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.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Witches Cauldron

The Witches Cauldron

There was a moment midway through the second half of Thursday’s epic encounter between Celtic and RB Leipzig when the German side were starting to push Celtic back and looking more menacing.  The Celtic fans in the near 60,000 crowd realising their team needed them began to rock the stadium with their chants and songs and the team responded, fighting like tigers for the ball and putting their bodies on the line in order to block shots and thwart the German side’s attacks. It was an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between Celtic and their supporters. Those fans get so engrossed in the game, the kick every ball, respond to every incident and give their team unconditional support.

It’s a unique environment in European football and German newspaper, the Leipziger Volkzeitung, described Celtic Park as ‘Der Hexenkessel’ (the witches cauldron) and praised it with the following words…

‘Sorry Borussia Dortmund, sorry Besitkas but Celtic Park and the Celts top everything that Red Bull has experienced since its inception in 2009. The fans of the Scottish side live up to their reputation as the world’s best fanatics, driving their Bhoys in green for 94 minutes to a deserved victory, celebrating every tackle, profane interjections at corners. They also celebrate themselves, their loyalty, and their songs. The history of this cult club founded in 1888 by the Irish clergyman Brother Walfrid, looms over everything. The score is a decorating accessory, the big picture is more important. Celtic season tickets are traded like gold dust and carry an inscription, ‘A club like no other!’ Yes indeed; a club like no other.

The atmosphere at Bundesliga games is among the best in the world so praise from experienced German press reporters is praise indeed. Another German newspaper painted a picture of the scene as kick off approached, stating in almost poetic terms…

‘Before the game, the entire stadium was bathed in a light show as the green and white hymn "You'll Never Walk Alone" was sung so loudly that probably everyone in the stadium - including the 2200 travelling along Leipzig fans - got goose bumps. When the nearly 60,000 sing along and everyone in the oval raises his Celtic scarf, it creates one of the most powerful and exciting scenes you can experience in a football stadium.’

Nor was the epic atmosphere lost on players experiencing it for the first time. Celtic’s on loan defender, Filip Benkovic, was similarly impressed….

“When we went out on to the pitch at the beginning our fans were on fire. The atmosphere was crazy and they gave us the wings to play. The memory of it will live with me forever and I want to enjoy as many of them as I can.”

If results go Celtic’s way in the next round of matches we should be set up for an incredible evening when runaway group winners RB Salzburg come calling in December. That will be an incredible occasion too.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Thursday’s match was the fact that the players believed in themselves and matched their more fancied opponents in every aspect of the game. The tactics were good, the effort and application superb. To see young Scottish players who have come through the Celtic Academy playing so well was pleasing. Ryan Christie too has been a revelation of late and his return after loan spells away from Celtic has been like signing a new player. Callum McGregor too has stepped up of late and shown that he can do an excellent job in midfield. With Brown recuperating, Rogic and N’tcham on long term contracts, the Celtic midfield is looking powerful indeed.

In defence Boyata and Benkovic looked a solid pairing although in a worst case scenario the club could lose both in January. Celtic should try to persuade Boyata to sign another contract, even if they acknowledge that he’ll leave in the summer. If he refuses then they would be wise to sell him in January and at least get a few million pounds for him which could be used to buy in a replacement. Benkovik would I’m sure be up for staying for at least the rest of the season if the alternative was warming the bench at Leicester? Either way the January transfer window needs to be handled in a more effective way than the summer one after which even Rodgers admitted the team was weaker.

I had a Swiss friend with me who was visiting Celtic Park for the first time and it was interesting listening to what he thought about the game. He was most impressed by Tierney and Forrest who he thought could play in any league successfully. The atmosphere of course impressed him and he told me that he’d never seen a crowd so involved, so focussed on the game and driving their team on.

 The passion Celtic fans bring to these big European games is recognised the world over. It drives the players to new levels and helps them compete with teams most feel are too strong for them. The link between the players on the field and the fans in the stands is the key to so much this remarkable club has achieved down the decades. That passion still makes little miracles happen now and the as Barcelona found when they came to Celtic Park in 2012. The late Tito Villanova said at the time…

The stadium was spectacular. I have been lucky in my career to have been to many grounds but I have never seen anything like it.’

Leipzig is not yet at the level of Tito’s Barcelona but they are a very good European side and Celtic did exceptionally well to overcome them. It isn’t often Scottish teams defeat Bundesliga sides so we can take pride in a fine result. I’m glad the ‘twelfth man’ played an important part in that victory by creating that ‘witches cauldron’ which so infuses the team with energy and confidence. As Tommy Burns once said of the Celtic supporters; ‘They’re there and they’re always there and God bless every one of them.’

The great man was spot on with that comment. We’ll always back Celtic; they are our club, part of the fabric of our lives, part of our very being and they always will be. For all of us they are indeed… a club like no other.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Calling it out

Calling it out

In an episode of Line of Duty, the BBC’s excellent police drama, Superintendent Ted Hastings played by Adrian Dunbar is asked if he could be letting race play a part in his motivation as he pursues corrupt black cop Tony Gates. As a Catholic former RUC officer, the experienced cop is having none of it and snarls, “Nobody’s blacker than me, son,” By that of course he means that as an Irish-Catholic he has had to endure his share of prejudice in his life.

I thought of that scene as I watched Neil Lennon speak so frankly on what he has endured in Scotland since joining Celtic in the year 2000. The former Celtic player and Manager has been verbally abused, assaulted in the street on more than one occasion and also in a football stadium, he has received bombs and bullets in the post and has to live with low level hostility on a permanent basis. Why does he receive such treatment? He is no more combative than Scott Brown or Graham Souness. He enjoys the banter with fans and does get on their nerves at times but nothing which would warrant the naked hatred and aggression he endures in his life. He spoke earlier about never receiving any abuse for club or country until the day he signed for Celtic. He gave up playing for Northern Ireland after sustained abuse from his team’s own supporters and credible threats to his safety from more sinister forces.

Lennon is clear why he has faced such hostility and calls it by the name our media seems determined to avoid; racism. He said…

"Everyone tries to skirt around it but that’s the basis of it, has been since 2000. The first day I stepped onto Windsor Park (Belfast) as a Celtic player I was booed every time I touched the ball having previously played 36 times and had nothing. But with my association with Celtic being high profile, there’s no in my mind that that was behind it and it’s what you want to call it; you call it sectarianism here in Scotland, I call it racism. If a black man is abused, you are not just abusing the colour of his skin, you are abusing his culture, his heritage, his background. It’s the exact same when I get called a Fenian, a pauper, a beggar, a tarrier by these people with their sense of entitlement and superiority complex. And all I do is stand up for myself.”

The latest ugly scenes come as Scottish football has been on the up; crowds are increasing, stadiums are looking transformed from the dark days of the past when fans were herded in and out like cattle and some of the games on show are genuinely exciting. Underneath the layer of modernity though, age old fissures and hatreds remain. Celtic has since its very inception had to deal with the contempt of those with no love for the Irish living in Scotland, nor the faith the majority of them professed. That overt hostility may be less obvious than it once was but it still lingers in the dark corners of our society.

Most of us from an Irish Catholic background could relay countless anecdotes of insults blatant and subtle and the stories of our parents and grandparents convinced us that this behaviour has some history to it. The older generation spoke of ‘keeping your head down’ and not making too much of a fuss about the petty discrimination they faced although some, weary of the effect it could have on the life chances of the new generation. One man of courage was Head Teacher John Breen of St Patrick’s High School, who marched into various banks in and around Coatbridge in the 1950s and asked why they never recruited young people from the Catholic school he was in charge off. He shamed them into changing their ways and enhanced the chances of some of his youngsters having a better life.

According to the 2011 census, Scottish Catholics are still almost twice as likely as any other group in Scottish society to live in areas of deprivation. They are also over-represented in our prisons and on our unemployment lists. These are the fruits of poverty and disadvantage.

2011 Scottish Census

Neil Lennon is symptomatic of that younger generation no longer accepting a seat at the back of the bus. No longer ‘keeping their heads down’ but increasingly calling out the bigotry they experience. He has been accused of bringing the troubles he deals with to his own door and one ill-informed guest on a debate show said of this latest assault on Lennon…

“Something that comes to mind with me is that Neil Lennon needs to take responsibility for Neil Lennon. I thought his conduct, before this incident, was shocking and, quite frankly, I will be amazed if the football authorities and even Police Scotland don’t decide that they need to have a word in his ear to say ‘Look, you can’t do that in these circumstances.’

Thus are victims blamed for the treatment they receive. Lennon was boisterous and even a bit silly gesturing to the Hearts fans behind him after a late goal was called offside but it was in no way ‘shocking.’ He did nothing which excuses a physical assault. Some people really need to start controlling themselves at football matches. I’ve written in the past about the throwing of missiles at football and the fact that sooner or later someone is going to suffer a serious injury.  Every club, including Celtic, has its share of less bright individuals tagging along and the decent supporters need to persuade them to wisen up.

There has also been more talk of introducing limited liability whereby clubs take more responsibility for the behaviour of their fans. Sanctions aimed at clubs for any poor behaviour of their fans would follow in domestic games as they currently do in European matches. Scottish clubs will no doubt resist this as fines, the closure of stands or even the deduction of points could jeopardise their season. If that isn’t a road clubs want to go down then the avenues left to combat sectarian behaviour at football remain self-policing by supporters, more robust law enforcement; which treats symptoms but not cause, or education which at the end of the day is the best way to get it through to the upcoming generation what is acceptable and what is not.

Neil Lennon has been the lightning rod for a Scotland which is slowly changing from the stuffy, conservative country it once was; a place where everyone was expected to know their place. The courage and determination he shows in standing up to the moronic minority is remarkable. This wealthy young man could shrug his shoulders and say, ‘you know what, stuff this’ and move himself and his family to a more sedate life elsewhere. He takes comfort in the fact that it’s a minority who engage in racist and sectarian behaviour in Scotland as most Scots abhor such nonsense. He said back in 2011, in the midst of receiving bombs and bullets in the post…

"Yet I know that the Celtic support is very protective of me," Lennon continues, "and I am very humbled by that. I've had hundreds of letters too from Rangers fans, from Hearts fans, from Aberdeen fans, all saying that they have been outraged by some of the abuse directed at me and that it doesn't truly reflect their views. That's also been very humbling

Scottish society needs to exorcise these ghosts of the past and it will only do so by looking the problem squarely in the face and recognising it for what it is. The Irish-Catholic community in Scotland has long faced prejudice from a vociferous minority which if directed at Jewish people, Muslims or any other group would be met with outrage. The fact our mealy mouthed media passed it off as ‘sectarianism’ and a symptom of the ‘Old Firm’ rivalry, stopped people seeing it for the racism it is.

It is now 14 years since Martin O’Neil stood in the dugout at Ibrox and listened to a tirade of sectarian and racist abuse aimed at Neil Lennon. He spoke openly about it in the aftermath of that game and a few honest journalists printed his words without the obfuscation of that unwritten rule of sports journalism in Scotland: when writing about sectarianism, it’s always both sides of the same coin, both as bad as each other. As I watched from the Broomloan Stand that day, O’Neil put his arm around Lennon and led him to the Celtic support, clenching his fist in a gesture of defiance and solidarity. It was a powerful moment. One which said, we won’t be bowed by this anymore.

The fight against hatred is a constant one but the tide is starting to turn and one day we might look back and thank the likes of Neil Lennon for calling it out.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

A time and a place

A time and a place 

Like over 30,000 other Celtic supporters, I travelled through to Murrayfied in Edinburgh for the League Cup Semi-Final with Hearts. The sun was shining, the team showed up and the atmosphere was excellent. From my seat near the halfway line I had a good view of a terrific second half performance from Celtic who really put their opponents to the sword when the game opened up. Ryan Christie scored an excellent goal but there were good performances all over the field; Benkovic strolled through the match like the class player he is, Scott Sinclair showed flashes of his true self and even the much maligned Mikael Lustig had a good match.

The fans were in good voice too although the songbook is drifting back towards a less enlightened time. Maybe it was the opposition, maybe it’s the lingering effect of the now defunct Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, but there has been a distinct increase in political chanting at Celtic games. This is especially true at away games as I noticed on Sunday and at Kilmarnock recently too. The joyous ‘Beautiful Sunday’ song belted out after the victory over Rangers earlier in the season has been converted into homage to the IRA. Songs such as the Boys of the Old Brigade, the Broad Black Brimmer and Sean South were also aired. Surely we can do better than this? If folk feel the need to sing these songs then they should be saved for the pub, the home or other more appropriate venue. This is mostly young people with no memories of the Troubles and the utter carnage and horror of those years singing such songs at a Scottish football match. How is this appropriate in 2018?

I saw one online debate where a chap raised the issue and stating that it took the shine off of a good display for him. He was expecting to be harangued by those who enjoy the ‘Rebs’ but it seemed to me the majority agreed with him. Of course for a minority he was a ‘snowflake’ or a ‘soup taker’ but he raised an issue that is troubling some Celtic supporters.  There will always be a minority who couldn’t care less about the opinions of other fans or the damage this does to Celtic’s reputation. Nor do they care about the victims and relatives of victims of the Troubles very much with us still. Nor yet about the youngsters in their midst listening to them. Like it or not, these songs give the media every opportunity to play the ‘both sides the same’ card they often do when discussing sectarianism in Scotland.

A few years ago I was at Rugby Park watching Celtic play Kilmarnock. Kenny Shiels was the Killie boss then and as a percentage of Celtic fans began singing a modern rebel song, I wondered how many knew that Kenny’s brother had been killed in the troubles? Yet here he was in a Scottish football ground listening to supporters singing about the organisation which killed his brother. Do we really think that’s right? The legacy of those years is very much with us still. It may be 20 years since the killing stopped but many on all sides still live with loss and grief. There were awful things done by all sides and many innocents have never received the justice they’re due. If healing and reconciliation is ever to have a chance then perhaps the war songs are better not aired in public, particularly from those with no experience of the bad days of the past. Of course every community has its stories and its songs and no one would argue such expressions should be outlawed, merely that people consider the right time and place to air them.

I come from a traditional Celtic supporting family with roots both Irish and Scottish. I enjoy the traditional songs as much as anyone but there is a time and a place and it isn’t in a modern football stadium. My Irish grandad fought for his country’s freedom but always taught me that all the people of Ireland had to reach agreement to live together. He would say, ‘You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.’ He loved the songs he learned in his homeland and would sing the Rose of Tralee, Kevin Barry  or the West Awake at family parties but if there was what was once called a ‘mixed company’ in the house he’d respectfully avoid any political or nationalist songs. That was considered decent behaviour then.

I understand the cultural and historic circumstance which brought the Irish to Scotland and the roll Celtic played in giving that community pride and hope in a better future. It’s natural to want to celebrate the club’s Irish roots but we are a much more diverse support these days with followers from all walks of life, all faiths and none and no one should ever feel uncomfortable among us. The songs I mentioned earlier aren’t in my opinion sectarian but for many they are offensive and there are so many good Celtic songs which could be sung instead.

It’s now 45 years since Jock Stein invaded the terraces at Stirling Albion to tell supporters that they should keep their songbook focused on Celtic and not politics. That was in 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles when 479 people were killed and almost 5000 injured in a province with a population no bigger than greater Glasgow. Here we are in 2018; 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and we’re still talking about what is appropriate to sing at a football match.

There will be those who will sing what they want regardless of the damage it does their club’s reputation. There will be those who think politics and football have always mixed and see no problem with singing any songs. There are of course, those with a visceral dislike Celtic and use these songs to legitimise their hatred.  There is also, I believe, a large group of Celtic supporters uncomfortable with it who’d rather Celtic fans sung Celtic songs. There will also be those who will not be happy reading the words I’ve written. But do you what? This club belongs to all of us and each of us has a right to an opinion on the issues which affect us all.  

I know the club would rather not hear these songs at games as it does damage to the image of our support. So how about keeping it to Celtic songs  and leave the war songs at the turnstile?