Does he take Sugar?
The spring of 2004 saw a pulsating battle between the skilful and artistic FC Barcelona and Martin O’Neil’s determined and effective Celtic team. Sniper, Mick and Barry were in the big North stand roaring the Bhoys on when a long ball dropped out of the brooding Glasgow sky towards the towering Bobo Balde. Barcelona enforcer Motta, who had already clashed with Balde, jumped with big defender but his eyes were not on the ball. He aimed a gloved fist at Balde’s face which clattered him on the chin. The Ref may not have seen it but Sniper did. ‘Hawl you, ya pony tailed Argie porn star, I’ll be on that pitch and booting yer baws if there’s any mer ay that!’ Mick calmed him, ‘I think big Bobo can look after himself Sniper, besides Motta would batter your melt in.’ Sniper looked at his friend as if he was mad, ‘Listen ya fuckin demented midget, there’d be three hits if I fought that dick. I’d hit him, he’d hit the deck and the ambulance would hit 70!’ Mick laughed, ‘Jeezus, you’ve got an answer for everything haven’t ye?’ Sniper returned his smile, ‘You better believe it, short arse.’ The game raged on and Celtic were giving as good as they were getting from the Catalan giants. Half time arrived with no goals and the boisterous crowd needed a break as much as the players did . Mick turned to Barry as the teams trooped off, ‘I’d settle for a wee wan nil here, gie us something to hold on tae in Barcelona.’ Barry nodded, ‘Need tae shackle yon Ronaldinho but we’re making chances.’ Sniper cut in with his usual blind optimism, ‘Listen ya pair of fuds, Ronaldinho over cooks it every time and yon Saviola couldny score in a brothel.’ Barry’s phoned buzzed to life at that point as his brother watching at home on TV told him that Motta had been in a fight in the tunnel with Rab Douglas and they had both been sent off. 18 year old rookie keeper David Marshall was coming on. Barry shook his head, ‘This’ll make or break that lad. Imagine making your debut against Barcelona!’ Mick was worried too, but ever the optimist, Sniper saw things differently, ‘The young team are scared of nothin, he’ll do fine, just you watch.’
Young Marshal did more than ‘fine.’ He excelled and even saved a penalty from superstar Ronaldinho. The game turned on the hour when Petrov’s cross was nodded down by Larsson and Alan Thompson smashed it home. The 60,000 crowd exploded! Barca pushed and prodded but Celtic held on for a famous victory, indeed they might have scored again when Larsson flashed a shot past the post near the end. It was another astonishing victory for Celtic and their remarkable fans. Few gave them a hope in hell against Barcelona that night but driven on by that incredible support they came through. On their way home Barry asked the obvious question, ‘So who’s up for a wee trip to Barcelona in a fortnight?’
Barry arranged to meet his mates for a beer and a gab the Friday after the Barcelona game. Sniper barged into the pub, late as usual, like a man with something important on his mind. Behind him was his older brother Joe, a guy they all knew well. Sniper soon spotted the others seated at a quiet corner of the bar. ‘Aw right Fannybaws?’ he called to Barry with a smile, ‘I’ll get a wee pint then Joe and me want tae talk tae ye!’ Joe smiled at the group sitting around the table, ‘How we doing guys, still putting up wi that daft brother of mine?’ Barry smiled, he had always liked and admired Joe. Although he was Sniper’s older brother by a year, the two siblings were very different. At school Joe had been an outstanding footballer and being watched by scouts of several clubs. All of that sporting promise had been cut short by a motorcycle accident on the notorious A9 in Perthshire. Joe was now paraplegic, which basically meant he had motor and sensory loss of his trunk and lower limbs. In more common terminology, Joe was paralysed from the chest down. Despite this he oozed positivity and still possessed a wicked sense of humour. Joe wheeled his chair around to respond to his brother asking him what he wanted to drink, ‘Get me a Stella, Sniper and ask the barmaid tae lend ye some deodorant. Yer honkin mate.’ Sniper smiled at him, ‘Cheeky Bastard, ah have a bath once a month whether I need it or not!’ Sniper soon returned to the table with a tray loaded with drink and sat down. Joe looked at everyone and surprised them by saying, ‘I’m coming tae Barcelona wi you guys unless there’s any objections?’ Barry replied with no hesitation, ‘No problems at all Joe, just fill us in on any arrangements we need tae make. Yer welcome mate, ye don’t need tae ask.’ Sniper smiled at him, ‘That’s whit I like aboot you Barry, yer such a positive wee runt.’ Barry smiled, ‘Is that a compliment? You’ll be buying a round next ya big softy.’ Mick also agreed adding, ‘Celtic’s for everybody, aw faiths, gay, straight, black, white and as ye can see wi Sniper, ugly folk tae. So Joe, yer mer than welcome mate.’ Sniper looked at him, ‘Cheers for that Mother Theresa, you gonny start singing ‘We are the world’ noo?’ The friends laughed and got down to planning their trip.
Mick spent the next hour on his shiny new phone organising flights for 4 to Barcelona as Joe, Sniper and Barry discussed the practicalities of Joe coming along. ‘He’s ace in yon chair of his,’ Sniper informed Barry, ‘arms like a weightlifter.’ Joe smiled at his brother, ‘You talking for me again ya big tube, I think I can explain things for myself!’ Sniper shook his head, ‘Oan ye go then ya big attention seeker!’ Joe explained his rather regimented eating regime which ensured some predictability in toileting. He also outlined the need to contact airlines in advance so that a transfer to one of their wheelchairs could be arranged. ‘Ye canny take yer own chair on the plane, that goes in the hold and we swap back when we arrive in Barcelona.’ We’re planning a daytrip so no need tae worry about Hotel facilities. The only problem is tickets for the disabled section of the stadium?’ Barry listened amazed, Joe had it all figured out. Sniper added, ‘Getting tickets for the game is easy enough but we’ll need tae see about the situation wi the disabled section when we get there.’ Mick finished his call and gave them a thumbs up, ‘Four tickets tae Barcelona organised boys! Thank you Easy-feckin-jet!’ The four friends stayed in the pub till closing time feeling a warm glow of anticipation about their upcoming trip.
Ten days later Mick, Barry, Sniper and Joe were at Glasgow airport at the end of a long queue of green and white clad figures checking in for the 9.10am service to Barcelona. It seemed 90% of the folk on their flight were heading out to see Celtic. Once the bags were checked in they headed for a cafe. Joe was excited about the trip and as Sniper predicted manoeuvred his chair around all obstacles with practiced ease and was as funny as ever with his quips. A young woman who looked as if her make-up had been applied by a plasterer smiled at them from behind the plastic counter of the café. ‘Four teas it is!’ Then bizarrely she looked at Sniper and nodded towards Joe, ‘Does he take sugar?’ Sniper glared at her, ‘Why don’t you ask him it’s his legs that don’t work not his feckin’ brain.’ Joe cut in, ‘It’s all right Sniper,’ He said, then, turning to the girl added, ’No sugar, thanks just milk.’ They sat at a nearby table and Barry asked, ‘Do you get that a lot Joe?’ Joe nodded, ‘ Aye, Sometimes you feel invisible but I can handle thoughtless people OK, it’s the really ignorant ones I dislike.’ To her credit the waitress approached their table a few minutes later and quietly apologised to Joe. Sniper turned on his rough charm and procured her phone number. ’Auld magic still working,’ he grinned holding a yellow post-it note with the dizzy waitress’s number scribbled on it. Barry shook his head, ‘Listen ya big tadger, that’ll be the number of Carstairs or a good plastic surgeon. If it is genuine it’ll be a sympathy date mate, she’ll be too embarrassed tae say naw tae a big helpless wean like you.’ Sniper smiled, ‘Jealous basturt! Just cos you’ve no had yer Nat King since the Pope wis an altar boy!’
Two hours later they were strapped into their seats and flying south towards Barcelona. Joe had been transferred to what they called an ‘Aisle chair’ at the Glasgow Airport by a veritable posse of helpers and was strapped into place beside his friends. He had the group in stitches with his tales of following Celtic and it was obvious to all that the guy was a fighter. One tale he was fond of telling was of a game at Tyncastle where a particularly nasty home fan was abusing some disabled Celtic fans in a most despicable way, ‘So this guy in a chair had had enough, he whips oot his colostomy bag and actually fired a shite at the Hearts fan. Hit the clown right in the face!’ As their raucous laughter filled the plane Sniper added, ‘So you could say the shit hit the fan!’ The group descended into fits of laughter at this comment. Tears ran down Barry’s face ‘hahahaha Shit hit the fan!... Fuckin belter, Sniper!’ Joe then produced Sniper’s passport from a clip on bag he wore around his waist and before his red faced brother could intervene he handed it to Barry. ‘Here Barry, check that picture oot.’ Barry looked at a younger Sniper’s photo and laughed, ‘Jaysus Sniper yer like Lurch oot the Adam’s Family.’ The passport was passed to Mick who shook his head silently before saying, ‘It’s like scientists crossed a man wi a peanut!’ Sniper snatched the passport, ‘Shut it ya mad walloper!’ Joe then asked Barry, ‘How come you all call him Sniper anyway? I never got that nickname,’ Barry smiled, ‘At school his head was so big we called him the ‘Sniper’s dream.’ I mean any sniper would love a target that big eh? It just kinda stuck after that.’ Joe laughed loudly enough for folk nearby to turn and see what was so funny, ‘Sniper’s dream, hahaha!’ Sniper though was not amused. He scowled at his brother and said simply, ‘Fud!’
The flight crossed the Pyranees into Spain and banked eastwards towards Barcelona. In what seemed like no time they bumped down onto the runway. A cheer rose from the assembled Celtic fans on the plane as anticipation of the game and seeing one of Europe’s nicer cities found expression. The mobile walkway was fixed to the plane and once Joe was back in his own chair they headed for passport control and then sought out a large taxi to ferry them into Barcelona. They soon found one with a hoist at the back which raised Joe and his chair into the taxi. The driver, a short stout man of about 50 called Carles spoke to them in broken English and made them feel very welcome. ‘I follow Barca,’ he began, ‘I see you at Camp Nou tonight!’ Barry smiled, ‘Good man, no crying when we knock you out of Europe!’ The taxi driver laughed as he wove in and out of the traffic, ‘My friend Barcelona will win five zero tonight!’ Sniper cut in at this point, ‘Don’t bet yer hoose on it Pal, O’Neil is nobody’s mug.’ They passed a pleasant 20 minutes before the driver set them down near Las Ramblas and as Mick paid him he made arrangements for the Taxi to pick them up at 6pm and take them to the Nou Camp. ‘I weell be here Scoteesh boys at six, I too go to see football too, enjoy the city!’ the driver said before pulling into the manic Barcelona traffic and disappearing.
The spring sunshine warmed the friends as they wandered the elegant streets and boulevards of downtown Barcelona. At every bar and café green and white clad figures were drinking, singing and generally enjoying themselves. There was no hint of trouble just the usual banter and fun of a Celtic Euro trip. They settled at a pavement table where a street performer who looked like Che Guevara, replete with beret, army jacket and Cuban cigar was making a speech in Catalan. Sniper didn’t understand a word but watched fascinated until the act was over and then roared, ‘Fuckin right Pal, hasta la victoria siempre!’ Mick looked at him in surprise, ‘Speaking Spanish noo bawjaws, I’m impressed.’ Sniper ignored him and shook the actor’s hand. ‘My hero was Che, well Che and big Jock Stein. Both fought for the common man.’ The actor smiled at the big pale Scot and returned his handshake, ‘Sigues Celtic és el club de rebels també!’ Sniper smiled, ‘Don’t know wit yer saying big man but it sounds fuckin good tae me!’ He left his new friend with a clenched fist salute and a cry of ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá, ma man!’ Joe watched Sniper’s interaction with the Che lookalike with a smile on his face. ‘Yer some man Sniper, never knew ye had a bit of Spanish in ye? ’ he said. Sniper looked at him then at his empty beer glass, ‘You got a rattlesnake in yer pocket? Get a round in instead of sitting there like a spare prick at a wedding. Time you spent some of yer DLA money ya clown.’ Joe laughed, ‘I’m telling my maw your bullying me.’ Sniper, keen as ever to get the last word in replied, ‘Bullying ye? I’ll pap ye oot that chair and draw Ally McCoist on yer arse wi a permanent marker if ye don’t get a round in.’ Joe laughed at his brothers inventive threats. ‘Mad as a fuckin hatter so yi ur.’ The friends drank some cool San Miguel as the afternoon turned to evening. The mock insults, jokes and laughter filled the air as they teased and argued as only good friends can. As match time approached they headed to the meeting point where to their relief Carles was already waiting with his taxi.
The Camp Nou glowed in the dusk of an early spring evening like a huge illuminated spaceship. It was an impressive sight. Mick looked agitated and Barry asked him what was wrong. ‘Our tickets are for Tier 3, if they don’t have a lift for Joe it’s about 300 stairs! We forgot tae check oot tickets for the disabled section’ A quick chat with a helpful steward some made it clear that there was no lift and no way Joe could be carried up the stairs. There was also no way he’d even get past security in his chair. ‘Go to entry 62,’ the Steward informed them, ‘An elevator is there and a ramp.’ ‘See the shit ye put up wi when you’re in a whelchair,’ grumbled Sniper. ‘Spend £20 million oan a player and canny install a fuckin lift?’ They fought their way towards gate 62 through a mixed throng of Barca and Celtic fans. Songs filled the air and kick off was looming, Gate 62 was a large opening in front of which two smartly dressed Barca officials checked tickets and guided fans in wheelchairs and their helper into the ground. One of them, a sweaty man with a huge stomach and a moustache a 70s porn star would be proud of stopped them, ‘No, these tickets are for away fans, Tier three.’ He pointed in the direction which they had come from. They explained about the lack of wheelchair access there but the man wouldn’t budge. His co-worker, a curly haired lad of about 18 spoke quietly to Joe in heavily accented English. ‘This guy is a son of a bitch. There is always lots of space in this area. Get him away from the doorway and you can come in.’ Joe quietly relayed this message to Sniper who immediately went into action. As Barry and Mick watched in astonishment Sniper roared and fell to the ground, twitching and salivating like a man having some sort of fit. The stout official rushed to his aid in a mild panic. Joe moved instantly. He tapped Barry’s arm and nodded towards the doorway and they both silently sped through. The curly haired young man winked as they passed, ‘Enjoy the game.’ Joe mouthed a silent ‘Thank you.’ at him as they headed up the ramp to the area set aside for fans in wheelchairs. The view that greeted them was breath-taking. The huge bowl of the Nou Camp was bathed in light and a huge crowd seethed and sang as the teams appeared on the pitch. Behind the far goal the yellow and red stripes of Catalonia were flaunted on hundreds of flags of all sizes. High above the pitch Joe could see and hear six thousand Celtic fans roaring out ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ He looked at Barry and smiled, ‘Made it Barry boy!’ Barry returned his smile, ‘Aye thanks tae yer mad brother. Joe laughed, ‘Aye he’s some actor, used tae kid on he was fitting tae stay aff school when we were kids. My Ma soon sussed it though and used tae throw a pot of cold water on him. Soon cured his fits!’ Barry laughed as Barcelona kicked off and raced towards the Celtic goal where 18 year old David Marshal awaited them.
Outside the stadium Sniper stopped the act and got to his feet. He wiped the saliva from his face and looked at the confused Steward. ‘Feeling better noo big man, comes and goes ye know?’ He and Mick headed back towards the away end and soon gained entry before heading up what seemed like a hundred stairs and emerging into the cool air high above the pitch. They were just in time to see Marshal foil another Barcelona attack with a fine save. ‘Gonny be a long night,’ said Mick. Sniper nodded, ‘A bit of luck, a decent Ref and we might just hold out.’ It was indeed a long night as Barcelona mounted a siege on the Celtic defence. Overmars, Guilly, Ronaldinho and Iniesta all fired shots at the Celtic goal but the young goalkeeper was in inspired form and defied them time and again. Celtic had only occasional forays upfield to give the hard pressed defence some respite but they were holding out. The Celtic fans in the top tier of the stadium sang and roared themselves hoarse. Some of Marshal’s saves had even the Barca fans applauding. This pattern continued for the whole game and as the frantic fans in green whistled for the final whistle Barcelona carved out one last great chance to score. Sniper and Mick watched open mouthed as their interplay split the Celtic defence. ‘Don’t blow it now!’ shouted Sniper as the ball was lifted over the defence to an unmarked midfielder who flashed a shot towards goal…
Behind the goal which David Marshal was so heroically defending that night, Joe and Barry had watched as he defied the excellent Barca forwards time and time again. Now in the 90th minute it seemed as if Barcelona might just win it. The defence was split by a beautifully weighted chip which found Xavi in the clear. He blasted his shot on the volley towards the top corner of the goal. Joe and Barry looked on from the perfect position behind the goal. The next split second seemed to pass in slow motion. As the ball sped towards the goal, Marshal dived to his right and was at full stretch. It seemed as if the very tips of his fingers got to the ball and caused it to change its trajectory just enough to send it flashing over the bar. ‘Yaaaas!’ roared Barry and Joe as did thousands of other Celtic fans away to their left on the third tier of the stadium. The whistles continued as injury time dragged out and then at last the referee blew for full time. Barry hugged Joe who was actually crying. ‘We’ve done it mate, we’ve fuckin done it! A few hundred yards away, high above the pitch on the third tier Sniper and Mick were roaring out with thousands of other Celtic supporters ‘ And if ye know the history, it’s enough to make yer heart go oh, oh, oh, oh…’ They were delirious after watching their team knock the mighty Barcelona out of Europe. Another memorable and glorious page had been written in the story of the club they held so dear.
Sniper was grinning from ear to ear, his arm around Barry’s shoulder as they walked through the crowds to find Joe and Mick. ‘I’m glad Joe made it to this wan,’ he said to his friend, ‘We’ll remember this night aw wur lives.’ Barry smiled at him, ‘Joe wiz never a problem mate, it’s the attitude of other folk that’s the problem.’ Before they could continue their conversation a familiar voice shouted towards then, ‘Sniper ma man! What aboot that then eh? Dumped the mighty Barca oota Europe! Dae ye know just love the famous Glasgow Celtic!’ It was Joe, propelling his chair at high velocity speed towards his brother. He wore a Barcelona scarf given to him by a local and a smile, as broad as the Clyde given to him by Celtic. The brothers embraced outside that famous stadium in Catalonia. Barry and Mick looked on as happy as they’d ever felt. Celtic had defied the odds again and so in his own way had Joe. It was great being a Celt.
Dedicated to all of those differently abled Celtic fans who follow the Bhoys with as much passion as any of us. Hail Hail to you all.