Friday, 11 January 2019

Take root and flourish

Take root and flourish

The winter of 1846 had been cold and wet on the west coast of Ireland. All over the land there was an increasing sense of dread and foreboding as the great hunger dragged on. The actions of landlords would often be the deciding factor on who lived and who died in those bleak times. In County Mayo many of the destitute who had any energy left were put onto public work programmes which made already weakened people complete hard physical work for a pittance in pay. Men were paid 8-10 old pence per day and women 6 pence which in modern terms is roughly £5. Poor as it was this money was all that stood between those on the public works programmes and starvation. For some though even this wasn’t enough. One local newspaper of the time reported a sadly typical event in that era…

‘The deceased was employed at the public works and on Saturday went to the hill of Gurteens to meet the pay Clerk, where in company of other labourers, he remained until night but the Clerk did not appear. Others went off but he remained having got quite weak. He requested a girl who was passing to tell his wife to come meet him and upon the wife’s arrival at the place she found him dead. A verdict of ‘death by starvation’ was returned.’  (Tyrawly Herald 1847)

As An Gorta Mor gripped the land, County Mayo was to see a 29% drop in population. Over the period 1841-1851, the population fell from 388,887 to 274,499. Into this catastrophe was born a child to Martin and Catherine Davitt and they named him Michael. By the time Michael was 4 years old the family would face eviction from their home and be forced to choose between starvation and the harsh conditions and humiliation of the poor house. Upon arrival at the poor house Catherin Davitt was appalled to find parents were routinely separated from any male children over three. As a mother of five children she wanted to be with them all and she and her husband decided to try their luck in England where it was said work was to be found in the burgeoning cities of the industrial north. The family arrived in Liverpool with little more than the clothes they wore. Upon arrival they were told that there was work in Haslingden in Lancashire and the family set out to walk the 48 miles from Liverpool to the town.

They settled in among the sizable Irish community in the east Lancashire town and young Michael had some basic education before he, like many children of that era, joined the workforce at the age of nine. He was trained to operate a spinning machine in a cotton mill and worked long hours in the heat and noise of the factory floor. The work was tiring and dangerous and any lapse in concentration could be costly. In May 1857 young Michael was involved in an accident which saw his arm dragged into a cogwheel and mangled so badly that it had to be amputated. He was just 11 years old at the time and we can only imagine the trauma involved in this accident which was sadly not uncommon in an era where health and safety was a low priority for employers.

A local benefactor took pity on him and gave him a chance to extend his education and give the boy with one arm a better chance in life. He became a voracious reader and joined night school classes which saw him exposed to the ideas of Chartists and other political radicals. As a boy growing up in an Irish community in England, he would also have been exposed to the culture and history of his homeland. As a young man he organised groups of men to defend Catholic churches from attacks by more extreme Protestants in the area but he realised that workers of all faiths were being treated despicably and that such sectarianism was a consequence of old ‘divide and rule’ tactics.

In 1865 Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation with a strong support among much of the Irish community in England. The IRB was dedicated to ending British rule in Ireland using physical force if necessary. Being relatively well educated he rose through the ranks of the organisation and was soon organising Secretary for England and Scotland. He also played an active part in arms smuggling and even took part on raids designed to secure weapons for a rising in Ireland. It was this part of his activities which saw him imprisoned for 15 years in 1870. The IRB like most Irish radical organisations had their share of spies and informers and it was likely prison or worse would be the outcome of Michael’s involvement with them. He endured 7 gruelling years of hard labour, brutal treatment and solitary confinement in prison before his release and he and other Irish prisoners were returned to Ireland where they received a heroes’ welcome from many.

 Davitt’s experiences in prison had merely deepened his belief that he should fight for the rights and well-being of the common man. Like many Irishmen of his day he saw how ‘Landlordism’ had stripped Ireland of its wealth and impoverished much of the population. The principles of the Land League which he joined at the outset were to return ownership of land to the Tenant farmers and take away the fear of eviction which hung over them like the sword of Damocles. Landlords, often from the comfort of England, could make decisions which affected the lives of poor farmers on their Irish estates. That fundamental injustice was one of the things the Land League sought to change with its "Three Fs" (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale) Davitt was also outspoken on the rights of persecuted Jews in Russia, the Boers of South Africa and the working classes of Britain and Ireland who for the most part lived and worked in poor conditions. He fought for the dispossessed Highlanders of Scotland during the so called 'Crofter wars' with as much tenacity as he fought for the poor tenant farmers in his own land and toured the Highlands organising and speaking at meetings.

Against this backdrop, it was ironic then that the Landlord of Celtic FC decided in 1892 to increase the annual rent on the first Celtic Park from £50 per year to £450. (Almost £55,000 at today’s prices) The fledgling club decided to have no truck with such exploitation and move. The move to the other side of Janefield cemetery was said by one wag to be akin to leaving the graveyard for ‘Paradise;’ a nickname which stuck to the new ground at the end of Kerrydale Street.  Given the first generation of Celts were almost all Irish and in sympathy with the ideals of the land league, it was unsurprising that Celtic invited Michael Davitt to the opening of the new Celtic Park where he helped lay a sod of turf from Donegal in the centre of the field. One newspaper of the day celebrated the occasion by printing this short poem…

"On alien soil like yourself I am here;
I'll take root and flourish, of that never fear;
And though I'll be crossed sore and oft by the foes,
You'll find me as hardy as Thistle or Rose.
If model is needed on your own pitch you'll have it."

Davitt was made a patron of Celtic and the club made a generous donation to the Land League to help with its work in Ireland and indeed in Scotland. Celtic presented him with a ‘Glasgow Medal’ and it is recorded that….

‘Mr Davitt's son, a child of five years, and wearing a badge of the club, and a white cap bearing the word " Celtic " in gold letters, was led to the centre of the field by his father and the president of the Club, Mr John Glass. Mr Davitt's young son faved the ball awaiting his attention. Standing in a determined attitude the little gentleman lifted his right foot and amid loud cheers administered to the ball a splendid running kick. This was the kick off and immediately afterwards the contending teams, the Celtic and Queen's Park entered upon the game.The play as might be expected from the two leading clubs in the country proved a fine display. Notwithstanding the splendid playing on both sides the match ended in a draw of one goal each'. 

It was fitting then that 103 years later in 1995 as the new Celtic Park rose above the east end skyline that Celtic kept faith with the past and had a sod of turf from Donegal brought over and transplanted into the Celtic Park pitch. Fifty Donegal Celtic fans travelled with the turf and were met by Fergus McCann at the stadium for the ceremony. Fellow Donegal man Pat Bonner took part too as a connection to the past was honoured. Michael Davitt would have approved.

Michal Davitt’s life would see him continue to fight for social justice and eventually face prison again for his agitation on behalf of the poor. He lectured all over the world from Russia to Palestine and was elected to Parliament in his time and never stopped fighting to right the wrongs he saw around him. He came to the conclusion that non-violent agitation was the best way to challenge injustice and for that reason he was to a degree unfairly air-brushed out of the post 1916 narrative of Irish history. When he died in Dublin in 1906 it was a mark of how far the former Fenian convict had come that the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the highest British official in the land, attended his funeral.

Davitt would have been more proud though of the tens of thousands of ordinary people who filed past his coffin to pay their respects. It was for the advancement of ordinary folk that he struggled so long and hard. The baby born into a land racked by hunger and injustice, who lost an arm in an industrial accident when just eleven years of age, deserves to be remembered as a friend of the poor and a fighter for social justice. Celtic can be proud too that he was a patron of the club in its earliest years and that fact will remind the club that it too has a role to play in living up to its founding principles of social justice, charity and inclusiveness.

Michael Davitt 1846-1906
Celtic Patron
Friend of the poor

Friday, 4 January 2019

Without fear or favour

Without fear or favour

More years ago than I care to remember I stood on the old cinder steps of the Celtic end at Hampden on a freezing December night watching Celtic play Rangers in a league cup semi-final. The game was hard fought but Celtic had the upper hand and rightly took the lead when Tommy Burns carved open the Rangers defence and fed John Doyle who took great pleasure scoring at the traditional Rangers end of Hampden. The game was even thereafter until Davie Cooper cut into the box and Celtic stopper Johannes Edvaldsson went to deal with the danger. From the Celtic end I saw Edvaldsson clearly play the ball, Cooper theatrically threw himself to the ground and Referee Mr Alexander pointed to the spot. So incensed were the Celtic players that they let him and his linesman know what they thought of his decision. To compound the feeling of injustice he sent off Tommy Burns, up to that point the best player on the field, for his protests about the penalty award. There were other incidents in the game which led my young mind to ponder on the impartiality of the Referee. Rangers winning goal came from a Derek Johnstone run which one newspaper said, ‘could have been offside.’ Trust me he was but again the protestations of the Celtic players fell on deaf ears.

Celtic were to lose that game 3-2 and it was the first time I can recall going home from a game feeling that the officiating had clearly had a major influence on the outcome. Of course to suggest a referee is biased against a particular team will get you short shrift from most of the media and lambasted as a bad loser by those who have benefitted from these ‘errors’ by officials. It is simply too much to contemplate for some that the game in our country isn’t 100% honest.

Books like ‘Celtic Paranoia?’ list incidents down the decades which on sober reflection look distinctly dubious. We all know about the SFA closing Celtic Park for trouble at Ibrox. We all know about the SFA threatening to throw Celtic out of the league if they didn’t remove the Irish flag from their stadium on match days. We all know Jim Farry blocked the registration of Jorge Cadete with no apparent reason for two months at a vital time of the season. We all know internal inquiries cleared him until an exasperated Fergus McCann called in his QC and forced the SFA to admit Farry had acted in a manner which constituted gross negligence. He was sacked and left office with a £200,000 pay off. It remains difficult to see how anyone fired in such circumstances could be deserving of such a payment but then a lack of transparency is nothing new in Scottish Football.

In more modern times we saw bizarre officiating at a Rangers v Dundee United match in the spring of 2008 which had then Dundee United boss Craig Levein seething. We saw Rangers player Boughera booked early in a match against Celtic for a brutal foul on Celtic’s Robbie Keane and then commit a further seven or eight fouls on the same player without a second yellow card appearing. The hand ball from Keatings of Inverness in a cup semi final at Hampden was seen by everyone in the stadium except the five officials! We had the ‘Dougie, Dougie’ affair when a referee admitted lying about a rescinded Celtic penalty at Tannadice. We recently saw Scott Brown booked for a ‘tackle’ on Kyle Lafferty in which no contact was made and the Rangers forward clearly simulated injury. No retrospective action was taken. We have a former referee boasting from the safety of retirement about Rangers never losing a game he controlled, another speaking sarcastically at a sports dinner of being ‘unsighted’ for a Celtic penalty claim. All of this feeds into the ‘ABC’ mentality (Anyone but Celtic) in which some see certain officials as at best leaning towards Rangers and at worst being biased. The aftermath of most of the above examples was handled poorly by the SFA and often exacerbated the situations.

All of this came to mind in the wake of the controversy over John Beaton’s performance at Ibrox las week and the fact that the review panel didn’t act over Alfredo Morelos’ actions in that game as they were informed the referee saw the incidents. Firstly, Rangers were the better side by far on the day and deserved their win but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking what is going on with the standard of refereeing in Scotland. If Mr Beaton saw the three much publicised incidents which involved a stamp of Anthony Ralston, a kick on Scott Brown and a virtual sexual assault on Ryan Christie as he apparently reported to the SFA then why on earth did he not even award a foul let alone apply the rules of the game and at least card Morelos? 

Any objective observer would view that game and conclude that the officiating was very poor indeed. Chris Sutton, a man once sent off at Ibrox for two innocuous hand balls was scathing of the footballing authorities and said…

If they had applied the rules correctly then El Buffalo would have been on the end of three separate red cards. That means three bans, six games, or even more if they pushed him through the disciplinary points totting up threshold. But yet again it looks like the SFA have bottled it. They know there would have been a huge outcry from Ibrox, but if that’s the reason Beaton has stuck to his guns then it’s either cowardice or corruption, take your pick.
Of course Sutton writes for a tabloid and it’s his job to get people reading, clicking and talking about his articles but there is a kernel of truth about what he is saying. If Referees were allowed to speak after games and explain why Steven McLean of Hearts was retrospectively banned for two games for grabbing Eboue Kouassi’s private parts and Morelos didn’t even receive a foul against him for a similar offence the referee claims to have seen? Celtic was not impressed by the officiating at the match at Ibrox and commented…
‘Celtic football club is surprised that there will be no disciplinary action taken by the SFA regarding incidents during the match on December 29th, which were widely addressed by the media. It is reported that no action will be taken because the match referee saw all of the incidents in question. Given that the referee took no action at the time, this tends to suggest that such conduct, which in one instance led to a Celtic player, Anthony Ralston being injured, is acceptable in Scottish football. That cannot be right.’
Celtic then go on to say that in the interests of transparency, referee John Beaton should be able to explain these decisions publically. The alternative is for suspicion to fester and alleged pictures on social media of the official apparently enjoying himself in a well-known Rangers Bar don’t exactly allay fears he may be less than impartial. Football is a fast moving game with crucial decisions having to be made in a split second. Jock Stein once said, ‘if you’re good enough the referee doesn’t matter,’ but even he tore into officials after matches like the disgraceful Scottish Cup Final of 1970; a game which is mysteriously hard to find on YouTube in any detail beyond the goals.
We need to accept in a small country such as Scotland that match officials will have favourite teams and that in an ideal world this won’t stop them from performing their duties with integrity. We want our referees to be the best in the business, to be above reproach but currently they are doing little to help their own reputation. Transparency is one way to foster confidence in the refereeing fraternity. Let them speak about why they made certain decisions and even accept it when they say I got that one wrong. Refereeing is a difficult profession to practice but we can surely do a lot better than we currently are?

The alternative is to have supporters talking about officials more than the game itself and openly accusing some officials of bias. In the clannish world of Scottish football that can’t be right. The SFA needs to show some leadership here. Have professional referees, introduce VAR in the top flight and let the referees explain themselves a day or two after matches. The absurdity of a panel made up of former referees being unable to recommend retrospective punishment for on field misbehaviour on the grounds that the match official ‘saw it’ also needs to end. Just because he ‘saw it’ doesn’t mean he made the right decision.

We all love the game of football but it must be seen to be played on an even playing field with officials applying the laws of the game without fear or favour. If that’s not the case we might as well pack up and go home.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Hunger

The Hunger

Celtic supporters have grown used to success in the Glasgow derby and yesterday’s loss was the first in almost 7 years in the league. The record for the calendar year 2018 shows the following sequence of results, Celtic score first: 3-2, 4-0. 5-0, 1-0 & 0-1. Hardly a disastrous run of results but the supporters are rightly angry at the performance at Ibrox. We all knew what was coming; an in your face, aggressive home side playing on the edge of the rules. Sure they were being given considerable leeway from officials who could apparently spot a marginal offside but not Morelos stamping on a Celtic player or kicking Scott Brown in the balls. We expected all of that and should have been ready to go to war with them. Instead Celtic looked timid, limp and lacking in the sort of character needed to win at these places. 

There is an old adage that the hungry fighter is the best fighter; well yesterday Rangers were the hungrier team and Celtic need to take a lesson from this and rediscover the hunger successful teams need. These games are physical and psychological battles and all the pretty football in the world won’t help if you allow yourself to be intimidated or bullied. Celtic need to rediscover that hunger and passion they showed in 2011-12 season when they battled from 12 points behind to win the title. Joe Ledley’s headed goal in the final match of 2011 took Neil Lennon’s side to the top of the tree and they have stayed there for seven long and successful years.

Watching Celtic for many years gives you some perspective on such games. I’ve seen good Celtic sides, sometimes very good Celtic sides, lose such games but they have shown that they have learned from defeat and bounced back to win the league. Yesterday was a lost battle not a lost war. The prizes are given out in May and that defeat may well make certain players and even the manager reflect on why they were outfought in that manner. It may also be a blessing in disguise as it strengthens Rodgers’ hand when he asks the board for the money necessary to strengthen the squad. Players were played out of position, others obviously not fully fit but a club the size of Celtic should have more cover in key areas. The team remains on top of the table with a game in hand but they need to show resilience and begin the new-year with a determination to show the rest of the league that they do have the bottle for the battles ahead.

Yesterday the Celtic support was under the microscope as a minute’s silence was held in memory of the Ibrox disaster of 1971. It strains credulity that many in the home support watched the 750 Celtic fans like hawks almost willing them to break the silence before they themselves begin the usual poisonous chanting which so scars their club’s history. We saw banners about paedophilia, others mocking Jock Stein, a man who quite literally carried the dead and dying from the terraces on that lamentable day so long ago. This support must have the lowest self -awareness of any in the land. The child abuse scandals which beset so many institutions in modern society affected Rangers FC too. Indeed many of those scoring tawdry points at football matches chanting about it are statistically likely to be standing near a victim of abuse. Do they ever stop for a moment to think how utterly crass and low it is to sing about such things at a football match? One fellow Celtic fan told me after watching the game on TV, ‘That’s why I hate those bastards and everything they stand for.’ Listening to that poison yesterday, I can at least empathise with his point of view.

When the prizes are given out in May I hope that yesterday’s result is but a blip in an otherwise successful season. As I’ve already said good teams learn from setbacks and address the flaws which make defeats like yesterday’s possible. I look for Celtic to bring in some experience and flair in the January transfer window but I also want to see a more determined attitude; one which says ‘Yeh, we’ll play football but if you want to scrap we’ll be ready for that too.’ Jock Stein knew the value of players who fought to the end and once told a hushed dressing room at Hampden Park moments before a cup final with Rangers…

Every one of you has a job to do. You’ll be up against determined opponents used to bullying and bossing Celtic, well it stops today! The first tackle you have with your immediate opponent is crucial. Go right through the bastard; let him know he’s in for a game. We won’t be bullied any more. This is the new Celtic, we can play football but we can scrap too if that’s what they want. Any of you not going into tackles with the right degree of conviction will be on the transfer list next week and I’ll tell any manager interested in in buying you that you’re a shite bag. Do I make myself clear? Now get out there and win this cup.’

His team did indeed go out and win that game all those years ago. In fact he made then so successful they won 25 major trophies in 12 years. Stein’s team were not just excellent players, they were fighters too who knew that those one on one battles decided how matches would go. Celtic of 2019 need to relearn that lesson, you need to be up for the fight and ready to go to war in those games. If you show any sign of weakness then you’ll get what Celtic got yesterday: nothing.

 As 2018 comes to a close we can look back on another successful year. Yesterday was a warning that if we don’t maintain the standards that we’ve set in recent seasons then we could let a once in a lifetime opportunity to complete a historic ten in a row slip away. I’m confident Rodgers won’t let that happen and if some of the players don’t have the heart for the battle then he must source others who do. Celtic have better players than any other side in the league and occasional dips in form can happen but there will never be an excuse for being outfought in the manner they were yesterday.

Have a very happy and peaceful New Year. I’m confident we’ll be celebrating again in May. Remember; he who laughs last laughs loudest.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Kingston Town

Kingston Town

Tony McGuire glanced though the glass partition at the young woman who found making eye contact with him difficult. Her badge told Tony her name was Sinead. She continued speaking at him in a monotone voice, ‘that’s right, Mr McGuire, it’ll be 5 weeks till you receive your first payment. The new universal credit will help you see the value of taking on work of any kind while you receive it.’ Tony looked at her, ‘Five weeks? But it’s Christmas in a week, how will I get something for the wean? How will I feed myself? Five weeks withoot any money are you fuckin serious?’ She pursed her lips and glanced past Tony to the stout security guard who stood watching like nightclub bouncer waiting on the call to action. ‘Calm down Mr McGuire, there’s a slip you can get for the local foodbank….’ Tony looked at her, ‘Whit? I’ve tae rely oan charity for five weeks?’ She looked down at her notes almost embarrassed, ‘I’m sorry Mr McGuire, I don’t make the rules.’ Tony stood to leave, 'how do you people sleep at night?’

Tony exited the Job Centre and looked around him at the busy shoppers rushing here and there, laden with their packages for Christmas. He crossed the street and entered the Forge shopping centre, more to get out of the cold rain than to buy anything. He sat on one of the seats in the mall as crowds of shoppers flowed around him and tinny Christmas music played. The year which was almost over had been a bad year for him. His job had gone and worst of all his Karen had had enough of his drinking and thrown him out a few months earlier. He was back at his mother’s house at the age of 30; no job, no money, no prospects and missing his daughter. He now had the princely sum of £35 to his name and Christmas was a week away.

His chain of thought was interrupted when a man sat beside him, ‘Tony boy! How ye doing ya fud ye?’ He turned to his left to see the familiar face of an old friend. ‘Franny, long time no see, whit are ye up tae these days?’ Franny grinned at him, ‘Still driving a bus, still backing the Celts & still the most handsome man in Tollcross.’ Tony felt a little cheered by Franny’s infectious humour. You always got him one way. ‘I’ve been tae Tollcross and Quasimodo was runner up so it’s not something I’d boast aboot.’ Franny laughed, ‘Shut it ya tadger! How’s yer Maw? How’s the wee yin, she must be at school noo?’ Tony filled him in on the latest developments including losing his job after a bust up with the site foreman. Franny shook his head, ‘I know that clown, he’d find excuses tae get aw the Tims the bullet if he could. Grade A bigoted arsehole. So that’s you nae work the week before Christmas?’ He shook his head, ‘I’ll keep my ears open if I hear of any jobs goin.’ The two old friends parted with a smile, ’Nice seeing ye Franny. Have a good Christmas mate.’ Franny nodded, ‘You too pal, always a seat on the bus if ye fancy getting back tae seeing the Celts.’

Tony sat for a few more minutes letting the river of shoppers flow around him before heading out into the cold. They sky was already darkening over Glasgow’s east end as he stepped out into the street. He held the door for a woman in her 70s who struggled with her many bags. As she passed Tony she smiled, ‘Thanks, son.’ She had barely gone five paces when Tony noticed that she’d dropped something. He saw immediately that it was one of those big red purses that only pensioners seemed to own. He bent to pick it up feeling it’s fullness in his chilly fingers. For a fraction of a second he considered keeping it, simply turning and walking away in the opposite direction but tutted quietly to himself for thinking that way and hurried after her, ‘Here, Mrs, ye dropped something.’ The old woman turned and regarded him, her eyes widening slightly when she saw her purse in his outstretched hand. ‘Goodness! That’s so good of ye son.’ Tony smiled slightly glad to have done someone a good turn. ‘No worries, Mrs.’ She gazed at him, ‘That was very honest of you, son. What’s your name?’ He mumbled, wanting to get going, ‘Tony…Tony McGuire. Merry Christmas.’ With that he turned to go. ‘You too, son and thanks again.‘ Tony headed for his mum’s house, feeling a little better that he’d done the right thing.

The following day he got a frosty reception from Karen as he picked up his daughter to take her out for the afternoon. ‘So I hear ye lost yer job?’ Tony nodded, ‘Aye, Foreman never liked me much he was just waiting oan an excuse.’ She zipped up their five year old daughter’s jacket and as the child ran to get a soft toy, Karen said to Tony, ‘Ye promised wee Katie a bike for Christmas; I suppose you’ll be letting her doon again like ye did at her birthday?  He exhaled, keeping his emotions in check, not wishing to be drawn into a row, before replying, ‘I’ll do my best, Karen. I won’t get any money aff the social for five weeks but I’ll do my best.’ She barely looked at him as she opened the front door of the flat they once shared. ‘Right, have her back by six and don’t get her soaked if it rains.’

Tony enjoyed 2 solid hours in his daughter’s company and it was a delight to him. He watched her as she cavorted with the other children in the soft play. Every smile, every look over in his direction filled him with pride and love. Later, as they sat in McDonalds, she grinned, ‘Only five sleeps to Christmas daddy! I hope I get a bike and maybe a telly for my room!’ He smiled even as a pang of guilt cut through him, ‘Ye never know what you’ll get at Christmas, darlin. You’ve been a good girl so you’ll get something nice.’ Before heading home, they wandered past Celtic Park, looking resplendent with the Christmas lights glinting in the darkness. ‘Look Daddy!’ Katie smiled, ‘Look at all the lights, it’s beautiful!’ Tony grinned, ‘Not half as beautiful as you, angel.  He picked her up in his arms and carried her towards the stadium where he showed her the three statues outside the entrance. ‘That’s Walfrid, he was a good guy and he helped the poor children when they were hungry. That’s Jock; he was a great man who helped the team be great too. And that’s wee Jimmy he was the best player ever!’ She looked around her mesmerised, ’Can I come here and see them play one day?’ Tony nodded, ‘in the spring when the weather is better. Now, time to head home, yer mother will be expecting you.’ As he carried her down the Celtic way she rested her head on his shoulder, ’I love you daddy.’ It was all he could do to stop his eyes moistening too much. ‘I love you too, angel.’

The following afternoon Tony found himself in a grubby Bookmakers on the Gallowgate. His last £20 would need to be gambled if he was to get Katie the bike he had promised her. A friend had told him of a whisper about a horse called Kingston Town which was currently 16-1. Tony wrote out the slip and stood with a few dozen others staring at the screens on the walls around them as the race began. Three minutes later his £20 was gone as Kingston Town finished fourth. Tony sighed, mumbling to himself, ‘Well that’s you rooked noo, Tony boy.’

As he turned to leave he noticed two men watching him. Both looked like tough cookies but the bigger of the two looked especially hard. One nodded in his direction and said something to the bigger man who walked towards him. Tony’s heart sank when he realised it was indeed a well-known local tough nut. ‘You Tony McGuire?’ he asked in a gravelly, low voice as Tony searched his mind and wondered what the hell he had done which might attract the attention of this character. ‘Aye,’ he said in a voice sounding a little more calm than he was feeling, ‘whit can ah dae for yer, mate?’ Tony was expecting the worst but the man smiled slightly, ’This is for you.’ He handed a very confused Tony an envelope, ‘My maw sends her regards.’ Tony was utterly baffled and it must have shown on his face because as the big man turned away he smiled, ‘Yer a good cunt son, ye could have bolted wi her purse and ye never.’ The two men left and Tony followed behind them, the envelope stuffed into his jacket pocket. His heart pounding, he stopped at the first bus stop he came to and surreptitiously looked in the envelope. It contained twenty crisp ten pound notes. Tony’s eyes widened, ’Shit!’ he said to no one in particular, a smile creasing his face.

Katie’s excited eyes opened to greet another Christmas. She leaped from the bed and ran into the living room. A pile of presents lay under the tree but she ignored these for the moment scanning the room until her eyes fell on the pink bicycle, complete with stabilisers and a helmet, which stood by the TV. ‘Yassss!’ she roared as her mother smiled at her. ‘I must have been a very good girl!’ Tony phoned at that very moment and she shouted excitedly down the phone to him. ‘Daddy, I got my bike! Santa brought me my bike.’ Tony listened to her excited voice, drinking in her happiness. ‘Mind ye promised you’d take me tae see Celtic when the spring comes tae!’ she continued. Tony laughed, ‘don’t you worry, Angel, I’ll be taking you alright!’ Tony spoke to his erstwhile partner as Katie opened her presents, ‘She sounds happy.’ Karen agreed, ‘She is and she misses you. Don’t get any ideas but why not come roon for Christmas dinner. She’d like that.’ Tony smiled, ‘So would I.’


The skies over Celtic Park were blue as the stadium was bathed in bright sunshine. Tony and his daughter sat near the front of the Lisbon Lions stand as Celtic moved onto the attack. The ball was carried up the right wing and flashed across the face of the goal where a forward arriving like a train smashed it into the net. Tony grabbed his daughter and hugged her. Around them thousands roared out their appreciation of a fine goal. As the crowd settled a little the PA system announced the goal-scorer’s name as the supporters joined in a loud chorus which echoed around the stadium. ‘Oh, Oh Oh, Oh, oh we’re Glasgow Celtic, Oh, Oh Oh, Oh, oh we’re Glasgow Celtic.’ Tony joined in watching his daughter as she smiled to see her old man so excited. When thing’s settled a little he said to the man beside him, ‘I love that song, where’s the tune from?’ The man grinned,’UB40 mate, from a song called Kingston Town.’ Tony smiled, hadn’t he lost his last £20 on a horse of that name?  His life had improved a lot since that day just a few months before and when he was with his angel he was the happiest man alive.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Take me to your Paradise

Take me to your Paradise

A damp mist hung in the chill December air as the noisy crowd exited the Broomloan Stand at Ibrox Stadium. The 7000 Celtic fans were in good voice having just watched their side beat Rangers by 2 goals to 1. As they poured from the stadium they sang the praises of the player who scored the winning goal…

‘Oh Scotty Sinclair, oh he is so wonderful, When he scores a goal, Oh it is beautiful It's magical, When he runs down the wing, He is fast as lightning, It's frightening and it makes all the bhoys sing, Do do do dodo do doodododododo...’

‘You coming for a pint, the Gallowgate will be bouncing?’ Micky Stevens said to his long-time friend Andy Gallagher. ‘Naw Micky, going tae see my brother, he’s back from Malawi.’ Micky smiled, ‘I always liked Peter, give him my regards. Is he finished wi the missions?’ Andy shook his head, ‘Just back for a month or so. He’ll be helping oot at the local parish till he heads back in late February.’  Micky nodded, ‘Still amazed he became a Priest, he liked a swally and the lassies when we were younger?’ Andy smiled, ‘He did but then I’d catch him praying now and then so the signs were there.’ They boarded the supporters’ bus for the journey through the dark streets of Glasgow. The mood on the bus was euphoric after Celtic’s win. The songs and laughter flowed as they headed for home. Seeing Celtic win was always good; seeing them win at Ibrox was just perfect.

Andy slipped quietly into the church and sat in one of the pews near the back. He glanced around the familiar interior which he had been dragged to by his teachers and parents in those far of childhood days when he’d rather have been playing football or computer games. The Stations of the Cross were still there showing the last agonising journey of a persecuted man 2000 years before. He looked for a long moment at one image bearing the title ‘Jesus falls for the first time.’ The painting showed a blood spattered man in the crown of thorns who lay bleeding under a bulky wooden cross as the Roman guard prepared to whip him again. What was it with the church and these agonising images? The gentle tinkle of a bell broke into his thoughts and announced that the service was beginning. There was old Father John and beside him Andy’s brother, Peter, known to one and all as Father Gallagher, in these parts. Andy regarded him in his Priestly garb, looking fit and tanned after his time in Africa. As the service began Andy felt strangely detached. Like a spectator rather than a participant. How was it he and Peter had been brought up in the same house by the same parents, went to the same school and yet were so different? He watched the service flow in that timeless way mass did and as communion came closer, wondered if he should partake. When was the last time? A long time ago, he thought to himself. He stayed seated as the faithful shuffled forward towards the altar and waited behind after Mass as the church emptied.

After a few minutes Father Gallagher came out to greet him. ‘Andy, I saw you there during Mass. How are you?’ He wrapped his younger brother in a warm hug. ‘I’m good Peter. You’re looking well.’ His brother smiled, ‘You not fancy coming to communion tonight?’ Andy regarded him, ‘You know me Peter he said with a hint of a smile. Celtic is my religion; Celtic Park my church. I’d be a bit hypocritical going to communion when I’ve stopped believing in the church.’’ Peter nodded with a sage smile on his face, ‘you can still believe in God without believing in the church you know.’ The elder brother led Andy to the sacristy and poured some tea for his him. He glanced at the Celtic scarf Peter still had on under his heavy winter coat from his trip to Ibrox, ‘It’s New Year’s eve, I’d forgotten this Celtic, Rangers thing happens every festive period. Did you win?’ Andy smiled, was his brother the only man in Glasgow who didn’t know the score? ‘Yeh, we won Peter, we seem to always win these days.’  The two brothers regarded each other for a moment. They had many disagreements growing up and a few fights as all brothers do but their bond was strong. Andy spoke first, ‘How was Malawi? Still saving souls?’ Peter sat with his tea at the big circular table which dominated the room, ‘Malawi is fine, the people have nothing but then they have everything. Family and faith still mean a lot there.’  Andy’s face changed a little, ‘Well, I gave up thinking I’d ever see Jesus a long time ago, bro. I can’t see that changing.’ Peter smiled, ‘Come and help at the shelter tonight, you’re sure to see him there.’ Andy laughed, ‘Jesus serving soup to the homeless now is he and on New Year’s Eve?’ Andy’s brother looked at him patiently, 'Pick me up at 9 o’clock, it’s the late shift tonight, wrap up.’

Against his better judgement Andy Gallagher found himself walking though the concrete canyons of Glasgow city centre with his brother. Clubbers were heading out in their garishly coloured outfits and the city centre was alive with music and light as people aimed to bring in 2017 with a real party. Peter though was glancing into those darker corners where those struggling just to keep going watched the world pass. They stopped by a city centre lane where a shadowy figure huddled under some damp looking blankets. As Andy watched his brother knelt by the man and whispered to him. He sat up and Andy could see the unkempt beard, straggly hair and thin face of a man who was not looking after himself. His dark eyes regarded Andy, ‘Who’s this guy, fadder?’ Peter smiled, ‘My brother Andy, he’s helping out tonight, big Celtic fan like you, Paddy. You come down to the centre later for some hot food, ok?’ The man nodded before looking at Andy, ‘You giving us a wee tune the night, son? Tommy used tae.’ Andy nodded, ‘Can’t sing tae save my life bit if that’s what you want.’ Andy noticed the thin, damp track suit jacket the man was wearing and without thinking took off his heavy winter jacket. After removing his phone from the pocket he passed it to him saying, ‘Here, stick that on so I recognise ye tonight.’  His brother said nothing as they left Paddy and continued on to the shelter.

The shelter consisted of two large rooms set into what was the basement of a tall office block. One had the air of a cafeteria where a variety of men and women sat quietly nursing tea or eating some warm food. The second room had a row of bedrolls on the floor and some sleeping bags piled up in a corner. ‘The place opens at 9pm and closes the next morning. At least those sleeping rough get in out of the cold overnight and have some hot food,’ Peter said as he showed Andy around. ‘They know not to come if they’re drunk or high. Although if it’s exceptionally cold we can make allowances but most keep to the rules.’ Andy was stationed behind the counter and was soon chatting to the people who came for soup and rolls. ‘Cheers son,’ said a grey haired man as Andy served him, ’It’s a cauld yin oot there the night, saw a brass monkey looking for a welder.’ He guffawed at his own joke before taking his soup from Andy. I could fair dae wi some hot soup the night son.’ Andy found talking to the ‘clients’ as he heard another volunteer call them, easy as they were straight forward unpretentious people.

A thin young woman with eyes that spoke of a hard life smiled at him. Andy avoided staring at the tell-tale heroin tracks on her arm as she spoke, ‘No seen you in here before?’ Andy returned her smile, ‘Just helping out my brother,’ he replied nodding towards his brother who was deep in conversation with an older man. ‘Father Gal is your brother?’ she said with a surprised look on her face. ‘Aye,’ replied Andy, ‘for my sins.’ She looked into his eyes with a penetrating gaze as if reading his soul, ‘Well, he’s a real Priest, no like the ones I’ve….’ Her voice trailed off as if she’d said too much. She took her soup and glanced at Andy, ‘I’m Lynne by the way, hope I see ye in here again.’ Andy nodded, ‘we’ll see, I might not be needed after tonight.’ As she turned to go she said quietly, ‘Good people are always needed.’

Around midnight Paddy came in sporting Andy’s erstwhile jacket. He accepted a bowl of soup and some bread and sat at a table. Things were quiet at the counter so Andy sat by him. ‘Hi Paddy, how are ye keeping?’ The unkempt man of about 50 regarded him, ‘No bad son though my auld back gies me a bit of jip especially on these cauld nights.’ They got talking about football and life in general and Paddy told him of his days as a post man before drink got its talons into him. ‘The bevy ruined the lot son; my job, my family life and my health. Found myself sleeping rough 5 years back and been that way ever since. Fadder Gal helped me oot wi rooms in hostels but I always fucked it up and got fired oot.‘ Paddy told Andy of his days following Celtic all over and how he hardly missed a match in the 1980s and 90s. ‘Good days son, I was fit then and liked a wee scrap at the gem noo and again. Got three months once for fighting wi Hearts fans; never liked that mob!’ He grinned a gap toothed smile at the memory of his wilder, young days. ‘Fadder Gal came tae see me in Polmont. Got me tae think a bit aboot whit ah wis daen wi ma life. I tried hard but the drink’s like a parasite that lives in ye, wantin’ fed every day.’  Andy let him talk without interrupting. Sometimes all people demanded of you, was that you listen.

It was 1am when the two brothers and handful of other volunteers left the shelter in the hands of the overnight staff. A dozen or so homeless people were safely bedded down out of the cold. ‘Did you enjoy your night?’ Peter enquired. Andy nodded, ‘Aye, Peter it was interesting. Some real characters in there.’ He shivered a little in the cold remembering that he now had just his jumper to keep him warm. ‘I’m on the 10 o’clock Mass tomorrow, why not pop down?’ Andy smiled at him as they reached his car, ‘You trying tae convert me? You said I’d be sure tae see Jesus down here tonight but I didn’t.’ Peter grinned, opened the car door and got in, ’No harm in coming down to the church, Andy, Interesting readings tomorrow.’ Andy guided the car through the cold city centre streets. ‘I might if I wake up on time but I’m lost tae all that now, Peter.’ Andy dropped his brother off with a smile, ‘Good night, Peter.’ His brother returned his smile, ‘yeh, it was. Good night and happy new year.’

The following morning Andy was again sitting near the back of the church as his brother led the service in front of a fairly full church. Andy smiled to himself as his brother got to the gospel reading. As he listened his brother glanced up at him as he read…

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, "I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
When the service was over he again waited behind for his brother who appeared after ten minutes or so. ‘Nice sermon,’ Andy said, ‘I still can’t believe in all of this though, Peter.’ His brother nodded, ‘Andy, when you do good things in your life, you’re doing all God wants of you. You might doubt God but he doesn’t doubt you.’ Andy smiled, ‘Right, I’ve been in your church, you’re coming to mine before you head back to Africa in February?’Jeez,’ replied Peter, ‘I’ve not seen Celtic play in 25 years. Are you trying to convert me now?’ Andy laughed, ‘Pushing at an open door, Peter.’ His brother nodded, ‘Right, take me to your Paradise and I’ll put in a good word so you might get into mine.’

Dedicated to all of those wonderful people who work with the homeless in our society.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Stripes like a zebra

Stripes like a zebra

Aberdeen Manager Derek McInnes was commendably clear in his condemnation of one of his own club’s supporters this week after a video surfaced online of Scott Sinclair taking a penalty during the League Cup Final. A person very near the camera in the Aberdeen end of the stadium shouted in an unmistakable manner, ‘Ya black bastard!’ as the Celtic winger lined up to take the kick. The Dons boss said….

it’s an absolute disgrace, the ignorance of an uneducated fan shouting racial abuse, any racial abuse, in this day and age, is shocking. It’s embarrassing for the individual. It’s not a club issue for me. Its the individual. That type of comment was maybe normal practice in the Sixties and Seventies, and it was appalling then and shocking then, and even more so now. It’s shocking that Scott Sinclair and any other player is still subjected to that.”

Last year we had Moussa Dembele being called the same thing at Ibrox and once more a smart-phone camera recorded the moron in question. Sinclair was abused at the same venue by a grown man acting like a monkey. Some questioned if we as a society had moved on at all since the 1970s and 80s when such behaviour was sadly common in football all over the world. Indeed far right groups often sought to recruit young men at football matches as far afield as Upton Park and Ibrox.

Having lived through some of those times I have personal experience of supporters of all hues behaving poorly. It would be disingenuous to say my own club hasn’t had its share of idiots from time to time. Indeed the way Mark Walters was treated at Celtic Park by a handful of morons in 1988 was as disgraceful as it was repugnant. The Celtic support in general were deeply embarrassed and angry by the behaviour of that handful idiots who threw bananas onto the track. Worse was to come for Mark Walters at Tynecastle a week or two later when he was pelted with bananas while taking a corner. We cannot shy away from this. It happened in our own stadiums and streets, it was disgraceful and it must never happen again. There are no mitigating circumstances it was just idiots being idiots and thinking it was okay.

The Celtic fanzines of the time ripped into what they called ‘racist arseholes’ in the Celtic support who had dragged us all down. They were also quick to point out the hypocrisy of Rangers fans’ outrage over the Walters incident given that they had filled the air that day with the usual anti-Catholic/Irish bile which made up most of their songbook then. It was too much for some to recognise any kind of moral equivalence between their own ‘FTP’ songs or ditties about being up to your knees in Fenian blood, and what happened to Walters. Therein lies part of the problem; we get habituated to hearing such songs and they lose some of their potency as insults. Equally, some are habituated to singing them and pass it off as banter, not really hateful. Sometimes it takes an outsider to look at it all with fresh eyes and ask us why we tolerate such base behaviour. Calling it ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ really doesn’t excuse what is in essence thick, unadulterated prejudice.

I have an acquaintance who tells me he’s a ’90 minute bigot’ who sings it all at football then returns to being his normal self when the football is finished. I try to explain you either find those songs acceptable or you don’t but he’s happy with his ‘Jeckyl and Hyde’ approach to it. ‘You know me,’ he told me one day, ‘I have lots of Catholic pals.’ I nodded and told him this was all the more reason to drop the silly songs.

The advent of foreign players pouring into Scottish football meant that most clubs now have players from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and our heroes are of many hues. We occasionally see or hear things will hark back to a darker time, a time before our society evolved in the more tolerant place it is today. It is far from perfect but it is satisfying to see so many willing to add their voices to the condemnation of racist behaviour in Scotland. There can be no standing on the side-lines with this one. It needs calling out without fear or favour wherever it rears its ugly head. These days of Brexit and increasing xenophobia have emboldened some of our less enlightened citizens to think they can once again air their prejudice with impunity. It’s up to us all to say; we’re not going back to the bad old days. We’re not standing for it in football or anywhere else. Too many men and women have suffered the rough tongues of racists and we need to work to educate those who are still receptive to it that this is simply not acceptable.

Leo Durocher was a baseball coach of some repute in the major league of the USA in the years after World War 2. Notoriously bellicose and mouthy ‘Leo the Lip’ was also absolutely ruthless and often ordered his pitchers to hit the batters with the ball deliberately. ‘Nice guys finish last’ was his usual comment when challenged on his approach to baseball. He was loud, brash and a hard drinking coach but when it came to winning he was focussed and determined. He spotted a hugely talented player and was determined to get him into his Dodgers side. The player was Jackie Robinson and his signing caused huge controversy because he was black and the Major Leagues simply didn’t play black players in that era. Durocher was determined to get Robinson into the team and faced down those in his own club who were unhappy with a black player in the dressing room. He told a meeting of his unhappy players with typical bluntness….

"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays.’

When Robinson lined up with his grumpy team mates to play the Philadelphia Phillies, some of the Phillies players and officials called him a ‘nigger’ and suggested that he go ‘back to the cotton fields.’ This had the unexpected effect of galvanising his team mates behind him and he was accepted by them to a much greater extent. They came to realise team was more important than the individual members and Robinson’s fine play soon convinced many that it wasn’t so bad to have a black guy in the side after all. The fear, fed by unthinking prejudice, turned out to be groundless. Robinson was a pioneer and many followed in his footsteps.

So I say well said to Derek McInnes, it can be hard calling out one of your own but it is the only way to shame someone into thinking about their behaviour. There were undoubtedly children near or beside the voice bellowing out his prejudice at the League Cup final but thankfully they’ll be educated by the wiser heads and indeed by the Aberdeen manager himself that this isn’t a role model to follow. Bigotry in all its forms is an evil we must all fight. It isn’t about club loyalty or throwing mud at others, it’s about the decent majority at all clubs saying, ‘no, we’re not having it.’ Just as drink driving was greatly reduced by becoming socially unacceptable, so to bigotry and racism can be expelled to the fringes of society. There will always be foolish people prepared to say foolish things but in the end it tells us more about their personal ignorance than their intended targets.

They fail to see how their prejudice harms not only society in general but also themselves. An old Chinese proverb says; ‘hatred corrodes the vessel in which it is stored.’ It’s up to us all to nip this pernicious weed in the bud whenever it appears. To paraphrase the inimitable ‘Lippy Lou’ Durocher:

"I do not care if a guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. If he wants play for my club or join us in the stands backing the team he’s more than welcome.’

Racists are not.