Saturday, 5 December 2015

On Erin's green valleys

On Erin’s Green Valleys
Old Tony took his seat in the Jock Stein stand just as he had since it had opened in the 1990s. His history following Celtic was much older than that though as he had first travelled over as a 14 year old to watch Billy McNeil head Celtic to glory in the Scottish cup final of 1965. Like many Irish boys his old man had filled his head with tales of Tully, Evans and John Thomson. He had gotten the Celtic bug early and in the 50 years since watching McNeil win the cup for Celtic he had travelled over at least 10 times each year from his home in Derry. Always smart and well turned out, his thick grey hair well cut, he would regale me with tales from his many years watching Celtic and of course his experiences during some of the most turbulent years of Irish history. The dedication of fans like Tony is second to none and some of the insights he gave me into his life give an impression and a flavour of times long gone….
29th January 1972
Hibs were having the best of it during a high quality first half at a packed Celtic Park. Arthur Duncan was turning Jim Craig inside out on the left wing and the Celtic defence was struggling to hold out. Edwards and Stanton were dominating the Midfield and the bulk of the big crowd could see that the visitors were up for it. In 22 minutes Stanton’s pass found Gordon looking well offside. As the Celtic defence hesitated he raced towards goal and as Williams rushed to meet him, returned the ball to Stanton who smashed it high into the Celtic net. The big crowd were furious with the Referee and a crescendo of boos and whistles echoed around Celtic Park. In the packed Jungle Tony Doherty turned to his friend and fellow Derry man Danny Power, ‘Sure he looked well offside there Danny.’ Danny wasn’t listening though, like hundreds of others in the Jungle he busy was hurling abuse at the linesman who had kept his flag down. His broad Derry accent had some of the local Celtic fans smiling. ‘Here you, ya stankin wee skip-rat runt that was well offside, look at ye, head on ye like a bastard calf!’ As the crowd settled down, Celtic seemed to wake from their slumber and drove at the Hibs defence with Hood and Dalglish looking more dangerous.
Half time came however with no equaliser and Danny turned to his friend and fellow Bogsider with a frustrated look on his face, ’Big Jock’ll need to kick some arses in there. Craig is getting the piss taken outa him by yon winger.’ Tony had to agree, Hibs were the better side in the first half but there was still 45 minutes to turn it around. As the tinny public address system above their heads blasted out ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’ they discussed the chances of Celtic saving the game a fellow fan passed them a can of lager each, ‘There ye go lads, you’ve travelled a long way to support the Celts.’ It was not an unusual in the Jungle for supporters to share their ‘cargo’ with fellow fans and the two Derry lads, well used to having a few pints, were constantly amazed by the Glaswegian tendency to drink at every available opportunity. As they opened the beer they discussed events in their home city, ‘Is yer man going on the march tomorrow?’ Tony asked referring to Danny’s older brother, Paddy. ‘Aye, sure he wouldn’t miss that. They’re expecting a big turnout.’ Tony nodded, ‘Hope there's no trouble but sure the DYH won’t miss the chance to stone the Brits.’ Danny agreed. The wilder elements of what had been christened the ‘Derry Young Hooligans’ were at the forefront of most confrontations with the RUC or the Army. Their discussion was cut short by a roar announcing that teams were reappearing to begin the second half. The two young Derry men re-focussed on the game. Following Celtic was their passion and their frequent trips to see the team play were a great release from the stress of living with the pressures of home where the troubles hung over their city like a dark cloud. They’d had some hair-raising experiences on their trips to Glasgow but nothing which compared to the situation at home. A month earlier as they’d travelled on the ferry for the Old Firm game there was an epic battle with Rangers fans on the same boat. It took every policeman on the ship and a few of the crew armed with a fire hose to break up the fight. As Celtic kicked off the second half, the Jungle found its voice and bellowed out…
‘In the war against Rangers, in the fight for the Cup
When Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up,
We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again
On Erin’s green valley look down in thy love.’
Whatever Jock Stein had said to the Celtic players at half time had the desired effect. Celtic took control of the game and drove at the increasingly beleaguered looking Hibs defence. Hood scored in 54 minutes as Celtic Park erupted and only fine goalkeeping from Herriot kept Celtic from taking the lead. Dalglish, Johnstone and Hood all came close as Hibs were pressed back. Then in 74 minutes Jim Craig sped up the right flank and fired a low cross into the box. The ever alert Lennox moved towards the ball with two Hibs defenders shadowing him. To the utter bewilderment of the Hibs defenders, Lennox let the ball pass through his legs to the unmarked Deans who smashed it home. Celtic were in the lead and as the Jungle roared two young lads from Derry were loving every moment of it. Celtic had turned around a marvellously entertaining game of football.
After the game the two friends joined the rest of the supporters on their bus and headed for a Pub in the Gorbals where good food, a few beers and a sing song was order of the day. It was their regular stop during visits to Glasgow and the locals always made them welcome. They stayed there till closing time before boarding the supporters coach for the trip south to Stranraer and the dawn Ferry back to Ireland. It was a punishing schedule following Celtic from so far away but they thought it was worth it and made the trip at least a dozen times each season. Tony and Danny sat at the back of the coach discussing the game. Celtic not only provided them with moments of sporting brilliance but a release from the constant pressure of living in a virtual war zone. Scotland had its moments but of course even the wilder excesses of Glasgow’s football fans was nothing when compared to the scale or ferocity of what had unfolded in the north of Ireland over the past few years. For two lads barely into their twenties it was a harsh and violent time to be alive. Celtic was one of the brighter lights in their lives and watching Stein’s fine side transported them far away from the troubles even if it was only for a while.
They’d follow a familiar route home taking all the necessary precautions to arrive safely. They’d avoid displaying their colours too openly once the coach got back to Larne, especially if they passed close to any hard core loyalist areas. The coach drivers, who took Celtic and Rangers supporters to Scotland, were very skilled at choosing the right route and avoiding problems. The drive through the north, dropping fans of in various towns where Celtic had followers, was always interesting to Tony. It taught him that his country was indeed beautiful but also that it was a divided land. Even in some of the smaller villages they passed through, flags and painted kerbstones marked out the territories in what was to Tony a depressing picture.
As the coach travelled along the A2 towards home, the traffic got heavier and eventually came to a halt. They had got to within 10 miles of Derry and now sat in a long column of stationary traffic. This was very unusual for a Sunday afternoon when traffic was usually very light. The bus driver opened the bus door and peered ahead. ‘Police and Army checkpoint,’ he said before sitting back in the driver’s seat shaking his head and attempting to tune in the radio. The fans on the bus, sleepy headed and bleary eyed from their travelling and no doubt the night’s drinking in Glasgow began to stir. ‘What’s the hold up?’ one asked. Before any answer was forthcoming the radio finally functioned and the recognisable tones of a BBC News reader was saying…
First reports from Londonderry say that there are several fatalities although it’s likely the final total could be higher…’
There was stunned silence on the bus. Whatever had occurred at the Civil Rights march in Derry was serious, deadly serious. Most of those on the bus had friends and family members on the march and there was a worried, sombre mood among them. There was no way to contact people at home and nothing to do but sit it out and hope and pray that their family and friends were safe. Tony looked at Danny, ‘I hope to God everyone’s alright.’ Danny, grim faced, didn’t answer, he just nodded mutely.

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