Friday, 27 December 2013

When you see it…
Peter looked out of the dusty window at the dark street below where the orange glow of the street lights was reflected in the many puddles. The shadowy, decrepit tenements of Glasgow’s east end looked grim and unwelcoming in the late December sleet. A few Christmas trees dotted here and there twinkled behind net curtains brightening the scene, if only slightly. ‘When’s my Da coming?’ Peter said impatiently. His mother stopped clearing the ashes of yesterday’s fire from the grate and turned to regard her son. ‘Peter, if this is about this football thing, I wouldn’t build your hopes up. You know you can’t get a wheelchair intae Celtic Park.’ Peter replied with his usual spirit, ‘but my Da said he’d fix it! I’ve never been to a game against Rangers before!He said when I was 10 I could go, well I'm 10 noo.' She shook her head, ‘Son, these big games are too full, the Polis won’t let you in and the drinking that goes on makes it too dangerous.’ Peter said nothing and wheeled his chair back around to face the window, a determined look on his face. His Da had never let him down in all his 10 years of life, if it could be done, he’d do it.

As Peter’s bed time neared he heard a familiar song outside in the street below. ‘The Rangers are up the greasy Pole, Parlez-vous, the Rangers are up the greasy Pole, Parlez-vous!’’ It was his Father and Uncle Tommy, the worse for drink but seemingly happy nonetheless. Peter’s mother heaved a sigh, ‘That’ll be yer Da no doubt, letting the whole street know he’s drunk!’  Peter wheeled himself into the middle of the room as his mother opened the front door. ‘There’s ma darling there!’ he heard his old man say, ‘Get the records oan doll!’ The tell tale clink of bottles told Peter the drinking wasn’t over just yet. As Peter’s mother headed for the kitchen to resurrect the meal she’d prepared hours ago, Peter’s dad bumbled into the living room, Uncle Tommy in tow. ‘There’s ma wee Petesy boy!’ Peter smiled, his father was happy on drink, more loud than dangerous. In fact he didn’t have violent bone in his body. ‘Did ye get me a ticket Da?’ Peter said anxiously, still determined to see an Old Firm game. His father held his index finger to his lips like a bad actor, ‘Shhhh, Yer auld Da’s got everything under control.

Large brown beer bottles were placed on the coffee table and his Mother placed two plates of warm food in front of the two animated men. Peter knew it was bed time. His Dad hugged him and slurred in his ear, ‘My New Year’s resolution is tae get you intae that gem son!’ Peter smiled, ‘Night Da.’ He wheeled himself into his room and as he was lifted from his chair by his mother and placed on his bed she smiled at him, ‘Don’t listen to yer Da making promises he can’t keep. You’ll only be disappointed.’ As she helped him into his pyjamas she frowned at the large scars on his young body caused by a coal lorry slipping its handbrake and careering into him as he played football in the street. That was two years ago and the surgeons had all told her the same thing. He wouldn’t walk again. She had cried for a week but at least she still had her boy. She kissed him goodnight and left, leaving the lamp on. Young Peter looked at the posters on the wall of his bedroom. Fallon, Young, Gemmell, Murdoch, Johnstone, Auld and of course, his favourite player of all, the speedy Steve Chalmers, smiled back encouragingly at him. ‘Only a week till we play Rangers,’ he said quietly to himself, ‘I hope my Da remembers.’ Sleep slowly took him as he imagined himself diving for a Johnstone cross and burying it in the Rangers net. He wanted to go to his first Old Firm game so badly.
The 3rd of January 1966 dawned cold and foggy. As Peter’s mother helped him dress he could hear his father fiddling with the radio, trying to find out if the game was on or not. ‘Come oan!’ he said to the radio, ‘get tae the sports!’ As Peter entered the living room the radio announcer said in quaint clipped BBC English, ‘Today’s big football match between Celtic and Rangers goes ahead despite the fog. Fans are urged to arrive early for the match.’ His Dad winked at him as he switched the radio back to a music station, ‘Game’s oan, wee man!’ Peter smiled back, ‘Are ye taking me Da, are ye really taking me?  As the Beatles began singing, ‘We can work it out,’ Peter’s Father smiled at him, ‘Just let anybody try and stop me!’  At that point Peter’s mother came into the living room, ‘Yer no planning tae take that boy to the match are ye John? I mean get real, he canny walk for God’s sake!’ Young Peter’s father looked at his wife, ‘Agnes, I’ve got it all worked oot, we get there nice and early, I stick his chair in wee Matt’s hoose on the London Road and carry Peter up tae the Park.’ She shook her head, ‘Carry him? He’s 10 years old John, he’s heavy and you plan to carry him, and haud him up for two hours in the freezing cauld tae?’ John Muldoon lost most arguments to his wife but he wasn’t giving this one up, ‘Tommy will be there tae help and so will Paddy Tonner, Agnes the boy is desperate tae see Celtic play that mob, ur ye gonny tell him he can never dae it? Wit dae we teach him? That ye just gie up in life?’ Agnes Muldoon frowned, ‘On your heed be it, you get that boy back here in wan piece, ye hear me?’ John stood and placed his hands on his wife’s shoulders, ‘Agnes, he’ll be fine, it’s the boy's dream, can we deny him that?’

John Muldoon wrapped his son up well that cold January day. He had two pairs of socks on and layers of clothing beneath his heavy duffle coat. John   carried Peter down from the first floor tenement flat, noticing that the boy was indeed getting heavy. Peter’s Uncle Tommy carried his chair down the close stairs and placed it on the damp pavement outside. Once Peter was lifted into it, his father pushed him along the Gallowgate before cutting down to the London Road. There were already many fans milling around the area in front of Celtic Park. They entered the close of John Muldoon’s former workmate wee Matt Clark. Matt had retired a few years before and his lung problems meant he couldn’t walk far or get to see Celtic much despite living within a few hundred yards of the stadium. ‘Stick the chair in the lobby, John, ye can get it after the gem,’ Matt wheezed.  John Muldoon picked up his son as Tommy rolled the chair into Matt’s hall. The little man smiled at Peter, ‘Hope we get a good result for ye the day son.’ Peter smiled, excitement written all over his face, ‘Jock has got them playing good fitbaw, we should do well.’ Wee Matt grinned, 'McGrory scored in my first Old Firm game, ye never forget these things.' They said their cheerio’s to a smiling wee Matt and headed out of the close to the London Road.

Peter, arms around his father’s neck as he was carried across the road, looked up Kerrydale Street. Thousands of people were milling around, talking, laughing, smoking. There was an excitement in the air and the first throbbing songs could be heard from inside the stadium. ‘Celtic know all about their troubles…’  This was greeted with loud jeers from the Celtic end who responded with a growing chorus of….’In the war against Rangers, in the fight for the cup, when Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up, We've done it before and we'll do it again…’ Peter’s eyes were shining as he took it all in. They met John’s friend Paddy Tonner near the turnstiles at the Celtic end. ‘Aw right, wee Peter, gon tae yer first big gem the day eh?’ Peter’s dad, still carrying him in that upright in the manner people usually carry small children, grinned, ‘Less gabbing you, let’s get in and get a good spot near the front before it's too crowded.’  They joined the growing queue at the turnstiles to the left of the red brick fa├žade of the main stand. A burly Policeman looked a John carrying his son, ‘He awright?’ the Policeman enquired, ‘Aye, he’s fine, Pal. Just hurt his knee playing fitbaw this mornin,’ lied John Muldoon. The policeman was distracted by a dispute further down the queue and ignored John and Peter. John clicked through the familiar turnstile with his son and smiled at him as he saw the familiar concrete steps in front of him, ‘Made it Peter!’ Peter was grinning for ear to ear, ‘I knew ye’d dae it Da.’ As they reached the top of the stairs and saw the stadium spread out before them John saw the same wonder in his son’s face that he had known as a boy when he watched Tully, Stein and Evans.

They found a spot at the front of the Celtic end and John Muldoon placed his son’s legs carefully over the wall and stood close behind him. Peter had a great view and his Father, Uncle and big Paddy Tonner formed a protective screen around him. Peter watched Celtic Park slowly fill and the decibel level rise. Behind him the packed Celtic end roared out, ‘I’ve played the wild rover for many a year and I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer…’ As the teams came out the roar reached a crescendo, three sides of the stadium echoed to ‘Celtic, Celtic, Celtic…’ Peter turned briefly and looked at his Father, eyes moist, ‘Thanks Da, just thanks.’ His old man nodded, a lump in his throat ‘No problem Peter.’ The game thundered to life as Peter glanced across to the tunnel area where the unmistakable figure of Jock Stein limped into the home dugout. Peter glanced back to the play just in time to see Wilson hammer a loose ball past Ronnie Simpson. It was a jolt to them all, Celtic were a goal behind after less than two minutes. From the far end Peter could hear a familiar chorus…. ‘And its colours they are fine, it was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne…’  Celtic restarted the game and pressed Rangers back. Shots flew wide and Rangers clung on desperately as the magical Jimmy Johnstone danced past defenders and crossed into the box time and time again. Murdoch and Auld were beginning to pull the strings in midfield and Rangers, through luck more than skill, held on till the half time whistle brought them some temporary relief. Peter looked at his father, ‘We’ll score Da, don’t worry.’ His father returned his smile, ‘I know son, big Jock will change things a wee bit, tell them how to unlock this defence.’

The second half began and Celtic laid siege to the Rangers goal again. The powerful Hughes on one side and the mesmeric Johnstone on the other stretched their defence. Gallagher, Chalmers and McBride were increasingly threatening the Rangers goal, something had to give…and it did. Steve Chalmers headed the equaliser on 49 minutes and the old stadium rocked and roared as never before. Celtic’s days of being soft touches, hard luck stories were over. They ripped Rangers apart on that foggy winter’s day. Young Peter Muldoon watched stunned as Chalmers put Celtic ahead before Charlie Gallagher made it three! Then as Peter watched through the misty January air, Bobby Murdoch bulleted an unstoppable shot high into the Rangers net. The Celtic end was in raptures, it was 4-1! But they weren’t finished yet. Chalmers completed his hat trick just before Referee, Tiny Wharton, blew for full time to being the rout to a halt. As the teams’ trooped of, Celtic received a standing ovation from the huge home support. Peter and his Dad joined in as the fans roared out, ‘Sure it’s a grand old team to play for, sure it’s a grand old team to see….’ As the players vanished from sight, Peter turned to his father and said just one word... ‘Magic!

They waited patiently until the happy home crowd began to depart. Eventually they were left on the huge terracing with the last few happy Celtic fans. Around them the empty bottles, cans and litter of a big game. John Muldoon picked his son up and carried him up the terracing steps and back towards the exit. Paddy Tonner looked at John, ‘Big Jock is building quite a team here, John.’ John nodded, ‘Who knows what they can achieve?  The big Glaswegian looked at Peter, ‘Well, whit did ye make of yer first Old Firm game, wee man?’ Peter beamed back at him, ‘I’ll never forget it for as long as I live.’  His father hugged him. ‘Neither will I Peter, neither will I.’

Sleep came slowly to Peter Muldoon that night. He lay in his bed reliving every moment of Celtic’s incredible destruction of Rangers on that foggy day. He could hear the roars of the huge crowd, feel the songs vibrate in the cold air. Smell the smoke, the stale sweat, the beer but most of all he could see in his mind Celtic playing with such power, skill and pace.  They were destined for great things this side Stein was building. As Peter drifted off to sleep his father slipped into the room and sat on his bed watching him. ‘Glad ye came today, Peter’ he whispered to the sleeping boy. ‘Glad you could see whit I saw when I was your age. That wis Celtic fitbaw we saw the day, you’ll recognise it noo when ye see it’ He stroked his sleeping son’s hair and walked from the room wiping a tear from his eye.




Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Right Thing

The Right Thing

John Paul could feel the water seeping into his busted old trainers as he headed for the main entrance of the Forge shopping centre. The chilly December wind cut through his thin track suit and the lazy Glasgow drizzle seemed to seep into every pore of his body. In all his 13 years he hadn’t felt so cold. He scanned the foyer of the centre hoping the security man locals called ‘Robocop’ wasn’t around. He was a mean spirited man who loved nothing better than blocking those he considered ‘scum’ from the centre. John Paul entered with a crowd of women shoppers hoping to blend in. He wasn’t here to spend, rather just to heat his shivering body. He had got as far as the indoor Market when Robocop appeared, ‘Right wee man, turn around, out you go!’ A woman looked at John Paul, ‘Whit’s the lad done? Why are you throwing him oot?’ Robocop looked at her disdainfully, ‘These people aren’t here to spend, they’ve no money. They steal and hang around driving decent customers away.’ The woman looked sympathetically at John Paul, ‘But he’s just a wee lad, he’s shivering.’ Robocop was having none of it and ushered John Paul out the doors and into cold, damp Duke Street, ‘and don’t come back ya fuckin wee tramp’ He muttered under his breath once he was sure no other customers could hear him. John Paul looked blankly at him bemused at his mean attitude. What was wrong with some people?

John Paul, wet hair plastered to his head, headed up past Parkhead Cross and then turned right along the Gallowgate as the relentless Glasgow rain became heavier. Going home wasn’t an option as his Step-Da was drunk again and seemed to pick on him incessantly when the alcohol fuelled rage was on him. He had become more violent in recent years and John Paul’s body bore the bruises from his father’s last episode. What angered him more was though his inability to defend his mother. He had lain awake one night listening to him ranting at her, calling her foul names and then the violence and crying had started. John Paul had covered his ears and begged God to make it all stop. Later, when all was quiet apart from the gentle sobbing of his mother he slipped out of bed and headed for the living room. His step-Da was asleep on the couch as John Paul approached his mother and simply hugged her, saying nothing. In his mind he promised himself that when he grew to manhood that bastard would pay for it all.

He crossed the road rather aimlessly and looked through the large gateway into Janefield Street cemetery. Despite being a Parkhead boy all his life, it occurred to him that he had never been in the old cemetery before. He wandered among the forgotten graves of people from a bye-gone age. A huge stone Celtic cross loomed over him, a curious black crow perched on top, watching him. He reached the cemetery wall and clambered up onto the top of it and sat down, his legs dangling above Janefield Street. Below him he could see hard hatted workmen were busy tearing down the last of the old Celtic Park enclosure known as the Jungle. The last of the steelwork was gone and they were using jack-hammers to break up the concrete terraces. The old stadium looked like a war zone. Rubble was strewn everywhere and the noise of power tools and cement trucks filled the air. John Paul had gone to many games at the old stadium, initially to escape his home but he had come to love the rough comradeship of the terraces. It was his escape, his sanctuary, the place where he dreamed of better things.  He seldom paid in as he was still small enough to get a lift or agile enough to scale the walls on occasion. On one occasion he had cut his hand badly as the club, clearly annoyed at lost gate receipts, bedded broken glass on top of the outer walls in cement. That annoyed him, the club founded for the poor was keeping the poor out with broken glass.

John Paul watched as the noise of demolition abated and the workmen downed tools and headed for the porta-cabins which served as their bothies. At least they could eat their lunch out of the rain.  He dropped down from the cemetery wall and crossed Janefield Street. Glancing through the temporary metal mesh fence which stood, slotted into black rubber feet, he looked at the remains of Celtic Park. He could see the old main stand, alone and forlorn in the rain looking out of place on its own. It was hard to believe that the pile of twisted metal and broken concrete before him was all that remained of the Jungle. He prised two sections of the fencing apart and squeezed through into the building site that was one day to be the new Celtic Park. The place was quiet and the only workmen around were far away eating their sandwiches. He wandered over the twisted rubble of the old Jungle thinking of the times he had stood there cheering on his heroes. He had been shoe horned in here when Celtic won the title in their Centenary year. What a crowd there was that day. Now, all that was left was rubble and the ghosts of the past to lament the destruction of the old stadium. As John Paul picked his way over the broken concrete a small section of it gave way and he fell forward. His leg had slipped into a hole beneath the rubble and he only just managed to stop himself having a heavy fall. Something jagged and scratched his shin and he let out a small cry. As he extricated his leg carefully from the hole he was disappointed to see his track suit bottoms torn and dirty but worse than that his trainer was no longer on his foot. He looked for a moment at his damp, dirty sock through which poked his big toe. He then glanced into the void where his leg had slipped and saw his trainer about 3 feet down the hole. He lay on the uneven concrete and reached into the hole, his cold fingers feeling for his trainer. The tips of his fingers touched something metallic and he withdrew his hand worrying it was a gas pipe or something electrical. He rolled onto his side and peered into the hole. His trainer was jammed between damp clay and what appeared to be a rectangular metal box. John Paul looked around him and saw what he required; a piece of metal reinforcing rod from the concrete lay on the damp ground. He poked it into the hole and dislodged his trainer. Straining, he reached into the hole and retrieved it and pulled it onto his foot. He then turned his attention to the metal box. He forced the rod down the side of it and levered it left and right until it was loose. He reached into the hole with both hands and prised the box free from the cloying mud. He placed the box in front of him and regarded it. It was about the size of a shoe box and beneath the clay and rust, he could make out rusty hinges. What was this doing buried under the old Jungle at Celtic Park? He glanced around him, a little startled, as two workmen laughed at across at the main stand. John Paul lifted the box and slipped quietly out of the Stadium. He made his way along Janefield Street, scanning the ground until he found a plastic carrier bag blowing along the damp, deserted street. He placed the metal box into the bag and headed for home.

The house was quiet when he arrived home. His step-da had probably gone to the bookies or pub and his mother was working as a cleaner in the nearby Templeton centre. He had the house to himself and after locking the front door, he headed for his bedroom. He placed some old newspapers on his bed and then removed the box from the carrier bag and placed it on them. He used a scrubbing brush to clean most of the clay from the box, his mind racing at the thought of what it might contain. He then tried the lid which didn’t seem to be held closed by a padlock or other such mechanism but it was closed fast and wouldn’t budge. John Paul fetched his Step-Da’s hammer and a sturdy cold chisel from under the kitchen sink. He placed the point of the chisel at the spot he thought was the edge of the lid. He tapped gently at first but soon lost patience and hit the chisel hard. The lid loosened a little and he squeezed the edge of the chisel into the thin gap and levered the lid until finally it gave and he was able to open the box fully. He looked inside, eyes wide in expectation.

Inside the box, John Paul found a sort of parcel wrapped in what he thought was linen and tied with brown, aged string.  He snapped the string and carefully unfolded the water stained linen. In it he found two envelopes, browned with age and water marked. There was also a faded photograph of a Celtic team dressed in a strip of vertical stripes. There was also a set of what appeared to be dusty old rosary beads. He glanced in the box to make sure it was empty and found several old coins, each showing Queen Victoria’s distinctive head. He laid the items carefully on the bed and looked at them. He carefully opened each of the two envelopes and separated the sheets of paper. The first one he attempted to read seemed to be a poem and with some difficulty he eventually deciphered the hand writing and read…

Children of the future age

Reading this indignant page

Know that once there was a time

When being poor was thought a crime

But seeing no help close at hand

We turn to God in a heartless land

Beseech his manna from the skies

To still our hungry children’s cries

 And in that year of eighty-seven

When so many young took leave for heaven

We took our faith and fate in hand

And formed our bold and gallant band

 Celtic was the name we chose

The shamrock mighty as thistle or rose

From far and wide they came to see

The men who stilled the hungry plea

                                                                           J Glass Esq. May 1892

John Paul placed the letter on the bed and ran to fetch his history of Celtic book. It didn’t take him long to find out that ‘J Glass’ was in fact John Glass and said to be Brother Walfrid’s right hand man  and one of the chief motivating forces in Celtic’s foundation. 1892 was the date the club moved from the original Celtic Park to the current site. John Paul looked at the photograph of the bearded man staring out of the page at him, speaking to him from a century or more ago. Was the box some sort of time capsule placed under the old terracing as the stadium was being laid out? He took out the second letter and read the short paragraph it contained. The writing was neat and rather dated but he read it with widening eyes as he realised who had written it…

‘May the Lord bless this ground we consecrated this day and may he always watch over the Celtic football club and all who are involved with this fine venture. For as long these relics lie in this hallowed soil the Celtic will prosper. May the Lord smile on you and bless you all this day.’

Brother Walfrid…FMS

John Paul’s head was spinning. He held in his hand a letter, a blessing written by Brother Walfrid himself!  What would this be worth to a collector? He looked at the two letters and then at the dusty rosary beads. He could sure use some money and so could his family but something was troubling him. ‘As long as these relics remain in this hallowed soil the Celtic would prosper.’ That’s what the letter said and he had removed them.

That evening John Paul headed for his friend Paddy’s house and explained all that had occurred that day. Paddy, of course thought it was a wind up until John Paul showed him the proof. ‘Jesus, these will be worth plenty JP, you selling them?’ John Paul was undecided, ‘I’m no sure mate, something is telling me it’s no right?’ Paddy looked at him, ‘Mate, Celtic wiz set up tae help the poor, you’ll get a wad for these tae help you and trust me, you’re poor JP!’ John Paul returned home later that evening and spent a restless night in his bed. When the first pale fingers of light were creeping in his window, he knew what he had to do.

For three months John Paul visited Janefield Street, gazing in at the building work going on in the Stadium area. It was a bright March day when his moment arrived.  A huge concrete mixing truck arrived to pour more concrete onto the foundations of the new North stand. As the driver reversed the truck towards the spot the pour was to take place John Paul slipped quietly into the building site. From his jacket he produced the metal box. Everything was back inside as it was before he had found it. He clambered over pieces of steel stacked neatly on the ground and threw the box quickly into the great hole in the ground the concrete was to be poured into. A voice called to him, ‘Here you, wee man- get yersel tae fuck, it’s deadly playing in building sites!’ John Paul raised a conciliatory hand to him and squeezed back through the fence back into Janefield Street. He smiled as the trough on the concrete truck was guided over the hole and tons of wet concrete splashed over the box, sealing it into the very fabric of Celtic Park forever. ‘There ye go Walfrid,’ he smiled, ‘back where it should be.’ He headed for home satisfied that he’d done the right thing.

John Paul stood in the great North stand with 26,000 other Celtic fans as Celtic went on the attack against St Johnstone in that bright May day in 1998. It was win or bust for Celtic as Rangers were threatening to beat Jock Stein’s nine in a row record. It had been three years or so since he had returned the box to Celtic Park and his seat in the North Stand was almost directly above the spot where he had returned it. As Larsson cut towards the St Johnstone box in those opening minutes the entire stand stood to see what he would do. The brilliant Swede curled an unstoppable shot past the goalkeeper and Celtic were on their way to their first Championship in a decade. The good days were returning to Celtic Park. As John Paul and his friend Paddy roared and hugged each other, words written a long time ago came into his mind… As long as these relics remain in this hallowed soil the Celtic would prosper.’

Friday, 20 December 2013

Not worth the trouble…
Tommy Callaghan the tall, energetic Celtic midfielder sat on the team bus on a dark and misty January day. As the players waited for the last of the Celtic officials to board the bus, a couple of things struck Tommy as odd; Manager Jock Stein wasn’t on the bus as the engine revved and Tommy could also see a man holding his shoe limping out of the front entrance of Ibrox Stadium. Callaghan thought it odd but had no inkling of the sad events unfolding on that cold January day back in 1971. He recalled, ‘It wasn’t until we got back to Celtic Park that more news came through. Then, when I got home and saw on TV what had occurred, I just couldn’t believe it. It was a horrendous time. Sixty-six dead. People had their loved ones setting off for a football game and then never coming back.’
 Those events of January 2nd 1971 left a mark on all who were involved in them. Players, officials, fans of both teams but most importantly those who lost loved ones were deeply affected. Celtic fan Shane Fenton headed into Glenrothes with his friends that day in 1971. They were a bunch of excited young boys going to the big game. Shane was only Celtic supporter in the group from Markinch, a small Fife Village. His friends, Peter Easton, Bryan Todd, Mason Philip, Douglas Morrison and Ronald Paton were all Rangers fans.  Shane headed for the Celtic end while his friends headed to the Rangers end. He never saw any of them alive again. That a small village of just over 2000 people was visited by such a horrendous tragedy is simply heart-breaking.
Recently released papers show that in 1970 Scottish local authorities wrote to the Scottish Office calling for legislation which would allow them to licence and oversee safety at football grounds and enforce ground improvements on the clubs concerned. The local authorities had seen huge crowds attend matches at Hampden, Celtic Park and Ibrox in that era and were concerned that safety was being compromised. Celtic had played Leeds United that year in the European Cup in front of an official crowd of 134,000. This figure was clearly too low as children were lifted over the turnstiles in huge numbers and a gate was forced allowing free access to an unknown number of ticketless fans. Those who attended the game were mostly caught up in the drama on the field but many reported being packed onto the terraces like sardines and unable to move at all during the match. The Scottish Office wrote back to the local authorities informing them that additional powers to oversee stadium safety were ‘Not worth the trouble.’ Six months later the tragedy at Ibrox occurred.   
Football fans were often treated with disdain by society and even by the football clubs themselves in that era. They were herded like cattle in and out of dilapidated stadiums and despite some near misses, their safety was often compromised. We Celtic fans saw the club underestimate the likely attendance at the league clinching game in 1988 against Dundee. A crowd given as 72,000 crammed into the old stadium and there was serious overcrowding in the Celtic end. Hundreds of fans were marched along the track to less busy sections of the stadium. One can only speculate what might have occurred if Celtic Park had fences like many English stadiums of that era. The building of all-seated stadia has greatly reduced the risks involved in attending big games in Scotland and it’s now very unlikely we’d ever see a repeat of those awful events of 1971.
Forty years later, in January 2011, Celtic met Rangers again in a very different stadium and a very different era. A minute’s silence was impeccably observed by the sell-out crowd and old adversaries Billy McNeil and John Grieg led the tributes. McNeil said, ‘The Ibrox disaster is something which I will personally never forget and an event which is forever ingrained on the memory of Scottish football. It was a terrible tragedy and one which we rightly remember as we pay our sincere respects to the victims and their families.’ The more intransigent elements of both clubs support were muted in 1971 by the decent majority who saw clearly that some things are much more important than a football game. There was a good deal of soul searching about the nature of the rivalry between these two huge clubs and indeed about the nature of society in Scotland.
Celtic Manager, Jock Stein, who had returned to the pitch side to help with the dead, dying and injured on that lamentable day in 1971 was deeply affected by the tragedy. As a miner in his younger days, he knew the risks some occupations entailed but felt that ordinary supporters should be able to attend a football match in safety and return home to their families after it. Much as he took great pleasure in defeating Rangers at football, he had no patience for zealots of any hue who attempted to introduce political or religious dimensions into the rivalry. For a time there was a cooling of the fervour and antipathy between the clubs more ardent die-hards but as time moved on the old rivalry reasserted itself once again. But something had changed. A greater number of football supporters had a new perspective on the game. Yes, they loved winning, loved beating their greatest rivals but they saw it for what it was; a game and no game is worth a single fatality.
There but for the grace of God was any of us in those days and all decent people, no matter their allegiances, will remember the victims of Ibrox with respect and reverence. We are all football fans, we are human beings and we should never lose sight of that.
Rest in Peace the 66.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Tam, Tea and Christmas

Charlie stood on the bridge looking down at the cold, grey river Clyde below him. The freezing drizzle of a Scottish December trickled down the neck of his thin jacket and he had never felt so cold or so alone. He glanced to his left where he could see the bright lights of the city centre and hear the distant echo of music. Buildings here and there twinkled with Christmas lights but there was no cheer for him. He looked at the dark, brooding sky, his eyes beyond tears, he had finally hit rock bottom. Stupidity and drugs had robbed him of his youth, his friends and everything that was good in his life. Doors had closed to him one by one and the blank looks on strangers faces told him all he needed to know.  As a train rumbled overhead towards Central Station he turned and walked towards the city centre. He knew the places to go to get what he needed though he had no money to pay for it. The hard hearts who sold their poison would probably give him nothing but he could try, he could even beg if necessary.

As Charlie trudged up Sauchiehall Street looking for the tell-tale signs that the regular dealers were about. He ignored the people who frowned and crossed the road to avoid him.  Some sneered, a few others gave a small encouraging smile which suggested they weren’t judging him. A crowd of drunk young men poured out of a pub by the Garage night club. One of then, a stout red faced young man laughed and pointed at Charlie, ‘Here, check this skinny junkie oot!  Mate, you allergic tae soap ya fuckin tramp.’ He rolled a pound coin along the ground towards Charlie, ‘Get yerself a bath ya clatty bastard.’ Charlie, too devoid pride to be offended, stooped to pick the coin up. He kept walking as their laughter echoed in his ears. As he turned down Holland Street, Charlie looked at his reflection in the rain stained glass of a closed shop. He was dirty, thin and pale. His shoes let in the cold Glasgow rain and his face was sunken. He looked ten years older than he was.

As he reached the corner at Bath Street he saw a familiar face. ‘aw right Chas,’ grinned Davie in his unique gap toothed way, ‘Where ur ye off tae?’ Charlie patted Davie on the shoulder, pleased to see a friendly face. Davie was 2 years clean but he understood the dark roads Charlie was walking. ‘Nae where mate, nae-where at aw, whit aboot you?’  Davie smiled again, ‘Mon get a bit of grub then, there’s a place doon here.’ Charlie nodded, ‘Skint mate, doon tae ma last pound.’ His friend explained that the meal was free and led him to a door at the side of a tall steepled church. They were greeted warmly by a smiling middle aged man who led them to a dining room without questioning their appearance or ability to pay. ‘Have a seat chaps and I’ll get you some tea. Fish and chips tonight is that ok?’ Charlie nodded, ‘Aye, cheers mate.’ The room contained about a dozen tables and around 30 people sat talking quietly or eating. Charlie looked around the room. The clients seemed mostly poor people, perhaps homeless, certainly hungry. A few men and women moved between the tables collecting dishes, delivering food and tea, smiling. Charlie had missed that, people simply smiling at him. A tall man in a nice suit was talking to two men at the next table. Charlie recognised one of the men from the drug scene. He had the same haunted, hollow look Charlie had seen in the glass window of the shop when he had looked at his reflection. After a few minutes their food and tea arrived and it instantly warmed Charlie. He hadn’t eaten at all that day. He smiled at Davie, ‘Thanks for showing me this place Davie, need a wee feed.’ Davie nodded, ‘Good people here Charlie, they don’t judge ye.’

Just as Charlie was finishing his food the tall, slim man with the nice suit approached their table. ‘How are we tonight lads?’ Davie smiled, ‘Good, pal, glad tae get in oot the rain.’ The man then smiled at Charlie, ‘Not seen you in here before friend?’ Charlie, who was nervous around strangers and acutely aware of his bedraggled appearance didn’t look up from his tea cup,’ ‘First time the night mate. Appreciate the grub. The man touched Charlie’s hand, ‘Good, plenty more where that came from, you eat up pal.’ Charlie was encouraged by the man’s seemingly genuine warmth and looked up, ‘It’s good of you folk tae dae this.’ The man smiled, ‘Listen pal, I’m lucky, got a nice house, warm clothes and a lovely family. Some folk haven’t got that so this is the least we can do.’ Charlie nodded, ‘Thanks anyway.’ A voice further down the room called out, ‘Van’s ready Tam,’ and the tall man answered, ‘With you in a minute.’ He stood and looked at Davie and Charlie, ‘Don’t you two rush off, I’ll be back in a couple of hours for a gab!’ With that he smiled and turned and wandered out of a door at the back of the room.

Charlie took a long sip of his tea, feeling its warmth spread through him. ‘Nice guy that,’ he said to Davie. Davie smiled and nodded, ‘Ye no recognise him then?’ Charlie shook his head, ‘I’m that spaced oot a widnea recognise the Queen if she served me ma tea.’ Davie nodded and let the topic drop. The two friends enjoyed the warmth and acceptance they found that night in the church centre. As they talked quietly, Davie avoided asking Charlie if he’d try again to go clean. He knew his old friend had reached the bottom and he also knew that Charlie was aware of the choices facing him. Outside they heard a scream, as some other addict struggled with his demons. Soothing voices calmed him and the noise abated. Davie looked at Charlie, he didn’t have to speak; his friend knew he wanted him to quit the drugs for good.
The friends parted with a smile outside the church centre. Davie headed back to his hostel and Charlie back towards Sauchiehall Street. To what, he wasn’t quite sure. The rain had stopped and but the bitter wind chilled him to the bone. He wandered aimlessly around the city centre until a voice called him, ‘Here pal, come and get a cup of tea,’ Charlie turned, unsure where the voice had come from. It had emanated from a large van parked by the side of the road. Three men were serving soup and tea to any who requested it and a small group huddled around the van. Charlie saw one of the men was the guy he had met at the church centre. He took the warm cup from him as the man smiled, ‘The centre shut now? That’ll warm you up, it’s still freezing out there!’ Charlie shivered and returned his smile, ‘Thanks Pal, I didnea catch yer name earlier?’  The man extended a strong handshake, ‘It’s Tam, Tam Burns.’ Charlie shook his hand. ‘I’m Charlie, thanks for the tea Tam.’  Charlie felt he knew this guy from somewhere but his mind was confused, still he’s a decent guy he thought, whoever he is.

Later as Charlie wandered through George Square, the Christmas lights glistening and reflecting in the puddles, he thought of the events of the day. There were some decent folk left perhaps he should try one last time to give up this lifestyle which has slowly killing him?  He looked at the glittering decorations around the Square. ‘Yon guy wi the soup has mer tae dae wi Christmas than aw this crap,’ he said to himself. He turned and wandered off into the darkness, determined to try again.

                                                         God Bless Tommy Burns

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Monday, 9 December 2013

What a day…
Pregnant?’ Mick said incredulously looking at Sniper, ‘You’ve got yer burd up the duff?’ Sniper nodded, ‘Aye, and ye know whit, noo the shock factor has passed I’m quite excited aboot it.’  Mick looked at his friend, ‘Sniper, being a Da is a hard job, it’s no everybody’s cup of tea.’ They looked towards the door of the Pub as Barry entered, ‘Aw right fanny-baws?’ he smiled at Sniper, ‘I hear you’re no shooting blanks efter aw big man?’ Sniper smiled, a little embarrassed as Barry shook his hand, ‘Cheers Barry, wiz gonny ask wan of you two tae be the Godfather but ah canny decide who?’ Barry looked at Mick, ‘He can dress as a wumin and be Godmother and I’ll be Godfather?’ Sniper laughed and Mick responded by shaking his head, ‘You decide Sniper, just remember who was then when you needed handers yon time ye got intae a fight on the underground wi they mad drum bangers.’ Sniper smiled at the memory, ‘That wiz an epic battle Mick, broke a few flutes that day!’ Mick nodded, ‘Hard tae play the sash wi nae teeth eh?’ Barry cut in, ‘And don’t forget who got ye aff wi yer burd in the first place!’ Sniper shook his head, ‘Whit? Is it Pollok or fantasy fuckin island you live on ya tadger, Sinead was intae me fae the start.’ Barry smiled, ‘Aye but ye had nae money tae go oot the night ye met her, I gave ye forty quid!’ Sniper shook his head confused by the thought of having to choose between his two friends. ‘When’s the wee yin due?’ asked Barry. ‘Should be some time in August so plenty of time tae decide who’s doing what.’ Mick patted Sniper on the shoulder, ‘Meant tae say, congratulations mate, you’ll be a great Da,’ Sniper grinned, ‘Does that mean you don’t want the forty quid back?’

As the three friends travelled around the country following Celtic that season Sniper kept them up to date with the progress of Sinead and the growing child within her. On a trip to Kilmarnock he had them in stitches talking about sitting on the floor of the health centre hall with a dozen other couples at a pre-natal class he’d been dragged to, ‘Did ah no fart when we were getting back up? Some snobby burd drew me a look but feck it, wit kin ye dae? Better oot than in eh?’ On another trip to Aberdeen he worried them by informing them that he was thinking of having the scan picture tattooed onto his arm, ‘ Don’t be daft, ya big plonker,’ Mick had reasoned with him, ‘Wait tae the wean’s here and get their wee face or something done, no a daft scan picture that looks like fuckin E.T.’ Sniper was not pleased, ‘You saying ma wean looks like E.T ya knob?’ Barry shook his head, ‘Cool the beans big man, yer wean will be beautiful, Mick just means they scans don’t show the full picture.’  Mick changed the subject to distract Sniper, ‘I hear Martin O’Neil might be up for the Manager’s job?’ Barry nodded, ‘Hope so, this season has been a disaster.’

On a bright June day they stood outside Celtic Park with thousands of others as Martin O’Neil was confirmed as Celtic boss. The intelligent Irishman came out of the front doors to a huge roar from the assembled fans. Once things had quietened he spoke briefly to them, ‘I’ll do everything I can to bring success to the Football Club.’ Barry was happy, ‘That’s the man to sort us out, get ready for lift off now boys!’ Sniper nodded, Canny wait till we meet up wi the dark side, when are the fixtures oot for next season?’ Mick smiled, ‘Hope we don’t play them in August as you might be oan Daddy duty, when’s the wean due again?’ Sniper frowned at the possibility of missing a Rangers game, ‘15th of August but it can go a fortnight either way?’  Barry soothed his friend, ‘A long way tae go before then Sniper, be a few players in and out tae. Hope O’Neil gets a bit of cash tae spend, we need some top players tae lift the team.’ Their chat was cut short as they joined in with the crowd around them in the Celtic car park as they began to sing, ‘Martin O’Neil, Martin O’Neil, Martin O’Neil, Martin O’Neil….‘ Sniper grinned, ‘Need tae learn the words of that song eh?’
The fixture list did indeed have Celtic playing Dick Advocaat’s Rangers on August 27th. The morning of the game dawned bright and promised a sunny day ahead. Sniper had already had two false alarms with his lady and their baby. The Wednesday before the game they had rushed to the hospital at 3am only to be sent home when the contractions proved to be false. The night before the game as they shared a beer Sniper had said, ‘She better no go when I’m at the game, I mean I canny leave an Old Firm game, wean or no wean!’ Mick had advised him to do what was right and be by his woman’s side when his child took its first breath. On that bright and sunny morning Mick arrived at Barry’s house to travel over to Parkhead in his car as was their usual routine. ‘Nae Sniper yet?’ he enquired. ‘Must be still wi Sinead, he’s no happy about the chances of missing the game. She’s about 10 days over her due date.’ Barry sent Sniper a text message, ‘Leaving at 1pm, you making it?’  After what seemed like just a moment the reply arrived, ‘Does a bear shit in the Louden?’ Barry laughed showing the reply to Mick, ‘Looks like he’s coming tae the game.’

Celtic Park seethed and roared that bright August day as the teams came out. The three friends joined in a deafening rendition of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ as the teams warmed up. As Celtic entered their pre-match huddle the noise levels were ratcheted up even higher. Barry shouted through the din to Sniper, ‘Keep yer phone oan vibrate, you’ll no hear it in this racket.’ Sniper, who had promised Sinead he’d leave the game if she was in labour nodded but his mind was clearly on the football. This was it, O’Neil’s first Old Firm game. ‘Let’s put these bastards in their place,’ roared Sniper as the game kicked off amid a crescendo of noise. Celtic launched themselves at Rangers from the start and there was barely a minute on the clock when  new striker Chris Sutton smashed home the first goal. The 53,000 home fans erupted in joy as the big Englishman wheeled away in delight. In the great north stand, the three friends hugged each other, ecstatic at their team’s incredible start. It got better a few moments later when Petrov met a corner from the left and powered a header into the net! Under ten minutes gone and Celtic were 2-0 ahead! Astonishingly, just a few minutes later Petta cut the ball back as Celtic players piled into the box. It reached Lambert at the edge of the box and Sniper roared ‘Shoot, Paul!’ Lambert’s low shot was perfect and the ball whizzed, a white blur, through a crowd of players to nestle in the back of the net. The stadium erupted again. There was mild hysteria among the Celtic fans. With less than 12 minutes played Celtic were 3-0 ahead! As they celebrated, Barry saw Sniper’s phone on the ground at his feet, as he handed it to his friend he couldn’t help but see the words ’12 missed calls’ displayed on the screen. Above the small text message icon was the number eight. He handed it to Sniper and shouted through the din, ‘Ye might need tae go mate?’ Sniper opened one of the text messages and looked at his friend, ‘She’s in the Royal, I need tae go! We’re gonny skelp these clowns and I need tae fuckin leave!’ Mick grabbed him by the shoulders, ‘Go mate, we’ll win this noo but you’ve got a wean on the way!’ Sniper nodded and squeezed past them. He made his way down the stairs and stopped briefly at the barrier at pitch level where he shook his fist and shouted something they couldn’t hear at a Rangers player taking a throw in. Then he headed for the exit and was lost to their sight.
Barry and Mick enjoyed the destruction of Advocaat’s Rangers that afternoon more than any game they had ever witnessed. Before that incredible game was over Celtic had smashed six goals past their ancient rivals and the two friends had sang themselves hoarse.  It was a massacre, a clear and resounding signal that things had changed. There was a new top dog in Scottish football and they would take some stopping! As the crowd exited the stadium the songs of victory echoed in the warm summer air. In the distance the Police sirens wailed, a sure sign that the away fans were accepting defeat with their usual ‘dignity.’ Barry’s phone signalled a text message from Sniper, it simple read ‘Ward 22.’ The joyous green river carried Barry and Mick along the Gallowgate before they headed up John Knox Street towards the Royal Infirmary to find sniper and hopefully his new arrival. The area around the hospital seemed to be filled with grinning Celtic fans. Barry and Mick asked directions to the Maternity department and took the lift to the 3rd floor.
The hospital was eerily quiet after the noise and excitement of the day and Barry noticed that his heart, still pounding from the events at Celtic Park was at last settling down. He took a deep breath and asked at the reception desk of Ward 22 where he could find Sinead and Sniper. The nurse smiled, obviously she remembered the big man well. ‘Last room on the left.’ As they approached the room Sniper’s Dad and mum were coming out the door. ‘Aw right lads,’ said Sniper’s grey haired father, ‘Great result today eh?’ Barry shook his hand with a grin, ‘Great stuff Mr Reilly but you got a better result in there I hope.’ Sniper’s Dad grinned, ‘Oh the wean? Aye grand, but six-two, six fuckin two!’ His wife a diminutive woman tutted; ‘Celtic oan the brain you and yer boy!’ The older man smiled, ‘Never mind her lads, wee currant bun that she is! In the huff cause she’s a granny an aw!’ Sniper’s parents left for a smoke in the warm August air and Barry pushed the door of the small room gently open. Sniper sat on the bed beside a tired looking but clearly delighted Sinead who held a tiny sleeping child in her arms. ‘Come in boys,’ he grinned. They approached the bed and Mick hugged his friend, ‘Sniper ma man, I feel like greetin. Barry kissed Sinead lightly on the cheek before looking at the baby who was dressed in a blue baby-grow. ‘A wee boy eh? That’s fantastic Sinead, well done.’ Sinead smiled, a little wearily, and held the child out for Barry to hold. Barry could feel the tears welling as he rocked the sleeping infant, barely 3 hours old, in his arms. ‘Amazing Sniper,  just amazing. ‘Born at 11 minutes past 3’ said Sniper, came intae this world as Lambert smashed that third goal in so I think we’ll be calling him Paul?’ Sinead nodded, ‘Sounds good tae me.’ Barry passed the baby to Sniper and the big rough Glaswegian held his son with a gentleness they hadn’t seen before from him. Mick looked at his friend holding the baby, ‘What a day, what a fuckin day!’  A lazy tear rolled down his cheek.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

After the fall…
I had an interesting debate with a couple of Celts online recently about the banner display at the Celtic v AC Milan game. We were unlikely to convince each other of the veracity of each other’s point of view but at least they argued their points with intelligence and no little feeling.  They were also undoubtedly decent blokes who thought the whole point of the display was to expose the stupid double standards going on with the implementation of the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) 2012. While the point that Irish nationalist songs are being criminalised while Scottish nationalist songs are not is not lost on anyone, was it really appropriate to highlight this using a huge image of Bobby Sands? This was done on a Champions League night when Sky TV was covering the game and the watching millions in the UK and around Europe would obviously notice it. My point that it was not appropriate to display such a banner at any football stadium was rejected by my friends on the grounds that there was a struggle for a basic right going on; namely the right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is never absolute as it must always be tempered by responsibility. Given that Bobby Sands (as opposed to William Wallace) is very much a current historical figure whose life, actions and death caused great controversy, was the banner display  responsible? To some, Sands was a hero and an icon of the struggle against British imperialist domination in Ireland. To others he was a member of a group who carried out some inexcusable atrocities. I mentioned this fact during our debate last night and the point was given a body-swerve Jinky would have been proud of. Let me use one illustration of why I feel the Sands banner was inappropriate at a Scottish Football match…

Bridget O’Reilly, who was once described as a ‘perfect Irish Lady’ did her best to raise her family in challenging times. She lived in Birmingham at a time when Irish people were receiving the sort of hostility and suspicion our Muslim friends are receiving from a misguided minority today. Her boys Eugene and Desmond, both in their early twenties were full of life and fun. On a chilly November evening in 1974 they went into the centre of Birmingham to enjoy a night’s drinking and dancing and they didn’t come home. The bombs which killed the two brothers and 19 other, mostly young working class people caused utter carnage. Emergency Service personnel were traumatised by the scale of the attack and the horrific sights which greeted them. Over 180 people were injured and only the fact that a third device failed to detonate kept the death toll down that night in Birmingham. Bridget O’Reilly had thought initially that she had lost one son in the attack but her heart was further broken when it became clear that both boys were dead. Of course, the utter stupidity of the politicians and police became evident when they convicted 6 innocent men for the crimes in an atmosphere of increasing anti-Irish hysteria. Many Celtic fans know all about the Birmingham six and judicial blindness which saw them wrongfully convicted but few could name the victims of that atrocity in Birmingham back in November 1974.
Of course the Troubles saw numerous atrocities carried out by all sides and most of the victims were innocent ‘civilians.’ No one came out of that period with any credit. Not the Government, certainly not the Army and not the para-militaries. The IRA campaign which followed their initial (and justifiable) defence of their people from the pogrom besetting them was accompanied by horrifying violence from Loyalist groups. I take no sides, make no petty points and have no political agenda.  All I do say is that hurt, pain and scars have yet to heal in the North of Ireland and beyond. How could it be otherwise? Over 3500 people died and more than 45,000 were injured. All of this in an area with a population close to that of the Greater Glasgow urban conurbation. Hardly a family on all sides was unaffected by the troubles and its repercussions. It does no good to anyone to engage in ‘whataboutery.’ Those who study the conflict know these things, we know that for every Birmingham there was a McGurk’s Bar, for every Enniskillen there was a Monaghan, for every Bloody Sunday there a Warrenpoint. The point I make is that in my opinion it was all wrong and all those dreadful wrongs will never make a right.
The years of the troubles saw the north of Ireland fall into a very dark place indeed. In recent years many have tried to pull the Province out of the pit of despair in was in for so long. After the fall comes the slow climb back to peace, normality and hopefully some form of truth and reconciliation. We all know the historic mistakes and crimes which led us to this point but what is needed is for enough people to say ‘That’s enough, no more.’ Nothing is worth the pain, misery and death which visited Bridget O’Reilly and thousands like her on all sides of the conflict.
A few of you reading this will no doubt feel that I’m questioning the rights of some fellow fans to celebrate what they call their ‘culture and heritage.’ The simple answer to that is that I’m not. I’m just saying that it isn’t appropriate to do it in a football stadium and allow every crackpot extremist to think all Celtic fans are supporters of militant Republicanism because that is not the case. Much hatred of Celtic exists in Scotland and images such as the Sands banner feed this hatred and allows some to justify their violence against our people. If you argue that it is part of Celtic’s tradition then I would counter that by saying that there are many more expressions of Irishness than militant Republicanism and Celtic's founding generation were for the most part constitutional nationalists. The past however is gone and we must surely look to be a force for a better future. Celtic is a football club not a political organisation. It was designed as a vehicle to help assimilate the ghettoised Irish of Victorian Glasgow into Scottish society. In that aim, it succeeded beyond Walfrid’s wildest dreams. The club is inclusive of all people and belief systems and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The drive to heal, to include and to unify is not aided by displays of a divisive political nature or songs which have no place at a football stadium. We all know the unfairness of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act without such displays to remind us. Those of us well read in Irish history know well the wrongs of the past, and they were many, but it is the future which is most important now.This club could and should be a shining beacon of decency in society rather than being viewed, as it is by some, as one half of a bigoted double act stuck in the 1950s. We could so easily walk to the moral high ground by stopping such ill-conceived displays. It really is time to stop, time move on to a better future for everyone.

Bridget O’Reilly never got to see her boys live their lives fully, have children and grow old. This proud old Irish woman went to her grave still loving the land of her birth and still grieving for her sons. There is no justification for celebrating any of the groups responsible for such acts no matter what side they claim to fight for or what political or historical justification they claim.

Some things are just plain wrong.
RIP all the innocents lost in the troubles.