Tony McLaughlin pushed opened the heavy wooden door of the bar and looked around for the familiar figure of his brother. The place was full as it always was on match days and the noisy chatter and laughter contrasted to his mood as he eased through the crowd towards the corner where his brother and his friends usually stood. Somewhere out of sight a lone voice began a familiar song and it was taken up by scores of voices…
‘Oh I am a merry plough boy and I plough the fields by day
Till a sudden thought came to my mind that I should run away
Now I’ve always hated slavery since the day that I was born….’
Tony reached the corner of the bar and noticed his brother’s best friend there with another man he didn’t know. ‘Aw right Noel? Looking for Frankie, any idea where he is?’ Noel Meechan, a thirty year old with a mop of black curly hair and a ruddy red face from his outdoor work with the Parks Department, smiled at Tony ‘How ye doing Tee? He’s in the bog, be oot in a minute.’ Noel clearly saw from Tony’s face that all wasn’t well but before he could ask about it, Frankie McLaughlin appeared behind his brother. ‘Aw right bro?’ he began with a mile, ‘You slumming it doon the Gallowgate today. Thought you were a Merchant City man?’ Tony leaned closer to his brother and said quietly in his ear, ‘we need tae go, it’s my Da, it’s time.’ Frankie’s face spoke volumes as he turned to his friend and handed him his Celtic season book, ‘No be making it the day Noel, lend that tae wan of the guys.’ Noel took the small green card, a knowing look on his face, ‘Nae bother pal, take care.’ Noel watched the two brothers head through the crowded bar towards the door. He knew their old man was nearing the end of his journey. It struck him as a little ironic that it might end on this bright September day when the old fella’s beloved Celtic were taking on Rangers.
The huge bulk of the new Queen Elizabeth hospital came into view in all its multi-coloured modernity. For most Glaswegians though this would always be the Southern General. Tony Parked the car and they walked briskly into one of the older buildings from the original hospital which was still being used. Tony led his brother into the building and along a corridor which smelled of disinfectant before turning left into another corridor and entering a small Ward where a few family members had gathered. His Uncle Joe, looking more emotional than the brothers had ever seen him greeted them with a handshake and said in a quiet voice shaking with emotion, ‘Aw right boys, you can go in now, we’ve said our goodbyes.’ The brothers greeted their cousins quietly then entered the small room at the end of the Ward where their old man lay eyes closed on a bed. Frankie closed the door quietly and they sat by their father. Old John McLaughlin looked frailer than his 63 years, shrunken and pale, a shadow of the vigorous man they grew up with. They regarded him in silence for a moment; only the old fella’s ragged breathing audible in the room as he slept.
After a long moment Tony took his old man’s hand and spoke quietly, ‘All right Da, Frankie’s here too, we’re missing the Rangers match for you, some timing auld yin!’ He smiled a bittersweet smile, ‘I remember the first game you took us tae, Remember that night Cadete scored against Aberdeen and the place went mad? I was eight and Frankie was six. Couldn’t believe we didn’t win the league that year, Tommy’s team played some great fitbaw.’ Frankie nodded at his brother’s words and added, ‘We got there in 98 though eh? Remember how drunk you came home when we beat St Johnstone? You fell over the mop pale and ended up wi a black eye.’ The brothers laughed quietly, their eyes moist remembering good times they shared with their old man. Tony continued, ‘Mind that Polis horse at Hampden? You had on your new black coat and it sneezed on ye, covered the coat with horse snotters! You were doing yer nut, shouting at the Cop who was just laughing.’ Frankie smiled at that memory and added, ‘I remember the Supporters Club dance when you and Bertie Auld were on the stage singing the Grand old team, you never looked happier or prouder.’
They talked in this quiet manner to their slumbering father for a long time. Celtic was such a huge part of their lives; so many memories of times shared together revolved around their club. So many conversations, arguments and discussions were about games, players or incidents they’d watched together. Celtic had been handed down the generations in the McLaughlin family like a precious gift and the brothers had got the bug early. They had travelled all over Scotland and Europe watching their team, sharing in all the triumphs and disasters, all the ups and downs that come from being so involved with a football club like Celtic.
Their old man had even argued with the Head Master of their High School over taking them to Seville in School time. The boys had sat outside the Head Teacher’s office and listened to the raised voices through the door. The unmistakable tones of their father could be heard shouting, ‘This is this generations Lisbon! Ye cannae deny the boys a trip tae Seville!’ The Headmaster’s calmer tones had argued to the contrary mentioning exams and setting an example but the Tony and Frankie then heard their exasperated old man end the conversation with the Head Teacher with the withering words, ‘Ah don’t gie a fuck, they’re going!’ When their old man came out of the office Frankie had smiled at him and said, ‘You’re a fuckin Legend Da!’
After a bittersweet hour or two of laughter and tears a Doctor entered the room. He smiled a sympathetic smile at the two brothers before checking the machine beside the old man’s bed. He used a stethoscope to listen to his chest before exhaling and turning to the brothers, ‘He’s gone. I’m sorry for your loss.’ Tony, still holding his father’s hand had been so engrossed in the memories they had been sharing about times spent with their old man that he hadn’t noticed the ragged breathing had ceased. The doctor laid his hand on Tony’s shoulder before leaving them to their grief. The brothers sat amid a heavy silence their faces streaked with tears. It was Frankie who broke the silence by saying the words he had said all those years ago when his old man had argued with the Head Teacher about taking them out of school to go to Seville… ‘You’re a fuckin Legend Da!’
A few miles in Glasgow’s east end Stuart Armstrong ran across the Rangers penalty box before hitting a beautifully disguised shot back across the goalkeeper to make it Celtic 5 Rangers 1. A huge roar split the east end sky as a people celebrated another victory for their club.
Old John would have liked that.