Thursday, 2 May 2013

 The Fire Inside

Shug Collins thought he looked pretty sharp in his freshly polished Adidas Sambas, Levi jeans and of course his pristine, freshly ironed Celtic Top with its Centenary crest prominent. Early morning sun slanted in his bedroom window and promised a warm bright day ahead. Just as well, as it was Cup Final day and there are few places bleaker on a wet day than Hampden Park.  ‘Maw, gonie gee Paddy a phone, tell him I’ll be up in 10 minutes?’ he shouted through to the living room. ‘Wit did yer last slave die ae?’ she responded as she got up and headed for the quaint phone table that stood in her hall. Only she knew the combination which undid the small lock which stopped the dial turning. ‘Ye need tae dae it as I canny unlock that wee gadget ye stuck oan the phone. Like feckin Barlinie in here!’ Shug could hear her dialing the number in the hall and looked at himself one last time in the mirror. ‘Today’s the day Shuggy Bhoy, let’s bring that cup home!’ He often psyched himself up for big games. His mother once caught him roaring ‘Let’s do these Bastards’ at the mirror before he left for an Old Firm game and had commented dryly, ‘Daft as yer Da, Celtic oan the brain the pair o’ ye.’ He left the room, checking he had his ticket, money and scarf safely on his person. His mother was replacing the phone as he smiled at her, ‘Cup Final today Ma! Green and white ribbons on the cup again.’ She smiled as he grabbed her and began dancing her around the hall singing a rather jazzed up version of the old folk song… ‘North men, South men, comrades all, Dublin, Belfast, Cork or Donegal, we’re on the one road singing a song, singing a soldier’s song!’  She laughed, ‘Get aff me ya big eejit!’ He returned her smile, ‘Ye canny fool me Ma, I know yer a mad Reb at heart.’ His smile eased a little as he said, ‘How’s my Da, awake yet?’ She nodded, ‘Aye, go in and see him, he’d like that.’

Shug turned and entered the bedroom where his Father had lain since his stroke the year before. The curtains were drawn and in the darkened room he could see his Old man, a shadow of his former self on the bed. ‘Aw right Da, heading aff tae Hampden, thought I’d say hello before I go.’ He sat on the bed and looked at his father. Joe Collins lay still on the bed, face still a little contorted at the left hand side but his bright eyes alert and full of fire. The stroke had paralysed his left side and robbed him of speech but his strong right hand gripped Shug’s. ‘Heading tae Hampden wi Paddy and the bhoys shortly. I’ll make sure we do it for ye Da. It’s our Centenary season, we won’t let ye down.’ His father motioned to speak but his locked facial muscles wouldn’t respond. How frustrating it must be to lose the power of speech thought Shug. He recalled having to run as a child to keep up with his Da as he marched up the Gallowgate to Celtic Park. Old Joe released his grip on his son and his right hand moved slowly under the pillow beside him. He pressed his clenched fist into his son’s and Shug felt something metalic in his hand. Shug looked at the small metal circle in his hand. It was a shining badge showing an engraved European Cup and the words, ‘Glasgow Celtic Champions of Europe 1967’ circled the famous big trophy. ‘Da, this looks like solid gold, ye canny gie me this!’ His father grunted a little as if to say, ‘Don’t you dare say no!’ Shug relented, and pinned it onto his Celtic shirt just above the Celtic Cross of the centenary crest. ‘Thanks Da,’ he said feeling a little emotional, ‘I’ll keep it forever.’ He sat on the bed beside his father and hugged him, ‘I love ye Da,’ he said simply and truthfully. Old Joe tried to nod as a lazy tear ran down his cheek. With his still functioning right arm he hugged his son with an intensity Shug hadn’t felt before. As they parted, Joe clenched his fist into a salute of sorts which said ‘win it!’  ‘Don’t you worry Da, we’re no accepting second best today.’ Shug turned to leave the room and caught a glimpse of his mother in the doorway, handkerchief to her face, before she flitted from his sight.

The grass verges which ran alongside Aitkenhead Road were packed with Celtic fans lying on the grass enjoying the warm sun. The beer was flowing as were the songs. A few yards in front of them a river of humanity, mostly clad in green and white flowed towards the nearby stadium. The noise of laughter, songs being sung, the calls of flag sellers and programme venders, filled the warm May air. The place was buzzing, alive with excitement and possibilities. Shug lay on the grass, propped up on one elbow drinking a beer and talking to his long-time friend Paddy Neeson. ‘I just know we’re winning this today, Paddy. United are no bad but this is our year, I can feel it in my bones.’ Paddy, a little the worse for drink and not given to fanciful thinking smiled at him, ‘Right Mystic fuckin Meg, it’s hauf two, swally that can and we’ll head for the gem.’  They stood and joined the noisy green river which carried them to the turnstiles at the Celtic end of Hampden. As they joined the queue the crowd began to sing, ‘In the war against Rangers in the fight for the cup, when Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up, We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, On Erin’s Green Valleys look down in thy love.’ As Shug joined in he thought of all the times his Da and even his Grandad had come to this very stadium to see Celtic battle out finals and semi-finals. He was just the next generation in the unbroken line stretching back to 1888. He wondered if he’d have kids one day and bring them here as his Da had brought him and as his Grandad had brought his Da?

The great bowl of Hampden was stretched out before him as he topped the steps behind the Celtic end and looked on the sun drenched scene below. 74,000 packed the Stadium and Shug could see that 80% were here to support Celtic. Only the far away terracing behind the goal was covered in the tangerine of Dundee United. The rest was a sea of green. As they fought their way to a spot in the Centre of the Celtic end an enormous booing was emitted from all sides of Hampden. Mrs Thatcher, UK Prime Minister, and as popular in Scotland as Hitler was in Israel was taking her seat. Thousands of red cards were held up to show what the assembled fans though of her and her policies. ‘Ignore that auld cow,’ Shug shouted to Paddy, ‘Big Roy will bounce the cup aff her napper once she hauns it o’er.’ The game which followed was tense and hard fought. Dundee United and Celtic had met three times already that season with honours even at one win each and one draw. Miller miscued a header when it looked easier to score and Bowman did the same for the Dundee team. As the second half began the Celtic end belted out ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ It was an impressive sight but didn’t have the required effect as Kevin Gallagher raced onto a through ball to blast United into the lead. ‘Paddy held his head in his hands, ‘Aw naw, Patsy Gallagher’s grandson too!’ Shug put his arm around his friend, ‘It’s destiny Paddy, fate, whatever ye want tae call it we’re no losing this the day!’ Paddy looked at him doubtfully wishing he could share his confidence. Shug unconsciously held the gold badge pinned to his Celtic shirt as he watched a frantic Celtic side begin to besiege the increasingly desperate United defence.

Celtic were shooting towards the packed Celtic end which roared and and sang as if they wanted to suck the ball into the net. The clock had reached 75 minutes when Stark hit a cross into the box. It missed everyone and seemed certain to go out for a throw but the energetic Anton Rogan kept it in play and fired it back into the box where the ever alert McAvennie powered it into the net. The stadium exploded! ‘Yaaassss!’ roared Shug, ‘Come on Celtic!’ He and Paddy hugged and jumped as if they’d won the lottery. ‘Here we go!’ he roared as United kicked off again. The sun took its toll on players and fans alike but the pace of the game didn’t slacken as Celtic fought to meet their destiny. Then in the 89th minute the dreams of so many became a reality. A corner to Celtic was swung into the box, a Celtic player hit it goal-ward causing the keeper to dive but a defender blocked and amid frantic scenes the ball spun loose to McAvennie, who smashed it into the net. Joy unconfined erupted in the packed Celtic end and around the stadium. Shug and Paddy literally jumped for joy before grabbing each other, their primal roars merging into the deafening noise of 60,000 voices pouring a crescendo of joy onto the pitch! Shug could feel tears welling, ‘We’ve done it Paddy, we’ve done it! I telt ye we would!’  Paddy grinned at him, ecstatic, ‘Of course we have, this is Celtic we’re talking about Shuggy bhoy!’  The final whistle was greeted with tears and cheers. Celtic had done it, they had completed the league and cup double in their centenary season. Tommy Burns, a fan who got lucky, ran to the crowd, punching the air in delight. This was the stuff of legend, the days you tell your grandkids about.

Heraghty’s Bar was bouncing as the fans celebrated a famous Centenary double. Paddy and Shug were in the midst of it hoarse from singing, red from the sun but indescribably happy. A chorus started at the back of the Bar spread until the whole place was rocking with it…

‘Hail Hail the Celts are here, what the hell do we care, what the hell do we care, Hail Hail the Celts are here, what the hell do we care now…!’

It was late when Shug let himself in. The house was quiet and he slipped quietly into his Dad’s room. The old man was propped up on pillows but still awake. Shug sat on the bed. ‘We did it Da, we did it.’ He whispered before he hugged his old man for a long second before looking into his face. ‘I knew your badge would bring us luck Da. I knew the bhoys wouldn’t let us down.’ His old man clasped his hand in his and tried to smile. His face would not respond but his eyes were full of joy. He had given Shug the badge he had bought in 1967 but he had given him something more precious than that. He had passed on his love for Celtic and saw the same fire he felt as a lad burning in his son. He was happy.

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