Thursday, 30 October 2014

There's Only One King Billy

There’s only one King Billy

Bobby Evans knew a player when he saw one and his first impressions of the lanky teenager playing for Our Lady’s High School were positive. He soon had the Celtic scouting system knocking on the door of young William McNeil. The youngster needed no second invitation and signed for Celtic in August 1957, a few weeks before the League Cup final of that year which as every Celt will tell you ended in a 7-1 rout of ancient rivals Rangers. Few would have guessed that the startling and comprehensive victory young McNeil witnessed would be rewarded with the last major trophy Celtic would win for 8 long and bitter years. McNeil himself would be amazed if you had said to him on that bright October day in 1957 that not until he was Captain of the side would Celtic taste cup final victory again.

His formative years at Celtic saw the reserve team run by a certain Jock Stein develop some excellent young players who had the potential to do well in the game. However the late 1950s and early 1960s were  times of false dawns, bitter defeats and exasperation for the Celtic support.  Interference in team matters by Chairman Bob Kelly saw some ludicrous decisions made. The young Celtic side which did so well in the Cup Final of 1963 to hold a very strong Rangers side to a 1-1 draw saw the inspirational Jimmy Johnstone dropped for the replay on Kelly’s orders. Celtic lost 3-0 and thousands of angry Celtic fans had departed long before the end of the game as Rangers toyed with their side. On another occasion as the team bus headed for a game at Airdrie, Kelly spotted a reserve goalkeeper heading towards the ground with his Celtic scarf on. He ordered the bus to stop and pick the young man up. He then told McGrory, just an hour before kick-off, to put him in the team. The youngster played and Celtic lost 0-2.

By 1964-65 Season McNeil had reached a critical point in his career. Stein had departed to great success at Dunfermline and Hibs and Celtic were languishing well behind Hearts, Kilmarnock and Rangers in the league. Spurs were interested in signing him and the young internationalist was sorely tempted. Not only were Celtic grossly under-achieving, but pay rates remained low for such a big club. Then just a few days after his 25th birthday in March 1965 came news which electrified the club. Jock Stein was returning and those who knew the big man realised that he would never accept the kind of interference in team matters the mild mannered McGrory had accepted.  McNeil sensed that things were going to be very different at Celtic Park now that a Manager with up to date ideas and a personality which would dominate Celtic and indeed Scottish football.

Stein took stock of his new team and the situation it was in in early 1965 and saw that the title was already gone.  McGrory had left the Hoops in the Cup Semi-final and that seemed the best chance of silverware for the new Manager and his team.  The semi-final with Motherwell on 27 March was a tense affair and the Celtic fans in the 52,000 crowd felt they were close to going out as a certain Joe McBride hit 2 goals for Motherwell but an under par Celtic fought back twice and the game ended 2-2. In the replay, watched by almost 60,000, Celtic played much better and swept Motherwell aside by 3-0. The final was now a reality and only Dunfermline stood between Celtic and their first trophy in 8 long years.

Billy McNeil looked every inch a leader and a Captain as he led Celtic onto the pitch for the 1965 cup final against Dunfermline in front of 108,000 fans. The Fifers had given Celtic a lot of trouble in that era and the pundits were split on who would win. Celtic went behind twice in the match and as they trooped off 1-2 down it was noted that no team had come from behind twice to win the cup. The half time team talk from Stein was calm and assured, ‘Keep plugging away and the rewards will come.’ In the second half Auld scored to make it 2-2 as the huge Celtic support reached a near hysterical state. Could they do it? Could they finally reward their long suffering fans with a trophy? With Murdoch, moved to midfield by Stein, and Auld dominating the midfield, Celtic looked the stronger team as the minutes ticked past. On 81 minutes Celtic won a corner and McNeil trotted forward. There was a sense of anticipation as the ball was arced into the box. Bobby Lennox heard his skipper roar ‘Leave it!’ as McNeil rose to meet the ball. The success starved Celtic fans held their breath as the skipper thundered his header goal-wards. It smashed into the back of the net as Hampden let out one of those huge roars which gave the old stadium such a famous name. The Celtic supporters went wild as years of frustration and anger melted away. At long last they had a trophy to celebrate and Celtic was set for an exciting new era.

Much has been written about the decade of glory which followed Celtic’s 3-2 victory in the Scottish Cup Final of 1965. Stein himself said, "It wouldn't have gone as well for Celtic had they not have won this game."   The victory energised the club and gave the players the belief that they could be winners. With Stein organising and motivating off the park and McNeil barking out the orders on it, Celtic were moulded into a formidable team. Celtic won the title the following season and by 1966-67 had become a ruthless goal machine which swept every team in Scotland aside. In Europe they marched towards their destiny in Lisbon and on a hot day in May 1967 reached the club’s zenith. McNeil led Celtic through a glorious era and saw the club, previously so starved of success, gorge themselves on silverware. 9 league titles were won in succession, 7 Scottish Cups and 5 League cups were added to Celtic’s list of achievements. In Europe they were a force to be reckoned with and few of the giants of European football fancied getting Celtic in the draw.

In memory’s view McNeil soars above attackers to defend Celtic’s goal or imperiously heads the ball into the opposition net. He led by example and inspired those around him to raise and sustain the level of performance required at Celtic in those days. His goals in cup finals, Old Firm games and even in the World Club Championship were always welcome but his role in that great team was always to lead and to instil confidence in his team mates. His retrial in 1975 came at the end of another victorious cup final and some argue that it was a year or two too soon. He had played over 790 competitive games for Celtic and led them through the most successful era in the club’s history. It was an astonishing turnaround for the young lad who thought of joining Spurs in 1965 as Celtic seemed to be going nowhere.
The most iconic image of Billy McNeil remains the picture of the young captain astride the podium in Lisbon with the European Cup glinting in the bright sunlight. Here was his professional peak but here too was the peak of Celtic football club’s incredible rise from the slums of Victorian Glasgow to being crowned the finest team in Europe. As a Celtic Captain and indeed supporter, McNeil knew the historical significance of what Stein and the Lions had achieved, He said of the final whistle going at the end of that game with Inter in 1967…

'That's what hit us. We had done something that had never been done before and it was terrific.'

Terrific does not begin to describe the achievements of Celtic during the Stein era nor their play on that hot day in Portugal. They destroyed Inter Milan and their defensive tactics for a generation. Stein knew well the vital role his skipper had played in his side and said of him…

“What makes a great player? It’s a question I’m often asked and my answer is always the same. He is the one who brings out the best in others, and when I am saying that I am talking about Billy McNeill. It is this quality of bringing the units of the team together, and inspiring them to play for each other and for the club, which has raised our captain above all others in the past.”

The word ‘Legend’ is banded about much in sport but if one man deserves that accolade then it is surely Billy McNeil. The service he gave Celtic as player, Manager and ambassador for the club has been immense. Ask any Celtic fan to name his all-time Celtic 11 and it’s a fair bet Billy McNeil will be on the team.  They used to chant back in the less PC days of the 60s and 70s ‘There’s only one King Billy and that’s McNeil.’ In the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Celtic fans down the years that remains true.
For the leadership, skill and sheer will to win we salute you Billy. In the annals of Celtic Football Club, your name has an honoured and deserved place. You epitomise so much of what we aspire to for our club.

God Bless and thank you!  
Hail Hail

Tuesday, 21 October 2014



It was obvious to anyone who knew him that Jock Stein didn’t just come to Celtic Park in 1965 to manage the football club; he came to battle for them too. One revealing story concerns a loose lipped reporter who upon seeing a helicopter land on the centre spot at a crowded Hampden Park as part of the pre-match entertainment said, ‘If that thing crashes, I hope it’s on the Celtic end.’ Word of this comment got back to Stein and after the game he hunted the hack down and pinning him to the wall, delivered a verbal thrashing which had the man quivering in fear. Jock was not a man to be trifled with.

His on-going war with BBC Scotland and its Head of Sports, Peter Thompson, was the stuff of legend. Thompson, nicknamed ‘Blue Peter’ by Stein had helped foster a sectarian atmosphere around the BBC Sports team in Scotland and Archie McPherson recalled in his autobiography that as a young reporter he had listened to Thompson and his cronies discussing Catholics in a derogatory manner and stating that you could spot one by the way they pronounced certain words. Archie also stated that if an earthquake were to swallow Celtic Park Thompson wouldn’t shed one tear. Stein, a proud Celtic player, captain and manager got up the noses of bigots like Thompson not just because he was a Protestant at the so called Catholic club in Scotland, but because he brought Celtic huge success and delighted in rubbing the bigots’ noses in the dirt. The BBC changed its ways in the end and old school bigots like Thompson were on the way out as Stein took Celtic to greatness.

Stein knew rejection from friends during his playing days when he signed for Celtic. He once walked past some of the erstwhile pals from his home town of Burnbank who were giving him the cold shoulder and muttered to a real friend, Sean Fallon… ‘Fuck them.’ He later admitted that he had lost friends when he joined Celtic but said tellingly, ‘If that’s what matters to them then they’re not really friends at all.’’ He would often say in public that you get the same points for beating Rangers that you get for beating any other team but ask any of his players what it meant to him when they defeated the Ibrox club and they’ll tell you it delighted him no end. Not only because of the psychological damage it did to the Rangers team but because it also riled the bigoted element.  In one of his first encounters with Rangers as Celtic manager in the 1965 League cup final he warned his players not to be bullied but to let Rangers know that a new, tough Celtic had arrived. They duly flew into tackles, snarled and clawed their way to a 2-1 victory. In the 1969 Scottish Cup Final as Celtic toyed with Rangers for the last 30 minutes, Stein would have been satisfied that Celtic not only gave them a lesson in football that day but also saw his team stand up to what one commentator called Rangers’ ‘Storm tactics.’ The days of being bullied were over when the big man walked in the door.

Jock took on Celtic’s enemies from whatever quarter they came. The press and TV were regularly on the receiving end of his sharp tongue. He was asked once to predict the outcome of an upcoming match and replied, ‘Predicting scores is a mug’s game- I’ll leave that to Alex Cameron.’ Cameron, the host of Scotsport at the time and keen Rangers fan was not amused. Referees he considered to be less than fair to his side were often subjected to his caustic tongue and there is no doubt he didn’t count quiet acceptance of poor decisions as one of his virtues.

Jock’s values were honed in the dangerous world of the coal mines where a man trusted his comrades with his life. The pits were dirty, dangerous places where all manner of accidents and illnesses were common. He saw in those formative years how men with complete trust in each other could function as a unit and achieve more. Bill Shankly said that his ability to get the best out of each player within the framework of the team was ‘a form of socialism.’ Stein’s teams were marked by their cohesiveness and the way players looked after each other on and off the pitch. This was illustrated when he convinced 11 pale Scots that they were the match for the superstars of Inter Milan in 1967. When asked what message he had for Inter Manager Herrera two days before that final in Lisbon he replied…

"I am now going to tell Herrera how Celtic will be the first team to bring the European Cup back to Britain. But it will not help him in any manner, shape or form: we are going to attack as we have never attacked before. Cups are not won by individuals, but by men in a team who put their club before personal prestige. I am lucky - I have the players who do just that for Celtic."

Stein’s teams played with a verve and belief in themselves which marked them out as among the greatest these islands have produced. 25 major trophies in 12 full seasons at the helm rightly suggest he is the greatest manager in Scottish football history. To reach 5 European semi-finals, two finals and win the Champions cup in the space of 8 years is astonishing given the financial disparity between Scottish football and the so called giants of European football.

His actions at the time of the Ibrox disaster showed his human side. Photographs taken on that gloomy and lamentable night show a burly figure helping with the dead and injured on the track at Ibrox. Much as he detested the bigotry which attaches itself to some supporters, he also saw that some things are far more important that football or its tribalism. He said in 1971…

"This terrible tragedy must help to curb the bigotry and bitterness of Old Firm matches. When human life is at stake this kind of hatred seems sordid and little. Fans of both sides will never forget this disaster."

It is sadly ironic that a minority of supporters of the club in Govan cannot see the humanity of Stein’s actions on that day in 1971 and choose instead to abuse his memory. Nor did Jock spare Celtic fans when he felt they were out of order. When rebel songs were sung at a League Cup tie in Stirling in the early 1970s, Stein actually entered the crowd and told supporters to stop it. In the following week’s Celtic View he asked… ‘Surely there are enough Celtic songs without introducing religion, politics or anything else?’ Stein acted then, as he always did, in what he perceived to be the best interests of Celtic. Whether it was the biased elements of the media, the SFA, Referees or a misguided minority of our own support, Jock was never slow to challenge those who through words or actions harmed Celtic. In the hours after his greatest triumph he opened his heart on what he and his team had achieved and what it meant to him, to Celtic and indeed to football…

"There is not a prouder man on God's Earth than me at this moment. Winning was important, aye, but it was the way that we have won that has filled me with satisfaction. We did it by playing football; Pure, beautiful, inventive football. There was not a negative thought in our heads. Inter played right into our hands; it's so sad to see such gifted players shackled by a system that restricts their freedom to think and to act. Our fans would never accept that sort of sterile approach. Our objective is always to try to win with style."
Winning with style is how those of us who saw Stein’s Celtic will remember them. They played it the right way. They played it the Celtic way.

Jock Stein fought a thousand battles for the club he loved and made them a name all over the world. When the history books are written about Celtic there are three names which will tower above all others. They are Brother Walfrid, Willie Maley and the indomitable Jock Stein.

‘Pure, beautiful, inventive football…’  It sure was.

Thanks Boss.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Slatefield Boys

The Slatefield Bhoys

It’s well known that Hibernian’s Scottish Cup victory in 1887 was one of the key moments in the genesis of Celtic football club. In the early years of Scottish football, the Scottish Cup was by far the most prestigious tournament around. Even after the formation of the league, the cup was still the number one priority for any ambitious team. The victorious Hibs team brought the Cup through the crowded streets of the east end of Glasgow to the Hall of St Mary’s church amid much celebration. The Irish community of the east end were solidly behind Hibs and celebrated their victory with great enthusiasm. As the toasts were made, one Hibs official urged the Glasgow Irish community to go and do likewise and found a team of their own. The watching Brother Walfrid would have nodded in agreement. It is of course a matter of history that Hibs, so generous to the new Celtic club, were rewarded by having their best players poached and almost went out of existence.

In an age before the welfare state, the poor relied heavily on church based charity or, in the worst case scenario, the poor house. The Victorian poor house was indeed a grim place and few entered its doors without good reason. Clergymen of all stripes knew the importance of charitable work and carried out some laudable work in the slums of the great industrial cities. As the new sport of football boomed, it soon became clear that it could be used as a vehicle to raise much needed money to help the poor. Walfrid assembled his multi-talented group of associates and set them to work finding a team and building a stadium worthy of it. Within a year of Hibernian’s Cup triumph, the first Celtic Park had been built and Walfrid invited Hibs to play Cowlairs in a charity game as its inaugural fixture. The size of the crowd which showed up convinced Walfrid that football could indeed be a source of great revenue for his many charitable endeavours. The new Celtic club took their bow in May 1888 in a match against Rangers Swifts and won 5-2. The rest, as they say, is history.

Part of that first Celtic team was Tom Maley, one of Scotland’s finest athletes and brother of Celtic legend Willie Maley. Tom cared passionately about the poor and was one of the loudest voices warning Celtic that the move away from being a charity to becoming a limited company would enrich the few at the expense of the many. His was a respected voice and he stood up to the more business minded Celtic directors at AGMs and board meetings on many occasions. More pragmatic men such as John Glass saw that professionalism was coming and that if Celtic were to compete and grow then they needed to be built on a sound financial foundation. In the end Maley was voted off the board but continued to stay involved with Celtic as a shareholder, supporter and of course brother of Celtic manager, Willie Maley. He also continued to argue the case of the poor and remind the club of its founding principles.

Tom Maley was a trained school teacher as well as an excellent footballer and athlete. He took a great interest in Slatefield Industrial School for boys on the Gallowgate in Glasgow’s east end and eventually became its Superintendent. Slatefield was a refuge for street urchins, abandoned children and those deemed to be going off the rails. In Victorian Glasgow life for children in the poorer parts of town could be harsh in the extreme. Those with no family support, faced exploitation, disease and a bleak future. Schools like Slatefield offered them at least a chance of a better life. Not all the boys who attended the school went there voluntarily as the ‘Reformatory’ nature of the establishment meant discipline and hard work were the norm. The great Victorian belief in self-help and community action spurred many groups to seek to help those in the poverty stricken underclass to improve their lot. The boys at Slatefield School were given a mixture of sound education, training for work and strict discipline. For many, it helped them climb out of poverty and make a life for themselves.

The majority of boys in the school came from the large Irish-Scottish community resident in the east end and in the early days of Celtic Football Club would have known full well the importance of the club in community life. When Celtic reached the final of the Scottish Cup in 1892, they would have shared in the excitement as the big day approached. More than 40,000 fans, a huge crowd for the era, crammed into old Ibrox Stadium to see Celtic take on the establishment club of the time, Queen’s Park. The crowd was so great that they encroached onto the pitch and the game, won 1-0 by Celtic was declared a friendly. Celtic had still not claimed Scottish football’s biggest prize. The replay took place on April 9th 1892 and again a huge crowd in excess of 40,000 showed up to see if Celtic could win the Cup. This time there was no mistake as they rattled five past Queen’s Park to win their first ever Scottish cup.
The rejoicing in Glasgow’s east end took on a carnival air as bands played and thousands sporting green favours thronged the streets to see the team return to St Mary’s with the cup. Just as they had done with the Hibs team of five years earlier the whole community embraced their heroes. But this wasn’t the team from Edinburgh; this was their team; this was Celtic. Toasts were made, songs sung and a general air of celebration filled the hall of St Mary’s church till late that spring evening. No doubt the watching Brother Walfrid and his great friend Brother Dorotheus enjoyed their club’s greatest triumph as much as any fan. As darkness fell, Tom Maley slipped away taking with him the shining trophy which Celtic had won for the first time in their history that day. He travelled along the Gallowgate, no doubt passing the still celebrating supporters as he made his way to the Slatefield Industrial School. Despite the lateness of the hour, the sleepy eyed boys were delighted to see their teacher with the gleaming Scottish cup. Tom Maley said many years later…

‘Despite it being late the arrival of the cup had an effect better than any alarm bell.’

One can imagine how those young lads of so long ago gazed in amazement at the Scottish Cup as Tom Maley recounted how Celtic had beaten Queen’s Park 5-1 to win it. That connection between the club and its community has always been a vital part of Celtic’s success. Tommy Burns knew that and that is precisely why he took the Celtic team bus around the Celtic areas of the east end after the 1995 Cup Final. He wanted the fans to share the joy of victory and to know that they too had played their part. There is a link between that first cup victory in 1892 when the Slatefield boys were roused from their beds and the events of 103 years later when the fans saluted Burns, McStay and the players of that era. This was Celtic and their supporters fused as one and when they are together like that they are indeed a formidable force.

Tom Maley  (1864-1935)

Athlete, Footballer, Teacher and friend of the poor




Friday, 10 October 2014



Andy McDonald pushed open the door of the rather jaded looking Celtic Shop adjacent to Queen Street Station. All was quiet and still inside the modest little shop and he wondered for a moment if the staff were on lunch break. A voice from somewhere broke into his thoughts, ‘Be with you in a minute.’  Andy stood by the counter and looked around at the Celtic souvenirs which lined the walls. From strips, pennants, footballs, scarves and even teddies, it seemed there was nothing they wouldn’t stick the club badge on to make a profit. A middle aged woman with badly dyed blonde hair appeared from a back room, ‘Wit can I dae for ye Son?’ Andy tried to sound confident as he replied, ‘Just popping in tae see if you’ve any Cup Final tickets left,’ She regarded him suspiciously, ‘You a Pools agent?’ Andy nodded and lied, ‘Aye, 54 customers a week.’ She wandered into the back shop again and returned with a white envelope. ‘Limit is 2 per agent, that’s £8.’ Andy handed over the money and tried to control his heart pounding in his chest as she laid two of the precious tickets on the counter. The transaction complete he turned and headed for the door. Once into the fresh air outside the shop he could no longer control his emotions and roared, ‘Yes! Ya Beauty!’ From behind the window of the Celtic shop the woman who served him peered out with a rather bemused look on her face.

On the bus back to Springburn he looked at the tickets with a smile on his face. He read one to himself; ‘Scottish Cup Final Tie, Hampden Park, Saturday 20th May 1989.’ Andy was elated that he was going to the Cup final the following day and having two tickets meant he could take Brendan too. He couldn’t wait to tell his brother. As the number 37 bus trundled up the Springburn Road he thought of his own first cup final in 1980. Celtic had won but the ensuing riot was all people remembered from that day despite the fact it had actually been a fairly good game. Andy had been 10 in 1980 and by coincidence his wee brother Brendan was 10 this year. Brendan had been a late arrival for his mother and had been born with Cerebral Palsy. The family had rallied around and Brendan never lacked for love and encouragement. As he grew, his spirit and amazing determination made them love ‘Wee Bren’ all the more. His physiotherapy was often hard and tiring but he did it all and then some more. He still dragged his left leg behind him at times and still had an odd gait when walking but he never felt sorry for himself. His speech was slurred but improving as he got older and the therapists did their work. Andy had got into a few scraps over the years when some loudmouth would call Brendan a spastic or some equally moronic name. If only these idiots could see the funny, brave and determined wee boy who lived out his life with a smile despite his problems. In some ways Brendan was an example to them all in perseverance and guts. ‘Yeh’ thought Andy, ‘if anyone deserves to go to the cup final it’s Brendan.’ He got off the bus and headed for home.

Andy’s mother shook her head, ‘No way Andy, no tae a Celtic–Rangers match. If it was another team, maybe I’d think aboot it, but no against them.’ Andy frowned at her, ‘But Ma, Eddie and big Joe are coming tae, we’ll look after Bren, he’ll be fine. I was his age when I went tae my first cup final!’ His mother wouldn’t relent, ‘Aye and that ended up a riot! Forget it son, Brendan’s no going!’ Andy tried hard to make his mother see reason but she was adamant that Brendan wasn’t going to the cup final. His euphoria dissipated as he left the house and wandered up Springburn Road to his friend Eddie's house. ‘Whit’s up wi you?’ Eddie said at the door, ‘Yer cat die or something?’ Andy explained the situation as Eddie listened sympathetically. ‘I can see her point but he’d be oan the supporter’s bus there and back and we’d be right beside him, what could go wrong?’ Andy decided there and then that he’d do something he’d seldom done in his life; defy his mother’s wishes. He looked at Eddie with a determined look, ‘Fuck it Eddie, we’re taking him.’ Eddie said nothing, he simply nodded.

Late on Friday night, Eddie quietly opened the door of the bedroom he shared with his younger brother. Brendan was sleeping as Andy sat beside him on the bed, gazing at his peaceful face and his tousled blonde hair. Andy glanced for a moment at the wall above his bed. On it were posters and pennants, mostly from Celtic’s euphoric centenary year the year before. He looked at the familiar faces; Burns, McStay, McCarthy, Rogan, Bonnar and Bren’s favourite player the mercurial Joe Miller.  Brendan would be overjoyed to be going to such an important game and Andy would see it went without a hitch., ‘Brendan’ he whispered shaking his brother’s shoulder gently, ‘wake up.’ Brendan stirred and his pale blue eyes opened, focussing on his older brother. ‘What is it Andy, ah wis sleepin there!’ Andy smiled, ‘I’ve got ye a wee present.’ He held the cup final ticket in front of his younger brother’s eyes, ‘This is for you.’ He smiled as Brenden’s eyes widened, ‘Wit? Ye mean I’m going tae the cup final!’ he exclaimed in an excited voice, ‘Andy you’re the best brother in the whole wide world!’ Brendan sat up and hugged Andy who suddenly felt a little emotional. ‘No I’m not Brendan… you are.’ They parted and Andy explained how things had to be in the morning if Brendan was to make it to his first cup final.

Saturday May 20th dawned clear and sunny. A stream of bright early light slanted into Andy’s bedroom as he slowly opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was his brother’s smiling face gazing at him from the bed opposite his. ‘I’ve been awake ages, I canny wait tae get tae Hampden. Whit’s it like Andy?’ Andy raised himself up a little on his bed and told Brendan of a few of the games and incidents he’d been part of at Hampden, ‘Beating Dundee United tae dae the double last year was the best. What a way tae celebrate Celtic’s centenary!’ Brenden listened to his brother, totally absorbed. It was as if he was storing all of these stories, using them to set the context for today’s cup final. ‘So it’s win or bust today, they want the treble and no way Celtic want to end the season with nothing. We’ve got tae stop them Brendan.’ Brenden smiled, ‘We will Andy, I know it!’ With that Brendan got up as Andy watched him force his unwilling limbs to obey him. The boy had guts all right.

A few hours later Andy McKay was saying his goodbye’s to his mum, ‘I’ll drop Brendan off at Peter’s hoose and I’ll pick him up when I get back from Hampden.’ His mum nodded, ‘Mind, nae drinking son and get Brendan home for half six. You know that lot cause trouble whether they win or not.’ Andy nodded, ‘I’ll be careful Ma.’ He then turned to his little brother, Right, c’mon you and I’ll get you tae wee Peter’s, I’ve got a game tae go to.’ They left the house together and turned left up Springburn Road. They bypassed Atlas Street where Brendan’s friend Peter lived and headed for a bar near the railway station outside which stood two large coaches. Joe Toner and Eddie Hamill were standing by the first coach, ‘Look who it is, wee Bren and his bammy brother!’ Brendan smiled, he knew Andy’s friends well and liked them. ‘Yer first cup final I hear wee man?’ grinned Eddie. Brendan grinned like a Cheshire cat, ‘Aye Eddie, ah canny wait.’ They helped Brendan up the steep steps of the coach and found him a seat beside his brother on the already packed coach. As the engine revved the coach resonated with song…

‘Hail Hail, the Celts are here, what the hell do we care, what the hell do we care? Hail Hail the Celts are here, what the hell do we care now?’

Andy felt his brother’s hand slip into his as he grinned up at him. ‘Thanks.’ Andy smiled,’Nae bother wee man. Just stick close tae me and we’ll be ok.  Eddie, sitting in the seat opposite them nodded, ‘Aye, don’t leave our side for the whole game.’  As the bus travelled through the sunny streets of Glasgow the excitement built. Other Celtic supporter’s buses passed them and friendly faces smiled at them. On one occasion as the bus waited at the lights a bus load of Rangers fans drew up in the lane opposite. Insults were exchanged from the safety of the coaches and windows banged as the songs boomed out. Andy was glad when the lights changed and they turned left towards the stadium. He disliked the aggression and venom the rivalry brought out in some. He wanted Brendan to have a memorable first cup final and remember it for all the right reasons.

The bus parked and they set off on a long walk along Aitkenhead Road towards Hampden. Celtic fans were everywhere, singing, drinking and the mood was positive. As they neared the stadium, line of Policemen kept the rival fans apart. They lined up at the north enclosure which was split 50-50 for the cup final in scorching weather. Andy stood with Brendan in front of him, both hands on his shoulders. From inside the stadium they could hear the songs already throbbing and pulsing around the old bowl of Hampden. They finally reached the turnstile and clicked in. Andy, Joe and Eddie flanked Brendan as if they were his bodyguards. In a way they were. They made their way to a spot in the centre of the Celtic part of the north enclosure. The place was already packed as Brendan looked around him in awe at the sea of faces, the colours and the gladiatorial spectacle of it all.  Andy recognised that look, he’d had it himself in 1980.

The teams appeared amid an incredible cacophony of noise and Celtic began the match in a resolute and determined mood. Rangers had drubbed them 5-1 and 4-1 in the league matches at Ibrox earlier in the season and few outside the Celtic support felt the Hoops would win. The raucous atmosphere seemed to affect the players as they thundered into tackles and cleared their lines with hefty clearances up the field. Both sides had half chances but as half time neared, a goal looked a remote possibility… and then it happened. Roy Aitken grabbed the ball for a throw in which should clearly have been awarded to Rangers. He launched the ball towards Peter Grant who hit a high pass towards Joe Miller. A Rangers defender headed it back but an alert Celtic player in turn nodded it forward again. English international full back Gary Stevens was first to the ball but miscued badly with the predatory Joe Miller on his shoulder. In the packed enclosure Andy watched as if in slow motion as Miller reached the ball and slammed an unstoppable low shot past the startled Rangers goalkeeper and into the net.

The packed terraces holding the Celtic fans exploded! A huge wave of sound greeted the goal as the green clad hordes roared and jumped for joy. In the midst of this throng there was a crowd surge and Andy was grabbed by huge man who smelled like a brewery and who roared at him in a broad Belfast accent, ‘Yaaas! We’re gonna beat these bastards!’ As the crowd settled a little Andy’s grin left his face. Brendan was nowhere to be seen. His heart sank as he desperately looked around him, ‘Eddie,’ he roared, ‘Where the fuck’s Brendan?’ Eddie Hamill looked at him dumbstruck, shaking his head. As the Celtic fans began to bounce in unison singing ‘Can you hear the Rangers sing? No-oh no-oh’ Andy, Eddie and Joe scoured the terracing looking for Brendan but there was no sign of him. As the game halted for half time they took advantage of the calmer mood to split up continue the search, ‘He canny be far,’ Andy said, sounding braver than he was feeling, ‘Find him for God’s sake.’ As the three friends looked in every direction and asked anyone who would listen if they’d seen a ten year old, blonde boy Andy was quietly praying to himself. Just as a feeling of terror was grabbing at his heart he heard a voice calling to him, ‘Andy, Andy!’ he spun around to see a smiling Brendan being helped up the stairway towards them by a middle aged Celtic fan who was dressed in Celtic shirt, ‘This your wee brother?’ he asked. Andy didn’t reply but swept Brenden up in his arms, ‘Jesus, I thought I’d lost you Bren.’ The man smiled, ‘I’ll take that as a Yes.’

Andy held his brother close as the titanic struggle for the cup resumed. Both sides had chances in a dramatic second half but Celtic held firm and won the cup. Again the Celtic end danced with joy but this time Andy held tightly onto his wee brother. ‘Brendan sang his heart out in the blazing sunshine as Celtic paraded the cup they had fought so hard to win. As the songs flowed from the terraces onto the pitch Andy looked at his Brendan and smiled, ‘How was yer first cup final bro?’ Brendan, eyes shining, beamed back at him, ‘Magic!’  It was a perfect day, a great first cup final for Brendan. It was a game he’d remember all his life.

Late that night as Brendan lay asleep in his bed, Andy bumped into the room. He’d dropped his brother off at home as agreed with his mum and headed out for a drink at Eddie’s house. As far as he knew his mother suspected nothing of Brendan’s adventures at Hampden. She had asked him how he’d enjoyed playing at his friend Peter’s house and what they’d done. Brendan stuck to the story well and she seemed content. He lay on his bed feeling that happy, tired feeling which follows an epic Celtic victory. On such days the fans went home as tired as the players. It had been a good day. As he settled to sleep the room door opened and his mother quietly entered. ‘Andy, I taped the game for you today.’ Andy pushed himself up on one elbow, ‘Thanks Ma, I’ll watch it tomorrow.’ She turned to leave the room and stopped at the door, ‘Oh, did I mention I saw you on the telly?’ Andy’s eyes opened wider, ‘Did ye Ma?’ She smiled, ‘Aye, you looked as if ye were enjoying yourself.’ As she closed the door he thought he heard her say, ‘So did Brendan,’ but he might have misheard that part.

Monday, 6 October 2014

An appalling Vista

Sometimes you hear something which triggers memories and makes you think of how unfair the world can be. I had such an experience a few days ago. I was driving through the drizzle on a dark, autumnal night recently when I clicked on the car radio. It happened to be on Radio 4 and I heard that familiar Belfast accent speaking words which I initially assumed were from a radio play. A young man languishing in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is close to despair as he writes to his mother…

‘’Someday mum people will find out the truth, but that isn't the point mum, I've been told I'll never come out of prison. How can I take that mum? I can't.’’

Of course it wasn’t a play and the despair in the letter was all too real. That young man was Paul Hill one of the innocent people wrongfully convicted of the Guilford pub bombings in the 1970s.  The radio show used quotes from his letters to his mother as well as archive news reports from the time to tell the story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent history.  What was most disturbing about the case and those of the Birmingham Six, Giuseppe Conlon and McGuire family was not the fact that the Police used threats, violence, perjury and fabrication of evidence in their attempts to convict them but that the judiciary of the time, who must have seen the weakness in the evidence, appeared to acquiesce in this whole sordid episode. Lord Denning, one of the most senior Judges in the land said of the Birmingham Six’s application for appeal against their conviction…

’Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial ... If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. ... That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, "It cannot be right that these actions should go any further."

In other words Lord Denning would rather deny the men the opportunity of justice than risk the exposure of lies and corruption at the heart of the Police case. That is the real ‘appalling vista’ in all of this. In an interview in the Spectator Magazine in 1990, Denning remarked that if the Guildford Four had been hanged "They'd probably have hanged the right men. Just not proved against them, that's all’’

He had also expressed a similar and equally appalling opinion regarding the Birmingham six in 1988, saying:

"Hanging ought to be retained for murder most foul. We shouldn't have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they'd been hanged. They'd have been forgotten, and the whole community would be satisfied... It is better that some innocent men remain in jail than that the integrity of the English judicial system be impugned.’’

As we saw with the initial, deeply flawed, Bloody Sunday enquiry, the Hillsborough enquiry and other such events down the years, the establishment’s first recourse is always to protect themselves and their friends with a thin veneer of legal respectability. But just as the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough never gave up the fight for justice, so too the families of those wrongly convicted in the Guilford and Birmingham cases fought a long, bitter fight to see justice done.  I remember watching them walk free from the High court in 1991 to the cheers of hundreds of people standing in the streets outside. It was a bitter sweet moment as they had suffered so much in prison and had been demonized in the gutter press as monsters and mass murderers.

It’s hard for any younger people not around at the time to realise the extent of anti-Irish hysteria around in the mid-1970s. It far exceeded the anti-Islamic feelings held by some of our less enlightened citizens today. A fair trial would have been very difficult for anyone targeted by a Police force put under immense political pressure to find the IRA cell active on the UK mainland. A few brave people risked their reputations to query the validity of the convictions but the atmosphere of the time meant they were portrayed as IRA sympathisers and traitors. Justice lay bleeding on the streets of Britain during those sad times and no one seemed to care.

It’s amazing that the Radio 4 programme on the letters sent home to his mother in Belfast by Paul Hill triggered all these thoughts in my head. Of course there have been miscarriages of justice since then and the powers that be still close ranks when challenged. Freedoms are under threat as the so called ‘War on terror’ is used as an excuse to enforce conformity and infringe liberty. But decent people will never give up the struggle when they know they are right. We rely on an impartial and non-political judiciary in this country to see that justice is done and the law upheld. One of the great scandals of that era was that the very guardians of the law were part of the establishment which damned innocent men and women to years of torment knowing well that the evidence against them was to say the least flimsy.

I don’t write these words out of a sense of bitterness against anyone. God knows those families of the victims of Guilford and Birmingham have never seen justice done. But to convict the innocent will never assuage the anguish felt by those who lost loved ones. Those were dark days in these islands and so many innocent people on all sides were caught up in madness of the time. The effects of those years will last a lifetime for those involved. At the end of the day if we aim to have a decent society then we must have a police force and judiciary who uphold the law with impartiality and fairness.

The statue of ‘Lady Justice’ above the old Bailey holds the scales of justice in her hand. It is fair to say that they were weighted against people like Paul Hill who wrote those moving letters to his mother from his prison cell. If you visit the Old Bailey today you will also see, embedded in the wall above the main stairway, a shard of glass. It was blasted there by a car bomb in 1973 and has been left as a reminder of those unhappy days. The injustices of the time have, in some cases, been recognised now and it is incumbent on us all to be vigilant and ensure that our legal system is as honest and just as it should be. A wise man once said…

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  (Elie Wiesel)

I’m heartened that many people today heed those words and that others from Gaza to Guantanamo know they aren’t forgotten. For too long, people like Paul Hill were forgotten and that remains an indelible stain on British justice.

God bless and keep all the innocent victims of conflict and those convicted of crimes they did not commit.

From inside: The Guilford Four

click to enlarge

Friday, 3 October 2014

Return of the cautious optimist
Those of you who saw Celtic stumble to three valuable Europa League points this week will be in no doubts as to the current difficulties the team is having. A lack of fluidity and pace saw a determined but lacklustre Celtic team almost throw away three valuable points. The shining light continues to be the form of Craig Gordon in goals and the solid central defensive partnership of Denayer and Van Diijk. Scott Brown is also regaining fitness and will improve as the season develops although his fellow midfielders have much to prove. Few would argue that Celtic were a little fortunate to win the match but we have seldom had the breaks in Europe and to a degree you make your own luck. Some excellent saves, last ditch blocks and of course poor finishing saw us home.

I had the interesting experience of sitting beside a Swiss family who were touring Scotland and wanted to come and see Celtic play. They visited Oban to Mull and the Highlands before arriving in the east end of Glasgow. The couple and their two children got into the spirit of things and enjoyed the game. What was telling though was way a neutral and astute observer can spot the faults in a developing side like Celtic in an instant. Alexander, a native of Berne and follower of Young Boys of Berne actually asked me if ‘number 15’ (Kris Commons) was new to the team as he looked so disconnected from the rest at times. He also noted the seeming inability of our wide men to get a cross or corner past the first defender as well as the lack of real pace in the side. He did have praise for our centre backs and goalkeeper and of course our supporters. Izaguirre’s inconsistent positional sense was also noted as his foray’s forward often left gaps which the pacey Croatians tried to exploit.  At one point in the second half as another poor cross led to a swift counter attack, Alexander exclaimed ‘What are they doing!’ as three Celtic defenders rushed to the wide right attacker leaving a man unmarked in the centre. One pass took out the defenders and only Craig Gordon’s brilliance and some pretty awful finishing prevented a goal.

I have always said that European football is the true measure of a team. In Europe you meet well organised and well coached teams who study you and look for weaknesses to exploit. Celtic clearly remain uncertain in the full back areas and much of Zagreb’s attacking play was aimed at exploiting this. Celtic are currently a Europa League level team and this has come to pass because good players have been sold and replaced with players of poorer quality. It is to be hoped that Ronny Deila can coach and organise the current crop of players and make them into a more effective unit than they are at present. Of course we all miss the Champions League but we aren’t up to that challenge at the moment and should accept that.

We now find ourselves in a decent position in the group, particularly with two games against FC Astra of Romania coming next. Zagreb and Red Bull Salzburg will surely take points of each other and if Celtic play well against FC Astra, we could be in a very strong position to qualify. Salzburg then come to Celtic Park in late November before we travel to Croatia to play our final group match against Dinamo Zagreb. Of course this is Celtic so we take nothing for granted but I am optimistic we could still be involved in European football when the New Year arrives.

Thinking back to some of our previous outings in the old UEFA Cup and indeed the Cup Winners Cup, we have had some pretty exciting games. I find it strange that some fans have the ‘Champions League or nothing’ mentality. We come from a nation the size of Norway and do well to even make the group stages of the Champions League given the huge disparity in finances between Celtic and most big European clubs. We should see all European ties as a chance to experience something different to the SPFL fare some find so stale.

Our away goals loss to Basle in 2002-03 seemed hard to take at the time but it was the start of the road to Seville. Of course the quality of the 2003 Celtic side is light years ahead of our current crop but Celtic fans should embrace this campaign and give it our best shot. There are good teams in the tournament such as Feyenoord, Everton and Spurs and the third placed Champions League teams will drop into the tournament in the New Year. There could be exciting ties ahead if we play our cards right and qualify from what is a tricky group. The knockout phase would be approached with more confidence if Deila has a more cohesive side by then. Too many of them still seem a little unsure of the overall pattern of play he wants to adopt. That should change in time as the players gel and the injuries clear up.

I look forward to seeing the powerful and confident John Guidetti play in Europe too in the New Year. It would be nice to think of him and a fit James Forest being further options for the manager. Our progress has been incremental and a little slow for many people’s liking but I remain optimistic that we can make a reasonable impression in this year’s Europa League. Despite the constant and childish sniping on programmes such as Super Score Board, the problems at Celtic are dwarfed by the struggles of the new Club and their Teflon manager who seems to get little criticism in the mainstream media despite some awful results. Some in the media seem desperate to see Deila fail and instead of talking up a good result for Scottish football talk of it merely buying Deila some time. Mr Keevins actually said tonight amid much sniggering from the panel of ‘experts;’ ‘Let's face it, Ronny Deila is most famous for taking his trousers off.’ His ignorance and mocking tones would hold more weight if he’d did his job properly during the collapse of Rangers instead of saying that investigating that mess was ‘above his pay grade.’  For your information Hugh, Ronny Deila took a small provincial club to a cup win, saved them from relegation and then made them Norwegian champions for the first time in 43 years. But of course research is probably above your pay grade too. We all recall your classic comments on the signing of Lubo Moravcic when you said of him…

"I don't know what I find more laughable; the fact that Celtic cannot find £500,000 from their biscuit tin to sign a proven talent like John Spencer, or the fact that they then spent £300,000 on one of Dr. Jo's old pals, the unknown Lubomir Moravcik!"

So as we approach the next games in the Europa League, I say to all Celtic fans, let’s embrace this and back the team to the hilt. You never know what the future holds. Just as Europe is the real test of a team’s ability, times when the team are struggling are a real test of a support’s dedication. We are renowned as great fans, let’s prove it.

Oh and Alexander, I hope that Celtic scarf keeps you warm in the Swiss winter. Come back to Celtic Park one day.
Hail Hail



Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Dear, Happy Ghosts...


Dear Happy Ghosts…

This week I went up to Celtic Park to collect tickets for the upcoming European games and, as usual, I had a wee wander around the Celtic way. I enjoy looking (even for the thousandth time) at the statues of Jock, Jinky and Walfrid and reading the names of ordinary Celtic people on the tiles around them. As I approached the statue of Brother Walfrid I saw a grey haired chap, perhaps in his sixties on one knee pointing at the statue and speaking quietly to a boy of 9 or 10. I didn’t hear what he was saying to the lad whom I assumed was his grandson but I’m pretty sure he was passing on the story of who Walfrid was and his role in Celtic’s formation. That story has been transferred in such simple ways since the very earliest days of Celtic and perhaps one day, when his grandfather is long gone, that boy will be passing it on in turn to generations as yet unborn.

In my own case it was my old man, uncles and even older brothers who got me into Celtic as a boy but before them there were others following the Celts. My mother’s paternal family were of the Orange persuasion but despite this my Grandad would climb out the window of their tenement home to go to Celtic Park and watch McGrory, Scarff and John Thomson play. He said to me a long time ago that he liked the Celtic style of play and the fact the team was mixed unlike their main rivals. His older brothers used to beat him up and make his life hell for following Celtic. On one occasion they burned his scarf in the living room fire. In the end he was completely ostracised by them and none of his relatives came to his wedding because he married a Catholic girl. Despite all of this, he was the most gentle and decent man you could hope to meet. Such was the reality of life in 1930s Glasgow.

On my father’s side there is a more traditional Celtic family history. My grandfather was a native of County Clare in Ireland and a veteran of World War 1 as well as the Irish war of independence which followed. His love of Celtic came naturally as they were the team most Irish-Scots identified with. He was a solidly built navvy who could graft all day in all weathers. He would tell me tales of following Celtic which would put the pampered modern fan to shame. A cup tie at Easter Road in the 1950s saw thirty of them huddled on the back of an open builder’s lorry all the way to Edinburgh and back in the pouring rain. In those days most workers worked Saturday mornings as a normal part of their working week. Similarly in the days before floodlights, a Wednesday afternoon cup replay at Ibrox saw hundreds down tools, walk off the building site and head to the game. Wages were docked, bosses annoyed but that was of little consequence as Celtic won.

In my own time I recall my old man, always in his suit and tie, getting ready to take us to the match. First stop was always the pub and my brothers and I used to sit outside the Straw House on the Gallowgate with the other boys waiting for their Dad’s to come out. The pub door would open now and then and I would have a brief glance in at the smoky, noisy bar. It was a mysterious world in there and we were still far too young to be joining it. By ten to three the pub would be much quieter as most of the men left for the match. I recall the disappointment on one lad’s face when his half-drunk Dad popped his head out of the pub door and seeing the rain said to his son, ‘I’m no gonny bother the day son, just you head up the road.’ My Da told him he could come with us and that we’d drop him back at the pub after the match. The lad was delighted and his old man happy too. So it was in those days that a father would trust his son to strangers for a couple of hours. Except of course we weren’t strangers, we were all Celts and my new companion that day became a good friend. We’d join the stream of fans heading towards Celtic park chatting excitedly about the players we idolised and our chances of success that day.

Around the stadium the buzz would get young and old alike alive with excitement. I recall well the smell of smoke, beer and sweat. The flag sellers, buskers playing Irish songs, the programme stall, the man calling ‘Erra Macarroon and the spearmint chewin’ gum’ all added to the sense of ocassion. In the singing, swaying queues at the turnstile you could already hear the songs from the Celtic end or Jungle booming out. Then that roar as the teams appeared and we would get a wee bit stressed at the thought we might miss an early bit of Jinky magic or even a goal. Once in, we headed for our regular spot near the front of the Celtic end. Familiar faces who always stood there too smiled at us. They’d offer my old man a handshake or a swig of their whiskey and they’d soon be animated talking about the game or past encounters. Then we’d focus on that patch of green for 90 minutes and be totally engrossed in what we were watching. This was our team, our community’s greatest achievement and we took such pride in the fact that a poor, marginalised and often despised people had created a team which rose to be the finest in Europe.

All of you reading this will no doubt be able to recall relatives or friends who introduced you to Celtic, who filled you with that fire which no defeat or disappointment can put out. We owe a lot to those who came before us as it was those generations who created and built Celtic. It was those who came before us who suffered the appalling social conditions, the bigotry, poverty and yet still found time to create and sustain Celtic. As I get older I reflect more on these things and from my seat in the Jock Stein stand I glance occasionally around the stadium and remember it as it once was. As I look at the huge north stand, I picture the Jungle and the family and friends who stood there down the decades. Many of them, like the Jungle itself, are long gone but I like to think they are still watching Celtic and watching over those they loved and taught to love the green. From generation to generation they handed on their most precious gift.

As the roar goes up to greet another Celtic goal, I hope the dear, happy ghosts of the past are smiling too. We all know who they are, we all miss them still but they left their mark on Paradise and their songs echo still around that wonderful old ground. They would be happy to know that we still follow the Celts and carry their legacy into the future.

God Bless every one of them.