Friday, 21 September 2018

For Peat's Sake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 September 2018

Truth to Power

Truth to Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘Everybody’s pain is the same. A soldier gets shot, his parent’s, his family’s pain is the same as mine. What makes people think that their pain is any worse than mine or any less than mine? We’re all suffering the same thing. So the truth needs to be told. That’s the only way you can draw a line under the past; tell the truth.’

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

Saturday, 8 September 2018

This is how it feels to be Celtic

This is how it feels to be Celtic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how it feels to be Celtic.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Fight for every ball

Fight for every ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you Bhoys…

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Riding the rollercoaster

Riding the rollercoaster

When was it for you? You know, that moment when you thought ‘Wow! This is my team and it always will be!’ Sometimes you feel it as a boy when your old man or older brothers drag you along and you go just to see what the fuss is all about. Then something magical and life changing occurs. Maybe it was a Johnstone dribble a Larsson dink or a Nakamura free kick. Maybe it’s the sight and sound of the support urging the team on or that feeling of comradeship you get among likeminded people. Whatever it was you leave the stadium hooked. You get it, you’re a Celt for life and there really is no cure.

From that day forth you’re riding the green and white roller coaster with all the highs and lows, triumphs and disasters that brings. They can leave you feeling so low after a bad result but by God they can raise you to the heavens when it all clicks. Nothing short of being in love can match the euphoria of Tony Watt scoring against Barcelona, Larsson ending that desperate tension in Boavista or Tom Rogic’s poetic and magnificent last gasp winner in that invincible campaign. This is how it feels to be Celtic, they sing and by God, they’re right. We kick every ball, we feel every emotion as we follow the fortunes of our club. The supporters are Celtic and Celtic is them.

Sure we don’t play in the money bloated English game and as time passes I feel less inclined to see Celtic go join that soulless circus with its mediocre millionaires, money chasing mercenaries and that God awful, condescending arrogance and misplaced sense of superiority. Scotland might be a small and relatively insignificant footballing nation these days but do you know what? I love the game here with its tribalism, its honest endeavour and petty rivalries. The fan culture in Scotland is laced with self-deprecating wit and humour, as well a real knowledge of the game. The fans are passionate, loud and deeply committed to their clubs.

We have learned to ignore the jibes of clueless nonentities on tabloid radio shows who seek to induce clicks for their advertisers by spouting ill-informed nonsense about ‘pub Leagues’ and the standard of play in Scotland. I’ve watched such utter dross in the English Premiership at times, you know - that rich league some Harlem Globtrotters eleven won by 19 points last season?  We Scots put up with the ‘my Nan’ brigade who like to inform us that their granny would be top scorer in the Scottish Premiership. Mark Lawrenson, surely the most depressing football pundit ever, said in the week Celtic were due to play Manchester City at home in the Champions League, ‘City have been scoring a lot of goals, there could be another big score up there.’ Manchester City brought half a billion pounds worth of talent to Celtic Park and couldn’t win. Nor could they win at the Etihad against Celtic, a stadium blessed with a magnificent group of players and an atmosphere like a village library. We saw Burnley, 7th in the ‘best league in the world’ need extra time to beat Aberdeen in the Europa League. Their Nan must have been injured that night.

All my life I’ve heard their condescending nonsense. ‘Revie’s Leeds will be too good for Celtic’: Result; Leeds defeated home and away by a much better side. Blackburn Rovers: ‘Men against boys.’ Result: Rovers defeated home and away by a better side. Liverpool after drawing at Celtic Park will finish the job. Result; the Reds defeated in front of their own fans. Scholes, Giggs, Rooney and Ronaldo should be too much for Celtic to handle; Result: Nakamura’s sublime free kick sends the homewards to think again.

Celtic’s historical record in competitive European matches against English sides is as follows: Played 20, won 7, drew 6. lost 7. In other words they have held their own over 50 years of playing English sides in Europe. Indeed if we call the Empire exhibition and Coronation Cup competitive, and they surely were, then Celtic’s record would read: Played 24 won 11 drew 6 lost 7.

Those of us following teams in the smaller European leagues will always face the prejudice and ignorance from a minority of those following team’s in leagues like the English Premiership. It’s ironic that one chap I debated with online was an Irishman from Dublin who follows Liverpool. He bad mouthed the Scottish league; blind to the irony that people like him are contributing to the paucity of the Irish league, which struggles to attract fans. He couldn’t comprehend that the Scottish Premiership is the best supported league in Europe per capita. That Scottish Clubs have competed in 10 European finals and compared to other nations of similar size this statistic is astonishing. Consider the number of European finals reached by countries with similar populations to Scotland: Sweden 3, Norway 0, Switzerland 0, Denmark 0. Scottish sides have also outperformed teams from bigger countries such as Russia, Greece, Turkey, Poland and Romania.

So what exactly do the ‘my nan’ brigade suggest we do in Scotland? Give up on our national game because we don’t have the population or TV money to compete with their league?  Not a chance of that happening because hard as some of them find it to comprehend, we love our teams as much as any of them love theirs. From Anan to Aberdeen there are fans who get excited on match day and look forward to getting to the game. Most of them will seldom if ever see their team win a trophy or play in Europe but still they love the game. We Scots and our insipid sports media need to start talking our game up. None more so than the exiles in England like Charlie Nicholas or Jim White, who give in to peer pressure down south and slag the game in Scotland mercilessly. Sure, the standard north of the border isn’t what it was in the golden days of the 1960’s, 70’s& 80s but it sure the hell isn’t the ‘pub league’ we’re led to believe it is. The almost pathological nature of the prejudice against Scottish football is quite bizarre. No one goes on about slagging any other European league in the manner some down south speak of the SPFL.

We have teams of honest pros here giving their all every week and producing some cracking games. We have supporters as passionate as any creating some fine spectacles and atmospheres; Consider Easter Road singing ‘Sunshine on Leith’ after beating Hearts, or Aberdeen’s tifo against Burnley or their epic display at the 2017 cup final, then there’s the roar of a full Tynecastle or the sight of 60,000 Celtic fans singing ‘You’ll never walk alone’ at a big European night, and yes, even the noise of Ibrox on a big match night is beyond what most English stadiums can manage. There is much to be proud of in the footballing traditions and culture of this small nation on the western fringes of Europe and despite our clannish ways it’s good to see fans of all clubs defend our game against those who run it down.

Of course we can never compete on a level playing field with a country boasting ten times our population and operating with so much TV money that half the clubs in their top league could continue to function if no fans whatsoever came to their games. We should though, stop undervaluing our game and stop talking it down. It’s on the up at the moment and can produce some exciting matches.

Like most folk of a certain age I had a favourite English club as a boy but in the modern era I’ve sat through a few too many ‘Super Sundays’ and been bored to tears. It simply doesn’t interest me anymore. I’m much happier watching Celtic battle it out with our local rivals. If you want to compare like with like try comparing the English league with the Spanish. La Liga teams have won 13 European trophies in the past ten seasons to the Premiership’s 3. For atmosphere, the Bundesliga wins every time.

For supporters in Scotland, nothing beats watching their team take the field for an important game. We know the limitations of our game but we’re rightly proud of what we’ve contributed to football. I know from so many wonderful games I’ve watched over the years the joy football can bring. I know the excitement of watching the big European games under the lights or those raucous derby matches where you sing yourself hoarse and go home exhausted. I know the highs and lows of being so committed to your team that your mood can be affected by their results. I know the comradeship found in following the team all over through good times and bad. I’ve seen the last minute winners, the painful defeats, the unexpected triumphs and moments of magic from players which make you smile. I’ve seen a stadium reverberate to 60,000 voices booming out in unison their support and love for their team. I’ve seen those supporters full of passion and noise; drive their team to victories they had no right to expect.

All the money in the world can’t buy you that.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

A toss of the coin

A toss of the coin

In memory's view I can still see Chris Sutton control the ball under pressure and play it to his ever ready striking partner Henrik Larsson. The Swede controlled the ball and glanced up as Didier Agathe went through the gears and raced towards the Ajax back line. Larsson guided a perfect pass into his path and the Frenchman glided past the last Ajax defender with deceptive ease. The advancing goalkeeper had no chance with Agathe’s well-placed shot which flashed past him and into the net. It was perhaps one of the best illustrations of Agathe’s value to Celtic in that era. His road to Celtic Park though was one full of twists and turns and it is a remarkable saga of chance, luck and determination.

For any young footballer aspiring to play professionally, being told that a hereditary condition would mean that their career was virtually over would be cause enough for depression and it was no different for young Didier Agathe. He had travelled thousands of miles from his home in La Reunion Island, a French possession in the Indian Ocean, to join Montpellier FC. His tribulations began when he suffered a ruptured appendix which almost ended his life and saw him on the operating table for six hours. However it was a recurring knee problem which, upon investigation led to the discovery that he had no cartilage in his right knee, which threatened his footballing future. The condition meant his right knee was functioning bone to bone with no cartilage to cushion it and stop the inevitable grinding pain and problems it would bring. 

Agathe faced the harsh realisation that his football career might be over before it had really begun. The quiet, deeply religious young man who spoke the Creole language of his home island when he arrived in France took the news badly. The Doctors, who couldn’t believe he had got so far in football with the problem, told him he should have an operation to correct the problem but that it would mean his footballing career would be over. He went into a depression and during one particularly low point for him, sought solace in alcohol. He overdid it and crashed his car. He said of the accident…

‘I fell asleep at the wheel and my car went over a fence and landed on a barrier. The windows were blown out and the airbag went off and I was stuck on a quiet road on a Sunday morning with no one around. By sheer chance an ambulance on its way to another call found me. My car was totally destroyed. It was hanging over the edge of the road over a steep drop. I don’t know why it didn’t drop.’

Agathe decided after surviving this ordeal that once he had recovered he would try again to make a career in football. He knew that it wouldn’t be in France so took the decision to decide where to try and resurrect his career in a most unusual way. He took a map of Europe and flipped a coin onto it. Wherever it landed, he told himself, he would go there and play. It landed on England so he sold most of his possessions and drove to England. Initially he was sleeping in his car and using his fast diminishing savings to live and keep fit at the local gym. In the end a friend gave him a room and he arranged a trial for Stockport County. He excelled but alas failed the medical when they discovered his ongoing knee problem.

In another twist of fate, he met a Frenchman called Ludovic Pollet who was in England having a trial with Wigan. Pollet asked him to come watch him play and Agathe obliged. At this point Agathe had virtually no money little prospect of earning any through football. Pollet introduced him to his agent at the match in Wigan and he in turn introduced him to Willie McKay, a Scottish agent with interests north and south of the border. When Agathe explained he was available, McKay said, ‘Why not come try your luck in Scotland?’ Agathe replied in all seriousness with the words, ‘Where is Scotland?’ McKay had Agathe literally follow him up the motorway from Wigan to Fir Park Motherwell in his battered old Honda. He arrived in Motherwell at 11.30 at night to meet the Manager, Billy Davies. Agathe must have been wondering what if his luck was out when he was informed that Davies had been taken to hospital with, of all things, appendicitis!  So it was that Motherwell missed out on a chance to sign Agathe.

McKay was soon on his phone again and told Agathe to follow him across Scotland to Kirkaldy. The young Frenchman arrived in the Fife town at 2am and had soon convinced a struggling Raith Rovers that he was worth a trial. Manager John McVeigh needed a striker badly as the team was struggling for goals and asked Agathe if he could play there. Agathe lied and said yes so he was played up front in a bounce game against the first team and impressed with his pace and finishing, scoring two goals. He was then played as a trialist against Airdrie and hit a hat trick. He signed for the rest of that season and his play was soon attracting the attention of other clubs. Hibs boss, Alex McLeish, liked what he saw but foolishly only signed Agathe on a two month contract just to run the rule over him. Agathe impressed and during a game against Dundee scored a tremendous goal after slicing through the defence with that blistering pace. Watching from the stand that day, ostensibly there to look at Dundee goalkeeper Rab Douglas, sat a certain Martin O’Neil.

Agathe recalls the phone going in the week after that game and an Irish voice saying, ‘Hello, it’s Martin O’Neil here.’ He thought it was a wind up and hung up. Fortunately O’Neil persisted and due to Hibs negligently signing Agathe on such a short contract, secured his services for Celtic for a ridiculously low price of £50,000. It could be argued that this piece of business was the best value Celtic ever had in the transfer market. His pace was ideally suited to O’Neil’s favoured 3-5-2 formation and he had all the attributes a good wing back needed. O’Neil understood his knee problems enough to allow him to miss out on training if he was in pain and was rewarded with some fine performances. The Road to Seville saw Agathe perform well against top opposition and the big European nights under the lights brought out the best in him. His pace was electric and he used it in defensive as well as attacking roles. O’Neil asked him to mark the great Ronaldinho when Celtic Played Barcelona in 2004 and he did so to great effect as Celtic defied the odds to knock Barcelona out of Europe.

He spoke of his time at Celtic in an interview in a French Magazine and said he had an affinity with the club. He also spoke of the darker side of football in Scotland and was taken aback as a devout Catholic by the vitriol about the Pope he heard at derby matches and the off field pressures such as having his car vandalised or being threatened in the street. It was noted that on a trip to St Peter’s cemetery just along the London Road from Celtic Park, he invested time and money restoring religious statues which had fallen into disrepair or had been vandalised.

It’s a testament to his character that he made a good career for himself at Celtic and was part of O’Neil’s fine side of the early part of the twenty first century. He won three titles, three Scottish cups, one league cup and played in some of those dramatic European ties Celtic had in that era. He said of his time at Celtic…

‘I can’t explain the feeling I had playing for Celtic. I was like a child. I felt I was dreaming, especially when we played in the Champions League. I always knew how lucky I was to be there.’

For the supporters he could be something of an enigma. On his day he was simply brilliant but on occasion his speed and wing play wasn’t matched by the final ball into the box and he did sometimes appear to lack confidence. When some fans were getting on his back during a European game, he commented later; ‘they don’t do it because they don’t care, they do it because they care too much.’ His time with Celtic was successful and he did enough to be remembered as a good player in a fine side. The arrival of Gordon Strachan and a bad injury picked up after a savage tackle in a match against a typically bellicose Hearts side ended his time at Celtic Park.

I for one will remember him for his blistering pace and the balance he brought to Celtic in the O’Neil era. He was a good player and by all accounts a very decent human being. The road he took to reach Celtic and play in some of the club’s biggest games in recent times demonstrates his courage and determination. Plenty would have given up on football when faced with the obstacles he had to deal with but he battled on and made a decent career for himself and that is a lesson in life for us all.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Rocket Man

Rocket Man

Joe McLaughlin stomped moodily down the Celtic Way with his brother Peter in the chill of a November afternoon, ‘Fifty years he supported Celtic, Peter. Fifty years!’  His older and certainly less fiery brother nodded, ‘I know Joe but things have changed, they won’t let you do the things they used to.’ Joe shook his head, ‘Och, I know Peter but you’d think they’d let ye do it on the track or behind the goal, I mean I promised my Da when he was in the hospital and a promise is a promise!’ Before his brother could reply a voice to his right called over, ‘Aw right Joe? How’s tricks ma man?’ It was Joe’s erstwhile workmate Derek Duffy, a ginger haired ox of a man who had a long standing body odour problem leading to him being nicknamed ‘Bo Derek.’ Joe shook his hand, ‘How ye doing Bo, whit brings you up here?’ The bigger man, who seemed neither to know nor care why folk had called him Bo for years, held up a bag from the Celtic shop, ‘Getting the wee man a Celtic tap. Some price these days! What about you?’ Joe shook his head, ‘Up seeing yon PR wumin about getting my Da’s ashes spread oan the grass behind the goal. No chance, she chased us.’ Bo shook his head doubtfully, ‘I know how much Joe Snr loved the Celts but if they allowed that then hundreds of folk would do it. Why not get him wan ay yon bricks wi his name on it?’ ‘I thought of that,’ said Joe rubbing the stubble on his chin, 'but it was the old fella’s last wish that his ashes were spread on the pitch at Celtic Park.’ His brother Peter cut in, ‘We’ll think of something. Maybe spread them on the Celtic way or Barrowfield?’  Joe exhaled, ‘Aye, we’ll think of something.’

Later that night as a slow drizzle drifted lazily out of the dark Glasgow sky, Joe was gazing out of his window deep in thought. A mile away the sky over Glasgow Green was awash with colour as the annual fireworks display boomed and fizzed. He could feel the vibrations of the fireworks even from his Gorbals home and a quiet whining behind him reminded him that Jinky, his Border Collie, was feeling it too and didn’t like it one bit. A huge boom echoed towards him as the show reached its crescendo then all was quiet save a distant sound of cheering from the thousands who always attended the display. An idea was formulating in his mind and he turned to look for his laptop and googled ‘Fireworks.’

A week later Joe sat in his kitchen telling his brother Peter about his recent purchase. Peter looked at him as if he was completely insane. ‘A rocket? You’ve actually sent for a giant fuckin rocket? I’m beginning tae think you’re a fuckin rocket, Joe!’ Joe grinned and left the room. He returned moments later carrying a metre long cardboard box which he plonked down heavily on the kitchen table. ‘It came this morning.’ Peter opened the flaps on the box like a bomb disposal expert viewing a device for the first time. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he exclaimed, ‘It’s fuckin massive! Whit did this cost ye?’ Joe looked at him with a serious face, ‘Eighty five quid.’ Peter looked at the bizarrely shaped firework. It was shaped like a huge microphone with a bulbous head no doubt full of highly explosive gunpowder. The thick, wooden rod attached to it was at least 3 feet long. ‘This is one serious item, Joe. You need tae be very careful with this.’ Joe nodded, ‘I’ve read the instructions. It’s fine under ma bed.  Peter looked aghast, ‘Under yer bed? If ye farted and this thing went aff ye’d blow the close tae Kingdom come! Get it oot tae the shed!’ Joe shook his head, ‘Shed’s too damp. It might not work.’ Peter exhaled, ‘Joe, this thing is like an unexploded bomb. Ye cannae keep it in the hoose! Whit did ye buy it for anyway? Bonfire night was last week.’  If Peter thought his younger brother’s purchase of an £85 rocket sounded bizarre, what he heard next was simply astounding.

‘Celtic’s playing Spartak Moscow in a couple of weeks. We’re taking the firework tae that grassy area near the stadium at Barrowfield. When it’s quiet we fire it over the stadium and kaboom!’ Peter looked at him opened mouthed, ‘Kaboom? Whit the fuck are you oan aboot? What’s the point in firing a huge fuckin rocket at Celtic Park? Are ye mad? Ye could hurt somebody.’ Joe regarded him with a look of quiet determination, ‘It’s the only way to get my Da’s ashes onto the pitch.’ With this he turned the rocket around carefully in the box. On one side there was a piece of heavy duty duct tape stuck to the side of the sphere. ‘I bored a hole and poured some of the powder oot and got my da’s ashes in using a wee funnel.’ Peter was horrified, ‘Ye did whit? Ya fuckin madman, there’s no way you’re doing this, Joe. You’ve altered the rocket, it could go anywhere! Some granny in Helenvale flats might be sitting in her bubble bath when your fucking doodlebug crashes through the windae! Naw Joe, Naw!’  Joe looked at his brother, ‘It’ll be fine.’ He said unconvincingly, ‘It goes up 300 metres before exploding. I’ve read up on it.’ Peter was having none of it, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Joe there will be 60,000 people milling about the area that night. You cannae dae this, Joe! Promise me you’ll no be so fuckin stupid!’ Joe glared at him, ‘Nothing will go wrong. It’ll be fine. It’s what my da wanted.’ Peter raised his voice, ‘He wanted his ashes scattered on the pitch, no fuckin exploded over the whole east end!’ Joe said nothing and simply closed the big box hiding the firework from view. Peter looked at him intensely, ‘Joe, promise me! Promise me you’ll never light the fuse on this monstrosity.’ Joe sighed, ‘Aye, aw right, Peter.’

Wednesday 5th December found Peter McLaughlin in the huge north stand of a packed Celtic Park. The crowd were making an incredible din as Celtic and Spartak Moscow walked out of the tunnel. The noise increased even more as the Champions League them music pulsed through the cold night air. ‘Come on Celtic!’ Peter roared as he watched Celtic enter their pre-match huddle. The noise was deafening as the game got underway. This was it, a Celtic win coupled with Benfica not winning in Barcelona would see the Hoops through to the last 16 of Europe’s premier tournament.

The game thundered from one end of the field to the other as both sides sought to establish dominance. The breakthrough came on 21 minutes as Gary Hooper pounced on a mistake in the Russian’s defence to thrash the ball beyond keeper Pesiakov. Celtic Park exploded as the fans roared Celtic on. In the top tier of the north stand, Peter glanced at the empty seat beside him. Joe hadn’t turned up for the game. In fact he had barely spoken to him since their row about his insane plan with the rocket. Maybe he was still in a mood, thought Peter as he refocussed on the game. On 39 minutes the Russians equalised. It was going to be a grim struggle right to the end of the game.

In the second half, Celtic old boy, Aidan McGeady appeared in the red of Spartak but it was Celtic pushing and probing, looking for the winner they so desperately needed. Then late in the game a clumsy tackle on Samaras in the box saw thousands of heads swivel towards the Referee who immediately pointed to the penalty spot. Celtic Park was at fever pitch as Kris Commons placed the ball on the penalty spot. This was it, the moment of truth. He strode forward confidently and hammered the ball high towards goal. The goalkeeper spread himself well but was helpless as the ball smashed of the underside of the bar and into the net!

A tsunami of noise thundered from the stands onto the field. Peter McLaughlin was swept up in a bear hug by a fan to his right as they joined 60,000 others in roaring their heads off. He looked up at the dark Glasgow sky with a grin as wide as the Clyde on his face and punched the air triumphantly. As he did, he heard the boom of an exploding firework and saw a split second later a thousand green and golden flashes which sizzled and sparkled, momentarily lighting up the night sky. Peter’s smile faded as he thought immediately of Joe, ‘That screwball has gone and done it!’ he mumbled to himself!

As the final whistle sounded and the Celtic players and supporters noisily celebrated making it through to the last 16 of the Champions League, the last earthly atoms of Joe McLaughlin Senior drifted on the chill wind high above the streets he knew so well as a boy and man. 

At least a few of them drifted down onto that brightly lit emerald rectangle where he had watched his team play so often. He would have been happy at that. Joe had kept his promise.