Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Wine Alley Boys

The Wine Alley Boys

Dessie comin’ oot, Mrs Bradley?’ Smiled ginger haired Paddy Mullen at his best friend’s mother. ‘Naw son, he’s no,’ the tired looking woman replied. Paddy looked at her puzzled and asked, ‘How no?’ She exhaled, ‘No that it’s any of yer business Paddy, but his Da’s keeping him in, sorry.’ With that she closed the door, a slightly irritated look on her face. Paddy was not one for giving up though and headed out the smashed back door of the close at Kellas Street and into the back court. He ducked under a washing line replete with damp clothing, stopping briefly to wipe his nose on a limp Rangers shirt pegged onto the rope. He glanced up at the first floor windows of his friend Dessie’s flat. He scanned them one by one, no sign of life. It looked like his mate was staying home after all. As he pondered what to do, the sliding sash of the bathroom window stuttered up a little and Dessie’s pale face peered out. ‘Wait there Paddy, am busting oot this dump.’ He forced the window open a foot or so and squeezed through legs first like a clumsy burglar. His feet searched for the cast iron drain pipe and with all the agility of a skinny, twelve year old he was soon scrambling down the pipe to the ground. ‘Mon Paddy, quick.’ he intoned as his friend followed him to the opposite end of the back court where they clambered over the wall which separated the back from the railway line beyond. They headed for a den they’d built in the thickest part of the clump of trees which ran alongside the railway track. This was their refuge, their meeting place when things were stressful at home.

‘Wit wur ye kept in for?’ Paddy began looking at his friend as they sat in the secluded den on some dirty, yellow pieces of foam they had cut from an old couch someone had thoughtfully thrown over the wall into the railway. Dessie’s face changed and he looked as if he was a little embarrassed. ‘A canny lie tae ye Paddy, yer ma best mate. My Da was mad cause I tried his beer and made myself sick as a dug. Drank two bottles and vomited all over ma room.’ Paddy’s eyes widened, ‘Beer? Jeez my old man wid kick ma arse if ah even smelled of beer.’ The two friends lay back on the foam and chatted for a while about school life, football and girls. On good days they'd stare at the clouds drifting over the little patch of Glasgow they called home and try to discern objects in thier shapes. The two had been friends since they first met at St Saviour's as 4 year olds and now  both were ready to start first year at St Gerard’s Secondary. They considered themselves pretty grown up now that they were almost teenagers. They watched as a train rattled past with its clickety-clack rhythm as the sky turned grey over Govan.  ‘It’s gonny rain Dessie, I’m heading up the road afore they notice I’m away. You goin’ tae the game the morra?’ Desomond Bradley nodded and said with a smile, ‘Aye, we’ll dae the buses first eh?’ Paddy grinned, ‘Oh aye, widnae miss that.’

It was a bright August day and warm wind blew through the Wine Alley as Paddy and Dessie headed for the area where they knew scores of buses carrying fans to the Rangers v Celtic match would be parking. It was 20 minutes before kick-off but already the long line of early arriving Rangers coaches were empty apart from the odd snoozing driver. Stealing from the buses was something of a sport among the street urchins in the Wine Alley although most didn’t touch buses of supporters who followed their team. Paddy and Dessie, being Celtic mad, targeted Rangers buses only. They scanned the big double-deckers first as they had an opening at the rear with no door and were easy to access. Paddy checked that the driver was snoring away and nodded to Dessie who slipped stealthily on board and began scanning the seats with an experienced eye for anything of value. He then quietly headed upstairs for a look around and after a minute or so appeared with a folded dark overcoat and a polished, wooden Rangers Supporters Club shield. ‘This’ll fit my Da, I’ll tell him I found it,’ he said nodding towards the coat, ‘and this is going in the Clyde,’ he said looking at the elaborately decorated shield with its Rangers crest and odd depiction of a man on a white horse. The ill-gotten gains were hidden in the hedge of an empty house for later retrieval. They moved onto the next bus and Paddy sneaked on as Dessie kept watch. In just a few seconds Paddy flew of the bus with something up his jumper. Dessie excitedly followed him into a close, ‘Wit did ye get?’ Paddy reached under his jumper and produced a half bottle of whisky. ‘Whoa!’ said Dessie, ‘That stuff is pure fire water by the way!’ This turn of events made them abandon their piracy for the day and head for the distant roar of Ibrox as the game would begin soon.

As they neared the Broomloan Road they heard the wail of a Police siren and watched as a crowd in Celtic colours passed chanting loudly, ‘Govan Team, Govan Team OK!’ Paddy spotted his older brother Paul in among the chanting crowd but said nothing. If he was honest with himself, he didn’t really like Paul who was six years older than him and bullied him a bit. There was an excitement in the air as the crowd neared the stadium, Paddy patted his jumper under which the whisky was hidden, ‘We selling this or dae ye fancy drinking it?’ Dessie shook his head, ‘Selling it mate, that stuff wid kill ye and besides we'd both get get a slappin' aff wur Da's if we drank whisky!’ They scanned the crowds around the turnstiles at the Celtic end. Experience had taught them that trying to sell it to the wrong type only meant you’d get a slap and it taken off you. Paddy soon spotted a likely customer and nodded to Dessie, ‘There’s yer man.’ The man in his thirties and smartly dressed looked a little the worse for drink. ‘Here Mister, sell ye a hauf bottle fur a pound?’ Dessie said. The man stopped and regarded the two boys, ‘Hauf bottle of whit?’ Dessie went on in a confident voice, ‘Whisky, saving ye at least ten bob.’ The man demanded to see the Whiskey and check that the seal wasn’t broken on it. To the boys’ joy he nodded 'deal' and handed over a crisp pound note. They grinned at each other knowing that the money would buy them their fill of sweets and chips that weekend. The day was going well.

They headed for the turnstiles at the Celtic end and picked out a couple of strong looking men. Paddy approached the taller of the two, who it transpired was a visiting Irish fan; ‘Any chance of a lift big man?’ The big man smiled at him, ‘Aye no problem young fella, come on,’ he replied in a strong Donegal accent. A few minutes later the two friends had been lifted over the turnstile and were heading down the stairs of the already packed Celtic end to a spot near the front. Ibrox was seething with over 72,000 singing fans determined to roar their respective team to victory. The first half was a grim battle of attrition with little decent football played. Dalglish and Jimmy Johnstone showed flashes of their class but the tough tackling and frenetic pace of the game left both sets of players and fans exhausted as half time arrived. Dessie and Paddy knew Celtic would be shooting towards the Celtic fans in the second half and looked forward to seeing if Stein’s team could break through the Rangers defence.

Every game has its key moments and in 4 second half minutes Celtic broke their great rivals. First after 67 minutes Johnstone shot through a packed penalty box into the Rangers net. Half of the great bowl of Ibrox exploded and Dessie and Paddy roared their heads off. Then came the clincher: Hughes was chopped down in the box and the Referee pointed to the spot without hesitation. To the astonishment of the Celtic support Captain Billy McNeil sent youngster Kenny Dalglish forward to take the kick. The 19 year old rookie stopped to tie his laces as 72,000 watched to see if he had the nerve to seize the moment. If Dalglish was nervous it didn't show. Young Dessie Bradley subconsciously wrapped his arm over the shoulders his friend, gripping his jumper. The blonde young striker began his run up towards the ball, the Celtic end held its breath as he struck it cleanly to the keepers left and into the bottom corner of the net. For the second time that bright afternoon the huge Celtic support erupted.

Lost among that joyous crowd were two young lads from the Wine Alley taking their first steps in following the Celts. The joy around them was infectious. They had watched their team win and win well, they had a pound in their pocket, a smile on their faces and life was good.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Only a game

Only a game
 More years ago than I care to remember I took part in one of those rough-house ‘ten-twenty wanner’ scheme football matches on the big black ash pitch which once stood behind St Roch’s Primary School on the Royston Road. The game had all the usual thundering tackles and squabbles over decisions and I wisely used my speed to steer clear of the more aggressive defenders. On one occasion I tackled a guy who bumped me with his shoulder causing me to spin around and my flailing arm caught another guy square in the face. I could see that he thought I’d just thumped him but nothing could have been further from the truth. It caused a tension between us which lasted years and all of it based on an accident.

Football is a passionate game and we all get overly emotional about it at times. You may recall the story of a chap who knocked on his Celtic supporting neighbour’s door at all hours to remind him that Rangers had won the league that weekend. The same chap thought nothing of setting off fireworks in the wee small hours again much to the annoyance of neighbours. Their feud went on for quite a few years and involved episodes which were violent in nature. All of this didn’t take place in a Glasgow Scheme or Lanarkshire Mining Village; it happened in a plush suburb of Glasgow and involved two players at the country’s biggest clubs. Alan Thompson and Fernando Ricksen were brought together as neighbours by fate but there was little love lost between the two. Thompson, you may recall, smashed an unstoppable late winner past Stefan Klos a decade back and as he celebrated performed a ‘knock knock’ gesture in the direction of Ricksen. The meaning was clear to all who knew the story of their troubled relationship. Thompson and Ricksen were both committed and whole hearted players and no strangers to the odd red card. Neither gave an inch during their many clashes and on more than one occasion the intervention of team mates was required to stop their tangles developing into an open fight.  As the years advanced though and their careers wound down, they did realise that their hot headed ways were over. Thompson said…

"Fernando and I are not getting any younger. We might as well put what has gone on before behind us and get on with things now."

Ricksen, as we all know, has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, the illness which took Jimmy Johnstone. This utterly dreadful condition also claimed the life of Sam English, the Rangers striker who was involved in the tragic accident which killed Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson in 1931. Fans across football recognise that some things make our petty rivalries fade into insignificance. Fernando Ricksen was no angel on the football field as Alan Thompson, Derek Roirdan and many other players would testify. His aggressive character, linked to his admitted alcohol problems also brought him into conflict off the field. However his indiscretions were not dissimilar to those of many young men with anger issues. He had the added pressure of life in the Old Firm goldfish bowl. Whatever your opinion of his abilities as a footballer, there is no disputing that he gave his all for Rangers in the years he was there. Yes, he was wildly erratic at times and on his first trip to Celtic Park was substituted in the first half as he looked likely to implode as Bobby Petta ripped him apart. Some of his tackles were crude in the extreme but there was a bit of football in him too. You don’t play 12 times for Holland if you’re useless.

So as we enter the week in which Celtic and Rangers (however you perceive them) square off at Hampden Park in the League cup semi-final, it is perhaps worthwhile keeping some perspective on the game. I will never forget the night we lost Jock Stein as his Scotland side qualified for the world cup. A distraught Scotland fan said afterwards, ‘I’d rather we had failed to qualify and the big man was still with us.’ Stein seemed so strong, so in control and yet he was taken on the cusp of another triumph. Bill Shankly, Stein’s great friend, once famously said,

‘Some people say football is a matter of life and death, I can assure you it’s much more important than that.’

He was wrong on that one. So when the whistle sounds and the thunder starts at Hampden Park next weekend, shout your head off, sing like there’s no tomorrow, but try to remember too, it is only a game.
Watching the tribulations of Jinky and Fernando should teach us that much.





Friday, 23 January 2015

A Forgotten Tragedy

A Forgotten Tragedy

Each day on my drive to work, I pass the old ramshackle Shawfield Stadium which was once home to Clyde FC and now survives as a dog racing venue. Shawfield stands testament to a time when fans flooded to football and were not too fussed about the poor conditions they endured in many stadiums. In those halcyon days after world War two, Shawfield saw regular crowds of more than 20,000 and upwards of 30,000 when Celtic or Rangers came calling. In those days it was surrounded by the teeming tenements of the east end and my old man would tell me that when he was young Celtic and Rangers fans who didn’t go to away games would often go to see Clyde when their own team was out of town. Clyde had a fair team in those days and won the Cup in 1955 and 1958. You could expect a hard match at Shawfield and being so close to Celtic Park, their little ground was often bursting at the seams when Celtic played there.

On a chilly, misty December day in 1957, just a few weeks after Celtic had demolished Rangers 7-1 in the League Cup Final, the Hoops travelled the short distance to Shawfield for a league match. Almost 27,000 people were shoe horned into the little ground and there wasn’t much space at all on the crowded terrace. It was noted that the crowd swayed and surged as the teams came out and old hands, used to such things, helped younger boys over the 4 feet high retaining wall and onto the Greyhound Track to avoid the crushing. Soon scores of young boys were sitting on the track, leaning against the retaining wall watching the match roar from end to end. After a few minutes action in the frantic atmosphere of a packed Shawfield, Neil Mochan’s weighted pass found Celtic team mate Billy McPhail who sent a thunderous shot into the roof of the net. The majority of the crowd were supporting Celtic and a huge roar greeted the goal. However the surge in the crowd caused by the goal put immense pressure on the retaining was which ran the length of the field. In front of this wall sat scores of young boys enjoying the match and oblivious to the deadly sequence of events unfolding behind them. To the horror of all who watched it, a 50 metre long section of the 4 feet high wall collapsed on top of the children who had ironically been put in front of it to avoid the crush on the terraces. It was immediately clear that a serious accident had occurred and that many of the children buried in the rubble were badly injured. One young Celtic fan who witnessed these events had a near escape and stated…

‘‘I climbed over the wall and sat the other side with 20 or so other lads ( I was 14 at the time).I remember vividly that not long after kick-off there was an almighty crash behind me and when I turned round I saw that a length of the wall had collapsed on top of the lads. I was so lucky, since I had been sitting right at the end of the section where the wall had collapsed. I remember men screaming as they tried in futility to lift the brick wall up with their bare hands. Some boys had been trapped .I scrambled to the side and looked back for my Dad and Papa. I will never ever forget the look on their faces; first a look of terror on their faces then a look of great relief. One of the lads who had been on our bus was injured (he had a broken leg) and was taken to the hospital. The players themselves helped to carry the injured across the pitch and the game was stopped for 20 minutes. Amazingly the game was restarted with Celtic beating Clyde 6-3.’’

The game was stopped and fans tore at the pile of rubble with their bare hands in a bid to free the trapped children. Policemen and even some of the players joined in and helped carry the injured to the pavilion where club Doctors did what they could as they awaited the ambulances which had been summoned to arrive. More than 50 people were injured, many of them seriously. Sadly a young Brighton boy, James Ryan, lost his life. The tragic events at Shawfield should have set alarm bells ringing in Scottish football as many of the grounds around the country were ancient and not fit for purpose. There had been an appalling disaster at Burndon Park, Bolton in 1947 when 85,000 showed up for a cup tie with Stoke City. 33 people died in the crush at Bolton but UK fans were still endured very Spartan conditions.

It took decades and further painful tragedies before Government legislation forced football club’s to provide their customers with safe places to watch their football. We may have lost some of the atmosphere which came with famous standing areas in grounds around the country. The Jungle, Kop or Stretford end may no longer roar our their tribal chants with quite the same regular intensity but  surely that is a price worth paying if it means we watch out football in safety.

For many the Shawfield accident is a forgotten tragedy but as I drive past the old stadium each day I can’t help wondering how they squeezed so many people into that decrepit little ground. The days of fans being treated like cattle may be over but for many who lost friends and family in tragedies at football grounds, the past is always with them.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Four forgers, two lunatics and a deviant

Four forgers, two lunatics and a deviant

Bastille Day is celebrated in France on the 14th of July each year and commemorates the storming of the great fortress-prison by a mob of Parisians. The Bastille was seen by many as a symbol of Royal power and oppression and its capture is seen as the beginning of the French revolution which then exploded with bloody ferocity. History recounts that there were just seven prisoners in the Bastille when it was captured by the mob; ‘Four forgers, two lunatics and a deviant.’ When it fell, King Louis asked his advisers, ‘Is it a revolt?’ he was answered with the prophetic words, ‘No Sire, it’s not a revolt, it’s a revolution.’
Last night at Ibrox we saw signs that the revolt against the Board running the club was turning into something of a revolution. There is much anger among the supporters and the ‘storming’ of the foyer by a group of noisy fans was taking things to a new level. There were echoes of 1994 as chants of ‘Sack the Board’ echoed along Edmiston Drive. However there were several key differences between the unfolding events at Ibrox and the campaign led by the Celts for Change Group in 1994. Celtic, in 1994 had reached a low point and was close to administration when fan power aided a group of Celtic minded businessmen to gain control of the club and avert disaster. Fergus McCann famously said…
“It would’ve cost less, and left the previous owners with nothing, to go into liquidation. But it would also be humiliating for Celtic. So we paid all the bills. Celtic means the same to me as it does to other fans. I identify with the club and wish to be proud of it.”
For many at Ibrox the feeling that they were somehow special in Scottish football and society was shattered when the club sank into administration and liquidation after years of living beyond their means. Make no mistake about it the Liquidation of Rangers FC was an event which staggered and stunned their followers. Feelings of entitlement and superiority, fostered for  more than a century, made the fall even harder.  Historical mismanagement and greed took its toll and the glory years were tarnished by revelations that dozens of players had side contracts and were paid money via a tax avoiding EBT scheme. It is a matter of record that the football authorities in Scotland behaved very poorly during this crisis and did all they could to allow the new club into the top division of Scottish football until a revolt by clubs and fans all over Scotland forced them to admit the new club to the fourth tier of Scottish football. The real story of those years involving back room deals and secret agreements has yet to be written but the whole episode still leaves many with a bitter taste. One wonders if they would have tried as hard to accommodate Celtic had the worst happened in 1994. Thankfully the ordinary supporters and Fergus McCann’s consortium saved the club before that theory was tested and the vultures could move in.
Now we see many fans of the new club in Govan demanding the board go to allow ‘real Rangers men’ to take control. The idea of mortgaging the stadium or training ground to Mike Ashley for £10m was a step too far it seems. However the men they wish to see take control are far from paradigms of virtue. Dave King is a convicted tax evader whom a judge in South Africa called a ‘glib and shameless liar.’ He pleaded guilty to 41 counts of contravening tax law and had a further 281 charges dropped in a deal which saw him pay a huge amount in fines. Paul Murray is a former Director of the old Rangers FC and was there throughout its collapse into liquidation. The SFA rules on ‘fit and proper’ people to hold positions suggest Murray would be rejected. Rule 10.2j of the SFA statutes states that individuals can’t serve as a club director if they have been: ‘a director of a club in membership of any national association within the five-year period preceding such club having undergone an insolvency event’.  The battle for control of the Rangers will not be given up easily by Mike Ashley as this hard-nosed capitalist knows a money making opportunity when he sees one.
The revolution among fans at Celtic Park in the early 1990s went a long way to saving the club and putting it on a firm foundation for the future. In the 20 years since then, they have won 21 major honours and are in good shape for the challenges ahead. Events at Ibrox are far from settled and the fans fed the ‘We are the People’ tripe for decades are looking for a hero to restore the club to its former glories. They must however be careful what they wish for, as revolutions often have unforseen consequences.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Doing the right thing

Doing the right thing

The awful events in France this week raised again the question of what constitutes freedom of speech in a democratic society. Most in the west are of the opinion that freedom of thought and speech are pillars of our democracies without which we may slip into dictatorship. There was a time when these evolving ideas of personal freedom were consider very dangerous to the ruling elites. Historian Tom Holland recounts one such case from pre-revolutionary France…

‘On 1 July, 1766, in Abbeville in northern France, a young nobleman named Lefebvre de la Barre was found guilty of blasphemy. The charges against him were numerous - that he had defecated on a crucifix, spat on religious images, and refused to remove his hat as a Church procession went past. These crimes, together with the vandalising of a wooden cross on the main bridge of Abbeville, were sufficient to see him sentenced to death. Once La Barre's tongue had been cut out and his head chopped off, his mortal remains were burned by the public executioner, and dumped into the river Somme. Mingled among the ashes were those of a book that had been found in La Barre's study, and consigned to the flames alongside his corpse - the Philosophical Dictionary of the notorious philosopher, Voltaire.’

Europe has come a long way since people were executed for criticising religion and modern France is among the most secular societies in the world. Most people here now accept that freedom to criticise religion, political parties, or any other group is a healthy part of a democratic society.

There was an understandable wave of sympathy and outrage after the appalling massacre in Paris, people who are not prepared to stand and argue their ideas out, portrayed themselves by their actions as medieval and intolerant murderers. The battle of ideas should be fought with words and argument not Kalashnikovs. Amid the discussions which took place in the wake of the Paris attack, Politicians of all hues could be heard lauding the freedoms of western democracies and vowing to protect the right to free expression, even if those expressions may offend others. As the internet in the west showed understandable solidarity towards the magazine Charlie Hebdo, a few pointed out that the very freedoms our politicians spouted about were in some countries being quietly eroded by the same politicians.

Here in Scotland some raised the issue of the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act.’ How can it be right, they argued, that Politicians defend the right to freedom of expression even up to the point where it offends others and yet they will not extend the same right to Football fans?  In the case of Celtic fans, we have seen prosecutions, by no means always successful, of fans who have sung songs such as the ‘Roll of Honour.’ The Act relies on the judgement of others, usually Police Officers that the words may lead to a breach of the peace. This leap from thoughts and words to deeds and actions is far from proven. We can all recall times when the air was turned blue by offensive or bigoted songs from opposing fans at football matches which we disapproved of but few of us reacted violently to it. We jeered, whistled or sung over it. The Act was and remains unnecessary as existing laws covered most of what it seeks to eradicate with the possible exception of hate speech online. The problem seemed to be the lack of will among the Police to physically go into the crowd and arrest those spouting the bile. The Act is also an attack on the same freedom of speech and expression our Politicians defended so stoutly in the wake of this week’s events.

That is not to say that there should be carte blanche on what is acceptable at football matches or anywhere else. It would be hypocritical decry the singing of anti-Catholic or anti-Irish songs by one group and then sing equally offensive songs about another target group? The point being that different things offend different people and if any group of football supporters aspires to be progressive and inclusive then it’s incumbent on them to act in a manner which welcomes all. As with racism, sectarianism can’t be legislated out of existence. It is only by a process of education and peer pressure that such attitudes can be challenged and made to retreat. The football terraces have always been earthy places where colourful language and strong passions are aroused but the best placed people to set limits on such things are the clubs and fans themselves not ill advised politicians looking for some cheap publicity.

There has been huge change in the social and footballing environment in Scotland over the past 50 years. Entrenched bigotry still exists in our country but it is greatly diminished and in retreat. Just as in the past society turned its face against drink-driving and what was once common became socially unacceptable, so it can and will be with petty prejudice. When enough of us hold it in the disdain and contempt it deserves it will wilt and recede. Morality can’t be legislated for in Parliament, it is a process of education and perhaps even subtle peer pressure. Lawrence Kohlberg in his famous work on the stages of moral development noted that at the lowest stage we do what is right out of fear of punishment. At the highest level, we do what is right out of the sincerely held principle that it is the right thing to do. The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act aims at the lowest stage when in fact any decent society should be educating its citizens to a standard where they act in a socially aware and acceptable manner because it’s the right thing to do.

Events in Paris remind us of the existence of people so intolerant of others opinions that they would kill to shut them up. Such people are thankfully a tiny minority but equally we can’t ignore the global power games which helped form them. Some of the Politicians who expressed horror at events in Paris helped create the context from which the killers emerged. If our freedom of expression is worth anything, it should also be aimed at world leaders who continue to play their bloody power games.


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Exiles

The Exiles

I hurried out the back door on a blustery April day in 1987 and made my way to the small garage at the bottom of the garden. This was my wee refuge and Celtic shrine in a far-away place. Celtic were taking on Rangers and I was late for the kick off. Alas the game was 375 miles to the north and in those pre Sky TV days the only way to keep up with events at Celtic Park was to tune in to Radio Scotland and hope the signal was not breaking up. The old, paint spattered radio crackled into life and I heard a familiar Scottish voice shout excitedly, ‘It’s a penalty, no doubt about it!’ The radio then infuriatingly lost the signal as I roared at it, ‘A penalty tae who?’ My English neighbour Martin was cutting his grass and well used to hearing my voice groaning or cheering from the garage, looked up from his labour with a smile. I had to explain to him after one particular family gathering at my house what a bunch of Scotsmen were doing in England singing Irish songs! ‘It’s a long story,’ I told him but he listened with interest and was glad of the little piece of education he received that day. I turned the tuning wheel, ‘Come on! Who’s got the feckin penalty? At last, after repositioning the radio a dozen times, I got the signal back and could hear the play raging on, ‘Souness clashing with Mo Johnston, the referee waves play on….’ By this time I was in despair, ‘The penalty-what happened to the penalty, what’s the bloody score ya numpty!’ Then as I was nearing desperation another penalty was awarded! Terry Butcher upended Mo Johnston and Brian McClair stepped forward. I was still unsure of the score or what had occurred with the first penalty as McClair waited to take the second kick. The commentator was fraught with excitement and as McClair began his run said; ‘McClair steps forward and he blasts the ball to the Keeper’s right for the second time! It’s 2-0 to Celtic!’  375 miles away a roar split the English air! ‘Yaaaassss! Mon the Celtic!’

That roar would no doubt have been repeated from Donegal to Derby, from Aberdeen to Abu Dhabi as Celts the world over tuned in to try and hear what was going on at dear old paradise. The exiles may not be able to make many games due to work, family commitments or a hundred other things which crop up but the fire still burns bright, the love of Celtic endures the miles.  As I listened to that game unfold in a small garage in the middle of England, I still went through all the emotions I would have if I was standing in the Jungle with my old man and brothers. Every near miss, every song I heard pour from the radio was lived with added anguish because I wasn’t there and couldn’t see the game. Celtic won 3-1 that day long after Owen Archdeacon decided the matter in the last minute. Souness and his expensive side had lost again at Celtic Park and I wandered up the path towards the house with a broad smile on my face. ‘Good game?’ asked my neighbour. I grinned at him, ‘Always good when we stuff that lot Martin.’

The evening arrived and the few Celts in the small town I called home then gathered in a pub to chat over the match and share a few laughs and beers. The following week would see the newspaper cuttings being sent down along with the Celtic view. My old man’s letters were usually about 90% Celtic related and I have most of them still up in the loft. He’s gone to his rest but I know he’d be happy to know he’d kept the fire burning. Just as his old man told him of McGrory and Quinn; he told me of Fernie and Tully. We pass it down the generations like an heirloom to be handled with care. Celtic is so interwoven into the lives of so many people that they will always care, always share every joy and pain no matter how far they are from Celtic Park.   

Today in Boston and in Brisbane, in Los Angeles and London they gather despite the time zones and watch the Celts. Whether it is midnight or dawn, they pull on their Hooped shirts and travel to homes and bars showing the game.  Old songs are sung, the old bonds strengthened. They are the exiles and they love the green as much as any man or woman. Distance doesn’t lead to a fading of their love for Celtic rather it kindles the fire inside. The green threads stretch all over the globe and they are as yet unbroken.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Soft the wind blew down the glen

Soft the wind blew down the glen

The upper deck of the boat looked dangerously crowded as the last few people were roughly pushed on board by the two biggest members of the crew. The weekly boat from Sligo to Glasgow carried coal by the ton and a few horses and some fat looking cattle which were corralled near the back of the upper deck. Every other available foot of space seemed to be occupied by a throng of poor looking people making the long journey to Scotland. Old hands, who had made the trip before as migrant workers to the harvests of Ayrshire, knew just where to stand to avoid the inevitable spray and wind from the Atlantic. For young Andrew, it was his first trip but his father had wisely introduced him to a friend by the name of Padraig Coll who was tasked with looking after him on the trip. Padraig was a tall, strongly built man with piercing green eyes and pleasant enough demeanour. ‘I’ve been on the trip each year for this past 12 years,’ he said with a smile, ‘I’ll get you as far as Glasgow but I’ll be going on to some farm work after that.’ At fourteen, Andrew was considered a man and with no prospects in rural Sligo but poverty and hardship, he had been persuaded by his father to try his luck in the industrial powerhouse of Glasgow. There was work to be had for a strong, willing young lad and there were already thousands of Irish already in the city. As the boat cast off, Andrew heard the distant clank of the chain as it drove the big paddles on each side of the ship. The funnel billowed black smoke into the sky as the coal ship eased its way down the Garavogue river and out into Sligo Bay. They passed the metal man, a quaint 12 foot cast iron giant who stood on a stone plinth in the middle of the channel pointing out to sea. Andrew sighed as he saw Rosses Point slip past, it was a familiar part of the Sligo landscape and so many had viewed it for the last time as they sailed for Britain or America. He’d miss his home but the great hunger had been followed by great poverty and those who could, left to seek a better life elsewhere and perhaps send something home to those too old or too young to leave.

Padraig lit his pipe as the ship edged up the coast towards Donegal and mumbled, ‘If we make 12 knots the trip will take about a day, I’ve known it to be as long as 30 hours in bad weather. Best rest if you can.’ Andrew nodded, and sat on his little pack which contained some clothes, a couple of books and wrapped a small blanket his father had given him around his shoulders. He also carried a letter from his father to a friend, a certain Thomas Flaherty, who had gone to Glasgow some years before. He was to guide Andrew once he got to the city and help him settle in. To his left someone began playing a small accordion and a quiet lament for the land they were leaving behind spread among the huddled souls on the deck of the ship…

‘I sat within a valley green, I sat me with my true love,

My sad heart strove the two between, the old love and the new love, -

The old for her, the new that made me think of Ireland dearly,

While soft the wind blew down the glen and shook the golden barley.’


Andrew watched and listened as another batch of Ireland’s children lamented leaving their homes, perhaps forever. As he let the gentle words of the song wash over him, he recalled his father had told him of the Croppies of 1798 being thrown into mass graves after they had been executed. These ‘Croppy pits’ dotted the land and some swore that Barley grew above them and swayed in the wind to remind future generations of their sacrifice. The ship’s mast seemed to sway back and forth on the swell as if keeping the beat of the song. Andrew closed his eyes and wondered if he’d ever see Ireland or his family again.

The crossing was one of the calmer in recent years according to Padraig who shook Andrew awake to point out the coast of Scotland to him, ‘There it is, young Andrew. May that land hold good fortune for you.’ It was a further two hours sailing before they entered the Clyde estuary and passing the villages and towns dotted along its bank, finally entered the smoky City of Glasgow. Andrew stood like most of the others on the deck of the ship and gawped at a city bigger by far than any he had ever seen. Tall chimney stacks belched smoke into the air and buildings seemed to sprawl on for miles. ‘I’ve never seen such a place,’ said Andrew to Padraig who puffed on his pipe passively. ‘Aye, it seems to be bigger with every passing year.’ He turned to Andrew and with a serious face said to him, ‘Now young fella, I must leave you soon but trust no one in this town until you’re among your own people and even then be careful. Go to your father’s friend’s house immediately. I’ll point the road out to you before our paths diverge. This is a hard town Andrew with a hard heart and you must be careful.’


The steamship docked at the Broomielaw as Andrew gazed around him at the bustling docks and river crowded with ships. People onboard busied themselves with their meagre bundles and crying children were soothed with soft words spoken in the old tongue. Andrew joined the crowd heading for the gang plank and in a few moments placed his foot for the first time in Scotland. Padraig guided him through the crowd and along the quay to an exit gate which led them out onto a busy thoroughfare. ‘We go east young fella, till we reach Glasgow Cross and then we must part. You must go on to your Father’s friend’s house then. It’s in the High Street but from what I’ve heard it’s a dark place.’ They walked along a street of tall buildings, Andrew astonished at the noise and bustle of the city. Carts rolled past and there seemed no end of people milling about. As a country boy he would need to get used to the noise. He heard the occasional Irish accent but most voices were heard in a harsh Scottish accent. Tough looking young men glanced at them occasionally as they passed but Padraig’s physical presence and confident manner deterred any mischief. They reached a point where a tall clock tower marked the meeting place of four roads. ‘This is Glasgow Cross, Andrew. I go south to meet the gang who pick the potatoes with me in Ayrshire, You must go north up the High Street to number 75 and find this Flaherty chap. Good luck to now young fella.’ He shook Andrew’s hand and smiled encouragingly at him as if sensing his nervousness, ‘Go on now, you’ll be fine.’  Andrew watched Padraig march off and suddenly felt very alone in this strange, noisy city. He turned and headed north.


There seemed to be no numbers on any of the buildings so Andrew asked the smartest dressed man he saw if he knew where number 75 was. The man brushed past him as if he didn’t exist. Andrew gazed after him a little surprised. A woman young approached, shawl draped loosely over her shoulder and asked in an Irish accent, ‘You just off the boat, chara? Ye lost? I’ll put you on the right road for a couple of coins. Show you a good time for a few more?’  Andrew shook his head, ‘No thanks, I’m looking for a friend.’ She stood, hands on hips, her reddish hair blowing in the breeze, ‘and who might that be? Sure don’t I know every son of Erin this side of the water?’ Andrew regarded her with a serious face and thought it worth asking, ‘Do you know Joseph Flaherty?’ Her expression changed, ‘Ah now, old Whisky Joe won’t be meeting you this day or any other. The fever took him in the spring.’ Andrew was shaken to his core. ‘What? He’s dead?’ Her face looked more sympathetic, ‘He is that, young fella. Gone these past five months. Was he your contact here?’ Andrew’s mind raced. What should he do? What would his father have him do? He looked at the woman, ‘Yes he was. Can you help me?’ She sensed his fear, ‘Now don’t go worrying. I know just the people who can steer you on a safe course.’ She led Andrew back down the High Street and through the bustling streets of Glasgow. A stout man called out in their direction in a harsh Belfast accent, ‘He not a bit young for you Annie?’ She shook her head, ‘Away with ye Cahill, sure I’m only helping a lost lamb find a safe pasture.’ She wrapped her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders as a slow drizzle began, ‘Jesus, and I thought it rained a lot in Buncrana!’ Andrew looked at her as they turned along yet another strange street lined with houses, pubs and shops. ‘I’m Andrew,’ he said, ‘from County Sligo.’ She regarded him with an almost motherly smile, although she could not have been more than 22 or 23, ‘I’m Annie,’ she said, ‘Annie Mahon and pleased I am to meet you Andrew from Sligo.’  She stopped outside a modest little church which nestled neatly between the cottages either side of it. ‘Ask for the Priest, he’ll find you a safe berth for the night.’ Andrew looked at her, ‘Will you not come in with me Annie?’ She smiled sadly, ‘No, I…’ she hesitated, ‘I’d rather not.’  Andrew reached into his pocket. His father had given him all he could to start him off in Glasgow. It was only a few shillings but he wanted to give Annie a few coins for her trouble. ‘Don’t be giving me money now,’ she said with a look of mock offense on her face, ‘Say a wee prayer for me instead, God knows I need it.’  He looked at her, ‘Thank you Annie. I hope our paths cross again.’ She smiled at him, ‘I didn’t catch your family name Andrew. Are you a Flaherty like old Whiskey Joe?’ Andrew shook his head, ‘No, I’m Kerins. Andrew Kerins.’ She nodded, ‘Nice to have met you young Andrew Kerins. You’re a long way from home but I hope this town is good to you.’ With that she smiled, turned and walked back in the direction they had come in. He watched her hitch her shawl over her head to protect her from the rain. He then turned and pushed the heavy door of the church open and walked inside. For good or ill, Glasgow was his home now.