Still Walfrid’s Children…
Looking around a packed Celtic Park as 60,000 gathered to support Stan Petrov’s charitable foundation would fill any Celt with pride. The wonderful turnout on a bright September Sunday was in keeping with the best traditions of Celtic Football Club. Those who follow Celtic will know that the club was founded with the sole purpose of alleviating poverty in the East End of Glasgow. The club’s whole reason for being was as a vehicle for raising money for the charity Brother Walfrid had instituted, namely, the Poor Children's Dinner Table. It should never be forgotten that 5000 children died in Glasgow from the effects of disease and poverty in 1888. That was the harsh reality Walfrid faced in his work and his motivation to bring food to the poorest of the poor and give pride to a desperate and often maligned community. This laudable and in some ways unique founding principle for a football club was always going to be under pressure as football gained popularity with the masses and the financial implications became clear. In 1885 the English game accepted professionalism and players well rewarded at the top clubs. Players in Scotland though, remained amateur although many did receive some money or payment in kind. The flow of Scotland’s top players to more lucrative contracts in England meant that in 1890, 300 Scots played for English Clubs. Everton FC, who had broken away from Liverpool FC following a Board-room split, were called ‘The Team of Macs’ at the time because they fielded virtually a whole team of Scottish players. Liverpool could easily field 11 Scots and Preston North End had 8 in their first team by 1890. Indeed it was a Scot, William McGregor who founded the English League. How could Scotland keep its best players in the country and how could Celtic, a team founded on charitable principles thrive in an age when money was increasingly dominating the sport?
Walfrid’s idealism in retaining Celtic solely as a means of funding his charity would be seriously under threat if Celtic couldn’t induce good players to come and indeed to stay at Celtic Park. The success of the team was vital as it helped increase the crowds who watched them and in turn helped raise more of the funds needed to help the poor. Given that the Scottish League refused to countenance professionalism, realists like John Glass and Patrick Welsh, both co-founders of Celtic saw clearly that in order to thrive Celtic would need to somehow induce top players to Parkhead. Fans of Hibernian FC will tell you that 8 of Hibs best players went to Celtic in the first years after 1888 after John Glass found them pubs to manage in Glasgow or arranged other financial inducements. The effect on Hibernian FC was almost fatal as they briefly teetered on the brink of extinction. John Glass could see that professionalism must come to Scotland eventually and he wanted Celtic to be in a good position on and off the park when it did. In 1892-93 season the SFA saw the way the wind was blowing and the Scottish game finally allowed players to be paid for playing football. Professionalism had at last arrived and Celtic was set to thrive.
Around that time, Brother Walfrid was sent to work in the slums of London by the Marist order. Celtic’s founding father arranged football games to raise money for the deprived and barefoot children of Bethnal Green and Bow who, like the hungry children of Glasgow, lived in appalling poverty. That all of this poverty and exploitation existed side by side with the wealthy few in the capital city of the richest and largest Empire in the world is shameful. Walfrid’s departure for London signaled a time of change at Celtic. In 1897 the Club became a ‘Private Limited Company.’ That is to say it was now a professional business, issuing shares and paying dividends. The purists lamented the loss of the Club’s solely charitable identity but some argue that it’s hard to see how the club could have thrived and built a modern stadium while remaining a charity. What is clear from letters to the Catholic Observer in the late 1890s is that the people running the club forgot for a while what the club was founded for. In some years nothing was given to the poor children’s dinner tables despite Celtic’s turnover being among the highest for a football club in the UK. In 1963 Walfrid’s old school, St Mary’s, celebrated its centenary and a history published to celebrate its 100 years was scathing towards the new business culture at Celtic…
‘The Penny Dinner Tables lost the financial aid of the Celtic Football Club. Brother Walfrid, who founded Celtic as a charitable trust, was sent to London in 1892 and the Committee freed from his restraining hand ignored the end for which the club had been founded.’
As always it was the ordinary Celtic fans who preserved some dignity for the poor by digging deep to fund the Penny Dinner Tables themselves; Parishes, fans Brake Clubs and private individuals raised funds and gave what they could as Celtic travelled down the road of business and profit. Indeed, James Hanley, himself a Marist and author of the excellent book ‘The Celtic Story’ (1960) described the actions of Celtic in those years as the ‘Betrayal of the charitable trust.’ Bob Kelly, chairman when the book was published in 1960 made sure those remarks were minuted at the AGM of that year and that Celtic looked again at how it supported charity. Most historians agree though that Celtic as a successful professional business has done far more for Charity than it ever could have achieved had it remained itself a charitable trust. The modern Celtic charity fund has, via Celtic’s wonderful supporters, raised millions of pounds for deserving causes and it is just the latest in a long line of initiatives led by the club and its’ fans to support the needy and to live up to the creed which Celtic was founded upon. There can be no glossing over of the disgraceful ignoring of the Penny Dinner Tables which occurred in the early professional years when the ‘Company’ ignored Celtic’s founding principles. However, Willie Maley was certain that the club couldn’t continue to be run by a voluntary Committee and that it needed to become a company in order to create the firm financial footing upon which sporting success was built. The upgrading of the stadium had left the club in debt during part of the 1890s and the new shareholders often received no dividend but it remains a painful truth that for a while they ignored the club’s founding ideal. There was a battle for Celtic’s soul in those days and in the end a middle way was found whereby the club and its supporters continued to support a myriad of charities whilst still being a successful professional club.
Today I see Celtic fans, run, cycle, climb mountains and do a hundred other things to help raise funds for those less fortunate. From the Thai Tims to the courageous and inspiring Oscar Knox, our supporters dig deep. The long list of causes supported by the Celtic Charity fund is testimony that Walfrid’s club is again being true to its principles. The struggle against poverty continues and whether it’s in Maryhill or Malawi it’s our duty to do what we can. Celtic’s magnificent support supports charities ranging from Alzheimers Scotland to Aids Africa, from the Tommy Burns Skin Cancer Trust to the Ugandan Orphans Project. From Shelter Scotland to the Northern Ireland Children’s holiday scheme. That is who we are, that is why we exist and we should never ever forget that. Nor should we ever let those in control of Celtic FC forget it. They did once but our support reminded them that it is our duty and our privilege to help others. We are still Walfrid’s children and we always will be.
60,000 wonderful Celtic fans purchased tickets for the game organised by Stiliyan Petrov to help his Leukemia Foundation. The match had stars past and present as well as a host of celebrities playing to aid a very worthwhile cause. As the players walked around the pitch after the game, they waved at the massed ranks of Celtic fans gathered to support Stiliyan’s charity. The fans applauded them and sang the praises of some of their old heroes. But in truth the real heroes of the Celtic story aren’t just the players who wore our famous shirt. They are those wonderfully generous fans who continue to live up to the best ideals of the club. I looked on as some sang through tears the end of the game as Stan and his family strode again our field of dreams. Celtic is no mere football club, Celtic is a family and God bless every one of you… Brother Walfrid would be proud of you all.