Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The King of Kings

Sometimes teachers give children good advice and sometimes they are well off the mark. Lise Lotte Johanson was an experienced Primary school teacher who had heard many young children talking about their impossible dreams in school. Among the wannabe astronauts, Film stars and Presidents was a skinny boy with sallow skin and a distinctive mop of hair. She recalls telling this tousle haired nine year old that he should stick at his academic studies as he was unlikely to make a living playing football. The young lad refused to listen and continued to dream of growing up and becoming a professional football player. The lad’s name was, of course, Henrik Edward Larsson and I, for one, am glad he chose to ignore his teacher.

Every once in a while a player comes along and you simply feel in your bones that you are watching one of the true greats to wear those Hoops. I have been blessed in my time following Celtic to see some tremendous players wear those famous shirts with grace and distinction. We have had great club men like McStay, McGrain, McNeil, Lennox and Burns. We have had extraordinary talents like Di Canio, Jinky and Dalglish. However, the contribution Henrik Larsson made to Celtic was simply incredible given he had just 7 short seasons in the green. Not just his 242 goals in 315 games. Not even his current British Club record of 34 goals in European competition. Henrik was an all-round player who brought others into the game and would create as many goals as he scored with his tireless running and team ethic. He would harass defenders even during games in which Celtic had built up a comfortable lead. He was a consummate professional who trained well, looked after himself and lived a fairly quiet life for a professional sports star.  He was a dedicated family man and a dedicated football player. He grew to love Celtic FC and we certainly grew to love him.

We all have our special memories of Henrik. From the perfection of his chip over Klos to the goals in Seville which marked him out as a very special player. His role in stopping the ‘Ten’ in 1998 is legendary as are his 15 goals in 30 Old Firm games; a tally which scarcely describes his all-round contribution to Celtic’s victories in many of those matches. From the Treble and 53 goals in 2001 to the heartbreak and pride of Seville, Henrik carried himself with humility and dignity. He once said of Seville that he would give up much of what he had achieved at Celtic to have won that game. Perhaps in time he’ll see that Seville restored Celtic’s reputation as a proud European Club again as well as showing our fans at their sporting best. Larsson put up with a lot of rough treatment from defenders who simply couldn’t contain him in a fair manner. He fought back from serious injuries such as a broken jaw and one of the worst leg breaks I’ve ever witnessed. He knew he had to go in where it hurt to get his goals and once said…

"Before a game, I always tell myself that it will hurt and it should hurt. I know I am bloody strong, stronger than them."

This steely determination allied to an excellent all-round game built on speed of thought, agility and excellent finishing made Henrik Larsson one of the most prolific strikers in Celtic’s history. His goals to games ratio is only bettered by Jimmy McGrory. He sits third in Celtic all time scorers list behind the great McGrory and the lightning fast Bobby Lennox. Amazingly, Lennox is just 31 goals ahead of Larsson despite playing in 572 matches to Larsson’s 315 for Celtic. But this excellent footballer was also a man who thought about the game too. When he thought Celtic were being disrespected by an arrogant Grahame Souness and Blackburn Rovers who said their UEFA Cup tie was ‘Men against Boys’ Larsson surprised the interviewer on live UK wide TV following Celtic’s triumph in the away tie by saying;

 ‘We were shit in Glasgow but they should learn a lesson, never talk until the game is finished.’

Many tears were shed when Larsson left Celtic. He had a hatful of medals and a head full of memories of seven fantastic years. His final appearance was a typical Larsson performance. Two goals against Dundee United left us with a feeling that he’d be a hard act to follow. Of course, we enjoyed watching him play for Barcelona and finally win a Champions League medal after turning a losing position into a winning one with skill and movement we of the green persuasion had savoured for seven happy seasons.  Losing Arsenal Star Thierry Henry was in no doubt about the vital factor in that Final. He couldn’t hide his admiration for the little Swede after the game and said…

"People always talk about Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Giuly and everything, but I didn't see them today, I saw Henrik Larsson. He came on, he changed the game, that is what killed the game. Sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto'o and people like that; you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference, and that was Henrik Larsson tonight.’’

A long time ago Miss Johanson urged young Henrik to study and forget those fantasies about being a footballer. So many hundreds of thousands of fans from Celtic Park to the Nou Camp are glad he followed his dream.  When asked how he enjoyed his two years at Barcelona he replied in typical style…

"I loved being at Barcelona and will be forever grateful for all the affection and support I was given there. The same goes for Celtic and nobody should have to ask what Celtic means to me." 

Nor should Henrik ever be in doubt about what he means to the Celtic family. Sometimes skill is not enough in professional football but Henrik brought with his undoubted footballing talent, guts, determination and that quiet authority which lets the opposition know he means business. The supporters knew that with Henrik in the team they were in with a chance regardless of the opposition. Goals in Europe, World Cup Finals and European Championship Finals as well as La Liga and the Premiership confirmed what we at Celtic knew from the start; this guy was a world class footballer and an utter professional.

In my memory Larsson hangs eternally in the air waiting to connect with the cross ball and direct it into the goal. He was a truly world class striker and it was both a privilege and an honour to watch this wonderful player grace the beloved Hoops.

Henrik Larsson; When will we see your likes again?


Sunday, 27 January 2013

Mixu, Albert and the Miracle of Love Street

Big Sean spotted Andy coming out of Mr Dormie, a shop specialising in Kilt hire and all manner of wedding clothes. ‘Andy ya big fud,’ he shouted with a smile across the busy City Centre street, ‘Is that you in ordering yer ball and chain?’ Andy crossed the street and sheepishly smiled at his best mate, ‘Trust you walking past at this time and aye, I was getting measured up for my wedding suit.’ The two friends strolled up Renfield Street in the bright April sunshine discussing the upcoming wedding. ‘Ye know if I didnae have three brothers you’d have been my best man Sean.’ Andy said. Sean smiled, ‘I know mate and don’t you worry wan wee bit about that, it’s cool. Having said that if you need any help siring your weans just let me know.’  Andy laughed out loud, ‘Ya cheeky bastard, I’ve had more birds than you’ve had hot dinners.’ Sean, quick as ever retorted, ‘I’m a vegetarian and never had a hot dinner so you’ve had wan burd then?’ The two friends continued the jokes and laughter all the way up Buchanan Street towards the bus station  and just before reaching it Andy led Sean into a betting shop. If Andy had one weakness it was gambling. Sean used to warn him about putting half his wages on some ‘hot tip’ which usually turned out to be a three legged donkey once the race had started. His mates called him ‘Mixu’ after the Dundee United footballer Mixu Paatelainen, not that he looked anything like the big Fin. Rather it was his gambling which had earned him the nickname  ‘Mixu Put-a-line-on.’ Less than 2 minutes later a lazy greyhound had cost ‘Mixu’ another ten pounds. ‘You want tae chuck this gambling lark,’ said Sean, ‘It’s a pure mugs game.’ Andy looked at his friend who had been by his side since Primary school. ‘Sean,’ he began in a halting voice, ‘I’ve done something really fuckin’ stupid, mate.’ Sean figured from his friends serious face that he wasn’t referring to losing a tenner on the dog.

The two friends sat in the café at Buchanan Street Bus Station nursing mugs of tea. ‘All of it?’ Sean asked incredulously, ‘four hundred and fifty quid?’ Andy nodded silently. ‘Fuck’s sake Andy, if Cathy finds out she might call the wedding off!’ Andy exhaled a long sigh, ‘They still might do it Sean eh?’ he said hopefully. Sean looked at his friend’s anxious face, ‘Andy there is no way you should be sticking your honeymoon money on Celtic winning the league. What the fuck were you thinking?’  Andy responded quietly, ‘They were four tae wan Sean, when do you ever see Celtic at four tae wan?’ Sean said louder than he should in the quiet café, ‘They’re four tae wan coz Hearts are five points clear and there’s only three fuckin’ games left. It’ll take a fuckin’ miracle for Celtic tae win this league!’  A few faces looked up from their tea cups to see where the raised voices were coming from. Sean shook his head and said in a quieter tone ‘Jesus Andy, you and your fuckin’ gambling. You’d better hope Hearts collapse.’

The prospect of Hearts collapsing seemed slim indeed that bright April as they had built up an impressive 24 match unbeaten run. They had also swept into the Scottish Cup final and seemed destined to be crowned champions for the first time since 1960. They were already being lauded as ‘Champions elect’ by some sportswriters. The following Saturday a distracted Andy joined Sean in the Jungle to watch Celtic defeat Hibs 2-0. Despite a solid win, the prospect of a Celtic title win still seemed distant. The following day, Hearts took on Aberdeen at Tynecastle and were held to a 1-1 draw. They were nervous and it showed. The gap was now 4 points with just 2 games left to play for Hearts and three for Celtic. Andy was a fit of nerves at the third last game of the season. Celtic pummeled a poor Dundee team 2-0 at Celtic Park but all ears were stuck to radios and they duly reported the bad news that a jittery Hearts had beaten Clydebank 1-0. Celtic then travelled to Fir Park on the last day of April 1986. Anything less than a win would mean that Hearts would be champions that night without kicking a ball. Celtic were not in the mood to give up on the title just yet and in a stirring display beat the home side 2-0. One game left and 2 points in it. Celtic and Andy still needed a miracle but at least it was going to the wire.

Saturday May 3rd 1986 dawned cloudy and dull. The weather seemed to bode ill but Andy had hardly slept a wink all night. He phoned Sean at 7am to make arrangements for the trip to Paisley. Celtic were travelling to play St Mirren and simply had to win by a few goals and hope somehow that the poor Dundee side Celtic had whipped a fortnight back would beat Hearts. The phone jarred Sean out of a beer induced sleep. ‘Andy? What time is it mate, have I slept in?’ ‘Naw Sean, listen bud, I want you to meet me at Clyde Street at quarter to ten. It’s important.’ With that he hung up. Sean looked at the clock by his bedside, ‘Seven in the morning!’ he cried, ‘I don’t fuckin’ believe it!’  He rolled out of bed and headed for the shower. By ten to ten a bleary Sean, wearing his beloved Hoops under his jacket, arrived at Clyde Street to meet Andy. He soon spotted him leaning on the railings by the river gazing at the grey waters of the Clyde which flowed through the heart of their home City. ‘Thinking of Jumping in mate?’ Sean said with a smile, placing a light hand on his friend’s shoulder. Andy smiled slightly, ‘I’ll tell ye at ten tae five tonight.’ Sean looked at him, ‘So why are we meeting so early mate, I’m no boozing at this time of day?’ Andy smiled, ‘I’m staying sober today, at least until after the match. I wanted to meet you early and ask you if you’d do me a wee favour?’  With that, Andy nodded across to the modest little Catholic Cathedral that sat on the opposite side of Clyde street.  ‘Mass starts in 5 minutes, I need all the help I can get today.’ Sean smiled a little, ‘It’s been a while while mate but hey, it can’t do any harm. Let’s go.’

The lunchtime train to Paisely from Glasgow Central was full of Celtic fans heading off to the deciding game of the season. Despite the majority feeling it was a long shot that they’d land the title, they were still in fine voice. Andy and Sean pushed into a carriage full of noisy fans who were already in full voice…

Will you stand in the band like a true Irishman?
We’re off to fight the forces of the crown
Will you March with O’Neil to an Irish Battlefield?
For tonight we’re off to free old Wexford town!’

Through the din Andy attracted Sean’s attention, ‘Sean. Hold this for me till after the game.’ He handed Sean a betting slip on which was written ‘Celtic to win the Premier Division.  £450.’  Sean exhaled and nodded folding the slip and putting it into the small pocked on the front of his jeans. ‘You never know Andy,’ he shouted through the noise, ‘you never know,’ Sean thought quietly to himself that it was a real long shot. Hearts were unlikely to lose to Dundee even if Celtic beat St Mirren by a bundle of goals. He hoped for the sake of his friend that the miracle might just happen.

A steady drizzle was falling on Love Street as they made their into the covered enclosure but the Celtic support were buzzing. They might not be able to control events in Dundee where Hearts were expected to beat the locals but they could damned well drive Celtic on and force Hearts to earn it. Celtic seemed up for it too and launched into St Mirren like men possessed from the start. In six minutes a corner was headed home by Brian McClair and the Hoops had the lead. Andy hugged Sean and jumped for joy but they needed more than a Celtic win today and inconsistent Dundee did not inspire confidence in Andy or Sean. In 32 minutes McStay sent Mo Johnstone clear on the right and he hammered home number two. Then came a goal of true beauty. A goal only teams like Celtic score…

Danny McGrain flicked a pass over his head on his own 18 yard line to Murdo McLeod. The tough little midfielder rolled it back to McGrain who passed to McStay and continued his run.  McStay turned a St Mirren Midfielder and rolled it to in the centre circle. Aitken immediately touched it back into the path of the overlapping McGrain who fed Brian McClair. A St Mirren defender rushed at McClair and seemed certain to dispossess him but the prolific striker nutmegged him to open the St Mirren defence. McClair then raced into the St Mirren box and squared the ball to the onrushing Mo Johnstone who smashed it home.  It was a goal of breathtaking skill, passing and movement.

It was one of the best team goals seen in Scottish football for years and had been crafted from beautiful one touch football played the Celtic way. It was 3-0! Celtic were making Hearts sweat but still the word from Dundee was 0-0.  As half-time approached McStay thundered in another and St Mirren were well beaten. As Celtic were cheered off at half time, Andy asked a nearby fan with a radio the score at Dundee. ‘Still 0-0 mate’ said the man with a wry smile. ‘Still 45 minutes to go though.’

The second half saw Celtic score again in the 50th minute then the team seemed to ease off the gas and toy with St Mirren waiting as the minutes ticked past for the news they so desperately wanted to hear from Dens Park. ‘How long to go now?’ Andy asked, Sean looked at his watch, ‘Fifteen minutes mate.’ Andy looked imploringly at the man with the radio pressed against his ear. He shrugged, ‘Still 0-0, Albert Kidd is on for McKinley.’  Andy could sense his hope slipping away. How would he tell Cathy he had lost the money they had both saved up over the last year to fund their Honeymoon? He became distracted as he watched the lime green shirted Celtic players knock the ball around but his mind was in Dundee. ‘Come on Dundee, for fuck’s sake get a goal’ he mumbled loud enough for Sean to hear. His friend smiled encouragingly, ‘It ain’t over till it’s over mate.’

The minutes dragged past and then, when Andy could almost feel tears welling inside of him, it happened.  65 miles away in Dundee in the 83rd minute of the game a corner was met by a Dundee attacker who headed it into a crowded box where substitute Albert Kidd blasted it high into the Hearts net. The roar in Dundee was loud but it was louder in Paisley. Andy and Sean hugged each other for sheer joy as the Celtic support exploded upon hearing the news from Dundee. A huge wave of euphoria and noise swept around  Love Street. But there was still six minutes left Hearts would surely throw everything at Dundee as they sought an equalizer. Then, with 3 agonizing minutes remaining in far off Dundee Albert Kidd picked up the ball on the half way line, raced past two Hearts players, played a one-two with a team mate and smashed home a second. Incredibly Dundee were 2-0 up! Love Street was euphoric and Andy stood with his hands covering his face unable to stop the tears flowing. Sean, delighted for Celtic but more delighted for his mate held him like a brother as they waited for the final whistle. Then it was over. Celtic were the Champions in an astonishing climax to the season. The two friends watched as a green wave of joy poured from the terraces and engulfed the Celtic players. Against all the odds they had triumphed. The serried ranks of Celtic fans, those who believed and those who didn’t think this was possible, sang their hearts out as the team reappeared for a lap of honour. The two friends who had grown up watching Celtic and shared in all their triumphs and disasters now stood with their arms around each other’s shoulders singing in unison with thousands of others... ‘Walk on, walk on, with hope in your hearts!’ Celtic had done it and in another way so had Andy.

As the delighted but emotionally and physically drained Celtic fans poured back onto the Glasgow train after the game, Andy pledged that he was finished with gambling forever.  His winnings would take him and Cathy on a far grander Honeymoon than she had dared hope for and Sean kept his secret about how close Andy had come to losing it all. Only a magnificent effort from his beloved Celtic and perhaps a small intervention from a certain Albert Kidd had made the miracle of Love Street possible. It had been quite a day.


Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Whale trying to be a Dolphin
As a fan who appreciates the more witty banter and insults I’ve heard from the Celtic faithful over the years, I thought it might be interesting to record for posterity some of the funnier lines I’ve heard at Celtic games. Apologies for the industrial language at times but it did add spice to the points made at the time.
Usually we rip into the opposition as Henry Smith, former Hearts goalkeeper found out when, after an error, a wag shouted that he had ‘Seen better hands on a fuckin leper!’ Or Rangers keeper, Peter ‘The Girvan Lighthouse’ McLoy who was known by Celtic fans as ‘The Girvan Shite-house.’

On other occasions we can be a little searing to our own. I recall a voice from the old Jungle shouting out in the early 80s, ‘Come on McGarvey, give us a bit of magic!’ To which the instant riposte was delivered by an equally loud but more critical voice further back, ‘Aye, fuckin disappear!’

I once watched John Hartson leave the Centre forward berth and charge up the wing, before slipping and falling on his ample ass. The ball was lost and a wag noted, ‘That’s a whale trying to be a dolphin!’  ‘I know’ added his pal, ‘He’s the only player I’ve ever seen who can trap a ball with his cleavage!’

When Eyal Berkovik joined Celtic we expected a tough Israeli battler but when he jumped out of a tackle in his first game a fan commented, ‘I think we’ve signed the only shite bag in Israel!’

A badge I spotted on a Celtic fans scarf proclaimed that ‘Artur Boruc has held more balls than Jordan.’

As Celtic played Forfar in a Cup tie in the early 90s and we shared some banter with the locals at the rather dilapidated Station Park. ‘That’s the centenary Stand’ a local said pointing to the wee main stand. ‘What, it was built 100 years ago you mean?’ came the reply.

Two Hoops fans were discussing the attractive female Chelsea physio…’Did ye see her on match of the day?, I’d play doors wi her aw right.’  His bemused pal responded. ‘What does that mean?’ he was informed, ‘She’d be a door and I’d slam her all night!’

Linesmen at the old Jungle would have torrid abuse hurled at them as well as the occasional beer can in the old days. I recall a stout man beside me giving a linesman pelters for about 89 minutes. Every offside decision was met with shouts like ‘I can see that masonic ring ya wee bastard,’ or ‘I’ll shove that flag so far up your arse you’ll be fartin oot off side decisions for the rest of yer miserable fuckin life!’ After virtually a whole game of such abuse the linesman raised his flag for yet another offside decision. The big man bellowed out, ‘LINESMAN!’ as the poor man’s shoulders sagged waiting for another cutting insult he was surprised to hear, ‘Ye got wan right for a change ya prick!’

Referees got regular abuse too. Hugh Dallas was being discussed at half time in the stands one day after a dodgy first half performance. ‘He’s a dirty, smelly, ugly, corrupt, cheating Bastard,’ one fan commented. At which a friend cut in, ‘And that’s just his good points!’

As Tony Mowbray struggled to change Celtic’s fortunes, a fan commented, ‘We used to me miserable and unhappy but Tony has turned that all around…now we’re unhappy and miserable!’

I recall the laconic Garry Gillespie, injury prone Celtic defender of the 90s being called ‘The Tampon’ by fans (In for a week then out for three) His relaxed style caused one fan to comment, ‘Any less activity and he’ll be in fuckin coma!’

Tony Cascarino, who scored goals for every club he played for apart from Celtic. After a bad miss as in one match, a fan commented that he was…’A feckin Lourdes Case!’  When he finally did score against Hearts after 12 games, Celtic Park exploded but sadly just a minute later he punched Craig Levein at a corner, got sent off and gave away a penalty.

I’m sure all of you Hoops fans out there will be able to add your own memories of insults and put downs you’ve heard over the years. Celtic fans can be very funny and witty when dishing out stick and it is, after all part of the fun of attending football. I hope this short list made you smile and I’m sure you could add to it.


Wednesday, 23 January 2013

John Park and the Golden Generation
If I were to ask you which signing has been the most important addition to the Celtic squad in the last decade you might say Brown, Hooper, Forster, Ledley or even wee Emilio. However, in my opinion the best signing Celtic made in the last decade was a man few of you would recognise if you crossed paths in the street.

Let me take you back a decade or so to the small Fife town of Hill O’ Beith. The town is famous as the birthplace of Slim Jim Baxter, a midfielder of grace and skill who was part of a golden generation of Scottish players who graced the game in the 1960s. Across from the statue of Jim Baxter which now stands as a permanent memorial to a great player was the home of a young footballer who in 2003 at just 17 had just led Hibernian to a solid victory against Aberdeen. He was part of a ‘Golden generation’ of talent coming through at Easter Road in those days. Lads like Caldwell, Roirdan, O’Connor, Fletcher, Thompson and Whittaker were all developing into players who, in some cases would change hands for millions of pounds. 17 year old Scott Brown was part of that group and said in 2003 just after his Hibs debut…

"The statue to Jim Baxter is right across from my house, I was there when it was unveiled and I see it every day. If I can achieve half of what he did in football then I’ll have had a pretty successful career."

Brown, like many of the young stars of Hibs’ ‘Golden generation’ was spotted by the Hibs Chief Scout, John Park. Park had snapped Brown up as a 13 year old having watched him play and realized his potential was immense. Celtic parted with £4.4 million to secure Scott Brown in 2007 and John Park would have smiled to see the cocky 13 year old he spotted develop into an international player and mix it with the best in Europe. However, much as Scott Brown was a great signing for Celtic, it is not the midfielder whom I consider Celtic’s best signing this decade, rather it is John Park himself. Celtic’s Chief scout joined the Hoops in January 2007 after Peter Lawell and Gordon Strachan persuaded him that this was the job for him. Park, a modest but supremely professional man said upon his appointment…

“I’m delighted to be here. It’s a fantastic opportunity and I’m looking forward to getting started. The Football Development Manager role has developed because Celtic is such a massive club. They’re looking to co-ordinate all the scouting, all the recruitment throughout the club, and they have seen me as the person deemed fit enough to take up the position.''

As Football Development Manager and immediately set about restructuring Celtic’s youth system and scouting team. Celtic’s policy was to be akin to club’s such as Ajax or Porto; Develop young players and, if required sell some on to finance further investment in up and coming Scottish and world-wide talent. In these challenging financial times in the low revenue environment of Scottish Football, it is the only course open to an ambitious club like Celtic. Access to the wealth of the English League is denied to them and the Champions League is at best an intermittent pot of gold. This year’s adventures being the first good run there in 4 or 5 years. The resurgence of Celtic in Scotland and in Europe is linked to the influx of talented young players who quickly adapted to Scottish Football and blended into Lennon’s team shape.

McGeady may have gone but his transfer fee went a long way to securing players such as Wanyama. Izziguirre, Kayal, Hooper, Matthews and Ledley. John Park and his team identified these young potential stars early and Celtic were able acquire them for very reasonable prices. Hooper at £2.2m was the most expensive purchase but is currently worth three times that amount. Wanyama cost £900,000 and would now sell for more than 10 times that amount. This pattern of identifying young talent, snapping it up and improving the players involved by exposing them to excellent coaching methods is now firmly established at Celtic.  Scouting is no longer about standing by rain sodden ash football pitches in the west of Scotland watching young lads battle it out. It is an international business involving agents, DVDs of potential targets being watched and scouts travelling all over the world. That being said, Tony Watt was identified by Park playing for Airdrie United and Lennon was duly alerted. There seems little doubt that the £100,000 spent on Watt is money well spent. Just ask Javier Mascherano of Barcelona who probably earns that in a week.  

John Park is the hub of a very successful Celtic Scouting team which has helped Neil Lennon assemble a squad full of youth and potential. Peter Lawell too will be impressed by Park’s record too as he has delivered some excellent assets to the club with sell on values far in excess to their cost. The sale of midfielder Ki Sung Yeung to Swansea for £6m would have caused some backlash in years gone by but such is the depth of the Celtic midfield talent, his passing has hardly been noticed. Indeed, if anything Celtic are stronger in that area as well as healthier at the bank. The youth system which has produced talent like Forest and McGeoch, continues to lead the way in Scotland. The native talent being nurtured by Park, Chris McCart and the coaching team at Lennoxtown is augmented by talent from around the world identified by Park and his team. It is fair to say that Celtic is currently the undisputed number one club in Scotland. They have financial stability, a talented and valuable young squad and a professional and effective scouting and coaching system which regularly unearths some diamonds for the club. Much of this success is built on the excellent teamwork from Lawell, Lennon and Park.  The man responsible for the golden generation at Hibs may now be helping develop a golden generation at Celtic.

These are good times to be a Celtic fan. Our club is in excellent shape and the future looks bright. We owe many people for that, the fans, the Board and the manager. But just for today, I want to single John Park and hope that at least some of you agree that he has been a splendid acquisition for Celtic. His fine work is serving Celtic well and long may this continue.


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Magic Moments
In all sports there are moments of brilliance which raise them from the mundane and every day to an elevated plane. We saw this brilliance when African American athlete Jesse Owens won 4 Olympic gold medals in front of Hitler in 1936 and blew a hole in any idea of black inferiority to the ‘Master Race.’ We saw it again when an ageing boxer Muhammad Ali astonished the critics by defeating the awesome power of George Foreman in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ It was there too when Olga Korbut scored a perfect 6 from every judge for her gymnastic display at the 1972 Olympics. All sports fans who know their preferred sport well will point to moments which made them gasp in astonishment.

Football has had its share of such moments too and they are often linked to context. The last minute winner, the audacious piece of skill, the underdog triumphing. Those of you of a certain vintage will recall when diminutive Scot Archie Gemmill scored a goal of sublime beauty at the world cup in Argentina in 1978. The sheer beauty of Archie Gemmill’s goal for Scotland against the brilliant Dutch team in 1978 encapsulated the skill and defiance that marks so much of Scottish football’s history. Similarly the goal scored by Marco Van Basten for Holland in the European Championship Final against the USSR in 1988 was not something you can coach or teach. It is a piece of instinctive brilliance from a player born with the natural gifts to enable him to envisage such a goal and then to score it. For the younger fan, Zinedine Zidane’s perfectly executed volley in the European Cup final at Hampden for Real Madrid will live long in the memory. The poetic beauty of Messi when he is on song is also a joy to behold as is the more mercurial talents of Christiano Ronaldo or Ronaldinho.

Following Celtic has provided me with moments that I’ll never forget till my dying day. The sheer beauty and precision of Henrik Larsson’s chip over Stefan Kloss in the 6-2 game was just incredible to watch. Larsson seemed to drift past defender Konterman as if he wasn’t there before deftly lifting the ball over the onrushing keeper. The ball looped over the stranded German keeper, as we held our breath, astonished at the Swede’s audacity, and watched as the ball arced perfectly into the net. It was a moment of brilliance that no coach could have taught Henrik on the training field.

In 2008 as Celtic chased down Rangers for the title, they were tied 1-1 in the 93rd minute of a must win Old Firm game at Celtic Park. It was then that a Caldwell cross was headed back across goal by Scott McDonald to be met by the diving Venegoor of Hesselink who scored a dramatic last gasp winner. We wanted the title so badly in 2008, it was to be our tribute to the great Tommy Burns. The explosion of joy which greeted that goal roared out to the world, ‘It’s on, we can do this!’  It was indeed on and we did do it!

We also saw a moment of technical brilliance when Celtic squared up to Manchester United in the 2006 Champions League at Celtic Park. I was in the packed North stand in line with Nakamura as he placed the ball carefully on the grass about 30 yards from goal. The crowd were willing him to score and a chant of ‘Celtic, Celtic, Celtic,’ built from a low growl to a deafening roar. It was as if those who followed Celtic were willing the ball into the net. As Nakamura began his run we held our breaths and a second of silence reigned as he struck the ball with his wonderful left foot. It flew high over the Manchester United wall before dipping perfectly and crashing into the top corner of the net. If a goal can be beautiful, that one was.

Such moments of high drama may be more frequent in vital games but can equally occur during the bread and butter of domestic football. We all hold memories of our greatest moment following our team. My Grandfather spoke of Patsy Gallagher somersaulting into the net with the ball between his feet in the cup final. My father swore Gemmel blasting the equalizing goal against Inter in Lisbon was the best moment he had enjoyed watching the Hoops because he knew then we would win and become European Champions. My son told me that the astonishing victory against Barcelona in November was the greatest football match he had ever attended. Celtic, the green thread which runs through the fabric of our lives has provided us with so many wonderful moments to savour. Above are just a few of mine. 

What were your magic moments following the famous Glasgow Celtic?


Friday, 18 January 2013

Farewell to the man of Iron
Sean Fallon 1922-2013

Lough Gill stradles the counties of Sligo and Leitrim in the west of Ireland and is by any measure a place of great beauty. Its connection to Celtic Football Club is both accidental and important. Celtic legend Sean Fallon’s sister, Lilly, got into trouble in the lough and was in mortal peril when a visiting Scottish tourist dived in to rescue her. Needless to say the grateful Fallon invited the man to his house and the two got talking. Joe McMenemy told Fallon that his father, Jimmy, had once played for the famous Glasgow Celtic. Fallon, a Gaelic sports fanatic and keen swimmer listened with interest. When a parcel arrived at his County Sligo home some time later he opened it and looked at the Celtic strip Joe had sent to him and a book by Willie Maley; ‘The Story of Celtic.’ Fallon was smitten, the whole idea of Celtic fired his imagination. He knew that playing ‘Barrack’ games like football would spell the end of his Gaelic games career as the GAA frowned upon what it considered a British game. Despite this he joined several Irish clubs and impressed the Celtic Scouts enough to be invited to Glasgow to try his luck with the Hoops. His natural fitness, toughness and no little skill made Celtic warm to the young Sligo man. He made his debut in 1950 and soon earned the nickname the ‘Iron man’ for his ability to give it out and take back without complaint in the tough, physical world of 1950s football.

Celtic were struggling in the early 50s as Rangers, Hibs and Aberdeen fielded teams which seemed to beat them at will. Jimmy McGrory’s team had an opportunity to give the fans some cheer in 1951 when they appeared in the cup final against a dangerous Motherwell team.  Fallon helped Celtic to a hard fought 1-0 victory to send the Celtic fans in the 120,000 crowd home happy. By 1954 Celtic had won the double and the fans hoped better days were here to stay but alas the title eluded them for 12 long years after that. There were still some astonishing displays such as the unforgettable 7-1 demolition of favourites Rangers in the 1957 League cup final or the unlikely Coronation cup triumph.  However, Celtic tended to sell their better players at that time and go with youth. For Fallon, tough as they were, the 1950s were a time when he proved to be a reliable player who wore the Hoops with pride and distinction. The Celtic warrior once broke his collarbone playing against Hearts and returned to the field with his arm in a sling to complete the game. He also welcomed to Celtic Park a veteran Centre Half who some openly stated was past it. Indeed Fallon recognised the man’s leadership qualities and made him his vice-captain. The man was called Jock Stein.

As injury and the passing years affected both men’s playing careers, they often talked about management and the sort of football they’d like to see their teams play. A long lasting bond formed between Fallon and Jock which was to prove very beneficial for Celtic FC.  It is now a matter of record that the greatest era in Celtic’s history occurred when Jock Stein and Sean Fallon led Celtic to 25 major trophies in 11 astonishing years. Jock, who was once asked to be Fallon’s Vice Captain, returned the compliment by asking Sean to be his Assistant Manager. They guided Celtic to unheard of success culminating in that victory in Lisbon.

Sean Fallon loved Celtic. He was involved as player and manager in 29 major trophy wins and was the last living link involved in the 7-1 game and the glory of Lisbon. He had the heart of a Lion and fought till the end in every game he played for his beloved Hoops. It brought immense joy that this son of Sligo, like Walfrid before him, brought much honour and distinction to Celtic. He was proud indeed to be asked to unfurl the league flag at Celtic Park in the Summer of 2012 and received a rapturous welcome from a home crowd who recognised the contribution this great Celt had made to our club. When Celtic won their 9 in a row, Sean was there. In the heat of Lisbon, Sean was there. When it was seven past Niven, Sean was there. This great Celt once said of his career with typical modesty…

"I was just an ordinary player with a big heart and a fighting spirit to recommend me."

He was more than that, much more. He was a man who loved Celtic as much as any of us who stood on the old terraces or who sit in our big new stadium. A man who never shirked a tackle and gave 100% for the Hoops on every occasion he wore that shirt or prowled the dugout with big Jock. The Celtic family remembers a great club servant and man who fought Celtic’s corner with passion, pride and skill.

Rest in Peace Sean, our man of Iron. What stories you, big Jock and Jinky will be sharing now.


Thursday, 17 January 2013

50 Shades green

The packed North Stand at Celtic Park was roaring as Agathe sped down the wing,  one bright October day. Hibs were being stubborn as they sometimes are, 30 minutes in and still 0-0. However with Larsson and Sutton up front I was confident we’d break them down in the end.  Kevin Harper of Hibs, Celtic fan, graduate of the mean streets of Possilpark and of mixed race, clashed with McNamara in front of us and that was when big Col from 2 rows behind me decided to let loose.  We’ve all had a ‘big Col’ sitting near us over the years and it’s seldom pleasant. A fair description of his level of intelligence would probably match the old expression: ’The wheel’s turning but the Hamster’s dead.’  ‘Harper ya wee Bastard,’ he began ‘Ya fucking Possil junkie Bastard!’ he went on. Standard fair so far for those of limited vocabulary, not nice to hear but we’ve all heard worse. But big Col went too far that day. ‘Ya fuking monkey, oooh, oooh ,oooh!’  I turned to look at big Col’s red face as he spat this garbage out. He looked half pissed, red faced and angry. A hardy soul a further row back remonstrated with him, ‘Ow Pal, we don’t do that shit here, this isn’t fucking Ibrox.’ Big Col turned and sneered at him, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ as his friend beside him calmed him a little as play raged on and we all refocused on the game.

Thinking back over my time following Celtic, incidents like that have been rare. Although I have say that once in my life I actually considered not going back to Celtic again following a disgraceful exhibition by a few dozen morons wearing the colours of my beloved team. Older fans will remember and no doubt cringe at the memory of Mark Walters debut for Rangers at Celtic Park in January 1988. I stood in the Celtic end and looked on is disbelief as two fans arrived in full monkey suits. Others had bought bananas to throw onto the Park. This was Celtic fans, most likely the offspring of despised Irish immigrants, the ones who knew what discrimination and brainless bigotry were. Yet here were some of them disgracing the name of Celtic and embarrassing vast majority of decent fans of the club. Of course the press jumped on it (Conveniently ignoring 90 minutes of F**k the Pope from the away fans) and dragged Celtic’s name through the gutter. The Celtic Fanzine Not the View was scathing in its attack on what it called ‘Racist arseholes’ and are to be commended for getting this issue out in the open and letting some light into a very dark corner. The hypocrisy emanating from the Rangers camp was astounding. The club’s fans were chanting about being ‘Up to their knees in Fenian Blood’ every week and not a word said. Now however, they launched into the ‘Racist Celtic fans’ with glee. Some still post videos of that day on YouTube and try to pass it off as typical behaviour from Celtic fans which it most certainly is not.  Despite Celtic winning the game 2-0 against Souness and co, I went home from that game disgusted that Celtic fans could behave like that. This was our centenary Season, a year to remember with pride and these pricks had spoiled it all. It was my lowest point as a Celtic fan, no crap season or Old Firm defeat felt as bad as the feeling I had that day. I’d listened for years to the bile coming from Rangers fans and thought we were better than that. The blue clad morons who chanted ‘Wilson’s a Darkie’ back in the 70s (Paul Wilson had a Portugese mother) were beyond the pale and not like us I reasoned. As I chatted about it to my brother that night he reminded me that there were tens of thousands of Celtic fans at the game and only a few had let the club down. Celtic was worth fighting for wasn’t it?  

I’m glad to say I decided it was. In the years since then there have been isolated incidents involving Celtic ‘fans’ and racism. The idiot who racially abused El Haj Diouf a couple of years ago being the exception rather than the rule at Celtic Park. Thankfully he has been banned and will perhaps think again before behaving like such a prat. We are better educated on such issues these days and I think more aware of the all seeing eye of the media which will mercilessly publicise any incidents. The ‘Tar them all with the one brush’ attitude of some parts of the media means we all have a responsibility to protect the good name of our club and supporters. Seville showed what we are capable of and the accolades given to the fans after that football fiesta were richly deserved. They showed humour and sportsmanship even in the teeth of a bitter defeat. When one saw how others reacted in a similar situation in Manchester in 2008, it demonstrated a cultural divide between the two sets of supporters. I think Celtic fans learned a bitter lesson on that dark day in 1988 and are more prone to challenging the idiots who rear their unthinking heads from time to time at Celtic games. This is our club and we are all have a responsibility to making it the sort of club anyone from any walk of life or ethic/religious group would be proud to support. It only takes a few people behaving poorly to tarnish us all. Celtic fans may be green but they are increasingly many shades of green. You only need one qualification to follow the hoops and that is a love for the wonderful Glasgow Celtic. Open to all or not at all!

Epilogue: 28th December 2011, Joe Ledely rises above the Rangers defence and bullets the winner into the net. The dark, brooding skies of Glasgow’s east end are rent by a huge roar as Celtic Park explodes. Hammy beside me hugs me like a long lost son as we literally jump for joy. Hammy’s real name is Muhammad and is one of a growing number of Scottish Asians to join the Celtic family. Later, as I throw my arm across his shoulder and we're ‘Doing the Huddle’ he grins at me, ‘I love this  Club’ he shouts through the noise. I smile back, ‘Me too Hammy, me too.’  

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Flags, 'Flegs' and Celtic FC

The symbolism of the Irish flag which flies over Celtic Park is clear. This is a club proud of is heritage and determined not to forget the sacrifices and vision of the founding fathers. That being said, Celtic is equally proud of being a Scottish club with fans from all walks of life.  Early newspaper reports refer to Celtic as the ‘Irishmen’ as most of their team or fans were Irish of first generation Scottish-Irish. The green flag with the gold harp which flew from the stadium in the early days was replaced in time by the flag of the newly independent Ireland. It flew proudly above the old Jungle for years without causing a stir until a series of trouble filled Old Firm games in the late 40s and early 50s brought the flag to the centre of attention. Old Firm games after the war were feisty affairs and much of the crowd were either drunk or had alcohol with them. ‘Bottle showers’ were not uncommon after dubious refereeing decisions or goals scored by the opposition. Segregation was voluntary and the ‘hot heads’ mustered behind each goal while the saner souls would stand nearer or even beside opposition fans. Events at the New Year’s fixture of 1952 brought things to a head. In a game marked by the usual poor Refereeing, Celtic losing and fights on the terraces, the authorities decided to act.

The SFA, following pressure from the Glasgow Magistrates and Police, laid out its plan to curtail such Hooliganism. This included making games all ticket, not allowing entry to drunk fans and crucially clubs were to…

Refrain from displaying in its park any flag or emblem that had no association with the country or the sport.”

There was no doubting what the SFA Refereeing Committee were referring to here. The tricolour had to go. Bob Kelly, Celtic Chairman, pointed out that there had been problems at Ibrox and Hampden when the Old Firm met and no tricolour flew at those grounds. There was no mercy however, Celtic were given a deadline to get the flag down or face penalties which could include suspension from the league.  Bob Kelly spoke eloquently at the SFA and fought Celtic’s corner with guts and considerable passion. ‘Tell me what rule we have broken?’ he demanded. They could not as none of the Articles of Association had been broken but still they would not relent. Kelly was clear, Celtic would not take the flag down and if it meant being thrown out of the league then so be it. One must remember the context of the times when talking about such events. Belfast Celtic had left the scene in 1949 after a vicious assault on their players by Linfield fans who invaded the field. Several players were badly hurt including one, Jones, who had his leg broken by the mob. In fairness, Linfield FC, slated the thugs and apologised profusely. Many see this violence as not the fault of Linfield FC but of the RUC who appeared uninterested in protecting the Belfast Celtic players. It is ironic that the player most badly injured in the violence, Jones, was a Protestant. In Scotland anti Catholic prejudice was more pronounced than it is today. As Celtic were threatened with expulsion over the tricolour, not a word was mentioned about Rangers block on Catholic players. In a land where many employers behaved in that way it barely entered anyone’s head to criticise it. In the end the group wishing to pressure Celtic began to lose support as Chairmen pondered the financial costs of losing one of the best supported clubs in the league. Kelly held his nerve and the Committee lost a vital vote as clubs, including Rangers, saw reason and sided with Celtic. The ‘Great Flag Flutter’ was over. Celtic had been vindicated and the narrow minded bigots made to look foolish. There would be no repeat of the Belfast Celtic story in Glasgow. Those Hoops were here to stay. Although, it is interesting to speculate what would have happened in 1952 if Kelly had decided that enough was enough and applied to join the English league? Celtic’s history may have been vastly different if that had occurred.

Postscript: Flags and symbols can still stir passions in the minds of some. Those of you watching rioting Loyalists causing mayhem in Belfast over the decision of the council there to only fly the Union flag on designated days will know that such a mentality is nothing new. The mindset which demands its symbols and flags be respected while simultaneously seeking to ensure those of other groups are not is as old as time. These are people who demand their flag be flown and respected yet think nothing of burning the flag of others on their bonfires. There is a clear link between the mindset of men who wanted Celtic out of Scottish Football in the early 1950s and those who trash Belfast because they cannot accept a democratically agreed decision to only fly the union flag on set days over City Hall. That mindset is best summed up in the slogan of a bygone age; ‘We are the People.’  Well, things have changed now and all of the groups in our society rightly say , ‘Hold on, we’re the people too.’ 

The days of the ‘Croppies’ lying down are long gone.