Saturday, 27 May 2017

The Greatest Feat in Football

The Greatest Feat in Football

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s epic European cup win of 1967 has been a joy behold. The media has been full of pictures and video clips of smiling faces beneath the blue Portuguese skies of a summer long ago. Social media has also been awash with pride at the achievements of Stein’s team. This feel good factor is of course augmented by the current squad’s triumphant march through a season which sees them on the brink of a historic Treble and a season of invincibility in Scotland.

How do measure what the Lisbon Lions achieved? What rod can you use? A bunch of lads who learned their football in the streets and back courts of industrial Scotland took on the sophisticates, the so called elite of European football, and beat them. I don’t just mean ‘beat’ them in the normal sense of winning a football match, Celtic shattered Inter, demoralised them and left them in no doubt that they’d been thrown to the Lions.

Celtic breathed life and joy back into a game being strangled by defensive football and cynicism. There was an almost naïve approach to Celtic’s play in that magical year. They basically told opponents; ‘We’ll be attacking you from the start. What are you going to do about it?’  In that magnificent season of 1967 no one could live with them and Celtic swept the board by winning every trophy they competed for.

For Celtic supporters those days carry an iconic significance. Those who saw that magnificent team play wear their memories like medals. For those too young to have seen the Lions play there is an added sense of pride that even half a century ago Celtic was capable of such brilliance. Make no mistake about it; Celtic’s destruction of Inter Milan was a seminal moment in European football history. Negativity and defensive tactics were strangling the game at the top level till a bunch of pale faced Scots arrived on the scene and blew the cobwebs away. It is no coincidence that the great teams which followed Celtic were committed to a more expansive, attacking game. It is a measure of how Celtic dominated Inter that defender Tarcisco Burgnich told Jonathan Wilson in his book ‘Inverting the Pyramid- A history of football tactics (2008)

‘’We just knew, even after 15 minutes that we were not going to keep them out. It was a miracle that we were still 1-0 up at half time. Sometimes in those situations your confidence increases and you start to believe. Not on that day. Even in the dressing room at half time we looked at each other and we knew we were doomed. I remember at one point Picchi turned to the goalkeeper and said, ‘Guiliano, let it go, just let it go. Sooner or later they’ll get the winner.’  I never thought I would hear those words. I never imagined my captain would tell our keeper to throw in the towel. But that shows how destroyed we were at that point. It’s as if we didn’t want to prolong the agony.’

The agony was not prolonged as Steve Chalmers, a lad from the Garngad, provided the coup de gras and guided Celtic's greatest side to glory.

The transformation of the Clydeside in the 50 years since that Lisbon triumph has been remarkable. The shipyards and heavy industry have receded and the bright flats, shinning Science Centre and SECC have risen in their place. Social conditions in Glasgow too have changed greatly too as have social attitudes. Celtic’s triumph not only delighted the community which gave birth to the club but also made many Scots feel a sense of pride that a club from these shores could play that way and bring such glory to Scotland.

Celtic will always be the repository of collective memory and identity for those who are children of the Irish diaspora in Scotland but Lisbon opened doors, opened eyes, and the club increasingly found more and more supporters from all walks of life. Celtic has always opened its arms to all and rightly eschewed any thoughts of the narrow, exclusive tribalism others sullied themselves with. The club is rightly proud of its Irish Catholic roots but equally proud of its inclusive ethos. Tom Devine, himself of Irish stock and Scotland’s best known historian took the long view of what Lisbon meant to the Irish Catholic community of Scotland…

‘We weren’t exactly an underclass but we were pretty close to it and this team was the sporting Champions of that ethnicity. Lisbon was probably almost as significant as the visit of the Pope in 1982. Lisbon was, if you like, a stage in their emancipation.’

So it was that thousands of them gathered in the very modern setting of the Hydro to celebrate the achievements of the Lions of Lisbon. It was a joyous night, a night of poignancy and much emotion. Sir Alex Ferguson, a man steeped in Glasgow’s footballing culture said of the achievements of 1967…

"They set the pattern for a period, particularly when Manchester United the next year did it. From '65 to '67, if someone had written a book about it they would call it fiction. It was amazing. It was the greatest feat in football. They were pioneers for British football, there's no doubt about that, Sir Matt at Manchester United was rebuilding the team after the Munich air disaster, but they got to a semi-final, which was a great achievement for a very young side. For Celtic to do it with 11 players from within 25 miles of each other is astonishing. This event will recognise the achievement, but also applaud the players and management staff who achieved it. It will never be done again."

As thousands sang, cheered and cried a few tears of joy in the Hydro there was a sense that Celtic continues to be far more than just a football club. They remain the emblem of a community which has come on a remarkable journey. It was somewhat poignant they had gathered to celebrate the achievements of their team in sight of the very docks where the overcrowded cattle boats once disgorged their human cargo escaping hunger and poverty in Ireland. Those impoverished and often despised people overcame bigotry, exploitation and appalling social conditions to eventually take their place in every sector of Scottish society.

So it is with pride that we remember the Lisbon Lions. They gifted us an incredible legacy. They stated with unmistakable style and skill that this is what you can achieve if you believe, if you fight to the end and never give up.

Fifty years have come and gone
Yet still the memory lingers on
The pride, the joy, the sheer delight
They raised us to the highest height
Glowing shirts of white and green
Carried our hopes, lived our dreams
That day beneath the Lisbon sun
When the Lions roared and football won!

From the voices of countless Celtic folk down the ages I say to the wonderful Lisbon Lions:

Thank You. Your achievements fill us with pride. As long as there is a Celtic you will have the place of highest honour in our hearts.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Money can't buy you that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 May 2017

A long time in football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A tale of two old men

A tale of two old men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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