Monday, 31 August 2015

A Force for Good

A Force for Good
The minor spat the Green Brigade banners caused among the Celtic faithful this weekend pales into insignificance as we look around our troubled world. It can be easy to get disheartened in the face of the appalling images of war, death and destruction which seem to flow around social media these days. But among the many sad images we glimpse the best of human nature too. We saw football fans all over Germany hoist banners stating ‘Refugees Welcome’ at matches this weekend. Dortmund fans even invited 200 new arrivals to the match and they all had a great time. In one town there was even a crowd waiting with placards and flowers to welcome a coach full of exhausted Syrian refugees to Germany. Germany has a long history of taking in refugees in the years since World War 2 and as the voices of far right extremists are heard again in the land, it is at football matches they are resisted most strongly. In the 1990s, following reunification of Germany there were some fatal xenophobic attacks in the country most notably the fire-bombing in Solingen. Every Bundesliga side then appeared wearing shirts emblazoned with the logo ‘Meine freund ist ausländer,’ which translates as ‘my friend is a foreigner.’ It’s important that fans all over Europe continue to resist the hate mongers and remember the people risking their lives in the Mediterranean are human beings not a ‘swarm’ of migrants.  

Celtic fans know their history and have a natural sympathy for the refugee. Many of them are themselves the offspring of impoverished Irish refugees forced across the sea by hunger and oppression. Earlier in the summer I watched the Green Brigade’s anti-discrimination football tournament held in the Garngad district of Glasgow. The rain couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the young people  gathered there to celebrate diversity and demonstrate in a positive way that football can indeed be a force for good.

We also saw the famous Celtic wit and humour this weekend after a few misguided Fenerbahce fans posted images of themselves brandishing knives on social media. The Celts response was to post images of them-selves brandishing among other things, a spoon, a dog, a hoover, a small child, a kebab, a carpet and what looked like a sex toy. These jolly japes were soon going viral under the hashtag ‘#thatsnotatnife’ and were receiving admiring comments from all over the world. Many decent Fenerbahce fans joined in and seemed to enjoy the fun. Isn’t that what football should be about?

I can think of so many occasions when Celtic fans made friends abroad by use of their humour and friendly nature. I can give many examples of acts of kindness done by individuals and groups wearing the green. I recall being on a cross channel ferry heading for the continent with several hundred other drinking, singing Celtic fans. A party of English School children, most of who were in wheelchairs entered the big lounge area and their teachers looked around anxiously at the noisy, beer swilling Scots. Within 10 minutes the children were joining in the songs and clapping along. One chap passed his Celtic tammy around and collected almost 200 Euros for the children. He gave it to one of the teachers’ with the immortal words, ‘There ye go big man, get the weans a sweetie in France.’ Later as the children headed off to the quiet seating area to rest, it was noticeable that most were sporting Celtic hats, Celtic scarves and big smiles. Perhaps one or two grew up to be Celtic fans.

Such incidents remind us of the basic decency of most people. I’ve watched Celtic fans hand over tickets to others and refuse payment. I’ve seen touts charging over the odds being told in no uncertain terms that it’s ‘Face value or you’ll be getting nothing for them.’  I’ve seen lifts given to strangers stuck in faraway places but most of all I’ve seen fans laugh through the good times and the bad. Humour has always been a feature of the Celtic support and some of the remarks shouted at the match will live long in the memory. In troubled times a gallows humour can take over and I recall during Tony Mowbray’s ill-fated reign a Celtic fan being interviewed on TV say, ‘Before Tony came we were depressed and anxious but he’s turned all that around, Now we’re anxious and depressed.’

This autumn will see Celtic return to Amsterdam for the first time since the troubled Champions League match there a couple of years back. No doubt that moronic minority who follow Ajax will be looking for trouble. Such is the way of it with over grown children who think violence makes them men. No doubt the ‘Fenian Lampost’ which so memorably meted out justice to a thug with a Police badge will have a few stickers added to it and a few pictures snapped. Above all I really hope Celtic’s supporters react with their usual humour to any provocation and avoid being drawn into any trouble.

One of the things I love about Celtic is the club’s openness to all in both the team and the fan base. There is also a strong social conscience among many fans who don’t just whinge about things but actually try to do something about it. From food bank collections to supporting the Celtic charity fund, from CSC dances raising funds for a huge variety of causes to individual fans quietly doing good work, Celtic fans maintain a fine tradition. We have our fall outs and disagreements as all families do but when we need to be united we are.

Saturday’s disagreements over the Green Brigade banners are insignificant in the big scheme of things. What the cross words prove above all else is that we all care about Celtic, too much at times but that’s the way it gets you when you wear the green.


Saturday, 29 August 2015

Hear the rumble in the Jungle

Hear the rumble in the Jungle
As a lad I recall walking through the streets of Glasgow’s east-end with my old man, my uncle and older brothers. We were of course heading to Celtic Park and in those days it was wise to stick close to those older and more clued up about the dangers that existed for the unwary. A couple of hours waiting outside the pub from the adults to have a drink didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. In fact when the doors opened for someone to enter or leave the Straw House, the Grange or the General Wolfe we’d hear the Celtic songs drift out with the smoke and noise. As we grew up a bit, we’d start to go to some Celtic games with friends rather than with our families although we always knew where to find them on the terrace if we needed any help or a walk up the road. It was on those occasions that we first ventured into that legendary terracing known to us all as the ‘Jungle.’

Watching the Jungle from the Celtic end was always fascinating. On days when the crowd wasn’t huge it was always the fullest section of the ground. It was from there that the songs and chants would start and if they weren’t always politically correct then it’s fair to say they didn’t really care. There were certain rituals which developed and these included singing the ‘Grand old team’ and then as the teams emerged, ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ As the songs spread around the stadium the opposition knew they’d be facing not just Celtic but their support too. There would be chants at the big English Keeper Peter Latchford who told me just last year how much he enjoyed those pre-match chants and waving to the Jungle. As the game got underway the Jungle and its 10,000 hard core Celts were right behind the team and making a terrific noise.

So it was that we graduated from the Celtic end and made our way to the Jungle as teenagers. In those days the amount of drinking going on before and during the game ensured the primitive toilet facilities were overwhelmed. The Jungle smelled of smoke, beer and urine but it was simply a part of the match day experience and we thought little of it. On occasion when linesmen gave dubious calls against Celtic some voice would boom out and give the poor chap a hard time. I recall one match when the flag went up and a man with a voice like a foghorn shouting, ‘Linesman! I’ll come doon there and shove that flag so far up your arse you’ll be farting oot affside decision for years!’ As the flag went up again moments later he was at the poor official again, ‘Linesman, don’t think I cannae see that masonic ring ya wee runt!’  This continued for most of the came with each new insult and threat growing in ingenuity and drawing on an extensive vocabulary of Glaswegian swear words. Eventually as the game was nearing its end the poor man raised his flag again and the foghorn boomed out again, ‘Linesman! Ye got wan right for a change, ya dick!’

When it was in full voice the Jungle was an inspiration to the team. In European ties or Old Firm games it kept up an incessant barrage of noise which drove the team on. Yes, some of the songs in those days could be crude, I recall a Rangers player lying on the turf near the Jungle after a heavy challenge being serenaded with, ‘Die, die, die, die, ya hun, we beat ye seven one. die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, ya hun!’ This was followed by, ‘Dig a hole and bury him!’ There was also that habit of transforming pop songs into Celtic songs, tunes such as the 70s classic about the Muhammad Ali- George Foreman fight, Rumble in the Jungle. which morphed into this crude but witty Celtic song…

‘Came a monkey called John Grieg (at Park-at Parkhead)

Had a face like ham and egg (at Park-at Parkhead)

McCluskey broke the bastard’s leg (at Park-at Parkhead)

Hear the rumble in the Jungle – at Parkhead!

Paul Wilson scored twice in the night

He scored with his left foot and he scored with his right

At Parkhead!’

It was always the ambition of us younger fans to start a song in the Jungle and the trick was to wait till it was relatively quiet and shout as loudly as you could. You needed to drag out the first couple of words to give fans near you time to join in. A friend and I hollered out one day, ‘Hai-lllll Hai-llll The Celts are here,’ as a few nearby fans joined us it spread around the Jungle and we were utterly thrilled that it even reached the Celtic end. Thousands singing a song which two lads in the Jungle started!

The Jungle could be a lawless place too at times. During Jock Stein’s testimonial match against Liverpool, I watched as two Policemen tried to arrest a man near the back wall of the packed Jungle. The man’s friends attempted to release him and in the end some of the crowd turned on the cops who lay on the terracing trying to defend themselves from a barrage of boots and bottles coming their way. TV pundits in the gantry above would receive abuse too if the crowd though they’d been unfair to Celtic on the previous week’s show. On the odd occasion cans or bottles would be thrown onto the field as we saw in the Rapid Vienna game in 1984. But those occasions were relatively rare. Normally the Jungle punters were there to back their team and they did so in that committed and full throttle way the Celtic hard core always have and always will.

The Jungle changed when Celtic, in their wisdom, put a huge gated fence between it and the Celtic end. That free movement of fans which was such a feature of football stadiums back then was gone. They would often lock the gate when there was clearly more space to be had in the Jungle. The awful events at Hillsborough in 1989 signalled the beginning of the end for the legendary terraces of British football. No more would the more fanatical fans gather on terraces such as the Kop, the Stretford end the Holt End or the famous Jungle of Celtic Park. Seats arrived and as Celtic’s directors dreamed of a pie in the sky super stadium at Cambuslang, they seated the Jungle. It was appalling as in the place of 10,000 singing, bouncing, roaring Celtic fans, we had 5000 green bucket seats.

The McCann revolution saw the construction of the new stadium and as was the case at stadia all over the UK, the atmosphere at Celtic Park changed and not for the better. Davie Provan, former favourite of the Jungle once said during Martin O’Neil’s tenure, ‘In my day you had half the crowd and twice the atmosphere.’ Slowly however the heirs of the Jungle spirit gathered to try and bring back that old thunder. Groups such as the Jungle Bhoys and the Green Brigade have provided the spark which often reignites that passion and on those big occasions when Celtic Park is rocking there really isn’t a better atmosphere around as many great players have said.

Today I’ll go to Celtic Park and sit in the North Stand which replaced the old Jungle. In truth the stand is far grander that anything any of us could have imagined as we stood on the urine soaked terraces of the old stadium. It is cleaner, safer and able to attract a wider variety of people than the old Jungle did. We see more females, more children and more senior Celtic fans attending games. Most of us accept the stadium is far superior to the old one but we did lose something as the bulldozers levelled the place in the 1990s. The ‘thunder’ as Neil Lennon called it is being rediscovered, albeit sporadically and Celtic Park has a decent atmosphere at most games. It also has an incredible atmosphere at the bigger matches. For younger fans, the Jungle may be a part of Celtic history and folklore but for those of us who stood in it backing the Celts through thick and thin, it is still missed. Yes it could be wild, dangerous and rebel to the core but it was part of the very fabric of Celtic. It was here that the common man, the working class Celt who had little apart from his team to cheer him lived out his dreams and for 90 minutes on a Saturday could be transported away from the hard lives so many of them lived.

I’m glad we have a stadium fit for the 21st century but I’m also proud to say I was a Jungle Bhoy too.

Now join in will you? … Hai-lllll Hai-llll The Celts are here…’

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Deja vu... again

Deja vu…again

Another round of Champions league qualifiers and another one that got away for Celtic. It’s a familiar story in European games for the Celts as sloppy defending, mystifying refereeing and powder puff attacking cost the team dear. This wasn’t one of those occasions when Celtic were taking on one of the big boys and were unlucky, this was Celtic taking on a team with a wage bill barely a third of Celtic’s and coming up seriously short. The third goal Malmo scored at Celtic Park should have had alarm bells ringing in the Celtic defence. Yet they let Rosenberg get a free run at a corner to head home virtually unchallenged in the return game. Malmo coach Age Hareige would have done his homework on Celtic’s zonal marking system and plotted how to beat it. Blocking Van Dijk was the key and as we saw with the second Malmo goal, we had learned nothing. Three of the four goals conceded in the tie came from corner kicks and that is simply unacceptable at this level. Celtic was bullied by a smaller side who seemed to want it more and that hurt.

The search for answers begins with every fan having their own opinion about the way forward. Rachel Lynch, writing in the Irish Post, had it correct when she stated… There’s no single scapegoat in my opinion – from the board to the management to the players, everyone is to blame.’  She isn’t merely paying lip service to the idea of the old ‘winning together and losing together’ football clichĂ© often trotted out at such times. She means it literally; there have been failings all round at Celtic Park.  The Board have backed the Manager to a degree but have not given him the sort of money which will capture the experience and know how required to succeed at this level. Good players have left for financial reasons and in truth lesser lights have arrived. The young Scottish talent being bought may well deliver in the long run but some quality and experience is required to help them turn narrow defeats into wins. The players were also culpable for standing off Malmo and letting them boss long stretches of the game.  The defence was culpable for not dealing with crosses and perhaps only Forrest and Gordon came out of the game with any credit.

Social media was alive with invective as some fans’ disappointment gave way to anger. For once the much maligned Efe Ambrose wasn’t in the firing line. God knows if he had played the level of abuse coming his way would have been astronomical. Celtic has some great supporters but there is a minority who turn their anger towards individual players in an unfair and often unhelpful way. Ambrose was slated for giving away a penalty at Tannadice last week and yet how many of you could name the two Celtic midfielders who put in rather half-hearted and pathetic tackles on Clayton as he waltzed into the box? Ambrose, like Peter Grant before him and Tommy Callaghan before that, is just the latest to be cut no slack by an unforgiving minority. His confidence is shot and every move he makes is scrutinised. Of course he makes errors, some such as those in the Juventus game a couple of years back, are very costly, but all players do. It is always right that fans vent their feelings on issues affecting the club but the public scourging of Ambrose does Celtic fans no credit whatsoever. A struggling player needs his confidence restored not further dented by his own club’s followers.

Manager Deila took his share of responsibility for the defeat in Malmo and in my opinion is improving the side. For some, nothing short of a decent Europa League run and the domestic treble will suffice. I think he is due another year and another crack at the Champions League. He found an unlikely ally in the shape of Malmo coach age Hareide. Asked if he felt sympathy for his Norwegian counterpart, he said:

"Yes, I have to say – I saw the pack of wolves surrounding him from Scotland last night, so I do feel for him. This is one of the disadvantages of being the coach of a big team like Celtic – in my opinion he has done a great job; he is a greatly talented coach and I hope for God’s sake he is allowed to keep working on his team in peace and quiet; building the team I know he wants to build, and that he has shown he can build by winning in Scotland and do well in the Europa League. Then he just has to try again next year for Champions League.’’

That ‘pack of wolves’ among the Scottish Sporting media have already taken up the flagging campaign to undermine Deila. His ‘judge me in 12 months’ quote from a year back has been trotted out to damn him. However, this isn’t the Celtic of 12 months back. The team has improved and that may just be enough to buy Deila the time to continue his project at Celtic. The Board needs to back him with some serious money, particularly if Van Dijk goes. More importantly the scouting network need to get it right after wasting millions on players who failed miserably in the much maligned Scottish game.

The defeat in Malmo hurt Celtic fans greatly but the majority realise that such high intensity games are rare in Scottish football and that this can have an adverse effect on the team in Europe. We need a more competitive league as that is the only sure way to drive up standards. Celtic have downsized in recent seasons as our two horse championship became a one horse race after Rangers galloped off to the knackers yard in 2012. It isn’t enough to build a team to dominate Scotland, the board, scouts and managerial team should be working together to build a team which will give the support the belief that we can at least compete in Europe. The next year will be an important one, let’s hope the right decisions are made.



Saturday, 22 August 2015

Men against Bhoys

Men against Bhoys

The rather grubby Service Station car park was already full of green clad Celtic fans as Mick guided his battered old Fiesta into a parking bay. ‘About time anaw,’ muttered his friend Sniper from the back seat, ‘Busting fur a pish since Carlisle and Niki fuckin Lauda here wants tae batter oan tae the next Service station.’ Barry, sitting in the front passenger seat shook his head, ‘You’ve tanned about 8 cans since we left Glesga, maybe that’s why yer bladder’s so full ya numpty.’ Sniper glared at him, ‘Shut it short arse, just coz you cannae drink without getting jailed or conking oot.’ Barry smiled, ‘I’ll be driving us back up the road ya big bam so there’s no much point in me drinking is there?’ Sniper grinned, ‘Aye, we saw wit happened when ye nipped big Kerry at the New Year.’ Barry laughed out loud at the memory of actually getting a woman into bed at a party before promptly falling asleep due to excess consumption of some aniseed flavoured shots.  ‘At least I can attract a bird, aw you can attract are flies, ya pie.’ Sniper smiled, ‘Brewer’s droop, I heard? Need tae get ye oan yon Viagra’ Barry laughed and shook his head, ‘you just make this shite up don’t ye? I conked oot wi the bevvy, there was nothing drooping except my consciousness.’  Sniper regarded him with mock pity, ‘Imagine that, the baw oan the goal line and ye couldnae put it in the net.’ Mick cut in at this point, ‘you never stoap, dae ye Sniper? Always trying tae win the argument,’ Sniper clicked off his seatbelt with a satisfied grin, ‘Never lost an argument to the Pollok midget in my life Mick, and I never will. Ah never needed Viagra either.’ Barry smiled at him, ‘If you had a brain you’d be dangerous ya big fud.’

They exited the car and Sniper headed hurriedly for the toilets as Barry and Mick entered self-service restaurant. ‘Let’s see what delights are oan the menu here.’ Mick said as they joined the long queue of Celtic fans standing with trays by the rows of over-priced food. ‘Hope we stuff this mob the night,’ Mick said to Barry, ‘That prick Souness gets on my nerves at the best of times but that ‘Men against boys’ shit really annoyed me.’ Barry nodded, ‘It’ll have annoyed the players as well, Martin will have them wound up like springs. We’ll win it, don’t you worry.’ Sniper returned at this point and joined them in the queue, ‘You buying, Barry? We’ve aw had enough of your tight arsed ways.’ Barry looked at him, ‘I was buying but thanks tae yer cheek yer getting nout aff me.’ Sniper looked at Mick, ‘See wit ah mean? Ye’d think he had a rattlesnake in his pocket. Tight as a flea’s arse that yin.’ Sniper proceeded to eat a bewildering variety of food as the queue shuffled along slowly. Sandwiches, cheesecake and several pieces of fruit disappeared into his mouth. He had no intention of paying for any of it and when he eventually reached the till with a tray which was empty apart from a few crumbs, he bought a cup of tea for 80p and sat at a nearby table. Mick and Barry had to admire his style. Any evidence of his pilfering was now in his stomach.

How far tae Blackburn fae here?’ Sniper enquired as the two co-drivers sat beside him with their honestly purchased food. ‘Aboot 50 miles mate. Do it in an hour if the traffic’s ok.’ replied Mick. ‘Ah cannae wait,’ said Barry, ‘I really think Celtic owe that mob a doin.’ Sniper nodded, ‘Ye got that right, Sherlock. Disrespectful rat that Souness. I’d love tae see his face if Celtic batter them oot of Europe.’ They sat discussing the game for half an hour and each in their own way was convinced that Celtic had the beating of Blackburn Rovers. ‘Better head,’ said Barry, ‘I don’t want to miss any of this.’ They finished their food and joined scores of other Celtic fans heading for coaches, cars and even two hardy souls on a motorbike. As they buckled up, Barry put on the radio in time to hear Graham Souness say,  'If Celtic score one then we can score three. Hopefully by 10pm tonight people will be saying 'Bloody hell, that Blackburn are a good side.'' Sniper could take no more, ‘Och there’s numb nuts oan talking shite again! If I see that prick the night his RS McCalls’ will be getting rattled! Get the tape oan, Barry!’ Barry needed no further encouragement and pushed the tape into the cassette player. They snaked out of the Service area and back onto the M6. As they joined the traffic heading south they sang along with a familiar song…

‘Let the people sing their stories and their songs
And the music of their native land
Their lullabies and battle cries and songs of hope and joy
Join us hand in hand
All across this ancient land, throughout the test of time
It was music that kept their spirits free
Those songs of yours and of mine..’

Ewood Park was chaotic when they finally parked the car and headed for the stadium. There was tension in the air and some fans related tales of fights with Blackburn supporters and the heavy handed treatment they’d received from the Police. There was talk of forged tickets and the away stand already being full despite hundreds of fans with valid tickets still trying to get in. Mick was unimpressed and said to a harassed looking Policeman, ‘Couldny organise a fart in a curry eating contest. Honest tae God, mate, get a grip.’ The man stared blankly at him as if he was speaking another language. Eventually they gained admittance to the Darwen end and joined 8000 other Celtic fans swaying and singing in the chilly November air. A huge roar announced that the teams were coming out and Celtic looked the part in their gold away kit. ‘Mon the Celtic!’ roared Sniper as the team got into their pre match huddle. The drama was about to unfold and here and there in the home sections of the stadium there were pockets of Celtic supporters. A large group was segregated from the locals by a line of Police and stewards in one of the stands. The air buzzed with excitement and the noise from the huge Celtic support set the scene. It was up to the players now.

The opening period of play demonstrated clearly that Celtic were certainly up for the game. They snapped into tackles and their mid-field were clearly on top. In 15 minutes came one of those moments Celtic fans crave so much. Sutton touched a ball towards Hartson who slipped as did his marking defender. The ball reached Larsson who controlled it as Friedel raced towards him. 100 yards away, Mick, Barry and Sniper watched in rapt anticipation as the Swede waited until Friedel dived and dinked the ball over him into the net. A huge roar erupted from the thousands of Celtic supporters in the stadium. Mick grabbed Barry and they both toppled over the plastic seats in front of them oblivious to the pain and caring only that Celtic had scored. Once the crowd settled a bit the Celtic songs boomed out across Ewood Park… ‘You are my Larsson, my Henrik Larsson, you make me happy when skies are grey…’ Celtic were in control of the game now and didn’t the away fans let their English hosts know it.

In 68 minutes, Sutton met a Petrov corner at the near post and glanced the ball into the net. The 8000 Celtic fans crammed into the stand behind the goal erupted again. ‘Yaaas!’ shouted Sniper, ‘How ye liking it it Souness ya dick! Men against boys wiz it?’ The rest of the game consisted of Celtic toying with their clearly beaten opponents. Hartson and Larsson could have added more goals but as the final whistle sounded and the delirious Celtic support belted out ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ even some of the home supporters applauded. The team had been immense and so had the supporters. When they were as one like this they were an awesome combination. For Sniper, Mick and Barry, it had been one more of the great nights they’d long remember. As they headed through the streets to their car a clearly elated Barry grinned, ‘I think we could go far in the UEFA Cup this year. Where’s the final anyway?’ Mick shook his head and laughed, ‘Calm doon you, some good teams are left in this competition.’ A nearby fan butted in, ‘Final’s in Seville mate but I wouldn’t get to excited, a long way tae go before we can think aboot that.’ Sniper was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat, ‘Fuckin great being a Tim so it is.’

They stopped in a petrol station to fill the car for the long haul north. The crowds had long since departed and Blackburn looked like Pollok on a wet Wednesday night. As Barry filled the car a sleek, dark Jaguar glided up to the pump beside them. A smart man in a business suit filled the car as Sniper peered at the figure sitting in the passenger seat. ‘Here, Mick, check that guy oot sitting in that Jag.’ Mick glanced to his left, ‘Hard tae make him oot Sniper, who is it?’ At that point Barry jumped into the car, ‘Right lads, let’s get up the road!’ As he gunned the engine and the car began to move, Sniper rolled down the window at the back of the car and extended a middle finger as he roared, ‘Here, Souness ya fud, no grinning noo eh?’ Barry looked at him incredulous, ‘Is that Souness?’ Sniper wasn’t listening, he was chanting an old insult towards the Jaguar, ‘Peenesss! Peenesss!’ The three friends headed through the dark streets and onto the motorway. It had been quite a trip. As they headed north, Sniper opened the beer and the tape was soon blasting out again…

With a four leaf clover on my breast,
And the green and white upon my chest,
It's such a joy for us to see,
For they play football the Celtic way.’

The only traffic on the motorway seemed to be the army of delighted Celtic fans heading north. Most were content with the resounding victory over their arrogant English opponents but a few were discussing which teams were left in the tournament and whether they dared dream of making it to Seville.
That was a distant dream but still…

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The glass is half full

The glass is half full

Leaving Celtic Park a little bemused in the late summer drizzle last night was one of those experiences you have now and then as a Celtic fan. The team had put up a decent performance against an efficient but clearly not brilliant Malmo side although the loss of a last gasp goal took the shine off a gutsy Celtic display. Those opening ten minutes were the stuff of dreams and you have to wonder how things would have finished had Johansen buried that excellent chance and made it 3-0. The good play up to that point was undone in the end by the sort of careless defending which is usually punished at this level although Van Dijk was clearly fouled at the second goal. Yet the support trudging along the Gallowgate felt a curious mixture of disappointment at the last gasp goal by Berget and some pride that the team are progressing at this level. One only has to think back 12 months to the tame and rather worrying capitulation to Legia Warsaw. That second leg match at Murrayfield was as poor as I’ve seen Celtic in recent years.

Old hands of course stated that you simply cannot defend as Celtic did last night in European football and expect to progress and that is true. Whoever is pitched into the back 4 in Sweden had better ensure an error free 90 minutes if Celtic are to progress. But there were a lot of positives to be taken from last night’s performance too. Middle to front Celtic look a mobile and capable side.  Biton, Brown and Johansen were at times very effective and James Forrest had one of his better games. Gary MacKay Steven looks comfortable at this level and Griffiths also looked sharp, determined and dangerous. He is starting to look like a Celtic striker and seems to have matured since his arrival at Celtic Park. On the down side, Lustig’s injury was cruel on a player who has been through much already and those lapses at the back seen to haunt a team which has conceded 2 goals to each of their opponents (Malmo, Kilmarnock and Inverness) in the last three games. There was enough in Celtic’s play and Malmo’s lack of real top level class to suggest that this tie is far from over.

There seems to be more optimism online today than was the case last night when one fan commented that Celtic ‘We have champs league fans with Ryman league players.’ Such comments are of course born of frustration but are nonetheless unfair. Celtic’s players put everything they had into last night’s game and actually beat the Swedish Champions. Had that been a group game we would have gone home celebrating 3 deserved points and our jaundiced, negative press would have had to accept it was a deserved win. It is easy to criticise individual players for errors in games but given the relatively poor state of Scottish Football’s revenue streams, Celtic actually punch above their weight in Europe. They single handedly hold up the Scottish coefficient which would sink to the level of Luxembourg without them. There is a difficulty enticing good players to Scotland and those who do come may well do so with one eye on the English Premiership and the riches it holds. Of course fans are entitled to criticise the team if it underperforms but such criticism must always be tempered by the realisation that the club is operating in a very different world to the one where the Lisbon Lions thrived and sent a shiver down the backs of the opposition.

Celtic are simply not operating in the more equal times of the 1960s or 70s any more when the big clubs in Europe were turning over 3 or 4 times Celtic’s annual revenue. Figures for 2013-14 show that Real Madrid had reached an annual turnover in excess of half a billion Euros as did Manchester United. That is 8 or 9 times Celtic’s annual revenue. Of course, few expect us to compete with such financially bloated clubs and that is why for many just reaching the UCL group stages remains the Holy Grail. Qualification can boost Celtic’s annual turnover by as much as 30% as well as giving the club and its wonderful supporters’ exposure to a much wider European and world audience. We are where we are financially and any class players we have will always be coveted by the clubs of the rich leagues who it seems have cash to burn these days. It did not go unnoticed that Bristol City recently offered Crystal Palace £9m for a player. This is a club with an average attendance of around 12,000. That is what Celtic are up against.

In a sense this is the real frustration for Celtic supporters. We know that our world-wide fan base and profile would make us a force to be reckoned with if we could access the sort of TV revenues on offer in leagues like the EPL where Arsenal received £149m last season. Until such an eventuality occurs, and it currently seems a distant dream, Celtic desperately need to qualify for club football’s greatest competition. That is why it is vital that Celtic go to Malmo next week, be brave and give it a real go. For a club like Celtic which aspires to be among the best, the rewards of Champions League football are more than just financial. It offers their wonderful band of supporters the drama, glamour and excitement they crave and deserve. It also shows our fans on television throughout Europe as being among the loudest, most sporting and knowledgeable around.

I wouldn’t blame Ronny Deila if he rested half a dozen first team players at Tannadice this weekend. There will be time enough to deal with the SPFL in the  future whereas we now have just one chance, one shot at glory and we must try to take it. As one fan said to me in the Glasgow drizzle last night, ‘We are 90 minutes from the Champions League and we begin the game with a goal of a start.’ There is no greater incentive than that. So go to Sweden Celtic and give it 100%. Whatever happens we’ll be with you all the way just as we have been for last 127 years. It’s been an incredible journey and we hope there are many more high points to come.

Getting a result in Sweden next week would get us a seat at the top table of European club football again and despite our relative lack of financial clout, that is where we belong. As one of life’s optimists, especially when it comes to Celtic, the glass is always half full and not half empty.

I really believe that despite the challenges ahead we can do this. Time will tell.


Friday, 14 August 2015

Cabbages and Kings

Cabbages and Kings

After what occurred in 1989 when Maurice Johnstone led Celtic fans on before jilting them at the altar for Souness and the lure of more money, I never count any chickens until they’re hatched. But as I type it is officially announced by Celtic that they have signed Scott Alan from Hibs. They will be getting a promising young midfielder and a player Ronny Deila no doubt believes he can train further and mould him into an effective player. The player’s boyhood affection for Rangers is well known but that has never been a problem at Celtic who have always looked to a man’s footballing qualities rather than any other prerequisite. The club of Stein, Evans, Dalglish and McGrain ask only that a man gives 100% for the team and the fans too will accept Allan if he shows the appropriate level of commitment. Kenny Dalglish recalled ripping his Rangers posters off the wall of his bedroom as Sean Fallon knocked on his front door to sign him for Celtic. He needn’t have worried, Celtic is an open club and the vast majority of our support know the contribution men from all walks of life have made to our history.

Scott Allan has of course raised the blood pressure of the less cerebral element among the Rangers support. One hopes the lad is left to get on with furthering his career without suffering any of the bile and belligerence we know ‘Rapeepo’ like to dish out to those who displease them. Some threads on the internet have among the more sane and sober comments the sort of anger filled rants we’ve sadly come to expect. One was furious with Hibs role in the Alan transfer saga and stated…

‘I don't expect anything less from the spoon boilers. Bhitter rangers hating tarriers. Their fans can be catogorised as poofs hoors and junkies.'

The anti-Hibs backlash contained some rather ironic comments about discrimination from supporters of a club which refused to sign Catholic players for 70 years…

‘Think this must come under discrimination laws. Saying publicly they won't sell to Rangers but will accept from other teams. If I was to put up a sign in a window saying no Celtic supporters welcome at B&B I think I would be up in court?????’’

One poor chap even thought Alan Stubbs was refusing to sell the player to Rangers for ‘religious reasons’ despite the fact Hibs had explained many times that as their main rivals from promotion, there was no way they would be selling Allan to Rangers. They were also far from impressed with Rangers paltry offers and use of media friends to try to pressure a deal. Do people seriously believe in 2015 a professional football club would block the sale of a player to a rival for ‘religious reasons?’ The rather deluded supporter said…

‘I commented a week ago in the daily record hotline it is for reasons other than football he will not be sold to Rangers . Did anyone here Stubbs tonight when asked about Celtic’s approach He was then asked about Rangers. Listen to it on Sky and tell me it's not for religious reasons.’

The paranoia knew no bounds for some who seemed to react like a spoiled child not getting what they want. The knee jerk reaction of some slipped into the realms of fantasy and sought to portray the Allan saga as another piece of proof that Rangers are dealt with in this way because they are hated…

‘This is absolutely nothing to do with not selling to a rival. E.g. Cech to arsenal, Van Persie to Man Utd,  Sterling to Man City, the Dundee Utd first team to Celtic. This is about a rabid hatred of our club, based on bigotry and jealousy. No one likes us, we don't care. WATP we are Rangers with or without this player.

The truth of the matter is rather more prosaic. What exactly is there to be jealous about a phoenix club which followed on from another entity which collapsed in debt and disgrace? A club which despite having the second highest budget in Scotland failed to gain promotion after finishing third in a league described at the outset as a one horse race. Scott Allan chose a better, healthier club who will offer him the chance of regular silverware and European football as well as a higher salary than the Ibrox club could hope to offer.

I hope we have all moved on from the attitudes prevalent when Maurice Johnstone signed for Rangers. It was in some ways a very painful humiliation for Celtic supporters and a few were guilty of uttering comments which went beyond the pale about the player. But in those pre-social media days it was relatively contained and low key. Today the keyboard ‘tough guys’ can be re-tweeted around the world and some of the comments about Allan from his erstwhile followers among the Rangers support are quite simply unacceptable. The decent majority need to disown these fools and tell them bluntly on the forums that threats, abuse and vitriol bring shame on no one but themselves and the club they claim to follow.

Whatever the future holds for Scott Allan, I wish him well. He has overcome diabetes and serious injuries to give himself a fighting chance of having a good career. He does not deserve every lowlife crawling out from under their proverbial rock to abuse him and make his life difficult. We saw the public and shameful persecution of Neil Lennon in this country and we want no repeats of that episode again. Perhaps Lennon ticked more of the hate boxes for the lunatic fringe but Allan has ruffled their feathers by making a decision they will find hard to digest. Yes, some Celtic fans will wallow in the anguish of their city rivals just as Rangers fans did 26 years ago when Mo Johnstone signed for Rangers but such banter is part of the game, threats and vile abuse are not.

A footballer has unexpectedly signed for another club when he looked certain to join his boyhood favourites. It happens all over the world and in the big scheme of things it is no big deal. The Rangers fan who posted that he will be like a ‘Turnip among cabbages’ at Celtic Park is wrong. He will be welcomed by the club and support and given every chance to improve himself at the home of the current Kings of Scottish football. I think he is an exciting young prospect who will in time get his chance in the team. Celtic are very cannily buying young, talented Scottish players at the moment and with the wealthy English clubs casting an envious eye over some of our established players it’s a sensible policy. The future’s bright, the future’s green.

Welcome to Celtic, Scott.
Hail Hail




Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Daddy's Ghirl

Daddy’s Ghirl

She sat on the big chair watching him iron his white shirt with care. It had to be just right before he’d put it on. He’d glance at her occasionally and smile, ‘How’s my wee Mary?  I always miss you when I go tae the fitbaw.’ Even as a little girl she knew he loved her. He was her daddy, righter of all wrongs, solver of all problems and arbiter of all disputes. He finished ironing and wandered into the bathroom to shave. She followed him and closing the toilet lid sat on it to observe him. He seemed so tall to her 7 year old eyes as he stood by the sink. She watched spellbound at this strange ritual he went through each day. He covered his face in white foam and she laughed, ‘Daddy, you look like Santa Claus!’ He grinned through his foam beard, ‘Is that right? C’meer you!’ As he reached for her with his foam covered hands she screamed and raced from the bathroom, laughing. He caught up with her in the bedroom and placed a blob of white foam on her chin as she laughed. ‘There, that must make you Mrs Clause!’ They regarded each other for a second, ‘I love you daddy,’ she said in that simple, matter of fact way children have. He nodded, ‘I know doll face, I know.’

Once he was dressed in his dark suit and did up his tie he looked at himself in the mirror. ‘Where’s that hairbrush?’ he asked to no one in particular. ‘I’ve hidden it daddy. Ye canny get it till ye promise tae take me tae see Celtic.’ He spun around to see his 7 year old daughter sitting on the couch smiling at him. ‘Just like yer Ma, always trying tae get yer own way,’ he smiled. ‘Right, Doll face. I promise to take you to see Celtic as soon as you’re 10.’ She regarded him with a look of mock shock, ‘10? That’s yonks away!’ He smiled, ‘Right, 9 then and that’s my final offer.’ She nodded and slipped her thin, pale arm behind one of the cushions on the couch and pulled out the hairbrush like a clumsy magician. ‘Daaa-raaa!’ He took it from her with a smile, ‘Ya wee chancer.’ A voice from the hall cut across their conversation, ‘Davie, that’s Tam here.’  He brushed his hair quickly, ‘Be right there.’ Before he left the living room he turned to Mary, ‘I’ll see you later wee yin. Look after yer ma for me,’ They hugged briefly and she mumbled in his ear, ‘Bye daddy.’ As he left for Celtic Park with his friend Tam, Mary ran to the bedroom window to watch him walk up the street. In her childish way she envied Tam, going to the football with her father but smiled quietly to herself, ‘You’re just his pal, he’s my daddy!’

Eighteen months later Davie was as good as his word. He walked quietly into his daughter’s bedroom and as her eyes flickered open said, ‘Up ye get doll face, time you went tae see the Celts.’  As realisation that today was the day flooded into her mind, she sat up with a huge grin, ‘Yes! You’re the best da ever!’ She busied herself getting ready for the match while he went through his usual routine of ironing his shirt. His wife fussed around him, ‘Are ye sure she’ll be OK? Don’t you be drinking! Get her up the road early.’ He looked at his stressed wife, ‘Will ye stop yer worrying wumin! She’ll be fine.’  At that point Mary entered the living room and he grinned. She was dressed in her bright pink clothes, wellies, Celtic hat and scarf. ‘See, she’s a top fan already.’  As his wife started to air more of her concerns he threw his arms around her and started to dance her around the room, singing as he did so, ‘For it’s a grand old team to play for, for it’s a grand old team to see, and if ye know the history…’ Mary watched her mum and dad and joined in the singing, ‘We don’t care if we win, lose or draw, darn the hair we care! For we only know that there’s gonny be a show and the Glasgow Celtic will be there!’

Mary could sense Celtic Park before she could see it. The smell of hot dogs, greasy chips, cigarette smoke and beer filled the air. The crowds heading for the stadium were in good voice as she marched along the Gallowgate her hand clasped tightly in her daddy’s. A tall man with a cheerful, red face smiled at her dad, ‘Wee yin’s first gem?’  Davie nodded, ‘Been dying tae go for years, a good day for it today.’  As they headed down Janefield Street, Mary could see the huge pylon which supported the floodlights high above her. They joined the queues forming at the turnstiles. ‘Right doll face, you’ll be getting a lift over,’ her daddy smiled at her. She stepped in front of him, her heart pounding. He held her close as they waited in the line and she looked up at him and smiled, ‘Thanks daddy, I’m so excited!’ He looked down at her, ‘You know what? So am I doll face, so am I.’

As Mary grew up she always remembered that first game her daddy had taken her too. Later, when he was gone from her life and she felt the crushing pain of his absence, she’d try to remember the good times they’d shared. She still went to see Celtic and on those big occasions when the crowd roared and drove Celtic to unexpected heights, she’d sense he was near. The big stadium had replaced the more modest one she had gone to so often as a girl with her father but she knew that somehow all of those who came faithfully to Celtic Park had given the place their aura. Their hopes, their passion and their dreams still somehow clung to the place. Their songs still echoed in the air over that hallowed ground.

One cold November night she and 60,000 other Celtic fans watched in ecstasy as Tony Watt raced past the Barcelona defence to slam the ball into the net. In that explosion of joy she felt her tears well and said out loud, ‘You’d love this daddy, you’d just love it. I wish you were here with me to see it.’ As that mighty roar reached a crescendo over the brooding east end sky, she thought she heard him whisper...’I am, doll face, I am.’

Saturday, 8 August 2015

A big heart and a fighting spirit

A big heart and a fighting spirit

The two old friends sat at the familiar table in the restaurant they’d met at so many times in the past. Sean and Jock would often sit in Ferraris after training with Celtic to discuss tactics and how to approach opponents they were to face in the coming week. Often their friend and team mate Bertie Peacock would join them in their discussions about football. It was something the coaching staff at Celtic Park sadly neglected in those days. Sean Fallon held great affection and respect for Stein, the man he worked alongside with to bring such glory to Celtic in that golden era of the 1960s and 70s. He had accepted Stein when he arrived at Celtic as an older player and had even made him Vice-Captain.  He reflected on those long talks about football he had with Jock back in the 1950s and saw that even then Jock was thinking about the game and how it should be played. He recounted with poignancy the last time he saw his great friend...

"A week before Jock died we were down south for a game and he was just the same as all those years before in Ferrari's, telling me this player and that player wouldn't make it and asking what I thought. I miss those conversations."

Sean Fallon often said that playing for Celtic was a dream come true for him. He actually took a pay cut to come to Celtic Park such was his love of the club and Jimmy McGrory secured his services for the princely wage of £10 per week. For Fallon however, money was not the prime motivator and he said with that straight talking honesty he was famous for…

 "I can never hope to find words to express my feelings at becoming a member of the Celtic Football Club."

His arrival at Celtic during a difficult time for the club was well received despite an own goal in one of his fist matches. It was obvious to the knowledgeable denizens of the ‘Jungle’ that the Sligo man would run through the proverbial brick wall for his team. Not that physicality was all he had to offer, Fallon could play the game too. The Celtic support know their football and recognised in Fallon a kindred spirit, a man for whom Celtic meant as much as it did to those who stood in all weathers watching the team. His time as a player at Celtic was characterised by the team’s occasional brilliance and frequent incompetence. Bob Kelly, a man who cared deeply about Celtic and its traditions, would often interfere in team matters rather than hire a modern coach with progressive ideas to mould the talented players into an effective unit. Manager, Jimmy McGrory, was too much of an introvert and gentleman to take the hard decisions needed to make Celtic successful and dominant again in Scotland.

For Sean Fallon the 2-1 victory over Rangers in September 1952 wasn’t one he greeted with much enthusiasm. Yes, Celtic had played well and Fallon, thrown in at Centre Forward, had approached the tough Rangers defence with his customary courage, but the atmosphere around the club at the time was sombre. Promising young Celtic player, Jackie Millsopp, had taken ill with appendicitis and had tragically died. His funeral had been on the morning of the game and the whole Celtic squad had attended. To their credit, so to had many of the Rangers team they would face later the same day. Such events put football into perspective and for a man of principle like Sean Fallon, football was a distant second to the tragedy which befell the young lad who had been his cabin-mate on the ship taking the team to their American tour of 1951. He recounted those times in Stephen Sullivan’s excellent book; Sean Fallon; Celtic’s Iron Man, with the words…

‘’That was a dreadful time. Jackie had been taken ill with appendictitis but everyone thought he’d recover. It was a terrible shock when he didn’t make it. I’m not afraid to say that I shed a few tears. It’s hard to believe we had an Old Firm match the same day as his funeral itself, but what happened to Jackie ended up bringing us together.’’

Fallon had had to deal with several incidents in his career which tested his mettle. His had agreed to represent Northern Ireland at international level in the days before FIFA stepped in to stop the two associations in Ireland capping players from all over the island. Indeed many players were capped by both associations and this muddle couldn’t go on. Fallon was of the opinion that there should be one team on the island of Ireland and suggested that the rugby boys had it right. However he had given his word and when the letter informing him of his selection arrived, he was ready to accept. News from back home in Sligo however soon perturbed him. Threats had been made against his family home and despite his father urging him to defy the ‘hoodlums’ Fallon wasn’t there to protect his family. It is an example of the tensions in Ireland at the time that sport was being dragged into politics again. In the end Fallon didn’t play for the north and his international future would be with the Irish Republic.

His principles also shone through after defeat at Ibrox when Charlie Tully’s stupid and crass remark about there being ‘Too many Protestants in the team’ looked set to cause a fist fight in the dressing room. Sean took no sides and restrained Stein from taking justifiable retribution on Tully. He said of that particular event…

‘Charlie wasn’t normally that kind of person but was obviously frustrated that day and came out with a stupid, unfair comment. You shouldn’t forget he had been brought up in Belfast which was very divided back then but there was still no excuse for what he said. At the time he was looking to me to back him up as a fellow Catholic but there was no chance of that. I had nothing but respect for the Protestants in our team and one of the things I admired most about Celtic was that unlike Rangers we signed players from every background.’

Sean Fallon was a tough, no nonsense player and took those qualities into management when he and his great friend Jock Stein led Celtic so brilliantly for over a decade. But he approached life and indeed football with the same principles of fairness and respect. Opponents talked of a tough competitor with a ferocious tackle but not one ever called him a dirty player. He would be the first to shake an opponent’s hand when the battle was over. His contribution to Celtic as a player, Manager, Scout and of course as Jock Stein’s assistant Manager was immense. But just as important to his contribution on the field and in the dugout was his example to others. For men like Fallon you could love your team without hating others. You could give your all without resorting to underhand tactics. The fans understood that and they respected him for it. He was one of them, not in any narrow sectarian sense, but rather he was a man who saw the best virtues of this remarkable football club and did all he could to foster them. For Fallon Celtic had thrived because they were open, inclusive and tried to play the game the right way. For some, Celtic’s incredible success when he and Jock guided the side to 25 major trophies and made them Champions of Europe  would have been enough. But for Fallon and Stein, the manner the of the team’s achievements was just as important. They did it with style, they did it with exciting attacking football. They did it the Celtic way.

"I was just an ordinary player with a big heart and a fighting spirit to recommend me."  (Sean Fallon)