Sunday, 20 May 2018

Long may it flourish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 It was Da, it was.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Star that Burns the Brightest

The Star that Burns the Brightest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 12 May 2018

A Piece of Paradise

A Piece of Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 5 May 2018

A matter of respect

A matter of respect

A few years ago I took a group of children on a tour of Ibrox Stadium as part of an anti-sectarian initiative. There were supporters of both Celtic and Rangers in the group as well as a few lads of Scottish-Asian heritage who were more interested in cricket. They had been well prepared before the visit and knew a good deal about the slowly dying bigotry which scars west of Scotland life at times. The kindly old chap who guided us around the stadium took us up the marble stairway to the Blue Room with its frescoes of past Managers of the club. We toured the dressing rooms and were cut loose to wander the trophy room too. As we gazed at the mementos of a century or more of sporting success, the old chap asked if anyone had any questions. It was one of the Scottish-Asian lads who raised his hand and asked why Rangers didn’t sign a Catholic player for a large part of their history. The old chap looked flustered and said was answering questions about the ‘trophies and stadium’ only. That old fella was working from his script and was unwilling or unable to go beyond it and such hiding from the facts doesn’t help the new generation understand why things were as they were in the past.

We saw this week a new young manager trying to manage the media and fan expectation as he sets off on his first ever club management job. The arrival of Steven Gerrard at Ibrox was a curious affair. He looked very awkward as he toured the dressing room and was greeted by gruff kit man Jimmy Bell who gives a good impression of the stereotypical dour Scotsman. Gerrard was an excellent footballer in his time although the hyperbole describing his the ‘greatest ever signing by a Scottish club’ was plainly nonsense as Roy Keane had a glittering career which saw him win 19 major honours while Gerrard won 8 and never got close to a championship badge. Press fawning aside though it is an exciting signing which might raise the profile of the game in Scotland. Talk of Gerrard ‘putting Scotland on the map’ is at best patronising claptrap and at worst insulting. The game here is on the up with crowds increasing, stadiums being modernised and some fine young managers building decent sides.

One supporter speaking on the tv news said he hadn’t been so excited since the arrival of Souness. There are, however, huge differences between now and 1986 when Souness first marched up the marble staircase, the chief among them being the paucity of resources at Ibrox now compared to the free spending days of the Murray regime. Celtic has become far more powerful too and is not the poorly run and financed outfit Souness took on in the 1980s. One thing which hasn’t changed though is the fan culture Souness encountered. He once remarked, ‘Here I was married to a Catholic and having to listen to my supporters singing songs about killing Catholics.’  

Souness, whether you loved him or loathed him, had little time for such behaviour which most sensible people knew belonged in the dark ages. That being said there is footage of his players singing the ‘Billy Boys’ in the dressing room after clinching a league title at Tannadice and this showed how deeply embedded the bigotry culture was at Ibrox in the 1980’s. I’m sure many players and fans who sung those songs back then would argue that it’s not meant and that they wouldn’t hurt a fly but they created the mood music for more dangerous elements, who certainly would and that is unacceptable.

As Gerrard strolled the corridors of Ibrox taking in the history of the place, a throng outside the stadium celebrated his arrival by singing about being ‘Up to their knees in Fenian blood’ as the Police guarding the door looked on and said nothing. Gerrard, coming from Merseyside with its huge Irish population, will have some inkling of the attitudes he’ll meet in Scottish football. Liverpool and Everton left any such baggage behind a lifetime ago and in general their rivalry is free from any unsavoury undertones. Not since the Juvenal Street riot of 1909 had sectarianism been a cause of serious violence in Liverpool.

Much has changed in Glasgow over the past three decades but Gerrard will soon learn that his new club’s support contains a sizable minority of individuals who have evolved little since Souness arrived in 1986. They are being presented with a manager who has a genuine pedigree in world football and respond by singing the same tired, old trash which has sullied their reputation for decades. They appear to have no self-awareness at all and some seem to actually wallow in their ignorance.

When Charles Green took control of Rangers in 2012 he missed the historic opportunity to tell the less cerebral among the Rangers support that the times are changing and people should change with them. Instead, no doubt with his eye on a fast buck, he started the ‘No Surrender’ nonsense and played the victim card to explain Rangers self-inflicted demise. As one cynic said at the time, ‘A free cup of tea and a quick ‘No surrender’ and suddenly he was the Messiah.’

No one expects a young, rookie Manager to comment on the evils of sectarianism in Scottish society. It’s still there festering away in the darker corners, even if the vast majority of Scots have long since called it out for the patent nonsense it is. I do however hope Gerrard conducts himself with dignity and does his job without paying any lip service to the ‘WATP’ mentality. He is a young coach starting out on his managerial career and should be allowed to focus on his job and nothing else. As a lifelong Celtic fan, I hope Rodgers and his Celtic side continue to dominate their rivals and that Gerrard has little success on the field of play, but I also hope Celtic supporters treat Gerrard with the same respect he has long showed them and their club.

Scottish society has changed so much since Souness walked in the door of Ibrox in 1986 bringing with him the unbridled capitalism which changed Scottish football forever. He had little time for the culture surrounding Rangers then and whatever you thought of him as a person, he signed players on football ability alone and dragged Rangers into the modern era. 

Some of their supporters have still to make that journey.

Monday, 30 April 2018

It has to be earned

It has to be earned 

Football can be a remarkable game once you fully invest your emotions in a team like Celtic. Over the years I’ve experienced just about every emotion watching Celtic. From pride and joy at the club’s successes to despair at those low points all supporters have to face now and then and everything in between. Today was one of those joy filled days when the sun shone, the team clicked and the atmosphere crackled. Looking around Celtic Park in the spring sunshine and seeing such happiness on the faces of so many was such a pleasure. Few things in life bring that level of passion and commitment out in people.

Like most of you reading these words, I thoroughly enjoyed the league clinching thumping of Rangers. Not because I define myself by whom I hate but rather by what I love. Celtic is my team; I inherited Celtic as I inherited my old man’s blue eyes but even if I didn’t, I like to think I’d have chosen to follow this remarkable club. Yes, it has to do with its traditions of good attacking football, charity and openness but it’s more than that. There is an intangible quality about Celtic which draws me to it.

Some years ago I spoke to a German Celtic fan who was surrounded by the riches of the Bundesliga in his home country with its fine stadiums, excellent teams and big crowds. I asked him why he followed Celtic and he told me it was about the people who followed the club. They had humour, heart and never lost their love of the club even in more difficult times. He loved the singing, the comradeship and the adventures he had following Celtic around Europe.  As we talked he also explained that he liked the fact that they weren’t apologetic about holding political or social views which were at times discordant with many in the society the club played in.

Celtic has a strong identity and that draws some people to it. That same identity sticks in the craw of others in our society still locked into old modes of thinking. Every football club has its own character and personality and like individuals, no club is perfect. Football thrives on the rivalries this creates and would be a poorer game without them. Who could fail to be impressed by 25,000 Hibs fans singing ‘Sunshine on Leith’ or by Aberdeen’s ‘Stand Free’ tifo at last year’s cup final? All of these expressions of identity help make up the very fabric of Scottish football.

As the songs of victory swept from the stands onto the pitch I gazed at the away support and in truth briefly felt a little sorry for them. Their identity is as valid as anyone else’s but does seem to be overly focussed on what they stand against rather than what they stand for. The few songs they sung which were audible in the din around me where the usual dirges about the Pope, Bobby Sands and paedophilia. Would it be too much to ask that they celebrate their club’s history in song rather than descending to the gutter with this filth? ‘No one likes us, we don’t care,’ they sing but I’m sure a lot of decent folk who follow Rangers do care and don’t agree with the club’s reputation being trashed. If a returning exile set foot in Glasgow for the first time in 50 years he’d find the Rangers songbook had barely evolved at all since he left.

The banner they held in a previous game which stated ‘We deserve better’ was mocked by a banner among Celtic supporters telling them in no uncertain terms that they deserved nothing of the sort. The entitlement mentality exhibited in such a banner is in stark contrast to just about every other support in the land which knows that in the harsh world of professional football you have to plan, work and fight for everything you get. There were no ‘we deserve better’ banners around Celtic Park in the early 1990’s when the club was in turmoil and facing the very real prospect of administration or worse. There were no puff pieces in the press saying Scotland needs a strong Celtic. Instead of whining about their lot, Celtic fans rolled up their sleeves, mobilised and pressurised the old board into relinquishing control to people with the money, know-how and strategies needed to help Celtic’s renaissance begin. The fans then backed the club by investing millions of pounds in the club and laid the foundation of the successes we are enjoying today. The majority of people investing in Celtic then were by no means wealthy. Ordinary working class folk took out bank loans, saved and scrimped to get a few hundred pounds together to help revive their club. Their investment was financial, yes, but it was also emotional; Celtic meant so much to them that they sacrificed hard earned cash to be part of the rebirth of the club.

As I walked home from the match on Sunday there was an understandable feeling of happiness among the Celtic support which contrasted starkly with the sullen and aggressive faces glowering at them from the doorways of Pubs best avoided. My old man used to warn my brothers and me about the dangers of following Celtic when we were kids. ‘Stick with the crowd,’ he would say, ‘get yer scarf in yer pocket after the game and watch out for that liberty taking mob.’ I’m sure the parents of many Rangers supporting lads were giving similar advice to them and I’m not for a moment suggesting Celtic fans are all angels but there is a minority among the Rangers support which hates all things Celtic with such visceral malevolence that it transcends the normal boundaries of sporting rivalry.

They are not taking this period in the Karma Café well nor are they enjoying the glee with which supporters of other clubs are reminding them that their days of being top dog in Scotland are long gone. What they fail to see is that their conceit about their ‘rightful place’ in Scottish football is actually holding them back and compounding their misery. Nothing is your ‘right’ in sport; everything has to be earned on merit and all the illusory superiority in the world won’t keep the ball out of the net if your team is poor.

I can’t help thinking that an opportunity was missed in the aftermath of the 2012 meltdown and subsequent liquidation of the old club. Had the new owners said then, let’s start afresh; be done with the bigotry of the past and build a team up under the guiding hand of an experienced coach then the club might have broken out of the straightjacket of their history. Instead men like Charles Green pandered to the ‘No Surrender’ mentality and fostered an absurd narrative which had some believing that despite breaking the rules of football on an industrial scale, they were somehow the victims.

 Sunday was a real joy to me as all Celtic victories are. These are great days to be a Celtic fan as the club is successful and thriving on and off the field. I see new stadiums taking shape and crowds on the up throughout the Scottish game. There is reason for optimism in our old game as the new century unfolds. 

I just wish some would join us in the 21st century and leave the failed and tarnished attitudes in the past where they belong.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

If you know the history

If you know the history

Billy McNeil once said that there was a fairy tale quality about Celtic and sometimes you could be forgiven for believing it’s true. The club has a habit of winning things on those historical occasions when fate decrees they rise from their slumber and put on a show. In the club’s Jubilee year of 1938, they won the title with an excellent young side which was sadly broken up by World War 2.

In the years after the war they were left floundering in the wake of excellent sides such as Hibs, Rangers and even Dundee. They finished eighth in the old First Division in season 1952-53 but were invited to make up the numbers in the Coronation Cup competition as they had such a big support. Spurs, Manchester United, Newcastle and Arsenal joined Hibs, Aberdeen, Rangers and Celtic in the competition and few gave Celtic a hope of success. Arsenal was English Champions in 1952-53 but Celtic, roared on by a huge crowd, defeated them 1-0 to reach the semi-final. Manchester United, English league Champions in 1952, were then dispatched 2-1 as Celtic’s success starved supporters sensed they could actually win this trophy. The excellent Hibs side of the era awaited them in the final having defeated Spurs and Newcastle. 117,000 crowded Hampden for the battle of the greens. The match was a classic as the ‘Famous Five’ forward line of Hibs surged forward towards a Celtic defence marshalled by Jock Stein. Celtic held them out and scored two goals of their own to seal a famous victory. The team brought in to make up the numbers had won the cup.

Four years later, Celtic approached the 1957 League Cup final in the midst of a poor league campaign which would see the then finish fifth and lose 11 of their 34 league matches.  Champions Rangers approached the game in fine fettle and were strong favourites. Of course on the day, Celtic turned in an astonishing exhibition of attacking football to destroy their opponents by 7 goals to 1. It was a brief flash of brilliance for the fans to enjoy before the club again descended to mediocrity, failing to win a single major honour for the next 8 years. The better players were sold as the board showed a lack of ambition which infuriated the fans at times. Between Maley’s last title in 1938 and Stein’s fist in 1966, Celtic was Scottish champions just once.

That 1966 Championship gave Celtic a chance to play in the European Cup for the very first time. Sides like Atletico Madrid, 1860 Munich, Liverpool and Inter Milan were all fancied to do well but Stein’s exciting young side roared through the competition playing exuberant attacking football.  That very philosophy which had marked out Celtic sides from the very beginning would meet its sternest test against the defensive masters of Inter Milan who faced them beneath the Lisbon sun. That ‘fairy tale’ McNeil spoke of was evident again as Celtic came from behind to demoralise and destroy the masters of ‘catenaccio’ with a display of attacking football which had all of Europe applauding them. Winning was important but the manner of victory was important too. Celtic had won the European cup in a way which kept faith with the finest traditions of the club.

So it came to pass that Celtic began their Centenary season in the summer of 1987 with Billy McNeil trying to put a side together which would match a Rangers side which was spending huge amounts of money on players and had the previous season won their first title in nine years. It was daunting task for the Hoops and the first meeting of the clubs at Celtic Park in August 1987 was eagerly anticipated. It was a frantic game with both sides fully committed. Celtic fans were encouraged by their team’s play and fight and Billy Stark’s goal was greeted with scenes of bedlam on the terraces. Souness was sent packing for a typically ruthless tackle and Celtic won the day. That win set the tone for a season in which the side fought to the end in every game. Late winners came in a host of matches as the centenary Celts roared clear at the top of the league. With the championship within touching distance they faced a strong Hearts side in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. Celtic trailed 1-0 with 88 minutes on the clock but in an astonishing finale they turned the game around and won 2-1 amid scenes of utter jubilation. Once again on the historical occasions the club was doing something special.

History records that Celtic clinched the 1987-88 title in a 3-0 victory against Dundee at a Celtic Park overflowing with spectators and emotion. The centenary champions then lined up at Hampden in May 1988 to take on Dundee United. As was their way, Celtic did it the hard way. Trailing to a Kevin Gallagher goal and with time running out, they pounded the Dundee United defence. Frank McAvennie headed the equalising goal as Hampden roared sensing the comeback was on. In the dying seconds of the last competitive game of their centenary year, McAvennie struck again to give Celtic the cup. Tommy Burns, as much a Celtic fan as any of us on the terracing that day said with a sense of what it meant historically for the club… ‘When people look back 100 years from now, I’ll be in the team which done the double!’

A generation after the centenary year triumph, Celtic celebrated their 125th year in Scottish football. A service was held in St Mary’s church on 6 November 2012 and a group of Barcelona Directors took their place in the church no doubt feeling the history surrounding the Glasgow club. The following evening their side took the field at what was perhaps the finest ever night at the famous old ground. Of course the Catalans with players such as Iniesta, Messi, Alves, Xavi and Pique in their ranks were supremely confident. Celtic faced them without their top striker in Gary Hooper and had an 18 year old called Tony Watt on the bench who cost £50,000.

Those of you who attended that match will testify to the sheer dogged tenacity of Lennon’s side who harried and badgered their illustrious opponents throughout the game. We dared to dream when Wanyama headed Celtic into the lead and then one of those moments occurred which lodge themselves in the mind for a lifetime. From my seat in the North Stand I watched a kick out from the outstanding Fraser Forster being missed by a Barcelona defender. Suddenly Tony Watt was racing in on goal. 60,000 people watched in anticipation as the teenager steadied himself before slamming the ball into the net. Bedlam ensued as the celebrating supporters hugged, screamed and roared their heads off. It was incredible; it was the stuff of legend. Celtic’s victory over the reigning European champions that night was simply stunning. Barcelona was at the peak of its powers at that time and Celtic, on their 125th anniversary had defeated them.

Of course Maley’s side of 1938, the Coronation cup winners of 53, through to the Lions and the centenary Celts had the backing of a huge and noisy Celtic support. It can never be underestimated how much the Celtic supporters drive the side on and the supreme example of that was when Celtic defeated Barcelona in 2012. At times the Catalans threatened to overwhelm the Celtic defence but a wall of noise around the stadium roused the players to give every ounce of energy they had to the cause and the team saw it through to the end.

Tomorrow Celtic seek to add another trophy to their illustrious history. I’m sure the supporters will bring the thunder as usual and drive them on. The ‘fairy tale’ Billy McNeil spoke of has many more chapters waiting to be written.

Friday, 20 April 2018

A Harsh Reality

A Harsh Reality

Celtic’s stroll to victory over Rangers in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final at Hampden Park on Sunday was just about the most one sided and stress free derby I’ve ever watched. Rangers arrived at Hampden making noises which betrayed either an ill-conceived over confidence or perhaps it was some sort of cock-eyed attempt to push Celtic into a state of nervousness about the fixture. Tales of cheering in the dressing room at Ibrox when the draw paired them with Celtic seemed a lifetime ago as the blue half of Hampden melted away in the face of a Celtic onslaught which simply blew their side away. In those closing 15 minutes, a demoralised side was chasing shadows, as a dejected support was already on its way home. Sports Journalist, Graham Spiers, summed it up when he wrote…. ‘Utter humiliation for Rangers at Hampden. They were treated with contempt by Celtic.’

This, the latest in a series of defeats against Brendan Rodgers Celtic, was in some ways the most damaging. Hope, it is said, is the thing which kills. Many Rangers supporters approached the match at Hampden with a degree of unrealistic optimism based on their narrow 3-2 defeat to Celtic at Ibrox a month before. They did play reasonably well in that game but faced a Celtic side which gifted them the opening goal, played the last 30 minutes with ten men and still came from behind twice to beat them. Celtic did what they needed to do to win the match and Rodgers sorted out the defensive errors which made the Ibrox game tighter than it needed to be.

Celtic started the game at Hampden well and demonstrated a degree of footballing mastery over their opponents which had their fans confident that the real Celtic was yet again turning up when it mattered most. Brown was imperious, McGregor full of running and guile and Dembele demonstrating that when he is in the mood no defence in Scotland can contain him. The whole team played with conviction and a confidence which is born of belief in themselves, the team and the manager. Contrast a Rangers side, seemingly confused about the shape they were meant to be adopting, to a Celtic side moving the ball with ease around the pitch and simply playing around the congested midfield. Tactically and technically, Celtic was streets ahead.

Rodgers, who has 7 Hampden appearances under his belt and has recorded 7 wins there, had said in the run up to the game that Rangers should be, ‘careful what they wish for.’  He knows well that good teams should do their talking on the field and save the cheering until victory is certain. He also respects all opposition sides and prepares his team in a professional and thorough manner. His ten games without defeat against Rangers eclipses Walter Smith’s nine games undefeated in the period between 1995-97. One English based newspaper said of Rodgers’ hold over Rangers….

He is no longer a monkey on Rangers’ back; he is a two hundred pound boulder.’

I’m sure Brendan Rodgers felt a little sympathy for Graham Murty, an honest and seemingly decent man, who stood looking very alone amid a crowd, watching his team being dismantled by clearly superior opposition. Striker Leigh Griffiths though was less charitable and echoed the thoughts of many fans when he said…

“That was a game that they cheered for. Their manager said that, but you should be careful what you wish for in case it comes back to bite you on the arse. You always want to beat your rivals and, from start to finish, we dominated the game in every aspect.”

Murty may have deserved better than the squabbling and insubordinate reaction of his players in the wake of the defeat but it is hard to feel any sympathy for supporters who fix banners reading; ‘We Deserve Better’ to the training ground gates. Such an attitude of entitlement betrays a mind-set which has still to come to terms fully with the implications of the implosion at Ibrox in 2012 which saw the old club liquidated. There is a new reality in Scottish football which many of their followers have yet to grasp. Not only are Rangers now forced to operate within the same financial rules as the rest of the clubs in the league, they also face a Celtic streets ahead in both footballing terms and in business acumen which helps to sustain footballing success. There can be no big name stars brought in to Ibrox these days using dodgy tax avoidance schemes. There is no David Murray figure with access to pots of borrowed capital to boast; ‘if they put down a fiver we’ll put down a tenner.’ Nor is there a compliant and fawning media to uncritically peddle the puffed up pro-Rangers narrative we were fed in the bygone days of yore. Rangers are now learning the harsh realities of living within your means. Something Fergus McCann taught Celtic over 20 years ago.

Celtic now move forward confident that they will soon clinch their seventh successive title and with a realistic opportunity to complete a historic second successive Treble. Nothing can be taken for granted as Motherwell will line up at Hampden in May with their usual determined and direct approach to the game. It will be far from easy but Celtic have the winning mentality Rodgers often speaks of.

He is rebuilding his reputation at Celtic and has been linked already with the upcoming job at Arsenal when Arsene Wenger leaves his post at the end of the season. When asked if Celtic would allow Arsenal to approach Rodgers, Desmond replied:

"Absolutely. I don't think you can put handcuffs on anybody if they want to go to a club as good as Arsenal. It will be Brendan's decision and his decision only. I'm glad he's the favourite. He's an outstanding person. We wouldn't want him to leave but we won't force him to stay. Hopefully his love for the club and the setup here will induce him to stay at the club."

On the surface that statement by Desmond sounds ominous for Celtic fans but it contains two huge questions. Would Arsenal be interested in Rodgers and would Rodgers be interested in Arsenal? He is a young coach at 45 with plenty of time to move on to pastures new when he has completed his project at Celtic. I believe he is happy and committed to Celtic for a while yet. He has manifestly conquered Scotland but sees his real challenge in smashing through the glass ceiling Celtic currently encounter in Europe. He was asked recently about his future at Celtic and smiled as he replied…

‘There is still a lot of work for me to do, to achieve on the pitch and off the pitch. But you can only do that if you’re happy and as for me, I couldn’t be happier at this club. The support I get from the board is all very aligned, very clear and that allows me to work in confidence. It gives stability to the team and to the staff and everyone. I am looking for the next steps to take and we are already thinking of how we can improve next year. How we can be better in our form and game, in all aspects. I might get more money elsewhere but what I’ve learnt is that happiness is the most important thing. As long as I feel that way, then I’m really happy to be here. My ambition is for Celtic. I’m not worried about myself and my own ambition. I want to sustain this level of success for as long as I can.’

It may be somewhat ominous for the other sides in Scottish football to hear, but Rodgers sounds like a man likely to stick around at Celtic Park for a good while yet.  He is a top manager and brings all the skills and contacts which come with that but more than that, he is a Celtic supporter thoroughly enjoying his time at the club he has such affection for. He also knows that it is within his grasp to write new chapters in Celtic’s history and take his place among the greats who have served the club over the last 130 years.

As most of you reading these words will know, once Celtic is in your heart it is hard to walk away. I hope Brendan Rodgers stays around for a few years yet and joins the legends adorning the stadium walls.