Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Real Deal

The Real Deal

Henrik Larsson lay prostrate on the emerald turf of Celtic Park as a hush descended around the packed Stadium. The Swedish striker was never one for lying down without good reason and most of the supporters knew his injury was serious. Gus Bahoken of Livingston had broken Larsson’s jaw in two places after a clumsy and rather brutal attempt at heading the ball. Accidental or not, Celtic fans knew Larsson’s absence in those early months of 2003 was a major blow. Celtic were locked in a tense battle for the league title and would face Stuttgart in the UEFA cup that month.  The fans knew how important Larsson was to the team and some recalled how their season had fallen apart after he had broken his leg in Lyon in 1999. Blood was mopped from his face and he was helped from the field to loud but rather worried applause. He was taken straight to hospital and the fracture confirmed.

Ron Moore, long time sports reporter with the Daily Mirror decided to try and get a scoop and headed north to interview Larsson. The trouble was he didn’t ask in advance and Larsson is a private man who guards his family’s privacy jealously. Moore had the cheek to let himself into Larsson’s front yard and wait for him to return and the Swede was not amused. The interview consisted of the following exchange…

Moore: ‘How are you Henrik?’
Larsson: (Heavily bandaged) ‘Fuck off.’
Moore: ‘How long will you be wearing the bandage?’
Larsson: ‘Fuck off.’
Moore: ‘When will you be able to play again?
Larsson: ‘Fuck off.’

Henrik Larsson was without doubt one of the best strikers ever to grace the Scottish game and his prowess in front of goal is legendary but for all his deft touches, intelligent movement and clinical finishes he was as tough as they come too. Professional football can be brutal at times and Larsson took his fair share of ruthless treatment on the field. He talked in the years after his retirement about the dark side of the game and said…

‘It can get pretty ugly sometimes. I know I’ll get hurt, tackled from behind sometimes but I know that from the outset. Sometimes to cover a defender you grab hold of their shorts and if you happen to grab their package too well you just pull harder.’

Larsson once stated that Craig Moore of Rangers was one of his toughest opponents but praised him by saying that much as the Australian dished out some fairly brutal treatment, he takes it back without complaining.

Of course spending seven years of his career at Celtic brought out the usual arrogant and condescending comments from commentators south of the border that his 242 goals in green and white were more down to the relative weakness of the Scottish League than Larsson’s abilities. Fans of all clubs in Scotland have endured the ‘My Nan’ brigade for as long as football has been played.  Celtic’s record against English opposition in European fixtures has been good over the years as Leeds United, Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United will tell you but there was no doubting our pleasure when Henrik demonstrated at the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League level that he was the real deal. As a striker he scored goals against sides like Juventus, Liverpool, Porto and Valencia but It irked him that the ignorant would deride his achievements in Scotland and he once stated….

“They would say, ‘Yeah he can do it in Scotland, but can he do it in the big leagues?’ It was a bit annoying because if it was that easy, why didn’t everybody score so many goals?”

The man who holds the goal scoring record in European matches while at a UK club demonstrated at Barcelona and Manchester United that he would have been a star in any league.

We Scots have a tendency to talk down our own game but as many who ventured north of Hadrian’s Wall to play in Scotland have found, it is not the stroll in the park they expected. In recent times we have seen a host of prodigies from the English Academy system loaned out to gain experience in Scotland. Few of them have made any impact at all and even experienced professionals like Joey Barton found the need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for excuses after being an abject failure in the much maligned SPFL.

Those of us who enjoyed Henrik Larsson’s seven years at Celtic Park knew what we were watching. He had started his footballing career in his native Sweden before moving to Feyenoord in Holland where even he would admit things weren’t perfect. It was as if he had found his spiritual home at Celtic and the warmth he basked in from the supporters seemed to help him blossom into a top player.  He famously said after Celtic had beaten Blackburn Rovers in the UEFA Cup at Ewood Park, ‘Yeh, we were shit in Glasgow but they should learn a lesson, you never talk until the game is over.’ Blackburn’s ‘Men against boys’ jibe after the first game in Glasgow (Which they lost) was dripping in all the old arrogance we expect from English opposition and it was an utter delight to ram their words down their throats in their own stadium.

Henrik Larsson sits third in the all-time goal scoring charts for Celtic behind the legendary Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox. His career at Celtic saw him win eight major honours, a golden boot as Europe’s top scorer and helped the club to a European final. Beyond the statistics though we have a thousand memories of the deft clips over the goalkeeper, the flashing dreadlocks as he headed for goal, the tongue out in celebration and sheer grit and determination he added to his undoubted skills.

I’ve been fortunate to watch some excellent footballers wearing the green and white over the years but few have been as good as Henrik Larsson. It was an added bonus that he seemed to get what Celtic was all about too and developed a real affection for the club. He said once…

“This is the club for me. This is where I made myself as a player, this is where everybody got to know me and this is the club that I will be eternally grateful to for giving me that opportunity when maybe other clubs didn’t believe in me. This is where I got back into the Swedish national team and went on to play in European Championships and World Cups for Sweden. I couldn’t have done that without Celtic.”

It is testimony to the impact he made at Celtic that 14 years after his last competitive game for the club he is still recalled with such affection. We don’t forget our heroes at Celtic and Henrik Larsson was certainly one of them.

Thank you Henrik. Hail Hail

Friday, 8 June 2018

Hasta La Victoria...

Watching news filter through that the Argentinian football side had decided not to play a game in Israel this week reminded me yet again of the impossibility of totally separating sport from politics. The disgracefully callous treatment of Palestinians on the ‘great march of return’ demonstrations was one of the key factors which led to pressure being brought to bear on Argentina who announced that they would not fulfill the fixture. It was for some, including many Palestinians, a sign that at least some in the world cared about their plight, For others it was another example of pressure being brought to bear unfairly on a football team merely out to play a game. It got me thinking about another game of football long ago which did take place and perhaps never should have.

In September 1973 as Celtic drove relentlessly towards another league title, events were occurring on the other side of the world which would eventually impact on Scotland and our national game. The left leaning Chilean Popular Unity Party led by Salvador Allende was swept from power in a CIA backed coup led by the Chilean military and General Augusto Pinochet. It was a brutal seizure of power which saw Chilean jets bombing their own Presidential Palace as troops and tanks flooded the streets. The round-up of Allende supporters began immediately and thousands of political opponents were arrested, tortured and in many cases murdered. Among them was folk singer and poet, Victor Jara.

Jara’s songs had urged the people to build a better, fairer country and there was no doubting his support for Allende. This was enough for him to be arrested and taken to the Chilean national football stadium where he was held with thousands of others. When he was recognised by the soldiers, he was taken to the changing room and brutally tortured. His hands and fingers were smashed with an axe as the guards mocked him and asked that he play his guitar for them. One of the officers loaded a single bullet into a gun and spun the chamber; he then played Russian Roulette with the gun pressed to Jara’s head until eventually it went off and Victor fell. He ordered two young conscripts to finish him and they fired over 40 bullets into Jara’s body.

In the aftermath of the bloodletting at the national stadium in Santiago, the USSR team was due to play a world cup play-off match. They refused to go there and their spokesman said….

The Football Federation of the USSR has asked FIFA to hold the match in a third country as the stadium in Santiago is stained with the blood of Chilean patriots. Soviet sportsmen cannot at this time perform at such a venue on moral grounds.’

FIFA sent officials to the stadium which was still holding prisoners who were cowed and out of sight. FIFA ordered the USSR to play the game which of course they refused. This led to the bizarre spectacle of Chile kicking off a game against an absent opposition and scoring a ‘goal’ against team which was sitting at home 8000 miles away.

Over 7000 men and women had been held in dreadful conditions in the stadium and many of them were brutalised and murdered. Yet just a few short years after these events, the SFA decided in their wisdom to play a football match against Pinochet’s Chile in that same stadium. There was huge outcry in Scotland from fans, political groups, trade unions and church groups. Indeed engineers at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride refused to repair engines of planes from the Chilean air force. An act of solidarity recalled this year in the excellent documentary, ‘Nae Pasaran.’ The SFA though were having none of it and pushed ahead with the match which was part of the build up to the World Cup in Argentina. Many players thought that refusal to go to Chile might jeopardise their chances of going to the world cup the following year. Alan Rough, the Scottish goalkeeper of the time, said later…

“When I went into that stadium, I remember going into the dressing room and I remember seeing the bullet holes on the wall where they had lined up people and killed them. I think if we had been given more information, that there were actually people still being killed and still being arrested on the street and being taken away and shot most of the players wouldn’t have gone.”

Scotland won their ‘Shame game’ in Santiago by 4 goals to 2 but the bitterness and controversy lingered on. Had Scotland cancelled the match it would have been seen by many as an act of solidarity with the oppressed and won Scotland many friends. At least the controversy the game caused raised awareness about what was going on in Chile but for many football fans, it was a game which should never have taken place.

Those of you who remember the sporting boycott of South Africa during the Apartheid era will know that it was of the most visual and potent weapons used to highlight the injustices there. In 1963 FIFA suspended South Africa and when FIFA President Stanley Rous went to negotiate with the South African FA, they asked if they could field and all white side at the 1966 World Cup in England and an all black side in the 1970 tournament in Mexico. FIFA rightly shook their head in disbelief and walked away. In the end, political, economic and sporting pressures built up leading South Africa to abandon Apartheid and become a more integrated and fairer society.

There are those who would apply similar pressure to Israel. Scotland is due to play in Israel in October as part of the European Nations League fixtures. There will undoubtedly be pressure put on the SFA by some not to go there, particularly if the brutality goes on, but it is highly unlikely they’ll even consider not going. The match, unlike the friendly in Chile in 1977, is a competitive, UEFA sanctioned game and not going would leave Scotland open to punitive sanctions. In fairness though, Celtic has played in Israel against Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Hapoel Tel Aviv in the past and there was little call for any boycotts then. Pragmatism and an unwillingness to face the wrath of UEFA ensured those ties went ahead. Politics and sport will never be totally separated but they are uncomfortable bed-fellows.

Victor Jara was asked by a Journalist just a few days before the Coup which was to claim his life, what love meant to him. He replied…

Love of my home, my wife and my children. Love for the earth that helps me live. Love for education and of work. Love of others who work for the common good. Love of justice as the instrument that provides equilibrium for human dignity. Love of peace in order to enjoy one's life. Love of freedom, but not the freedom acquired at the expense of others’ freedom, but rather the freedom of all.‘

Few would disagree with those words. Some in our world though still take their freedom at the expense of others. Until such injustices end there will always be protests; there will always be those who won’t look the other way. 

That is a matter for each human being’s conscience and I for one won’t condemn those who say, that’s enough, no more!

Saturday, 2 June 2018

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood

It’s a feature of life that the older generation are often unhappy with the behaviour of the young. Consider the following quote…

‘The children of today love luxury, have bad manners, show contempt for authority and are disrespectful to their elders.’

A few of you reading these words will no doubt be nodding your head and thinking they contain a grain of truth. It may surprise you to know that they were written by Greek Philosopher, Socrates, 2400 years ago. It seems that these generational squabbles are nothing new.

This came to mind when I met an old friend recently who used to accompany me all over the as we followed Celtic in our youth. We got to reminiscing about those times and among the great footballing memories we shared, there were also some more hair-raising adventures discussed. The Hampden riot in 1980 was chief among them and in truth I’ve never seen Glasgow in such a ferment before or since, The trouble at the stadium was repeated in streets and bars throughout the city and the Police cells were full to bursting when the sun set.

Younger Celtic supporters today often get it in the neck from their elders for things such as pyrotechnics, flares (smoke bombs - not 1970s trousers) and jumping around at football as if they were in a mosh pit but truth be told, their fathers and grandfathers were just as lively in their youth and often worse! Growing up and following Celtic in the 1970s and 80s was an experience which could offer the same thrills and disappointments as following the team today but the football environment we moved in was more lawless and could even be dangerous at times.

For instance in the spring of 1978 Celtic were facing the last few games of a dreadful season in which they would finish fifth in the league and fail to qualify for Europe for the first time in years. They were on the wrong end of a 4-1 hiding at Easter Road when some of the fans got violent. Golf balls and bottles flew and the field was invaded. It took most of the Celtic team and manager to usher fans back onto the terracing. Police made 30 arrests. Later that year, Celtic travelled to Burnley to play in the Anglo-Scottish Cup. 10,000 Celtic fans headed down and many had been drinking all day by the time the game started. The usual moronic taunts from the local supporters led to some Celtic fans ripping up railings and starting what was by any standards serious disorder. Fighting halted the game for a while and it took the Police a good while to restore order. The local Police chief said it was the worst hooliganism he had ever seen in Burnley. By 1980 we had the cup final with Rangers and perhaps the worst scenes of rioting seen at a major Scottish sporting event since the 1909 cup final had been abandoned and Hampden left smouldering by a rampaging mob.

Incidents as serious as the ones above were rare but there was an underlying threat of trouble at many games in those days as policing hadn’t yet evolved the tactics to make it less likely and stadiums were antiquated and un-segregated for the most part. You knew in advance that there were away matches were a scrap was likely with unsurprisingly Hibs, Hearts, Rangers and even Dundee being among them.  Alcohol was ubiquitous and I still recall watching in amazement as a man denied entry to Celtic Park with a bottle of Eldorado wine drank the lot in two huge swigs before dumping the empty in a bin by the turnstile and entering the stadium.

On occasion there were fights within the Celtic support with gangs from various parts of Glasgow bumping into each other in the old Jungle. There were also times when some supporters were willing to take on the Police as we saw in the infamous Janefield Street Riot of 1984. There was a huge element of provocation that night and some could justifiably claim self-defence. Police horses had charged up a packed Janefield Street in the aftermath of a Celtic v Rangers game causing absolute mayhem. People fell over and the sheer weight of bodies trying to avoid the horses caused walls and railings to collapse. There seemed no justification for the charge by Strathclyde’s mounted division but when they reached the stadium and turned to charge again, they were met by a hail of bricks garnered from the collapsed wall. Van loads of Police arrived then and lashed out at anyone within reach with batons, boots and fists. It was an ugly night and one on which it was difficult to discern who exactly were the hooligans and who the guardians of the law. It was a similar tale at the Cliftonville v Celtic match in Belfast that year when the RUC reverted to type and behaved with similar brutality.

The Celtic song book in those days was more earthy too and alongside the standards like ‘The grand old team’ and ‘You’ll never walk alone’ there were numerous Irish nationalist songs and some fairly crude lyrics were added to popular chart tunes of the time.  One which sticks in the mind used the tune from the song ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ about Muhammad Ali’s fight with George Foreman, but with the lyric amended, it was hardly Lennon and McCartney but such ditties were common among most supports when abusing rivals…

‘Came a monkey called John Grieg, to Park, to Parkhead,
Had a face like ham and egg, McCluskey broke the bastard’s leg
Hear the rumble in the Jungle…. at Parkhead’

Terrace life in the 1970s and 80s could be fantastic when the crowd was roaring out the backing for the team but even the most fervent Celt would admit it could be a bit hair-raising at times too. I’m sure most of the older Celtic fans reading these words will be able to recount incidents in stadiums, streets, railway stations or pubs which had them wondering what the hell was going on.

So maybe we should cut the younger generation a bit of slack. Of course they’ll get on your nerves at times with their antics but we older fans should remember that we were once like that. My old man once said to a neighbour who was at the door complaining about us playing football in the back court, ‘Were ye never a wean yerself?’  We should bear that in mind when the next feel like moaning about the young. We did many similar things when boyhood’s fire was in our blood and most of us turned out okay in the end.

Every generation seems to need to make its own mistakes before learning from them and growing up. I recall coming home bedraggled from a match at Ibrox as a lad. I had my hooped shirt on and was delighted that Celtic had won. My Celtic mad uncle smiled as he watched me talking excitedly about the match and Joe Craig’s stunning winning goal, before saying to me… ‘You are as I was. I am as you will be.’

I was a youngster learning about the world and my place in it. I was finding out first-hand about that comradeship and warmth which goes with following Celtic. It was all part of growing up. It has ever been thus, even Socrates knew that.


Friday, 25 May 2018

Déjà vu again

Déjà vu again

Back in 2014, during the dreadful Israeli bombardment of Gaza an incident occurred which was chilling even by the standard of the carnage occurring then. Four children were playing football on a beach when an Israeli ship fired explosive shells at them. All four were killed and there was understandable outrage. Channel Four News absolutely nailed the Israeli spokesman on the night of the atrocity by asking him…

‘The operation you’re engaged in is called ‘protective edge’ and its stated purpose is to protect Israeli civilians, how does killing children on a beach contribute to that purpose?’

According to the UN, 2,200 Palestinians were killed in the 50-day conflict in 2014, of whom, 1,492 were civilians, 605 militants and 123 unverified. At the time it led to understandable anger in many countries and few individuals allowed their resentment of what the IDF was doing in Gaza and the occupied territories spill over into unjustifiable physical or verbal attacks on individual Jewish people. The policy of a state is not decided by individuals and attacking those with no responsibility for actions you disagree with is pointless and absurd.

The year after the Gaza bombardment, Celtic Director Ian Livingston come in for considerable flak for voting in favour of Conservative Party cuts to tax credits. Many argued against these policies with eloquence, intelligence and genuine feeling while once more a handful of less cerebral individuals resorted to abuse of a personal nature and demanded he leave his post at Celtic. I tried to put a balanced view of that debate on the record and for the most part I felt people accepted that Celtic Football Club should be open to all who hold reasonably sane political views even if we don’t agree with them. It would be dangerous indeed to exclude a group from the Celtic family because we disagree with the views they hold and I for one feel our club would be much poorer if we ventured down that particular barren road. We can see the historical damage exclusivist attitudes and policies did to another Glasgow club, a club which is still dealing with the toxic fallout from their petty apartheid.

So this week we found the media making fuss about a few online trolls giving Nir Bitton abuse. As is often the way, the trashier tabloids dredged a few comments from idiots online and built a story around them.  The trolling of Bitton came in the wake of the appalling toll of deaths and injuries during the ‘Return March’ held in Gaza to mark 70 years since the foundation of Israel and the expulsion of  tens of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. A few resorted to abusing the one Israeli close at hand as if he somehow had an influence on events in the middle-east. Bitton for his part hit back when the abuse started affecting his girlfriend and said…

“I’m just tired of replying to idiots who insult me because I’m Israeli so I’m not going to reply anymore! It’s just a shame for the people who insult me over such a thing like that.  As a father if you guys think I support the death of children or any human being then you are nothing but idiots! I’m all up for the banter but not when you guys texting my wife’s Instagram. I’m getting abuse for a while so I just felt that I had to say that. Don’t mix football and politics, you are better than that. Love you all.”

Bitton may be somewhat naïve to think that politics and football will ever be totally separated, especially at a club like Celtic. I applauded the Green Brigade’s ‘match the fine for Palestine’ campaign which saw over £176,000 gathered for charitable work in a land sorely in need of some hope. Such an action was in keeping with the best humanitarian values all Celts hold dear. What I can never accept though is a minority who try to foist their idea of what Celtic should be on us all and advising us who is worthy to wear the Hoops and who is not.

Bitton tweets his support for the IDF in times of conflict but is that so unusual? This is a young man brought up in Israel, influenced by its media and the narrative it portrays of what occurs in the occupied territories.  He has done his compulsory national service himself and will no doubt also have friends and relatives who are serving in the military at the moment but he isn’t personally responsible for the policies of the Israeli government. The solution to the running sore that is the middle-east will not be found abusing a footballer 2500 miles away but by a concerted effort by governments around the world. John F Kennedy once said…

‘Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression and persecution of others.’

I have huge sympathy for the dreadful treatment of the Palestinians and the huge injustices done to them historically and currently, while a hypocritical world looks the other way. We can though choose to respond to an issue in either positive or negative ways. Celtic supporters and any other fan group are perfectly entitled to show solidarity by flying their flag or fund raising for their medical charities should they so choose. This is a very human and positive response to a beleaguered people caught in an appalling situation.  No one though is entitled to abuse a Celtic player because he is Israeli. That’s just absurd and says more about the abusers than Nir Bitton.

In the final analysis we have to ask ourselves what sort of club we want. Do we want one which is open to all who espouse reasonable and genuinely held views or do we wish to go down the route of excluding those we disagree with? Or worse still, do we want to be influenced by zealots with a narrow political agenda which clouds their every judgement? There can never be total separation of sport and politics but there are sensible limits.

The good ship Celtic has done amazing things in the past 130 years and has relied on players, supporters and officials from all walks of life to do this. From John Thomson to Henrik Larsson, from Bertie Peacock to Jock Stein, from Tommy Gemmell to Victor Wanyama; our players have come from every continent, every faith group, every ethnicity and have all played their heart out for Celtic. Some are born into Celtic while others grow to love Celtic and will keep the club in their hearts forever. All though should be treated with the respect we ourselves would expect. That’s the right way. That’s the Celtic way.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Long may it flourish

My old man once told me that he had tears in his eyes watching the bus carry Jock Stein and the Lisbon Lions as it eased its way up Kerrydale Street in that euphoric May of 1967. ‘It was like it was meant to be,’ he told me with a wistful smile. The fairy tale of a team founded to feed the hungry of Glasgow’s east end rising to become the first non-Latin side to be crowned Champions of Europe seems impossibly implausible but it happened. The world of football may have changed dramatically since those more equal times and it would now be unthinkable for a team like Celtic to repeat that feat today.

During that golden era, in which Stein’s side won 25 major honours in his 12 seasons at the helm, there were no open topped bus trips for the victorious team. Such was the ferocity of feeling Celtic aroused in some the Police would not have allowed such an event even had it been proposed. Things have changed today and the east end of Glasgow has undergone something of a transformation. There has been huge redevelopment which has, for the most part, swept aside the sub-standard housing which many inhabited. This though has come with a depopulation and de-industrialisation and knocked the heart out of long established communities which are only now starting to recover.

It was through this transformed east end which Celtic’s victorious double treble side travelled on their way to Celtic Park. They were welcomed by a delirious crowd who welcomed them home as warmly as any mother ever welcomed a returning son. I stood on the Celtic way watching the sea of smiles, the flags fluttering in the May sunshine and listening to the songs of victory fill the air. Those images are imprinted onto my memory forever as they will be for many others who were there. The Celtic bus was enveloped in a loving embrace by the people who follow this incredible club, who make it what it is today and that affection is just as strong as it was when Jock Stein brought the European Cup back in 1967. It has endured since Neil McCallum headed Celtic’s first ever goal at the first Celtic Park 130 years before. In the wake of that game the Scottish Umpire commented…

‘The Rev Brother Walfrid, who took a deep interest in the origin of the club has every reason to flatter himself as to the success of the Celtic. Long may it flourish in our midst.’

The good brother would have smiled to see how his team has indeed flourished and grown in ways the founding generation would be amazed by. In Victorian Glasgow Celtic gave pride and hope to a poor and marginalised community; gave them a chance to be winners for a change in an unequal world where many struggled just to put food on the table. He would also be happy to know that the fortunes of his people have been transformed as much as the east end streets around Celtic park and they now rightly take their place and play a role in every sector of Scottish society.

Celtic’s achievements since Brendan Rodgers’ arrival have been considerable. Records have tumbled and six successive domestic trophies have been garnered and added to Celtic’s roll of honour. There remains the glass ceiling of Europe to be smashed and while no one thinks Celtic can realistically compete with the elite clubs of Europe we can and should do better than we currently are. That being said, the expectations and hopes of Celtic supporters are simply that the club makes the group stages and gives them some of those great European nights under the lights to enjoy.

Fans of other Scottish clubs would no doubt argue that the gulf Celtic try to bridge against the mega rich clubs in the Champions League is comparable to the gulf they face in trying to stop Celtic domestically. There is a grain of truth in that but Scottish football is showing signs of being on the up again. Hibs are playing good football and on their day can match Celtic, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen will be pushing at the door again and the intriguing arrival of Steven Gerrard at Ibrox will be box office next season although it remains to be seen if the Ibrox club can finance his ambitions. 

Celtic though will not rest on their laurels, there will be players coming in and doubtless a few heading out. Patrick Roberts will be one going to further his career elsewhere but I’m sure he’ll take a head full of good memories with him. Rodgers knows the importance of the Champions League to a club like Celtic in footballing and financial terms. He will have plans in place already to try and enhance his squad and add the quality which will give Celtic a fighting chance of making it through to the group stages and another shot at the big boys.

All of that though is for the future and Celtic fans can now allow themselves a while to bask in the glory of another imperious season in Scottish football. They may not have powered through the season like a well-oiled machine as they did last term during their invincible campaign but they turned up for the big matches and broke their main opponents when it mattered. That 3-2 win at Ibrox when Celtic won the match despite playing for a long spell with ten men was one such game which effectively extinguished any hope their opponents had of mounting a serious challenge for the title. It also inflicted psychological damage which was obvious in the return match at Celtic Park when a Rangers bereft of belief were utterly vanquished and were in truth lucky to escape with just a 5-0 spanking as Celtic eased off in the final 30 minutes.

Yesterday’s celebration at Celtic Park was a worthy thank you to a group of players who have given Celtic fans such marvellous memories. As I watched the supporters dance and sing out their songs of victory, it was noticeable how many children were there. These are great days to grow up supporting Celtic and many of them will be getting the bug I got so long ago. It would be nice to have shared these moments with my old man who shed a tear in Kerrydale Street all those years ago but I’m sure he would have smiled yesterday and said, ‘It was meant to be.’

 It was Da, it was.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Star that Burns the Brightest

The Star that Burns the Brightest

Just a corner kick from Celtic Park
A flame haired boy would play
And in his heart was born a dream
To wear the hoops one day

He saw the people pass him by
On those gritty Calton streets
All on their way to Paradise
And his heart did skip a beat

Till the day his Da said, ‘Tommy!
It’s time for you to see
That famous Celtic Magic
My old man showed to me,’

So he watched McNeill and Johnstone
Bertie Auld and Murdoch too
How he yearned to pull those colours on
Show the crowd what he could do

The years slipped by so quickly
And that boy became a man
He lived his dream in Celtic’s green
As a player and a fan

He never forgot his Calton roots
As he stolled its gritty streets
Still shared a smile & talked a while
with the people he would meet

On the steps outside St Mary’s
I shook his hand one day
I smiled then as he told me of
The Glasgow Celtic way

Then one fine day I told my boys
‘It’s time for you to see
That famous Celtic Magic
My old man showed to me,’

And they sang of James McGrory
Of Larsson and McStay
And a Calton boy called Tommy Burns
Who played the Celtic way

He played his heart out in the green
And the fans sang out his name
The flame hair boy from Soho Street
Brought a beauty to the game

A supporter on the football field
A man who lived his dream
Such a joy to see our Tommy Burns
Grace our Celtic team

And the star that burns the brightest
Leaves a light that lingers yet
And though we had to say goodbye
We never will forget...

Saturday, 12 May 2018

A Piece of Paradise

A Piece of Paradise

Mikey Walsh took the stairs two at a time feeling an excitement in the pit of his stomach which ebbed a little as he reached the second floor and he remembered why he was here. A nurse smiled at him, regarding his Celtic shirt which he wore beneath his jacket, ‘Let’s hope we do it this week eh? No room for error now.’ Mikey grinned, ‘Today’s the day.’ She passed him with a smile, ‘I sure hope so, my old man’s nerves are frayed to breaking point.  Mikey pushed the door of Ward 3 and glanced at the duty desk on his left hand side which was deserted. He paused for a moment unsure if he could just wander in out of visiting time. Time was short today however so he headed up the central aisle towards his father’s bed.

His old man was sitting up in bed reading a newspaper; his glasses perched on the end of his nose. Mikey smiled, ‘Aw right da, that you reading the Daily Ranger again?’ His old man looked up, ‘Michael son! I never expected to see you today? Mikey sat on the chair by his father’s bed, ‘I thought I’d pop in on my way tae pick up Scott and Tony, big day today.’ His father nodded, ‘Celtic better get the job finished today. Last week at Dunfermline was heart attack material.’ The older man smiled remembering why he was in the Southern General in the first place before continuing, ‘I saw every one of the clinchers when Jock’s team did 9 in a row. Fir Park in 66 tae Falkirk in 74, It’d break my heart if that mob won ten. We’ve got to stop them.’ Mikey nodded, ‘They’ll no blow it this week, Jansen knows what it means tae the fans and the players know it’s last chance saloon.’ His old man removed his glasses and regarded him, ‘They’re under real pressure and pressure can bring out the best or make a team fold.’

They chatted, mostly about the championship decider later that day, for 15 minutes before a stern looking ward Sister approached the bed. ‘Mr Walsh visiting is 2 till 3, or 7 till 8 tonight. I must insist your visitor leaves now!’ Old Tommy Walsh regarded her with a shrug, ‘Aye Doll, he’ll be leaving in a minute, just discussing important family business.’ She pursed her lips and turned to go saying, ‘see that he does.’ Mikey watched her march up the Ward, ‘Old school that yin!’ His father grinned, ‘reminds me of yer maw, ye wouldn’t want tae go home tae her wi the wages opened!’ Old Tommy looked at his son, ‘you’d best be off, Michael. Are you all meeting up the Pub later?’ Mikey nodded, ‘aye Da, the whole clan will be there. Here’s hoping we’ve got something tae celebrate. It’ll be like a funeral if we don’t win.’ With that he smiled at his old man and stood to leave, ‘I’d best head, Da, I’ll be up tonight, hopefully bringing good news.’ His old man grinned, ‘Today’s the day, son, I can feel it in my bones.’

Mikey drove out of the hospital and headed towards Paisley Road to pick up his brother Scott and his pal Tony. He drove down Edmiston Drive and past Ibrox stadium which stood quiet and empty, glancing at the red brick façade. ‘Our time now chaps,’ he mumbled to himself hoping it was true.  Scott and Tony stood waiting at the corner by the Fiorentina Restaurant, their Celtic colours invisible behind zipped up jackets. Each carried a plastic bag containing their scarves. This neck of the woods was not the place to be flaunting the green especially on a day like today. They jumped into the car, ‘Aw right Mikey boy, get the tunes oan,’ Scott said with a smile, ‘today’s the day we stop the ten!’ Mikey grinned, ‘you been boozing already bro?’ and pushed the cassette tape into the player, instantly filling the car with the dulcet tones of Christy Moore….

‘Van Diemen’s land is a hell for a man 
to live out his whole life in slavery,
Where the climate is raw and the gun makes the law,
Neither wind nor rain care for bravery, Twenty years have gone by,
I’ve ended my bond, my comrades ghosts walk behind me,
A rebel I came and I’m still the same, on the cold winter’s nights
you will find me… oh I wish I was back home in Derry.’

The car headed east towards Celtic Park and their team’s date with destiny. From all over Scotland, Ireland and a hundred other places they were travelling too, in hope and expectation that their team could finally end ten barren years and win the title. As Tommy Burns had once said you didn’t just play for Celtic when you pulled on that shirt, you played for a people and a cause.

The atmosphere was raucous when the three Celts took their seats in the huge north stand but there was something else in the air too; it was a quietly nagging doubt, an unspoken dread that they’d blow it.  As the teams came out the noise levels were ear splitting, this was it, 90 minutes to be heroes forever of the forgotten men who lost the ten. The game began at a furious pace as St Johnstone dug in and made their intentions clear, they were here to do a professional job and had beaten Celtic in Perth a few months earlier. In just three minutes Henrik Larsson picked up the ball on the left and cut across the 18 yard line with defenders snapping at his heels. The sallow skinned Swede then unleashed a curling shot which sailed into the St Johnstone net. Celtic Park exploded, unleashing a torrent of noise and pent up emotion which flowed from the stands onto the pitch. Maybe they wouldn’t bottle it, maybe today would be their day…

Seven miles away in the Southern General Hospital, the duty Ward Sister was doing her rounds after the departure of the afternoon visitors. All was quiet and as she reached the bed of old Mr Walsh who lay with his eyes closed, the white ear phones of the hospital radio suggesting he was listening to some relaxing music. As she glanced at the board with his notes which hung at the foot of the bed he suddenly open his eyes and roared, ‘Yassss! Henrik ya fucking dancer!’ The startled nurse dropped the board in her fright before scowling at him, ‘Mr Walsh! That language will not be tolerated in this ward!’ He removed one of the earphones and grinned at her, ‘Sorry aboot that doll!’

Back at Celtic Park the 50,000 fans crowded into the three quarters complete stadium then endured 70 long minutes of stress and pressure as the team failed to deliver the killer blow. They knew Rangers were winning at Tannadice and that all it took to kill their dream would be a St Johnstone equaliser. The nervousness of the fans was affecting the players and when George O’Boyle almost got on the end of a cross for the visitors the tension increased. Then in 72 minutes Celtic broke up the left with the dependable Tom Boyd finding McNamara racing up the wing. His low cross was perfectly placed and zipped across the face of goal where the onrushing Harold Brattbakk met it and slammed the ball past Alan Main and into the net.

The goal was greeted like few others in Celtic history. Not only did it seal victory in the match, it ended ten barren years without the title and signalled that Celtic’s years in the wilderness were over. Mikey, eyes closed, hugged his brother in sheer delight as pandemonium erupted around them in the stands. The long wait was over, they had done it. Celtic were the Champions! In that moment of elation he thought of his old man in the hospital, no doubt tuning in on the radio. He was the man who introduced him to this magical football club, who took him to games all over Scotland and taught him the history and what it meant to be a Celt. He glanced around him at celebrating supporters who all shared that common bond, that love of Celtic, ‘that was for you da!’ he mumbled, ‘that was for you!’

Later that fine May day Mikey bounced up the stairs to his old man’s Ward. There was a night of celebrating ahead but first he would visit his old man and tell him of the day’s events. The old man was sitting up in bed and greeted him with a clenched fist salute and a huge smile. Mikey gave him a hug and produced a plastic bag from his jacket. ‘This is for you Da,’ he smiled. The old man looked mystified as he opened the bag and took out an emerald slither of earth and grass. ‘You couldn’t be at Paradise today so I brought a bit of it to you.’ The old man grinned, ‘You were on the park? Tell me about it son, I want tae know every detail.’

As they talked intently about the day’s events, their laughter echoing around the ward, the duty sister passed and glanced at the piece of turf sitting incongruously on the bedside cabinet. She rolled her eyes as old Tommy smiled at her, ‘A wee piece of Paradise, doll. I can cut you a bit if ye want?’ Her expression suggested it wasn’t an offer she’d take up.