Saturday, 13 January 2018

With hope in your heart

With hope in your heart

The smell of the Glasgow underground was instantly recognisable to Scott as he skipped down the steps of Buchanan Street station. The platform was already packed with people waiting for the rumble of those familiar little trains which were usually packed on matchday. A few Policeman dotted the platform making sure the fans heading to Ibrox were behaving and Scott could see from the preponderance of colours on the platform that most waiting for the next train were Celtic supporters. He scanned the crowd looking for his friend Davie who had told him in typical unclear terms the night before, ‘Get ye at Buchanan Street at two o’clock.’ As he stood scanning the faces a voice called out through the hubbub, ‘Scott, ya tadger!’ He soon located his friend who stood grinning a mere ten yards away.

Davie Murphy was one of those people who always looked happy. Life seemed to be a big joke to him but for all his cheerfulness his life wasn’t easy. One of eight children being brought up by their old man in Glasgow’s east end, Scott had watched Davie help his old man with cooking and caring for the younger children following the death of his Mother from a smoking related illness. He did this while still working forty hours a week in the Park’s Department. He recalled the dark humour when he’d gone to pay his respects when Mrs Murphy had passed. He had knocked on the door, entered the quiet house and followed Davie into the room where his mother was laid out in her coffin. The younger children were seemingly less affected by what was going on perhaps not old enough to grasp the enormity of what had occurred. As Davie and Scott approached the coffin Scott’s eyes widened a little; one of the younger children no doubt knowing their mum’s love of a fag had placed a cigarette between her lips. It just stood there like a rocket waiting for blast off, it was a strange sight indeed but then Mrs Murphy was seldom seen without a fag in her hand. Davie shook his head, ‘Fucks sake,’ he said quietly as he removed it, ‘that’ll be they mad weans.’

These thoughts flashed through Scott’s head as he eased through the crowded platform towards Davie. ‘Wit kept ye?’ his friend enquired, ‘fixing yer mascara?’ Scott laughed, ‘Shut it you, I gave up that new romantic phase.’ Before they could go on a low rumbling told them the train was near. It seemed to galvanise the crowd on the platform and from somewhere a song started;

‘In the war against Rangers, in the fight for the cup when Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up, we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again….’

As the train stopped at the platform the crowd surged forward as if not wanting to be left behind. This made it exceedingly difficult for people trying to get off but that was of no concern to Scott and Davie who squeezed onboard just as the sliding doors closed behind them. The carriage was packed but the atmosphere was jovial as the songs and banter flowed. So too did the ubiquitous Buckfast which was being swigged by a few of the young men around them. Davie started one his stories which Scott could never tell was true or a fast arriving joke. ‘That’s the burd leaving me.’ He began, ‘said I’m obsessed wi gardening. I said, ‘where’s this all stemming from petal?’ Even Scott had to laugh at that one. The train rumbled around the stations until it reached Ibrox. 

As they walked up the stairs towards the daylight, they could hear the familiar strains of one of the home side’s anthems drifting towards them, ‘We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood, you’ll surrender or you’ll die….’ Davie grinned, ‘One of my ambitions is tae live long enough tae hear that mob sing a song that’s actually aboot fitbaw.’ Scott smiled. He had a point. As they exited the station the police were there in force to ensure the two streams of fans were kept apart. Scott and Davie joined the stream of Celtic supporters being herded towards the away end. The chanting was louder and the venom on a few faces disconcerting. Davie grinned and joked through it all though and even when a red faced local shouted in his direction, ‘You ya plooky Fenian basturt, ye want tae get yersel some Biactol!’ Davie smiled and called back over the shoulder of a weary looking Policeman, ‘Wit you saying fat boy, you’ve got mer chins than the Hong Kong phone book, ya tadger!’ The weary cop smiled a little at that remark.

They clicked through the turnstile and soon found themselves in the packed enclosure under the main stand. Celtic supporters occupied the Broomloan Stand, part of the main stand and even a section of the Govan Stand and they were making most of the noise.  There was a deafening roar as the teams came out and as the game got underway it was clear both sides where up for the battle. Celtic played most of the good football but bizarrely two deflected goals saw the half time whistle sound with the Hoops 2-0 behind. Scott shook his head and looked at Davie, ‘Playing well mate, just not had any luck at all that half.’ Davie nodded, ‘This game’s far from finished. The team will be fired up in the second half.’ No sooner had the words left Davie’s mouth when a coin from the stand above struck his head,’Arrghhh, ya f…’ As Scott looked up he saw a plastic cup heading towards him and was too late to react as it hit his shoulder, splashing liquid onto his face and clothes.’ Davie rubbed his head with a grimace, ’You no order me any tea? Yer the same in the pub when it’s your round, ye’d think ye had a rattlesnake in yer pocket.’ Scott smiled, ‘Hate tae tell ye pal but it wisnae tea in that cup.’ Davie eased closer and sniffed, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Did wan of those mad Huns actually pish in a cup and fire it at you?’ He laughed as he said it, ‘hahaha Poor old pishy Scott! Suffering for the cause!’ Scott shook his head, ‘Aye, you laugh ya numpty.’ Davie smiled at him, ‘I’d rather get hit wi a coin than be scent marked by a currant bun!’  

They glance up at the Broomloan stand where the massed ranks of Celtic Supporters were beginning to find their voice. Soon every Celtic fan in the stadium raised their scarves and flags in in unison as the words of a familiar anthem boomed out…

‘Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone…’

As they sang the team came out and Scott could see Burns, Nicholas, Murdo McLeod and the other players look around in wonder. It was a strangely beautiful moment amid the coarseness of the day. Once more the supporters had bonded with the players, made them aware that they were right behind them. Here they were 2-0 down and the fans had clearly not given up. Neither would they.

As Scott and Davie settled to watch the second half, they and thousands like them urged the Celtic team on and the players found new energy and simply overran their opponents. First Nicholas scored with a penalty then McAdam made it 2-2 with a header as the huge away support watched in delight. There was only going to be one winner now and it was Celtic. McGarvey and Nicholas completed the comeback. As the final whistle sounded and news reached them that Dundee United had beaten Dundee to clinch their first league title, there was still huge happiness among the Celtic support that the players had risen to the challenge and not let them down. The fans gave their all at these games and they asked the players to do the same in return. Today they had, and no one was prouder of them that Scott and Davie.

As they headed home on the subway, the Celtic fans remained in good heart. Scott was putting up with Davie winding him up on the train. ‘Good movie on tonight, Lilian Gish is in it.’ He grinned. Scott could see he was using every opportunity to allude to what would become known as the ‘cup of pish’ incident. They got off the train and headed for the Celtic bars of the Gallowgate. There would be more laughter and songs to sing before the day was over. They may have lost the title that bright day in the spring of 1983 but the love fans like Scott and Davie had for their club was undiminished.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Every other Saturday

Every other Saturday

Tommy Mullins picked up his pint and glanced out of the window towards the lush green rectangle which had been his field of dreams for so many years. He was getting on now and enjoyed the comfort of the hospitality lounge at Celtic Park but part of him missed the old place. He was a Jungle boy at heart and his formative years had been spent on that famous old terrace cheering his team on. From the lounge above the North Stand he gazed into space, his mind’s eyes seeing Dalglish chip the keeper, McGrain racing down the wing and Johnny Doyle and Burns fighting for the Celts with every ounce of their being. They were some days to be alive and he was glad he was there to see them. Now he was older, probably wiser but still he hankered for the raw passion of the Jungle and the fans who brought it alive every other Saturday.

As he mused on these things a voice behind him broke into his thoughts. ‘Tam Mullin?’ He turned and gazed into the face of a man who might have been a similar age to him. Bright blue eyes regarded him, ‘I thought it was you, no seen ye in aboot 30 years!’ Tommy was struggling to recognise the face as he reached to shake the man’s hand. As he did so he saw a fading Indian ink tattoo etched below the man’s thumb. The word ‘Toi’ and a small blue-black shamrock beneath it told him what he wanted to know. ‘Eddie!’ he blurted out as recognition and relief flooded into his mind. ‘Eddie McGrory! Long time no see!’ Eddie smiled, pleased that despite losing most of his hair and the 30 years of wear and tear on his face that Tommy still recognised him. ‘You’ve come long way since our days fighting the Cranhill Fleet,’ he smiled. Tommy laughed, ‘They were wild days, Eddie, glad we both came through them. A good few didn’t.’ 

Tommy got the beers in and few would have guessed that the two smartly suited Celtic fans were discussing the less wealthy and more dangerous days of their youth. ‘What became of all the old mob?’ Tommy asked. Eddie rhymed of all their old friends and what he knew about them. ‘Toner’s in Barlinnie for selling the gear. Mad Max ended up in Australia, Tony G got married and is a Grandad noo! Big Andy ended up on the oil rigs and hasnae been seen since the 90s. Oh and Geezer lives in Airdrie noo, running a pub, I hear.’  Tommy nodded, ‘They were good mates. Stand by ye no matter what.’ Eddie regarded him, ‘How the fuck did we survive that madness, Tam?’ Tommy nodded, knowing exactly what his old friend meant. The gangs of Glasgow in the 1970’s sucked in so many of the young and their turf wars were brutal in the extreme. Easterhouse lads like Eddie and Tommy drifted into them to avoid being bullied by the other toughs in the area. ‘Ye mind that night we fought the Drummy? The time big Geezer got lifted?’ Tommy asked. Eddie nodded,’ Jesus, I thought my number was up that night Tommy. That mob broke intae the Butchers that week and brought every knife they stole. One mad bastard even had a cleaver!’ Tommy nodded, ‘I actually let myself get jailed that night, Eddie. It was safer in the cells.’ They laughed like two old war veterans talking about their service together.

They spent an hour reliving the days long gone when they were young and reckless. They talked of wild nights when alcohol flowed, and violence was never far away. Of the ancient Football Special trains taking them and hundreds of other Celtic supporters all over Scotland to see their team. Eddie said with no hint of regret in his voice, ‘Mind we teamed up wi the Shamrock tae fight that mad Hilltoon mob in Dundee? I missed the bus and had tae skip the train hame.’  Tommy grinned, ‘I lost a shoe at Motherwell, horse stood on it and I was swept away wi the crowd. Watched the game with a Haddows bag on my foot!’ Eddie laughed, ‘Then there was Hampden in 1980. The Huns came charging up and yer old Da, God rest him, shouts ‘Are yeez gonnae let these bastards bully yeez?’ Old fella was aboot 50, but he was one of the first o’er that fence and intae them.’ Tommy shook his head, a smile on his face, ‘Aye, my old man was off his rocker at times.’

They spoke too of the good times; the parties, the away trips following Celtic, the nights at the dancing, the ‘burds nipped’ and slow process of making something of their lives. The good people who struggled in hard circumstances to help them move on. ‘You left for Uni, as I recall,’ said Eddie to Tommy. Only guy I ever knew fae St Leonard’s who went tae Uni back then. Tommy smiled, ‘Plenty going now from Easterhouse. I help them and other like them.’  Tommy explained his route into higher education after completing his degree. ‘Once my Ma passed I realised I couldn’t live that manic life any more. Got a bit of help from the social worker, went to night school and on to Glasgow Uni. Guys like us never had the chances back then, Eddie. We lacked the aspiration, but I’ll tell ye this; we were no less bright that folk from Bearsden or Clarkston.’ Eddie nodded, ‘I screwed the nut tae. Got intae computers big time. Did a degree in programming; used tae make a fortune copying games and selling them at the Barras but it’s been legit for the last fifteen years.

As they chatted the stadium outside the glass window of the executive box began to fill. The throb of the Green Brigade drums began to fill the air and the songs started. Eddie nodded towards the corner where they stood, ‘At least wee bit of the Jungle survived eh?’ Tommy agreed but added, ‘I liked the old place, Eddie but there’s a time for change. We don’t forget where we’ve come from, but the world moves on.’ As kick off time approached they exited the lounge and headed for their seats. Eddie was three rows in front of Tommy and like him utterly engrossed in the game as they had been all those years ago in the old Jungle. Celtic controlled most of the early play in the bright September sunshine but Rangers hung on stubbornly. Then in 32 minutes Sinclair lined up a corner as the huge Celtic support roared in anticipation. He arced the ball to the back of the six-yard box where Moussa Dembele waited like a coiled spring. He rose above the static defence to power a header into the net and Celtic Park exploded. As the wild celebrations calmed a little Eddie turned and smiled at Tommy. Tommy returned his smile, nodding his head as he did so. It was always good to see old friends, always good to be reminded of where they had come from. 

As they refocussed on the game it struck him too that Celtic was a constant in their lives too. Wherever their journey took them they’d always be interested in what was going on at their club. He guessed even ‘Mad Max’ as they had called their big mate Joe Gibson was tuned in somewhere in Australia. Celtic get’s you that way, gets in the blood and stays there for a lifetime.

When the game was over, and Celtic had carved out a famous 5-1 victory, the two friends said their farewells. ‘It was good tae see ye Tam, gies a phone and we’ll get together again soon.’ Tommy shook his hand warmly, ‘It was great, Eddie. I’ll be in touch for sure mate.’ As he turned to leave Eddie gestured around the lounge with its bars and walls covered with paintings of Celtic stars of the past and present, ‘We’ve come a long way since we fought the Fleet.’ Tommy smiled, ‘Glad we survived it all, Eddie. Days like today make it all worthwhile.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Another year in Paradise

Another year in Paradise

Well that’s another year over and in the footballing sense it was an excellent one for Celtic. An Invincible, treble winning season was achieved and the team enter the New Year with the League Cup in the bag and 8 points clear in the SPFL. The club also made it to the Champions League and once more faced a formidable group which contained two of the top club sides in Europe. Rodgers set the target of reaching the Europa League and despite some embarrassing defeats, particularly against PSG, they finished in third spot having been fourth seeds in the group. So overall the history books will look kindly on 2017 from Celtic’s perspective although the team looked tired and jaded as the year drew to a close.

The last match of 2017 brought the Rangers to Celtic Park and their route one style and hustle made life difficult for a leg weary Celtic side which nonetheless dug in and fought right to the end. Celtic missed the creativity of Roberts and Rogic and looked uncomfortable in defence at times. Kristoffer Ajer looks a real prospect and will flourish in a settled back four. Perhaps the arrival of Marvin Compper will aid his development and push the other centre backs at the club to up their game. Celtic players barely had a fortnight off last summer as the demands of Champions League Qualifiers had them playing their first friendlies in June and the first competitive games in mid-July. Kieran Tierney has played 64 games for club and country in 2017 and others such as Brown, Lustig (58) and Sinclair (57) have played a huge amount of football.

This transfer window is an important one for Celtic and the fans will be well aware on the millions coming in from Van Dijk’s transfer to Liverpool from Southampton and would like to see most of it used to strengthen the side in key areas. If Moussa Dembele decides that it’s time to move on then good and well provided the price is right and at least some of the money is reinvested in the team. It would be fair to say that rotating the strikers hasn’t helped any of them find their top form. There will be comings and goings in January and it is to be hoped the team is rejuvenated when it all kicks off again in three weeks.

The match with Rangers brought out the worst in the away support as it always seems to do. My Twitter Timeline was awash with grown men trying to justify or openly exalting in songs about Paedophilia, anti-Catholic bile from the dark ages and a dirge about the Lisbon Lions dying. I simply can’t get into the mindset which thinks this is acceptable behaviour in the twenty first century. I have commented in the past that if the anti-Catholic songs we hear from the Ibrox fans were directed against Jews, Muslims or black people there would be a huge outcry to do something about it. As it is, the Police look on and do nothing as literally thousands of people chant ‘Fuck the Pope’ yards from them. If the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is to be worth the paper it’s written on then surely such hate crimes should be targeted?

Lord Byron once wrote thatthose who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.’ I would add to that that those who don’t speak up to condemn it are complicit. There are many decent followers of Rangers who are embarrassed by this poison among their support but their silence is deafening. The Herald newspaper unhelpfully and in my opinion untruthfully trotted out the ‘both sides the same’ nonsense in its report on the game. Journalist Graham Spiers exploded this drivel when he wrote a few years ago…

‘I’ve probably gone further in my accusations with regards Rangers rather than Celtic and that is because I decided to break an age old rule in Scottish football which said, if you’re writing about football and you’re writing about bigotry always make one side as bad as the other. That always struck me as odd. It was obvious to me that Rangers had a far greater problem, the result of which I was accused of being biased.’

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Celtic fans are angels, far from it but the sheer percentage of visiting supporters engaging in these chants at Celtic Park on December 30 is sad and perplexing. Have they no self-awareness? Do they simply not care that they appear to be bigoted red necks wallowing in their ignorance? Times change and people move on but some appear to be trapped in the deep well of prejudice with no idea of how to get out of it.

It would be nice to write about Scottish Football being on the up in 2018. Aberdeen had over 18,000 for their match with Hearts last week. Hibs and Hearts both average crowds around 19,000 and the standard of play is improving. Stadiums are evolving into more appropriate and safe places to watch football and for a country of 5.3 million more people per capita watch football here than any other league in Europe. We should be talking up our game and building for the future not watching as backward, Neanderthal behaviour from a minority drag us down. Alas as Albert Einstein once said, ‘We live in an age where an atom is easier to smash than a prejudice.’ My justifiable condemnation of a moronic minority in our society is no slight on the vast majority of Scots, who remain good, decent and tolerant people. However, if we want a better society for our children and grandchildren then we can’t remain silent in the face of such attitudes. As a good man once said; ‘The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’  This issue goes beyond clubs and football; it’s a deep rooted problem in some corners of our society and it’s up to us all to help stamp it out or at least hold  a mirror up to bigotry’s ugly face.

I hope 2018 is a good one for all of you kind enough to read my articles. I hope the football is good and we see a continued resurgence in the much-maligned Scottish game. I hope too that my writing this year is concerned with events on the field and that the good people who follow all the clubs of Scotland make their voices heard. Be loud, be proud and be passionate about your team but leave the prejudice in the past. It isn’t wanted, it isn’t needed and it tells us more about the bigots themselves than their intended targets.

Now, let’s enjoy another year of blood and thunder in this fine old game of ours. For all its clannishness, faults and failings, Scottish football can still enthral and I’m sure it will in 2018.

Happy new year!

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Holy War

The Holy War

Last Easter I took a trip to Poland and visited the beautiful and historic city of Krakow. It’s a relaxed, pretty place with fine buildings and friendly people. One part of town houses the Schindler factory made famous by Spielberg’s epic movie Schindler’s List.’ It’s an interesting place to visit and a reminder that amid the sunshine and laughter of modern Krakow the past is never far away.

I got chatting to a taxi driver who spoke excellent English and was a big football fan. He followed local side Cracovia and told me he knew all about the Polish players who played for Celtic over the years. I mentioned Celtic’s visit to Krakow to play Wisla in the 1970’s and he got quite animated. Wislaw Krakow are the main rivals of Cracovia and there is much bitterness in the city when they meet. He told me of the ‘Holy War’ between fans of the two clubs which over the years has seen many violent clashes and even a few fatalities. The hooligans of Poland apparently agreed not to use weapons but those in Krakow opted out. It was interesting hearing first hand of a rivalry which seemed to be every bit as fierce as any around Europe. As the driver dropped me at Wavel Castle he said, ‘One day I hope to see Celtic play Rangers.’

Later that day I visited the district of Kazimierz which was for 500 years the flourishing centre of Jewish life and culture in the city. Over 70,000 Jews lived there before the coming of the Germans in 1939. Today the district is full of cafes, galleries and many of the old buildings still retain their pre-war Yiddish signs. A few hundred Jewish folk have set up various businesses which offer a glimmer of what life must have been like here before the Holocaust devoured the Jews of Krakow. 30km from town is the engine of that destruction; Auschwitz.

Auschwitz concentration camp is one of those places which you feel compelled to visit even though you know the experience won’t be a pleasant one. The young Polish guide was excellent though at making the mixed group of people from a dozen countries see the gravity of the place. She told one young Italian taking a selfie by Krematorium 2 in no uncertain terms that it was not appropriate. ‘This is the largest mass grave in Europe,’ she said, ‘You will show respect, or you will leave.’ To use a Glasgow expression, ’his gas was put on a peep.’ Auschwitz is the low point of European history. It’s the end of the line when hatred is allowed to flourish, go unchallenged or is fostered for political ends.

I got thinking about that human capacity to divide themselves up by race, politics, colour, class, football allegiances or a host of other characteristics. Such tribalism might be a leftover from our hunter-gatherer past, but it does seem we humans are a clannish lot by nature. That ‘Holy War’ in Krakow between fans of Wislaw and Cracovia is fought out between Poles who have a city, a history, a culture and language in common yet still find a reason to fight each other.

This week marks 30 years since Rangers signed Mark Walters and we saw a mirror being held up to an ugly facet of Scottish society of the 1980s. Some Scots used to think they were immune to the racism so common on the football terraces of England in that era, but they had a rude awakening as Walters was subjected to sickening behaviour from a minority of Scottish football supporters. There can be no hiding from the painful truth that some Celtic supporters behaved despicably on his first visit to Celtic Park. No excuses about it being a different time will suffice. You can’t complain about the discrimination or anti-Catholic chants directed at Celtic supporters in those days and then racially abuse a player on the grounds of his colour. Such hypocrisy isn’t and never will be acceptable. It was and remains the low point in my years watching Celtic. Thankfully the majority called the morons out for what they were; ignorant fools who shamed themselves and the club they proport to support. The fact that the away fans polluted the air that day with their usual ‘FTP’ nonsense doesn’t excuse some of our own stooping to base racism. It was wrong then as it would be wrong now.

Like all countries, modern Scotland still has a minority who will abuse people on the basis of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender or whatever other facet takes their fancy, but it is a country which has moved on greatly since the 1980s. Laws have sought to challenge hate crimes and same sex marriage is now not only legal but widely accepted. There is a long way to go to get through to the serious haters who exist in the shadows of every society, but mainstream Scotland is a far more accepting place than it was in decades past. Don’t be fooled by the anonymous idiots online who post their bile. They are a dying breed and the echo chamber of social media can magnify their importance. I saw one recently post a hateful comment which had over 100 retweets. This for a stupid person with just 13 followers!

So tomorrow, if the snow doesn’t lead to a postponement, 60,000 will gather at Celtic Park to watch Celtic play a Derby match against the Rangers. It’s a fixture which brings the best out of some and the worst out of others. The atmosphere will no doubt be raucous and match anything around Europe. The fans will be as fully committed as the players and I can recall coming home from such games physically and emotionally drained. I want Celtic to win as all Hoops fans do, in fact I want the team to wipe the floor with the Ibrox club, but I hold no hatred for them or anyone else. It’s a sporting rivalry and it’s a game against a club and support which karma is currently paying a long overdue visit. All my life I, like many others, have endured their curiously warped triumphalism laced with the sort of ignorant bigotry from some which I despise. That being as it is, I approach such games with hope in my heart and not hatred.

A walk around the streets of Kazimierz or along the unloading ramp at Auschwitz soon teaches anyone where hatred leads. Enjoy the game tomorrow should the weather relent, and it goes ahead. Shout your head off, drive the team on to victory but remember it is just a game and not a holy war.

Have a wonderful 2018. I think it’ll be a Champion year for all who love the green.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The biggest man in football

The biggest man in football

Those of you following the debate about what the SFA should do about Hampden Park when the lease is up for renewal in 2020, would have noticed Fergus McCann’s open letter to the Herald newspaper. The former Celtic supremo has always been adamant that pouring over £65m into redeveloping Hampden was a complete waste of time and money. Not only does Scotland possess adequate stadiums to cover internationals, the huge sums spent on the stadium could have rejuvenated the game had it been invested in facilities and coaches for the development of young players. Among the points McCann made was a cutting remark which few missed. He stated…

‘My Hampden memories of events later in life were rather more negative. In charge of Celtic, and having to rent the stadium for the 94/95 season, I had to tolerate the mean-spirited behaviour of Queens Park officials throughout that period. This began with a clause in the lease – a “deal breaker” as their attorney made clear – that forbade “the display of any foreign flag.” Shades of SFA 1952.’

The ‘foreign flag’ referred to wasn’t specifically named but those of us well versed in Scottish football’s ways knew exactly what the ‘mean spirited’ officials of Queen’s Park were getting at; you can hire the stadium but you’re not flying the Irish tricolour above it. The fact that as late as the 1990’s this was an issue for at least some officials of Queen’s Park is a little depressing but as the Farry-McCann affair demonstrated, there were still lingering suspicions of people’s motivations even then. The modern Queen’s Park board wouldn’t be drawn into a debate and merely said that their records of the time differ from Mr McCann’s. It is unlikely though that Fergus McCann would invent such a detail. The straight talking former Chairman was never one to shirk a fight or fail to notice any slights against himself or Celtic. His alluding to ‘shades of 1952’ is interesting as he clearly feels the motivation for the ‘no foreign flags’ clause was similar to that of those who demanded the removal of the tricolour from Celtic Park over 40 years earlier.

Celtic met Rangers at Celtic Park on New Year’s Day 1952 and by all accounts had played poorly, losing 4-1. The usual amount of drunkenness led to some less cerebral home fans making their displeasure known by throwing bottles and the Police waded in with batons flailing to make arrests. The trouble made waves in the press and the SFA reacted to suggestions from Glasgow Magistrates to consider the following courses of action…

Celtic and Rangers should not meet on New Year’s Day again due to increased drunkenness at that time of year. Matches between them should be all ticket with a crowd limit set by the Police. Celtic should in the interests of safety number passageways at Celtic Park. The two clubs should avoid displaying flags which might incite feelings among the spectators.

The Referee Committee of the SFA met to consider the Magistrates recommendations and following a 26-7 vote ordered Celtic to stop displaying at the ground any ‘flag or emblem which had no association with football or Scotland.’ The implication was clear; the SFA wanted Celtic to remove the Irish flag they flew to honour the club’s founders. No mention was made of the fact that Rangers, one of the most important member clubs of the association, was excluding players from its team on the grounds of their religion. Celtic were having none of it and Bob Kelly, a stubborn man of principle in the McCann mould dug in his heels knowing that Celtic had not broken any rules of the SFA. At Celtic’s next home game the Irish flag flew in its usual place prompting one newspaper to state ‘They are still flying the Eire flag!’

Kelly was supported in his stance by Rangers Chairman John F Wilson, a gesture he appreciated. Indeed Mr Wilson told the council that the emblem had never been of any annoyance to Rangers. ‘Don’t delude ourselves,’ he added. ‘This flag has nothing to do with the trouble.' In time the SFA realised the absurdity of threatening to suspend Celtic from the game over the issue particularly as they found it impossible to demonstrate any rule the club had broken. They appealed to Kelly to be a ‘bigger man’ and take down the flag. The Herald newspaper sensing that the SFA had overstepped the mark stated at the time…

‘Kelly was asked to realize that the matter was no longer one of just taking down the flag; it was a matter of Celtic defying the instructions of the council. He was told that if he would only make the gesture of taking the flag down even without prejudicing further discussions everyone would be happy. ‘You’ll be the biggest man in football’ Mr Kelly was told ‘You’ll establish a reputation never possessed by anyone in football if you’ll only take the flag down.’ Perhaps Mr Kelly did not wish to be the biggest man in football or perhaps he wanted to maintain his reputation for adhering to his principles. There can be no doubt that he struck his shrewdest blow when he stated that suspension could only follow a broken rule. No one had proved Celtic had broken any rules.’

The SFA were clearing struggling to save face and realised that Kelly was right. Hibs Chairman Harry Swan is still thought of unkindly by older Celtic supporters over his role in this episode but real driving force was SFA Secretary George Graham, a man with no love of Celtic and all they represented. This whole episode, coming as it did just three years after Belfast Celtic exited football following the brutal assault on their players in a match against Linfield was symptomatic of the times. 1950’s Scotland was a stuffy, conservative place where everyone was expected to know their place. The uppity Irish in Glasgow’s east end had founded a club which rose to be among the finest in the land and there were at least some who wished Celtic didn’t exist.

The season following the ‘flag flutter’ saw Celtic face Rangers at Celtic Park with the eyes of the press on the lookout for any trouble. There was a minute’s silence before the match to remember a young Celtic player called John Millsop who had tragically died. Gerry McNee states in his book ‘The Story of Celtic’

‘During a one minute silence there were howls of profanity about the Pope and blasphemous demands for the game to begin emanating from the Rangers end of the ground.’

Such ignorance has little to do with a flag hanging at the opposite end of the ground but is rather the product of prevailing social attitudes of the time among a fair percentage of people in Scotland’s industrial heartlands. Scotland is a much changed land since those far off times when a flag could lead to the SFA threatening to expel a club from the association. Celtic’s Bob Kelly stuck to his principles and was vindicated. He is often portrayed as a man who meddled in team affairs to the extent of telling Manager McGrory who to play in games but there is no doubting his love for Celtic and his steely determination to fight  the club’s corner.

Of course flags can still annoy or even antagonise some. It’s not unusual for some to make their feelings known about Celtic supporters continuing display of the Irish tricolour but for most it has become empty rhetoric. The Irish dimension of Celtic is woven into the club’s history and will never be undone. The club mirrors the community which founded and sustains it and now stands proudly as the premier Scottish football club and if some ‘mean spirited’ individuals find that hard to stomach then that’s just tough because it isn’t about to change any time soon.

As for the flag of Ireland, it still flies over Celtic Park with the flags of many other nations. The press of 1952 may have screeched, ‘They are still flying the Eire flag!’ It's flying there still and that isn’t likely to change either, nor should it.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Greatest Treasure

The Greatest Treasure

Charlie Reid zipped his coat up against the biting winter wind as he walked along Argyll Street. Despite the bitterly cold wind the street was crowded with shoppers rushing here and there beneath the gaudy Christmas lights. As he walked, he thought back to his childhood and how his mum used to walk him and his sister and brother all the way from Springburn to see the Christmas lights in the city centre. Christmas was exciting then even if they didn’t get much in the way of gifts. He smiled as he remembered being utterly elated the year he got his first Celtic shirt. He was nine years old and opened the present containing the centenary home kit with the Celtic cross badge on the breast. He almost cried as he hugged his mum; she was struggling to bring up Charlie, his sister Angie and his big brother Paul on her own and he knew she’d have saved and gone without to make their Christmas special. He wore that shirt till it was utterly worn out and even then he wouldn’t part with it and wore it to bed. As these thoughts filled his head he reached Glasgow cross and crossed the street to the Tollbooth Bar.

He scanned the faces filling the well know pub until he saw Paul in the corner with a couple of his cronies. For a moment he looked at his brother as he drank and talked to his associates. The boy he grew up with, so full of laughter and fun was long gone. In his place stood a man approaching 40 who might have been 10 or even 15 years older. His shock of black hair was now mostly grey and his face bore the marks of numerous confrontations he’d had in his life. A thick scar above his right eye gave him a mean and dangerous look which wasn’t entirely undeserved. Charlie knew how Paul made his money and how the poison he dealt in ruined lives and blighted communities. He was still his brother though.

In that long moment as he regarded him, he recalled their younger days. Playing football in the streets, running through Sitehill cemetery as they played their boyhood games and of course walking all the way to Celtic Park to watch the Celts play. Paul hated losing at anything and that led to the odd scrap with Charlie when they were kids. As the younger of the two, Charlie usually got the worst of it. He remembered one sunny day when they and some of the Shamrock boys from the Garngad were returning from a Celtic and Rangers game and blundered into a hostile group of Rangers fans under those ugly tower blocks which once stood off the Gallowgate. The fight which followed was brutal and Charlie saw for the first time the utterly ruthless side of his brother who flew at the enemy with a frightening ferociousness. The sound of Police sirens had broken up the fight but Paul had to be dragged off his immediate opponent and they made their escape.

As they grew up Charlie noticed his brother’s competitive nature eventually giving way to a burning resentment of their relative poverty. He’d take what he wanted in life and this led to trouble with the Police as he got involved in various petty crimes. The local bad guys soon saw his potential and he graduated in time into being ‘one worth a watching’ as he heard someone once say of him.

Their contacts had lessened as they grew to manhood and their lives diverged. Charlie worked hard to support his own family while Paul drifted in and out of their lives. They’d bump into each other at family events now and then. Paul arriving in his garish big car and splashing the cash, seemingly oblivious to the disdain some of the family now felt for him. It was common knowledge how he made his money and he was treated with a mixture of coldness, subdued contempt and even fear. It was strange for Charlie to see that all the material things Paul now possessed hadn’t made him happy. People made their choices in life and for good or ill had to live with them.

He pushed his way through the crowded pub towards his brother. Charlie saw him coming and smiled a little before ordering his cronies to give him five minutes. As they walked away Paul locked his eyes on his brother’s, ‘Alright Charlie boy, long time no see, what brings you down to this neck of the woods?’ Charlie nodded, ‘How ye doing Paul? Can we talk somewhere a bit quieter?’ Paul’s eyes narrowed a little; Charlie usually had something serious to say when he made such a request ‘Aye, the car’s around the corner.’ He signalled he’d be back in five minutes to his friends and they exited the noisy Bar and headed out into the chill of a dark winter’s night. ‘You’ve got that serious look on your face bro,’ Paul said as he guided Charlie into his white BMW. He turned the key and warm air began to flow into the car. Paul turned down the music which came on as he started the engine. Charlie smiled a little to hear Glen Daly’s unmistakable tones sing, ‘and the Glasgow Celtic will be there….’ Not many gangsters listened to that, he thought to himself.

Paul looked at his brother as they sat in the dark car, the green lights of the dashboard casting shadows on his face, ‘So what’s it all about bro?’ Charlie sat in the dark car and told his brother in a calm and monotone voice that their mother was dying and she wanted to see them both before her time was up. Paul listened, his tough face showing no emotion, ‘How long?’ he asked in a quiet voice, ‘A few weeks at most, Paul. She went in with stomach pains and they found the cancer. It’s too far gone to treat. She’s home now and the nurse comes every day but when the time come she’ll go tae the Marie Curie place up in Stobhill.’ Paul shook his head slowly, ‘Life’s a bastard, Charlie, an utter bastard.’ With that he eased the car into gear and they headed for their childhood home.

Charlie’s sister Angie opened the door to them, her face tired and sad. She embraced Charlie, ’She’s in the room.’ She embraced Paul too though in silence as if she had nothing to say to him. The two brothers entered the room where their mother lay on the double bed, her head propped up by pillows. An icon of Jesus, hands outstretched showing the marks of his crucifixion adorned the wall above the bed, his all-seeing eyes watching them. Charlie approached her and leaning over gave her a gentle hug, ‘Hi Ma, how have you been today?’ Paul sat on the bed too, He took her hand and looked at her but words wouldn’t come. ‘Ah boys,‘ she said in a weak voice, ‘I’m glad you could come. I want to talk to you both before I go.’  They brothers sat and listened to her outline what she wanted to happen when she was gone. She had thought it all through; her funeral arrangements, the hymns, which possessions to give to her friends at the church, even where the cat was going. She then pushed herself up on the bed a little and looked at Paul and Charlie. ‘I want you two and Angie to be there for each other no matter what. Family is the greatest treasure we get in life, don’t drift apart.’ She looked at Paul and squeezed his hand weakly, ‘Promise me son, promise me you’ll stop doing the things you do which hurt people.’ Paul was taken aback by this request. He knew what she meant and was momentarily lost for words. He seemed to be thinking for a moment before looking into her eyes and slowly nodding his head.

In the months following the passing of their mother the brothers tried to meet up more often. Charlie even got Paul to come to the odd Celtic game. They had a long chat in a quiet city centre bar after one such game. ‘You don’t just retire wi a pension from my line of business,’ Paul had said, ‘but it’s time I got out anyway. They’re like fuckin’ wolves, Charlie, always some young buck looking tae take over.’ He explained how he’d been taking a step back, handing things over to others. He’d be out of it soon enough. He’d be true to his promise to his mother. Charlie was pleased, Paul had been hardened by his life, his heart slowly setting like concrete, but there was a glimmer of hope he could get his brother back.

Charlie switched the conversation to happier memories. ‘Remember when we went tae Stuttgart in the Seville year? You thought you were getting aff wi a burd in that pub?’ Paul laughed, ‘Aye, turned out she was a fuckin he!’  Charlie continued, ‘Easy mistake to make, he was gorgeous, even I thought he was a wumin!’ Paul nodded, ‘Aye but I winched the face aff him! Their laughter filled the void of years when they had hardly communicated. Paul said through a rare smile, ‘Then there was you telling yer work you were aff sick and getting the sack when you were spotted on the front page of the Daily Record going mad in Porto when Larsson scored the winner!’ Charlie laughed at that memory too, ‘Boss was a pure tadger, the bastard had the picture cut oot and on the notice board when I got back! Circled my heed wi a felt pen! I was glad tae see the back of that place anyway.’  They shared such memories for a few happy hours before heading back to their very different lives.

There was a chance that Paul would be able to escape the world he had inhabited for so long and Charlie was going to be there to help him whenever he could. They had promised their mother to be there for each other and they would honour that promise. Whatever the future held they’d try to be a family again. What was it she had said? ‘Family is the greatest treasure we get in life.’  He had learned that she was right.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The faults of others

The faults of others

The spring of 1991 was a trying one for Celtic fans. The team’s promising start to the SPL season was all but over as the dominant and big spending Rangers side of the era stepped on the accelerator and left the Hoops miles behind. For a long time it looked as if the Scottish cup might offer Celtic the only route into European football the following season.  The supporters did glean some joy from a double header with Rangers in the SPL and cup as Celtic won both matches. The semi-final tie in the Scottish cup with Motherwell took on added significance as Rangers were no longer in the tournament and a cup win seemed a realistic hope. The defensive frailties which had torpedoed Celtic’s league hopes returned in an SPL match at Celtic Park just before the cup tie which Motherwell won 2-1; Tom Boyd scoring against a Celtic side he would later lead to glory.

Celtic headed to Hampden and before a crowd of almost 42,000 endured a tense game in which they looked far better going forward than they did defending. Motherwell were something of a bogey team for Celtic in the early 1990’s with Dougie Arnott in particular prone to punishing the Hoops’ defensive lapses. The game ended 0-0 and Celtic fans remained optimistic that they could make the final. The replay the following week was one of those matches which turned on a particular incident. Celtic started well and took an early lead. Predictably a defensive mix up let Arnott equalise before Rogan had Celtic 2-1 up. Then Celtic had a corner which was partially cleared before the ball was knocked back towards the goal. As the Motherwell defence raced out the ball spun to Paul Elliot who slammed it into the net. Despite Colin O’Neil being on the post and clearly playing Elliot onside, the linesman raised his flag and Celtic were denied a 3-1 lead which may or may not have been decisive.  Celtic seemed to lose heart at that and went on to lose the game 4-2. In truth Motherwell with players like O’Donnell, Boyd, Arnott and Nijholt were the better side in the last half hour. They would go on to win the cup in an exciting final with Dundee United and few grudged them their moment of glory.

That memory came back to me after reading a host of complaints in the media and online from fans or various clubs about the penalty awarded to Celtic at Fir Park on Wednesday night. For me McGregor was barged over and the defender was very foolish challenging an attacker so robustly when he was heading away from goal and posed no scoring threat at that moment. Radio and TV Pundits talked about a ‘laughable’ decision and generally laid into McGregor for ‘going down very easily.’ A few such as Michael Stewart and Tom English revised their opinions when other angles were shown of the incident. One in particular shows the angle the Referee had and is convincing proof that McGregor was indeed fouled. Motherwell released a statement following the match which read in part…

‘It is disappointing to see high profile decisions affect Wednesday night’s match and the Betfred Cup final in the way they have. To that end we have made contact with the Scottish FA’s head of Refereeing to express our views and seek feedback.’

There is no doubting their disappointment at losing the League Cup final and being denied a rare win over Celtic so late in a game but a dose of realism is required when complaining about refereeing decisions. In games against Celtic they have had some big calls go their way. Most impartial observers agree that the shocking tackle by Cedric Kipre which injured Moussa Dembele in the League Cup final was worthy of a red card. The Referee didn’t even give a foul. Dembele Tweeted that evening, ‘Another game, another win. Almost lost my leg there but we’re still unbeaten!’

The narrative that Celtic gets all the big calls is utterly laughable when examined in any detail. Consider Nadir Ciftci about to Score at Fir Park when a defender punched the ball away from him in a most obvious manner. Decision: Play on. We also had an utterly horrendous challenge on Kieran Tierney at Celtic Park by Bowman of Motherwell which could have seriously injured the full back. We awaited the inevitable red card and to the astonishment of most in the ground he received a yellow.  

We had a Johan Mjallby’s shot which was well over the line and the Referee waved ‘play on.’  We saw a Motherwell player strike a Rangers player in the face with his elbow to such a degree that it broke his nose in this season’s League Cup semi-final. No action was taken by the referee.

Celtic has been on the wrong end of some very poor refereeing calls in recent times which cost them important matches. The most obvious being the Meekings hand ball in the Cup semi-final with Inverness which would have seen Celtic awarded a penalty and the defender sent off had the referee given the correct decision. He didn’t much to the astonishment of everyone else in the stadium who saw what 5 officials managed to miss. 

We had the Duberry handball at Perth, the extremely dubious Penalty given to Hearts in a Scottish cup semi-final, the ‘Dougie, Dougie’ nonsense at Tannadice and other calls which left us mystified.

All of these examples demonstrate that Motherwell’s whingeing in recent days is at best ill-advised and at worse poor sportsmanship. Their physical approach to the game and sheer effort against Celtic has made the last two matches between the clubs close affairs but at the end of the day Celtic are undefeated in 66 matches for a reason; they’re the best team in Scotland by a long way.

Football is a fast, fluid and unpredictable game and human error certainly plays its part in refereeing decisions. Anyone who has refereed a game at any level knows how difficult it is to get every decision right. This is especially true at professional level where players of all clubs are out to pressure or even con the referee. Throw into the mix the clannish and often spiteful nature of Scottish football as well as the strong cultural identity some clubs possess and you have a recipe for suspicion. There is no doubt that historical injustices were done to Celtic by certain figures over the years. One only has to read books like ‘Celtic Paranoia’ to see incidents like the ‘Flag Flutter’ of the 1950s or the inexcusable Farry-Cadete affair of the 90s. In modern times football officials are scrutinised far more closely. Incidents like the amateurish handling of the Rangers meltdown of 2012 or the Dallas anti-Catholic email still cause concern but Celtic has grown into a confident and powerful club who wouldn’t be slow to make their side of any debate known.

The modern referee has a dozen cameras tracking every decision he makes amplifying every error. Social media takes clips showing such errors and they spin around an amplified echo chamber of like-minded fans giving an impression of institutional bias that isn’t quite fair.

Motherwell’s bleating in recent days has been to say the least unedifying. There are always tough 50-50 calls to be made by referees in the heat of games which could be given either way. Incidents happen in a split second and have to be called without the benefit of constant replays or multi-angled analysis. Players play acting doesn’t help and Motherwell have their share of con men like all clubs. Perhaps Motherwell should be looking at more constructive suggestions such as better training for Referees and assistants or the use of video reviews for big decisions or better still consider some of the big calls which have gone in their favour over the years and have a more balanced outlook.

Hypocrisy is pointing out the faults of others while conveniently ignoring your own. Motherwell has indulged in that this week.