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)