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.






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