Sunday, 25 June 2017

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

Celtic’s possible Champions league qualifying tie with Linfield FC has caused a lot of debate among the Celtic support with some being unhappy that the club is refusing to take any tickets for the tie. The Police Service of Northern Ireland were rightly concerned about the date of any possible match not coming at the height of the marching season when their resources are most stretched. A delay of a couple of days seems wise in that sense as many Scottish Orangemen and their camp followers would be in town too and that would only add to the cocktail of negative possibilities. The refusal of tickets means that an occasion which would have a real edge to it may well be toned down a little.

Celtic has played in Belfast in the past with the most recent occasion being the tie with Cliftonville a few years ago. On that occasion the Celtic support was welcomed like brothers and segregation was unnecessary. Indeed, many Belfast folk are huge Celtic fans and their disappointment about not getting to see the side in action against Linfield is obvious. Some live within a mile or two of Windsor Park and are understandably gutted about the decision not to allow Celtic fans to attend. These are committed fans who travel thousands of miles every season and spend thousands of pounds in the process to back Celtic. It’s bitterly ironic that now Celtic is playing in their home town they can’t get to see them. Celtic may worry about their reputation should any crowd issues materialise but surely the PSNI should be able to Police a game adequately?  It’s also possible some fans might purchase tickets anyway and take their chances on the night. That scenario could be more problematic than giving Celtic fans an end and keeping them all together.

Historically, Celtic played numerous matches in Belfast, particularly against the now defunct Belfast Celtic and their trips to Ireland were always eagerly anticipated. Belfast Celtic was a fine team in the inter-war years and they and Linfield fought it out for the title for most of that period. Their rivalry was of course played out against the historical backdrop of the events going on in Ireland at the time. Partition in 1922 had marooned a sizable nationalist population in the new six county state and their presence there wasn’t always welcomed. Poet Seamus Heaney said of growing up in those times…

‘You didn’t grow up in Lord Brookenborough’s Ulster without developing a ‘them and us’ mind-set. Even though there was no sectarian talk or prejudice at home there was still an indignation at the political status quo. We knew and were given to know that Ulster wasn’t meant for us, that the British connection was meant to displace us.’

That it irked some to know that a third of the people in the new northern state were not of ‘their kind’ is an understatement. That third has now grown to be almost half the population of the six counties. The future will increasingly see those once excluded and gerrymandered out of influence taking a full and leading part in decisions affecting their people.

In those years after the war though Belfast Celtic were, like their Glasgow cousins, a symbol of a community and a source of pride to a people expected to ‘know their place’ but as in Glasgow these Croppies were not ones for lying down. For others Belfast Celtic like their Glasgow counterparts were a symbol of all they disliked.

In terms of their rivalry with Linfield, things came to a head in December 1948 when they met in a keenly anticipated league match. When Jimmy Jones, Belfast Celtic’s young forward tackled Bob Bryson, the later went down heavily and was stretchered off. It was an innocuous tackle with no real malice but the crowd were on Jones’ back from that moment on. Things were hardly helped by the public address system announcing to an already volatile crowd at half time that Bryson’s leg had been broken. The second half saw fighting in the crowd and two players sent off as things got heated on the pitch too. Belfast Celtic took the lead from a penalty but in the dying seconds Billy Simpson scored an equaliser. Simpson was later to play for Rangers, scoring their only goal in the 1957 League Cup Final which they lost 7-1 to Celtic.

As the final whistle sounded fans spilled onto the field and several Belfast Celtic players were, to use the euphemistic language of the time, ‘jostled’ by hostile Linfield fans. The ire of the more virulent sort though was saved for Jimmy Jones who was thrown over the parapet wall into the enclosure and beaten by the mob. Jones leg was badly broken. He recalled what happened the following day as he lay in hospital…

‘When they came towards me I could see nothing but heads. I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t find a Policeman. Somehow I made it onto the running track but was thrown over the parapet wall into the enclosure. I got up and ran and I was kicked. I tried to get up again but it was hopeless. My leg wobbled. I heard a Policeman say (to the mob) ‘If you don’t stop kicking I’ll use my baton.’ I think the crowd must have held it against me for the Bryson incident.’

Linfield FC was horrified at these events and rightly castigated the thugs among their support for the violence. They apologised to Jones and made it known that the incident with Bryson was a complete accident. For Belfast Celtic, there were hard decisions ahead and in the end the club withdrew from the League and left football in Northern Ireland all the poorer for their absence.

Times have moved on since those dark days even if some still cling to old attitudes. Policing is better, stadiums more conducive to crowd control and supporters generally know that they will be brought to book for any public displays of disorder. Indeed a year after the disorder following the Hibs-Rangers Scottish Cup Final the all seeing eye of CCTV was still bringing culprits to court.

It’s a little sad that the ordinary, decent supporters of Celtic and Linfield can’t go watch a European tie between their sides. Of course it would be tie laced with tribal rivalry but football thrives on such contests. Personally I’d have switched the first leg tie to Celtic Park but I can see why Linfield want the home tie first. A spanking in Glasgow might kill the tie and lessen interest there. Celtic may well have their fans safety in mind with their decision to refuse a ticket allocation but perhaps they also have one eye on UEFA who have fined them 9 times in the past 10 years or so for fan behaviour, much of it admittedly fairly mild by standards elsewhere. As the club plans to continue its growth as a global brand, bad publicity is not what they desire.

Whatever happens in Belfast it remains imperative that the club progresses to the next phase of the Champions League. The money and exposure Celtic receives for making it to the group stages is important but so too is its impact on potential signings who see the allure of those big nights in Europe. It’s also a huge boost for the support who simply love these big nights under the lights. Should Celtic make it then few will remember the tie with Linfield as the Champions League anthem reverberates around the stadium and 60,000 Celtic fans split the east end sky with that almighty roar. Nothing in domestic football can match it.

Eyes on the prize Bhoys, eyes on the prize.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Days of Thunder

Days of Thunder

There was an ominous rumble of thunder over Hampden Park as Tom Rogic glided elegantly into the Aberdeen penalty box and fired Celtic to a memorable cup final victory last week. As the drifting Glasgow rain fell, half of Hampden’s great bowl celebrated wildly while the other half looked on with a mixture of stunned disbelief and probably a fair degree of resignation as Celtic had stopped Aberdeen in their tracks in 6 out of 6 games across three competitions this season. In truth, after a first half which Aberdeen shaded, Celtic looked the stronger, fitter side as the game wore on and had a few chances to take the lead. A goal was coming but until it did there was always that fear lurking in the back streets of your mind that Aberdeen would snatch a winner. As the clock ticked down, the game was there for someone to grab by the scruff of the neck and force the outcome. Thankfully it was the big Celt who seized the moment.

In a season filled with dramatic moments Rogic’s exhilarating winner came in the last moments of the last game of the season and demonstrated that this Celtic side, like all good Celtic sides, fights right to the end. They have demonstrated all season long that they can find a way to win games even on those few occasions when the team were not playing particularly well. This season though will best be remembered for Celtic’s return to playing a fast expansive game. It has been a season of goals, attacking play and real pride that Rodgers’ side not only completed a wonderful treble and an invincible season, but did so playing football the Glasgow Celtic way.

They had scored 106 goals in the league, collected 106 points, won all three major competitions and in 12 games against their two closest rivals had won 11 and drawn one. There were two 5-1 demolitions of Rangers bookending an invincible league campaign and the team had performed with some credit in the toughest Champions League group they have ever played in. The supporters too had played their part turning up in huge numbers and giving the side the sort of backing some of the so called ‘big clubs’ in England would envy.

The joy of this season has been doubled by the fact that the Celtic family is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the triumph in Lisbon in 1967; that achievement is still recognised as the greatest deed in Celtic’s long and illustrious history and rightly so. It has been wonderful to watch the stadium being lit up by thousands of phones during the dark days of winter as the Celtic Park faithful sing their homage to the men of 1967. In every game this season the sixty seventh minute has echoed to the words of a familiar song;

‘In the heat of Lisbon, the fans came in their thousands, to see the bhoys become champions 67.’ 

Most of those singing will not have been alive when the Lions mauled Inter but have been taught the stories by relatives who were and watched video footage of Stein’s remarkable side. All Celtic followers are rightly proud of the achievements of 50 years ago.

In the days following that dramatic cup final with Aberdeen I caught up with some of the excellent documentaries which recalled that summer of 1967 and the deeds of a team of working class Scottish lads who took Europe by storm 50 years ago. The best was undoubtedly BBC Scotland’s excellent ‘Glasgow 1967: The Lisbon Lions.’ It captured the spirit of the times brilliantly. Glasgow was on the cusp of modernisation and huge swathes of so called slum areas were about to be demolished and replaced by high rise towers and soulless schemes which lacked the community spirit of the old districts. My old man used to point to the two ugly tower blocks built by the Gallowgate as we walked to Celtic Park and say with a wry smile, ‘Filing cabinets for people.’ Those flats stood for almost 50 years, a two fingered salute to the working class community forced to deal with their communities being ripped apart by the city planners and their workplaces vanishing as the scourge of mass unemployment returned.

As Glasgow was being remade in the sixties, its football sides were a shining light to the people who followed them with such passion. Celtic simply sparkled that season and approached European ties with a confidence which belied the fact it was their first time in the European cup. As Zurich and Nantes were swept aside the fans began to think the impossible might just be conceivable. As Vojvodina fell to McNeill’s last gasp header and Dukla were fatally wounded at a raucous Parkhead, Celtic found that they were standing on the cusp of greatness. Surely they would not fail? Surely those thousands who followed them to Lisbon would find a happy ending to their incredible story?

History records that Celtic defeated Inter Milan 2-1 in the twelfth European Cup final. Those bare statistics don’t begin to describe the verve and skill nor the fitness and spirit of a Celtic side which would not be denied their moment of glory. Their victory was a triumph for football and a triumph for a club which was born into a harsh and uncaring world.

As the last of the Lions age and their deeds recede into history it is hugely satisfying that the supporters show them such affection. Of course it pains us to see Billy McNeill, once so vigorous and commanding as a player and Manager, suffering from early onset dementia. None of us will escape the ravages of time but few of us will achieve in our lives what Billy and his comrades did in that golden era.

The bonds between the Lisbon Lions are as strong as ever and one of the most beautiful moments of the documentary shows them as young men in their prime emerging from the dark tunnel at the Estadio Nacional into the Portuguese sunshine. Those green and white shirts seemed to glimmer in the bright sunlight as a piano played a delicate and poignant version of a tune recognisable to all Celtic fans as ‘In the heat of Lisbon.’ I must confess to feeling emotional as I thought of those young Scottish lads who played with such flair and style on that day long ago when history was made.

So when the thunder rumbled at Hampden last week and Tom Rogic sealed a famous cup win, I was delighted that in this special season Celtic had risen to the challenge and played the game in a manner the Lions would have approved of.  History swirls around Celtic like incense in a Cathedral; you can feel it, you can smell it and you can sense it. The class of 2016-17 kept faith with the bhoys of 1966-67.

The last scenes in the documentary showed Bobby Lennox gazing out to sea on his beloved Ayrshire coast, thinking of his comrades and saying wistfully ‘We were like brothers, I loved them. I absolutely loved them.’ Bertie Auld, eyes misting with tears spoke of his absent comrades with three simple words; ‘I miss them.’

We all do Bertie. We miss Ronnie, Tommy, Bobby, Jimmy, Joe, Sean and of course big Jock. They will never be forgotten.

I hope next season we still occasionally sing their praises; still make some old men smile when they hear Celtic Park reverberating to the words:

‘In the heat of Lisbon, the fans came in their thousands to see the bhoys become champions 67!’