Sunday, 24 July 2016

Stand up for the Ulsterman

Stand up for the Ulsterman

A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and I can honestly say that whether you are a religious person or not it is simply magnificent. I wandered around the cavernous church as shafts of bright sunlight poured in the windows of the massive dome giving the place a ethereal quality. Of course one is impressed by the sheer scale of St Peter’s and the elaborate beauty of the place but one artwork in particular made me stop and stare longer than any other. It was the white marble Pietà sculpted by Michelangelo in 1498-99. The Pietà shows the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son in her arms after he is removed from the cross. There are all sorts of theological messages in the Pietà and discussions of the greater meaning of such works could fill volumes. For me though, the simplistic and very human scene is what struck me most. Here was a woman who loved her son, worried about him and finally saw him put to death in a most painful and public manner. The Pietà captures her anguish so well. As I gazed at the Pietà, another image came to my mind. It was a picture from the Iraq war which showed yet another mother cradling her lost boy.  It made me realise that we humans have always had to deal with suffering but also that our stupidity and greed creates so much of it unnecessarily.

Yesterday at the Celtic v Leicester City friendly game the Green Brigade unfurled a tribute to a boy sadly lost in the most tragic of circumstances. I can’t begin to imagine the anguish his family are going through but perhaps in a tiny way the message sent out in the banner was a small reminder that we do care. In all the years I’ve followed Celtic there was always a realisation among the vast majority of supporters that some things are bigger than football and our petty rivalries. We have witnessed support across the board for Fernando Ricksen and his ongoing battle with the God awful Motor Neurone Disease. Similarly, respect was shown when fine players such as Jim Baxter, Tommy Burns, Sandy Jardine or Jimmy Johnstone passed. It was as if their abilities as footballers and qualities as human beings made everyone realise that the loss was bigger than any opinions about the clubs they represented. Likewise wee Oscar Knox won our hearts with his courage and spirit and I don’t mind admitting to shedding a tear as I watched him cavort with Celtic mascot Hoopy the Huddle Hound on a bright Summer’s evening a few years ago as Celtic hosted Cliftonville.

My old man went to the Pub in the aftermath of an Old Firm game at Ibrox one time. It was part of his routine in those days long ago, watch the game then talk about the action over a few beers. However that particular Old Firm game was scene of a tragedy which he only became aware of as the news reports came in on the fuzzy, black and white TV above the bar. He told me once that, fans were herded in and out of grounds like cattle in those days and that the dreadful accident on Stairway 13 could just as easily have happened at the other end of the ground. Rivalries, no matter how fierce, meant nothing when the scale of human suffering became known. All decent supporters know this and that common decency marks them out from that irksome minority, too thick or too full of hate to empathise with the sufferings of their fellow football fans and fellow human beings.

I’m proud of the way Celtic extended the hand of friendship to Liverpool FC in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy. I know for a fact that among the 60,437 supporters who turned up that spring day in 1989 for the memorial match at Celtic Park, a sizable number were followers of clubs other than Celtic and Liverpool. I know personally three Rangers supporters who stood on the Parkhead terraces that day to support in their own small way a suffering city and a hurting people. I also know from talking to Liverpool supporters over the years that they will never forget those who stood with them in their darkest hours and those who supported and encouraged them on the long road to justice.

It didn’t escape my notice during the Republic of Ireland’s match with Sweden at the recent European Championships that there was spontaneous applause around the stadium in the twenty fourth minute as the Irish supporters paid tribute to Northern Ireland fan, Darren Rodgers, (who was 24) who sadly died after an accident in Nice.  Thousands of Irish voices sang ‘Stand up for the Ulsterman’ in a lovely gesture of solidarity with a fellow fan and fellow Irishman.  The tributes left at the makeshift shrine where Darren died saw the unusual sight of Irish and Ulster flags side by side. All of these examples show us that the majority of football supporters are decent human beings who keep their rivalries in context. There are always a few idiots who say or do stupid things but they represent no one but themselves. 

The Green Brigade has in the past caused heated debate among the Celtic support with some of their more overtly political displays. But credit where it is due, their social conscience and direct action in terms of promoting a culture of anti-discrimination in our society, battling the oppressive OBF Act or organising food collections at the stadium for our local Food Banks have been in keeping with the best ideals of the club they support so well. Like all decent people they don’t do it for praise or for publicity, they do it because it is the right thing to do. Similarly yesterday’s banner was a touching tribute to a wee lad so sadly lost. Football can indeed be a force for good in society as long as the decent majority prevail. I’m passionate about my club. I’d go as far to say my life would very much the poorer without Celtic but I know it’s possible to love your team without hating anyone else.

If you ever get a chance to visit St Peter’s in Rome, have a look at Michelangelo’s Pietà. Yes, it reminds us of our own mortality but also perhaps that we’re all human too and that we all have a duty to each other. When that image of the Iraqi mother and her son came into my mind it also reminded me that we also have a duty to try as best we can to stop the war mongers and to resist those who spread hate.  Now more than ever the world needs the good people to win.


  1. What a wonderful read I share your hopes and your conviction that most people are decent human beings. More power to your elbow .