Monday, 29 June 2015

The Comfort Blanket

The Comfort Blanket

The Belfast Telegraph isn’t a newspaper I read much but the article they produced to mark the departure of Neil Lennon from Celtic in May 2014 caught my eye. In it their reporter argues that the demise of Rangers stripped the SPFL of any pretence of competitiveness and for an ambitious young manager like Lennon this was too much. They stated…

Without Rangers in their faces, Celtic's existence has never seemed less urgent, less relevant. Worse, the board clearly realise they can sell marketable players like Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama without any significant impediment to their chances of stockpiling titles. Without Rangers, Celtic lost the will to grow. Lennon came to understand that. He left because to stay would have been professional surrender.’’

In other words the downsizing at Celtic was inhibiting an ambitious young manager from developing a team to challenge in Europe as well as continuing the domination of Scottish football. The article contained some truths but it was remarkable that it didn’t hint at the off field pressures Neil Lennon had to live during his 11 year involvement at Celtic Park. During the 14 years he spent in England with Manchester City, Crewe and Leicester City, he developed into a combative midfielder but led a quiet life off the pitch. All of that changed when he arrived at Celtic in 2000 to join the Martin O’Neil revolution. Lennon’s style of play has always been ‘in your face’ and his total commitment to Celtic’s cause meant he was unlikely to make many friends among the opposing support. That being said, others such as Graham Souness or even Fernando Ricksen, snarled and clattered their way through games without ever receiving the amount of abuse and vitriol which came Lennon’s way.

In stadiums around the country he was abused regularly and loudly by a vociferous minority. During Old Firm games the abuse seemed to reach a crescendo which was both astonishing and appalling in its naked hatred. Graham Spiers writing in the Herald spoke of one match at Ibrox in 2004 with remarkable honesty…

‘’It was an experience which reminded me again of how widespread and malignant bigotry at Ibrox is. From too many mouths to count, people like O’Neil and Neil Lennon the Celtic midfielder, both Catholics from Northern Ireland, were subjected to sustained sectarian abuse throughout the match. It is worth actually reciting these slogans. They ranged from ‘Fenian c*nt’ to ‘Fenian Scumbag’ to, in the case of Lennon, ‘Away and f*ck yourself Lennon ya Fenian Bawbag.’  It was a rotten, ignorant, venom filled atmosphere.’

In fairness the Rangers manager that day, Alex McLeish was also quick to call out the moronic element and is to be commended for saying…

‘You know what, I love football, I love Rangers and I love the passion of our supporters but bigotry is something I detest to my very core and I wish those Rangers supporters who indulge in it would stop embarrassing themselves and our club.’

The abuse Neil Lennon endured on the field of play would be difficult for any human being to deal with but he also lived with that pressure every day in his personal life. He lived openly in Glasgow’s west end and much of the low level, petty abuse he received was never reported in the media. He had good friends who would often chaperone him as he enjoyed a beer on the Byres Road but going out on his own was often problematic. Gordon Strachan once joked that he couldn’t put petrol in the car without some clown bad mouthing him.  Neil Lennon faced a far more serious, and in the end, more sinister level of threat. It has been well documented that he was the victim of assaults or attempted assaults on at least a dozen occasions in Scotland. It has also been well documented that he has been sent bullets and bombs in the post as well as having the road outside his home daubed with sectarian and threatening graffiti. The attitude to the persecution of Neil Lennon by the media and other organisations was appalling. Kevin McKenna wrote at the time…

‘During this time, Lennon was badly let down by every major organisation in Scotland that would normally have been expected to intervene as this extraordinary campaign of personal vilification was being played out before them. Let none be in any doubt about this: Lennon was hated for his religion and for his country of origin. Too many Scottish football writers either chose to ignore what was happening or, worse, tried to justify it by saying that, by dint of his belligerent demeanour, he brought much of it upon himself. They conveniently overlooked the fact that Lennon had an exemplary disciplinary record and never criticised opposing teams or managers. The Scottish government simply chose to look the other way while a migrant worker in Scotland was being racially abused in front of them and the Scottish Football Association refused to intervene.’

The poison which still lingers in the darker corners of Scottish society is not as toxic as it once was but Neil Lennon seemed to tick all the boxes required to become a hate figure to a significant number in our society. Here was a stroppy, combative, Irish Catholic captaining Glasgow Celtic during one of the club’s more successful eras. In a time when Scotland is going through some fundamental changes and old certainties are melting away, some it seems want to cling to outmoded prejudice like a frightened child clutching a comfort blanket.

It was noticeable that when Neil Lennon was sent an explosive device in 2011, so too were former MSP Trish Godman and the late Paul McBride QC. The significance of a politician and leading Lawyer being targeted along with Lennon was clear. They represented the rising status of an increasingly confident and well educated Catholic community in Scotland and that is hard for the brainless minority to deal with. Lennon himself spoke of the pressures he lived under with some candor and stated…

“It does wear you down in the end. Maybe it was the chaos and the madness catching up with me, but I just felt desperately tired. When I was younger I was able to have the energy and courage to get through it. When I was getting bullets through the post and all that. I had good people of intelligence in the background who were looking after me, but in the end I was exhausted emotionally. People wouldn't come out and say my treatment was sectarian. They said I brought it on myself. They hid behind that because they didn't want to admit it but it was sectarian in the stadiums.’’

Of course the actions of a tiny minority can never be construed as the true face of Scotland. As in all lands the majority of people a friendly and reasonable. What Neil Lennon endured here was the responsibility of those idiots who chose to treat another human being in such a despicable way. Theirs is the blame and theirs is the shame, not Scotland’s. We are emerging from a period in Scottish history where old certainties are no more. Ideas of what it is to be a Scot are no longer bound to politics, ethnicity or relgious persuasion. An idea of a national identity based on civic values is emerging and the old cry of ‘we are the people’ is fading as Scots of all ethnic hues rightly say, ‘hold on - we are all the people.’

The haters might not like that but they belong to yesterday and the vast majority of decent Scots of all faiths and none have no time for their irrational and outdated world view. Nelson Mandela was wise indeed when he said after his long years of imprisonment…

’As I walked out the door toward the prison gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”

There is a lesson in that for us all.





Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Man Who Loved The Green


The Man Who Loved The Green
William Doyle guided his wheelchair across the kitchen to the big wooden table. He was still a young man but an accident in the pit had broken his back and left him in constant pain. The price of coal was high indeed. Come here young fella,’ he said to the seven year old lad who stood by the kitchen door of the modest little miner’s cottage. ‘I want to show you something.’ His son walked to his father’s side, ‘what is it da?’ He slid open the drawer of the table and removed some old letters, rooting inside until he found what he was after. ‘Here it is.’ he smiled holding up a small green book, ‘I bought this a long time ago, before you were born. I want you to have it.’ He handed his son the book and the youngster looked at the embossed writing on the hardback cover: ’The Story of the Celtic 1888-1938’ by Willie Maley. William Doyle regarded his son with a kindly smile, ‘It’s the story of the greatest fitbaw club in the world.’ Young John Doyle smiled and nodded, ‘Can I start it tonight Da?’ His old man nodded, ‘go right ahead, Johnny.’
Young Johnny Doyle read the 200 pages of Willie Maley’s history of Celtic’s first 50 years over the next few days. His father’s love of Celtic had begun to rub off on him before he started the book but those tales of Walfrid, Gallagher, Thomson and McGrory had him enthralled. He lay awake in his bed dreaming of wearing the beloved hoops and running out that tunnel at Celtic Park, his old man watching proudly from the stand. He loved playing football and his Dad had encouraged him, ‘Ye need tae be two footed, Johnny. Get that left foot trained up the same as your right and ye might play for Celtic one day.’ For a young boy it was all an impossible dream but still he did dream…
When Celtic supporters discuss players from the past they often wax lyrical about skills of Jimmy Johnstone, the imperious leadership of McNeil or the goal scoring prowess of Larsson or McGrory. When it comes to discussing real Celtic men who wore the hoops, they will always mention Tommy Burns and his great friend and comrade Johnny Doyle. To say Johnny wore his heart on his sleeve was an understatement. He simply loved Celtic and was utterly fearless when he turned out for them. Like Burns, he knew how much passion and emotion the supporters put in to supporting the team and gave 100% in every game he played. His style was direct and pacey and that two footed ability he got from his old man insisting he practice with his left as well as right foot meant he could cut inside or go outside a defender.
One of the hardest decisions he had made in his life was to concentrate on playing football on a Saturday and miss out on travelling on watch his beloved Celtic on the local supporters’ bus.  He reflected later that this difficult decision made his mind up to give playing the game his full attention…
“It was one of the turning points of my life.  I still supported Celtic, but now I wanted to be good enough to play for them.”  
He signed for Celtic from Ayr United in 1976 for a then club record fee of £90,000. At Ayr he was noted as a good two footed winger who had ability and an attitude which combined determination and a certain wildness. Johnny was no stranger to referees and saw the red card flashed on a few occasions in his career. He took a lot of punishment from defenders in an era when tackling was still allowed and many defenders would fly into opposing wingers with the intention of intimidating them. No one intimidated Johnny Doyle, he was always up and back for more. His father’s advice on becoming two footed helped his play to be more varied and unpredictable. Sadly his old man succumbed to the injuries received in the pit and died when Johnny was just 8. He never had the pleasure of seeing his boy develop as a professional and eventually fulfil his dream of playing for the club he loved.
My memories of Johnny Doyle are of a player who looked as if he had achieved his life’s ambition by playing for the team he loved and that he was going to cherish every game he played for them. He was no more than 5 foot 7 inches tall but possessed a mighty heart which would see him approach even the most brutal defenders with determination and courage. Peter Latchford recalled that Johnny would show up on the team bus wearing a Celtic scarf because he was first and foremost a Celtic supporter. It meant so much to him playing for the team he had loved since he was a wee boy listening to his father’s tales of the great Celts he had seen. Sometime he cared too much and in his fierce determination to fight for the cause he would get involved with opponents or referees but the fans accepted this as they knew it stemmed from his deep rooted love for the club. His sending off in that title deciding Old Firm game in May 1979 with Celtic trailing 0-1 saw him sit distraught in the dressing room listening to the roars of the crowd and thinking he had let the team down. His joy was unconfined when he found out that Celtic had produced one of those stirring displays they are capable of and had won 4-2 to clinch the title amid incredible scenes.
Another bizarre episode occurred at Somerset Park his old stamping ground. The little stadium was packed to capacity but it was not going well for Celtic nor the vast majority of the crowd who had come to cheer them on. An early goal by Joe Craig had them in the lead but two second half strikes from the gangling Walker McCall had the home side in front. Celtic pressed for an equaliser but the fluency of the previous season was missing from their play. Then in a bizarre twist, Johnny Doyle while attempting a cross struck the Referee full in the face with the ball. The Ref was pole axed and fell to the turf as thousands looked on with a mixture of shock and amusement. To the astonishment of many, he got to his feet and showed Doyle a red card. It seemed very harsh as there was surely no intent on the player’s part.
Johnny Doyle achieved his ambition by playing for Celtic you knew he would give everything he had for the club. He had inspired days and days when it didn’t happen for him but through it all the fans knew he was one of them. His life was cut short in tragic circumstances but sometimes it’s not the years in your life but the life in your years and Johnny lived his to the full. At a book launch in Celtic Park a year or two ago I met his daughter Joanna who was just a child when she lost her dad. She seemed amazed by the affection which still existed for her old man more than 30 years after he last wore the hoops. I assured her that those of us who saw Johnny play wouldn’t ever forget him because we knew that if he wasn’t on the field battling for the team, he’d be in the Jungle roaring them on. Like his great friend Tommy Burns, he was one of us and every Celtic team needs such men in it. He gave his all for Celtic and his affection for the club was obvious to all who saw him play.
In memories view I can still see Alan Sneddon racing up the stand side on a chilly night in 1980. The mighty Real Madrid was in town and 67,000 Celtic fans packed the old stadium to roar the Celts on. The air crackled with excitement and expectation on one of those big European nights under the floodlights and we dared to dream we could beat the so called aristocrats of European football. Sneddon clipped a deep cross to the back post and the two Madrid defenders loitering there seemed in control of the situation. They didn’t bank on Johnny Doyle arriving from the left flank like an express train. The winger leapt between the two defenders to power a header into the Madrid net. Celtic Park erupted and Doyle ran towards the seething mass of Celtic fans celebrating in the Jungle. He was one with them, they were his people and he had given them cause for celebration and how they loved him for it.
Johnny Doyle. The man who loved the green.

Thursday, 25 June 2015


Joe Boyle ran as fast as his teenage legs would carry him down past the front of the Tunnock’s factory with its familiar big clock and giant, luminous caramel wafer high on the wall. ‘Aye, run ya bastard’ shouted his tormentor, the lumbering, and thankfully slow, Colin McPhee, ‘I’ll get ye at school on Monday ya dick.’  Joe didn’t reply but continued to run until he was sure he was no longer being chased. He then headed for home and pushed his way in his front door, running straight upstairs. ‘That you Joseph?’ his mother called from the kitchen. ‘Aye, Ma. Just going tae ma room.  He closed the bedroom door behind him and slumped breathlessly onto the bed. He exhaled and looked around him at the smiling faces of Celtic players on the many posters which covered the walls of his room. Opposite the bed, a dreadlocked Henrik Larsson grinned at him. Larsson was his hero, his all-time favourite player. Joe wondered how the tough little Swede would deal with a bully like McPhee. ‘It’s aw right for you Henrik, at least you’ve got a referee tae stop big Amoruso kicking ye. Who’s gonnae stop McPhee battering me?’ The man in the poster just stared at him, his dark eyes seemingly locked on Joe’s. Joe rolled over and closed his eyes. Saturday afternoon and he couldn’t even go play football with his mates because the pitch lay near the house of the local bully who for whatever reason had decided to pick on him. McPhee was thick as mince thought Joe but he was older and had a fearsome reputation as a fighter.

The following morning Joe was up bright and early doing his Sunday paper round. His battered old bike covered a fair part of Uddingston and some of the new houses springing up in Bothwell. For a 16 year old it was worth doing as the money allowed him to get to Celtic Park and occasionally to the cinema. He was on his last few deliveries as a slow drizzle began to fall from the grey Scottish sky. He cycled faster and swept along past the hedgerows which lined both sides of Castle Avenue. He guided his bike around a right turn and into Duke’s Gate, a horseshoe of expensive detached houses which backed onto the green fields of Lanarkshire. He made the error of cutting the corner as he often did on quiet Sunday’s when there was little traffic on the roads. As he glided around the corner a car flashed past him, missing him by millimetres. In his shock he lost control of his bike and crashed into the hedge at the side of the road. He fell heavily feeling a stab of pain in his right shoulder.  His last few newspapers lay sprawled in the puddles of the wet road, ruined, but at least the car hadn’t hit him. As he stood, feeling his scraped knees gingerly with his hand, he glanced to his right to see the same silver car driving back into the quiet cull de sac. It parked near him and a  blonde woman in her 30s got out. ‘Are you alright?’ she said in an accent which sounded German or Scandinavian to Joe. She approached him, looking somewhat anxious. ‘I’m so sorry, I was driving too fast.’ Joe nodded, ‘I’m fine thanks, no damage done.’ She glanced at him holding his shoulder and then at the ruined newspapers which lay by his bike. ‘Listen, come in for a moment. My husband will check you over.’ She picked Joe’s bike and wheeled it towards one of the plush houses. She let herself in, leaning the bike against the wall, ‘Come into the kitchen and I’ll get my husband,’ she smiled. Joe stood a little nervously in the big kitchen which looked about the size of his living room at home. He could hear the woman calling upstairs in a language he didn’t understand and a man replying in short sentences. Joe considered heading out the back door and cycling off on his bike but before he could do so the kitchen door opened and the man entered. Joe stared at him, open mouthed. It was Henrik Larsson.

‘I hear Magdalena was driving like a maniac?’ he smiled. ‘Are you OK? Did you knock your head?’ Joe nodded, ‘I’m fine, just a few scratches on my knees, Besides, it was my fault I was on the wrong side of the road.’ The footballer, dressed in jogging bottoms and a white Celtic polo shirt, smiled, ‘Slip off your jacket and we’ll check your shoulder.’ Joe stared at his erstwhile hero still feeling a little shocked that he was actually in the home of his favourite player. He took off his jacked and the sallow skinned Swede looked at his grazed shoulder and then gazed into his eyes as if checking that Joe was fully focussed. He rotated the joint, nodding. ‘Still in place but I’d let your Doctor look at it.’ Joe finally gained enough composure to speak, ‘Henrik,’ he mumbled nervously, ‘I’m your biggest fan.’ Larsson smiled that smile Joe had seen a hundred times when the striker had scored for Celtic. ‘Ah, you’re a Celtic fan! That’s good. Come through to the lounge and have a seat. What’s your name?’ Joe reached out and shook Larsson’s hand, ‘I’m Joe, Joe Boyle.’ Magdalena appeared at the living room door as Joe sat on a huge white couch, ‘I’ll make us some tea or cola if you’d prefer?’ Joe shook his head, ‘Tea’s fine, thank you. His hero sat opposite him in a big white chair, ‘Best you stay a few minutes till we’re sure you’re ok.’ Joe nodded and replied, ‘Honestly, I’ll be fine.’ Larsson nodded, ‘Yeh but we’ve ruined your newspapers too so I insist you let us pay for them. Don’t want you losing your job.’ At that point Magdalena entered with a tray and laid it on the coffee table, ‘Help yourselves, I’ll go see to the kids. Jordan is on that computer again.’ She smiled at Joe, ‘His Daddy is too soft on him. I’m the bad cop in this house.’ Joe took his mug of tea and a biscuit and nodded, ‘I enjoy playing computer games too so I can’t comment.’ Larsson smiled, ‘You worry too much Magdalena. I was the same with my Sega games as a kid and it didn’t do me much harm.’ She shook her head with a grin, ‘You’re just lucky you could play football or you’d be driving a bus in Helsingborg.’ Larsson laughed out loud as she left the room.

Joe Boyle spent what was for him an incredible 45 minutes chatting to his hero about Celtic and the many games he had seen Larsson play in. From Old Firm games to the big European nights, Larsson had his young visitor spellbound with his tales and insights. Joe asked the Swede how he dealt with the tough tactics adopted by the defenders in the SPL. Larsson leaned forward in his chair thoughtfully, ‘When I was a kid at school in Sweden some idiot would call me a nigger or some other dumb name because my old man was from Africa. I got into so many fights, I didn’t win them all but people soon figured that if they wanted to call me names then they’d better be prepared to fight.  That attitude helps me on the field. They may be bigger than me but I tell myself before every game, Yeh, it’s gonna hurt and so it should but I’m bloody strong, stronger than they are. Even if it hurts, it’s going to hurt them more. That’s the attitude you need to succeed in any professional sport.’ Joe listened, mesmerised and somewhere deep inside he realised he had to stand up to McPhee.

As Joe left the house Henrik Larsson gave him a signed Celtic shirt and two crisp £20 motes to cover the loss of his newspapers. He also wrote down the name of several Swedish magazines and asked Joe to see if his newsagent could get them and add the Larsson household to his weekly round.  As he cycled slowly out of Duke’s Gate, he turned and waved. Larsson stood in the doorway and waved back. Joe shouted to him, ‘Thanks Henrik, Hail Hail!’ before pushing down the bike peddle and heading for home. He heard a faint voice behind him call to him, it sounded like ‘Hail Hail.’

As he got home his Mother opened the door, ‘What happened to you? Fall off yer bike?’ He smiled, ‘Aye Ma, you’ll never guess who helped me though.’ They sat in the kitchen as he told his tale to his mother who listened in silence. He opened his newspaper bag and took out a plastic bag in which his hero had placed the Celtic shirt he had given to Joe, ‘Look at this Ma, Henrik signed this for me.’ His mother smiled, ‘God, yer Da would love that. I’m sorry he’s not here tae listen tae this.’ Joe nodded, his old man had passed a few years earlier and it was still a painful wound for them both. ‘Aye he would, I still miss him.’ His mother smiled ruefully, ‘so do I Joe, so do I.’

 The following day at school McPhee caught up with Joe. His moronic hangers on grinned stupidly as McPhee started on him. ‘You no gonnae run Boyle ya wee dick?’  Joe looked into his dull, unintelligent eyes and decided that for better or worse enough was enough. ‘I’m done running Colin, you want tae hit me, I’ll be hitting ye back this time. Your call.’  McPhee seemed slightly surprised at Joe’s change in attitude and regarded him with disdain. ‘See you’ve finally grown a pair.’ With that he pushed past Joe and headed for the P.E. Hall. Joe watched him head off along the corridor and suddenly he didn’t seem so scary.

Joe Boyle was beginning to learn that standing up for yourself was an important part of growing up. He might not be out of the woods yet as far as big Colin was concerned but something had changed. Words spoken to him the day before by a tough little Swede came into his mind…

‘Yeh, it’s gonna hurt and so it should but I’m bloody strong, stronger than they are. Even if it hurts, it’s going to hurt them more.’

Saturday, 20 June 2015

A gift from God

A gift from God

The summer of 1965 was a hopeful one for Celtic fans. The team, under the guidance of new boss Jock Stein had just won the Scottish cup to end a 7 year spell in the club’s history which was frankly torturous for the fans. Stein had brought stability, modern tactical methods and was instilling confidence and self-belief in a group of talented but essentially under achieving players. They were far from the finished article in 1965 and still given to swings in form which exasperated their long suffering support but the whole club had been rejuvenated and there was a sense that the team was on the verge of a breakthrough domestically. The title hadn’t been won since 1954 but most supporters couldn’t wait for the new season to get underway. Few of them would have guessed then the heights Stein’s Celtic would reach in the next few years.

More than thousand miles away from Celtic Park in that same summer of 1965 a baby boy was being born in the small city on Nitra in what was then Czechoslovakia. His parents called him Lubomir but Celtic fans of the modern era knew him simply as Lubo. Nitra is a picturesque small city in western Slovakia famous for its castle, universities and seminaries. It isn’t a hotbed of football although FC Nitra has a compact little stadium and play in the top league in Slovakia. Lubo grew up with an interest in football and was coached locally by FC Nitra who soon realised that the youngster was blessed with skill above the average. He was two footed and possessed an accurate and powerful shot. His ability to turn defenders and deliver pinpoint crosses meant he was able to play in a variety of attacking roles. He was, in Scottish terms, an old fashioned inside forward blessed with great skill and balance. Lubo played for FC Nitra with distinction and was a regular in the national side by the age of 22. As is often the way in smaller footballing nations, good players are tempted abroad by the money on offer and the chance to test their skills in a more challenging environment.

He left for France and joined St Etienne and had 6 good seasons with them before moving on to Bastia. As he reached his early 30s he could have been happy with a good career and his reputation as a decent player. German club Duisburg signed him in 1998 but a major row with the coach after just a handful of games saw him banished to the reserves. It looked like his career might be about to wind down in the J League in Japan when he received a call from his old friend and coach from the Czech national side, Dr Josef Venglos. ‘How do you fancy coming to play for Celtic Lubo?’

He didn’t need to be asked twice. He arrived in Glasgow in October 1998 to join a talented but struggling Celtic side. The Scottish media greeted his arrival with some scorn. Hugh Keevins wrote in the Daily Record…

"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!"

Keevins’ ignorance of Moravcik’s ability says much about the laziness and lack of football knowledge among the Scottish Tabloid press pack. Dr Venglos himself had been greeted with headlines such as ‘Celtic sign a blank Czech’ Jim Traynor wrote of Moravcik’s arrival at Celtic Park with his usual embarrassing lack of knowledge about football and footballers beyond these shores…

"If anything the signing of Lubomir Moravcik at a cut price has merely caused them further embarrassment."

Lubo made his debut against Dundee at Celtic Park on 7th November 1998. Jock Brown had left the club amid much acrimony that day and the Celtic support showed up in huge numbers buoyed by the signing of Mark Viduka who was not yet registered to play. New boy Moravcik was and his display that day won over the Celtic supporters in the 58,000 crowd. Larsson scored a hat trick that afternoon but many supporters left the ground talking about the little Slovak with the big talent. Scotland on Sunday the following morning reported with refreshing accuracy…

‘’That Dundee could not limit the damage was in part the result of a delightful debut from 33-year-old Moravcik, the kind of continental midfield orchestrator who doesn't so much hit passes as lovingly craft them. It was the rare vision of the Slovak that pushed the contest beyond the visitors once more with a wave of the wand that doubles up for his foot to send Burchill clear for a slamming finish in the 27th minute.’’

After the 6-1 demolition of Dundee, the fans were soon brought back to earth with a bump as the team, aided by some crazy defending and bizarre refereeing crashed 1-2 at St Johnstone. The defence was soon bolstered by the arrival of Johan Mjallby who was set for his debut against all conquering Rangers who arrived at Celtic Park in late November 1998 well clear at the top of the SPL. Mr Keevins gifted us with yet more of his appalling punditry by stating with the confidence of a fool…

"Josef Venglos will live to regret his decision to play this unknown Slovakian ahead of Mark Burchill in such a vital Old Firm Game."

What happened on that cold November afternoon at Celtic Park in 1998 will live long in the memory of the Celtic fans who witnessed it. Celtic clicked from the start and flew at Rangers as if determined to prove that their poor league position didn’t make them a poor team. Moravcik sprayed passes left and right, pulling the Rangers defence all over the place. In 11 minutes Celtic broke up the North Stand side and a cross towards Larrsson on the 18 yard line looked as if it wouldn’t cause Rangers any trouble. Larsson with supreme awareness allowed the ball to pass between his legs which totally confused the Rangers defence. Moravcik arriving behind him met the ball with that wand of a left foot and the ball flashed into the Rangers net. Celtic Park erupted. A new Celtic star was born on that chilly day at Celtic Park. Celtic then proceeded to rip Rangers apart and the men in blue left the East End of Glasgow after a 5-1 hammering. Moravcik had pulled all the strings as Celtic destroyed their ancient rivals.

Even in the aftermath of Celtic’s biggest win against Rangers in decades the media still put their big foot in it. One hapless reporter said to Moravcik…

‘How does it feel going from zero to hero?’

The little Slovak, speaking through an interpreter gave him a withering look and replied…

‘You tell him I was never a zero!’

Lubo went on to win 2 SPL titles, 1 Scottish cup and 2 league cups during his short spell with Celtic. His display at Ibrox in that intoxicating 2000-01 season when Celtic won the treble was magical. I can still see him in the spring sunshine turning Rickson inside out before slamming the ball home in a memorable 3-0 victory. He said recently that Celtic gave him not only the first medals of his career but also the chance to show his skills in the Champions League. On one of those great Celtic Park nights, Juventus arrived with superstars like Trezeguet, Nedved and Del Piero in their side but the match, won 4-3 by Celtic was controlled by the little Slovakian magician. He showed that he could not only play at the top level, but be the star of the show. Pavel Nedved said afterwards…

"I was fortunate to play at Celtic Park in the same game as Lubo, but not fortunate with the way he played against us!"

As He was substituted late in the game, 60,000 fans were on their feet giving him the sort of ovation the knowledgeable Celtic supporters reserve for top players. Lubo was clearly moved by this and stated recently with typical modesty…

“The most memorable occasion was when I played against Juventus in the Champions League. We won 4-3. Martin O’Neill gave me my first start in that tournament. I made the most of the moment. I was subbed near the end and I will never forget the standing ovation I received from the Celtic supporters. I am very lucky.’’

 Lubomir Moravcik is remembered fondly by the Celtic support as an excellent footballer who brought artistry and craft to the games in which he played. Celtic supporters admire a player with such ability and Lubo joins a long list of such players in the club’s illustrious history. He said in a recent interview…

‘’They said I was a gift from God but it was the opposite, Celtic was a gift from God for me.’’

As long as Celtic exists we will remember and celebrate the many fine players who have worn the Hoops over the years. When we talk of the best we’ve seen, Lubo’s name is sure to mentioned. He was quite simply an excellent footballer and I for one am glad I got to see him play. My one regret is that we didn’t sign him as a young man and watch him blossom at Celtic Park for a decade.

Lubo Moravcik. Celtic legend.

Thank you and Happy Birthday Wee man.

Hail Hail

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Brothers

The Brothers
'Paul’ whispered 15 year old Tony Delaney to his younger brother in the dark gloom of the dormitory, ‘You awake?’ Paul rolled over in his bed which stood beside his brother’s and opened his eyes slowly before saying in an irritated tone, ’Whit is it Tony? It’s wan in the morning. Ye better be quiet or wan of the Brothers will scud ye.’ Tony leaned forward in his bed, his head a couple of feet from his younger brother, ‘Celtic beat Morton 4-1, they’re in the final against the huns.’ His young brother exhaled, ‘No much use tae us stuck oot here is it? The Brothers won’t be letting us go hame for the final will they?’ Tony thought for a moment about the situation before he muttered his reply into the darkness, ‘I’m getting sick of this place Paul, if they won’t let us go I think we should just fuck off tae Glesga.’Whit?’ his brother exclaimed, ‘run away? You know these bastards wid slap ye good looking if ye ran away.’ Paul was about to reply when a light clicked on in the corridor outside the dormitory and the tell-tale click of shoes on the wooden floors was heard. The two boys instantly closed their eyes as the dorm door swung open. ‘Whoever is speaking in here will be extremely sorry if they don’t shut up now,’ a familiar, angry voice said. The dormitory was silent and still.

At 7am a bell rang and jolted the dozen or so boys sleeping in Dorm 4 out of their slumbers. The room door burst open and harsh lighting illuminated the room. Brother Andrew entered, ‘Up boys, breakfast in 30 minutes and we need to be washed and scrubbed before then.’ The routine was always the same, the boys made their beds in the prescribed manner before heading for the communal shower. Six boys showered while six brushed their teeth. Brother Andrew was one of the more humane of the staff at the List D School and they were thankful he was their house leader. Other boys whispered tales of the petty cruelties of one or two of the other Brothers and Paul and Tony did their best to avoid the worst of them.  After dressing they marched to the dining hall where a further 40 or so boys were already seated. Standing either side of the door were several of the ‘pissers’ as bed wetters were commonly called in the school.   They stood, shame faced, holding their wet bed sheets under their arms as the boys trooped in for breakfast. Their ritual humiliation was complete as the odd boy smirked at them on the way in or passed some remark designed to hurt them. A sallow skinned boy from Perth stood by the door every morning. Everyone knew he didn’t wet the bed but a bigger boy took his dry sheets each morning with threats of violence and gave him his wet ones in return. Tony smiled encouragingly at him as he passed thinking he was lucky to have his brother Paul with him as well as a few friends he knew from Glasgow. The lad from Perth knew no one and was isolated and open to bullying. No one would help or get involved unless it affected them.

As the Brothers who ran the school entered, the hall fell silent and the boys stood by their tables. Tony looked at the dozen or so Brothers in their long flowing cassocks. Half of them were decent enough men who did what they could to help the troubled teenagers sent to them from the rough schemes of Scotland’s major cities. The other half were as his brother Paul liked to say, ‘dangerous bastards.’ The oldest of them was a grey haired man known as Brother Albert. He was also known as Brother Superior and was de facto the boss of the school. He seemed to enjoy inflicting his petty tyranny on any youngster who crossed his path and each day led them in their morning prayer. ‘Directly we beseech thee oh Lord to bless our work this day and make us grow in faith, hope and love.’  As he droned on about Christian love and charity, someone at Tony’s table whispered, ‘fuckin auld hypocrite.’ It was hard to disagree as the ‘belt in one hand, bible in the other’ seemed to be the dominant philosophy in the school.

Tony and Paul Delaney had been in the former industrial school for the past six months. Their mother had difficulty controlling them and truant from school had led on to shoplifting and other teenage misdemeanours. They had also been on the fringes of the gang which dominated their area of Glasgow. Both boys were in their early teens and experiments with alcohol had led to further trouble and eventually Police involvement in their lives. Their Mother, on her own with three other children, just couldn’t cope with it all and their old man was off the scene having disappeared to England a few years earlier. Eventually the children’s panel had suggested they be sent to the East of Scotland and a List D School with a reputation for taming the wilder spirits sent their way. It was a culture shock to boys well used to the corporal punishment meted out in their Glasgow school. In the List D School there was no respite, you were there 24 hours a day and any perceived misdemeanours were often punished severely. One boy who had run away and headed back to his home in Edinburgh was returned by the Police a few days later. The whole school had gathered in the hall and he was taken onto the small stage, bent over a chair and a stout leather belt applied to him. Paul and Tony had winced at each swish of the belt the dull ‘thwack’ as it struck its target.  They boy’s cries had drifted over the silent hall as he and the other boys present were taught a lesson on the application of power in this setting. There was no mercy. Late that night the two brothers had discussed these events. It bemused them that so called religious people behaved that way. It was all a million miles away from the tales of the saints they heard in their religious classes.

As breakfast began the boys siting at the table talked quietly, ‘Jammy Celtic intae the cup final I see,’ said Derek McCann a likable big Hearts fan from Portobello, ‘Wee Johnstone is no playing coz he wiz booked in the semi. I think Rangers will win the final.’ Tony smiled, ‘No way Derek, Celik will hammer that mob just you wait and see.’ Derek smiled, ‘You asking Brother Albert if ye can go tae Hampden?’ Tony thought for a moment, ‘That auld screwball widnae let anybody enjoy themselves. No way he’d let us go.’ At that moment Brother Andrew appeared behind them, ‘which old Screwball are we discussing this morning Anthony?’ Tony, always quick witted said plausibly, ‘Taking aboot John Grieg, Brother Andrew, Derek thinks Rangers will win the cup final this year.’  Brother Andrew, a kindly man smiled, ‘I think Celtic always have a chance with Stein in charge although they’ll miss Johnstone.’ Brother Andrew noticed old Brother Albert peering at him disapprovingly over his spectacles and his expression changed. ‘Anyway, eat up boys, classes start in ten minutes.’ With that he walked off towards the staff table. Tony said quietly to his brother, ‘No a bad guy Brother Andrew, just wish he had the baws stand up tae that old fart sometimes.’ At that point there was the unmistakable sound of a cup smashing on the hard wooden floor and the room fell silent. Brother Dominic, a stout, red faced man with a large bald head stood with a sour look on his plump face, ‘Would the boy who broke the cup stand up now!’ A quiet, pale boy stood nervously, looking as if he’d like the floor to open and swallow him. His eyes were trained on his shoes as Brother Dominic approached him, ‘Wait behind after breakfast,’ he growled at the boy who was visibly shaking at the thought of the punishment which lay ahead. Tony and Paul looked on in sympathy as Brother Dominic resumed his seat a smug, self-satisfied look on his face. Tony whispered to his brother, ‘I’d love tae punch that fat bullying bastard right in the chops.’  Paul nodded, ‘Oh Aye, he’s overdue a slap that yin.’ 

The week of the 1969 Scottish Cup Final was fast approaching and for the two brothers’ excitement was reaching fever pitch. Celtic meant so much to them and it was hard to think of an Old Firm cup final and a possible treble for Celtic happening with them stuck 50 miles away in East Lothian. Their choices were stark; ask for a rarely granted weekend pass or run away and somehow get back to Glasgow. On the Monday before the game Tony had his brainwave, ‘Who’s the best writer in here?’ Paul looked at him, ‘Whit?’  Tony repeated himself, ‘Who’s got the best handwriting here?’ Paul thought for a moment. ‘Yon Perth boy, the wan that that big tube fae Dundee bullies, his writing’s better than any I’ve seen in here, real neat, joined up anaw.’  Tony nodded, his plan forming in his mind.

Later in the quiet of the library room they approached the Perth boy and put their plan to him. ‘You write the letter for us and we’ll help you out. Whit dae ye say?’  The nervous boy, who was called Peter, looked at them. ‘Let me get this right, you want me tae write a letter tae Brother Albert kiddin’ on yer Da died and ye need weekend leave tae go tae his funeral?’  Paul nodded, ‘Dae it and we’ll sort out that bam fae Dundee for ye. You can hing aboot wi us anaw. Whit aboot it?’  Peter pursed his lips, ‘Even if we can slip it in the post, it will be post marked fae Edinburgh not Glasgow?’ Paul sighed, ‘That’s the chance we need tae take, hope the auld bam disnae notice.’ Peter nodded, ’Deal, sort oot the bed sheet situation and I’ll dae the letter.’ They outlined the details Peter would need for the letter before wandering off to find the lad from Dundee who was making life a misery for Peter.

They found him sitting in the games room flicking through some football annuals. Paul left the talking to Tony who was a year older and feared no foe. ‘Here you ya dick,’ Tony began, slapping the football book from the shocked teenager’s hands. ‘You touch the wee Perth guy or his sheets again and I’ll be rattling your baws, ye got me?’ Like most bullies, this one folded when seriously challenged, ‘Aye, OK. It wis just a laugh ye know?’ Tony stared him down, ‘Aye? Well I’m no laughing pal, just get aff his case Ok?’ The boy nodded sheepishly as Tony and Paul wandered off looking a lot more confident than they were feeling inside. Neither brother liked acting like a ned but sometimes it was required.

That same night the letter was finished and they all agreed that it looked slick and adult in its layout. It was carefully folded into an envelope and a stamp applied. They addressed it to Brother Albert and Peter slipped it into the outgoing mail box hoping no one would notice the address.

On the Thursday before the Scottish Cup Final the two boys were called into Brother Albert’s office. Brother Andrew, stern faced and silent accompanied them and stood behind them as they entered the room. The old man sat behind a large oak desk seemingly unaware that they were there. After a pause he looked up, ‘Sit,’ he hissed at them. They boys sat trying hard to control their nerves. Both knew if their plan was rumbled it’d be hard on them. The old man regarded them in the manner a hawk observes mice, in his right hand he held the letter Peter had faked for them. ‘I have received a letter from your Mother requesting that you are allowed home to attend a family funeral.’ Tony switching into his acting mode looked at him, ‘Funeral, Brother? It’s not my granny is it?’  The old man’s blue eyes regarded them, ‘It appears your father has died.’ At this point Tony excelled himself, ‘My Da? Aw naw.’ Even Paul was surprised to see actual tears roll down his brother’s face as he sobbed disconsolately. The old man looked on dispassionately, ‘It is not usual for a funeral to take place on a Saturday but it seems your Father was not of our faith.You may have two days leave. Brother Andrew will drop you at the bus station in Edinburgh on Friday morning and you will be back here by lunchtime on Sunday. Do I make myself clear?’ The two boys stood, Tony still wiping his fake tears with his sleeve and sniffing convincingly, ‘Yes Brother, thank you Brother.’

Brother Andrew led them from the room and as they headed for their dormitory said quietly, ‘You might want to explain this.’ He handed Tony the envelope which they had used for the letter. ‘Unless your mother sent this letter from Edinburgh and has writing very similar to a boy I teach in English, I’d say you two have just fooled the old Fella.’ The two boys looked at Brother Andrew in silence, awaiting the inevitable punishment. To their surprise and delight, he broke into a broad smile and handed them the envelope, ‘Don’t worry; your secret is safe. Enjoy the cup final boys and give the Celts a cheer for me.’ Tony and Paul smiled as they headed back to their dorm and quickly tore the envelope into a hundred pieces before locking into a warm embrace. ‘We did it bro, we fuckin did it! Yaasss Hampden here we come!’

As the boys trooped into breakfast on a bright Friday morning they couldn’t help notice the erstwhile bully from Dundee was standing outside holding his wet bed sheets. The Delaney brothers passed without comment and entered the hall. They sat beside Peter and were soon lost in animated conversation. The quiet Perth lad was opening up a bit and was proving to be a witty and funny new friend. After breakfast Tony and Paul picked up their coats and followed Brother Andrew out to the small car the school owned. They set off for the bus station in Edinburgh and then it would be home to Glasgow for the Cup Final.

Hampden Park, 26th April  1969

The two brothers topped the stairs at the top of the huge Celtic end of Hampden Park and saw a scene breath-taking in its scale. 132,000 fans packed the old stadium and roared as the game was about to begin. Celtic seemed to glow in their pristine green and white hooped shirts and went on the attack immediately. As Paul and Tony fought their way nearer the front of the packed terrace, Celtic won a corner kick. They stopped on the stairway to watch as Betrie Auld clipped the ball into the box. The Rangers defence seemed to hesitate as Billy McNeil rose to loop a header goal ward. Paul, Tony and 65,000 other Celtic fans roared as one in utter delight as it eluded the keeper and nestled in the back of the Rangers net. They hugged each other and any other nearby Celt as they celebrated that goal. God how they’d missed seeing the Celts. They may have challenges ahead in their young lives but they had each other and they had Celtic. They just knew today was going to be a good day.

And so it was.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Blood upon the grass

Blood upon the grass

As controversy rages about Scotland’s friendly match with Qatar it got me thinking about a game which was possibly the most disgraceful in the history of the Scottish national side.

1977 was a good year for Celtic in some ways. The club completed a league and cup double and had several players in the Scotland side which qualified for the World Cup in Argentina the following year. In order to acclimatise to the conditions they would meet in Argentina, Scotland arranged a couple of tour matches in South America.There was a fairly brutal 1-1 draw with an emerging Argentina side which would go on to win the World Cup in 1978. More controversially Scotland played Chile in the National Stadium, Santiago in June 1977 and comfortably beat the hosts 4-2.  The controversy wasn’t found in the score line or any incident during the match, rather it was that the game took place at all. A mere 4 years earlier there was a CIA inspired military coup in Chile which replaced a left leaning government with a brutal military right wing dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet. The National Stadium where Scotland played so well was used as a holding centre for enemies of the new regime.

Thousands of socialists, trade unionists, students and assorted supporters of the Allende Government had been rounded up in the days following the coup. They were held in the stadium and a brutal regime of interrogation, torture and execution was soon in place. The military had a free hand to do as they wished to the enemies of the new regime and it is estimated that 130,000 were arrested, many never to be seen again. Roberto Saldias was a Chilean soldier was on duty at the stadium and admitted that there was widespread torture and killings there. He said, ‘Prisoners were organised by means of a red, black or yellow disc. Those with a red disc had no chance of survival.’  No one counted the dead as they were dumped onto military trucks for disposal elsewhere.
Among those who perished in the bloodbath at the stadium was Victor Jara, Chilean folk singer and socialist. Jara had campaigned with his songs and his guitar and helped elect the first socialist Government in Chile’s history. Jara was subjected to  four days of brutal torture which included the smashing of his hands with an axe before 43 bullets were fired into his body. He, like so many others in that dreadful era, was thrown into a military truck and dumped at the local morgue. His English wife was tipped off he was there and went to claim his remains before they were buried in an unmarked pit like so many others. She said…

"In those hours I was waiting in the morgue I was witness to the people outside, the families outside looking at these lists. I was witness to one after the other of these terrible military trucks with red crosses on them entering into the morgue, down to the basement of the morgue, to empty the bodies. And as we were coming out there's this long passageway out of the morgue. And we had Victor's body in the trunk and we met one of those trucks coming in and I just stood there. And he had to back out."

It was into this same stadium that the SFA led the Scottish national team just a few short years later. ‘Football should be separate from politics’ was the SFA mantra but many in Scotland were outraged that the team was playing in the stadium where so many died. Indeed the dressing room they used was a cell during coup in which so many innocents perished. Protests were held but all to no avail, the SFA took the team which included Danny McGrain and Kenny Dalglish to Chile and played on the grass which was once red with the blood of the dictatorship’s innocent victims.

Adam Naughtan’s poem ‘Blood Upon the Grass’ written in protest, contains the following lines…

September the eleventh

In nineteen seventy-three

Scores of people perished

 In a vile machine-gun spree

Santiago stadium

Became a place to kill

But a Scottish football team

Will grace it with their skill

And there’s blood upon the grass

And there’s blood upon the grass


Will you go there, Alan Rough

Will you play there, Tom Forsyth

Where so many folk met early

The Grim Reaper with his scythe

These people weren’t terrorists

They weren’t Party hacks

But some were maybe goalkeepers

 And some were Centre-backs

And there’s blood upon the grass

And there’s blood upon the grass

Politics and sport have always been uncomfortable bedfellows; from the England national team’s fascist salute in Germany in 1938 to more recent attempts to have Israel thrown out of UEFA because of their treatment of the Palestinians. Here in Scotland we have seen some supporters chant for or against the conflicting parties in the Irish conflict. This was particularly true in the years of the troubles but was not confined to that time.  As early as 1921 letters to the press complained that a Celtic supporters Brake Club had, after a 2-0 win at Ibrox, chalked the words ‘Rebels 2 Tans 0’ on their coach before heading for home.

It is not always possible or morally right to completely separate sport from politics if there is a clear injustice to be highlighted. The decision of the SFA to play in Chile in the circumstances of 1977 was not only wrong it was repugnant. The vast national stadium in Santiago was mostly empty as the Scots defeated the hosts. It was suggested that many locals, knowing what had occurred there, stayed away in order to register a small protest against the regime and show some respect to the lost souls of 1973. In the Chile of 1977, any other form of protest would likely prove fatal.