Thursday, 23 March 2017

Walking on air

Walking on air

The passing of Derry man Martin McGuinness this week had me thinking of the last time I visited the north of Ireland. It was two or three years ago and while I was there I took a trip on the Tour bus which travels around the fine city of Belfast. Not that I was into what some call ‘conflict tourism,’ rather it seemed an easy way to see the city. It was interesting to see for the first time so many of the streets and areas which made the news reports so often when I was growing up. The peace wall dividing part of the city is an echo of those times and a reminder that tensions can still be raised at times. On that sunny morning I had the surreal experience of sitting on the top deck of the bus as it wound its way around streets where ordinary folk were living ordinary lives. A man walking his dog glanced up at the tour bus in time to be photographed by some Chinese tourists. Another chap cutting his grass barely seemed to notice the bus edging along the road by his house.

From the ordinary streets of the city the bus then moved on to the Parliament building at Stormont, surely the grandest ever Parliament constructed for such a small province? The statue of a Dublin Lawyer, Edward Carson, stands in defiant pose. This was the man, above all others, who guided the Unionists down the path of partition and in that sense he remains a figure of distaste to many Republican Irishmen who saw the division of their country as an unforgivable crime. He was not without some sensibilities though and warned the new Northern Ireland province in 1920s not to treat the Catholic minority marooned in the six counties poorly…

"We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.’’

Any unbiased history shows clearly that the new Northern Ireland state failed to listen to him and discrimination, biased policing and denial of basic civil rights, such as one man one vote, was denied to the minority Catholic population.

The excellent tour guide on the bus was clearly well schooled in the art of sounding totally neutral as he narrated this journey around the city’s main historical features. From the impressive City Hall to the much bombed Europa Hotel; from the new Titanic Quarter and the old Harland and Wolff shipyard, he gave us some fascinating, if carefully scripted, information. He smiled as he told the tourists on the bus that the ‘H & W’ signs painted onto the huge cranes in Harland and Wolff’s meant, ‘Hello and Welcome.’ Having read Andrew Boyd’s book ‘Holy War in Belfast’ it seems clear that the shipyard was not always a welcoming place for members of the minority community in the province.

It’s hard to travel around Belfast and not notice the murals or memorials to the various incidents which signpost the conflict. One such place is the area around St Matthew’s church in Short Strand. It was here in that hot summer of 1970 that local people acted to protect their area against what they saw as a loyalist incursion. They knew well what had occurred the previous summer when Catholic streets were burned to the ground as the Police did nothing. The ensuing gun battle around St Matthew’s lasted all night and left 3 dead and 28 wounded but the pogrom was avoided.  Loyalists, of course, have their own version of events but what cannot be denied is that such occurrences marked the continuing spiral of violence which was to tear that society apart for the best part of 30 years.  God alone knows how ordinary folk managed to bring up their children and do their best for their families in the midst of the chaos around them.  I don’t make judgements about the hard choices people had to make then. When the state fails in its duty to protect citizens, who can blame people for protecting their families and homes themselves?

The tabloids here in the UK have not been kind to Martin McGuinness and as usual portray Britain’s role in Ireland as some sort of peace mission keeping the two tribes of waring Paddies apart. The truth is more prosaic as anyone who studies the conflict will soon discover. None of the armed factions came out of it with their honour intact. Not the paramilitaries, not the politicians and certainly not the security apparatus of the British state which demonstrated that old ruthlessness which Indians, Boers, Kenyans and many others have long known about.

The unity of any people is first conceived in their minds. There is a case for arguing that the violence of the troubles made Irish unity a more distant prospect. The peace process was in many ways remarkable, seemingly implacable enemies worked together and McGuinness and Ian Paisley seemed to strike up a genuine friendship. Paisley seemed to mellow greatly after his near death experience in the early 1990s and talked of wanting to be remembered as a peacemaker. McGuinness never gave up his aim of reunifying his country but accepted that the armed struggle was over. The vast majority in the province will surely be happy that it is?

At the demographics show that Northern Ireland will have a Catholic majority in a generation, there needs to be a coming together of people. There is a need to escape the ‘winners and losers’ mentality of the past and try to forge a future where everyone has a respected place. None of this is easy but even on some of the darkest of the troubles there were shafts of light cutting through the darkness. I recall in the aftermath of the Remembrance Day explosion in Enniskillen the astonishing courage of Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter that day. He said of her as they lay in the rubble…

‘She held my hand tightly, gripped me as hard as she could. She said ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her exact words to me and those were the last words I ever heard her say. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie, she loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.’

The hope for all conflicts is that good people can forgive and look forward instead of back all of the time. Most people know well the faults and failings of the past but there needs to be more focus on the sort of society we can create in the future. Bill Clinton said of Martin McGuinness today…

‘’After growing up at a time of rage and resentment, he decided to fight discrimination by whatever means available to the passionate young, including violence. He realised that you could have an Ireland that was free, independent and self-governing and still inclusive. That the dreams of little children were no more or no less legitimate just because of their faith background or their family's history or the sins of their parents."

Clinton spoke of the need to honour McGuinness by finishing his work and quoted Seamus Heaney who received the Nobel Prize for literature. Clinton said…

‘Heaney said that the secret of his success was deciding to walk on air against his better judgement. Believe me when the people who made this peace did it every single one of them decided to take a flying leap into the unknown against their better judgement.’’

As projections show that Catholics will be in a majority in Northern Ireland within 20 years, there will be challenges ahead should that translate into majority support for reunification. That is by no means certain but at the end of the day people need to live together for true unity is surely far more than the absence of borders just as peace is more than the absence of war.

I’m hopeful that the land of my forebears will reach an accommodation in future in which all are equally respected and valued. Whatever they decide, I hope it is without the rancour and violence of the past.

It has been a long and painful road for Ireland but there is always hope and there are always good people working away for a better future.

Saturday, 18 March 2017



A player knows when he’s hurt and Henrik Larsson knew something was very wrong as he lay on the emerald turf of the Parc Olympique Lyonaise that misty October night in 1999. Dutch referee Rene Temmink was on the spot very quickly and Larsson, who played in Holland with Feyenoord, said to him in Dutch, ‘I think I’ve broken my leg.’ As he lay on the grass, the sickening realisation that his season may well be over didn’t stop the Swede calculating how many months it would be to the following summer’s European Championships and whether he would be able to recover in time to play in them. His positivity and professionalism were never in doubt but as Celtic supporters in the stadium and at home watched Larsson being stretchered off, the big question of how John Barnes’ side would manage without him troubled many. The team had gone 17 games without loss before that tie in Lyon. After it they lost 4 of the next 6 matches.

Barnes tenure struggled on and the Scottish weather had a say in his final demise as Celtic Manager. A storm had loosened a piece of guttering on one of the Celtic Park stands leading to a cup tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle being postponed until early February 2000. The midweek tie produced perhaps one of the poorest results in Celtic’s history. The team looked lost as the lower league visitors deservedly won 3-1. Eric Black, Barnes assistant, tried to rouse them at half time but his tongue lashing led to a violent altercation with Mark Viduka who then refused to play in the second half. It was a shambles and symptomatic that Barnes early promise as Celtic Manager was melting away.

Larsson was months from returning to fitness as the side stuttered along. A League cup win against an Aberdeen side which Celtic had hammered 5-0, 7-0, 5-1 and 6-0 in their four SPL encounters that season, couldn’t disguise the fact that Celtic were a good way behind Rangers Indeed they finished the season 21 points behind the Ibrox side who had spent big and in retrospect spent recklessly to build their side. Change was coming though and in came in the form of a confident, well-spoken Irishman called Martin O’Neil. That warm summer of 2000 was one of huge hope and expectation for Celtic supporters. Rangers had won 11 league titles in the previous 12 seasons and Celtic’s 1998 title win had stopped the ‘Ten’ but wasn’t the springboard to further success the fans had hoped for.

A fit again Larsson lined up with debut boys Chris Sutton and Joos Valgaeren at Tannadice in July 2000 as the Celtic support watched with keen anticipation. Both strikers scored and it was obvious that the Larsson-Sutton partnership would be a potent one. Dick Advocaat’s Rangers was again spending big to try to continue their domination of Scottish football and Torre Andre Flo would arrive for the astonishing sum of £12m. Celtic were spending in a more measured way and O’Neil made sure the players he brought in were up to the rigours of Scottish football. His side was fast, skillful and potent up front but there was now a physicality too. The first real test would come on a hot August day when they met Advocaat’s side at Celtic Park. Sutton had spoken of the need to ‘put Rangers in their place’ and it took him around 60 seconds to begin that process. In 12 incredible minutes Celtic ripped Rangers apart and were 3-0 ahead. It could have been more but for the heroics of Klos in goal.

The moment most Celtic fans remember about that game came in the second half. Sutton fed Larsson with the ball and the Swede nutmegged the hapless Bert Konterman and raced towards Klos as the Celtic support held its breath. What followed was one of those beautiful moments which football produces now and then. Larsson saw the keeper advance towards him an in an instant clipped the ball exquisitely over his head. It arced over the German goalkeeper in the bright August sunshine and nestled in the net.  It was a goal of poetic beauty as well as a signal to those watching of the resurgent confidence and audacity of Larsson and O’Neil’s Celtic. The King was back and so was Celtic. There were exciting times ahead. Larsson said of that goal…

‘That was special for me because of the nutmeg on Bert Konterman first. Then Stefan Klos was coming out of his goal, but the ball was going in as soon as it left my right boot. People still talk about that goal a lot!’

Larsson went on to score 53 goals that season and win the Golden Boot as Europe’s top striker. His achievement is all the more remarkable because the goals scored in the so called ‘big leagues’ of Europe were awarded 1.5 points compared to just 1 point per goal scored in Scotland. It is not being disrespectful to that fine penalty box striker, Ally McCoist to point out that his two golden shoes were awarded when every league in Europe was judged the same with one point for one goal awarded. Goals though were only part of what Larsson brought to Celtic. His all-round team play was excellent and he became something of a talisman. When he played the fans knew they had a chance against any opposition.
The years which followed saw Celtic dominate Scottish football and Larsson cement his reputation as one of the best strikers in Europe. He moved on eventually to Barcelona where he turned the Champions League Final on its head to earn the Catalans a famous victory against Arsenal in Paris. Thierry Henry said after that game…

"People always talk about Ronaldinho, and everything but I didn't see him today - I saw Henrik Larsson. Two times he came on - he changed the game, that is what killed the game - sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto'o and people like that, you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference and that was Henrik Larsson tonight. "

His team mate at Barcelona, the brilliant Ronaldinho, came to call him ‘Idolo’ (my idol) recognising Larsson’s contribution and professionalism on and off the pitch. For Celtic fans, watching him raise the European Cup above his head gave immense satisfaction. Here was a fitting reward and recognition for a fine player who had graced the Hoops for seven wonderful years. It is perhaps tinged with regret that the loss against Porto in Seville stopped him sharing such a moment with them. His 242 goals in 315 games for Celtic marks him as one of the most prolific scorers in the club’s history with only the legendary Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox ahead of him.

I’ve seen many fine players play for Celtic in my many years following the club. Very few match Henrik Larsson in terms of attitude, ability and professionalism. We fans came to love him and I like to think he came to love Celtic as we do. For many he was their ‘Idolo’ and few players deserved that accolade as much as Henrik Larsson.

Thanks for all you did for Celtic. We who saw you play will always remember the times we shared.

You made us happy when skies were grey.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Birth of a Legend

Birth of a Legend

A crowd of several hundred had gathered at the end of Cumberland Street on a grey Scottish morning to watch the coaches pull away. It was one of those spontaneous street gatherings which occurred now and then in the Gorbals. Such gatherings happened at weddings when the ‘scramble’ brought scores of local kids out to see if they could get a few coins when the groom threw the traditional handful of money from the wedding car. They happened when funerals were taking place of well-known characters from the area. They happened on a grand scale when Celtic won a major honour. Indeed thousands were on the streets just two years earlier when they beat Dunfermline to win the Scottish Cup. Today they had gathered to see off a couple of coach loads of locals who were travelling over 1700 miles to Lisbon in Portugal to watch Celtic in the European Cup final. All over Glasgow and indeed Scotland, such farewells were taking place as thousands left for Portugal to see if a dream could become reality.

As the coaches pulled away from the kerb a cheer went up and those on the pavement waved at their brothers, fathers, uncles, friends. From the windows of the tenements which overlooked the scene, flags and green scarves hung and scores of bleary eyed faces watch the buses leave. Those inside the buses banged the windows and sang. Most were drinking despite the earliness of the hour. The song being sung on one of the coaches was picked up by many on the kerb who joined in and the street soon echoed to and old song about days long gone…

‘I’ll leave aside my pick and spade; I’ll aside behind my plough
And I’ll leave aside my old grey mare, no more I’ll need them now
And I’ll leave behind my Mary; she’s the girl I do adore
And I wonder if she’ll think of me when she hears the cannon roar’

As the buses turned the corner and were lost to sight the crowd drifted for home. ‘Wish I was goin’ wi them,’ said Phil McAllister to his good friend Tam Murray. ‘I know whit ye mean, Phil but I think Angie needs ye here this week.’ Phil nodded, his wife was due their first child any day and it would have been selfish to travel to Portugal and leave her to it. Besides, money was tight and having a wee one cost. He couldn’t afford the time off work and had to accept that Celtic’s date with destiny would take place with him watching it on TV. The two friends chatted until Phil reached his close at Crown Street, ‘Mind it’s an early kick aff on Thursday so get yer arse tae my hoose early for a swally,’ Tam smiled, ‘I’m sure she can keep that wean inside for a couple of hours on Thursday.’ Phil grinned, ‘Listen mate, knowing my luck she’ll go intae labour as the teams come oot.’ They parted with an easy smile, the sort good friends share and Phil climbed the stairs to his top floor flat.

Phil sat on the bed beside Angie and stroked her tousled hair, ‘Is that yer Da away?’ she asked quietly. ‘Aye, hen, two days on a bus won’t be much fun but he wouldn’t miss it for the world.’ As the radio quietly played ‘Silence is golden’ in the background, she propped herself up on one elbow, ‘I know you wanted tae go Phil but I need you here. This whole birth thing scares me a bit.’ He held her close, ‘You’ll be fine darling and I’d rather be wi you and that’s the truth.’ He lay on the bed beside her, ‘Some things are more important than fitbaw.’ She smiled, ‘Who are you kidding? You’d be in Lisbon like a shot if I said it was OK!’ He laughed and lay beside her, his nose touching hers, ‘For once yer wrong, I know my place is here wi you so no more of yer nonsense.'

Thursday May 25th 1967 dawned bright and sunny in Glasgow and there was an air of expectancy hanging over the city. It was as if the whole town was holding its breath. Some schools were closing early to allow children to get home in time to see the big game and many workers had pestered bosses for weeks to let then be in the pub or home in time to see the Celts face their fate in Lisbon. At 2 o’clock that afternoon Phil was preparing to head to Tam’s house to watch the game. ’If ye go intae labour get Mrs McIntyre tae phone Tam’s next door neighbours, they’ll let me know and I’ll sprint back here in 5 minutes.’ Such complicated arrangements were common as most Gorbals folk had yet to have a phone installed. ‘I’ll be fine,’ she smiled, ‘not a twinge yet, besides my Ma’s coming around at three. Just enjoy the game and stay sober!’ Phil left her with a hug, which was challenging given the huge baby bump she now had. He was feeling exhilarated by the thought of becoming a dad but equally this match in Lisbon filled his mind. Celtic had a chance in a lifetime to become legends. He skipped down the stair singing quietly to himself, ‘For we only know that there’s gonnae be a show and the Glasgow Celtic will be there!’ He exited the close and was no more than 10 paces into his journey when he heard his wife’s unmistakable voice from the top floor window, ‘Phil!’ He looked up and the expression on her face told him all he needed to know. It was time.

Phil McAllister had no idea of how Celtic were getting on beneath the Lisbon sun as he waited in an ante-room at Rottenrow Maternity hospital on that May afternoon. Long hours hobbled past like old soldiers as he waited on news of his wife. At last as the clock neared 6.15 he was called into the small room where his wife lay looking in equal parts exhausted and delighted. She cradled in her arms a small bundle of life and managed a weak smile towards Phil. ‘Come and meet you son,’ she said quietly. Phil sat on the bed beside her feeling his emotions welling up. He held the tiny child in his arms for the first time and looked at his sleeping face. ‘He’s beautiful, Angie, just beautiful.’

As Phil held his son for the first time that spring evening, 1700 miles away Billy McNeil was holding the European Cup above his head. It glinted and shone in the bright Portuguese sunshine and heralded the birth of a legend.

Phil would hear all the stories of that glorious day in the weeks and months ahead but for now he was content to watch his wife quietly drift into much needed sleep as he held his son. He would in time honour the scorers of those goals in Lisbon by christening his son ‘Thomas Stephen’ but that was all in the future. For now he was content to bask in the little miracle he held in his arms. 

It had been quite a day.

Friday, 3 March 2017


As I stopped by the Statue of Brother Walfrid on a chilly Friday evening to look at the tributes left in memory of Tommy Gemmell, a grizzled old chap beside me mumbled, ‘Another one of the old brigade away eh?’ He introduced himself as John and told me he was the Janitor at one of Glasgow’s more famous colleges. We got talking about Tommy Gemmell and our memories of him. I told him my childhood memories of the galloping full back with the ferocious shot who carried real threat into the opposition’s half in every game he played. He in turn told me the following story which he delivered in a gravelly Glaswegian voice as warm as it was genuine.

John told me that he attended London Road Primary School more than 50 years ago. The school as you know was demolished as the Celtic Way was created a couple of years back. He lived in the tenements which once stood on the London Road opposite Celtic Park. As a lad he and his pals often saw Celtic players returning from training. In those days Celtic changed in the stadium and walked half a mile to Barrowfield training pitch which stood behind the current Celtic Social club building. It seems astonishing to modern ears that some of the best players in Europe got to training in such a manner but that was the way it was then. One day John and his buddies decided to hurl abuse through the school railings at the Celtic players like Gemmell, Johnstone and Chalmers who were walking back to Celtic Park muddy but laughing and joking. John recalled the sectarian nature of the abuse he joined in that day long ago as a boy and wasn’t proud of it.

Later that day as he and his fellow pupils sat in class, the door opened and the head teacher walked in closely followed by the unmistakable figure of Jock Stein and Celtic full back Tommy Gemmell.  Jock addressed the class and told them about the abuse the players had heard that morning. He told them that some of the Celtic players had reported it to him and he had phoned the school to arrange the visit. John still recalls clearly what Stein said to the class all those years ago. ‘To shout things like ‘Fenian B’ or ‘Pape’ at the players is just plain stupid. Celtic are a mixed side and players like Gemmell, Simpson, Wallace and Auld were not Catholics. Indeed I myself am not a Catholic.’  John recalls Gemmell too telling them how silly their behaviour had been and admits to being a little ashamed when confronted in the manner he and his pals had been by Jock Stein.

Of course they were all just silly school kids having a lark but if such things are checked early enough it can help youngsters avoid developing more deep rooted prejudices later in life. John told me that he came from a Rangers supporting family but drifted towards Celtic as he grew and he put much of it down to that chat from Stein and Gemmell. As a teenager he became a committed Celt and has now backed the team for over 45 years. He was genuinely sad at the loss of a man like Tommy Gemmell. ‘Those guys played it like it should be played. I loved Celtic because of the football they played, it was a joy to watch.’ John said to me before saying his farewells and trudging down the Celtic way with just the hint of a glance at the spot where his old school had stood.

A year after that classroom intervention by Jock Stein and Tommy Gemmell Celtic were champions of Europe; helped in no small way by Gemmell’s attacking prowess and howitzer like shot. It was recognised in the Guardian Newspaper the day after Celtic defeated Inter that Tommy Gemmell had played a vital role…

"Stein had correctly said the day before the final; Inter will play it defensively. That's their way and it's their business. But we feel we have a duty to play the game our way, and our way is to attack. Win or lose, we want to make the game worth remembering. Just to be involved in an occasion like this is a tremendous honour and we think it puts an obligation on us. We can be as hard and professional as anybody, but I mean it when I say that we don't just want to win this cup. We want to win it playing good football, to make neutrals glad we've done it, glad to remember how we did it."

The effects of such thinking, and of Stein's genius for giving it practical expression, were there for all the football world to see on Thursday. Of course, he has wonderful players, a team without a serious weakness and with tremendous strengths in vital positions. But when one had eulogised the exhilarating speed and the bewildering variety of skills that destroyed Inter – the unshakable assurance of Clark, the murderously swift overlapping of the full-backs, the creative energy of Auld in midfield, the endlessly astonishing virtuosity of Johnstone, the intelligent and ceaseless running of Chalmers – even with all this, ultimately the element that impressed most profoundly was the massive heart of this Celtic side.

Nothing symbolised it more vividly than the incredible display of Gemmell. He was almost on his knees with fatigue before scoring that minute but somehow his courage forced him to go on dredging up the strength to continue with the exhausting runs along the left wing that did more than any other single factor to demoralise Inter. Gemmell has the same aggressive pride, the same contempt for any thought of defeat, that emanates from Auld.

Before the game Auld cut short a discussion about the possible ill-effects of the heat and the firm ground with a blunt declaration that they would lick the Italians in any conditions.’ 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.’’

It is tempting to say that the splendid football of the Lisbon Lions was eloquently matched by some of the splendid reporting of the game. Through the mists of time or via the wonderful medium of modern technology we can see and hear again the sights and sounds of that day long ago when Celtic proved they were the finest side in Europe. Tommy Gemmell, the man French Magazine, L’Equipe called the ‘Executioner of Inter, the man who smashed their defensive screen’ looms large in that game. His ceaseless hounding of the Inter defence, his strong, probing runs and of course his thunderous shot, all helped change Celtic’s history forever.

In the old footage from Lisbon you can hear the clipped BBC English of Commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme. As Celtic pounded away at the Inter defence some may have worried that the equalising goal might never come. Then in that glorious moment Wolstenholme spoke the words all Celtic fans longed to hear….

‘Now Clark to Murdoch…. In comes Craig… Gemmell… He’s scored! A great goal! He’s done it!’

They knew then they would win and God bless every one of them.

We won’t forget you Tommy or your team mates from those golden days. What times we had; what memories you helped create. What pride we have in your achievements.

Rest in peace and thank you.