Saturday, 30 November 2013

 The Letter...
Tony climbed the worn flights of stone stairs to the very top floor of the hospital. He recalled other occasions in the old Royal; stiches as a boy, his brother’s leg break and of course first son being born in the new maternity department which faced the ancient necropolis graveyard. A nice touch that, he though, new life entering the world a few yards from the ghosts of the past. The hospital stood on the fault line between old Glasgow and the slowly evolving new city. To the north the M8 Motorway roared away all day long while to the south the necropolis and Glasgow Cathedral reminded folk of just how long people had lived on the banks of the Clyde. At last Tony reached the doors of Ward 19. A nurse smiled at him as he entered, ‘Looking for my Dad, Mr McGarry?’ She didn’t need to check any registers to know where old Ants McGarry was. ‘Last bed on the left,’ she said glancing over her shoulder, ‘I hope you know the football results, he’s been asking all day!’ Tony smiled, ‘Trust him, that’s one thing ye canny cure here! Celtic daft!’ He walked up the aisle between the rows of beds and stopped at the side of his father’s bed where the old fellah lay, eyes closed looking old and tired. Where was the vigorous and strong man he had to run to keep up with as a boy?
‘Aw right Da?’ he said with a cheery voice sitting in a hard plastic chair beside the bed.  His father opened his eyes and smiled weakly back at him. He lay propped up on the pillows, tubes connecting him a tall drip stand by the bedside. His skin was pale and waxen. ‘Aw right son, how did the Celts get on?’ he mumbled. Tony smiled, ‘Even when yer ill yer thinking aboot Celtic eh?’ The old man smiled slightly, ‘Been part of my life since I was a wee boy. You know what the Hoops mean to me?.‘ He was right too. Tony recalled his father’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Celtic and how it amazed him as he grew up. Name the game and he’d give you the scorers, result even the attendance. He recalled him talking about John Thompson’s death one night and listen amazed as he named the entire team, ‘John Thomson, Cook, McGonigle, Wilson, McStay, Geatons, R Thomson, A Thomson, McGrory, Scarff, Napier.’ He knew his stuff all right and had passed his passion for Celtic on to his 4 children. Tony took his old man’s hand, ‘We drew 0-0 Da, so we play Hibs again at Ibrox next week.’ Airdrie beat Hearts so they’re in the final.’ The old man nodded, ‘We need this cup Tony, the fans have suffered a long time. Tommy needs it too.’ Tommy was of course Celtic manager Tommy Burns, another of his father’s heroes. The league was gone again and the cup offered Celtic’s only chance of a trophy after 6 barren years. The father and son spent just about all of the visit discussing their team. Memories of games and players, of great goals and incidents they had watched together. An old style hand bell sounded somewhere and announced the visit was over. ‘I’ll be up tomorrow Da, bring the wee man tae.’ The old man smiled, revived a little by talking about his team. The glint was back in his eye, if only for an hour.
Tony exited the hospital and headed down Castle Street towards the High Street and on towards Glasgow Cross. He knew his father was, in football parlance, in his ‘last season.’ The Doctors suggested another few weeks at the most given the aggressive nature of his cancer. He was too ill to contemplate taking him to Celtic Park for one last game but he wanted to do something to mark his love of the club before his time was up. What to do? As he pushed in the doors of the Tollbooth Bar he saw facing him a picture of the players from the centenary season parading the Scottish cup. ‘Was that really 7 years ago?’ he mumbled to himself. He gazed at the picture as his Guinness slowly poured into the pint glass. It was then the idea hit him. ‘He paid for his pint and said to the barman, ’Popping oot tae the shop, watch that for me a minute eh?’ The mystified looking barman nodded, ‘Sure mate, as long as you’ve paid ye can leave it there all day.’ Tony was back within two minutes having purchased a note pad, some envelopes and a stamp. He sat at a table with his beer and began to write. ‘Dear Mr Burns…’
The following week saw Celtic make it to the cup final with a sound 3-1 win over Hibs in the semi-final replay. The league for remained poor as they crumbled 0-2 at Pittodrie then lost to Hearts and Partick Thistle. Rangers were the next visitors to their temporary home at Hampden and on the morning of that game, Tony was up visiting his father who seemed to be deteriorating. His voice was now little more than a rasping whisper, ‘This’ll be my last Rangers game,’ his Dad had wheezed, ‘before I head off tae be wi yer Ma, son. Be nice tae sign aff wi a win.’’ Tony felt his eyes moisten as his father talked about joining his mother in heaven. He knew the end was near and yet it held no fears for him. The old fellah had been struck by an awful illness and still his faith in God held firm. As Tony left to head to the match, he glanced back at his father who made a weak attempt at a clenched fist. Celtic would need a miracle to beat Laudrup and co today given their awful form. He picked up his son and headed for Hampden.
Whatever Tommy Burns had said to Celtic seemed to work that day at Hampden as they tore into Rangers from the start. New young Dutch striker Van Hoijdonk smashed in the first goal as Celtic dominated the game. An own goal by Moore and a further strike gave Celtic a 3-0 victory which suggested the team were capable of much more than they were delivering in the league. They were 21 points behind Rangers that day in the Championship but that didn’t stop the supporters celebrating loud and long. The fans were ecstatic, none more than Tony who hugged his young son at the full time whistle, ‘That wis for yer Grandad, son.’

The following day, Tony headed for the Royal to see his old man and fill him in on the result and how they had played. He’d be pleased his beloved team had beaten their ancient rivals. He climbed the stairs with the other visitors and headed for the busy ward. A screen had been placed around his father’s bed and Tony frowned fearing the worst. He looked confused at the duty nurse, who smiled at him, ‘It’s all right, he has another visitor and we thought they would appreciate some privacy.’ Tony approached and quietly moved the screen a little and slipped inside. He saw his father, propped up on his pillows his outstretched hand being held by the visitor who smiled and spoke to him in a low voice. Tony said nothing as he watched them for a long second. His father’s eyes shone with delight as he turned to regard his son. The man smiled at Tony too, ‘I got your letter Tony and managed to grab some time to come and see this grand old Celt.’ Tony held out his hand, ‘Thank you Tommy, you’ve no idea what it means to me and my Da.’ Inside that curtained off section of ward 19 Tony McGarry, his father and Celtic manager Tommy Burns spent a wonderful hour chatting, laughing and reminiscing about Celtic. Tony marvelled at how Tommy Burns could make people he had just met feel they had known him all their lives. When the bell rang to signal the end of the visit old Mr McGarry beckoned Tommy closer and rasped, ‘God bless ye Tommy, win that cup for us all will ye?’ Burns smiled, ‘We’ll do our best Mr McGarry, now you rest.’ He squeezed something into the happy old man’s hand and then turned to face Tony. ‘Never forget what guys like your Da did for Celtic, they made the club what it is today.’ Tony shook hands with the Celtic Manager who smiled one last time at his father before turning to leave. Tony looked at his delighted dad who was gazing at a small medal Burns had pressed into his hand. On one side was an engraved sacred heart and on the other an image of the Virgin Mary. Tony hadn’t seen his old man so happy in years. He was glad he’d written that letter.

Old Anthony McGarry left this life that bright May of 1995. He faced death the way he faced life, with dignity and courage. As Tony and his son stood amid the cheering crowd a week after the funeral at the cup final, his father was in the forefront of his mind. Pierre Van Hoijdonk’s headed goal against Airdrie had won the cup for Celtic that day and the fans were again filled with hope and optimism. The old songs of victory echoed around Hampden as the players hugged each other, knowing they had at last delivered and broken the spell of failure. Tony watched as Celtic Manager Tommy Burns raced onto the field to embrace his Captain, Paul McStay. As the flame haired manager turned to a tearful Peter Grant and embraced him, Tony couldn’t halt the flow of tears which spilled down his face. His father would have loved this. The crowd roared out ‘Tommy Burns, Tommy Burns, Tommy Burns…’ as the proud manager watched his team climb the stairs of the old rickety stand to receive the cup from the Duchess of Kent. Paul McStay punched the air with delight and held the glinting silver trophy aloft for the Celtic support to see. The noise was deafening and increased even more as the team reappeared on the pitch with the trophy. Celtic were back, they were winners again and how their long suffering fans loved it.

For a moment as the team sang along with the crowd on that sunny day long ago, Tony looked up at the pale blue Scottish sky and muttered quietly, ‘I hope you enjoyed that Da!’ In some way he knew his father was watching. They all were. All of those incredible people who had been part of the Celtic story for over a hundred years. They were with us still, they always would be.






Wednesday, 27 November 2013

One Step Forward Two Steps back
A friend recently told me that his car problems had finally been solved. ‘Turns out that feckin garage used the wrong parts,’ he moaned ‘They used a reconditioned filter and the wrong sparkplugs. No wonder it was misfiring,’ Thinking about the problems Celtic have had in this season’s Champions League, it’s fair to say Celtic have done something similar. The spine of last season’s team, Wilson, Wanyama and Hooper were sold for the best part of £18m but were the replacements of equal stature? The answer, with the exception of Virgil Van Dijk is an emphatic no! I’ve watched Celtic for many years and I’ve never seen then so lacking in threat up front. Even in the bad years we had good forwards and could always grab a goal or two. This season’s Champions League has exposed our total lack of cutting edge up front and responsibility for that lies with the board and manager who discuss targets and budgets. A striker of Hooper’s effectiveness isn’t easy to find and they cost serious money. Celtic made serious money last season so why no ready made replacements?
AC Milan join PSG and Juventus as the only teams to beat Celtic at home in Europe by 3 clear goals. That bald statistic would suggest they are a very good team but the truth of the matter is that Celtic have regressed in the 12 months since Barcelona were defeated in 2012. Beating Barcelona last season saw us take a huge step forward in credibility in the eyes of many but this season’s poor showing represents two steps back. One English reporter stated…
Yet the truth is this: the loss of Hooper and Victor Wanyama has weakened this Celtic team. The evidence is there for all to see. Celtic could have little complaint. It was, in the end, decidedly one-sided. It was a savage and clinical reminder of the gulf in quality and resources which separates the Champions League aristocrats from the proletariat. They can be grateful for small mercies. In seeking the cause of their Champions League demise a large mirror is all that’s required.’

AC Milan were a useful team but by their own high standards not a great side. The sort of elementary errors we saw for all three goals suggest that Celtic signed their own death warrant last night. Kaka rose unchallenged in the six yard box to head home as our six foot four inch centre-backs play statues. Zapata taps in after another free touch at a corner finds him unmarked a yard from goal. Awful defending from Celtic does not equate to clever attacking play or even concerted pressure. Milan didn’t have to work hard for those goals and ‘fortress’ Parkhead has now seen Juventus, Barcelona and AC Milan win there in the last year. Of course things could have been different if Van Dijk had scored with that golden chance early in the second half but the fact our best opportunities fell to defenders speaks volumes about the lack of serious fire power up front. This needs addressed as soon as possible but I would think next summer is the more likely time for Celtic to be bringing in another forward as January offers only scraps or over-priced deals. Perhaps we might see a young Scottish talent purchased to keep the disgruntled support happy and save the real spending till July?
Last night also saw another banner display in section 111. Those guys sang their hearts out for virtually the whole game and I take my hat off to them for that. However, did they seriously think displaying a banner with Bobby Sands on it would go unnoticed or uncommented upon by the club or footballing authorities? I totally support the right to freedom of expression and thought but again I ask is a football stadium the time and place for it? Sure, I understood the point that singing of Scottish nationalist songs is generally accepted while singing Irish nationalist songs in Scotland is frowned upon by many. But Wallace and Bruce are in their graves for 7 centuries and the distant past holds no fears for modern people. Sands and his comrades are still in the realms of living history and as such are potent symbols still. The plain fact is that many are alive today who were directly affected by their actions for good or for ill. Much hurt on all sides is still unhealed.
Celtic’s unique history is of course rooted in the post an gorta mor Irish diaspora.  There can be no doubt that many of those who founded and supported the club in its early days were broadly speaking Irish Nationalists. However those who hate Celtic make judgements on what they read in our insipid media and through the songs, banner displays they hear and see at games. Perception is all and some perceive Celtic’s ‘Irishness’ as being indivisible with militant Republicanism and that’s simply unfair and inaccurate. Freedom of expression should always be tempered with responsibility. The banners at the Aberdeen game made the same point as last night’s. We get it, it’s unfair to discriminate between Scottish nationalistic ballads and Irish ones but most Scots simply shake their heads and are incredulous at why folk would want to sing Irish Loyalist or Republican songs at a Scottish football match in the first place?
So we limp out of Europe rather meekly after last season’s exploits and many are far from happy at the club’s transfer policy. There is much to be done to get the team to the levels of 2012. There is also a growing possibility of a rift between some at the club and elements of the support. We need to avoid that as the stunning victories of 2012 were built on the incredible bond which exists between the team and the fans. Barcelona fell at Celtic Park because the team and support were one. That unity is the driving force which makes Celtic great. Let’s work to maintain it.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Time to move on…
It is now 50 years since John F Kennedy was so brutally and publicly slain in Dallas. Conspiracy theories abound and it seems the truth of what actually occurred in Dealy Plaza all those years ago remains as confused and contested today as it has ever been. What is certain is that a young man was taken from those who loved him in a horrific and deadly attack. On a human level it was a despicable crime. Here in Scotland, in 2012, we had the much less tragic death of a football club and the conspiracy theories, red herrings, smoke screens and denials continue to reverberate here. Of course, the two events described above are poles apart in their effect and importance but they tell us something of the very human desire not to let go, even if this means denying verifiable facts. They also tell us that important events require the truth.

Last Saturday there was an interesting discussion on BBC Radio Scotland in which Graham Speirs and Tom English took opposite views of the death of Rangers Football Club. For Speirs the club died in 2012 when the Liquidators moved in. ‘Anyone who knows insolvency law knows they died,’ he said. English on the other hand stated of the new company, that if it ‘Quacks like a duck, looks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it’s a duck.’ Which in plain English means he thinks it’s still the same old Rangers. I tend to agree with Graham Speirs if they want to be the same club they should pay the creditors large and small who were shafted for millions. Otherwise any club can run up huge debts, liquidate, reform debt free and then claim to be the same club? There is no doubt that the constant and relentless war of words over the whole tawdry shambles at Ibrox has increased animosity among some in Scottish football. English and Speirs did agree that the events of the last couple of years have added a new edge to the rivalry between some of the fans and there is a distinct possibility that when Celtic finally does get to play the club currently playing at Ibrox, there could be problems. Of course no one wishes this to be a self-fulfilling prophecy but the well has been poisoned further by the vitriol flying around online over the past couple of years and some less enlightened folk take such things more seriously than they should.

The second thing which spurred me to write on this topic was the reaction to a picture I posted on twitter. It showed Ally McCoist, Walter Smith and Kenny McDowell looking at the tributes left outside Celtic Park in the wake of Tommy Burns’ death. I labelled it; ‘Respect where respect is due.’ This of course was a phrase with a double meaning. The Rangers men were showing their respect to Tommy and I hoped my fellow Celts would see that. It also implied that I respect them for doing so and of course for their role in Tommy’s funeral. We sadly live in a country where some less cerebral citizens refuse to enter a RC  church even to pay respect to folk they know at their funeral. The spurious, medieval logic which makes some view the world through such 17th Century lens is at once bizarre and a little sad.  However, the vast majority who commented on the picture were supportive and recognised the basic humanity of Walter Smith and Ally McCoist in that instance. They worked with Tommy in the Scotland set up and McCoist described him as ‘The best man I ever met.’ A few remembered insults and slights (real or imagined) from McCoist and intimated only a grudging respect or none at all for him. That comes with the nature of our football and the fact that two clubs have dominated the set up in Scotland for so long. For some the old adage; ‘It’s not enough that I succeed, others must fail,’ comes to mind.

The rivalry has for over 120 years become, in the minds of some, an all-consuming passion. Every contentious decision from referees or football administrators is viewed through the ‘them and us’ lens. No doubt there have been decisions over the years which have to say the least been mysterious. From the ‘flag flutter’ of the 1950s to the footballing authorities holding up George Cadete’s transfer to Celtic for 6 weeks as the season entered a crucial phase. We also had a compliant media say little or nothing about Rangers sectarian signing policy for decades nor indeed the bigoted songs sung by their supporters. But things have never been the way they are now. The unique circumstances of Rangers collapse in debt and disgrace added a new dimension to the usual rough edged banter which has always gone on between fans of the Glasgow clubs. There is a denial going on among some fans of the new club which looks increasingly desperate and is filling some of them with pent up anger. No one is to blame for the liquidation of Rangers apart from the people who ran the club into the ground. Graham Speirs warned Murray that £80m+ of debt was dangerous to the club’s survival a decade back but was dismissed as anti-Rangers. The world financial collapse in 2008 led to the tightening of lending by the banks and effectively sealed Rangers fate. The bubble of debt popped and Rangers were just another business who owed too much to survive. Still some refuse to see this, still the narrative that other clubs and their fans ganged up on them is pushed and this has led to the ridiculous situation where some Rangers website now have lists of ‘Our Enemies’ displayed. Of course many in Scottish football did enjoy the collapse of the so called ‘establishment club’ with all its vainglorious arrogance and unwarranted superiority complex. But to argue that this understandable, if at times unedifying ‘Schadenfreude’ is part of some larger plot which led to Rangers demise is to confuse cause with effect. No one killed Rangers apart from a few short sighted men in the blue room.

All of this is lost on a minority who are storing up their frustration and anger as the ‘Zombie’ jibes continue and the new club limps slowly back to the top flight of Scottish football. We need to think carefully where all of this is leading. The football authorities have a duty to try and defuse some of the tensions and each of us as fans should now also think about putting the events of the past 2 or 3 years behind us and looking to the future of the game we love. We all hold our opinions on what occurred at Ibrox and the status of the club which now plays there. Mine are expressed in my earlier writings on this blog and I stand by them. However, our national game needs to be rebuilt from the top to the bottom and the ashes and bitterness of the past do not make for good foundations. The two biggest clubs in the land share the same city and there will be the usual rivalries but the sensible majority need to help calm things. I do worry that when the two clubs meet there could be problems but with the good will and humour of the ordinary Glaswegian football fan, we can keep it to a minimum and get back to enjoying the football.

The struggle for truth is always worthwhile and valid, particularly in the face of the poor journalism which marked the biggest story in Scottish football history. If it demonstrated the power of social media, it also demonstrated the agenda led lies and obfuscation of a number of mainstream media figures. George Orwell correctly observed a lifetime ago that ‘Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printed, all the rest is public relations.’ There will be no agreed upon history of the collapse of Rangers because some will never accept the club died and some will never accept it didn’t. Most of us are set in our opinions now and unlikely to change them. However, at the end of the day we must think of the future of our national game and try to lance the poison which still permeates it here in Scotland. To do that requires us at some point to take our eyes from the past and focus them on the future.


A minute’s silence was observed at all Scottish League games 50 years ago to show respect for the late President Kennedy. It was impeccably observed around the country with the exception of one stadium where a vocal minority, perhaps recalling the late President’s ethnicity and religious persuasion, booed and jeered. I’m sure the decent majority shook their heads at this. Such petty mindedness still exists in corners of our land 50 years later. I hope to God it’s banished forever in the future and we can reclaim Scotland’s status as a fair minded and decent society. It’s time to move on.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Across the bridge of hope

Marc Rieper was not a man you could easily miss in a crowd. Standing over six feet tall and sporting the sort of physique which speaks of long hours training and conditioning. I saw him some years ago in the coffee shop of Glasgow airport and spoke to this articulate and polite Scandinavian for a few brief but very interesting minutes. I thanked him for his efforts at Celtic and we chatted about his memories of the club. Scoring in the League Cup Final against Dundee United at Ibrox was one as was winning the title in 1998. The summer of 1998 was somewhat euphoric for Celtic fans. The club had just won its first title in nine long and bitter years and the club seemed to be on the up again after wallowing in the doldrums for the best part of a decade. He then surprised me by speaking of the day when it hit him how much Celtic meant to some people and how little football meant in some circumstances…

In the north of Ireland there was hope of change too in that summer of 1998. The Good Friday agreement offered some hope for a peaceful future although a long road lay ahead after more than 30 years of pain on all sides.  The tragic events in Omagh on the 15th of August 1998 seemed set to destroy that fragile hope of peace. I make no political point about what occurred that day so please don’t get locked into knee jerk responses about blame or the technicalities of who did what and why. Anyone could argue that cause and effect go back 800 years in Ireland but sooner or later people must stop blaming history and be responsible for their own actions, be responsible to the future and not just to the past. This article isn’t about apportioning blame or making petty points. Rather, it merely observes the horror brought about by man’s inhumanity to his fellow man on that bright summer’s day 15 years ago.

 The Omagh explosion seemed to encapsulate the troubles in one awful moment. It killed and maimed young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Irish and foreign, Unionist and Nationalist. Among the 29 fatalities was a young lad from Buncrana in County Donegal. His name was Oran Doherty. This 8 year old Celtic fan died with his two young friends Sean McLaughlin and James Barker. Marc Rieper was asked by Celtic to represent the club at Oran’s funeral. The Celtic mad youngster was buried in the shirt of the team he loved so much. His coffin, which Rieper helped to carry, was draped in a Celtic flag. It was a difficult day for Marc, watching an entire community in mourning for 3 young boys who died so tragically. The usual dignitaries and politicians showed up, but this was about Buncrana coming to terms with the pain and loss and showing solidarity with the victims and their families. It is only fitting that Celtic stood shoulder to shoulder with them. As I said goodbye to Marc Rieper in Glasgow airport all those years ago, I could see the events of 1998 were still with him. How could they not be?

A short poem was read out at the funeral of the three Buncrana boys. It had been written by local school children and said simply…

Orange and green - it doesn't


United now…

Don't shatter our dream

Scatter the seeds of peace over

our land

So we can travel

Hand in hand across the

bridge of Hope…

Peace, of course, is more than just the absence of war and the north of Ireland is still limping forward slowly and tentatively. But Omagh didn’t destroy the peace process. It made the decent majority more determined to make it work. Marc Rieper saw the love a wee boy had for Celtic FC but he also saw how little football means when we are faced with such tragedies. Perhaps there is a lesson there for us all.

The bridge of hope is still standing.

RIP all victims of the troubles.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Camera Doesn't Lie...

The Camera Doesn't Lie...

Those of you who know those two god-awful tower blocks which stand near the Gallowgate like an ugly two fingered insult to the decent working folk of Glasgow will be able to picture the following scene. It was a hot August day back when I was a skinny young lad. Celtic had just finished playing Rangers and two second half goals from Paul Wilson had turned a 2 goal deficit into a draw. As school kids, we were high as kites after the adrenalin rush of the big game and Wilson’s late heroics. Three of us decided to cut between the aforementioned tower blocks on the way home. The buzz of the crowd on the main road gave way to an eerie silence as we rounded the tower block and headed for home.  Sometimes in your life you take the wrong turn, we did that day. A group of about 20 Rangers fans were waiting, bottles and bricks in hand.  They were much older than us and they meant us harm. I don’t mind saying that I quietly prayed for a brief moment. As they growled their tired old clich├ęs and advanced on us, my prayers were answered. From behind us a group of 15 or 20 Celtic fans appeared and a barrage of bricks from them was the prelude to a brutal fight which thankfully ended with no obviously serious casualties. I can still recall standing dumbstruck as the brutality of it all unfolded before my young eyes.  Once the Rangers fans had broken and ran for it an older guy in a Celtic shirt came up to me, ‘Gotta watch them fuckin snakes, wee man. Stick wi the crowd in future.’ In his own rough way he was protecting his own people and I for one was thankful for it on that warm August day long ago.

It may be that the scenes from Amsterdam got me thinking about some of the violent incidents I’ve witnessed at Celtic fixtures over the years. I have to say they have diminished greatly since the 1970s and 80s. I can recall serious violence at Easter Road in that horrendous 1977-78 season. We kids ended up on the pitch as rival gangs battled behind the goal. A friend was hit with a golf ball and lay by the goal line as Celtic officials came out to clear the pitch. The fact the team were so poor had some bearing on the trouble. They were 4-1 down at the time and there was an ugly mood among some.

The Hampden riot in 1980 also sticks in the mind. My recollections are of Celtic celebrating winning the cup and a few fans joining the players on the pitch. Soon however, a mob from the other end appeared and headed for the smaller number of Celtic fans on the field. A guy near me shouted, ‘Are we gonny let these bastards bully us again? We’ll no live this doon for years if we don’t get stuck in!’ With that he and his mates quickly sourced some bottles from the terracing and jumped the fence before headed off to meet the attacking horde. Hundreds of others did the same and the ensuing riot was televised all over the world. The Police were nowhere to be seen as the battle commenced. In the Glasgow of 1980, those young men lived by a code which told them to meet such challenges or be thought of as cowards. Who can blame them for saving their honour that day? For a few years after the riot they would chant ‘All over Hampden, we chased you all over Hampden.’ Truth be told it was probably best described as a score draw as the mounted Police eventually arrived and clubbed the rival fans apart but it was important to many that the support stood up for itself.

On another occasion I recall Hearts fans ambushing Celtic fans after a game at Tynecastle. It was the kind of cowardly thing we’ve come to expect from some of their support. They threw things from an overhead bridge at groups containing pensioners and children. They did so thinking they were safe from reprisal but some hardier Celts raced up the embankment under fire as it were and got stuck into them. As that particular scrap developed more Celtic fans raced up to join in and the Hearts fans melted away like the cowards they were. Again there was a feeling of protecting the group from an unwarranted and vicious attack.

The so called ‘Battle of Janefield Street’ which followed an Old Firm game in the 80s came to mind too. On that night Mounted Police officers charged into a packed Janefield street knocking dozens of people over and leading to such pressure to get out of the way that walls and railings collapsed. By the time they turned the horses around to charge again the young team had armed themselves with bricks and defended themselves in the only way they could. The ensuing battle was a disgrace to Strathclyde Police as their officers lashed out at anyone who crossed their path. Hundreds of complaints went unheeded and no officer was ever charged for those disgraceful scenes. Football fans, it seemed, were fair game for such treatment.

I’m not for a second claiming that Celtic didn’t have some violent people following them down the years. They no doubt have their share today as all big clubs do and on occasion they were far from angels. However, the yobbish culture of fighting at football for recreational reasons never really caught on at Celtic. Groups such as the so called ‘Celtic Soccer Crew’ were always exceptions rather than the rule and much bigger hooligan groups attached themselves to Aberdeen, Hibs, Motherwell and Rangers. It’s fair to say that Celtic’s support was generally hostile to organised hooligans within the fan base. The advent of all-seater stadia and the evolution of Police tactics also impacted on match day violence. Throw in the alcohol ban and arrests for disorder in Scottish stadia are at an all-time low. There does however, remain within a majority of Celtic fans an abhorrence of liberty taking or police brutality of the kind we saw in Amsterdam. This fact can lead to confrontations of the sort we saw there as some followed their instincts to protect their own. If the Ajax hooligans and those hooligans with warrant cards had left Celtic’s support alone I doubt very much if there’d have been any serious disorder. The scenes we witnessed of Police officers brutally assaulting Celtic fans who were not resisting them in any way were a disgrace. If that was my son or my friend being treated like that what would I have done? I wouldn’t have stood idly by that’s for sure.  

Amsterdam gave the Laptop Loyal of the Scottish gutter press a chance to lay into Celtic’s support and boy did some of those cretins take it. One sided reporting of the sort any free country should be ashamed of was the order of the day but thankfully the technological revolution means we can judge what occurred for ourselves. They days of football fans being treated as scum with impunity are long gone. The camera phone doesn’t lie and I hope some of those so called Policemen are brought to book for their thuggish behaviour.  Indeed I would caution any Celtic fan visiting Amsterdam in the future with the words I heard so long ago under those ugly tower blocks at the Gallowgate. Back then they were aimed at other fans, today they are aimed at thugs who claim to be upholders of the law…’ ‘Gotta watch them fuckin snakes, wee man. Stick wi the crowd in future.’




Sunday, 10 November 2013

Celtic in your blood…
Having spent a few years of my life living in England, I realised a long time ago that Celtic fans are to be found everywhere. I got chatting to an old Scottish chap in deepest Oxfordshire who went by the name of Pat Ward. As it transpired, Pat had played for Hibs in the early fifties as well as Leicester City but his heart was always bound to Celtic. His Uncle was a Bishop and this pugnacious son of Dumbarton always regretted not getting the chance to pull on the Hoops. We would talk football for hours and he regaled me with fascinating tales of the tough world of 1950s Scottish football. Astonishing crowds of over 60,000 for the Edinburgh derby match were commonplace and he also recalled getting away with landing a ‘good right hook’ on a particularly rough Rangers player, which thankfully the officials missed.  He also remembered getting the train to Edinburgh from the west to play for Hibs one Saturday morning and seeing a man up a ladder putting up bunting for the Orange walk. His team mate and fellow Celtic fan, Mick Gallagher, ‘bumped’ into the ladder which collapsed sending the bunting fitter sprawling to the ground. Such tales remind us of the nature of Scottish society in the 1950s and the tough and physical nature of football. One tale old Pat did tell me was of the dreadful 1947-48 season when Celtic travelled to Dundee knowing that a defeat coupled with others winning could see the proud Celts relegated out of the top league for the first time ever.

Celtic had been building a decent team in the late 1930s and their title victories in 1936 and 1938 coupled with finishing second in 1939 suggested that their young team would be set for a successful period ahead. Mr Hitler had other ideas though and the war brought an abrupt halt to Celtic’s progress. Players left for the forces, crowds were limited by law because of the fear of air raids and the unofficial ‘southern League’ started to ensure no club had to travel long distances (to Aberdeen, etc.) and use up valuable fuel. Celtic hadn’t treated wartime football with any seriousness and as a consequence entered the post war era in a poor state to compete. Hibs, Hearts and Rangers were the top teams in those seasons after the war and the huge Celtic support suffered much pain and humiliation. Season 1947-48 was to be the pits.

The season began with the old league cup section format. Celtic had been drawn in a tough group with Dundee, Rangers and Third Lanark. Defeat at Ibrox was followed by mixed results which suggested they were still an inconsistent team. They were hammered 4-1 by Dundee and lost away to Third Lanark before beating Rangers at home. It was to no avail and they were out of the League Cup. The league campaign itself was something of a trial for the Celtic support. There were brighter performances such as the 5-3 win over a useful Partick Thistle side but Celtic fans endured some horror shows too. Morton beat them 4-0, Queens Park and Falkirk defeated them too and they were thumped 4-0 at home to Rangers in the New year’s game of 1948. The club needed results or they’d be dragged into the relegation fight. By January 1948 they sat 12th just 3 points above bottom club Airdrie. They stuttered through the spring and found themselves still in the mire as the final fixtures approached. A good cup run took them to the semi-final where Morton beat them 1-0. They then faced the final four league fixtures and needed results or the unthinkable could become reality.

Two days after losing in extra-time to Morton in the cup, a tired looking Celtic travelled to Cathkin Park on the south side of Glasgow to face fellow strugglers Third Lanark. It was a real relegation battle and to the dismay of Celtic’s huge support they were thumped 5-1. A defeat against Hibs was followed by a rearranged home game with Third Lanark which Celtic again lost, this time by 3-1. They faced their final league fixture of the season at Dens Park against a club who had already beaten Celtic 4-1 there in the league cup.  Celtic were 2 points above the drop zone and another defeat coupled with a big Airdrie win, would put them in  risk of relegation. Dundee had finished 4th in the table and had won 10 of their 14 home games as Celtic and an army of fans arrived at Dens Park to try to save their honour. It had been a wretched season and now the last act was about to be played out. It was all or nothing for a Celtic side who had lost their previous 4 games and conceded 13 goals.

Celtic fans made up more than half of the 31,000 crowd crammed into Dens Park on that April day in 1948. They’d be there to roar and drive the team on as always and things began brightly enough when Jock Weir scored in 14 minutes to put Celtic ahead. However after an hour, Dundee were 2-1 up and things were looking bleak. An element of the home support had come to see Celtic suffer and tensions were as high on the terraces as they were on the pitch. Weir equalised in 66 minutes as Celtic fought for their lives and as the game entered its dramatic closing phase there were chances at both ends. Jock Weir finally scored in 88 minutes to complete his hat trick and spare Celtic any worries about relegation. It had been a close run thing but the Celts were safe.

The events of that traumatic season spurred Celtic into serious action. They signed Charlie Tully from Belfast Celtic after that club had ceased playing in the league following repeated and increasingly violent sectarian attacks on their fans and players. This culminated in the disgraceful scenes at Windsor Park when Linfield fans invaded the field and assaulted Belfast Celtic players. Centre forward Jimmy Jones had his leg broken by the thugs and the club withdrew from the league. Glasgow Celtic looked to the future and began to reorganise their scouting and training. There would be more pain in the years ahead but never again would the spectre of relegation haunt this proud club. When you consider the angst among some when Celtic lose a Champions League tie, it is worth considering the pain our grandfather’s endured in those far off days when Celtic diced with relegation.

Football has changed so much since 1948 but the passion of the fans who roared Celtic to safety on that tense day at Dens Park has been passed down the generations. Never doubt for a moment that Celtic supporters back then were any less passionate than any of us today. They loved Celtic and the thought of the Club being relegated hurt them as much as it would hurt you or I today.  Thankfully the team responded to the call of history and the roar of their fans to see that it never happened.  

Celtic remains the only founder member of the Scottish League to have competed in the top division every season since its inception in 1890. When you consider the list of founder members; Abercorn, Cambuslang, Celtic, Cowlairs, Dumbarton, Heart of Midlothian, Rangers, Renton, St. Mirren, Third Lanark and Vale of Leven, only Celtic, Dumbarton, St Mirren and Hearts still survive in their original form. 1948 was a wake-up call for Celtic and thankfully the club has never been close to relegation since.
As I listened to old Pat Ward telling me of the events of 1948, I could sense that even decades after they occurred that this proud Celt was still pained to think of the club he loved so much sink so low. He never got to wear the hoops in his career but his passion for Celtic was undiminished. On the occasions he played against Celtic, he gave 100% as a good professional should and told me he’d be smiling at friends in the old Jungle throughout the game. He hoped Bob Kelly would notice his efforts with Hibs and somehow realise that he was Celtic mad but the phone call never came and Pat went to England to further his career with Leicester City. He passed away in 2003, the year his beloved Hoops fought their way to the Uefa Cup Final in Seville. He’d have been proud of them and their wonderful fans. How far they had come since the day Jock Weir’s hat-trick staved off the unthinkable at Dens Park. To old timers like Pat, the fire didn’t diminish with time or age. He used to say to me, ‘Celtic is in your blood, win, lose or draw, they’re your team and they always will be. You never lose that!’  Rest in peace Pat and be assured that countless thousands of us still have Celtic in our blood and we will certainly never lose it.

Pat Ward (1926-2003) Celtic to the core.


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Postcard from Lisbon
A shrill whistle from German referee Kurt Tschenscher pierced Cal’s heart like an arrow. It was a penalty. A penalty to Inter Milan after Jim Craig had tackled an Italian in the box and he’d tumbled to the lush, emerald turf. Cal felt like crying, was his dream falling apart? Would the street wise Italians mug Celtic like they had so many other teams over the past few seasons. He buried his face in his Dad’s chest as Sandro Mazzola placed the ball on the spot and stepped back to take the kick. ‘Miss it, miss it, miss it!’ Cal prayed to himself with eyes closed. A roar announced that Mazzola had buried the ball in the net behind Ronnie Simpson. Celtic were a goal down to the most accomplished defensive side in European football. Cal looked up at his Dad who smiled encouragingly at him, ‘Nothing worth having comes easily son, we’ll have tae attack now like never before.’

Celtic did indeed attack. They attacked as if their lives depended on it. Shot after shot rained in on the excellent goalkeeper Sarti who parried, punched and clutched everything Celtic threw at him. ‘Come on Celtic!’ roared Cal as Murdoch fired in a shot which the swarthy keeper tipped over the bar. Hope was springing anew in the youngster as he saw how determined Celtic were to get back in this game. It was relentless attacking, Johnstone jinked and swerved past bewildered Italians, stretching and pulling the defence all over the pitch. Full backs Craig and Gemmell joined in the attack as the siege on the Inter goal continued. Murdoch and Auld probed and passed, seeking that chink in the armour which would give Celtic the precious goal they needed. They played football with a style and verve which Patsy Gallagher, Maley, Tully or Dan Doyle would have recognised as the Celtic way. The Inter goal lived a charmed life in that first 45 minutes and most would say Celtic were unlucky not to be level or ahead. Only the excellent Sarti combined with the woodwork kept these hungry Celts at bay as the Celtic players lived up to their history as a positive attacking side Cal watched as wave after wave of Celtic attacks broke on the finest defence in Europe. It was to no avail as half time arrived and the Italians headed for the dressing room ahead and seemingly good enough, or at least lucky enough, to withstand the Celtic onslaught.
Cal’s Dad passed him a bottle of water as the hot Portuguese sun beat down on him and the thousands of pale Scots who had come so far to see their team on its date with destiny. They had travelled the physical miles from Scotland and other places but in another sense they had travelled out of a past which so shaped them all and now they stood at the gates of glory. Brother Walfrid could never have imagined that the club he formed to feed the poor would one day play a game to decide if they were the greatest team in Europe. Nor could he have foreseen that, in many cases, the grandchildren of those same poor would go on a thousand mile pilgrimage to roar them on. ‘We’ll score Da,’ said Cal hopefully, ‘They can’t be that lucky in the second half, we should be 3 or 4 ahead on chances.’ His Dad nodded, ‘I know Cal but sometimes you don’t get what you deserve out of life.’ Cal took his hand, ‘Jock will tell them what to do, he always has the answers.’ Big Frank Callaghan nodded, looking around the stadium at the thousands of hope filled Celtic fans who had made the long trip, ‘I hope so son, I really do.’ In his mind he replayed games Celtic had dominated and lost in his time following the club. It was a long list.
As the teams came out for the second half a man lost somewhere in the crowd began slow, one word chant well known on the terraces of Parkhead, ‘Cellllll-tiiic’ Within seconds, dozens, hundreds and then thousands joined his as the words flowed onto the pitch to reassure the players that the fans still believed….’Cellll-tic, Celll-tic, Celltic, Celtic!’ The game got underway and the players in green and white hooped shirts moved the ball quickly and confidently, the siege resumed. The songs continued from the packed terracing behind the goal. Cal’s father roared at the field as if his voice could change events there. A further 15 minutes of relentless pressure and still Inter held out. Then came a moment which would live with Cal all of his life. Bobby Murdoch clipped a pass wide to Jim Craig on the right hand side of the Inter box. The Italians scampered towards him as he drove into the penalty area. The full back hesitated as if unsure who to pass to but it was a feint, he was waiting for Gemmell who was driving towards the Inter box like a runaway train. Craig cushioned the ball along the 18 yard line as the Italians suddenly realised that they had been outflanked. One of them desperately rushed at Gemmell as his mighty right foot crashed the ball towards goal. It flashed through the air in the bright Lisbon sunshine….

Cal watched that thunderous shot fly towards the Inter goal as if in slow motion. The massed ranks of Celtic fans behind the goal saw it streak towards Sarti’s goal, willing it into the net. Surely this was it, surely now they’d get the goal their play deserved? The Italian keeper barely saw it as it exploded behind him! ‘Yeeesssss!’ roared Cal hugging Shug and dancing a jig of delight, ‘We’ve done it!’ His father’s strong arms swept both boys up in a joyous embrace born somewhere in the hungry years when Celtic were winning nothing and heartbreak and humiliation were commonplace. The crowd were ecstatic. Surely Inter who had staked all on being able to keep Celtic at bay couldn’t recover from this hammer blow?  Again the Celtic players drove forward. Murdoch brought out a great save from Sarti and the shots continued to fly towards the inspired keeper who seemed now to be the only thing standing between Celtic and their destiny. Cal asked his father, ‘How long to go Da?’ Big Frank grimaced, ‘Five or six minutes, let’s hope it doesn’t need a replay.’ The fans began to sing again, ‘For it’s a grand old team to play for…’ as Murdoch picked up a pass at the edge of the box. The midfielder fired a low shot towards goal. Cal watched, riveted by the sheer spectacle and the battle of wills between Stein’s determined team and the black clad Sarti. As Murdoch’s shot flew towards the six yard box, Sarti waited to claim it, however the ever alert Chalmers stuck out a glorious right foot and diverted it past the keeper and into the net.

Cal’s reaction to that goal mirrored that of his Father, they embraced in silence as thousands went mad with joy around them. Tears flowed from both their eyes. There were tears of joy that they could be here together to share this magical moment when Celtic finally grasped the greatness that was their destiny. There were also bittersweet tears too for old Tam whom they had buried a few days earlier. How the old fella would have loved this, seeing his ‘Wee team from the Gallowgate’ becoming the greatest side in Europe. Cal smiled at his father, face wet with tears and nodded. No words were needed, they both knew what the other was thinking. The remaining minutes of the game were a blur to Cal and played out amid scenes of undiminished bedlam among the Celtic support. Not only had they mastered the best defensive team in Europe, they had done so playing the brand of football they were famous for…and then it was over. The club with roots in the poor community of Glasgow’s east end had risen to defeat the aristocrats of European football. Not only that, they had played the game with a smile on their faces, they had entertained and attacked from the outset. They were champions of Europe and all the struggles, all the pain and all the false dawns were in this past.
From behind them Celtic fans rushed towards the pitch in their hundreds. Cal looked at his father who smiled through his tears, ‘Go on son, I’ll get ye back here when it’s over.’ Cal and Shug clambered over the low fence at the front of the terracing and joined hundreds of Celtic fans who swept towards the field, a tsunami of joy, to embrace their team. He fought his way through the joyous throng to the centre circle where Shug stopped him, a huge grin on his face and pointing away to his left said, ‘Look Cal, wid ye just look at that!’ Cal turned in time to see Billy McNeil standing high above the pitch on a marble podium like some Roman Emperor looking down on the Coliseum. In the brightness of a Portuguese summer day the colours seemed more vivid. They could see McNeil’s green and white shirt and then a glint of silver as he took possession of the big cup. Then in a moment Cal would remember every day of his life, the Celtic skipper held the big cup above his head. ‘That’s for you, Granda!’ Cal roared as the fans cheered themselves hoarse. Of course it was for him, and every Celtic fan like him who had laughed, cried, suffered and been made proud by this incredible football club since Neil McCallum scored the very first goal for Walfrid’s team 79 years earlier.
 The following day thousands of delirious and in many cases, still drunk, Celtic fans were leaving Lisbon, smiles etched onto their faces. Cal had got to bed long after midnight after hours of singing and celebrating in the bars of Lisbon. As a youngster he didn’t touch the drink which flowed in fountains among the fans. He awoke in his hotel bed with the sun already high in the sky. For a horrible moment he thought he was home in Glasgow and it’d all been a glorious dream. He sat up and saw Shuggy looking at a Portuguese newspaper. ‘Look at that mate,’ he smiled turning the paper so Cal could see the front page. It showed a picture of Billy McNeil holding aloft the big cup. Cal grinned, ‘What a day eh? Glad we missed school for this!’ Later, Cal’s Father wrote out a quick postcard in the foyer of his hotel as he waited for the taxi which would whisk them to the airport. He addressed it to his wife back home and although he’d probably arrive home before it, it’d be still nice to receive a card from the scene of Celtic’s greatest triumph. On the postcard he wrote just one word… ‘Easy!’