Saturday, 20 May 2017

Money can't buy you that

I watched Celtic dismantle Partick Thistle this week with a display of sparkling, attacking football any side in Celtic’s history would have been proud of. This season has been a triumph for Brendan Rodgers’ side as they have cut through the domestic opposition like a combine harvester through a field of corn. Now the side are just two matches from completing an incredible unbeaten domestic season which will guarantee them a deserved place in Celtic history. Not since Maley’s Celtic side of 1897-98 completed their 18 game league programme undefeated has the club managed this feat. Even the magnificent Lisbon Lions found a bogey team in 1966-67 to blot their otherwise unblemished league record; Dundee United defeating them home and away by a 3-2 margin.

In any senior league, in any country, completing the season undefeated is a rare and laudable feat. Celtic is not only closing in on this feat but also on a Scottish points and goals record. In the longer term Scotland’s longest top flight unbeaten run of 62 games set by Celtic, (20 November 1915 – 21 April 1917) might also come under threat given the prowess of the current side. That being said, Rodgers is wise enough to take the ‘one game at a time’ approach and will look no further forward than Sunday’s final league game with Hearts. That game will be an awesome spectacle to see as a sold out stadium prepares to party and will create a whole stadium 'tifo' to honour the Lisbon Lions. The season is entering an exciting and climatic finale. So much is within reach of this young Celtic side and the supporters are willing them to jump these last two hurdles and complete the season as ‘Invincibles.’ Few would bet against it.

Of course there are those who seek to belittle Celtic’s achievements and not just the usual suspects here at home. I got into conversation with an Irish chap who supports Liverpool and found that he had sadly succumbed to that old arrogance we have seen for years from many who follow the English game. The usual ‘My Nan would be top Scorer in Scotland’ nonsense followed, which was particularly ironic given the chap had dumped any interest in his local league in Ireland to try to grasp some EPL glory.

It wasn’t always like this as I recall a Celtic v Manchester City game played in Dublin in 1992. Celtic supporters made up 95% of the crowd and the English side were well beaten. Football then was more of a level playing field as satellite TV was in its infancy and the financial clout of English clubs was not yet drawing in the best mercenaries in Europe. Celtic was more popular in Ireland in those days than most English sides as their roots are deep in the soil of that country. The rise of Sky TV was to change that as a new generation grew up watching English football packaged and sold very slickly.

Of course, to compare Scottish football to the billionaire’s playground of the EPL is simply absurd. England has 53 million people making it almost exactly ten times the population of Scotland. It also has a deal with satellite TV which brings in literally billions of pounds. Scotland is the poor relation in financial terms but that doesn’t mean football here is as poor as some of our more arrogant southern friends sometimes suggest. Just ask Joey Barton who came up here stating he would be player of the year and that ‘Scott Brown isn’t in my league,’ only to be handed his ass on a plate in most games he played. Not only do I recall him being totally outclassed in the 5-1 drubbing at Celtic Park last September, but a Hamilton Accies player actually nut-megged him at Ibrox as his side were lucky to gain a 1-1 draw. He arrived saying he wanted to be the best player in the country and left saying the Scottish media had built him up to be ‘like Neymar or Messi.’ He said in the wake of that 5-1 mauling at Celtic Park…

“After Celtic, I’m having to sit here and take it on the chin – however unjust I feel that is. It’s difficult when I’m playing at a level which, clearly, I’ve not played at before. It’s a much lower level and I’m trying to help people get to a higher level. They think me helping is me trying to say, ‘You’re not good enough’. It’s difficult."
Personally, I’ve seen good, bad and average English players in Scottish football. I have never felt Mr Barton was a particularly gifted footballer and he didn’t stick out as a good player in a bad Rangers side that day. He looked as mediocre as the rest.

Despite what the critics say, Scottish clubs have historically punched above their weight in Europe, reaching 10 European finals. (Rangers 4, Celtic 3, Aberdeen 2, Dundee United 1) No nation of 5 million or so people can claim such a proud record. Countries of similar size to Scotland such as Norway, Ireland, Croatia or Denmark all fall well short of Scotland’s historical record.  Celtic was of course the first British club to become European Champions and have a proud European pedigree which includes reaching the last 16 of the Champions League on 3 occasions in recent years. Celtic have held their own with English sides they have met in Europe over the years having won 7 and drawn 6 of their 20 competitive ties. Some of their victories over the likes of Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers have irked some English commentators as many of them share the conceit that Scottish clubs simply shouldn’t be beating English clubs. When watching the footage of Celtic’s 2-0 win at Liverpool in 2003, you can still hear the pain and disappointment in the commentator’s voice as Hartson fired home the clinching goal.

Of course when you point out Celtic’s European record to critics of Scottish football they tend to shift focus onto the comparative strengths of the EPL and SPFL. It’s simply unfair to compare a league bloated with Sky’s billions and staffed by mercenaries from all over the world. A recent survey suggested 65% of EPL players are foreigners. For all its blood and thunder, all its clannish ways and petty hatreds, I like Scottish football. It’s full of honest endeavour and some of the most knowledgeable and passionate fans in the world. There is a sterile quality to many English games which leaves me disinterested and reaching for the off switch.

So on Sunday I’ll be enjoying the party and celebrating my team’s success. Of course I’d love Scottish football to be more competitive as this would in turn drive up standards. I’d also like our clubs to be more successful in Europe but I’ll defend our game against those who run it down based on nothing more than unthinking prejudice. Folk who have never attended a Scottish game trot out tired old clich├ęs which demonstrate nothing but their ignorance.

Football supporters in the small countries of Europe have watched as the big leagues demand a bigger and bigger cut of the financial cake. It is up to UEFA to continue to promote and support football all over Europe and not just bow to the mega rich leagues. Like it or not we are never returning to the more equal days of 1967 when a team like Celtic could conquer Europe. We accept that the financial gulf between teams like Celtic and the mega rich elite European clubs is unbridgeable but equally money doesn’t win games. It’s eleven players against eleven and as clubs such as Juventus, AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid have found at Celtic Park, you write off Celtic at your peril.

Football isn’t just about money; it’s about that passion for your club, that comradeship with your fellow fans and that journey which mirrors life with all its triumphs and disasters. Fans in Europe’s smaller leagues love their clubs with as much passion as any of those in the big five leagues. That passion still makes little miracles happen now and the as Barcelona found when they came to Celtic Park in 2012. The late Tito Villanova said at the time…

The stadium was spectacular. I have been lucky in my career to have been to many grounds but I have never seen anything like it.’

Celtic know they are up against it in Europe but are currently building an exciting young side which promises to give the big boys a fight. When that incredible support gets behind the team on those big games under the lights it can be an awesome spectacle. Paul Haywad, writing in the Telegraph after Celtic beat Barcelona in 2012 summed up the potent combination which Celtic and their supporters bring to European games at Celtic Park when he said…

‘Somewhere between madness and love, this fanaticism did for Barcelona on a night when the Celtic team and their disciples were indivisible. Money can’t buy you that.

So tomorrow I’ll delight in our title celebrations. We have much to be proud of and much to look forward to. I long ago stopped caring about the opinions of others on Celtic or Scottish Football. If they bring their over hyped sides to Celtic Park they’ll soon learn that there’s abundant life outside the big leagues and supporters who put their's to shame.

Enjoy tomorrow. These are great days to be Celtic supporters.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

A long time in football

Good teams find a way to win even when not playing at the peak of their game. It’s fair to say that Aberdeen gave Celtic as stern a test last night as they’ve had all season in domestic competition. The fact they started to play once they had nothing to lose at 3-0 down hamstrung their chances of winning but fair play to the Dons as they had a go and played some good football. This Celtic side however is in relentless mood with a hunger and burning desire to win every match they play in. They now sit just two games from completing a league campaign without defeat and that is a remarkable achievement. Add to that the possibility of adding the Scottish cup to the SPFL title and league cup and it becomes clear that this could be a season which will go down in the history books as one of the best in the club’s long and illustrious history.

Brendan Rodgers has bought well and augmented a decent squad with some very good players. Sinclair has been a revelation up front; full of movement, pace and goal threat. Patrick Roberts has been a nightmare for defenders to play against and Dembele must surely be the best piece of transfer business since Larsson was bought from Feyenoord for £600,000? Add to this the fact that many of the players who laboured under Ronny Deila last season are looking reborn and rejuvenated. McGregor, Armstrong and Brown have had a new lease of life and the Manager has used the squad wisely. He handles the media well and sees through the loaded questions and snares they set but above all he has got Celtic playing the sort of football the fans enjoy and which is again filling Celtic Park.

It is a remarkable story given that it is little more than a year when fans in section 111 held aloft a banner stating:

"Lawwell and Desmond's legacy: Empty jerseys, empty hearts, empty dreams, empty stands."

Than banner in April 2016 caused some angry debate around me in the stadium as some felt having a go at the players in particular in that manner was not the Celtic way while others felt the Board had to know that the support was disenchanted.  A second banner at the Ross County game that day read…

"From boardroom to dressing room, you've embarrassed yourselves. The Celtic jersey has shrunk to fit inferior players."

Whether you see such displays as unhelpful or necessary, it is clear that the general malaise around the club a year ago crystallised with that hapless performance against the Rangers in the cup semi-final which in honesty made a poor side look good. Dermot Desmond was said to have been unimpressed with the antics of the Rangers Directors that day and change was coming. That change came in the shape of Brendan Rodgers who has lifted Celtic and laid the foundations for a side which could go on to do remarkable things. Former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, once said that ‘a week is a long time in politics.’ Well, a year is a long time in football and the changes this last twelve months have brought to Celtic have been a joy to watch.

As the side march on demonstrating that ruthlessness which was sadly lacking at times last season, a few of us got to discussing which title wins brought us most satisfaction. For the older generation 1979 and the remarkable climax to a season which saw Celtic climb from third bottom of the table to win the title in that incredible 4-2 game against Rangers will take some beating. The 1986 miracle at Love Street was also regarded highly as it demonstrated again that Celtic fighting spirit and the benefits of never giving up until it’s over.  The Centenary season took an honoured place too as it was a special season and Celtic produced the goods to mark it in style. 1998 and stopping the ten was a season full of emotion and nervous tension, while 2008 when the title was secured after a remarkable run of victories in the spring saw a seemingly lost cause end victoriously. The fact the Celtic family lost one of their most loved sons that spring added poignancy and genuine emotion to that title win. Now we stand on the brink of another piece of history as the class of 2017 have the opportunity to be remembered as the ‘Invincibles.’ That would earn them an honoured place in Celtic’s history.

For me though, every title, every trophy is to be savoured. Not only because like many of you reading this I’ve stuck with Celtic through some tough times but because this remarkable football club means so much to me. Didier Agathe once said after getting some flak from the stands, ‘They don’t shout because they don’t care, they do it because they care too much.’ For most Celtic supporters that is a truism. A club born into a poor and marginalised community gave it a sense of pride and a reason to smile in what were often hard lives. The supporters mirrored the club and left the ghetto to take their places in every sector of Scottish life. To see Celtic as the pre-eminent Scottish club is something we’re proud of still.

Enjoy these days, a year is a long time in football and things can change fast. However with the Manager Celtic have now and the momentum the whole club has, it is likely Celtic will take some stopping for years to come.

As for my favourite title win, that’s an easy one to answer........ all of them. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A tale of two old men

A tale of two old men

Many years ago I attended a Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Rangers at old Hampden. I can still recall my boyish excitement when my old man told me I was going. In those days the crowds were enormous for such games with well over 100,000 supporters showing up on many occasions.  Celtic won on that day long ago and I can recall so much about the noise, colour and passion of the game; it was an incredible spectacle, a real assault on the senses. I also recall two old men I saw that day. The first was high above the celebrating Celtic support in that quaint little north stand which once sat above the big enclosure of old Hampden. I can still see his shock of grey hair and contorted face as he hurled abuse and spat at the Celtic supporters below him. It seemed so incongruous to me to be amid the joy of thousands celebrating a Celtic cup win and yet see the naked hatred on another human being’s face.

The other old chap I met outside the stadium after the game as the sheer weight of the crowd pinned us to a wall at the point the Celtic end met the crowd surging down Somerville Drive. There was some sort of disturbance going on which I couldn’t see and the Police where holding back the crowd to allow them access to it. The old fella, who looked well into his 70s, wore a heavy overcoat and a flat cap and was no more than 5 feet tall. There were a lot of these ‘wee men’ in the Glasgow of my childhood; the hungry years of the 1920s and 30s stunted the growth of a generation. His old fashioned Rangers scarf was visible beneath his coat even though the crowd around him was virtually all wearing the green of Celtic. I can still recall him smiling at me, ‘First final, son?’ I nodded and he responded by saying, ‘You never forget your first cup final. Mine was in 1921. We got beat by Partick Thistle!’ We chatted for a few moments; the old fella who’d watched football for most of the twentieth century and the young lad attending his first big cup final.  He was a proper old gentleman of a kind which still exists here and there.

Both of those old chaps I saw that day are long gone but they taught me a valuable lesson. They both supported their club but it seemed to me that only one had exhibited the sort of bitterness which periodically scars our national game. Each of us makes choices in life about how we behave and express ourselves and how we react in the clannish, antagonistic atmosphere of professional football. Group dynamics can often sweep us along with its pressures to conform. As youngsters we’ve all wanted to fit in and be one of boys (or girls) and acted in ways we’d consider foolish now. That’s part of growing up and most people grow out of it and walk their own path. Some though, seem to lack the wit or will to think for themselves and wander the barren and bitter wilderness of unthinking prejudice. Those two old men at that game long ago taught me that not all Rangers supporters are foaming bigots and that to think they are is in itself a form of lazy thinking. I can recall from that game long ago my old man tutting and muttering ‘Listen to those bastards,’ as songs poured out of the old Rangers end of the ground. I was too young to understand what was being sung about and merely considered the noise to be part of the spectacle.

As I grew up and realised that much of the songbook the Rangers support used in those times contained lyrics which could only be described as bigoted by any objective observer, I began to see what irked my old man. Every major club has supporters which let it down from time to time but it seems undeniable that there has been and remains a culture among some of the Ibrox support which exhibits naked racist and sectarian attitudes in a manner which suggests they’ll never change. This hatred is deeply ingrained into some from an early age and the sub culture which supports it finds its most visible expression at Rangers games.

Last week I wrote of the scenes at Ibrox during the thrashing Celtic handed out to the home side. Some followers of the Ibrox club went into knee jerk response bringing up photos and incidents when Celtic supporters had misbehaved. They simply couldn’t rise above the ‘whataboutery’ and see that this isn’t about point scoring between the clubs, it’s about the decent fans on both sides calling the racists and bigots out and condemning their antics for the backward and moronic behaviour it is. I’ve written elsewhere about my lowest point as a Celtic supporter which came in 1988 when some of our supporters racially abused Mark Walters but the majority of Celtic fans were on those idiots like a pack of wolves. The ‘Not the View’ Celtic Fanzine castigated them as ‘Racist arseholes’ and this self-regulating mechanism seems sadly lacking at Ibrox.

I’m proud of the debates Celtic supporters have about songs, flag displays and political expression at football. It’s healthy to argue among ourselves and have a self-critical look at our own attitudes. I have long argued about the need to generally separate Sport and politics but admit happily that I was profoundly proud of our supporters showing solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine. The ‘Match the fine for Palestine’ campaign led by the Green Brigade raised over £176,000 for Palestinian charities. Brother Walfrid would have approved of this humanitarian gesture. As Martin Luther King said…

‘Never be afraid to do what’s right. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.’

I hope decent supporters of the Ibrox club say ‘enough’ to those who drag their club through the mud. They are the only ones who can challenge the culture of hate which infests their support. They should learn a lesson which Celtic supporters learned long ago; you should be defined by what you stand for not by hatred. Too many at Ibrox still look the other way as do some in the media and among the ruling authorities of the game. Change though, is always possible but as history teaches us, it is more profound and lasting when it comes from the bottom up.

Some may be beyond redemption and incapable of changing their ways but we owe it to the new generation to challenge bigotry in all its forms. The saddest image I saw this week was the one which showed an unenlightened ‘football fan’ making monkey gestures at a Celtic player, A few seats away sat a child of 9 or 10. What will it teach that child if people don’t challenge these attitudes? As someone once said: 'Evil thrives when good people do nothing.'

We have a long way to go in Scottish society to eradicate such attitudes but we have come so far since that cup final I attended as a boy. Some, it seems are just much slower at realising society has moved on and remain stuck like dinosaurs watching as a comet blazes its way across the sky towards them.

You can love your club and not hate anyone. It’s really that simple.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Bitter Cauldron

The Bitter Cauldron

My old man would have loved Celtic’s destruction of Rangers at Ibrox yesterday; not only the fact that the side completely dominated their opponents on their own patch but also for the fact that Celtic played some excellent passing football. For Celts of his generation growing up in the years following World War Two there was little to cheer as Celtic stumbled along with only sporadic successes to offer their huge and committed support. It is astonishing to recall that between 1920 and 1965, when Jock Stein arrived at Celtic Park, the Hoops won just 5 championships. In that same period Rangers won 25.

Celtic in the decades after the war were a useful side at times but occasional displays of brilliance were all too often followed by inconsistency and the sale of star players. It took a man of Stein’s calibre to harness the true power of Celtic and give a support desperate for success some glory to savour. That era made all the pain of the post war era worthwhile. Celtic swept to dominance under Stein and conquered Europe with a style of play which rejuvenated attacking football after the defensive dominance of sides like Inter Milan held sway.

For my old man, seeing Celtic win and win with style lit up his working week. For thousands of working class Scots, life in the factories, docks and building sites was hard and the football stadiums of the country were the theatres they attended to escape the drudgery for a while. It was there they met their friends, had a drink and sang their songs. It was there the drama on the field made them forget their troubles for a while. When the team was struggling they’d stick with them stoically knowing that the good times would be enjoyed all the more. When times were bad he’d stand on the terraces of the old Celtic end and shout, ‘Come on Celtic! Intae them!’

Yesterday was one of those great days you get now and then following Celtic. Not only did the team play with verve and skill, they simply ripped Rangers apart with their pace and movement. Yes, Rangers are a ragged and sorry side at the moment but no game is easy in the bitter cauldron of Ibrox. It seems the home support have not changed their song book in the last 100 years. It saddens me to hear the bile which poured from the stands occupied by the home support. From the outset it was clear that the boil of bigotry has yet to be lanced and we were treated to the ‘Billy Boys’ and other such ditties as well as truly awful chants about paedophilia. Sometimes I despair that the reasonable Rangers supporters are either swept along on this hateful tide or cowed into silence by the more coarse types among their support.  There seems to be a real lack of self-awareness among a support which doesn’t seem to care that watching millions on TV thinks of them as relics from the dark ages.

As the game turned against the home side and it became clear that Celtic were there to do a job, things turned uglier. We had a racist gestures aimed at Scott Sinclair, a fan on the pitch trying to get at Scott Brown and various objects thrown at Celtic players. One image shows Leigh Griffiths holding up a battery which had it struck him could have done serious damage. As Celtic tore Rangers apart in the second half it was too much for many among the home support who left the stadium in their thousands leaving huge swathes of empty blue seats. For some the sight of 7000 Celtic supporters celebrating in the Broomloan Stand was too much to take.

For some reading these words would merely convince them that no Celtic supporter would write anything positive about the Rangers support. It is up to each reader to decide on my motivations for writing about these things but it remains my honest opinion that there is a huge issue at Ibrox with sectarianism. In all my years following Celtic I have never heard the sort of bile present among the Rangers support. You will, of course, get the odd idiot among all football supports but it is nothing when viewed against the sheer scale of bigotry among elements of the Rangers support.


That being said, one Celtic supporter tweeted a picture of three Rangers supporters who had intervened to save his friend from the violent intent of other Rangers followers. There are decent folk following Rangers who must be heartily sick of the poisonous song book and Neanderthal behaviour of some of their fellow supporters. These decent fans need to find their voice and somehow try to win their club back from those who disgrace it with seeming impunity.

For Celtic supporters the side’s performance yesterday confirmed that Brendan Rodgers is building something special at Celtic Park. The exciting young team will be augmented further in the transfer window for another crack at the Champions League. It is in the summer months that some of the most important games of Celtic’s season are played and the side will need to be ready for them as the rewards of making the Group stages are so important to the club. There does remain the possibility of a domestic treble to be dealt with first though and the incredible prospect of completing the domestic campaign undefeated is tantalisingly close.

These are great days to be a Celtic fan and the club should learn that it is important to build from a position of strength. Too often in the past the Board have not invested in the side while it was on top and paid the price. With Brendan Rodgers at the helm of the side you feel that it won’t happen this time around. Celtic is on the march again and the supporters are loving it.

My old man would have loved it too and on days like yesterday I could still hear echoes of his voice roaring the team on as he did in those days long gone… 

Come on Celtic! Intae them!’

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The ones you don’t notice

The ones you don’t notice

With Celtic due at Hampden for a vital Scottish Cup Semi-Final on Sunday I got chatting to an old friend who reminded me of the long list of refereeing decisions down the years which he felt had gone against Celtic and cost them the game. He’s not the sort of man who goes in for conspiracy theories but when he laid a few facts out it did seem the Hoops had had more than their fair share of poor calls against them. He listed the bizarre display by the Referee in the 1970 Scottish cup final which saw Aberdeen awarded a penalty after a driven cross struck Murdoch on the shoulder, a goal from Lennox disallowed after the goalkeeper dropped the ball at his feet and a clear penalty denied after Lennox was chopped down by Martin Buchan when through on goal. He cited John Hartson’s ‘goal’ in the 2003 League Cup Final which was wrongly disallowed for offside, Josh Meekings hand ball as Celtic led Inverness 1-0 in the Semi Final and the Ross County player with his arms clearly wrapped around Craig Gordon at a corner which led to a headed goal for the Staggies. He then listed a host of incidents in Old Firm games from Cadete’s disallowed goal to a succession of non-awarded penalties. He asked me to give him examples of big decisions which went Celtic’s way in cup finals or semi-finals. I struggled to name any. Just as I thought he had exhausted his list of perceived injustices he brought up the 1986 League Cup Final.

For those of you too young to remember that game it was a match packed with controversy played out in a raucous atmosphere in front of 74,000 fans. Rangers had Graham Souness in charge for his first final and English Internationals Chris Woods and Terry Butcher had arrived to signal the big spending days had started at Ibrox. Celtic came into the match a few days after a bruising encounter with a Dynamo Kiev side which was brilliant and brutal in equal measure. That Kiev team contained 9 of the Soviet Union’s starting 11 including the world class Oleg Blokhin but were not shy about leaving the boot in. One savage tackle left Tommy Burns out of football for six months and he would be missed in the League Cup Final.  

The Referee at Hampden was David Syme and for the most part he let the game flow although his booking of players for innocuous offences led to problems later in the game. Celtic looked the better side for much of the match and Mo Johnston struck the inside of the post in the first half. Rangers scored after a ball broke to Durrant in the box in 62 minutes but Celtic then pressed them back with McClair hitting the bar before the same player fired an unstoppable shot high into the Rangers net. It was goal of almost poetic beauty. He picked up a pass 25 yards from goal before unleashing a shot like the stone from a sling. The ball arrowed into the top corner of the net with diving Woods well beaten, it looked like Celtic would have the ascendency going into the closing period of the game. Then with 5 minutes to go Rangers were awarded a penalty. Aitken was adjudged to have fouled Butcher as he defended a cross. It was one of those decisions the Ref could have given either way as they pushed and jostled each other in the box. While Aitken did tug Butcher’s shirt, the big Englishman was no innocent party. That decision left Celtic feeling hard done by but things took a bizarre turn when Mo Johnston was sent off for a clash with full back Munroe. It was one of those head to head confrontations which were not uncommon in the more physical world of 1980s football. The Referee gave Munroe a yellow and Johnston a red; as he jogged from the field he blessed himself in an act more designed to annoy Rangers fans than signify his religious fervour.

The official was then seemingly struck by a coin from the crowd and bizarrely turned around and red carded the nearest Celtic player, Tony Shepherd. The stunned young player refused to go and argued quite correctly that he didn’t touch the official. Syme lost all composure and held the red card high as he repeatedly and rather theatrically pointed to the dressing room, demanding Shepherd leave the field. Celtic players were aghast at this and Shepherd himself picked up a coin from the turf and showed it to the Referee who realising that he had made an utter fool of himself changed his mind. That incident with Shepherd is very telling; the Referee was prepared to send a Celtic player off for an offence he couldn’t have seen as it didn’t actually happen.

The game ended in uproar and Celtic manager Davie Hay was utterly furious at the actions of the Referee. He said in the aftermath of the game…

‘If it was up to me our application to join the English game would be made tomorrow. It always seems to be that when we play the top teams the controversial decisions go against Celtic.’

The tabloid press had a field day lambasting Celtic’s ‘indiscipline’ and while Mo Johnston was foolish getting involved in with Munroe, the team hadn’t been particularly out of control. They had merely reacted as any human being would in circumstances where they feel they are being treated unfairly. Davie Hay was fined by the SFA for his comments about the Referee. Rangers' manager, Souness had his first trophy as Boss at Ibrox and commented after the game…

Celtic was slightly the better team but at the end of the day it’s all about the team which scores the goals.’

For the Celtic fans leaving Hampden the manner of the winning goal and subsequent actions of the Referee left a feeling that an injustice had been done to their side.

That feeling that the prejudices Celtic faced in the early decades of the club’s existence still lingered has never really ended for many supporters, Willie Maley in his fine history of Celtic (1888-1938) writes on more than one occasion of players being aggrieved at the less than fair officiating of some of their games. The ‘Flag flutter’ of the early 1950s was another episode during which the footballing authorities seemed to be denying Celtic natural justice. Jock Stein was positive that some match officials were anti-Celtic and wasn’t slow to tell them. Supporters point to incidents over the years such as Jim Farry’s inexplicable hold up in registering Jorge Cadete to play at a vital period in the season. Farry was eventually sacked for gross misconduct but only after two internal enquiries had cleared him. It took the doggedness Fergus McCann and his QC to get the truth out in the open. In more modern times the Dallas email, containing an anti-Catholic joke cost him his job and then there was the strange case of Linesman Steven Craven who quit after the ‘Dougie, Dougie’ incident at Tannadice. He later stated that the Referee had instructed him to lie to Neil Lennon about a controversial penalty incident involving Gary Hooper. Scottish Referees went on strike shortly after this incident and it was noted with some irony that the Israeli officials who handled Celtic’s game in their absence were excellent.

Such incidents reinforce the so called ‘paranoia’ of some Celtic fans. Supporters of other clubs will argue that incompetence rather than bias is at the root of many Refereeing decisions. Pointing out that in the week Celtic were denied a win after Schalk’s preposterous dive at Ross County that Motherwell were awarded a goal when the ball clearly didn’t cross the line. In the parochial and clannish world of Scottish football it can be hard to convince many supporters of Celtic that the blunders they see aren’t part of a general disdain of the club from some officials. In a recent TV Documentary, Terry Butcher stated that he was the first Rangers Captain who wasn’t a Mason. Images surfaced online in the wake of this admission of a Rangers' Captain of the past greeting match officials with what was claimed to be Masonic handshakes. All of this further fed the flames of suspicion which is unhelpful to the Scottish game.

Each of us must make a rational judgement about the reasons Celtic has had some rough calls against them in big matches. My view is that historically officials were products of the society around them. There was certainly much prejudice against the Irish Catholic community in Scotland in the past, even the Church of Scotland demanded their expulsion at one point in a 1920s report entitled ‘The menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish nationality.’ Celtic, seen by many as the most visible representation of the Irish in Scotland was unlikely to escape prejudice on occasion. This prejudice undoubtedly lingers on in some dark corners of Scottish society although much diminished from previous times.

The modern Referee is scrutinised by a dozen TV Cameras and judged by watching officials in the stand as well as a critical and unforgiving crowd. To dispel any lingering doubts about impartiality they should whenever possible embrace modern technology to help them with big calls. Few fans would grudge a momentary hold up in a game while a fourth official checks a TV monitor and informs the Referee especially if the right decision is reached. It works well in rugby and ensures that justice is not only done but is seen to be done. I have refereed school football and made a few mistakes with decisions. It’s a tough job, more so in the fast paced professional game where some players are willing to cheat and con the Referee.

Whatever happens tomorrow at Hampden, I hope we remember the game for footballing reasons and aren’t debating contentious decisions which altered the outcome of the game. I hope it’s a game remembered for good football, goals, exciting incidents and of course a Celtic win.

As my old man used to say, ‘The best Referees are the ones you don’t notice.’

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A thousand miles from Paradise

A thousand miles from Paradise

I glanced briefly at my watch on Saturday and it told me that it was about 4pm local time. I knew that being an hour ahead of the time in Glasgow that Celtic would be kicking off in their SPFL match against Kilmarnock about then. I don’t normally like missing games or at least watching then online but on this particular Saturday the football was far from my mind. I was standing with a tour guide waiting to be shown inside the darkly iconic and infamous ‘gate of death’ at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum on the site of the former Nazi concentration camp. It sits uneasily in the sleepy Polish countryside some 30 miles from Krakow and there is a stillness and brooding quality to the place. As the crow flies, it is about a thousand miles from Paradise but in many ways I was in a different world when I visited.

Having read countless books on the Holocaust over the years I had a good idea of what to expect but it isn’t until the physical reality of the place is there in front of you that you begin to sense the sheer scale of the wickedness which occurred here in the war years. A railroad cattle truck stands alone and forlorn on the rail track beside the selection ramp. It represents the hundreds if not thousands of such cattle trucks brought to Auschwitz from all over Europe, packed with those the Nazis had marked out for ‘special handling.’ At one point on the selection ramp there is a big black and white photograph showing an SS Officer sending a long column of people further along the ramp while a smaller group are entering the Women’s camp behind him. The larger group; the old, the young, the infirm, women with children, are walking towards Crematorium 2 where their fate awaits. The excellent Tour guide, a young Polish woman, asked visitors standing in front of this image to look around them. It then becomes clear in an instant that you are standing on the exact spot that SS man occupied more than 70 years earlier when he decided who lived for a while longer and who died that day.

Following the path for around 300 more yards, one comes to the remains of crematorium 2. The long undressing area leads to the gas chamber and crematoria facilities. The SS blew the structure up in January 1945 as the sounds of the Red Army’s artillery could be heard approaching from the east. Auschwitz is a strange place. In this few acres of Poland around a million people perished. The Nazis in their insanity transported them from as far afield as Greece, Denmark, Holland and France to this corner of Poland. Most of them never left.

As I travelled back to Krakow through the farms, fields and forests of southern Poland there was a fairly sombre mood on the mini bus. How could it be otherwise? I got into a quiet conversation with a man from Sweden who said, ‘That place should be preserved for all time as a warning about where hatred can lead us.’ I had to agree with him. Most good people know we should never forget these events and that platitudes and nice words aren’t enough to stop those who spread hate in our societies.

I’ll let the following photographs speak about the dark roads we human beings walk when we are seduced by hatred. They do so far more eloquently than my words ever could.

A thousand miles from Paradise these things went on. It’s everyone’s business to see that it doesn’t happen again.

Used Zyklon B Canisters found at Auschwitz

20,000 shoes belonging to those transported for 'resettlement'

Polish prisoners with date of arrival & death

Maria and Czeslava Kajewska, Twins aged 15

Barbara Smieszek

Arbeit Macht Frei: 'Work sets you free'

Pots and other cooking utensils brought by prisoners

Shoes of an unknown child

Execution wall in Block 11

Barracks block in women's camp

Sleeping arrangements in women's barrack: 4-6 to each level

A scale model of crematorium 2

Remembering a family from a street in Krakow

Memorial stone to Krakow's lost 70,000 Jews

The end of the line. Mankind's lowest point.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Black Arrow

The Black Arrow

Some years ago I watched the excellent American Documentary series ‘Eyes on the prize’ which told the story of the struggle of African Americans to exercise their civil rights. One episode told the story of 14 year old Emmet Till, an African American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was said to have whistled at a white woman in a store, an action which was to cost him his life. It seems incredible to us today that people were prepared to kill a teenage boy for nothing more than whistling at a woman but in the America of the 1950s such things went on. Despite admitting taking Emmet away on the night of his death, his killers were acquitted by an all-white Jury in under two hours. Emmet’s death was the third lynching in five months in Mississippi.

It could be argued that the sort of racism which existed in America then is still around but what isn’t is the State framework of Laws which allowed it to thrive and offered it a veneer of legality. The ‘Jim Crow’ laws fostered segregation and  the sort of second class citizenship which stunted the lives of many African Americans, particularly in the southern states of the union. Segregated washrooms, bus seats, cinemas and schools made a mockery of the Constitution which stated that ‘all men are created equal.’

It was into this society that Gil Heron came to ply his trade as a footballer although as an all-round athlete he was adept at cricket and boxing too. The young Jamaican had shown considerable prowess in front of goal as he became the top scorer in the North American Professional Soccer League while playing for the Detroit Wolverines. He was no stranger to racism, obvious or subtle and was earning far less than he was worth in a league where it was taken for granted that the white stars would earn more. His success in Detroit saw him win a move to Sparta, a club playing in Chicago who, as their name suggests, had roots in the Czech community.

It was while in Chicago he met and married a young woman called Bobbie Scott and they had a son who was to gain fame in his own field later in life. Gil Scott Heron heard the stories of his father’s footballing prowess and said in his biography...

“His skills would offend the opposition, often leaving them feeling foolish and flailing, victims of Gil’s fancy footwork. There were scoundrels in places like Skokie, a suburb of Chicago then inhabited primarily by Europeans, who treated soccer like an ethnic heirloom. My mother talked about incidents when opposing players had felt forced to foul him, going for his legs instead of the ball, not trying to tackle him but to injure; these were red flags to his temper.”

That temper saw Gil Heron sent off more than once as he retaliated for the rough treatment he was often receiving. It was while Gil was playing in Chicago that Celtic arrived in America for a tour. Bob Kelly the Celtic Chairman of the time was always on the lookout for new talent and word reached him of a powerful forward with an eye for goal was by then playing with Detroit Corinthians. Gil’s colour was never an issue for Celtic who offered him the chance to come to Scotland for a trial. Kelly said at the time…

'We never saw him play but the word about him was so good that I invited him over for a test. He satisfied and thus was signed.'

Gil’s decision to head for Scotland had powerful ramifications in his personal life. Bobbie and Gil Junior stayed in America and his move virtually ended their relationship. He would be moving to a league where there were no other black players playing and one American newspaper thought his move to Celtic was akin to the Brooklyn Dodgers signing of Jackie Robinson a few years earlier. Robinson was the first black player in the major baseball leagues of the USA and caused quite a stir. When some of his team mates grumbled about playing alongside an African American, Dodgers’ Manager, Leo Durocher, to his eternal credit said …

"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded."

As Gil was to find at Celtic Park there were no colour barriers, no racial slurs, and no contemptuous team mates. He excelled in the trial game scoring twice and earning a year-long contract. Of course Celtic signed Heron for footballing reasons, they wanted to see if the player could score as prolifically in Scotland as he has in the USA, but it was more than that. Gil was a pioneer who in the monochrome world of 1950s Britain was blazing a trail that others would follow. There had been a few other coloured players who had played in senior British football but in an age when Britain was still a very stuffy, conservative place, Heron’s arrival caused quite a stir. Even Scottish Newspapers used language which some would find offensive in the modern age but in less enlightened times passed without comment. One spoke of Celtic reaping a ‘black bonanza’ with Heron in the side.

Gil Heron scored on his debut for Celtic against Morton in the League Cup in front of 40,000 delighted fans who soon dubbed him the ‘Black Arrow.’ He followed that up with a tremendous goal against Airdrie which was described in the press in the following manner…

‘’Heron took a pass from Baillie about midfield and side-stepping Dingwall on his run through released a tremendous shot from 25 yards which beat Fraser all ends up. The crowd applauded an effort which was as fine as has been seen on the ground for many a day.”

However that early promise faded as the physical and climatic demands of Scottish football took their toll on him. He scored a lot of goals in the reserve side while he waited for a recall to the first team but while doing so reacted to a rash tackle and got involved in a fist fight with an opponent and that autocratic disciplinarian Bob Kelly would have none of that. Gil would see out his year’s contract but it wouldn’t be renewed. That being said Gil loved his time at Celtic Park and found friendship among the players who enjoyed his company. He wrote of those days…

‘’There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest football country in the world. For as small a country as it is it produces more good footballers than any place on earth. My days at Parkhead have been wonderful and there are no greater a bunch of boys than those at the Paradise. I as a complete stranger was made at home the moment I arrived and the Manager, Mr McGrory, has been very understanding. The greatest ambition of my life was realised when I donned the green and white jersey.’

Gil socialised with players like Charlie Tully who recalled the Jamaican’s colourful attire, most notably his ‘Zoot suit, trilby hat and a pair of yellow shoes.’ 

The Jamaican’s legacy at Celtic far outweighs his contribution on the field. He played just 5 first team games for Celtic but in doing so demonstrated that barriers were there to be kicked down. Celtic have always had an open door policy and players of all ethnicities and faiths have been welcome at Paradise however other clubs were not as enlightened in those times as was society in general.

The times Gil Heron lived in could be harsh and unforgiving to men of colour but he made a life for himself. He would admit that he made choices which were hard on his ex-wife Bobbie and his son Gil Scott-Heron which led to him seeing little of him until him was in his twenties. He eventually moved back to the USA and married his Scottish sweetheart once his divorce from Bobbie was settled. Inter-racial marriages were still illegal in half of the states of American then but not in Michigan where he settled.  He worked in the Ford Motor plant in Detroit and refereed football matches, was a keen photographer and even found time to write poetry. One his poems remembered his year at Celtic and reflected on the fine players in the game then…

The Great Ones
I'll remember all the great ones
Those that I have seen,
Those who I have played with
Who wore the white and green.

There was Tully and Bobby Evans
No greater ones you'd see,
And Celtic Park was our haven
To win was our destiny.

There was Sammy Cox and Thornton
Woodburn was there too,
Waddell and the great George Young
Who wore the white and blue. 

There was Reilly and Turnbull for the Hibs
Billy Steele the great Dundee,
I'll remember all the great ones
Wherever I may be.

So let there be a Hall of Fame
The fans will all be there,
The stars will all be remembered
By loved ones everywhere.

His son became a noted musician who’s album ‘The revolution will not be televised’ was critically acclaimed. Gil Scott Heron once said of his father’s time at Celtic that the Scots loved two things, music and football and it pleased him that the Heron family gave then a musician and a footballer to enjoy. He father followed Celtic’s fortunes all of his life and remembered fondly his time in the place he called ‘The Paradise.’

That fine Dundee singer-songwriter Michael Marra was inspired by Gil Heron’s story and wrote a song for him called ‘Flight of the Heron.’ As luck would have it Scottish writer, Gerry Hassan, visited an ageing Gil in the USA and took the single along for him to hear. The old man was moved to tears that far across the sea in Scotland they still remembered him and still celebrated him. He promised he would record the song himself but time and age meant that this was not to be. Gil Heron, footballer, poet, photographer and in some ways pioneer died in November 2008.

Men like him opened doors for others to follow and he was living proof that Celtic continued to live up to their founding philosophy, summed up in Maley’s famous adage; ‘It is not his creed or nationality which counts but the man himself.’  I’ll leave the last words of this article to the remarkable Gil Heron himself who said in one of his poems…

‘Beat the banners of the green
The finest team I’ve ever seen
Keep the cup and never yield
Race them, chase them off the field’

Gil Heron (1922-2008)