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.