Saturday, 19 August 2017

Light a candle

Light a candle

As I strolled happily along the Gallowgate after Celtic’s convincing win against Astana this week, I found myself behind a Dad & two boys of about 9 or 10. The lads were reliving the game in highly excited tones and even sang a few songs together, oblivious to the world. Their youthful enthusiasm and sheer exuberance made me smile. It reminded me of days long gone when, like them, I trailed along behind my old man as he marched through the dark streets of Glasgow towards Celtic Park. I still recall that tinge of excitement when I first saw the old floodlights shining through the gloom and knew that I was close to the stadium.

In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowds milling around the stadium, hear the noise, the songs, the smell the beer and cigarette smoke which lingered in the air. Then it was up to the turnstile where strong hands lifted me over and then that sheer adrenaline rush of reaching the top of the concrete stairs and seeing that lush, emerald rectangle of turf illuminated before us. The songs would already be pouring from the Jungle onto the pitch and to a boy starting out on his time as a Celtic fan it was an exhilarating assault on the senses. This was our theatre, our field of dreams for a couple of magical hours. Here a community gathered to back their team, sing their songs and dream a little.

As I watched Leigh Griffiths slam home Celtic’s fifth goal against Astana there was a joyful surge of mostly younger fans towards the striker as he celebrated in front of us. One or two even surmounted the barriers and raced to embrace their hero. It was in some ways a very symbolic moment. This club means so much to so many people and in that moment the fans and the players were one. When that happens Celtic is capable of punching above their weight and giving anyone a game. Celtic is now very close to the Group stages of the Champions League and only a minor miracle can stop them. You get the idea that Brendan Rodgers is too shrewd to allow anyone to think the job is done until it is actually over.

The euphoria which followed Wednesday’s thumping win wasn’t shared by all in Scotland. Ewan Murray, writing in the Guardian suggested that Celtic’s qualification for the Champions league is good for Celtic and no one else. He said the morning after the match …

But great for Scottish football? A boost to the status of the national sport? We should be spared this overreaction. When a club – or two clubs, let us be clear – with fiscal power to dwarf all before them earns another £30m advantage, the case for broader benefit is virtually non-existent. Only two factors serve as counterpoints: other clubs receive a small and variable consolidation payment from UEFA because of Celtic’s progress, and if indigenous players are afforded more game time against top-level opposition then no harm can be done. Beyond that, the benefit is entirely Celtic’s, as they should be perfectly happy to admit in celebration of their own efforts.’

The belief that Celtic’s success in recent years is bad for Scottish football isn’t universally shared. The club will sell out two stands at Rugby Park this weekend. They will also endow the other top flight clubs with a solidarity payment from UEFA of more than £250,000 should they qualify for the Champions League and for a club like St Johnstone, Kilmarnock or Motherwell that is equivalent to the revenue raised by two or three home games. Celtic is playing with several Scotland regulars in the side and they will be learning from facing top class opposition in Europe. The club is also bringing through Scottish promising youngsters from the Academy who will hopefully develop into Scottish international prospects.

Nor is Scottish football outside Glasgow’s east end devoid of hope. Aberdeen plan a new stadium, Hearts will open a new stand soon to complete the modernisation of Tynecastle, Hibs are back in the SPFL and filling their ground, even Dundee are looking like moving from dens. Rangers may be languishing due to lack of funding and board room squabbling but a club with such a big support will surely one day get their act together? With regards this so called lack of competition, seven different clubs have won the Scottish Cup in the last decade and seven different clubs have won the League cup in that same time period. The big clubs will always dominate in smaller countries as history shows. In Scotland 102 titles have been won by Celtic or Rangers whilst just 19 have been shared by all the other clubs. This is nothing new. The problem isn’t the domination of the title by Celtic, it is the others failing to rise to the challenge Rodgers’ side has lain down.

There’s seems to be an idea that Celtic’s domination of the SPFL is damaging to the game but as in all sports it’s up to the others to raise their game and put in a challenge. Celtic strives to improve each season and is often left to carry the Scottish flag in Europe on their own. Small countries the world over see their national leagues dominated by two or three sides. In Portugal only 2 titles have ever been won by teams outside the ‘big three’ (Benfica, Porto, Sporting CP) and yet their sides do reasonably well in Europe. In Norway, Rosenborg won the title every year from 1992–2004; that’s 13 in a row! Dinamo Zagreb won eleven successive Croatian titles before Rijeka won the league last year. Croatia, population 4.1 million, is ranked ten places above Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient table. Why is that? The Croatian league is poorly supported yet they produce good players who play in the top leagues around Europe. There is the real issue; we are simply not producing enough players of a high enough standard and the footballing authorities in Scotland have dithered for decades about how to reverse this situation.

Scotland’s coefficient as set by UEFA has the SPFL ranked as 26th in Europe. Countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Romania are all ranked higher than Scotland. This is despite the fact that Scotland is per head of population the best supported league in Europe. The problems in Scotland which affects our teams’ performances in Europe is a failure to produce a high standard of players compounded by low levels of finance in the game here. This is particularly true of the TV deal which sees Celtic receive around £3m for winning the title, a sum which is comfortably beaten by Sky pundit Thierry Henry’s yearly pay cheque.

Around Europe the bigger clubs are using their financial muscle to dominate their domestic leagues. Even in the bigger leagues some teams are ruling the roost year after year. Juventus are currently on six in a row while Bayern sit on five. Even the Champions League looks like a rich man’s club as the same mega rich clubs make it to the last eight every year. Indeed the trophy has been won by Real Madrid or Barcelona for six of the past nine years.

Elements of the media in Scotland should stop carping about Celtic’s success and get down to encouraging clubs in the vital job of producing footballers who will raise the standard of our game. A look at the success of Iceland who rose over 100 places in the UEFA rankings in a decade shows that it can be done. Money was invested in grass roots football, in properly trained coaches and supplying purpose built facilities which helped young players develop their skills all year round in the face of their long, cold winters. Huge, bright bubble like structures have been constructed in the tundra like countryside of one of Europe’s most northerly countries and house training facilities which all can access. If Iceland, with a population of 335,000 can build a team which reached the last 8 of the European Championships then surely a football mad country like Scotland could and should aim to be better than we currently are?

Monopoly is seldom good in any business but Celtic’s current domination of the SPFL is no excuse for the poor performances of Scottish clubs in Europe or the national side’s prolonged failure. We’ve been watching our reputation and performance slump for over thirty years and the response of our footballing authorities has been totally inadequate. It remains to be seen if the SFA’s ‘Project Brave’ spearheaded by ex-Celt Malky McKay will finally start to reverse this decline. I hope it does and we get back to producing top players again.

Celtic’s Academy is beginning to produce some promising players to join the impressive Kieran Tierney. Players like Aidan Nesbit, Anthony Ralston and Calvin Miller may soon be pushing at the first team door and young Dembele looks a real prospect too. We saw home produced players such Tierney, McGregor and Forest in action against Astana and that is always pleasing.

Celtic’s success in reaching the Champions League last season and in doing well in the qualifiers this season is something Scottish football should be proud of. There will always be those who dislike the club for their own reasons but like it or not Celtic are currently the only Scottish side doing anything to improve the battered reputation of our game in Europe. Perhaps some should stop carping and try to build sides which will emulate them. As someone once said, ‘It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’

In the meantime the Hoops head for Astana and a real chance to once more secure Champions League football and brighten the dark nights of a Scottish autumn for many of us. I’ll head to those matches (should we qualify) with the same excitement I felt as a boy all those years ago when I ran to keep up with my old man as he marched through the streets of Glasgow to Celtic Park. 

I still get that thrill when I turn the corner and see the lights of Paradise waiting for me.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

A long Shadow

A long Shadow

At dawn on Friday 1st September 1939 the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison of the Westerplatte, Danzig (modern-day Gdansk), in what was to become the first military action in World War Two in Europe. Simultaneously, 62 German divisions supported by 1,300 aircraft of the Luftwaffe commenced the invasion and destruction of Poland. It would take the Wehrmacht just over a month to subdue Poland and the fate of the country was sealed when the Red Army invaded from the east in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

A thousand miles away from the unfolding tragedy in Poland the people of Scotland awoke to find their country on the brink of joining a war which Treaties with Poland suggested they surely would. The Scottish Football League had been awaiting instructions from the Home Office on what to do in the result of the UK going to war and there was an initial period of uncertainty. League matches would go ahead until clubs were notified differently. Saturday 2 September 1939 saw Celtic at Home to Clyde in a bruising match which the Hoops won 1-0. Rangers played on that same day at Cathkin Park where they defeated Third Lanark 2-1.
The following day Britain and France declared war on Germany after the Nazis ignored their ultimatum to withdraw from Poland. Of course the Scottish league simply couldn’t continue when the realisation of what war with Hitler’s Germany would mean. The Scottish League suspended the competition just 5 matches into the season. Players’ contracts were declared void and many full time professionals were forced to seek work outside football. Those at bigger clubs saw their wages slashed and some earned just £2 per week. Hastily organised ‘Emergency’ regional leagues were cobbled together with the clubs in the west joining the Western League and those in Tayside, Edinburgh and Aberdeen joining the Eastern League. It was thought that the shorter journeys to away fixtures would save petrol. These leagues played games and various Emergency Cup competitions with no real break for the whole war. It was felt that some recreation might be good for morale. These leagues were of course unofficial as no team could claim to be Scottish champions when facing just half of the country’s leading teams in their league competition.

One of the great controversies of the time was the amount of professional footballers who received offers of work in protected professions which excluded them from a call up to the armed forces. This lead to the legend of big strapping men hiding out in the shipyards being born and it was not without some substance. The erudite Bob Crampsey in his excellent history of the Scottish Football League stated…

‘Both Old Firm clubs would be severely criticised for their microscopic contribution of leading players to forces. Of the 22 players who wore the first team jerseys in September 1939 and those whose claim to such was unchallenged, only Willie Thornton and Dave Kinnear of Rangers and George Patterson and Willie Lyon of Celtic would end up in uniform.’

It remains a touchy subject among those who follow Rangers that so many of their leading players of the era were employed in ‘reserved occupations’ and thus avoided the call up to military service. As Crampsey points out though it is nonetheless a verifiable fact. That being said Rangers and Celtic players who did go to war such as Willie Lyon or Willie Thornton were undoubtedly brave men who would shake their heads at the petty point scoring of a minority of modern fans who have no comprehension of the horrors they witnessed on active service.

If the Western League had one great failing it was that Celtic didn’t approach it with any enthusiasm whatsoever. Players had to fit training and matches around their other occupations which in time of war made great demands on them. Men would wearily pull on their kit after a tough shift and the standard of football suffered. Good players were allowed to leave and younger, less experienced replacements brought in. On one occasion three of Celtic’s excellent Empire Exhibition cup winning side played against the Hoops. Good players such as Matt Busby were stationed in Scotland but Celtic ignored them and they took their services elsewhere. The club initially ran with a squad of just 14 players. Willie Maley was retired and Jimmy McStay brought in to mind the shop until normality returned.

Bob Crampsey also alludes to an age old issue in Scotland and that is the standard of refereeing. There were some hotly disputed games in the war years including one which ended in a virtual riot and the closure of Celtic Park for a month. Crampsey said…

‘Many of the Press were uneasy about what they considered to be scandalously partial refereeing. There had been disputed decisions in Rangers favour in both matches (Cup ties) and when Dumbarton were equally dissatisfied with the handling of a league match at Ibrox, Waverley, a normally phlegmatic Journalist was moved to reply to a plea from Mr R Lindsay, Chairman of Dumbarton, ‘’You are right in saying that Rangers don’t want favours from Referees but they certainly get them. I appeal to the SFA to let it be known that so far as whistlers are concerned all clubs are equal.’’

The war years saw guest players playing for many clubs in order to help them field a team. Hibs started a match at Tynecastle with players named in the programme as ‘Newman, Junior and Trialist’ playing up front. Some clubs didn’t know until near kick off time who could make it and who was still at work. On one occasion Rangers travelled to Pittodrie for a cup tie and had to call on a player spectating in the stand to fill their ranks. St Mirren were fined for ‘under the counter’ payments to Jimmy Caskie of Everton and Leslie McDowell of Manchester City who turned out for the Saints while stationed in Scotland. Five St Mirren Directors were suspended from the game indefinitely for paying the English players.

A game involving Celtic and Rangers at Ibrox in September 1941 ended in tumultuous scenes when Celtic’s supporters took umbrage at Refereeing decisions against their team. A full scale riot ensued as the home supporters gave as good as they got. Undoubtedly the trouble had been started by Celtic fans initially but the press again alluded to inexplicable Refereeing decisions. Sandy Anderson of the Glasgow Evening News wrote…

‘Then came one of those dreary penalty awards to Rangers and the next thirty minutes was hard to endure.’’

Celtic Park was closed for a month following the scenes at Ibrox and the team played their home matches at Shawfield. Jimmy McStay, try as he might, could not convince the Celtic Board to take wartime football seriously. The club floundered as Rangers swept all before them with the core of their pre-war side still available to them.

Those days built up much suspicion of officials among a generation of Celtic fans. That so called ‘paranoia’ lingered down the decades and incidents became magnified and viewed through the prism of a Scottish society which was in places still hostile to Celtic and all they thought the club represented. My old man could rhyme of incidents and the names of Referees he perceived as treating Celtic harshly. From MC Dale to RH Davidson, they were, in his book, unlikely to give Celtic a fair shake. While there is some substance to his belief that the playing field wasn’t level, the fact that Celtic underachieved on a huge level in those years added greatly to the frustration of the fans and perhaps magnified the poor decisions. 

The war ended in the summer of 1945 and a weary nation looked to football to entertain the masses and brighten the austere post war years. Crowds boomed and the Edinburgh derby would see 65,000 fill Easter Road. Pittodrie held 45,016 for a cup tie with Hearts and clubs all over the land saw crowds show up in record numbers. Celtic seemed unable to shake of their wartime slumber though and took years to build a side capable of challenging for the title. It wasn’t until 1954 that McGrory’s side captained by Jock Stein finally won the title; it was their first since 1938 and their last until 1966.

It was reported in the media this week that some Rangers fans would like the titles won in the unofficial war years to be added to their official honours. You wonder if they seriously believe this to be a credible claim given the fact they were Champions of a regional league in those years. To be national champions, a side must win a national league and unlike in World War One, such an entity simply didn’t exist between 1939-45. It may be that the fine Rangers side of the era would have won a national league but we’ll never know.

The argument that winning Regional titles in the sometimes farcical conditions of wartime football in Scotland could be construed as valid national championship wins is simply unsustainable. So too is any point scoring about players ‘hiding in the shipyards’ as both Celtic and Rangers had players in ‘reserved occupations.’ For some though, it’s all about sophistry. Winning the argument is more important than the truth. When it comes to football in Glasgow, the past casts a long shadow and old wrongs are not easily forgotten.

The game and society have moved on so much since those days even if a few who follow football remain stuck in the past. 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Be Worthy

Be Worthy
In a speech to the House of Commons in1843, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, described the children of London’s poorer areas as:

‘A fearful multitude of untutored savages... boys with dogs at their heels and other evidence of dissolute habits. Girls who drive coal-carts, ride astride upon horses, drink, swear, fight, smoke, whistle, and care for nobody...the morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly.’

To modern eyes his rant seems almost amusing but every generation has their ideas of how the young should behave. Perhaps the Earl should have asked about the lack of schooling and awful social conditions which produced these whistling, fighting, drinking girls rather than simply chastising them as untutored savages.

This weekend saw mixed reactions to the 7000 or so Celtic fans who travelled to the friendly match in Sunderland. Many Sunderland fans marvelled at the noise, passion and colour of the huge Celtic support while a few were following a darker agenda and looking for trouble. Sadly a few who follow Celtic obliged them. Such things happen in the tribal world of football particularly when young men have access to alcohol.

When you compare the media reaction to the 7000 voices singing ‘There’s only one Bradley Lowry’ to a couple of morons chanting a foul ditty about Lee Rigby, you could be forgiven for thinking bad behaviour is all they want to report. Make no mistake about it the vast majority of Celtic supporters were absolutely seething at the behaviour of those chanting about the murdered soldier. Not only because those who hate Celtic wrongly describe it as typical of our support but because it is morally repugnant. Of course many of those who follow another Glasgow side were onto it with glee and pontificating about how evil Celtic supporters are. We take no lessons in morality from hypocrites who have huge issues among their own support to concern themselves with. This isn’t about a point scoring, us v them debate. This is about the decent football fans of all clubs telling the moronic element that enough is enough.

There can however be no deflection from the need to address an issue within our own support. All the ‘whataboutery’ in the world won’t change the fact that a handful of our so called supporters behaved despicably and they need to wisen up. Thankfully the vast majority of Celtic fans called them out for it and hopefully they’ll engage their brains before opening their mouths in future. You can rely on the majority of Celtic fans to tell those going beyond the pale that enough is enough.

All big football clubs have their share of less cerebral followers and it is heartening to see Celtic supporters willing to self-police by letting folk know the standard of behaviour expected. We saw it 30 years ago when a handful of morons racially abused Mark Walters of Rangers at Celtic Park. In those pre internet days it was left to fellow supporters and the Fanzines to call out those guilty of this abhorrent behaviour. Not the View slammed them as ‘racist arseholes’ and reminded them they were standing against everything Celtic stood for.

Celtic fans have been traditionally known as knowledgeable, humorous and friendly. I see the work so many of them do for charity and the way they support the work of the Celtic FC Foundation. I can think of a hundred kindnesses I’ve experienced from fellow fans over the years. Being a Celt means trying to live up to those founding principles of charity, inclusiveness and good sportsmanship. It also means caring about the way the club and fellow Celtic fans are perceived. We basked in the wonderful behaviour of 80,000 Celts in Seville who were fine ambassadors for the club and won Fair Play awards from FIFA and UEFA. A good reputation is built over years but can be destroyed very quickly by a few unthinking and foolish individuals. Those who tarnish the club’s name will find elements of the media simply drooling at the prospect of more anti Celtic stories to push. They will also find that the vast majority of Celtic fans quickly letting them know that there are lines you don’t cross.

Two months ago we basked in the glory of a wonderful season. Let’s get back to doing what we do best; backing the team and driving the Bhoys on to more success. Leave the moronic chants to others and get back to being the best supporters around. An Italian Sports Magazine said after Celtic visited Juventus…

"The fantastic Celtic fans gave a real lesson in civility in sport. The chants and insults which blight too many games in Serie A are light years away from the spectacle of education and sportsmanship that the people in the Celtic away end offered... That horizontal striped white and green jersey is the uniform of a club worthy of the applause of the world."

That’s who we are, that’s who we must always aspire to be. It’s the duty of every generation of Celtic fans to educate the new generation about the Celtic way of doing things. When we accept poor behaviour among our own support as the norm we will have lost a vital ingredient of our identity. Celtic fans are not angels, not perfect by any means but they are decent enough to know when anyone has gone too far and they care enough to challenge them. This club means too much to too many to accept the behaviour we saw from a few at the weekend. I hope those involved learn and grow as human beings. It's a big responsibility being a Celt.

Be worthy.