Celtic’s win. The songs and laughter flowed as they headed for home. Seeing Celtic win was always good; seeing them win at Ibrox was just perfect.

Andy slipped quietly into the church and sat in one of the pews near the back. He glanced around the familiar interior which he had been dragged to by his teachers and parents in those far of childhood days when he’d rather have been playing football or computer games. The Stations of the Cross were still there showing the last agonising journey of a persecuted man 2000 years before. He looked for a long moment at one image bearing the title ‘Jesus falls for the first time.’ The painting showed a blood spattered man in the crown of thorns who lay bleeding under a bulky wooden cross as the Roman guard prepared to whip him again. What was it with the church and these agonising images? The gentle tinkle of a bell broke into his thoughts and announced that the service was beginning. There was old Father John and beside him Andy’s brother, Peter, known to one and all as Father Gallagher, in these parts. Andy regarded him in his Priestly garb, looking fit and tanned after his time in Africa. As the service began Andy felt strangely detached. Like a spectator rather than a participant. How was it he and Peter had been brought up in the same house by the same parents, went to the same school and yet were so different? He watched the service flow in that timeless way mass did and as communion came closer, wondered if he should partake. When was the last time? A long time ago, he thought to himself. He stayed seated as the faithful shuffled forward towards the altar and waited behind after Mass as the church emptied.

After a few minutes Father Gallagher came out to greet him. ‘Andy, I saw you there during Mass. How are you?’ He wrapped his younger brother in a warm hug. ‘I’m good Peter. You’re looking well.’ His brother smiled, ‘You not fancy coming to communion tonight?’ Andy regarded him, ‘You know me Peter he said with a hint of a smile. Celtic is my religion; Celtic Park my church. I’d be a bit hypocritical going to communion when I’ve stopped believing in the church.’’ Peter nodded with a sage smile on his face, ‘you can still believe in God without believing in the church you know.’ The elder brother led Andy to the sacristy and poured some tea for his him. He glanced at the Celtic scarf Peter still had on under his heavy winter coat from his trip to Ibrox, ‘It’s New Year’s eve, I’d forgotten this Celtic, Rangers thing happens every festive period. Did you win?’ Andy smiled, was his brother the only man in Glasgow who didn’t know the score? ‘Yeh, we won Peter, we seem to always win these days.’  The two brothers regarded each other for a moment. They had many disagreements growing up and a few fights as all brothers do but their bond was strong. Andy spoke first, ‘How was Malawi? Still saving souls?’ Peter sat with his tea at the big circular table which dominated the room, ‘Malawi is fine, the people have nothing but then they have everything. Family and faith still mean a lot there.’  Andy’s face changed a little, ‘Well, I gave up thinking I’d ever see Jesus a long time ago, bro. I can’t see that changing.’ Peter smiled, ‘Come and help at the shelter tonight, you’re sure to see him there.’ Andy laughed, ‘Jesus serving soup to the homeless now is he and on New Year’s Eve?’ Andy’s brother looked at him patiently, 'Pick me up at 9 o’clock, it’s the late shift tonight, wrap up.’

Against his better judgement Andy Gallagher found himself walking though the concrete canyons of Glasgow city centre with his brother. Clubbers were heading out in their garishly coloured outfits and the city centre was alive with music and light as people aimed to bring in 2017 with a real party. Peter though was glancing into those darker corners where those struggling just to keep going watched the world pass. They stopped by a city centre lane where a shadowy figure huddled under some damp looking blankets. As Andy watched his brother knelt by the man and whispered to him. He sat up and Andy could see the unkempt beard, straggly hair and thin face of a man who was not looking after himself. His dark eyes regarded Andy, ‘Who’s this guy, fadder?’ Peter smiled, ‘My brother Andy, he’s helping out tonight, big Celtic fan like you, Paddy. You come down to the centre later for some hot food, ok?’ The man nodded before looking at Andy, ‘You giving us a wee tune the night, son? Tommy used tae.’ Andy nodded, ‘Can’t sing tae save my life bit if that’s what you want.’ Andy noticed the thin, damp track suit jacket the man was wearing and without thinking took off his heavy winter jacket. After removing his phone from the pocket he passed it to him saying, ‘Here, stick that on so I recognise ye tonight.’  His brother said nothing as they left Paddy and continued on to the shelter.

The shelter consisted of two large rooms set into what was the basement of a tall office block. One had the air of a cafeteria where a variety of men and women sat quietly nursing tea or eating some warm food. The second room had a row of bedrolls on the floor and some sleeping bags piled up in a corner. ‘The place opens at 9pm and closes the next morning. At least those sleeping rough get in out of the cold overnight and have some hot food,’ Peter said as he showed Andy around. ‘They know not to come if they’re drunk or high. Although if it’s exceptionally cold we can make allowances but most keep to the rules.’ Andy was stationed behind the counter and was soon chatting to the people who came for soup and rolls. ‘Cheers son,’ said a grey haired man as Andy served him, ’It’s a cauld yin oot there the night, saw a brass monkey looking for a welder.’ He guffawed at his own joke before taking his soup from Andy. I could fair dae wi some hot soup the night son.’ Andy found talking to the ‘clients’ as he heard another volunteer call them, easy as they were straight forward unpretentious people.

A thin young woman with eyes that spoke of a hard life smiled at him. Andy avoided staring at the tell-tale heroin tracks on her arm as she spoke, ‘No seen you in here before?’ Andy returned her smile, ‘Just helping out my brother,’ he replied nodding towards his brother who was deep in conversation with an older man. ‘Father Gal is your brother?’ she said with a surprised look on her face. ‘Aye,’ replied Andy, ‘for my sins.’ She looked into his eyes with a penetrating gaze as if reading his soul, ‘Well, he’s a real Priest, no like the ones I’ve….’ Her voice trailed off as if she’d said too much. She took her soup and glanced at Andy, ‘I’m Lynne by the way, hope I see ye in here again.’ Andy nodded, ‘we’ll see, I might not be needed after tonight.’ As she turned to go she said quietly, ‘Good people are always needed.’

Around midnight Paddy came in sporting Andy’s erstwhile jacket. He accepted a bowl of soup and some bread and sat at a table. Things were quiet at the counter so Andy sat by him. ‘Hi Paddy, how are ye keeping?’ The unkempt man of about 50 regarded him, ‘No bad son though my auld back gies me a bit of jip especially on these cauld nights.’ They got talking about football and life in general and Paddy told him of his days as a post man before drink got its talons into him. ‘The bevy ruined the lot son; my job, my family life and my health. Found myself sleeping rough 5 years back and been that way ever since. Fadder Gal helped me oot wi rooms in hostels but I always fucked it up and got fired oot.‘ Paddy told Andy of his days following Celtic all over and how he hardly missed a match in the 1980s and 90s. ‘Good days son, I was fit then and liked a wee scrap at the gem noo and again. Got three months once for fighting wi Hearts fans; never liked that mob!’ He grinned a gap toothed smile at the memory of his wilder, young days. ‘Fadder Gal came tae see me in Polmont. Got me tae think a bit aboot whit ah wis daen wi ma life. I tried hard but the drink’s like a parasite that lives in ye, wantin’ fed every day.’  Andy let him talk without interrupting. Sometimes all people demanded of you, was that you listen.

It was 1am when the two brothers and handful of other volunteers left the shelter in the hands of the overnight staff. A dozen or so homeless people were safely bedded down out of the cold. ‘Did you enjoy your night?’ Peter enquired. Andy nodded, ‘Aye, Peter it was interesting. Some real characters in there.’ He shivered a little in the cold remembering that he now had just his jumper to keep him warm. ‘I’m on the 10 o’clock Mass tomorrow, why not pop down?’ Andy smiled at him as they reached his car, ‘You trying tae convert me? You said I’d be sure tae see Jesus down here tonight but I didn’t.’ Peter grinned, opened the car door and got in, ’No harm in coming down to the church, Andy, Interesting readings tomorrow.’ Andy guided the car through the cold city centre streets. ‘I might if I wake up on time but I’m lost tae all that now, Peter.’ Andy dropped his brother off with a smile, ‘Good night, Peter.’ His brother returned his smile, ‘yeh, it was. Good night and happy new year.’

The following morning Andy was again sitting near the back of the church as his brother led the service in front of a fairly full church. Andy smiled to himself as his brother got to the gospel reading. As he listened his brother glanced up at him as he read…

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, "I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
When the service was over he again waited behind for his brother who appeared after ten minutes or so. ‘Nice sermon,’ Andy said, ‘I still can’t believe in all of this though, Peter.’ His brother nodded, ‘Andy, when you do good things in your life, you’re doing all God wants of you. You might doubt God but he doesn’t doubt you.’ Andy smiled, ‘Right, I’ve been in your church, you’re coming to mine before you head back to Africa in February?’Jeez,’ replied Peter, ‘I’ve not seen Celtic play in 25 years. Are you trying to convert me now?’ Andy laughed, ‘Pushing at an open door, Peter.’ His brother nodded, ‘Right, take me to your Paradise and I’ll put in a good word so you might get into mine.’

Dedicated to all of those wonderful people who work with the homeless in our society.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Stripes like a zebra

Stripes like a zebra

Aberdeen Manager Derek McInnes was commendably clear in his condemnation of one of his own club’s supporters this week after a video surfaced online of Scott Sinclair taking a penalty during the League Cup Final. A person very near the camera in the Aberdeen end of the stadium shouted in an unmistakable manner, ‘Ya black bastard!’ as the Celtic winger lined up to take the kick. The Dons boss said….

it’s an absolute disgrace, the ignorance of an uneducated fan shouting racial abuse, any racial abuse, in this day and age, is shocking. It’s embarrassing for the individual. It’s not a club issue for me. Its the individual. That type of comment was maybe normal practice in the Sixties and Seventies, and it was appalling then and shocking then, and even more so now. It’s shocking that Scott Sinclair and any other player is still subjected to that.”

Last year we had Moussa Dembele being called the same thing at Ibrox and once more a smart-phone camera recorded the moron in question. Sinclair was abused at the same venue by a grown man acting like a monkey. Some questioned if we as a society had moved on at all since the 1970s and 80s when such behaviour was sadly common in football all over the world. Indeed far right groups often sought to recruit young men at football matches as far afield as Upton Park and Ibrox.

Having lived through some of those times I have personal experience of supporters of all hues behaving poorly. It would be disingenuous to say my own club hasn’t had its share of idiots from time to time. Indeed the way Mark Walters was treated at Celtic Park by a handful of morons in 1988 was as disgraceful as it was repugnant. The Celtic support in general were deeply embarrassed and angry by the behaviour of that handful idiots who threw bananas onto the track. Worse was to come for Mark Walters at Tynecastle a week or two later when he was pelted with bananas while taking a corner. We cannot shy away from this. It happened in our own stadiums and streets, it was disgraceful and it must never happen again. There are no mitigating circumstances it was just idiots being idiots and thinking it was okay.

The Celtic fanzines of the time ripped into what they called ‘racist arseholes’ in the Celtic support who had dragged us all down. They were also quick to point out the hypocrisy of Rangers fans’ outrage over the Walters incident given that they had filled the air that day with the usual anti-Catholic/Irish bile which made up most of their songbook then. It was too much for some to recognise any kind of moral equivalence between their own ‘FTP’ songs or ditties about being up to your knees in Fenian blood, and what happened to Walters. Therein lies part of the problem; we get habituated to hearing such songs and they lose some of their potency as insults. Equally, some are habituated to singing them and pass it off as banter, not really hateful. Sometimes it takes an outsider to look at it all with fresh eyes and ask us why we tolerate such base behaviour. Calling it ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ really doesn’t excuse what is in essence thick, unadulterated prejudice.

I have an acquaintance who tells me he’s a ’90 minute bigot’ who sings it all at football then returns to being his normal self when the football is finished. I try to explain you either find those songs acceptable or you don’t but he’s happy with his ‘Jeckyl and Hyde’ approach to it. ‘You know me,’ he told me one day, ‘I have lots of Catholic pals.’ I nodded and told him this was all the more reason to drop the silly songs.

The advent of foreign players pouring into Scottish football meant that most clubs now have players from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and our heroes are of many hues. We occasionally see or hear things will hark back to a darker time, a time before our society evolved in the more tolerant place it is today. It is far from perfect but it is satisfying to see so many willing to add their voices to the condemnation of racist behaviour in Scotland. There can be no standing on the side-lines with this one. It needs calling out without fear or favour wherever it rears its ugly head. These days of Brexit and increasing xenophobia have emboldened some of our less enlightened citizens to think they can once again air their prejudice with impunity. It’s up to us all to say; we’re not going back to the bad old days. We’re not standing for it in football or anywhere else. Too many men and women have suffered the rough tongues of racists and we need to work to educate those who are still receptive to it that this is simply not acceptable.

Leo Durocher was a baseball coach of some repute in the major league of the USA in the years after World War 2. Notoriously bellicose and mouthy ‘Leo the Lip’ was also absolutely ruthless and often ordered his pitchers to hit the batters with the ball deliberately. ‘Nice guys finish last’ was his usual comment when challenged on his approach to baseball. He was loud, brash and a hard drinking coach but when it came to winning he was focussed and determined. He spotted a hugely talented player and was determined to get him into his Dodgers side. The player was Jackie Robinson and his signing caused huge controversy because he was black and the Major Leagues simply didn’t play black players in that era. Durocher was determined to get Robinson into the team and faced down those in his own club who were unhappy with a black player in the dressing room. He told a meeting of his unhappy players with typical bluntness….

"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays.’

When Robinson lined up with his grumpy team mates to play the Philadelphia Phillies, some of the Phillies players and officials called him a ‘nigger’ and suggested that he go ‘back to the cotton fields.’ This had the unexpected effect of galvanising his team mates behind him and he was accepted by them to a much greater extent. They came to realise team was more important than the individual members and Robinson’s fine play soon convinced many that it wasn’t so bad to have a black guy in the side after all. The fear, fed by unthinking prejudice, turned out to be groundless. Robinson was a pioneer and many followed in his footsteps.

So I say well said to Derek McInnes, it can be hard calling out one of your own but it is the only way to shame someone into thinking about their behaviour. There were undoubtedly children near or beside the voice bellowing out his prejudice at the League Cup final but thankfully they’ll be educated by the wiser heads and indeed by the Aberdeen manager himself that this isn’t a role model to follow. Bigotry in all its forms is an evil we must all fight. It isn’t about club loyalty or throwing mud at others, it’s about the decent majority at all clubs saying, ‘no, we’re not having it.’ Just as drink driving was greatly reduced by becoming socially unacceptable, so to bigotry and racism can be expelled to the fringes of society. There will always be foolish people prepared to say foolish things but in the end it tells us more about their personal ignorance than their intended targets.

They fail to see how their prejudice harms not only society in general but also themselves. An old Chinese proverb says; ‘hatred corrodes the vessel in which it is stored.’ It’s up to us all to nip this pernicious weed in the bud whenever it appears. To paraphrase the inimitable ‘Lippy Lou’ Durocher:

"I do not care if a guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. If he wants play for my club or join us in the stands backing the team he’s more than welcome.’

Racists are not.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

The changing of the guard

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.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Dreams and songs to sing

Dreams and songs to sing

Watching Celtic playing so well in that first half in Trondheim against Rosenborg gave us a glimpse of what Brendan Rodgers is trying to achieve at Celtic Park. He wants a slick passing, mobile side which presses high when not in possession and attacks with pace when they have the ball. A one goal lead barely reflected how far ahead of the home side they were. Of course, Celtic being Celtic you always had that nervous feeling that a one goal lead could be lost in the blink of an eye but the defence did well and held out a big, athletic side who were reduced to lumping high balls into the box and hoping to feed off the scraps. It was a deserved win for Celtic though and you had to feel happy for those loyal supporters who travel all over Europe to back the team and are more often than not rewarded with a poor display. At last they saw Celtic play well and cut out the soft goals, which so often costs them dearly in these matches.

That win combined with Red Bull Salzburg defeating RB Leipzig in Austria means the Hoops now require just a point from their final game to qualify for the last 32. That would be no mean feat given the standard of opposition Celtic faced. Leipzig are going well in Germany and sit near the top of the league, Salzburg are on a roll in Austria and well clear and undefeated in their table while Rosenborg were crowned Champions of Norway at the weekend. There was an embarrassing moment when Leipzig midfielder Stefan Ilsanker was being interviewed after his sides defeat in Salzburg. He said, ‘It was a disappointing result but it could have been more bitter had Celtic won in Rosenborg.’ When he was told Celtic had won and that the scoreboard in the stadium showing a 1-0 win for Rosenborg was in error his face fell and he responded, ‘In that case we are in a really shit position in the group then!’

It remains undoubtedly a tough task for Celtic to get the point they so dearly want against a very good Salzburg side but the Hoops are energised in those games by the incredible backing of the best supporters around. As Filip Benkovic said after the victory over Leipzig, ‘The supporters gave us wings to play.’ That being said, Jock Stein wryly commented many years ago after being asked about the noisy backing Celtic get from their fans, ‘Aye they’re good but I’ve never seen a supporter score a goal.’ He was correct in that as much as the fans will be right behind the team, it is up to the players to perform on the night and pull off what would be a notable achievement by qualifying out of a group which wouldn’t look out of place in the Champions League.                   

After watching Celtic winning in Norway, I watched some of the Rangers v Villareal match. It was more to check the home side’s form and style of play as Celtic head to Ibrox in a few weeks than any real interest in their European journey which despite just one win in 5 matches in the group is being talked up in the press as almost miraculous. It struck me as the ‘Billy Boys’ rang out in the damp Govan air followed by the predictable and dreary; ‘We hate Celtic - Fenian Bastards’ that this support’s song book has barely altered in decades and it simply not credible to say it’s a minority singing these songs because it clearly wasn’t. I stuck it for about ten minutes before turning it off.

Of course any mention of these distasteful songs will bring the knee jerk response of ‘physician heal thyself’ if we don’t recognise one or two issues in our own songbook which require some serious thought but the scale of the problem at Ibrox is of a different dimension. I want my team’s supporters to celebrate what we stand for and not what some hate. I want us to celebrate Celtic and the players past and present who bring us so many great memories. I want us to be proud of the club’s roots but also proud to welcome Celtic supporters from all backgrounds, all faiths and none and all walks of life. When I see Celtic Park booming out its support for the team it fills me with pride that this community of supporters have kept faith with the past and still back the team with the same passion which they always have. Still honour the club’s charitable and inclusive ethos and be a positive force in society.         

December will be a pivotal month for Celtic and it all begins with the League cup final on Sunday. Celtic has the opportunity to win seven consecutive trophies and that is an astonishing statistic which not even Jock Stein’s great side can match. Leagues are usually won by the best team over the season but cup ties are less predictable. The fact that Brendan Rodgers has yet to lose a domestic cup tie after two and a half years speaks volumes about the consistency and attitude of his team. With trips to Fir Park, Easter Road, Pittodrie and Ibrox to negotiate, Celtic will require the whole squad to be focussed and ready for a huge effort during the 9 games in 3 competitions in 27 days they now face. It all begins tomorrow at Hampden and another shot at glory for Celtic and hopefully another little piece of history.

These are great days to be a Celtic fan but in sport as in life nothing worth having comes easily. It’s up to the players to play to the standards our excellent manager demands. The supporters will be right behind them roaring them on and when the team and fans are as one it is a powerful combination indeed.

We have had much to sing about these past few years and much to be proud of but then we’re Celtic fans, we always have dreams and songs to sing.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

The sweetest thing

The sweetest thing

Desmond Daly stood beside his son Charlie in the huge bowl of Celtic Park as the sound of U2 echoed in the dark November sky. Tens of thousands of Celtic fans were cheering their team from the field after they had just destroyed their great rivals, Rangers 5-1. It was, as the song so fittingly said, the sweetest thing for every Celtic fan. New boy Lubomir Moravcik had played a blinder and scored two fine goals. The team were picking up and things looked a bit brighter than they had after the 2-1 loss at St Johnstone the week before. Dessie turned to his son and saw in his eyes that same thrill and sense of wonder he had known so many years before. As young Charlie cheered the team from the field, Dessie’s mind drifted back to days long gone…….

Glasgow 1970

Someone once said that Glaswegians had a hundred words for rain just as Eskimos had a hundred words for snow. Both might have been myths but on a chilly February day the wind driven rain was falling in that slanting, sideways fashion which drove it into the faces of those trooping along the Gallowgate towards Celtic Park. The February frost had relented but it was still bitterly cold as ten year old Desmond Daly leaned on the door post of Baird’s Bar waiting for his old man to finish his pints and take him to his very first Celtic v Rangers game. He had badgered his old man for weeks about going to the match and he had relented in the end. Dessie was excited about it and if the price of going to the match was hanging about outside a pub in the rain for a couple of hours then so be it. Occasionally someone would enter or leave the pub and Dessie would have a glimpse into the noisy, smoky interior which was packed Celtic fans, laughing, drinking and singing before the match. Would that be him one day, he wondered? As a patron left the Pub Dessie could hear a familiar song drifting out the door on a cloud of cigarette smoke…

‘A lorry load of volunteers approached the border town
They were men from Dublin and from Cork, Fermanagh and Tyrone
But the leader was a Limerick man, Sean South from Garryowen’

His old man had a scratchy old LP with that song and others like it on it. A boy of similar age to him arrived with his old man who lectured him, ‘Stay here tae I come oot, nae wandering aff or ye’ll no be going tae the game!’ With that the man disappeared into the pub. The boy glanced at Dessie, ‘Yer da in there tae?’ Dessie nodded, ‘Aye, been in there over an hour and I’m soaking.’ The boy nodded in return, ‘I’m Paddy, wits yoor name?’ ‘Dessie, Dessie Daly.’ Paddy stepped closer to him, ‘Listen Dessie, it’s only wan o’clock. They’ll no be oot tae at least two. Ye fancy a walk roon the Barras? It’ll get us oot ay the rain?’ Dessie’s instincts told him to stay put but what would be the harm, besides the Barras had some interesting stuff? ‘Right,’ he replied, ‘but just for 20 minutes, my da will dae his nut if I’m no there when he comes oot.’ With that the two boys walked the few yards from the pub doorway towards the covered market and all the strange delights it had to offer.

As they wandered among stalls laden with musty smelling old clothes, fishing tackle, work tools and a host of other things, Paddy grinned and nodded towards a stall set against the wall, ‘Check the sweetie stall, mon.’ The two boys stood among the milling crowd in the market looking at all manner of sweets neatly packed in rows of translucent plastic bags. ‘Have ye got aniseed balls, mister?’ Paddy asked the grey haired man behind the stall. The man grinned, ‘Naw, it’s just the way I’m sitting.’ The two boys missed the joke as he continued, ‘Cola cubes, Everton mints, Peaches and cream, American bubble gum, love hearts, flying saucers, Fizz whizz, candy cigarettes but nae aniseed balls.’ Paddy nodded, ‘Right, cheers,’ and turned away from the stall. Dessie noticed he walked a little faster until they were out of sight of the stall. ‘There ye go, Dessie,’ Paddy said with a grin, handing him a bag of sweets. Paddy took them with a look of surprise, ‘Ye knocked them?’ Paddy nodded as he stuffed two cola cubes into his mouth, ‘Too easy doon the Barras.’ Dessie glanced over Paddy’s shoulder to the stall selling religious items where a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus stared sadly at him as if to say, ‘Don’t let me down, Dessie!’

The two boys wandered the maze of stalls eating sweets and glancing at the eclectic and varied items for sale. One stall was piled high with hundreds of pairs of spectacles and people simply tried them on until they found a pair they could see out of. There were fireplaces, fur coats, Orange and Republican LPs, army uniforms, cooking pots, frozen meat, television valves, hot food and all manner of textiles and clothing. The noise, smell and sights hypnotised Dessie until he glanced at a stall selling clocks and noticed that most of them said it was 2,25pm. ‘Shit!’ he exclaimed, ‘we need tae get back!’ Paddy shrugged, ‘My Da always comes oot at half two so yer right, we’d best head back.’ They pushed their way through the milling crowds and back onto the Gallowgate. The pavements were now full of supporters heading for the match, marching east into the squally wind and rain. They reached the pub just as Paddy’s da came out the door, ‘Right you, let’s go and watch the Celts smash this mob!’ Paddy grinned at Dessie, ‘See ye Dessie, enjoy the game!’ With that they joined the human river flowing towards Celtic Park.

Dessie turned back to the pub and gently eased the door opened a little. The bar was much less crowded now and there was no sign of his old man. He risked taking a step inside to get a better look but he was gone. The barman glanced at him and barked, ‘Nae weans allowed wee man, so oot ye go!’ Dessie felt a mild sensation of panic as he realised his old man wasn’t there. He searched him mind, what would his da do? In the end he figured his da would figure he got fed up waiting in the rain and had gone home. Dessie decided to head for Celtic Park; he knew where his old man stood at every home game and was sure he could find him. He joined the river of humanity heading for the stadium.

As he turned into Janefield the crowds were heavier and the singing more raucous. A man stood by a wall with two big boxes full of rolls, ‘Erza cheese or ham rolls!’ he called out above the din. There were flag sellers, programme sellers and even the odd musician playing tunes on a penny whistle. At last Dessie reached the queues for the turnstiles at the Celtic end. He looked around for a suitable candidate to get him into the game. There was a skill to this, not too old, not too drunk and of course they had to be bigger than you. He spotted a kind faced man in a suit and heavy winter overcoat, ‘Any chance ay a lift o’er, mister?’ The man smiled, ‘Sure wee man, mon wi me.’ The queue took forever as the Police insisted on searching people for drink but at last they reached the turnstile where the man hoisted Dessie up. He swung his legs over as his feet touched the tarmac inside the stadium he heard a huge roar. Someone had scored! Dessie Daly raced up the stairs straining to see what was going on. A wave of noise swept across the pitch towards him, ‘Hullo, Hullo, we are the Billy boys!’Damn’ he thought to himself, was his first Celtic-Rangers game going to be a bad experience? 

He made his way through the packed Celtic end looking for the familiar face of his old man but he was nowhere to be seen. In the end he settled near the front of the Celtic end to watch the game. Celtic pushed Rangers back on a glue pot of a pitch but time after time desperate defending and some brutal tackling kept them at bay. Then as half time approached young full back Davie Hay clipped a cross into the penalty box where it was met by the ever dangerous Bobby Lennox who headed it firmly into the net! Celtic Park erupted! Dessie cheered his young lungs out and felt strong hands grab him from behind. He  was spun around and a familiar face was grinning at him, ‘I thought that was you ya wee rascal!’ It was his father and Dessie could have cried at the emotions unleashed at seeing him and Celtic scoring their goal. They hugged for a long time before turning back to the match. He felt safe and secure with his old man standing behind him, hands on his shoulders. The Celtic end and Jungle roared in unison and Dessie and his old man joined in….

‘And if ye know the history, it’s enough to make yer heart go oh, oh, oh, oh!
We don’t care what the animals say, what the hell do we care!
Cause we only know that there’s gonnae be a show
And the Glasgow Celtic will be there!’

There was only going to be one winner in this match now and Dessie could feel it in his bones. He was happy he'd be beside his old man to watch Celtic prevail. 

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Brothers

The Brothers

Michael grinned at his older brother with that infectious smile of his, ‘You mean Saturday? I’m going on Saturday?’ he asked excitedly in that nasally tone of his. ‘Aye, Michael. I got two tickets aff big Andy the bus convenor and he’s cool with it.’ Michael took his brother by surprise by standing and throwing his arms around him. ‘I love you, John, he said in that unrestrained and honest way of his. John held him close, feeling a little emotional but also feeling a genuine affection for his brother, ‘I just need tae clear it way my ma and we’re good tae go.’ John left an obviously delighted Michael sitting in the living room and headed into the kitchen to talk to his mother.

He watched her unseen for a moment from the door of the kitchen, busy as always, cutting potatoes and carrots for another pot of her famous soup. Her long dark hair was tied into a pony tail and he could see a few silver threads here and there. She was still a fine looking woman even if she was in her late forties and he often wondered why she’d never shown any interest in men after his old man had died. It was six years ago now that John Snr had the misfortune to be crossing the road when a speeding drunk had shattered all their lives. ‘Ma,’ John began, ’can I talk to you a minute?’ She turned to face him gifting him that smile which he remembered even as a small child. ‘Of course son, whit is it?’ He sat by the kitchen table as she finished putting her chopped vegetables into the big soup pot. ‘I’ve got two tickets for the cup final and I wanted to take Michael.’ He face creased but she said nothing as he continued, ‘Andy on the bus is happy with it and he’ll help me with Michael if I need it.’ She put the lid on the pot and turned to look at her son. ‘John ye took Michael tae a game last year and he came home in tears. You know how some idiots react to a boy with Down’s! I won’t have him hurt again!’ John exhaled, ‘Ma, he’s 18 now, he can’t spend his days between this house and his club and you know he loves Celtic. There’s more tae life than that. Besides, it’s the cup final and it’s Celtic’s centenary year.’ She closed her eyes momentarily as if thinking before opening them again with a sigh and nodding, ‘Aw right John, but promise me you’ll look after him.’ John smiled at her, ‘You know I will ma, I’ll guard him with my life.’

The days leading up to the 1988 cup final hobbled past like old soldiers as the two brothers waited on the big day. Michael was so excited and had travelled with his mum from their home in Pollok all the way to the Celtic shop at the stadium to buy a new scarf for the occasion. At last Saturday 14 May arrived, bringing with it sunshine, blue skies and the hint that something magical was in the air for Billy McNeill and his centenary Celts. Michael was up at 7am and pestering his brother to get out of bed. ‘Michael, it’s 7 in the morning, the game isn’t for hours. Will ye go back tae bed?’ Michael sat on his brothers bed, ‘I’m too excited, John. I can’t sleep.’ John sat up in bed and looked at his brother, ‘Look, go in the living room, get some breakfast and watch the Celtic videos, I’ll be up in a while.’ This seemed to settle Michael who headed out of the room, muttering to himself, ‘I can’t wait, I can’t wait!’

John sat up in bed, lit a cigarette and exhaled. He had no worries that Michael would be fine at the football, he loved Celtic. Rather it was the attitude of some people to Michael and his Downs Syndrome that was the problem. One guy in particular on the supporters’ bus, an ignoramus called Aldo, had joked about a ‘Mong’ being on the bus and John had almost come to blows with him. John knew him from school and he was a moron then just as he was a moron now in his mid-twenties. If he started any of his pish John wasn’t sure he could contain himself. He had taken Michael to Tannadice earlier in the season and most of the guys on the bus had been brand new with him. Aldo though asked John with a stupid grin on his face, ‘does he bite?’ It took the strapping form of Andy the bus convenor to stop John and Aldo coming to blows. He had told Aldo to sit on his arse and stop behaving like an idiot before quietly whispering to John, ‘Never mind that prick, not the sharpest tool in the box.’

John didn’t get the dumb prejudice some folk had about people who were different. Michael was funny, loving and kind. He had a wicked sense of humour and could always sense when people were in need of a laugh. Prejudice, John figured was just that, pre-judging people before you actually knew them. It often told you more about the people doing it than the intended target of their scorn.

As lunchtime approached on that sunny Saturday in the spring of 1988, Michael was sitting at the kitchen table in his centenary Celtic top, scarf in hand ready to go. John loved his enthusiasm. Michael never hid his joy when something good was happening. Before they left to catch the supporters’ bus to Hampden, they both hugged their mother who whispered in John’s ear, ‘look after him, son.’ He smiled, ‘He’ll be fine Ma, he’ll love it. We’ll be home by six.’ John knew that in some way she carried some guilt for Michael’s condition despite the fact it was a random genetic mishap, an extra chromosome in each cell which causes the condition. He turned to Michael who stood waiting by the door, ‘Right you, let’s go and win this cup!’

They climbed onto the supporters bus in bright May sunshine. Andy grinned at them as they passed his seat, ‘Alright lads, a great day for it.’ Michael smiled back, ‘Hi Andy, I can’t wait. We’re gonna win!’ Andy nodded, ‘Damned right we are, Michael!’ As they headed towards the back of the bus Michael’s smile faded a little as he saw Aldo sitting swigging a half bottle of cheap wine. John guided Michael towards the back of the bus and ignored Aldo who he heard mutter to his mate, ‘ Oho, I see Robert Downey Junior is back.’ John gritted his teeth, one day he thought, he’d fix that bastard.

The journey to Hampden was one of those happy trips where everyone was singing and up for it. There were smiling, green clad fans on every street streaming towards the stadium. The centenary year had been excellent so far, could Celtic top it off by adding the cup to their league title? They got off the bus and headed towards the turnstiles at the Celtic end. The fans crowding the entrances were noisy and boisterous. John stood behind Michael, guiding him through and into the stadium. As they topped the stairway and saw the great bowl of Hampden spread out before them; three quarters of it covered in the green favours of Celtic and the far end a sea of tangerine, they both felt that exhilaration cup final day can bring. They made their way to a section of the terracing to the right of the goal as the teams came out to a great roar. A sea of red cards was held aloft to greet Margaret Thatcher who took her seat in the stand. ‘Here we go Michael!’ John said with genuine excitement.

As the game began, John heard the familiar voice of Aldo behind him. Of all the places on the terrace he could have stood he chose this. He glanced around him but the packed terrace offered little scope for moving. As the play raged from one end to the other John could hear the jibes behind him, ‘Good of him tae take the boy out wi normal people.’ Aldo’s friend was not responding to his stupid comments and focussed on the game, John tried to do the same. It bugged him but he ignored it for Michael’s sake. In the second half though Dundee United scored and Aldo said audibly, ‘See, telt ye the mongo would be bad luck!’ John spun around, ‘You shut yer fuckin’ ignorant mouth or I’ll punch yer lights out!’ Aldo snarled back, ‘Go for it ya fuckin fud!’ As John was about to swing a punch, Michael grabbed his arm, ‘No John, No!’ John, fuming turned back to the match as Celtic centred the ball to restart the game. He could hear Aldo’s mate telling him to calm down and behave but the half cut moron was still firing out stupid remarks. John bided his time until on 75 minutes Frank McAvennie scored the equalising goal. As the packed Celtic end jumped around in wild ecstasy and Michael was roaring in joy at the players on the field, he deliberately threw his elbow back with all the force he could muster smashing it into Aldo’s face. Aldo crumpled to the floor as the fans roared and danced around him. He looked at Aldo’s mate to see if he would do anything but he just shrugged as if to say, ‘he deserved that.’ The ambulance men showed up to help a bleeding and groggy Aldo away as John and Michael settle to watch the final stages of an enthralling game.

John placed his hands on Michael’s shoulders as the game neared its tension filled end, tied at 1-1. Would it be extra time in the sunshine? Would Celtic have the legs to make it a centenary double? With time running out another Celtic attack swept down the field and the ball and the ball pinged around the United penalty box where McAvennie was waiting to smash it home! John and Michael grabbed each other in a bear hug and shouted for joy! They had done it! Celtic had won the cup in the dying moments of the game and there were no happier people on God’s green earth at that moment than the two brothers locked in an embrace as around them thousands celebrated their team’s victory.