The Gift of Celtic
The noise of hundreds of Celtic fans singing in unison echoed through the great cavern of Central Station. Saturday shoppers waited stoically for the noisy mob to pass and head for platform 11 where the ‘Football Special’ waited for them. We soon saw the battered collection of antique carriages British Rail had set aside for us. My old man shook his head, ‘We’re human beings for God's sake not bloody cattle,' he said as we opened the door of the first carriage which looked as if it had a little space. The carriage was soon packed with fans and the songs and drink were soon flowing. The last doors banged shut, a whistle blew and the train dragged its tired arse out of Central Station for the short trip to Greenock. Somewhere further up the crowded carriage a flute was playing and the crowd soon filled the carriage with a full blooded rendition of a familiar old song…
‘Oh Father why are you so sad on this bright Easter morn,
When Irishmen are proud and glad of the land where they were born?’
We all joined in and my old man kept the beat by hitting the table with his hand. When the song was finished he slipped his hand inside his pocket and took out a half bottle of whiskey and took a generous swig. He offered it to my brother and I but we both declined as beer was enough for our young stomachs, especially at lunch time! As the old train clattered and rattled its way towards Greenock the fans in our carriage took turns singing. We heard good singers and bad, Celtic songs new and old, Rebel favourites and eventually a big cheerful, bearded ogre wearing the hoops and carrying a bottle of Eldorado wine looked at my Dad. ‘Geez a song auld yin, these young cunts canny sing tae save themselves’ My Da obliged without needing to be asked twice. My brother and I watched amused as he gestured for quiet before beginning in a surprisingly fine voice…
They were the men with the vision, the Men with the cause
The men who defied their oppressors Law, the men who traded
their chains for guns, Born into slavery, they were Freedom’s Sons.’
The carriage was quiet as he sang and somewhere out of sight the sound of a haunting flute could be heard joining my old man in his song. It was a strangely beautiful moment amid the coarseness of the day. He finished to roars of approval and applause and the bearded ogre thrust his wine bottle into my Da’s hand, ‘That was mag-fuckin-nificent’ he said, ‘Have a drink oan me auld yin, yer some fuckin chanter so yi ur!’ Further up the carriage someone started another song and we all joined in…‘Hail Hail, the Celts are here, what the hell do we care, what the hell do we care…’ My old man joined in, a pleased look on his face that his singing had been appreciated. He loved following Celtic and filled our away trips with tales from his youth about his various adventures on the road with Celtic. His memories stretched from the near relegation at Dundee in the late 40s, to the 7-1 game. Charlie Tully scoring with two corner kicks at Falkirk to the Coronation Cup miracle. Then of course, there was the heat of Lisbon. We had heard all his stories a hundred times on our long trips following the Hoops and we loved them all. It was our catechism, our heritage, our family history being passed onto us.
The train pulled into Greenock station and the doors burst open and a green and white river flowed through the station towards the exits, shadowed, as always, by lines of unfriendly looking cops and a few fierce looking dogs in tow. As we queued to leave the station, the banter began with the cops. ‘Aw right big man, ah see ye brought the wife?’ one wag said, pointing at a huge Alsatian. ‘Do ye play fitbaw yerself?’ he went on. The Cop nodded suspiciously as if waiting for a trap to spring, ‘Aye, a wee bit.’ The trap did indeed spring, as the wag went on, ‘Ah bet yer shite though eh?, Bet I could keep a beach baw aff ye in a phone box!’ The crowd laughed and, to his credit, so did the cop. We left the station and entered a nearby smoke filled pub my old man knew well. I watched amazed as the local Tims drank wine in pint glasses as if it were water! We spent another happy hour singing and drinking before heading to the game. Morton had a good team back then. Players like Joe McLaughlin, Jim Tolmie and Andy Ritchie always made it tough for Celtic at Cappielow. Ritchie, known as ‘Mabawsa’ to the Hoops support for obvious reasons and was capable of brilliance on occasion and needed watching. The points would need to be earned today that was for sure. All that day though my old man had been going on about Charlie Nicholas, a young player he had seen playing in the reserves. ‘Great prospect,’ he said, ‘He’ll go right to the top that boy!’ He had droned on about Nicholas as we queued to get into Cappielow and continued as we found a spot on the terracing at the front and just to the left of the goal. The old stadium was pretty full and the chanting was in full swing. The teams trotted out and much to my Da’s pleasure Nicholas was on from the start. The old man fished his big black ‘Eric Morcombe’ specs out of his pocket and put them on as the game began. Celtic roared forward and were looking good in the opening exchanges. ‘Nicholas will bag a couple today,’ my Da predicted confidently. Celtic won a corner at our end and my Da shouted at the bulky ‘Mabawsa’ Ritchie, ‘Oot the way fat man, I canny see the game!’ The corner was cleared but only as far as Murdo McLeod who fired in a ferocious left foot shot which almost broke the post. We roared for more! Then it happened… A through ball caught the Morton defence square and Nicholas raced towards the goal with no defender within 10 yards of him. ‘Come on Charlie Boy!’ My Da roared, ‘Bury it son!’ As the Keeper raced out to block him, Nicholas unleashed a powerful rising shot which sped past the post and hit my Da square in the face! He staggered back his specs broken, momentarily stunned! Despite the fact it was my own Da, it was the funniest thing ever. We couldn’t contain our laughter and neither could some of the fans around us. My Da however was not pleased, ‘Ye couldny hit a coo’s arse wi a banjo ya useless bastard!’ he began. His tirade of abuse against Nicholas continued for most of the first half much to the amusement of the fans around him. ‘Honestly,’ he went on, ‘If that fuckin clown was in Dallas shooting at JFK, that man would be alive today!’ We laughed our arses off at his caustic comments, particularly as an hour before he’d been singing Charlie’s praises. Such was life on the road with Celtic.
Celtic fought their way to a hard won victory on that far off day in Greenock. It was one of those trips which we’d look back at and smile. My brothers and I would retell the tale to our own kids of the time their Grandad, had been hit by the ball at Cappielow. We told such tales in much the same way he had told us about Tully and Jock Stein. That was the way it was. We handed our stories of Celtic on to the next generation as if it was the most valuable thing we had to give our children. In some ways it was, it was the green thread which ran through the fabric of our lives. It was and is part of us, part of who we are and we should thank those dad’s, uncles, and mothers’ who taught us to love Celtic. It was a fine gift they bequeathed to us.
Thanks Da… I miss you big man.