Sunday, 12 July 2020

May you live in interesting times

There is a reputed Chinese proverb which states ‘may you live in interesting times.’ Far from being a good will message about happiness and prosperity it is said to mean may you live in times of trouble and chaos and is thus a bit of a curse. We’ve certainly been living through some interesting times of late with the worldwide Covid 19 pandemic causing huge changes to the lives of millions of people. Here in Scotland the virus seems to be in retreat as people generally act sensibly. Of course it could all change if folk get blasé and fail to heed the guidelines laid out but we live in hope that we’re turning a corner.

Those of us looking forward to the return of Scottish football had the fixtures to talk about earlier this week. Season 2020-21 if just three weeks from kick off and it didn’t go unnoticed that the first derby game is in mid-October. Those of a more suspicious disposition suggested Celtic were hoping their home tie with Rangers would have at least some fans in the ground and had somehow influenced the SPFL’s fixture computer. The truth is likely to be more prosaic with Sky TV pouring millions in this year and perhaps wanting the showcase game of Scottish football to be the dramatic spectacle it usually is. The reaction of some to the fixture’s date does hint that the coming season will be fractious and full of tension as the possibility of Celtic winning a tenth successive title becomes clearer.

Reactions to the prankster who somehow scaled the City Chambers building in Glasgow and hoisted a Celtic ‘Nine in a row’ flag were telling too. Most Celtic supporters thought it fairly amusing coming as it did a few days after Rangers had projected their new crest onto various public buildings in the city. The prankster hoisted the flag for a few seconds probably in complicity with friends below who were ready to film the moment and then returned the saltire to its usual place.

The prank led to some predictably over the top reactions. The group calling itself ‘Scottish Protestants Against Discrimination’ released one of their pompous and self-important statements about a ‘flag of ill repute’ being hoisted over the city chambers and said that Celtic fans had also recently been in the city centre to ‘erect inflammatory signage’ although temporarily renaming streets after people who fought slavery is unlikely to inflame anyone but racists.  Just why this group had anything to say about a football flag at all is not hard to figure out. It clearly demonstrates their conflation of Celtic and Catholicism which some in Scotland still have. This amused many of Celtic’s non Catholic followers (of which there are many) one of whom said on social media; ‘As a Protestant Celtic fan I think this is very funny.’  I’m not sure how ‘SPAD’ saw the flag as a discriminatory act but as my old man used to say; ‘when all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.’

A Tory councillor who represents Shettleston, one of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom, said of the short lived hoisting of a Celtic flag above the city chambers, ‘Concerned to see a Celtic flag being flown from the city chambers this morning.’ Firstly, it wasn’t ‘being flown’ it was hoisted up and hoisted back down in about ten seconds. You’d think the council sanctioned it on a cursory read of his statement rather than it being work of a prankster. Perhaps the councillor should be more concerned about the 37% of children living in poverty in his constituency or the 29% of people there who live on out of work benefits. But then the Conservative councillor is playing to his gallery. That a Tory has been elected in an area as poor as Shettleston at a time of increasing poverty tells you much about who voted for him; it is more to do with constitutional politics than the life chances of people in the area. The Children’s Society said recently… 

'Four million; Almost a third of children in the UK live in poverty- that's around nine in the average classroom. The situation is getting worse with the number set to rise to 5 million by 2020. Shockingly two thirds of children living in poverty have at least one parent in work.'

Those stark facts are much more ‘concerning’ than a football flag being hoisted over Glasgow city chambers.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Shame Game

The Shame Game

Oliver Reed the brooding English actor was well known for his hell raising behaviour when out on a drinking binge. His boozing buddies included George Best, Richard Harris, Keith Moon, Richard Burton, Alex Higgins, Peter O’Toole and even Steve McQueen. A normally shy man, alcohol changed him into something of a wild man. On one occasion he stripped naked and jumped into a large fish tank in the bar of the Madrid Hilton hotel. On another he arrived at Galway airport and was found drunk on the baggage carousel. The man who played Proximus the gladiator trainer in the movie Gladiator died on the second of  May  1999 on the floor of a bar. Some suggested it’s how he would have wanted to go but others spoke of a troubled alcoholic who lost a lot of friends and a lot of work due to his illness. You might wonder why I’m speaking of Oliver Reed on what is ostensibly a football page; well on the day Oliver died there was a gladiatorial event of another kind taking place in Glasgow and alcohol would play a part in the events which unfolded that day.

Celtic had gallantly fought to stop Rangers making it ten league titles in a row in the spring of 1998 but the following season was a troubled one for the Hoops. Under Dr Joe Venglos they had stuttered throughout the season although some fine performance lit up Celtic Park on occasion; not least the 5-1 mauling of Rangers in November 1998 when a certain Lubomir Moravcik first demonstrated his talents to the adoring home fans. However they slipped well behind Rangers in the league and a defeat at St Johnstone in late April meant that Rangers could clinch the title at Celtic Park for the first time in a century should they win. Celtic was hindered by a ridiculously long injury list which saw top team stalwarts such as McNamara, Gould, Boyd, Rieper, Moravcik, Burley and McKinley all out of the game. More than half the regular starting eleven would be missing and Celtic’s threadbare squad wasn’t providing adequate replacements. It was a big ask for this makeshift side to stop what was a powerful Rangers team.

Sky TV scheduled the match for a 6.05pm kick off and this allowed many among the 60,000 attending the game and hundreds of thousands watching in pubs and clubs to indulge their appetite for alcohol. It was a warm, sunny day and the bank holiday weekend meant many were free to drink without having to worry about work the following day. This combined with the usual tensions around the match and the possibility of Rangers winning the title at the home of their greatest rivals created a perfect storm of circumstances.

I recall thinking to myself as I watched the match begin how uncomfortable Celtic’s defence looked in the opening exchanges. Scott Marshall, brought in on loan, looked out of his depth and spooked by the whole experience. Mahe was clattering in with his usual ferocity but Rangers looked pacey and organised. It was going to be a long afternoon. It took just 12 minutes for Rangers to take the lead as the aforementioned Marshall was caught dreaming as Wallace squared for McCann to score. Worse was to follow when McCann fouled Mahe and the Frenchman completely lost his composure. Already on a yellow card he complained bitterly to Hugh Dallas the referee who gave him his second yellow and sent him packing. It seemed a little harsh and the referee, viewed by many Celtic supporters as and no friend of the club, came in for some industrial language from the stands.

Moments later he awarded Rangers a free kick by the corner flag and was seen to drop to one knee as a coin struck him. In scenes no decent football fan wanted to see he was treated on the field for a cut to his head. Seconds after recovering, play resumed and a cross into the box saw Tony Vidmar pushing and pulling with Vidar Riseth. The Rangers player threw himself to the ground and Mr Dallas pointed to the penalty spot. Paul Lambert remonstrated with the referee and even pointed at the whistlers head as if to ask ‘is that because you were hit by a coin?’ The referee was unmoved.

It was another marginal decision but some in the Celtic sections of the ground were feeling hard done by and one or two even tried to get at the referee. In an increasingly frenzied atmosphere, one Celtic fan even fell from the top tier of the stand onto fellow fans below. He was still shouting and waving his arms at the referee as he was stretchered away. Things were in danger of getting out of hand and it took a posse of stewards and Police to regain control and allow the game to continue.  Albertz arrowed the penalty low past Stuart Kerr and it was effectively all over for ten-man Celtic.

The second half was hard fought but another blunder by Scott Marshall allowed McCann to waltz into the Celtic box to score easily. Riseth and Wallace were sent off in the later stages of the game for stupid tackles before a sorry afternoon’s sport finally ended. The Rangers players rightly celebrated with their fans although there was no need for them to mock the Celtic huddle as they did so. This led to some patrons of the normally more sedate south stand to pelt them with more objects as they ran up the tunnel to safety. An ugly game was over but there was more trouble to come in the streets of Glasgow.

I reached the top of Millerston Street where it meets Duke Street in the aftermath of that game only to be greeted by a pitched battle going. Those of you who know the area will know a couple of pubs nearby which are not what you would call Celtic friendly. I spoke to a guy who was in one of those bars that day and he told me a group he described as ‘Combat 18’ (a Fascist group) had been drinking there and watching the game. They were also determined to attack Celtic fans after the game. This they did but the sheer number of Celtic fans pouring out of Celtic Park meant they were always likely to meet strong opposition. The ensuing violence was on a scale seldom seen even by the standards of Celtic v Rangers games. It took the arrival of dozens of policemen, sirens wailing to restore some order on what was a very ugly day in Glasgow.

Over 130 people were arrested in and around Celtic Park that day and the media went into a predictable frenzy. The match was dubbed the ‘shame game’ and Celtic fans and players were heavily criticised.  Rangers came in for some flak for their mock huddle but generally the ugly events inside the stadium were rightly laid at the feet of some of those who followed Celtic. Celtic released a letter to fans the following day threatening anyone involved in the trouble with lifetime bans. The media praised Hugh Dallas for his courage in the face of a poisonous atmosphere and failed to question any of his decisions.

Celtic released a report by a behavioural psychologist which looked at all aspects of the match that day from the match organisation, security, songs played over the tannoy to the fans invading the field to confront the referee. One paragraph in the report talked about the referee’s body language and gestures such as patting a Rangers player on the bottom. This section was seized upon by the press and portrayed as Celtic focussing solely on the referee’s behaviour when it wasn’t the case. It was spun to make it look like paranoia and Celtic trying to blame the official for the ugly events that day. Certainly Mr Dallas could have shown more common sense and compassion with Stephane Mahe and his later penalty award to Rangers was in the soft category but clearly the blame for the trouble that day lies solely with the idiots who threw coins or tried to invade the field. Nothing can excuse that sort of behaviour.

That match in May 1999 was followed just three weeks later by the Scottish cup final between the same two teams. In the aftermath of that game a 16 year old Celtic fan was murdered and another hoops fan was shot with a crossbow. That very evening as the Ibrox club celebrated their win, their Vice Chairman was filmed singing sectarian songs at their function. When a football match is leading to violence and death then it is up to us all to stop and ask what the hell is going on.

There was a lot of soul searching in Scottish football and society about the events of that sunny May 21 years ago. The usual condemnation of some supporters followed and the decent majority were of course appalled. The kick off time was raised as an issue as was the amount of alcohol that some had consumed. Alcohol may lower inhibitions but it often only brings to the surface feeling people already have in them but each individual must take responsibility for their own behaviour and not blame drink, referees or any other factor. We all want football to retain its passion and rivalries; it thrives on the drama and excitement that engenders. What we don’t want is hatred and hostility to lead to the sort of excesses we saw in Glasgow on the day of that so called ‘shame game. 

Part of the problem in Scotland is that our two biggest and most successful teams dwarf all others and are in effect too big for Scottish football; it is now 35 years since a team out-with the big two won the title. This heightens their rivalry as they have found for most of their history the only viable challenger for the big prizes has been each other. If one is up then the other is down and being second is being nowhere.  Add to this mix the very different cultures and history surrounding the two clubs and it is a recipe for enmity. The sort of prejudices in Scottish society of which they were at one time just one facet have largely dissipated yet the rivalry has a life of its own and an energy which keeps it going. Playing in a bigger league with more rivals of equal stature would I’m sure refocus much of the energy which goes into their rivalry but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. So they are locked together in their loveless embrace and seemingly have no one else to dance with.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Six minutes past eight

Six minutes past eight

Sometimes you could see it coming. A game Celtic had in the palm of their hands with a 2-0 lead and just 2 minutes left on the clock was in danger of slipping away. Poor defending had allowed Dundee United’s Gary MacKay Steven lash home to give the men in tangerine hope that they could salvage a point. Jackie Brolly, high in the Jerry Kerr stand was feeling the tension and shouted, ‘Time’s up, ref! Blow the whistle ya fud!’ As the words left his mouth United fired a ball in from the left and the hapless Efie Ambrose rose to clear it. To Jackie’s horror the ball glanced off Effie’s head and flashed past Fraser Forster into the net. The home fans erupted as the big Celtic support collectively shook their heads. It had taken Celtic 70 minutes to break down United and they were in a commanding position with just a few moments left. How quickly a game could change.

The journey back down the motorway to Glasgow was a little more subdued than normal given the late collapse at Tannadice. ‘I’ll tell ye what,’ said Jackie’s brother Eddie, ‘if we defend like that against Barcelona we’ll get absolutely pumped.’  Jackie had to agree, ‘Cannae see Ambrose keeping oot Messi and co. We’ll need a miracle tae get oot that game wi a point.’  Jackie exhaled, ‘Ye going up to see my da tonight?’ Eddie shook his head, ’Baby-sitting sitting bro, I’ll go on Monday. You cover it tonight will ye?’  Jackie nodded, ‘Aye, nae worries. He’ll no be happy wi that result.’ Then almost as an afterthought added, ‘Mind you wi the currant buns going bust we should still win this league wi a country mile.’

As the bus sped down the motorway Jackie thought of his old man and the times they’d shared together. Sure he was a disciplinarian when they were kids but he’d taught them the right values and guided them into decent jobs. He was always there when they needed good advice or had got themselves into trouble. He recalled as a teenager his old man’s look of anger when he had shouted something vulgar at a Rangers player during a heated match. He had said nothing but Jackie knew the old fella had standards and he wanted his boys to adhere to them too.  He had first gone to the football with his dad and Eddie when he was 7 years old way back in 1986. It was a home game against Aberdeen played in a gale and lashing rain. He had begged his old man to take him and had stood at the front of the old Jungle as Celtic battled to a 1-1 draw with a very good Aberdeen side. From the moment Peter Grant scored on that rainy day, Jackie had got the Celtic bug.

Later that night, Jackie walked through the warren of corridors that led from the new section of the Royal Infirmary to the old block on Castle Street. He climbed the stairs to the ward his old man was in. ‘Why was it always the top floor?’ he mused as he sanitised his hands using the dispenser on the wall outside the ward. He entered the busy ward and walked briskly to where his father’s bed was. He stopped short an uneasy feeling coming over him when he saw that the bed was empty. He turned and approached the nurse’s station near the front door. ‘Can you tell me where James Brolly is?’ he asked a stern looking nurse who seemed to be in charge. She looked at him, her face a mask giving away no emotion. ‘And you are?’ Jackie hid his annoyance, ‘I’m his son.’ She nodded, ‘He was moved this morning to the single room.’ She gestured behind him at the small room. ‘Mr Brolly deteriorated overnight. The Doctor doesn’t think it’ll be long now.’ Jackie fought to keep control of his emotions. He knew this day was coming but it was always tomorrow… tomorrow.

He sat by the bed in an uncomfortable, plastic chair and took his old man’s hand. ‘Alright Da?  Celts blew it today, two-nil up with 2 minutes tae go and it ended 2-2.’ The only sound in the room apart from Jackie’s voice was the regular sound of his old man’s breathing and the odd click or beep from the machines around his bed. Jackie looked at him as he lay deep in sleep, his face so familiar yet he seemed older, weary. The guy who used to carry him on his shoulders and was always so strong, so reliable had been reduced by this illness. Jackie stayed for an hour talking quietly to his old man, mulling over what the nurse had told him. It was a matter of days now. He rose to leave and leaned over his sleeping father kissing him lightly on the cheek. They were never an emotional bunch and not given to overt displays of affection. He whispered in his old man’s ear words he didn’t think he’d ever said to him in his life, ‘I love you, Da,’ before leaving the ward to let his family know the situation.

The following Wednesday the two brothers took a break from the strain they were under and headed to Celtic Park to watch Celtic take on possibly the best club side in the world at that point. There was huge excitement in Glasgow which increased the closer they got to the stadium. The fans were singing loudly at the turnstiles as the brothers clicked into the Jock Stein stand and took their seats near the front. The full stadium tifo was a thing of beauty and the songs thundered out into the dark, November sky. ‘I wish my da could see this,’ Jackie muttered to his brother as the teams came out to the most spectacular setting for a game of football. The Champions League anthem began amid a crescendo of noise which cascaded from the stands. The two brothers may have had heavy burdens weighing them down but they’d try to be distracted from them for the next two hours. It seemed a forlorn hope that Celtic could match the array of talents that Barcelona had on the field but then this support often gave the players wings. There was always hope. As the game began to a huge roar, Jackie screamed out, ‘Come on Celtic! Intae them!’

The roars and songs from Celtic Park drifted across the east end as the battle swung this way and that. At 6 minutes past 8 victor Wanyama met a corner from the right and headed firmly into the Barcelona net. The noise which greeted the goal was as loud as any in the 125 year history of the grand old team.

A couple of miles away in the Royal Infirmary old James Brolly opened his eyes. He looked around him as if wondering if the noise he heard was real. He smiled weakly to himself and closed them again. His journey was over, his game played. He was happy to be going home.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Jungle Juice

Jungle Juice

It was one of those blustery April days when the weather couldn’t make its mind up. The playground was the usual hubbub noisy children engaged in a variety of games. At one end a rough game of football was going on while the wall at the opposite end saw a line of girls bouncing rubber balls with impressive skill as they chanted in unison, ‘She is handsome, she is pretty, she is the belle of Belfast city, tell, tell your boyfriend’s name!’ Despite the variety of things going on there was only one subject on the mind of the Celtic daft boys. This was the day Celtic was taking on Atletico Madrid in the European cup semi-final and there was an air of excitement about.

‘Ye going tae the match the night, Geezer?’ I asked my lanky pal who always wore his wooly Celtic hat to school. He grinned at me as if I’d suggested the world was flat, ‘dis a bear shite up a close?’ He had a habit of mangling well know phrases and once described his drunken dad smashing up the house by saying, ‘he was like a fool in a China shop!’ We chatted excitedly about the game and Celtic’s chances before the bell sounded and we ran to our line in the yard. It did not pay to keep Mr Stirling waiting, the rather stern depute Head Teacher kept his Lochgelly belt over his shoulder and its threatening outline was visible under his jacket. He appeared from the school building like a man on a mission and marched to the front of the lines which now quietened. ‘Primary 7, go in.’ he commanded and we obeyed hoping that the school day wouldn’t drag as we were simply bursting to get the day over and get to Celtic Park.

The school nurse was a strict and foreboding woman in her 50s who seemed as wide as she was tall. She also had a face that would not be unattractive to a lonely pit-bull terrier and breathed heavily through her nose as if opening her mouth was too much trouble. Her task was to ensure that minor childhood dangers, such as head lice or scabies, were dealt with in the school. Our class went downstairs to her odd smelling little room, in batches of six later that morning.  One by one she bade us enter and treated us to a rather rough examination. Following our examination, I was told to wait behind as my classmates were sent back to class. She looked at me and shook her head in a weary manner. ‘Crawling!’ she said in a stern tone as she scribbled notes onto a sheet of paper, ‘Come and see me again at 11am.’ I returned to class and My teacher looked at me with that understanding smile of hers and quietly said, ‘Sit down, Patrick.  I returned to my seat thankful that she was not the kind to inflict further embarrassment on me.

However, my trip to the school nurse’s office later that day was more of an ordeal. She poured foul smelling clear liquid onto my hair and massaged it into every part of my scalp. The lotion was nicknamed ‘Jungle juice’ by the children at the school and it stung my eyes and made my nose run. When this was complete she used a large brush to bring some semblance of order to my tangled hair. Now in those times, boys' hair styles were much longer than is the norm today. However my thick hair was made sleek and oily by the nit lotion and she brushed it into a side parted style that made me look like a 1920s Mafia Boss.  ‘Come back this afternoon and we’ll shampoo the lotion off,’ she barked. I returned to class painfully aware of how different I looked. I could also smell the distinctive odour of the nit lotion as I quietly entered the class. Again, Miss Sullivan told me to sit with a minimum fuss, although some of my class mates were undoubtedly regarding me with quiet amusement.  I began my work and within a few moments the remarks began. ‘Pass me that rubber, Don Corleone,’ the boy on my left said. ’Can anybody smell petrol?’ he went on, making a theatrical sniffing motion with his large spot covered nose. The boy in question was called Franny by one and all and was a real pain at times. Like all youngsters however, he had his Achilles’ heel. He suffered from a veritable plague of spots on his face.  Attack being the best form of defence; I took the fight to him.  ‘Fancy playing join the dots on your face, ya plooky bastard’ I sneered. He flushed with anger and muttered under his breath ‘Your dead ya fuckin tramp.’ I wasn’t too concerned about his threats as I felt I could handle him if it came to a fight and recent class history seemed to suggest that he was all mouth. So, I simply looked at him and replied with as much sarcasm as I could manage, ‘I’m shakin’ in my shoes Pizza face.’ I didn’t like conflict but it was sink or swim and I had no intention of sinking.

Lunchtime came and we marched in silence to the dinning-hall.  Another of those ‘thoughtful’ adult decisions had been made and all children with nit lotion on their heads, and there were many, were made to sit in a corner of the hall set apart from the bulk of the school. This added to our discomfort and it was not long before other children were taunting us. ‘Hey Paddy,’ one boy shouted ‘I hear your moving to Nitshill.’  Others mimed scratching their heads and it was hard to ignore the jibes. Luckily another victim of the nit outbreak was another good pal, Shuggie.  He was always ready with an answer to their insults and called back to one particular boy, known as Goofy, due to his less than symmetrical face,  ‘Nits come and go Goofy, but you’ll be plug ugly all your days, ya prick !’  When Goofy kept the abuse up, a well-aimed rubber from Shuggie bounced of Goofy’s rather asymmetrical head and the deputy head stepped in to calm things. Shuggie was ordered from the hall and left with a quick wink at me. On his way out he passed Goofy’s table, and with the speed of a striking cobra, dipped a rather grubby finger into an astounded Goofy’s bowl of custard.  Game, set and match to Shuggie I thought.

I returned to the school nurse’s office in the afternoon and she used a strong smelling shampoo to wash the nit lotion from my head. She then combed it through with a metal dust comb that seemed to be dragging half of my hair out along with the dead lice. When this slow torture was over, she produced a large hair dryer and blew hot air over me until my hair was bone dry. Now, I had never had my hair blow dried until that fateful day and I must confess that it felt rather pleasant and warm. However, it added new body to my straggly hair and a glance in the mirror on my way out of the nurse’s room horrified me. My hair had gone from being sleek and wet looking to being bulky and bushy. I headed back to class in some trepidation.

I slipped quietly into class and there was a short gasp from one or two children. Even the unflappable Miss Sullivan’s eyebrows slightly raised, as she quietly told me to sit but even her gaze was firmly on my somewhat voluminous hair. I sat at my seat and waited for the verbal sparring to begin. Franny, as usual, was first to have a rather obvious dig. ‘Hey, Mungo Jerry, whit time do you make it?’ Now, Mungo Jerry was a singer of the time who sported a huge Afro perm so his insinuation was clear and enough to induce sniggers from a few others. I found it tiresome to go on about his spots again so I thought for a couple of seconds before replying, ‘Franny, I think the school have spelt your name wrong on the register, it doesn’t have an ‘r’ in it does it ?’ It took him a minute or so to work out what I was saying but he got it in the end.

They day dragged past to its conclusion and I ran all the way home. My older brothers were already home from high school and were talking about the match. ‘My da’s coming at half five tae get us. We better get in early, it’ll be mobbed.’ I ate my supper with growing excitement as my oldest brother nodded towards me, ‘whit’s going on wi your hair? Ye look like ye’ve had an electric shock.’ They laughed at my expense but I didn’t care. My team was playing in the European Cup Semi-Final that night and that filled my thoughts.

Atletico Madrid? They were good but I was sure Celtic were better. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Dark Corners

Dark Corners

When I was a kid I used to watch my old man’s face light up when Muhammad Ali was on TV. Of course he enjoyed the boxing skills of Ali who was one of the greatest fighters of all time, but he also liked Ali’s self-confident pronouncements on everything from the Vietnam War and racism to his poetic predictions for his next fight. ‘Jumpin Jive, I’ll take him in five!’ the champ would say before despatching his opponent with his usual grace and power. It wasn’t just that Ali was a great fighter and a lippy character that made my old man warm to him. He also knew something of the racism and discrimination Ali and the African American community in general suffered and on that level empathised with him. Maybe it was the Irish in my old fella that made him side with the underdog but he would watch Ali on TV and nod, ‘Aye you fuckin’ tell them, Ali.’ Every fight Ali won stuck it to those who despised him for being what they hated most; a confident, outspoken and successful black man.

Race and the legacy of slavery have been in the news virtually every day since the death of George Floyd in the USA. Modern camera phones are recording with depressing regularity a minority of American law enforcement officers reacting with brutal and sometimes lethal force against African American men. This has led to prolonged and often violent protests in American cities and indeed around the world. Here in the UK we have seen statues attacked and defaced and in truth some of the actions seen at demonstrations seem counter-productive to the cause they seek to highlight.

Into this febrile atmosphere John Barnes, one time manager of Celtic, seemed to suggest that race played a part in his ill-fated 8 month stint as Celtic manager. Unusually for a high profile former footballer, he crossed swords with folk all day long on twitter in an often vain attempt to persuade them that unconscious bias played a part in his downfall at Celtic. Twitter is a notoriously difficult place to discuss such heavy matters and he had no shortage of voices willing to defend Celtic as they saw it from his apparent accusation.

Barnes is an intelligent and articulate man who undoubtedly speaks from the heart when discussing the cancer of racism. He gave a very interesting and frank interview to ‘A Celtic State of Mind’ and had 90 minutes to explain his thoughts on what went wrong at Celtic during his ill-fated time in charge. His theory; that black managers are given less time than white managers to get things right does seem to ring true especially if you look at the experience of some in England but was this really the case at Celtic?

He arrived in June 1999 and was welcomed with great excitement by the Celtic fans who cared not a jot for his ethnicity; here was a man who was a superb footballer in his day and fans hoped that magic would replicate itself in the dugout. He stated that certain players were awkward with him from the start and there were cliques and arguments about money. As usual the Scottish press didn’t help and it seemed certain players were happy to leak stories from inside Celtic Park. That was difficult enough for a rookie manager but it was compounded by injuries to key men, Larsson and Lambert coupled with Mark Viduka becoming unsettled and these factors saw the team’s early promise dissipate as winter arrived.

A wretched display during the cup exit to Inverness Caley Thistle at Celtic Park was to be the final act in the Barnes tenure in charge. Celtic, in their usual ham-fisted  way handled his dismissal poorly but did he deserve to go? Would he, as he suggested, have been given more time if he was white? Barnes admits that not having the dressing room nor indeed, the boardroom behind him, doomed his Celtic career from the outset. His central thesis that White Managers are given more time though is difficult to sustain. He was fired after 8 months in charge when a series of matches were lost. Three days before that ICT match, Hearts came from 0-2 down to win 3-2 at Celtic Park. All was clearly not well behind the scenes and these man management issues were perhaps more critical to his chances of remaining in post than the poor results. Either way the combination of both was fatal to his Celtic career.

When faced with a struggling team behind at half time against ICT, a manager and his coaching staff need to reorganise and motivate the team to turn it around. Mark Viduka’s response to Eric Black cajoling him to try harder was deeply unprofessional but perhaps not unexpected from this volatile player. They ended up coming to blows and Viduka refused to play in the second half. It contributed to that disastrous exit from the cup and Barnes’ downfall as head coach. That there were strong characters in the dressing room and cliques among some players is no excuse for a manager losing control in that manner but perhaps as a rookie coach he wasn’t given the support he needed. He said…

‘I never had the dressing room, when I got there on day one, I didn’t have the dressing room. The players didn’t like me. It had nothing to do with my race.’

Barnes’ theory that unconscious bias works against black coaches in football is an interesting and in the context of English football, a not unconvincing one. However it seems unlikely that the club who gave John Barnes the job just 8 months earlier would, even subconsciously, fire him with more haste than they would a failing white manager; Lou Macari was sacked after 8 months and Tony Mowbray after 9. Both of these managers would admit themselves that results were not good enough and that this cost them their jobs.

Barnes demonstrated a lack of understanding of the Celtic psyche when he suggested that had Jock Stein and Kenny Dalglish not been as successful as they were at Celtic then their Protestant upbringing would have seen them given less time than a Catholic to turn things around. This struck me as ludicrous; this is the club of John Thomson, Bertie Peacock, Bobby Evans, Tommy Gemmell and Henrik Larsson. We pride ourselves on being inclusive and indeed used it as a contrast to the tawdry and grubby policy pursued by our main rivals for over 70 years.   Kenny did endure barren spells at Celtic and the club wasn’t always successful during his playing career there but no one was demanding he went; on the contrary many where devastated when he did finally leave in 1977. Jock Stein had a nightmare final season as boss in 1977-78 but there was no clamouring for his head as fans recognised the contribution he had made to Celtic. Rather many supporters were disgusted at the way the board of the time handled his departure.

Barnes also stated that that ‘Celtic is no more racist, nor less racist, than any other club’ and when reminded that it was Celtic fans who renamed Glasgow Streets in honour of some of the victims of racism said; ’So because of George Floyd we are we outraged now?’ Implying that Celtic fans are jumping on the ‘Black lives matter’ bandwagon now is to deny long years of anti-racism activity from many supporters. We’ve all seen the banners condemning racism at Celtic games. We’ve seen the anti-discrimination football tournament the Green Brigade organise every year. We supported the ‘match the fine for Palestine’ campaign which raised over a quarter of a million pounds for Palestinian charities. 

Yes, there will be some racists among the Celtic support as we saw with the despicable behaviour of some towards Mark Walters 32 years ago but the furious reaction of the majority to that incident spoke volumes. It was wrong, it was wicked and it against everything Celtic stands for. To this day we have hypocritical Rangers fans reminding Celtic supporters about the Walters incident and conveniently forgetting it came at a time when they were only just contemplating playing Catholic players after a lifetime of footballing apartheid. Indeed at the game in which Walters was so despicably abused their supporters continued their ‘fuck the pope’ songs throughout.

To imply Celtic supporters are only interested in anti-racist activities since the tragic death of George Floyd is simply wrong. There are many articles on this various subject down the years written by Celtic supporters condemning racism. I have even written some myself. Barnes also made a statement when reminded of the prejudice Celtic and their community have faced in Scotland which struck me as odd. He said; ‘Anti-Irish racism in Scotland? The Irish aren’t a different race, that’s not racism.’ This is the old trope we have seen regularly in Scotland; reduce racism to sectarianism and then blame both sides as being equally culpable.

I like John Barnes as a man and as a footballer. He fights for what he believes in and speaks with inteligence about an issue that clearly impacted upon him during his footballing career and indeed in his life. I do believe though that the fact he had little control over his players at Celtic and the subsequent sequence of results cost him his job and that bias, unconscious or otherwise, played no part in it.

As a society and as individuals we must seek to eradicate prejudice of all sorts. That means challenging it when it rears its ugly head and not being afraid to shine a light into our own dark corners.

My old man’s favourite boxer said when he was drafted into the army at the time of the Vietnam war… 

'Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human right?' 

Ali called out the hypocrisy and racism he saw around him in 1960s America. I hope we all have the courage to do so in our own time.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Keep going

Keep going

This week saw alternative street names being stuck to the walls of buildings in some of Glasgow’s grander streets. The person or persons who stuck the new street names in place obviously has knowledge of the history of Glasgow as most were placed in streets named after Tobacco Lords. The new names spotted included Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Sheku Bayoh and George Floyd.

Rosa was of course the courageous African American woman who in 1955 refused to sit at the back of the bus which was then the designated ‘coloured section.’ Her actions led to her arrest but set in motion the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama which in the end led to change. The courts declared that segregation on buses was unconstitutional and when the city appealed to the United States Supreme Court it too found the practice unconstitutional and ordered that the buses desegregate immediately. The post war civil rights movement had won a victory but the war against prejudice and oppression was far from over.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in 1822 and was beaten and whipped regularly in her early life. On one occasion an angry slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave but hit Harriet on the head causing her a severe wound and lifelong dizziness. She escaped slavery and made at least 13 missions to help free other slaves from the slave owning states and return then via the ‘underground railroad’ of safe houses to places of safety. She later served as a spy for the union army and was a life-long anti-slavery activist. She died aged 90 in 1913 having spent her life fighting slavery and racism.

Sheku Bayoh and George Floyd were two men who died at the hands of the Police; Sheku died here in Scotland and his death is still under investigation while George died in the USA. George’s death was recorded on a camera phone and posted online. It led to huge anger and demonstrations which continue to wrack the United States. The placing of Street signs bearing the names of these people on streets named after men whose fortunes were built on slavery was no accident.

The 1707 treaty of Union gave Scottish merchants access to the American colonies and this coincided with the deepening of the river Clyde. Being on the western fringe of Europe, Scottish ships had an advantage in that they could get to America more quickly than others and return with their cargoes of tobacco, cotton and sugar. It was tobacco though which led to vast fortunes being made especially after the French monarchy allowed Glasgow a monopoly to import tobacco into France. The ‘Tobacco Lords’ oversaw a boom which lasted 50 years and saw Glasgow expand hugely. Their names still linger on in street names and in the buildings built with the vast profits they made. Names such as Buchanan, Cochrane, Glassford, Oswald, Spiers and Dunlop are still visible in Glasgow as the city honoured them in their day by naming streets after them.

These wealthy men built huge houses and churches for themselves and today we can still see some of them. The current Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow city centre was originally built as a private mansion for tobacco merchant William Cunninghame at a cost of £10,000 (£1.8m at today’s prices) in 1777. Modern Glaswegians may smile at the irreverent placing of traffic cones on the head of the statue of the Duke of Wellington which stands in front of the ‘GOMA’ but perhaps should also consider the beautiful building behind it was built by the profits of the slave economy which drove the tobacco trade.

Another tobacco Lord, John Glassford, had a grand family portrait painted which contained cryptic clues about how his fortune was made. In the portrait the family sit in Georgian splendour while some curious features have been added. A squirrel can be seen on the floor near John Glassford and represents industry and hard work. A parrot is in the window and represents the West Indies where Glassford had plantations. Indeed up to a third of slave plantations in Jamaica were owned by Scots. On the extreme left of the picture is the unmistakable and haunting image of a black slave boy.

St Andrew’s Parish Church, one of the finest 18th century churches in Britain, sits today in St Andrew’s Square near Glasgow Green. It is an ostentatious and grand church by Presbyterian standards and was built at considerable expense by the tobacco merchants as a fitting place to worship. It was a very public demonstration of their wealth and these ‘Christian’ gentlemen obviously saw no contradiction between their faith and the evil practices of slavery upon which their wealth was built.

The American Revolution brought the tobacco boom to an end and ruined some of the tobacco lords. Others managed to retain their wealth and continued to prosper in the industrial revolution which followed. They left their mark on Glasgow and few questioned the immoral basis of their wealth until modern times. The trans-Atlantic slave trade saw millions of Africans brought across the sea in chains to endure lives of hardship and cruelty. Britain may have been to the fore of trying to end slavery but it cannot and must not obscure the role the country played in this wicked trade. Scotland profited from it too and it is heartening to see people educate themselves about what occurred in those years and how it echoes still in the lives of modern African-Americans today.

African Americans have made progress in the years since the abolition of slavery but they are still likely to be poorer, die younger, go to prison, be less well educated and be victims of crime. One recent report highlighted that the rate of incarceration in the USA was 1730 per hundred thousand for African Americans and 270 per hundred thousand for whites. That is to say African Americans are 6.4 times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. Study after study demonstrates the link between social disadvantage and poverty on crime figures yet little is done to cure the underlying causes of such disadvantage.

Here in Scotland we see that to a far less severe rate among the Catholic population. In 2001 Catholics made up 17% of the population but also made up 28% of the prison population. The 2011 census demonstrated that Catholics were almost twice as likely to live in areas of multiple-deprivation as the rest of the population and that link between deprivation and crime is clear. Catholics are not inherently more criminal than any other sector of society despite what some bigots say. They have also made great use of education as an engine of social mobility and now take a full part in every sector of Scottish life. It is of course hugely inappropriate to compare the disadvantage suffered by African Americans to that of Catholics (mostly of Irish descent) in Scotland as the sheer weight of historical prejudice bearing down on African Americans is vastly heavier, more insidious and longer lasting.

Some have argued for reparations and restorative justice to help the poorer communities of African Americans join the mainstream of society and not be left as a poor underclass. Better schools, homes, jobs opportunities and aspirations would be a start but it seems that a politically polarised USA isn’t listening. The anger being played out on the streets of America is being met with predictable brutality and adding fuel to the fire. History casts a long shadow in the land of the ‘free.’

The street signs in Glasgow will probably come down soon as they contravene local planning laws. It takes more than changing street names though to make real change in a society. Glasgow is a warm and welcoming city and has a social conscience too. Nelson Mandela once praised the city as the first to stand with him in his struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Today a street bears his name too.

It can be hard to judge people who lived long ago using modern values but the tobacco lords for all their wealth must have known and in some cases seen with their own eyes, the suffering upon which their wealth was made. Those fine building which survive to this day were built on foundations of human misery and we should never forget that.

The struggle for equality and dignity is a never ending one. All societies will have wrongs which need righted and the good people who seek human advancement will always keep going.  As Harriet Tubman wrote all those years ago to escaping slaves…

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there's shouting after you, keep going. Don't ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”

Sunday, 31 May 2020

A Special Breed

A Special Breed

Goalkeepers, said Irish football legend Harry Gregg, 'aren't crazy. They are a special breed who deserve respect.' Gregg played at a time when they received scant protection from referees and had to endure the violent attentions of aggressive forwards. He played at a time when Bert Trautmann, a former German prisoner of War and Manchester City keeper finished an FA cup final with a broken neck after what was called a 'robust' challenge. Trautmann dislocated 5 vertebrae in his neck one of which had wedged a broken one in place. Had this not occurred doctors were sure he would have died. Yey Trautmann played at a time the rules had changed to protect keepers more. There was a time when they were fair game for the most brutal treatment.

The Scottish cup final of 1937 saw Celtic play Aberdeen in front of an astonishing crowd of 147,365 at Hampden Park.  Goals from Johnny Crum and Willie Buchan gave Celtic a famous win and hope for the following season that they could once more topple Bill Struth’s Rangers and win the title. That same season saw Sunderland win the FA Cup by defeating the excellent Preston NE team of the period 3-1. It is a measure of how effective Scottish players were at that time that 12 of the 22 players who began the English FA cup final were Scots. Sunderland had won the league in 1936 and confirmed a golden period in their history by winning that FA cup final in 1937.

Football in the 1920s and 30s was far more physical than it is today and goalkeepers came in for particularly rough treatment. It was legal for forwards to literally kick the goalkeeper if he held possession of the ball in order to make him release it. Thus today we look at grainy footage from that era we see goalkeepers catching the ball and immediately launching it upfield before the forwards could challenge them. In Scotland there had already been two goalkeepers killed after onfield accidents.
In 1921, 24-year-old Joshua Wilkinson was playing in goal for Dumbarton against Rangers. As a result of a very physical challenge he received early in the game, he suffered a ruptured intestine which he unwittingly made worse by playing for the rest of the game. After the match, he complained of feeling unwell. Tragically, peritonitis had set in. Despite undergoing emergency medical surgery in Glasgow, he died on the Monday following the game. An investigation by the Scottish Football Association absolved any of the Rangers players of blame. Wilkinson’s father had a different view and claimed that his son had met his death as a result of “a blow received during the match”, but neither the football nor legal authorities were prepared to listen. Rangers to their credit did what they could for Wilkinson’s family and even paid for his headstone.
Celtic supporters will of course need no reminding that ten years after the death of Joshua Wilkinson tragedy would strike their own side. John Thomson was killed following an accidental collision with Rangers forward Sam English at Ibrox in 1931. Thomson, supremely brave, had already broken his jaw and fractured ribs in the rough world of Scottish football before that fateful clash with Sam English in September 1931. For both Dumbarton and Celtic the trauma of losing a player in such circumstances hit the club hard. Despite these two tragedies the footballing authorities did nothing to protect goalkeepers from some savage treatment.
On 1st February 1936 Sunderland lined up to play Chelsea and even by the standards of the time it was a rough game. It wasn’t by any means a grudge match but is remembered for trouble in the stands, violence on the pitch and one particular moment of viciousness which would lead to tragedy. Sunderland’s talented young goalkeeper Jimmy Thorpe dived on a loose ball in his penalty box and as he held the ball to his body three Chelsea forwards arrived and immediately began savagely kicking him on the head, neck and upper body to try and force him to release the ball. This prolonged assault continued until a posse of Sunderland defenders arrived and pushed their opponents away. The referee did nothing as by the laws of the game the Chelsea players were within their rights. The crowd were incensed though as despite the rules few opponents endangered a goalkeeper in the manner the Chelsea players did that day.
Jimmy Thorpe played on in an obviously disoriented manner and lost two soft goals in a 3-3 draw. A Policeman nearby saw him lean on the post several times with a ‘ghastly white look on his face.’ The game finished with Chelsea being booed from the field and a still groggy Thorpe being jeered by some of his own fans for two late goalkeeping errors which earned Chelsea an undeserved draw. Few watching the players troop off the field realised those errors had been caused by his injuries. He went home to his wife and child and mentioned he had been kicked in the body and head. He took unwell at home and spent all the next day in bed. By Monday he was admitted to hospital and was diagnosed with broken ribs and head trauma. He lost consciousness and never woke up, dying on 5th February. His injuries had led to a diabetic coma and this in turn caused heart failure. Like John Thomson, he was just 22 when he died. He remains the only English footballer to receive a league winners’ medal posthumously. The English League changed the rules after an uproar from fans over Thorpe’s death. Kicking the ball out of goalkeepers hands became illegal.
In October 1937 Celtic travelled south to play Sunderland in a match between the respective Cup holders. Both team captains paraded the trophies before the game and in those days before European football top clubs always enjoyed testing themselves against teams from other leagues. Celtic played well at Roker Park and goals from McGrory and Buchan sealed a comfortable win. One contemporary report stated that ‘Both sides played skilful attractive football but Celtic’s speed and splendid positioning made them the more dangerous in attack.’ The teams would meet again in the Empire Exhibition cup less than a year later and again Celtic came out on top winning 3-1 on their route to claiming the trophy.
Supporters of both clubs still remember the young goalkeepers who lost their lives playing the game they loved. Football has evolved to a huge extent since the rough days of the 1930’s and goalkeepers receive a huge degree of protection these days. It may annoy fans when referees whistle for even the slightest contact on goalkeepers in the modern era and perhaps they are over-protected but there can never be a return to the days when goalkeepers were routinely kicked, barged and shouldered into the net.
In 2011 Chelsea played Sunderland and marked the 75th anniversary of the death of Jimmy Thorpe. Both goalkeepers (Craig Gordon & Peter Cech) wore black armbands as a mark of respect to the young goalkeeper so tragically lost. Goalkeeping was a dangerous profession in the early days of football and injuries were common. Some alas paid the ultimate price for guarding their goal and we rightly remember and honour them.
Joshua Wilkinson - Dumbarton FC (1921)
John Thomson - Celtic FC (1931)
Jimmy Thorpe - Sunderland FC (1936)