Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Greatest Treasure

The Greatest Treasure

Charlie Reid zipped his coat up against the biting winter wind as he walked along Argyll Street. Despite the bitterly cold wind the street was crowded with shoppers rushing here and there beneath the gaudy Christmas lights. As he walked, he thought back to his childhood and how his mum used to walk him and his sister and brother all the way from Springburn to see the Christmas lights in the city centre. Christmas was exciting then even if they didn’t get much in the way of gifts. He smiled as he remembered being utterly elated the year he got his first Celtic shirt. He was nine years old and opened the present containing the centenary home kit with the Celtic cross badge on the breast. He almost cried as he hugged his mum; she was struggling to bring up Charlie, his sister Angie and his big brother Paul on her own and he knew she’d have saved and gone without to make their Christmas special. He wore that shirt till it was utterly worn out and even then he wouldn’t part with it and wore it to bed. As these thoughts filled his head he reached Glasgow cross and crossed the street to the Tollbooth Bar.

He scanned the faces filling the well know pub until he saw Paul in the corner with a couple of his cronies. For a moment he looked at his brother as he drank and talked to his associates. The boy he grew up with, so full of laughter and fun was long gone. In his place stood a man approaching 40 who might have been 10 or even 15 years older. His shock of black hair was now mostly grey and his face bore the marks of numerous confrontations he’d had in his life. A thick scar above his right eye gave him a mean and dangerous look which wasn’t entirely undeserved. Charlie knew how Paul made his money and how the poison he dealt in ruined lives and blighted communities. He was still his brother though.

In that long moment as he regarded him, he recalled their younger days. Playing football in the streets, running through Sitehill cemetery as they played their boyhood games and of course walking all the way to Celtic Park to watch the Celts play. Paul hated losing at anything and that led to the odd scrap with Charlie when they were kids. As the younger of the two, Charlie usually got the worst of it. He remembered one sunny day when they and some of the Shamrock boys from the Garngad were returning from a Celtic and Rangers game and blundered into a hostile group of Rangers fans under those ugly tower blocks which once stood off the Gallowgate. The fight which followed was brutal and Charlie saw for the first time the utterly ruthless side of his brother who flew at the enemy with a frightening ferociousness. The sound of Police sirens had broken up the fight but Paul had to be dragged off his immediate opponent and they made their escape.

As they grew up Charlie noticed his brother’s competitive nature eventually giving way to a burning resentment of their relative poverty. He’d take what he wanted in life and this led to trouble with the Police as he got involved in various petty crimes. The local bad guys soon saw his potential and he graduated in time into being ‘one worth a watching’ as he heard someone once say of him.

Their contacts had lessened as they grew to manhood and their lives diverged. Charlie worked hard to support his own family while Paul drifted in and out of their lives. They’d bump into each other at family events now and then. Paul arriving in his garish big car and splashing the cash, seemingly oblivious to the disdain some of the family now felt for him. It was common knowledge how he made his money and he was treated with a mixture of coldness, subdued contempt and even fear. It was strange for Charlie to see that all the material things Paul now possessed hadn’t made him happy. People made their choices in life and for good or ill had to live with them.

He pushed his way through the crowded pub towards his brother. Charlie saw him coming and smiled a little before ordering his cronies to give him five minutes. As they walked away Paul locked his eyes on his brother’s, ‘Alright Charlie boy, long time no see, what brings you down to this neck of the woods?’ Charlie nodded, ‘How ye doing Paul? Can we talk somewhere a bit quieter?’ Paul’s eyes narrowed a little; Charlie usually had something serious to say when he made such a request ‘Aye, the car’s around the corner.’ He signalled he’d be back in five minutes to his friends and they exited the noisy Bar and headed out into the chill of a dark winter’s night. ‘You’ve got that serious look on your face bro,’ Paul said as he guided Charlie into his white BMW. He turned the key and warm air began to flow into the car. Paul turned down the music which came on as he started the engine. Charlie smiled a little to hear Glen Daly’s unmistakable tones sing, ‘and the Glasgow Celtic will be there….’ Not many gangsters listened to that, he thought to himself.

Paul looked at his brother as they sat in the dark car, the green lights of the dashboard casting shadows on his face, ‘So what’s it all about bro?’ Charlie sat in the dark car and told his brother in a calm and monotone voice that their mother was dying and she wanted to see them both before her time was up. Paul listened, his tough face showing no emotion, ‘How long?’ he asked in a quiet voice, ‘A few weeks at most, Paul. She went in with stomach pains and they found the cancer. It’s too far gone to treat. She’s home now and the nurse comes every day but when the time come she’ll go tae the Marie Curie place up in Stobhill.’ Paul shook his head slowly, ‘Life’s a bastard, Charlie, an utter bastard.’ With that he eased the car into gear and they headed for their childhood home.

Charlie’s sister Angie opened the door to them, her face tired and sad. She embraced Charlie, ’She’s in the room.’ She embraced Paul too though in silence as if she had nothing to say to him. The two brothers entered the room where their mother lay on the double bed, her head propped up by pillows. An icon of Jesus, hands outstretched showing the marks of his crucifixion adorned the wall above the bed, his all-seeing eyes watching them. Charlie approached her and leaning over gave her a gentle hug, ‘Hi Ma, how have you been today?’ Paul sat on the bed too, He took her hand and looked at her but words wouldn’t come. ‘Ah boys,‘ she said in a weak voice, ‘I’m glad you could come. I want to talk to you both before I go.’  They brothers sat and listened to her outline what she wanted to happen when she was gone. She had thought it all through; her funeral arrangements, the hymns, which possessions to give to her friends at the church, even where the cat was going. She then pushed herself up on the bed a little and looked at Paul and Charlie. ‘I want you two and Angie to be there for each other no matter what. Family is the greatest treasure we get in life, don’t drift apart.’ She looked at Paul and squeezed his hand weakly, ‘Promise me son, promise me you’ll stop doing the things you do which hurt people.’ Paul was taken aback by this request. He knew what she meant and was momentarily lost for words. He seemed to be thinking for a moment before looking into her eyes and slowly nodding his head.

In the months following the passing of their mother the brothers tried to meet up more often. Charlie even got Paul to come to the odd Celtic game. They had a long chat in a quiet city centre bar after one such game. ‘You don’t just retire wi a pension from my line of business,’ Paul had said, ‘but it’s time I got out anyway. They’re like fuckin’ wolves, Charlie, always some young buck looking tae take over.’ He explained how he’d been taking a step back, handing things over to others. He’d be out of it soon enough. He’d be true to his promise to his mother. Charlie was pleased, Paul had been hardened by his life, his heart slowly setting like concrete, but there was a glimmer of hope he could get his brother back.

Charlie switched the conversation to happier memories. ‘Remember when we went tae Stuttgart in the Seville year? You thought you were getting aff wi a burd in that pub?’ Paul laughed, ‘Aye, turned out she was a fuckin he!’  Charlie continued, ‘Easy mistake to make, he was gorgeous, even I thought he was a wumin!’ Paul nodded, ‘Aye but I winched the face aff him! Their laughter filled the void of years when they had hardly communicated. Paul said through a rare smile, ‘Then there was you telling yer work you were aff sick and getting the sack when you were spotted on the front page of the Daily Record going mad in Porto when Larsson scored the winner!’ Charlie laughed at that memory too, ‘Boss was a pure tadger, the bastard had the picture cut oot and on the notice board when I got back! Circled my heed wi a felt pen! I was glad tae see the back of that place anyway.’  They shared such memories for a few happy hours before heading back to their very different lives.

There was a chance that Paul would be able to escape the world he had inhabited for so long and Charlie was going to be there to help him whenever he could. They had promised their mother to be there for each other and they would honour that promise. Whatever the future held they’d try to be a family again. What was it she had said? ‘Family is the greatest treasure we get in life.’  He had learned that she was right.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The faults of others

The faults of others

The spring of 1991 was a trying one for Celtic fans. The team’s promising start to the SPL season was all but over as the dominant and big spending Rangers side of the era stepped on the accelerator and left the Hoops miles behind. For a long time it looked as if the Scottish cup might offer Celtic the only route into European football the following season.  The supporters did glean some joy from a double header with Rangers in the SPL and cup as Celtic won both matches. The semi-final tie in the Scottish cup with Motherwell took on added significance as Rangers were no longer in the tournament and a cup win seemed a realistic hope. The defensive frailties which had torpedoed Celtic’s league hopes returned in an SPL match at Celtic Park just before the cup tie which Motherwell won 2-1; Tom Boyd scoring against a Celtic side he would later lead to glory.

Celtic headed to Hampden and before a crowd of almost 42,000 endured a tense game in which they looked far better going forward than they did defending. Motherwell were something of a bogey team for Celtic in the early 1990’s with Dougie Arnott in particular prone to punishing the Hoops’ defensive lapses. The game ended 0-0 and Celtic fans remained optimistic that they could make the final. The replay the following week was one of those matches which turned on a particular incident. Celtic started well and took an early lead. Predictably a defensive mix up let Arnott equalise before Rogan had Celtic 2-1 up. Then Celtic had a corner which was partially cleared before the ball was knocked back towards the goal. As the Motherwell defence raced out the ball spun to Paul Elliot who slammed it into the net. Despite Colin O’Neil being on the post and clearly playing Elliot onside, the linesman raised his flag and Celtic were denied a 3-1 lead which may or may not have been decisive.  Celtic seemed to lose heart at that and went on to lose the game 4-2. In truth Motherwell with players like O’Donnell, Boyd, Arnott and Nijholt were the better side in the last half hour. They would go on to win the cup in an exciting final with Dundee United and few grudged them their moment of glory.

That memory came back to me after reading a host of complaints in the media and online from fans or various clubs about the penalty awarded to Celtic at Fir Park on Wednesday night. For me McGregor was barged over and the defender was very foolish challenging an attacker so robustly when he was heading away from goal and posed no scoring threat at that moment. Radio and TV Pundits talked about a ‘laughable’ decision and generally laid into McGregor for ‘going down very easily.’ A few such as Michael Stewart and Tom English revised their opinions when other angles were shown of the incident. One in particular shows the angle the Referee had and is convincing proof that McGregor was indeed fouled. Motherwell released a statement following the match which read in part…

‘It is disappointing to see high profile decisions affect Wednesday night’s match and the Betfred Cup final in the way they have. To that end we have made contact with the Scottish FA’s head of Refereeing to express our views and seek feedback.’

There is no doubting their disappointment at losing the League Cup final and being denied a rare win over Celtic so late in a game but a dose of realism is required when complaining about refereeing decisions. In games against Celtic they have had some big calls go their way. Most impartial observers agree that the shocking tackle by Cedric Kipre which injured Moussa Dembele in the League Cup final was worthy of a red card. The Referee didn’t even give a foul. Dembele Tweeted that evening, ‘Another game, another win. Almost lost my leg there but we’re still unbeaten!’

The narrative that Celtic gets all the big calls is utterly laughable when examined in any detail. Consider Nadir Ciftci about to Score at Fir Park when a defender punched the ball away from him in a most obvious manner. Decision: Play on. We also had an utterly horrendous challenge on Kieran Tierney at Celtic Park by Bowman of Motherwell which could have seriously injured the full back. We awaited the inevitable red card and to the astonishment of most in the ground he received a yellow.  

We had a Johan Mjallby’s shot which was well over the line and the Referee waved ‘play on.’  We saw a Motherwell player strike a Rangers player in the face with his elbow to such a degree that it broke his nose in this season’s League Cup semi-final. No action was taken by the referee.

Celtic has been on the wrong end of some very poor refereeing calls in recent times which cost them important matches. The most obvious being the Meekings hand ball in the Cup semi-final with Inverness which would have seen Celtic awarded a penalty and the defender sent off had the referee given the correct decision. He didn’t much to the astonishment of everyone else in the stadium who saw what 5 officials managed to miss. 

We had the Duberry handball at Perth, the extremely dubious Penalty given to Hearts in a Scottish cup semi-final, the ‘Dougie, Dougie’ nonsense at Tannadice and other calls which left us mystified.

All of these examples demonstrate that Motherwell’s whingeing in recent days is at best ill-advised and at worse poor sportsmanship. Their physical approach to the game and sheer effort against Celtic has made the last two matches between the clubs close affairs but at the end of the day Celtic are undefeated in 66 matches for a reason; they’re the best team in Scotland by a long way.

Football is a fast, fluid and unpredictable game and human error certainly plays its part in refereeing decisions. Anyone who has refereed a game at any level knows how difficult it is to get every decision right. This is especially true at professional level where players of all clubs are out to pressure or even con the referee. Throw into the mix the clannish and often spiteful nature of Scottish football as well as the strong cultural identity some clubs possess and you have a recipe for suspicion. There is no doubt that historical injustices were done to Celtic by certain figures over the years. One only has to read books like ‘Celtic Paranoia’ to see incidents like the ‘Flag Flutter’ of the 1950s or the inexcusable Farry-Cadete affair of the 90s. In modern times football officials are scrutinised far more closely. Incidents like the amateurish handling of the Rangers meltdown of 2012 or the Dallas anti-Catholic email still cause concern but Celtic has grown into a confident and powerful club who wouldn’t be slow to make their side of any debate known.

The modern referee has a dozen cameras tracking every decision he makes amplifying every error. Social media takes clips showing such errors and they spin around an amplified echo chamber of like-minded fans giving an impression of institutional bias that isn’t quite fair.

Motherwell’s bleating in recent days has been to say the least unedifying. There are always tough 50-50 calls to be made by referees in the heat of games which could be given either way. Incidents happen in a split second and have to be called without the benefit of constant replays or multi-angled analysis. Players play acting doesn’t help and Motherwell have their share of con men like all clubs. Perhaps Motherwell should be looking at more constructive suggestions such as better training for Referees and assistants or the use of video reviews for big decisions or better still consider some of the big calls which have gone in their favour over the years and have a more balanced outlook.

Hypocrisy is pointing out the faults of others while conveniently ignoring your own. Motherwell has indulged in that this week.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Uncle Phil

Uncle Phil

There was a quiet restlessness among the fans exiting Celtic Park after a perfunctory if uninspiring 3-0 win against Gretna on a cold December day in late 2007. The team were stuttering along, winning games without looking too impressive but the main topic of conversation wasn’t the football it was events at Fir Park just a dozen miles from Paradise. Motherwell had been playing Dundee United in an exciting match which had ended in a 5-3 win for the home side. However all of that meant absolutely nothing as stunned supporters watched the club Physio and Doctor attend to Phil O’Donnell who had collapsed on the pitch. Supporters could see from the distraught reaction of the players from both sides that something serious was occurring. O’Donnell’s distressed team mate and nephew, David Clarkson had to be substituted as he was simply incapable of playing on in such circumstances. O’Donnell, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Phil’ around Fir Park had suffered left ventricular failure of the heart and left us at just 35 years of age. It was a dreadful afternoon for Motherwell but also for the whole of Scottish football which was left to mourn the passing of one of the good guys in life.

When news of his death spread it caused huge consternation and no little grief in the football world. Phil was a famously fit and clean living man who approached his profession with dedication. His former team mates at Celtic were as distraught as his Motherwell colleagues and the club asked the league to postpone the traditional New Year’s match with Rangers, which they did.

I only met Phil once and it was outside the Celtic Park in the mid 1990’s after some forgettable pre-season friendly. He stood patiently signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. He was courteous, quietly spoken and seemed to me to be one of those guys we used to call a ‘gentleman.’ I wished him well for the season ahead and told him how desperate the fans were to stop Rangers beating Celtic’s nine in a row record. He smiled and said, ‘We’ll do our best, it won’t be for lack of effort.’ That was one thing you got from Phil O’Donnell; 100% effort in every game.

His Celtic career began when Tommy Burns signed him for £1.7m in 1994 and in his first match at Firhill he scored twice against Partick Thistle to the delight of the big Celtic support. His time at Celtic swung between highs like the Cup final victory over Airdrie in 1995, the 5-1 crushing of Rangers in 1998 to the famous title win which stopped the ‘Ten’ on that sunny May day in 1998. His low points were undoubtedly the frustrating injuries which often saw him out of action just as he was imposing himself on the team. A boyhood Celtic fan, he would be proud to say he wore the Hoops although no one should doubt too the genuine affection he also had for Motherwell FC and how deeply they felt his loss.  

Of course football mourned such decent man and dedicated professional but the effects on Phil’s friends and family can only be imagined. He left a wife and four children who would have to deal with a loving husband and father not being around anymore. For the fans he was the box to box midfielder with the sweet left foot. For his family he was everything, his daughter Megan, just 12 when she lost her father said recently…

I miss the car journeys to school every morning, belting out Queen’s greatest hits and singing songs from the Forrest Gump soundtrack. I miss playing football in the hallway, with him as the goalie in the door frame whilst my brother and I chase the ball in our pyjamas.  Unlike my siblings, I was lucky to have my dad present for my first day of high school – my youngest brother, Luc, didn’t even have a father to see him on his first day of primary school. But I wasn’t able to share my excitement of getting into university with my dad, and I know that when I graduate I will miss him more than ever. The saying goes “it’s who you look for in a crowded room”, and I know that when I collect my degree next week, I’ll not only be looking for my mum and my grandma in the crowd, I’ll also be looking for a sign that he is with me.’

It is with some poignancy that the two clubs who meant most to Phil O’Donnell are meeting in the League Cup Final this Sunday. Supporters of both will I’m sure mark the upcoming anniversary of the passing of Phil with a suitable tribute. In an era when footballers can often act with an arrogance and aloofness which forgets the fans who put them where they are, it will be fitting to recall one of the good guys who had patience and time for the fans. One story about Phil which demonstrates his character was recalled in the press in the days following his death..

‘The old cliché which gets dusted off in times like these, namely that no-one had a bad word to say about him, may as well have been coined specifically for O'Donnell. He was unfailingly polite, gracious, and reserved. Those qualities were evident to team-mates, opponents and the media, and transmitted to supporters of his own and even other clubs. People knew that O'Donnell was one of the good guys. Years ago he once turned up to play in a youth cup final at Fir Park only to realise that he did not recognise the official at the door. Rather than say "don't you know who I am" he avoided any fuss by walking to a nearby turnstile and paying his way in. "My family taught me to keep my feet on the ground no matter what," he once said. "It's just the way I was brought up, I suppose."

I hope Sunday sees a good game of football with the best side winning. I also hope it sees a noisy, sporting crowd remembering one of Scottish football’s gentlemen in an appropriate and fitting manner. Of course I want my team to win but if the passing of Phil and his great friend and Manager Tommy Burns in that 2007-08 season taught us anything it is that football is only a game and its transient glories are but naught when we think of a family losing their father. 

Thank you for all you did for Celtic Phil and I’m sure Motherwell fans will thank you just as much for your efforts in the claret and amber.

Rest in peace Uncle Phil.

Phil O’Donnell (1972-2007)

One of the good guys

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Beautiful Game

The Beautiful Game

The rise of the internet and social media has been generally a positive feature of modern life. Those old pub arguments about who scored a certain goal or whether a player was offside or not are now solved with the flick of a button and a glance through YouTube or Twitter. Another positive of the internet age is that the once all powerful press is now regularly ridiculed online and held to account in a manner unthinkable in pre-internet days. For instance, the contradictions and downright absurdities they tried to sell the footballing public over the liquidation of old Rangers were ruthlessly torn apart as the nonsense they were by an increasingly clued up and articulate online community.

It’s refreshing and somewhat democratising to see the old media being challenged by the new. In a world of news manipulation, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post truth’ it’s easy to be sceptical about what we see and read but now and then there is still good old fashioned reporting which reminds us that decent journalists are still around. Of course there can be a tendency to praise those who see things the way we do and if social media has one great failing it is that communities of like-minded individuals follow each other into an echo chamber of seamless conformity. Within the bubble of orthodoxy it takes a brave person to stand up to the herd mentality and espouse contrary views. It is however necessary to good open debate that we hear other views and can disagree without rancour and abuse.

It’s interesting to see how Rangers supporters view Journalist Graham Spiers after his many statements on bigotry and racism among a support he was once part of. Some quietly agreed with much of what he says even if they thought he banged on about it a bit much. For others of limited intellect though, Spiers was a traitor who had turned on his own. Statements such as these cut them to the bone:

‘I have always happily ignored one of the traditional and cowardly rules of Scottish sports journalism - the rule which says, always apportion equal blame to Celtic and Rangers when talking of bigotry - by pointing a much bigger finger of blame at Rangers, the club I grew up supporting.’

In 2011 after the League Cup final between Celtic and Rangers, Spiers pointed out a feature of the game the vast majority of the watching press pack chose to ignore…

‘The incessant bigoted chanting by Rangers fans at Hampden was shocking. They are unarguably the most socially-backward fans in British football. The really damaging thing for RFC is, it’s not the mythical ‘small minority’. There appear to be thousands upon thousands singing these songs.’

Those of you who understand the pernicious sub-culture which sadly still lurks in the shadows of Scottish society will understand that it takes courage to speak out in such terms. We saw for instance the campaign of abuse aimed at Journalist, Jim Spence, for expressing the perfectly reasonable opinion that the resurrected Rangers of 2012 was a new club. Some lobbied to have him sacked from his job while a few aimed venomous and cowardly abuse at him from the anonymity of the internet.

In days past we produced some excellent sports writers in Scotland who wrote eloquently on the issues of the day without fear or favour. Some, such as Ian Archer took the bull by the horns and spoke about issues others for whatever reason ignored. Following a riot by Rangers fans in Birmingham in 1976 he called out bigotry in a manner few of his contemporaries would have contemplated…

"This has to be said about Rangers, as a Scottish Football club they are a permanent embarrassment and an occasional disgrace. This country would be a better place if Rangers did not exist."

This is not to say that Celtic are free from anti-social elements among their support for all big clubs have their share of less cerebral followers but the issues swirling around Rangers are on a much larger scale and have not been helped by being ignored by large parts the media for a century or more. Perhaps Scottish society wasn’t ready to confront the elephant in the room. Every attempt to address bigotry became mired in pointless obfuscation about the role of Catholic schools or the ‘Old Firm’ problem when in reality there is no excuse for teaching a child to hate or allowing impressionable young minds to be polluted by a ‘culture’ of division and prejudice.

Most right thinking people wish it wasn’t so but our society still has work to do to ensure our sports reporters can attend sporting events and write freely about the passion, drama and action on the field. When greats like Hugh McIlvanney are unleashed they write with an eloquence and a poetic beauty that anyone would recognise. In the bowels of the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon in 1967 he described the following scene…

‘’When he had been rescued from the delirious crowd and was walking back to the dressing rooms after Celtic had overcome all the bad breaks to vindicate his confidence Auld – naked to the waist except for an Inter shirt knotted round his neck like a scarf – suddenly stopped in his tracks and shouted to Ronnie Simpson, who was walking ahead. "Hey, Ronnie Simpson, what are we? What are we, son?" He stood there sweating, showing his white teeth between parched lips flecked with saliva. Then he answered his own question with a belligerent roar. "We're the greatest. That's what we are. The greatest." Simpson came running back and they embraced for a full minute.’’

Great writers take you there, make you feel the same emotions and passions they did as they watched the scene before them unfold. Whether writing about boxing or football, McIlvanney was the master of prose which not only informed the reader but stirred the imagination. This paragraph on the wonderful Real Madrid side’s victory in the European Cup final at Hampden in 1960 is typical of the man…

“Fittingly, the great Glasgow stadium responded with the loudest and most sustained ovation it has given to non-Scottish athletes. The strange emotionalism that overcame the huge crowd as the triumphant Madrid team circled the field at the end, carrying the trophy they have held since its inception, showed they had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing sport played to its ultimate standards.”

He was a writer who described George Best as having ‘feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket’s hands’ and on one wild windy day’s reporting at Ayr races he wrote; “It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.” Such turn of phrase is uncommon in this age and more’s the pity. One of Hugh McIlvanney’s greatest pieces was written in the aftermath of the death of Jimmy Johnstone. It carried such affection and poignancy and began…

‘Solemnity was always handed its coat early in Jimmy Johnstone’s company and something as ordinary as death had no chance of altering that. What else but laughter could be the predominant sound when the wee man was buried in his native Lanarkshire on Friday? The shadow cast by the horrors of diminishment that punctuated his improbably long struggle against the implacable ravages of motor neurone disease, and by knowing he was only 61 when his resistance was finally exhausted, was a darkness bound to yield to a thousand memories of somebody driven — sometimes destructively, often hilariously — by an instinctive conviction that life was meant to be lively.’

He went on to speak of Jimmy’s many escapades and the brushes with Jock Stein but never failed to recognise the genius of a wonderful football player who was, despite his very human flaws, a master of his chosen profession…

All of which guarantees that Johnstone will not be remembered simply as a footballer of electrifying virtuosity, though he was certainly that, with a genius for surreally intricate dribbling so extraordinary it is impossible for me to believe any other player before or since quite matched his mastery of tormenting, hypnotic ball control at the closest of quarters. As I have acknowledged in the past, other wingers might fairly be rated more reliably devastating (Garrincha, George Best, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews are obvious candidates) but none of them besieged opponents with such a complex, concentrated swirl of deceptive manoeuvres or ever conveyed a more exhilarating sense of joy in working wonders with the ball.’

McIlvanney’s great gift was of course his identification with the ordinary fans who invested such emotion, even love into their club. As a working class lad from a mining background in Ayrshire, he understood what football meant to ordinary people. He would take short incidents or scenes he had witnessed at sporting events and build a very human story around it. This, again from Lisbon in 1967, is typical of the man…

‘It was hard work appearing so relaxed and the effort eventually took its toll on Stein when he made a dive for the dressing rooms a minute before the end of the game, unable to stand any more. When we reached him there, he kept muttering: "What a performance. What a performance." It was left to Bill Shankly, the Scottish manager of Liverpool- and the only English club manager present- to supply the summing-up quote. "John," Shankly said with the solemnity of a man to whom football is a religion, "you're immortal." An elderly Portuguese official cornered Stein and delivered ecstatic praise of Celtic's adventurous approach. "This attacking play, this is the real meaning of football. This is the true game." Stein slapped him on the shoulder. "Go on, I could listen to you all night." Then, turning to the rest of us, "Fancy anybody saying that about a Scottish team."

Those of us who love football and recognise in it all the triumphs and disasters, heroes and villains we see in life itself, will always find time to listed to or read the words of those who share our passion. Writers like Hugh McIlvanney are rare but there are some fine scribes out there. I just wish more of them were given the freedom to write in the manner they want to and that editors had the integrity to trust them and back them up when they take on the difficult issues surrounding our game. In an age when clubs have PR departments trying to control the news agenda, we need a few mavericks asking hard questions and we need a few artists painting pictures with words.

I’ll leave you with the words of McIlvanney who described watching Jimmy Johnstone play in the following manner….

‘That last characteristic gave an extra dimension to the impact of watching him play for Celtic and Scotland. It went beyond excitement or aesthetics or entertainment. When he was at his best, the performance was so extravagant and idiosyncratic, so full of wildly imaginative impertinences and a small (5ft 4in) man’s defiance of the odds that it touched us profoundly but lightly, as sport should. The natural reaction was not to gasp in awe, which would have been in order, but to smile or even to laugh out loud.’

The old game is still capable of being beautiful. Our sports writers should aspire to writing prose of equal worth and not simply regurgitate press releases from those out to control the message.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

A matter of respect

A matter of respect

Fans of Scottish football have had to live with arrogance and condescension from many of our southern neighbours since the very beginning of organised football in these islands. Never mind that fact that the Scots invented the passing game which we see today. Indeed the first 16 matches between Scotland and England saw the Scots win 10, draw 4 and lose just 2. The plodding English sides then relied on launching the ball and chasing it and were simply passed off the field by the quick thinking Scots. In one sequence of five games Scotland scored 7, 4, 5, 6 & 5 goals against England and the powers that be in English FA finally ditched their primitive methods and adopted the ‘Scotch style’ of play.

In the 120 years since those far off days, Scottish fans have endured patronising insults from people mostly without any idea at all of what goes on in Scottish football. The latest in a long line of detractors of our game have been Joey Barton and Tony Cascarino.  In the case of Barton he has in fairness made the most of limited talents in his career but was, despite some misconceived arrogance about Scottish football, found to be totally hopeless in the SPFL. To watch him being nutmegged by a Hamilton Accies player or totally dominated by Scott Brown as Celtic swept him and his team aside during a 5-1 drubbing, was infinitely satisfying. If you talk the talk, you’d best be able to walk the walk. Alas Joey’s mouth talked a better game than his feet could play.

Cascarino’s outburst on the rather low grade Talk-Sport Radio was interesting in that it was littered with inaccuracies and the sort of casual prejudice you’d think professional ‘pundits’ would avoid.  He said…

“Domestically, they are so far ahead, they’re miles ahead. “But they’ve lost to Astana, who are from Kazakhstan, in the Champions League. They’ve been bashed up 5-0 by PSG. Okay, PSG are capable of beating any team. Been beaten by Bayern Munich home and away this season, also. They’ve drawn with Rosenborg in the European qualifying campaign. So it is clear that they are on a completely different level from everyone domestically but are still not a great side. Just look at the point total last year, you know? It’s just so ridiculous that we can’t give Celtic too much credit. So to justify this great run that they’ve been on, well, who have they actually beat? You know, beating Ross County, beating St Johnstone, when this team is clearly miles ahead of the rest. I think, what was the record before, it was 100 years ago wasn’t it? So we’re talking 100 years ago of this record, it just feels like it means nothing.”

Celtic’s 4-3 defeat to Astana of course followed a 5-0 win at Celtic Park which rounded off a comprehensive 8-3 aggregate win. As for drawing with Rosenborg, the Norwegians have defeated teams such as Real Madrid, PSG and Valencia in Europe. Celtic beat them in the qualifying tie without losing a goal to them. As for Bayern Munich beating Celtic, the hoops gave the Germans a real fight in Glasgow and were unlucky to lose 2-1. Arsenal, on the other hand, lost ten goals to Bayern in 2 matches last season! Celtic’s huge points tally last season was earned the hard way; Juventus had 102 points in Serie A in 2014, is that league rubbish?

You’d also have to ask Cascarino this; if it’s so easy for Celtic in Scotland why did it take 100 years to break the record?

Cascarino’s experience of Scottish football was limited to his disastrous time in Celtic’s struggling team of 1991-92. He arrived with a £1.1m price tag, a lot of money then, and found scoring in Scotland pretty tough. His first goal when it did arrive was down to the unselfishness of Tommy Coyne who squared the ball to him when he could easily have scored himself. Even then Cascarino almost fluffed it, miscuing the ball badly but still it found its way into the net. Two minutes later he punched Craig Levein as Hearts prepared to take a corner and was sent off. Hearts missed the resultant penalty. He did manage to convert a slack back pass at Ibrox but generally his play was pretty poor as 4 goals in 30 appearances suggests. Indeed my main memory of him is clattering into a Policewoman at Airdrie’s old Broomfield stadium with such force that he sadly knocked her out and left her with injuries which ended her police career.

Since those days he admits he hasn’t watched any Scottish football but still feels able to pontificate on the game up here. Neil Lennon let him have both barrels when he read Cascarino’s comments. The former Celtic Boss said…

“It is disrespectful. How much Scottish football does Tony watch?” said Lennon. To go 63 games at any level is remarkable. Celtic are an excellent side and they proved that with a few games in the Champions League. We’re not getting the money the English clubs can get but the Scottish game is improving. It’s getting healthier. You only have to look at the calibre of manager working up here. I find the competition and the quality of the games really refreshing. We don’t need people from down south lecturing us on how the game is up here. There is still that rawness here. There is still that passion. It’s still a working-class sport up here. You don’t have too many prawn sandwich brigades, who kill the soul of the game. I’ve been to a lot of grounds in England where the atmosphere is awful. I’ve seen some absolute rubbish in England. Rubbish. I watch some games in the Championship and the football is eye-bleeding, whereas I have seen some really good games up here.”

Comparing Scottish football to the game in a country with ten times the population is of course pointless. The rise of satellite TV and the billions it gives to the English game has witnessed an influx of foreign players chasing the money. When Celtic played Leeds United in the European Cup in 1970, all 22 players on the field were from the British Isles. When they played Manchester City last season, City had one English player in their side (Sterling) while Celtic had 4 Scots (Gordon, Tierney, Brown & Forrest) with 3 more on the bench. (Griffiths, McGregor & Armstrong) Money buys quality players and offers a big advantage to rich clubs but nonetheless Celtic matched Manchester City in both those games.
Scotland has a similar population to Norway but has historically punched above its weight, Scottish teams have played in 10 European finals and Scotland currently holds the following European crowd records:

  • ·        European Cup: Celtic v Leeds Utd 136,505 (1970)
  • ·        Scottish Cup: Celtic v Aberdeen 146,433 (1937)
  • ·        League Cup : Celtic v Rangers 107,609 (1965)
  • ·        League Match: Rangers v Celtic 118,567 (1939)
  • ·        International: Scotland v England 149,415 (1937)

Today Scottish football is watched by a higher percentage of the population than any major league in Europe. It is often criticised as being uncompetitive but a look around Europe shows that Leagues all over are being dominated by fewer sides. Juventus are currently chasing 7 in a row. Bayern have won the last 5 German titles while Barcelona and Real Madrid have won 14 of the last 17 La Liga titles. Even the much vaunted EPL saw Leicester City become just the fifth side to win the title since 1995.

We’ve all dealt with the ‘my Nan would be top scorer in Scotland’ types on holiday or online. Dig a little deeper and they’re usually clueless about Scottish football. The game here undoubtedly took a dip in the modern era due to bad strategic planning by an amateurish SFA, dreadful stadiums which herded fans in and out like cattle, disgraceful facilities to develop our young players and the sort of changes in society which saw youngsters playing football on computers rather than on the field. It was also damaged by the collapse of Rangers and the bitterness and rancour that produced.

That being said there is much to be optimistic about; stadiums are better, training facilities far superior for players of all ages. Crowds are on the up as the following averages for 2017-18 season show:

  • ·        Celtic: 58,474
  • ·        Rangers: 49,346
  • ·        Hearts: 22,995
  • ·        Hibernian: 17,957
  • ·        Aberdeen: 15,862

Our game is far from perfect but it isn’t the ‘non-league’ standard some commentators in England suggest it is. It has a way to go to recapture the great days of the past but for a nation of 5 million we do OK. I enjoy the rawness and passion of Scottish football, the tribalism and petty rivalries but also the humour and knowledge of the average fan who is far more clued up than the ‘my Nan’ brigade.

At the end of the day it’s best to just smile at the rank arrogance and ignorance of those who have such a pathological downer on Scottish football. Folk who are paid to pontificate on the game like Cascarino are just too lazy to actually come and look at the reality of our game and rely on tired old clichés. His opinion, like his career at Celtic, is best forgotten. 

As the old saying  goes; 'Never allow yourself to be defined by someone else's opinion of you.' 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Beautiful Noise

Beautiful Noise

There was a moment during that pulsating match with Bayern Munich on Tuesday evening just after Callum McGregor scored when I looked around and drank in the sights and sounds of Celtic Park in full flow. From every corner of the stadium noise poured from the stands onto the pitch, it was an amazing assault on the senses. The racket was deafening but it was also in a strange way a beautiful noise. What else in our sanitised lives leads to such an outpouring of emotion, passion and joy?  It’s as if the voice of every Celtic fan at the game merged to become one to roar out our songs of hope and joy. When such incidents occur, it can be a deeply emotional moment. Not only because we find ourselves subsumed into the greater whole that is the wonderful Celtic support but also because we remember in those moments that we’re following generations of Celtic supporters; our fathers, uncles, mothers, grandfathers and in some cases great-grandfathers, who also felt this passion for Celtic. It was after all they who gifted it to us.

Celtic may not have achieved the result their play merited on Tuesday but once again the Celtic supporters proved that they have few equals in European football. Experienced professional like Arjen Robben took time to express his appreciation of the Celtic Park atmosphere as did other Bayern players and officials. You got the impression it wasn’t some patronising line but genuine appreciation of an ambience which is rare even in the raucous world of the Bundesliga. One German Reporter went further and described Celtic Park in the following terms….

‘‘If you want to know what the big bang feels like, you just have to be in Celtic Park when Celtic Glasgow scores.  This stadium is pure magic. The fans in the stands are just amazing. Goosebumps guaranteed. The perfect football atmosphere. Or simply: The best football mood in the world! I was able to watch many great games in Europe and have lots of magical moments: "You'll Never Walk Alone" in Liverpool. 100,000 fans in Barcelona singing the Barca anthem. The crazy fans of Sevilla, who ignite a runner in front of the teams, which makes the whole stadium shake. The whipping fans of Atlético Madrid. The trembling south stand in Dortmund, when the winner against Real came. . But Celtic tops it all! I've never heard a stadium roar louder than McGregor's 1-1 goal. Everyone, really everybody jumped up. Fantastic!  A great orgasm of almost 60,000 Scottish throats. Magic also the 67th minute, when the whole stadium lights up the mobile phone lights and all fans sing the "In the heat of Lisbon" a song for the European Cup Heroes of 1967.’’

Of course we were disappointed to lose a game we could so easily have won but the mood among the Celtic faithful as they trooped out of the stadium after the game was upbeat. There are no ‘good’ defeats but many positives were taken from a game in which Celtic showed that they are capable of competing with one of the top European sides. Gone were the ‘rabbits in the headlights’ we saw when PSG came calling on match day one. Celtic harried and chased Bayern when they had to but also played some beautifully controlled attacking football which at times cut through the Germans’ well marshalled defence. Armstrong missed a glorious chance early on and Dembele almost finished off a beautifully constructed counter attack in that frantic first half.

Of course Celtic paid the price for defensive errors and missing chances but that is what happens when you play in the big boys playground. Rodgers was rightly effusive in his praise of his team but he knows that to stand any chance against the big guns you can’t give them any gifts. So it’s on to Paris in three weeks and realism tells us that we will be facing the outstanding team in Europe in the French capital. PSG have won all their four games so far in the Champions League and have scored 17 goals without conceding a single one. They have won 9 and drawn 2 of their 11 league games, scoring 34 goals in the process. Even at our very best it would be an incredible performance to go there and return with anything. I never watch a Celtic game thinking they will lose but even the most diehard fan will recognise the enormity of the task in Paris.

At the outset our real target in this group was to defeat the higher ranked Anderlecht side and secure European football after Christmas. We have a great chance of doing just that. Should Celtic make it through to the Europa League in the New Year they will find teams of the quality of Villareal, Lazio, AC Milan, Arsenal, Zenit St Petersburg and Lyon lying in wait. Third placed sides from the Champions League will also join them to make the last 32 an exciting prospect and another opportunity to grow and learn in Europe.

These are exciting days to be a Celtic fan and Europe remains the icing on the cake for many supporters. Brendan Rodgers is still just 18 months into his team building exercise and with patience and some judicious purchases, this team can and I think will, improve further. The squad now face five consecutive away games in November before facing a hectic 9 games in 28 days in December. Such a full fixture list is a sign of a successful team and we’d all rather be playing in cup finals and in European ties than sitting at home watching others do on TV. 

By the time Rangers come to Celtic Park on December 30th though we will be clearer about where we stand in both the SPFL and Europe. We must do a professional job in all competitions and ensure we are ready for a challenging and undoubtedly bruising period of games. Celtic’s unbeaten domestic record will be tested but with Rodgers calming influence and steady hand on the tiller we can approach each game with confidence. A new UK record of 63 games will be set tomorrow if Celtic avoid defeat at St Johnstone and that would be a marvellous achievement for the club. It’s an old adage to take ‘one game at a time’ but that’s exactly what Celtic need to do now.

The supporters will follow the side everywhere in big numbers and give them that marvellous backing wherever they play. When Anderlecht arrive at Celtic Park in December they will be met by that wall of noise and a team showing signs of maturing at this level. We all crave and hunger for these big European games under the lights as we back the team through arduous qualifying rounds played in the heat of summer in far off places like Kazakhstan or Israel.  As we show time and time again, the big stage brings out the very best in Celtic’s supporters.

That beautiful noise will soon pour down again from the stands again and give even experienced professionals goosebumps. There’s an old Neil Diamond song which contains the lyric…

‘‘There’s a beautiful noise made of joy and of strife
Like a symphony played by a passing Parade, it’s the music of life
There’s a beautiful noise and it’s a sound that I love
And it makes me feel good like a hand in a glove
Yes it does, yes it does…..What a beautiful noise’’

I’ve been privileged to hear that noise for many years now and I never tire of it. I heard it back in the days when I’d hold man old man’s hand as we marched along the Gallowgate and my boyish excitement when I saw the floodlights of Celtic Park lighting up the east end sky. The new stadium too has had its share of magical moments; watching as we beat Barcelona on a never to be forgotten night in 2012 will live with me forever as will the thrill of watching Nakamura’s free kick flash through the air on that famous night against Manchester United. So many memories of games won and lost, great players and great goals still seared into my mind. All of it shared as I stood shoulder to shoulder with the best fans around.

Following Celtic has been like a lifelong love affair; they thrill you, infuriate you at times but you always come back for more because life would be much the poorer without them.