Sunday, 29 March 2020

Football for good

Football for good

I had one of those conversations recently that occur every once in a while. I was talking to one of those self-righteous sort of guys and I happened to mention the effect the current health crisis is having on football. He went into a monologue about how it would be good for Scotland if football never resumed. ‘Every time Celtic plays Rangers’ he began, ‘there is a spike in domestic violence. It brings out the worst in people. It fosters bigotry and prejudice…. Blah blah blah.’  You get the picture; he was no fan of football. I told him of the great enjoyment playing or watching football brought to millions and that Scotland’s uneasy relationship with alcohol was a more likely cause of domestic violence than two football teams. 

You often get a certain middle-class snootiness about football from some people; the implication that it’s a sport for the uneducated plebs is never far away. It did get me thinking though about the slogan used by Celtic’s charity foundation, ‘football for good,’ and wondering if the game in Scotland is actually a positive force in our society.

The enforced shutdown of football we are enduring due to the Corona pandemic has demonstrated how much many people miss the game. It is a huge part of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Scots who go to games, watch on TV or spend hours discussing it on social media. Football has played a key role in the social lives of so many. Friendships flourished on the terraces and many a good night was had at football social clubs and supporters club dances up and down the country.

Football has burrowed deep in the psyche of so many ordinary Scots. The can tell you of great games, players and goals scored and who they were with at the time. Football gives so many a comradeship and sense of community that can be lacking in our modern, individualistic society. It can raise you to heights or drag you to the depths of despair. It is a metaphor for life itself with all its triumphs, disasters and occasional moments of astonishing drama. For those of us who understand and love the game, it is an ingrained part of our life. An heirloom handed on by fathers, grandfathers, mothers or some other equally besotted fan.

It may be hard to explain to people ignorant of the game the joy a Celtic fan takes at a last minute winner in a big game. Or a Hearts fan’s joy at beating their biggest rivals in a cup final or indeed a Hibs fan’s ecstasy when David Gray’s header exploded into the net on a sunny day in 2016 to end 114 years of waiting for a Scottish Cup win. Fans of all clubs will be able to tell you of such moments. How can those with no love for the game understand the artistry and balletic elegance of Lio Messi, Jimmy Johnstone or George Best? How can they comprehend the fairy story of a club born into an impoverished immigrant community rising not only to be the finest side in Europe but also do it playing football that was beautiful to behold?

The great Scottish sports writer Hugh McIlvanney once wrote or the magnificent Real Madrid side which won the European Cup at Hampden in 1960 in the following words…

“Fittingly, the great Glasgow stadium responded with the loudest and most sustained ovation it has given to non-Scottish athletes. The strange emotionalism that overcame the huge crowd as the triumphant Madrid team circled the field at the end, carrying the trophy they have held since its inception, showed they had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing sport played to its ultimate standards.”

That is how football, played to its highest expression can move the ordinary fan. McIlvanney, who once said that George Best had ‘feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket’s hands,’ was perhaps best at bringing his descriptive powers to bear on football, once said of Jimmy Johnstone…

‘Johnstone will not be remembered simply as a footballer of electrifying virtuosity, though he was certainly that, with a genius for surreally intricate dribbling so extraordinary it is impossible for me to believe any other player before or since quite matched his mastery of tormenting, hypnotic ball control at the closest of quarters. As I have acknowledged in the past, other wingers might fairly be rated more reliably devastating (Garrincha, George Best, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews are obvious candidates) but none of them besieged opponents with such a complex, concentrated swirl of deceptive manoeuvres or ever conveyed a more exhilarating sense of joy in working wonders with the ball.’

Days when the clubs treated fans like cattle and milked them for as much as they could without giving anything back to the community are long gone. Celtic has a long and illustrious record of supporting charitable causes. From its very inception it has been much more than a football club and heavily involved in its community. Indeed Celtic is part of that wider community and from the penny dinner tables of 1888 to the work of the Celtic Charity Foundation the club has never forgotten its roots. The Foundation Celtic has raised almost £20m for the causes it holds dear. Their focus (HELP) is to work to improve Health, Equity, Learning & Poverty issues for some of our most needy folk. The Foundation has a dedicated Learning Centre in Celtic Park and has worked with 29 Secondary and over 100 Primary schools and it raises funds from ordinary fans via the annual badge day and a whole host of activities people engage in to fund the Foundations work.

Celtic isn’t the only football club to engage in such activities as many clubs, large and small are heavily involved in helping their local community. Stenhousemuir FC may be struggling to survive these difficult times but their Community Help Initiative has seen 80 volunteers helping vulnerable people in the community with everything from shopping to dog walking. The Chairman mans the phones with others and helps direct help to the elderly, infirm and others in need. That is what a football club should be like; supporting the community which in turn supports the club. The bigger clubs may be capable of helping out at a greater level than clubs like Stenhousemuir but it doesn’t detract from the admirable things they are doing. As Karl Marx once said; ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’

Make no mistake about it, some of our smaller clubs will struggle to survive the current crises but still they give to others, still they reach out to those in need. I hope our footballing community remembers them when this is all over.

So in answer to my ignorant acquaintance who thought Scottish football should just stay closed when the Corona pandemic is over I say; you don’t know what you’re talking about. Football plays an important social, sporting, cultural and altruistic role in Scottish society. Yes it has some idiots hanging onto its coat-tails for their own warped agendas but for the vast majority it is game they love for its excitement, its drama, its moments of artistry and its sense of community. What else can make a normally composed Scot scream at the top of their lungs or hug a complete stranger? What else can have us debating great games, goals or players decades after the event?  Only the game we love gets us that way and it’s woven into our hearts forever.

For those who understand that no explanation is needed. For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers

There is a school of thought that suggests you get more emotional as you get older. I don’t know if that holds true for everyone but as I sat this week watching the wonderful documentary ‘Glasgow 1967: the Lisbon Lions’ I could feel my eyes moisten. The stories of players and fans who embarked upon that incredible journey have been told so often but still hold power enough to move anyone who holds Celtic dear.

Billy McNeill once said, ‘there is a fairy tale aspect about this club’ and those words never rang as true as they did on that sunlit evening in Lisbon all those years ago. Eleven pale, Scottish lads took on the sophisticates of European football and taught them a lesson which still echoes down the years. Young men who had grown up playing football in the streets and back courts of tenement blocks produced a display of scintillating attacking football that delighted not just Celtic supporters but also fans across Europe who saw in their play the death knell of the joyless, defensive ‘catenaccio’ system which had been strangling football.

Sometimes the stars align and incredible things can happen. For Celtic, a team born into an impoverished immigrant community Lisbon 1967 was an unlikely dream. The team may have had astonishing success in its first 50 years but the years after World War 2 saw their huge support frustrated and on occasion rebellious. Yes, there was the occasional bright light like the Double season of 1953-54, the Coronation cup win and of course the 7-1 victory against their local rivals in the 1957 league cup final but there was no consistency, no belief that they could dominate for a sustained period of time. Indeed that title win in 1954 was their only success in the league in a twenty year period after the war. Rangers (10), Hibs (3), Hearts (2) Aberdeen, Dundee, Kilmarnock all took titles as Celtic laboured under a Board which seemed happy with mediocrity at times.

There were talented players on the books and the nucleus of a good team was starting to emerge but consider Jimmy Johnstone’s debut for Celtic at Rugby Park in 1963. Celtic started reasonably well but after losing an early goal crumbled and lost 6-0. That same season Celtic lost 4-0 at Ibrox after a insipid and na├»ve performance. One newspaper report said of the game…

‘I have no wish to detract from the merit of Rangers performance when I say that this was one of the worst Celtic elevens for many a day. Certainly they had none of the luck of the game but lack of ability far more than lack of fortune caused a deservedly heavy defeat.’

That team with its ‘lack of ability’ contained four players who would help Celtic to European and domestic greatness just a few short years later so what was causing this frustrating inconsistency? Manager McGrory was a gentleman in every sense of the word and seldom involved himself in training or working with the players. Good players like Pat Crerand were allowed to leave and the club didn’t seem to have the ambition or vision to turn their fortunes around.

By the mid-sixties the legendary Jimmy McGrory was nearing the end of a lifetime’s service to Celtic and the support knew the obvious choice to replace him. Jock Stein had worked wonders at Dunfermline, even defeating Celtic in the 1961 cup final. By 1964 he was at Hibernian and took a team which was almost relegated the previous season to a high standing in the league. He even invited Real Madrid to come to play at Easter Road and beat them 2-0. Bob Kelly, Celtic’s autocratic Chairman hesitated when it came to bringing in Stein. He thought Sean Fallon could utilise Stein as his assistant but Jock was having none of that. Kelly next offered Stein a joint-Manager post with Fallon but Jock held out for the manager’s job with full control of the playing side of the club. When Wolves showed an interest in Stein, Kelly relented and appointed him Manager of Celtic in March 1965. His last act as Hibernian manager was to knock Rangers out of the Scottish cup in March 1965.

Much has been written about Kelly’s reluctance to appoint Stein as Manager when it was obvious that he was the most talented coach in Scottish football. He knew the game and he knew Celtic having played there and coached the young players. The club had only had three mangers in its 75 years; Maley, McStay and McGrory. All were former players and all were Catholics. Jock was of course not a Catholic and that fact, petty minded as it seems, may have influenced Kelly towards Sean Fallon. Whatever his thought processes he made the right decision in the end by appointing Stein and could not have foreseen the wonderful journey the former miner would lead Celtic on.
The supporters were delighted that at last they had a man with the know how to mould these talented youngsters into a real team. He also had the strength of character to kick the butt of players who were coasting or resting on their laurels. Here was the new type of manager, a man who would be on the training ground drilling players, schooling them in tactics and motivating them to give their all. Their spirits were raised and they refused to accept defeat in games were it looked like things were going against them. The 1965 Cup Final against Dunfermline saw them twice come from behind to win the cup in memorable style.

The first big test of Stein’s first full season in charge was the League Cup Final against Rangers in October 1965. Rangers had already beaten Celtic that season and were favourites but in a bruising encounter Celtic showed enough to win the game 2-1. This was a markedly different Celtic side. Gone was the naivety of previous years when Kelly insisted on gentlemanly conduct and respect for opponents. Celtic knew Rangers would be physical and gave them it back with interest. It wasn’t a pretty game of football but if that’s how opponents wanted to play it then Celtic would no longer be pushovers.

Celtic swept all before them in the league in 1965-66 season and were crowned Champions for the first time since 1954. That league win was marked with a playing style which was quintessential Celtic. They simply tore into teams with attacking flair that had their fans loving it. They scored 106 league goals that season as Stein organised his young team into one of the most potent sides in Europe. As they smashed Rangers 5-1 in January 1966 some fans must have been wondering was this the same Celtic who had lost 6-0 at Kilmarnock just three short years before?

That title win gave Celtic their first crack at the European cup and in another wonderful season they swept all before them and set up their date with desiny under the Portuguese sun.

Watching that documentary on the Lisbon Lions brought back so many wonderful memories for Celtic fans. They were a wonderful team but a real band of brothers too. It was moving to hear the marvellous Bobby Lennox say as he looked wistfully over the sea in his native Ayrshire, ‘I loved them, they were my brothers.’ Then the normally ebullient Bertie Auld, face lined by more than 80 winters, looking momentarily sad saying to the camera, ‘I miss them.’  

We all do Bertie, we all do.

The honour that great side brought to Celtic shall never fade. Time wearies us all but that day beneath the Lisbon sun still shines brightly. It always will.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Extraordinary Times

Corona Virus 19 looks set to scupper what remains of the football season of 2019-20 season across Europe.  National leagues everywhere have been halted at a crucial and deciding phase and UEFA’s flagship Champions League has been suspended indefinitely. All of this has led to great confusion about what happens not only to this year’s competitions but also next season’s. It is to be hoped that UEFA offer some firm leadership and guidelines as to what is to happen in each country playing under its auspices. If it is left to national associations to find and apply national solutions it could at best be messy and at worst acrimonious.

Celtic FC is currently 13 points clear in the SPFL with just 8 games remaining and denying them the title would seem harsh indeed as it would have taken a major collapse in the remaining games to see them lose the title. However others quite rightly point out that Hearts, Hamilton, Ross County and even St Mirren could all still be relegated and to simply say to Hearts ‘sorry, you’re going down,’ is equally unfair. So what is to be done?

If, as scientists are predicting, Covid 19 doesn’t peak until the summer in the UK, then the chances of any football taking place remain very low. A vaccine is said to be a year away so we can’t look for medical science to solve this conundrum any time soon. Thus we should be thinking very carefully about solutions which will not only solve this season’s issues but also steady the ship for what needs to happen for next season. We live amid great uncertainty at the moment and if there is to be no football played again this season then we need to look to start season 2020-21 and base our solutions around restarting our game in the autumn. In Scotland, issues of who will be champions/promoted and who will be relegated from the country’s four divisions remain the main problems to be solved. There is an ancillary problem of how certain clubs survive without the match day income they rely on so much but from a footballing perspective we need to know who will finish where in the Scottish leagues.

One possible solution would be to declare the leagues as finishing in their current positions and go from there. In three of our four divisions there is a runaway leader who is almost certain to emerge as champions. (Celtic 13 points lead in SPFL, Dundee United 14 points clear in Championship and Cove Rangers 13 points clear in League 2) Only in League one is there a tight struggle with just two points between Raith Rovers and Falkirk. If we declare the current leaders of the four leagues as Champions then it would at least have some sporting integrity.

As far as relegation goes, we don’t relegate anyone but promote two teams into each league. Thus the SPFL would rise to 14 teams with Dundee United and Inverness joining the top league. This would mean clubs could play each other twice leading to a truncated 26 game campaign next season which would be a one off but would at least allow fixtures to be fitted into a reduced time-frame in 2020-21.  Of course the knock on effect of no relegation means two clubs from the non-league set up would join the league. This could be for a year or two until the extreme circumstances pass and reconstruction can take place again and we can get back to the status quo.

As far as the Scottish cup goes, there are only three games left to be played and it wouldn’t be impossible to play these games next season, even as a curtain raiser to the new campaign. We are in unchartered waters and the suggestions above as far from perfect. We can’t engineer a situation where everyone is happy but we do have to do our best for the majority.

We await firm directives from FIFA and UEFA and there will no doubt be implications not only for domestic leagues but for Euro 2020 which may well become Euro 2021. It would help UEFA if domestic leagues were decided one way or another in order to decide who goes into the European competitions for season 2020-21. It would be ideal if we managed to finish this season but if not then the ideas above will just be one voice among many offering solutions. There is no ideal solution and we will have to accept that things won’t return to normal in a manner which suits all clubs or fans.

These are extraordinary times and they demand extraordinary solutions. Hopefully we have the vision and leadership needed to come through this period successfully. Whatever happens we should face it with magnanimity and humility. People are dying in this pandemic and football should bow its head and recognise that it isn’t so important against that background.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

The bevy, the rebs and the laughs

The bevy, the rebs and the laughs

Watching the Celtic support fill 70% of Livingston’s neat little Almondvale stadium got me thinking about times before all seated stadia were the norm and the capacity of most stadia was higher than it is today. Celtic had a huge travelling support in those times and would often take 15,000 fans to places like Kilmarnock or Motherwell. Half of Ibrox would be filled by the Celtic support in those times and league deciding matches at places like Easter Road would see a huge invasion of Celtic fans. Of the 48,000 who saw Celtic win the league there in 1973 to make it 8 in a row, it is no exaggeration to say that at least 35,000 of them were Celtic fans.

Away days were always a more exciting prospect when you were a younger fan; the excitement of meeting up with your mates, jumping on one of those decrepit ‘football special’ trains or a supporters’ bus and heading off to adventures in some distant town or city. Of course alcohol played a big part in it for many as did the songs which would echo through the train stations of Scotland as the supporters arrived. There was comradeship too and you often saw the same people on the train every other week. As a young fan I loved those times. Win, lose or draw you backed your team, stood with your fellow supporters, often on open terraces in all weathers, and sang your heart out.

Travelling further afield to see Celtic play in Europe was another adventure which was not to be missed. You could guarantee a good laugh and a few high jinks abroad. Celts would look out for each other too and many a hotel room booked for two would have a dozen or more sleeping in it. I recall a fan having his wallet stolen and facing two days in a European city with no money. A quick whip round in a pub put him back in the game and he was delighted that a group of strangers would do that for him. Except they weren’t strangers, they were all Celts like him.

Things have changed in the modern era as ground capacities reduced and the allocation of tickets to away supporters has shrunk. Some grounds have thousands of empty seats as fans who would like to be there watch the game in pubs and at home. St Johnstone and Livingston are among the few with the sense to let the away support fill their empty stands. It looks better on TV, it brings in more revenue and more people watch the game in person. Clubs such as Kilmarnock would rather have a half empty stadium than see the sense in this approach. Indeed when they did use their imagination and let Celtic supporters fill the place for a league clinching game in 2012, the place was rocking and looked more like football stadium should.

These days though, there are many thousands of supporters who have got out of the habit of going to football although they are still fans. Satellite tv, free streams on the internet and of course the seemingly ubiquitous firesticks and digi-boxes can allow you to see any football game live as its being televised around the world. For the hard core though there is nothing like going to the match in person. I spoke to a young Celt recently who said he actually preferred going to away games more than home games. I asked him why and he said with commendable honesty, ‘The bevy, the Rebs and the laughs.’ The idea that away days are more fun, more exciting remains as strong now as it was when I was a youngster following Celtic. It is probably true that the atmosphere at away games is often more raucous than it is a Celtic Park.

Scottish football is more sanitised and some would argue more civilised than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The riot at Hampden in 1980 changed the game for the better as drunkenness was no longer going to be tolerated in stadia. It can still be raw and passionate but banning alcohol from the stadium and all-seater venues has in honesty made it more ‘family friendly’ than it once was. We see far more women at games than was the case in the past and that has to be a positive.

As far as alcohol on supporters’ buses goes, we often see policing of a sort which suggests they’re after a Columbian drug cartel and not a few lads having a drink before the game. It is a little amusing to see the police post photos of bottles of Buckfast lined up by a roadside, on social media as if they’ve just brought down Pablo Escobar.

Despite all of this there are those who love the excitement of away days, even if it means a 7am start to make it to Aberdeen for a lunchtime kick off. That hasn’t changed in all my years watching Celtic. The more youthful fans sometimes get a bad press for the non PC songs, the odd celebration on the pitch after a late winner and the sheer enthusiasm they put in to backing their team.

Maybe we should chill a bit and try and remember that once upon a time that was us.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Be careful what you wish for

There are many ways of exiting European football in a given season and I’ve seen Celtic leave the stage in many of them. There were heroic failures such as losing a penalty shoot out to Inter Milan or giving their all in Seville. There are displays which leave you shaking your head and realising that a once great European side has declined dramatically. We saw that in the 1990s when a moderate side such as Neuchatel Xamax hammered a poor Celtic side 5-1. There are those games filled with injustice which leave you angry such as the assorted thugs and conmen of Atletico Madrid or Rapid Vienna who cheated their way through the tie as UEFA looked the other way. Then there are those ties you lose against sides which you know you are superior to but allow costly errors to kill your hopes.

We had high hopes in Europe this season. Not that we thought for a moment that we’d win the Europa League but we did expect perhaps to get through at least one more round and perhaps take on one of the big boys. After the heroics in Rome where we beat a very decent Lazio side, losing in the manner Celtic did to Copenhagen was a bitter pill to swallow. To see Jozo Simunovic, a player of considerable experience, fluff his lines in the manner Efe Ambrose did against Juventus a few years back reminded us yet again how fatal these errors are in a Europe. There are few easy teams in Europe these days and if you make elementary blunders then you will be punished. It had to end at some point but I’d far rather if my team was undone by a piece of brilliance by the opposition than by the free gifts Celtic handed out on Thursday.

Much discussion among Celts focused on this as another wasted opportunity. We lost to Copenhagen but it was a self inflicted defeat brought about by poor performances and individual errors. Certain players weren’t 100% fit and others looked uncomfortable in the roles they were asked to take on. In the wake of a defeat there is always a lot of soul searching about what could have been done differently. Of course the tactical geniuses out there all seemed to be busy driving taxis, cutting hair or laying out their formations on Twitter but It all comes down to players in the end; tactics help as do formations but if players make basic errors or don’t turn up on the night then all the planning in the world will be undone. 

One bright note though is that this defeat stung a little because it was unexpected. This wasn’t the 90s when you showed up in hope rather than expectation on European nights. This was a Celtic team who strolled a group containing Lazio, Cluj and Rennes. Indeed the high flying Serie A side were beaten home and away on nights we all enjoyed thoroughly. The fact we have higher expectations for the team in Europe than was the case is a positive and leads to the sort of anguish we saw on a Thursday when it went wrong. We notice the defending errors which lead to goals more than the chancers strikers pass up so naturally the defence was dragged over the coals but it’s a team game. We win as a team, we lose as a team, we look to improve as a team and we never stop giving our all. 

Of course there were those who scoffed at Celtic’s misfortune in Europe but sometimes they need to be careful what the wish for as this now frees up Celtic to focus totally on the SPFL which they will do with steely determination. The prospect on nine in a row is tantalisingly close and in a country where history and bragging rights are all that will hurt them despite their empty talk of it not counting as they weren’t in the league for some of the titles. How ironic it is that since they joined the league in 2016 with bold claims of ‘coming for you’ and ‘going for 55’ that Celtic have won every single trophy competed for and handed out some chastening footballing lessons along the way. 

For Celtic the path ahead is clear; focus on each remaining game this season as if it were a cup final and deliver the title. The cup would be a bonus too but the title is the priority as it has been since we kicked off last August. If that can be assured we should pull out all the stops to get key players such as Edouard to stay for at least one more season. They should of course also look to add one or two quality players to the squad too for what will be an enormous season next year. 

The hand of history is on our shoulders and those running Celtic should do everything they possibly can to see that we reach our fabled goal. We have never been in a better position to deliver what our support craves so much 

Yes, Thursday hurt that’s only natural but we see the big picture and we know the glittering prizes which are still within our grasp. Our European exit will be a distant memory if we see the league flag flying once more over Paradise.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Allez Les Verts

When I was a schoolboy, I made my way to Hampden Park with a couple of pals to watch Bayern Munich scrape past a very talented St Etienne team to win the European cup.There was no doubt that we were backing the a French side and it was not just because they wore green:they had also dumped Rangers out of Europe that season too. There seemed to be a lot of Celtic fans at that game, many sporting their club scarves as they backed the French side. ‘Allez les verts’ was the chant of the evening as we watched a very unlucky French side lose to the typically efficient Germans. As kids it was natural to back the team who had bested your greatest rivals and in those days the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers was every bit as fierce as it is today.

There was a good feeling around Glasgow this week after both the city’s major clubs got decent results in the Europa League. Celtic have progressed in their play and results so much that a 1-1 draw in Copenhagen was considered disappointing by some. In that first half Celtic could easily have scored two or three more goals and put the tie beyond the home site.  meanwhile in Glasgow, Rangers came from two goals behind to beat a very talented Braga team. It remains to be seen how both  teams get on in the second leg but I fancy Celtic to progress In front of their own fans in a weeks time. Rangers are in with a fighting chance when they go to Portugal but I saw enough of the Portuguese team to suggest that the Ibrox club will have a real job on their hands to qualify.

There was some debate among supporters of both clubs about whether they were happier if their greatest rivals lost or whether it was more important that the Scottish coefficient continues to rise thus making it possible for a second Scottish club to compete in the Champions League qualifiers in the next couple of years. For some, the idea of wishing their greatest rivals well in Europe is anathema. Regardless of what it does to the Scottish game’s coefficient some fans will never wish their rivals anything other than defeat. One online debate which I suspect may be typical of a good number of supporters of both clubs contained the following comments...

The coefficient mob never stop do they? I want Rangers to be buried again and humiliated at every turn.’

‘I want them pumped every time they step onto the field.’

‘Europa League or Ramsdens cup, I want them beat.’

A few clarion voices argued that a better coefficient for Scotland would mean fewer qualifying rounds for Celtic and up to 4 more weeks of rest before the games begin. You can be sure the board would make up for revenue lost from these early rounds by organising glamour friendliest or taking part in summer tournaments.  Scotland has climbed the coefficient table to reach 14th spot which is a reasonable performance given that in 2013 they were 23rd. They now sit a fraction behind Denmark and should Celtic eliminate Copenhagen next week will rise to 13th place meaning that in the season after next the champions of Scotland will go directly into the last qualifying game for the Champions league and avoid three potentially tricky earlier rounds. 

Of course after years of the hoops carrying the can alone in Europe, we now see both Celtic and Rangers garnering the coefficient points this season as Aberdeen and Kilmarnock once more posted disappointing results. Killie especially had a calamity losing to Welsh part timers after winning the away leg. Scottish football won’t be taken seriously if results like that continue but overall there is a sense that the game here is on the rise again after some desperate years in the wilderness. It does rely on its bigger clubs to try and restore the battered European reputation of the SPFL but that’s the case in most small countries. 

There is a school of thought that with the historic league winning run Celtic are on some hoops fans would put Europe second as the mythical ‘Ten’ comes tantalisingly closer. Some want Rangers to stay in Europe in order to stretch their squad and divide their focus as this season’s title race nears its climax. Celtic has a bigger squad and could most likely deal with any injuries and suspensions more easily. For others the dislike is so strong that they want the Ibrox club to lose in every game they play regardless of the competition. It’s a complex picture in the tribal world of Scottish football and opinions will vary. 

There is no doubt that Rangers appalling performances in the domestic game since the new club rose to join the SPFL couldn’t continue forever given the budget they have at their disposal. They may not be world beaters but they are an improved team under Gerrard and this has pushed Celtic to remarkable levels of consistency. Competition drives up standards and that has always been the case and is not to be feared. Is it just possible that Celtic’s improved displays in Europe this season are linked to being pushed harder domestically than was the case in recent times? 

Celtic has a good squad and a robust, healthy club to back it up when necessary. The rise of Scotland in the UEFA coefficient table may make qualification for the a Champions League a little less stressful but of course it also means that Rangers too will get a crack at that tournament in a couple of years. The financial rewards of qualification are huge for Scottish clubs and this can surely only be good for the game here? 

Domestically Celtic still look dominant and their young team is maturing well. The cream will always rise to the top and at the moment that cream is coloured green and white. Long may that continue.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Guns for hire

There was a time when the average football fan got all his news about his club from daily newspapers and some would even hang around the newsagents on a Saturday night to buy a ‘pink’ Times and read all about the game they had watched that afternoon. We generally believe the stories we read and had a fair degree of trust in the reporters to call things fairly. Looking back there were reporters who showed a little bias and others who bravely took on the tough questions of the day. Ian Archer was one I admired as he had the courage to call out Rangers on their sectarian signing policy while most of his colleagues kept their heads down and ignored the elephant in the room. He famously said in the Herald in 1976...

This has to be said about Rangers, as a Scottish Football club they are a permanent embarrassment and an occasional disgrace. This country would be a better place if Rangers did not exist.’

Such reporting was rare then as journalists tended to stick to writing about the football and often ignored the wider societal context. 

The rise of the internet and the proliferation of football related websites has coincided with the decline in readership of the traditional printed media. For instance Scotland’s most popular tabloid, The Daily Record, has seen sales slump from around 450,000 copies per day in 2004 to around 100,000 today. This is reflected in the sales of other papers as technology offers readers much more choice.

A much more savvy reading public means that most of us no longer rely solely on the printed press to inform us of the goings on in Scottish football. The internet may have many flaws but it has led to a more democratic scrutiny of stories; no sooner is a story reported in the media than it is dissected by a variety of individuals and websites to check its accuracy. Some of these sites are woefully biased in their approach but others demonstrate some intelligence and will rip a story apart if it is full of holes. This was most noticeable recently when Alfredo Morelos’ now infamous interview with Sky TV raised the hackles of some online who noticed immediately that the subtitles were not entirely accurate. You don’t need a degree in Spanish to notice Morelos didn’t use the word ‘Celtic’ in a sentence which supposedly said ‘Celtic’ fans racially abused him. Once the alarm bells were ringing, folk who actually did speak Spanish got involved and Sky were made to look very foolish indeed. Of course anyone can make a mistake but a broadcaster the size of Sky should surely be able to afford a translator to check the accuracy of subtitles and it seems negligent that they didn’t.

All of this came on top of the ongoing and growing distrust of the sporting media by many in Scotland and has made for sorry state of affairs. There was a time when we were blessed by some fine writers who wrote about Scottish football with eloquence and authority. Those of us who recall greats like Hugh McIlvanney could be treated to writing which was almost poetic in its form and trustworthy in its content. Consider this excerpt from his report on Celtic’s triumph in Lisbon in 1967...

Gemmell has the same aggressive pride, the same contempt for any thought of defeat, that emanates from Auld. Before the game Auld cut short a discussion about the possible ill-effects of the heat and the firm ground with a blunt declaration that they would lick the Italians in any conditions. When he had been rescued from the delirious crowd and was walking back to the dressing rooms after Celtic had overcome all the bad breaks to vindicate his confidence Auld – naked to the waist except for an Inter shirt knotted round his neck like a scarf – suddenly stopped in his tracks and shouted to Ronnie Simpson, who was walking ahead: ‘Hey, Ronnie Simpson, what are we? What are we, son?" He stood there sweating, showing his white teeth between parched lips flecked with saliva. Then he answered his own question with a belligerent roar. "We're the greatest. That's what we are. The greatest." Simpson came running back and they embraced for a full minute.’

I don’t expect writing of that quality from the bulk of today’s Journalists, McIlvanney was after all the leading sports writer of his generation, but I do expect integrity and a standard of journalism that goes beyond regurgitating press releases and facilitating planted stories from clubs or other vested interests. They did this in return for access to players, stories and other crumbs off the table of the likes of David Murray. The so called ‘succulent lamb’ style of reporting that some of our journalists engaged in was in effect a negation of the core principles of their occupation. They can’t all be Woodward and Bernstein but Journalism is surely about seeking out facts and expressing an honestly held opinion about them untainted by fear or favour? Alas some were fed stories on the understanding that they weren’t too critical of certain individuals and a certain club. Thus the puff pieces about hover pitches, Superstars arriving, £800m deals and a Vegas like Casino in Govan found their way onto our national newspapers. It appeared that some thought ‘ethics’ was a county in south east England.

A lack of serious scrutiny of Rangers finances in the early years of the new century meant that when the collapse came few were prepared for it. A few voices in the wilderness warned them that a Scottish club carrying over £80m of debt was unsustainable but the majority accepted Sir David Murray’s assurances that all was well. After all he was a financial whiz kid wasn’t he?  I recall one Journalist saying at the time that matters of high finance were ‘above my pay grade.’ Was it too much to seek out someone who did know about such things and actually inform the public about what was going on? Isn’t that what good journalists do?  The financial crash of 2008 was enough of a financial earthquake to rock the foundations and in the end bring the big house crashing down. 

By 2012 the ship had sunk and the metaphorical lifeboats had carried off the guilty and their loot leaving the 276 creditors to the sharks. They, above all, were the victims in all of this. Individuals, small businesses, the Ambulance service, the tax authorities and many others were left out of pocket as those who had sought to enrich themselves walked away. As the media initially lamented the staggering fact that Rangers had been liquidated and had gone out of business there was a brief period of huge uncertainty. Would a Phoenix club arise as had happened with Airdrie and Parma?  What would it be like and which division would it play in? Alas the new club when it was brought to birth was guided by men who ignored the historical opportunity to start afresh free from the baggage of bigotry which weighed down the old club. They pandered to the old shibboleths and began the mythology that Rangers had somehow survived liquidation. Charles Green actually used the term ‘no surrender’ in a press interview and fed the myth that other clubs and their fans had ‘kicked Rangers when they were down.’ This led to a festering resentment among some Rangers fans as they followed the new club through the lower leagues. We then saw some pathetic revisionism in the press which not only defied logic and history but also credulity. 

The role of the media in this shambles was an important one. Roy Greenslade writing in 2013 got it right when he said...

One single, simple fact emerges from all this - Rangers football club got into trouble a long time ago and the mainstream media, whether by commission or omission, failed to do its job. Rather than hold the people in charge to account, it acted as a spin-doctor.’

A prime example of this was Jim Traynor’s about turn in the period of Rangers demise. Writing in the Daily Record in the summer of 2012 he said...

They’ll slip into liquidation within the next couple of weeks with a new company emerging but 140 years of history, triumph and tears, will have ended. No matter how Charles Green attempts to dress it up, a newco equals a new club. When the CVA was thrown out Rangers as we know them died.  They were closed and a newco must start from scratch.’
                                                           Jim Traynor, Daily Record 13th June 2012

Within a year he was employed by Rangers as their head of Public Relations and was writing that Rangers weren’t a new club and anyone who said they were must be mentally challenged or motivated by ‘sinister’ feelings. These about turns remind us that some so called Journalists are simply guns for hire, who will write whatever their paymasters desire. Traynor also demonstrated a propensity for censorship when he interrupted a press conference by Mark Warburton when a reporter asked about the position of Joey Barton. As a clearly embarrassed Warburton looked on Traynor bullied reporters into dropping that line of questioning-when they should should have got up en masse and walked out rather than be told what questions they can ask. In trying to control the message in this way Traynor demonstrates that he wants control over what the fans are fed. The Warburton press conference and the rewriting of history over the demise of Rangers shows contempt for ordinary football fans who are intelligent enough to discern propaganda when they see it. 

His most recent statement on behalf of Rangers was an almost gleeful message about a 12 year old boy who has been spoken to by Police about alleged racist abuse of Alfredo Morelos. The whole message is so inappropriate given that it is an official club statement. Traynor’s fingerprints were spotted on the rambling diatribe by reporters who know his style. Graham Spiers commented acerbically...

How desperate must Jim Traynor be to produce this wafting resentment? On the fate of a 12 year old boy? And, believe me, it is Jim, from the tortured syntax and sheer ineptitude with punctuation.’

It remains sad that our sporting press has reached the point where they are just another voice amid the myriad swirling around our technological society. Once they spoke with some authority on our national game but now for many they have all the authority of a pub loudmouth spouting about his team. There are some honourable exceptions of course but once fans start doubting what you say it is difficult to convince them to take you at your word on important issues.

The decline in sales and influence of our printed press seems assured and while technological changes have played a role in this, the quality of some of the journalism has only hastened it. 

Journalism remains a noble profession when it is done with integrity and honesty, sadly if often bears more resemblance to the profession some call the world’s oldest.