Michael grinned at his older brother with that infectious smile of his, ‘You mean Saturday? I’m going on Saturday?’ he asked excitedly in that nasally tone of his. ‘Aye, Michael. I got two tickets aff big Andy the bus convenor and he’s cool with it.’ Michael took his brother by surprise by standing and throwing his arms around him. ‘I love you, John, he said in that unrestrained and honest way of his. John held him close, feeling a little emotional but also feeling a genuine affection for his brother, ‘I just need tae clear it way my ma and we’re good tae go.’ John left an obviously delighted Michael sitting in the living room and headed into the kitchen to talk to his mother.
He watched her unseen for a moment from the door of the kitchen, busy as always, cutting potatoes and carrots for another pot of her famous soup. Her long dark hair was tied into a pony tail and he could see a few silver threads here and there. She was still a fine looking woman even if she was in her late forties and he often wondered why she’d never shown any interest in men after his old man had died. It was six years ago now that John Snr had the misfortune to be crossing the road when a speeding drunk had shattered all their lives. ‘Ma,’ John began, ’can I talk to you a minute?’ She turned to face him gifting him that smile which he remembered even as a small child. ‘Of course son, whit is it?’ He sat by the kitchen table as she finished putting her chopped vegetables into the big soup pot. ‘I’ve got two tickets for the cup final and I wanted to take Michael.’ He face creased but she said nothing as he continued, ‘Andy on the bus is happy with it and he’ll help me with Michael if I need it.’ She put the lid on the pot and turned to look at her son. ‘John ye took Michael tae a game last year and he came home in tears. You know how some idiots react to a boy with Down’s! I won’t have him hurt again!’ John exhaled, ‘Ma, he’s 18 now, he can’t spend his days between this house and his club and you know he loves Celtic. There’s more tae life than that. Besides, it’s the cup final and it’s Celtic’s centenary year.’ She closed her eyes momentarily as if thinking before opening them again with a sigh and nodding, ‘Aw right John, but promise me you’ll look after him.’ John smiled at her, ‘You know I will ma, I’ll guard him with my life.’
The days leading up to the 1988 cup final hobbled past like old soldiers as the two brothers waited on the big day. Michael was so excited and had travelled with his mum from their home in Pollok all the way to the Celtic shop at the stadium to buy a new scarf for the occasion. At last Saturday 14 May arrived, bringing with it sunshine, blue skies and the hint that something magical was in the air for Billy McNeill and his centenary Celts. Michael was up at 7am and pestering his brother to get out of bed. ‘Michael, it’s 7 in the morning, the game isn’t for hours. Will ye go back tae bed?’ Michael sat on his brothers bed, ‘I’m too excited, John. I can’t sleep.’ John sat up in bed and looked at his brother, ‘Look, go in the living room, get some breakfast and watch the Celtic videos, I’ll be up in a while.’ This seemed to settle Michael who headed out of the room, muttering to himself, ‘I can’t wait, I can’t wait!’
John sat up in bed, lit a cigarette and exhaled. He had no worries that Michael would be fine at the football, he loved Celtic. Rather it was the attitude of some people to Michael and his Downs Syndrome that was the problem. One guy in particular on the supporters’ bus, an ignoramus called Aldo, had joked about a ‘Mong’ being on the bus and John had almost come to blows with him. John knew him from school and he was a moron then just as he was a moron now in his mid-twenties. If he started any of his pish John wasn’t sure he could contain himself. He had taken Michael to Tannadice earlier in the season and most of the guys on the bus had been brand new with him. Aldo though asked John with a stupid grin on his face, ‘does he bite?’ It took the strapping form of Andy the bus convenor to stop John and Aldo coming to blows. He had told Aldo to sit on his arse and stop behaving like an idiot before quietly whispering to John, ‘Never mind that prick, not the sharpest tool in the box.’
John didn’t get the dumb prejudice some folk had about people who were different. Michael was funny, loving and kind. He had a wicked sense of humour and could always sense when people were in need of a laugh. Prejudice, John figured was just that, pre-judging people before you actually knew them. It often told you more about the people doing it than the intended target of their scorn.
As lunchtime approached on that sunny Saturday in the spring of 1988, Michael was sitting at the kitchen table in his centenary Celtic top, scarf in hand ready to go. John loved his enthusiasm. Michael never hid his joy when something good was happening. Before they left to catch the supporters’ bus to Hampden, they both hugged their mother who whispered in John’s ear, ‘look after him, son.’ He smiled, ‘He’ll be fine Ma, he’ll love it. We’ll be home by six.’ John knew that in some way she carried some guilt for Michael’s condition despite the fact it was a random genetic mishap, an extra chromosome in each cell which causes the condition. He turned to Michael who stood waiting by the door, ‘Right you, let’s go and win this cup!’
They climbed onto the supporters bus in bright May sunshine. Andy grinned at them as they passed his seat, ‘Alright lads, a great day for it.’ Michael smiled back, ‘Hi Andy, I can’t wait. We’re gonna win!’ Andy nodded, ‘Damned right we are, Michael!’ As they headed towards the back of the bus Michael’s smile faded a little as he saw Aldo sitting swigging a half bottle of cheap wine. John guided Michael towards the back of the bus and ignored Aldo who he heard mutter to his mate, ‘ Oho, I see Robert Downey Junior is back.’ John gritted his teeth, one day he thought, he’d fix that bastard.
The journey to Hampden was one of those happy trips where everyone was singing and up for it. There were smiling, green clad fans on every street streaming towards the stadium. The centenary year had been excellent so far, could Celtic top it off by adding the cup to their league title? They got off the bus and headed towards the turnstiles at the Celtic end. The fans crowding the entrances were noisy and boisterous. John stood behind Michael, guiding him through and into the stadium. As they topped the stairway and saw the great bowl of Hampden spread out before them; three quarters of it covered in the green favours of Celtic and the far end a sea of tangerine, they both felt that exhilaration cup final day can bring. They made their way to a section of the terracing to the right of the goal as the teams came out to a great roar. A sea of red cards was held aloft to greet Margaret Thatcher who took her seat in the stand. ‘Here we go Michael!’ John said with genuine excitement.
As the game began, John heard the familiar voice of Aldo behind him. Of all the places on the terrace he could have stood he chose this. He glanced around him but the packed terrace offered little scope for moving. As the play raged from one end to the other John could hear the jibes behind him, ‘Good of him tae take the boy out wi normal people.’ Aldo’s friend was not responding to his stupid comments and focussed on the game, John tried to do the same. It bugged him but he ignored it for Michael’s sake. In the second half though Dundee United scored and Aldo said audibly, ‘See, telt ye the mongo would be bad luck!’ John spun around, ‘You shut yer fuckin’ ignorant mouth or I’ll punch yer lights out!’ Aldo snarled back, ‘Go for it ya fuckin fud!’ As John was about to swing a punch, Michael grabbed his arm, ‘No John, No!’ John, fuming turned back to the match as Celtic centred the ball to restart the game. He could hear Aldo’s mate telling him to calm down and behave but the half cut moron was still firing out stupid remarks. John bided his time until on 75 minutes Frank McAvennie scored the equalising goal. As the packed Celtic end jumped around in wild ecstasy and Michael was roaring in joy at the players on the field, he deliberately threw his elbow back with all the force he could muster smashing it into Aldo’s face. Aldo crumpled to the floor as the fans roared and danced around him. He looked at Aldo’s mate to see if he would do anything but he just shrugged as if to say, ‘he deserved that.’ The ambulance men showed up to help a bleeding and groggy Aldo away as John and Michael settle to watch the final stages of an enthralling game.
John placed his hands on Michael’s shoulders as the game neared its tension filled end, tied at 1-1. Would it be extra time in the sunshine? Would Celtic have the legs to make it a centenary double? With time running out another Celtic attack swept down the field and the ball and the ball pinged around the United penalty box where McAvennie was waiting to smash it home! John and Michael grabbed each other in a bear hug and shouted for joy! They had done it! Celtic had won the cup in the dying moments of the game and there were no happier people on God’s green earth at that moment than the two brothers locked in an embrace as around them thousands celebrated their team’s victory.