Saturday, 28 October 2017

Undefeated


Undefeated

Celtic entertain Kilmarnock today and has an opportunity to stretch their unbeaten domestic run to 62 games; a feat which will equal the club record which has stood since 1917.  In that sequence of games, their record was; 49 wins, 13 draws. The run lasted from 13 Nov 1915 until 21 April 1917- a total of 17 months and four days in all before they lost 2-0 to Kilmarnock on the last day of the 1916-17 season. This remarkable run came as World War one raged and fans and players were likely to be called up for service. The SFA abandoned the Scottish cup for the duration of the war but the league was kept going as it was thought to be good for morale. Celtic dominated the league in that period winning 5 titles out of six and losing the other by a single point. It was remarkable achievement by Maley’s side and one to be proud of.

Any cursory search of the web for similar unbeaten runs can be a little confusing as definitions of ‘competitive matches’ become blurred. For instance tournaments like the Glasgow Cup used to pull in big crowds and be considered worth winning. Other nations don’t have a League Cup so should these games be included?  UEFA are the official holders of such records and their website has Celtic fourth in the list of all-time unbeaten records in top flight competitive matches. If we include national FA cup ties as part of the record then the top clubs are as follows…

·        Steaua Bucharest 119 games (1986-89)
·        Lincoln Red Imps 66 games (2009-14)
·        Sheriff Moldova 63 games (2006-08)
·        Celtic (62 games) 1915-17)

Context of course is all; Lincoln Red Imps record came during a period where they won 14 consecutive titles in a land with just 34,000 inhabitants which is less than the town of Falkirk. This makes Celtic’s defeat there in Brendan Rodgers first game all the more embarrassing although the side redeemed themselves by winning the tie overall. Steaua played in a league where fear and corruption were the norm. Communist dictator Ceausescu and his sons,  Valentin and Ilie took great interest in football and influenced games hugely. One report into Romanian football in the years before the fall of communism stated…

‘Interviews with sports writers and officials paint a picture of rigging Romanian soccer matches that make baseball's Black Sox scandal or college basketball point-shaving cases look minor league. They said Romanian soccer fans routinely went to games presuming the winner already was known. Newspapers were told which reporters should cover games. Referees were assumed to be corrupt. Constantin Firanescu, a veteran soccer writer, said players did not have to be paid off because they knew they were not supposed to win against Ceausescu-backed teams, so they entered games fearing reprisals if they won. Steaua and Dinamo routinely took players from other clubs without offering a transfer fee or player trade. Gheorghe Hagi, the star midfielder for Steaua, was taken from first-division rival Sportul Studentesc in 1987.’

Whatever Celtic’s match with Kilmarnock holds today, their remarkable run under Brendan Rodgers will go down in the club’s history as a high point. They reached this milestone playing good football and unlike Steaua had no help along the way. Of course those with no love for Celtic carp about the strength of the league or the absence of a ‘strong Rangers.’ Celtic supporters rightly ignore the detractors and will recall a total lack of calls for a strong Celtic when Rangers were dominating in the 1990s. Some will never praise Celtic no matter what they achieve. The club has since its birth provoked a visceral reaction from some for reasons which have little to do with football. This is nothing new in human history and Celtic fans would recognise the words written by Shakespeare over 400 years ago...

‘He has laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, Why? Because I am a Jew.’

The words spoken by Shylock the Jewish trader in The Merchant of Venice speak of the type of prejudice which has always existed in the hearts of some human beings. 130 years after Celtic’s foundation some still see the club as the outsider, the interloper, rather than recognising them for what they are; the pre-eminent Scottish football club and one of the pillars of the Scottish game.

I never like to predict the outcome of games or get too far ahead of myself but it would be fitting if Celtic could make it to at least 67 games without defeat as a tribute to the Lisbon Lions. Whatever the future holds what this Celtic team has achieved has been remarkable and we should all be proud of them. When it finally comes to an end as it must one day we should applaud them from the field.

Defeat in sport is inevitable at some point but the great sporting heroes and great teams learned from it and became stronger. Through the darkest days of the 1990’s Celtic supporters stuck with them with a remarkable loyalty. I can recall travelling all over Scotland to watch them play in those days of disappointment, defeat and occasional calamity. The supporters developed a camaraderie and a determination to stick with their club and see them rise again. They took the necessary action to pressurise a failing Board to step aside and ultimately saved their club. They backed Fergus McCann’s share issue in the weeks following the painful loss of the League Cup Final to Raith Rovers and put up millions of pounds of their own money. They helped finance and then fill the new stadium when many argued it couldn’t be done. They backed the side to the extent that a club playing in a small league on the periphery of Europe is consistently among the best supported in Europe. All that Celtic achieves on the field of play is built on the foundation of that Celtic community which created and sustains this marvellous football club.

When the history books record the undefeated run of Brendan Rodgers side, they probably won’t record the role the supporters played in it but it was a huge one. Not only in roaring the team on home and away but in sticking with their club through good times and bad and making the tremendous days we are currently enjoying possible.

We should dedicate it to the Lions in this anniversary year, of course, but we should also dedicate it to the ordinary Celtic supporters who were knocked down much in the 90s but always rose again, always believed the good days would return. Fergus McCann once said…

‘The Celtic supporters want to be proud of their club. That’s all they want and it’s what they deserve.’


Players will come and go as will Managers but one thing remains constant and that is the Celtic support. They deserve these good days and I hope they enjoy them for a long time to come.


Friday, 20 October 2017

The white sausage equator




The white sausage equator

Celtic’s tie with Bayern Munich this week got me thinking of another occasion they faced German opposition in Europe. Back in 1992-93 Season Liam Brady’s Celtic was in the middle of one of those barren spells which occur now and then in the club’s history. They had last won a trophy in 1989 when Joe Miller’s goal secured a dramatic cup win and would remain in the doldrums until 1995 when they beat Airdrie to win the cup after six long years in the wilderness.

That summer of 1992 saw Celtic supporters tortured by hope that they could finally put a side together which could match free spending Rangers. Manager Liam Brady had at best a poor record with signings as Cascarino and Gillespie had proved but the arrival of Stuart Slater and a rather jaded Frank McAvennie had the fans at least moderately optimistic for the new season. It was to prove another difficult year. The team finished well behind Rangers and Aberdeen in the league and were knocked out of the cup at Falkirk. Europe saw them paired with a decent, if struggling, Cologne side. A poor showing in Germany had Celtic facing the return leg with a 2-0 deficit to overturn.

Celtic Park was limited to 30,000 for the game as UEFA enforced post Hillsborough limits. Indeed Celtic Park was in need of rebuilding and the direction the club was taking was leading fans to ask serious questions of a board which seemed clueless about how they would finance the required changes or build a team to match cash rich Rangers. Results on the field combined with this seeming ineptitude off it were causing anger among many supporters which would eventually coalesce into open revolt as the fans organised to save their club. All of that was simmering beneath the surface as Cologne arrived in Glasgow with a swagger and confidence which was soon to be tested. Celtic’s supporters like a ‘do or die’ challenge and got right behind the team from the first moment of that game. In return the players roused themselves to give a performance which was surprisingly effective. McStay and Creaney slammed home excellent goals in the first half as the German side lost their composure and when John Collins hit the decisive third ten minutes from time it was all over. The fans sang long and loudly that night not knowing that this was to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise poor season.


I got talking to some rather stunned Cologne fans in a pub after the game and they were sporting enough to congratulate Celtic. It was obvious a 3-0 defeat was not what they had anticipated but they were full of praise for the noisy Celtic support. I kept in touch with a couple of them and invited them back to Glasgow for the Celtic v Rangers game the following spring.

Rangers were coming to Celtic Park on the back of a 44 game unbeaten run and few outside the Hoops support fancied Celtic’s chances. My two German visitors, Axel and Andreas, had a taste of the bars of the Gallowgate that day before the game and loved the singing and passion of the fans. As the songs boomed out they looked around and smiled, ‘This is what football should be about,’ one of them said.

As we headed for Celtic Park along the Gallowgate a mate in a builders van offered us a lift. Along with sundry other Celts, we piled into the back and there among the bags of plaster, planks of wood, old sinks and paint cans we banged the sides of the van as we joined in with the mix tape belting out Celtic songs on the van stereo. Someone offered Axel some of that famous tonic wine beloved of so many in Glasgow and like a good guest in our land he accepted. Then we headed out and joined the green river flowing to the old Celtic end which was literally bouncing as we made our way to a spot behind the goal. I don’t know what my German friends were expecting but the atmosphere and racket just blew them away. It seemed as if the whole Celtic end and Jungle was bouncing on the spot as they sang, ‘Soldiers are we whose lives are pledged to Ireland…..’

The game began amid a cacophony of noise and soon settled into a pattern of Celtic dominance. When John Collins finally scored in 36 minutes Celtic Park erupted. As we roared and sang our heads off a bizarre event occurred on the field; Referee, Mr Hope allowed Rangers to kick off with at least six Celtic players still celebrating the goal by the Jungle. Rangers poured forward towards the few Celtic defenders still on the field and only a fine save by Bonner prevented a goal. It was another one of those strange decisions which in many years of watching football I have yet to see replicated anywhere else. One of my German friends asked what was going on and why the Referee had done that. Before I could answer a nearby wag interjected, ‘Cos he’s a fuckin’ Hun wi a whistle!’  Andreas who spoke good English looked at me mystified, ‘Welcome to Scottish football,’ I smiled, ‘You’ll soon pick up the lingo.’  They learned a few other Glaswegian phrases that day such as; ‘atsapenalyyafud!’ or ‘deckatbasturt!’ and the ever popular ‘cmonselikfuckinintaethum!’ All in all it was an education for our friends from Germany.


That match ended in a 2-1 win for Celtic and we marched out of the stadium on a high. Sure, we’d end the season without a trophy again but it’s always nice winning those games and even in the darkest seasons Celtic would usually gub them at least once. As we made our way along the Gallowgate again I asked what they thought of the game and they both agreed that it was intense beyond anything they’d experienced before. ‘It’s like your life depended on the result,’ one said.

A few days after that game, Scotland played Germany at Ibrox and I went along with the two aforementioned German lads. On the bus heading along Paisley Road a big group of German fans got on. They were noisy and boisterous but not in any way threatening.  My two companions seemed tense, ‘Bavarians’ one mumbled, as if this was in itself an explanation. It transpired that regional tensions and rivalries exist in Germany as they do anywhere else. There was, at least in footballing terms, no love lost between Saxons of northern Germany and their southern compatriots from Bavaria. Andreas muttered, ‘They drive around with car plates saying ‘freistatt Bayern’ (free state Bavaria) and think they are better than the rest of us.’ He then told me about the imaginary line drawn in Germany called the ‘Weißwurstäquator,’ (The white sausage equator) which separates the ‘crazy’ southern Germans from the rest. I guess all countries have these tensions and divisions but it was interesting to see it at first hand.  

Celtic’s trip to Munich this week got me thinking about why many German supporters have a soft spot for Scottish football. You’d think with the power and prestige of the Bundesliga they’d be happy with their lot and disinterested in a small league on the periphery of Western Europe. One told me it’s because football in Scotland is rawer, more like the way it used to be in Germany. For some it’s politics with left leaning supports like FC St Pauli admiring Celtic supporters for their willingness to engage in politics in the sporting arena and champion causes close to their heart. Mostly though I think they like Scottish supporters for their humour, passion and willingness to back their team over and over even though it is unlikely to win.

Football is at its heart a tribal game and in the big leagues of Europe, awash with money the corporate side of football is dominating more. In England we see football tourists with half and half scarves containing the names of clubs who are traditionally bitter rivals. I could never envisage anyone producing a Celtic-Rangers version of that! There is something of a kickback against modern football with its high ticket prices which drive less wealthy fans out of the game. We have seen protests in France and England about extortionate pricing and even a huge display in Tunisia which read: ‘Football-Created by the poor, stolen by the rich.’



Perhaps some still see in smaller leagues around Europe a more innocent time when money didn’t rule everything. As the so called elite clubs of Europe mumble about cutting the number of clubs from smaller nations playing in the Champions League they’d do well to remember the roots of this wonderful game and lose some of their arrogance, greed and avarice.

Football belongs to us all not just the rich.



Friday, 13 October 2017

Billy Boys


Billy Boys
I attended a funeral in a cemetery in the north of Glasgow some years back and as we made our way out, I got chatting to an old fella whose face spoke of violent encounters in his youth. ‘A few characters buried in here,’ he informed me before listing various gangland figures who had their final resting place in that tranquil green acre. ‘The biggest character of the lot doesn’t even have a headstone,’ he went on. His tales got me thinking about the history of my home city and the echoes of the past which still reverberate today.

Between the wars Glasgow was to say the least a very tough city to live in for those of limited means; mass unemployment, poverty and a vicious gang culture made some working class districts mean indeed. The gangs held sway in many areas with names like The Shamrock, the Derry, the Norman Conks, the Cumbie, the Tim Malloys and the Billy Boys entering common parlance. The names of these gangs often betrayed the sectarian nature of the city’s geography. The influx of Irish migrants during the mid and late nineteenth century saw Glasgow’s Catholic population grow hugely. They were far from welcomed by a vociferous and aggressive minority in the major cities who saw the newcomers as competition for jobs and houses and found the Catholic religion of the majority of these migrants reawakening old prejudices.

The slump which followed World War One saw unemployment and poverty at high levels in Scotland. As is usually the case in such times, some looked for a convenient scapegoat and the Irish and their offspring were an easy target. Street gangs with a pronounced anti-Catholic and anti-Irish agenda appeared; chief among them the Billy Boys in the east end of Glasgow. Founded by Billy Fullarton a local man with no love for Catholics, the Billy Boys and their junior wing the ‘Derry’ were said to have 800 members. Local legend has it that Fullarton was attacked and badly beaten by a rival, Catholic gang and founded the Billy Boys to counter them. Whatever the truth, the Catholics who made up a large percentage of the population of Bridgeton in Glasgow’s east end were not prepared to sit back and play the passive victim. They gave as good as they got and from the tenements of French Street, Poplin Street and Norman Street came the Norman Conks, a gang every bit as violent of the Billy Boys. Some of their clashes were almost medieval given the weaponry and savagery displayed.

Orange marching season was often the time of highest tension as the Orange Order made a point of marching through areas such as the Gorbals, Calton and other areas with a high Catholic population. The Billy Boys and their band came along too and the predictable riot often ensued. The gang members were usually men in their 20s and 30s although older men were often involved too. The social conditions which helped spawn the gangs were presided over by Politicians who often used them for their own purposes. There were strong links between Freemasonry, Orangeism and the Conservative Party in Scotland in those days and local Politicians could call on the Billy Boys to disrupt meetings of the Labour Party. Indeed dedicated sectarian political parties such as the Scottish Protestant League and the Protestant Action Party could boast of over 30% share of the vote in local elections in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. There were fascist overtones to some of their policies and this had its attractions for men like Fullerton.

During the 1926 General Strike when workers fought against poverty wages, Fullerton and some of his colleagues acted as strike breakers and received medals and certificates for their activities. Given the direction of travel Rangers Football Club decided on in the years after 1912, it was only to be expected that they would have the faithful backing of groups like the Billy Boys. Their song was soon echoing around Ibrox and is still heard on occasion today…

Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys
Hello, hello, you'll know us by our noise
We're up to our knees in Fenian blood
Surrender or you'll die
For we are the Brigton Billy Boys’

The City fathers grew weary of Glasgow’s reputation being trashed by the razor gangs and popular novels such as ‘No mean city.’ They decided to act and called in a Police Chief called Percy Sillitoe who had built a reputation as a tough, no nonsense cop and who had pacified the gangs of Sheffield. Sillitoe arrived in Glasgow and immediately decided to fight fire with fire. He recruit teams of big, tough cops who were encouraged to ‘get stuck in,’ when they tangled with the gangs. Batons were soon breaking heads and van loads of police roamed the city waiting for the call on their new radios to go deal with any disturbance. The courts and jail cells were soon full and many other gang members found themselves in the city’s casualty wards after tangling with Sillitoe’s ‘batter squads.’ The days of the gangs having free reign in Glasgow were over.

Fullarton himself was arrested when he led a gang of drunken, tooled up, Billy Boys through Glasgow. He had foolishly brought a child along and the gang were intercepted by a smaller but determined group of Policemen who arrested him after a brutal struggle. He was sent to prison for 10 months for being drunk in charge of a child. As World War 2 approached he found common cause with Oswald Mosely and the British Union of Fascists and soon had a 200 strong group of Black-shirts under his command. It is said he also started the first Glasgow chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

‘King’ Billy Fullerton was a product of his times but the attitudes he and his like fostered still echo in some corners of Scottish society. In 1962 he died alone and impoverished in a Bridgeton tenement. In that same year, Percy Sillitoe, the hammer of the gangs died too. It is recorded that 1000 people walked with Fullerton’s cortege from Bridgeton to Riddrie Cemetery. Scottish poet Edwin Morgan recalled his funeral with an ambiguous poem which at once scorned the violence of men like Fullerton but also offered some mitigation in calling out the appalling social conditions which spawned men like him….

King Billy by Edwin Morgan
Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up
dragged their rain through the cemetery trees,
The gates shone cold
Flaring the hissing leaves and branches
swung heavy across lamps.
Gravestones huddle in drizzling shadow,
flickering streetlight scanned the requiescats
a name and an urn, a date, a dove
picked out, lost, half regained.
What is this dripping wreath blown from its grave?
Red, white, blue and gold
To our leader of Thirty years ago’-
Bareheaded, in dark suits, with flutes
and drums they brought him here, in procession
seriously, King Billy of Brigton, dead,
from Bridgeton Cross a memory of violence
brooding days of empty bellies
billiard smoke and a sour pint
boots or fists, famous sherrickings
the word, the scuffle, the flash, the shout
bloody crumpling in the close,
bricks for Papish windows, Get
the Conks next time, the Conks ambush
the Billy Boys, The Billy Boys the conks, till
Sillitoe scuffs the razors down the stank,
No, but it isn’t the violence they remember
but the legend of a violent man
born poor, gang leader in the bad times
of idleness and boredom, lost in better days
a Bouncer in a betting club
a quiet man at last, dying
alone in Bridgeton in a box bed.
So a thousand people stopped the traffic
for the hearse of a folk hero and the flutes
threw onward Christian Soldiers to the wind
from unironic lips, the mourners kept
in step and there were some who wept,
Go from the grave. The shrill flutes
are silent, the march dispersed
Deplore what is to be deplored
and then find out the rest.

Glasgow has long since left the violence of the inter war years in the history books. Of course it can still be as gritty and tough as any other city but the levels of poverty and ignorance which produced the razor gangs of the 1920’s and 30’s are long gone. So too are the disgraceful housing conditions and over-crowding which blighted so many lives. It would be wrong to suggest that the dragon of bigotry has been completely banished from our land but it is certainly in retreat. Those who ruled over a society where slums were tolerated and people left in ignorance and disease bear their share of responsibility for the genesis of men like Fullerton. As Victor Hugo wrote in ‘Les Miserables’…

“If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”