Sunday, 17 December 2017

The biggest man in football

The biggest man in football

Those of you following the debate about what the SFA should do about Hampden Park when the lease is up for renewal in 2020, would have noticed Fergus McCann’s open letter to the Herald newspaper. The former Celtic supremo has always been adamant that pouring over £65m into redeveloping Hampden was a complete waste of time and money. Not only does Scotland possess adequate stadiums to cover internationals, the huge sums spent on the stadium could have rejuvenated the game had it been invested in facilities and coaches for the development of young players. Among the points McCann made was a cutting remark which few missed. He stated…

‘My Hampden memories of events later in life were rather more negative. In charge of Celtic, and having to rent the stadium for the 94/95 season, I had to tolerate the mean-spirited behaviour of Queens Park officials throughout that period. This began with a clause in the lease – a “deal breaker” as their attorney made clear – that forbade “the display of any foreign flag.” Shades of SFA 1952.’

The ‘foreign flag’ referred to wasn’t specifically named but those of us well versed in Scottish football’s ways knew exactly what the ‘mean spirited’ officials of Queen’s Park were getting at; you can hire the stadium but you’re not flying the Irish tricolour above it. The fact that as late as the 1990’s this was an issue for at least some officials of Queen’s Park is a little depressing but as the Farry-McCann affair demonstrated, there were still lingering suspicions of people’s motivations even then. The modern Queen’s Park board wouldn’t be drawn into a debate and merely said that their records of the time differ from Mr McCann’s. It is unlikely though that Fergus McCann would invent such a detail. The straight talking former Chairman was never one to shirk a fight or fail to notice any slights against himself or Celtic. His alluding to ‘shades of 1952’ is interesting as he clearly feels the motivation for the ‘no foreign flags’ clause was similar to that of those who demanded the removal of the tricolour from Celtic Park over 40 years earlier.

Celtic met Rangers at Celtic Park on New Year’s Day 1952 and by all accounts had played poorly, losing 4-1. The usual amount of drunkenness led to some less cerebral home fans making their displeasure known by throwing bottles and the Police waded in with batons flailing to make arrests. The trouble made waves in the press and the SFA reacted to suggestions from Glasgow Magistrates to consider the following courses of action…

Celtic and Rangers should not meet on New Year’s Day again due to increased drunkenness at that time of year. Matches between them should be all ticket with a crowd limit set by the Police. Celtic should in the interests of safety number passageways at Celtic Park. The two clubs should avoid displaying flags which might incite feelings among the spectators.

The Referee Committee of the SFA met to consider the Magistrates recommendations and following a 26-7 vote ordered Celtic to stop displaying at the ground any ‘flag or emblem which had no association with football or Scotland.’ The implication was clear; the SFA wanted Celtic to remove the Irish flag they flew to honour the club’s founders. No mention was made of the fact that Rangers, one of the most important member clubs of the association, was excluding players from its team on the grounds of their religion. Celtic were having none of it and Bob Kelly, a stubborn man of principle in the McCann mould dug in his heels knowing that Celtic had not broken any rules of the SFA. At Celtic’s next home game the Irish flag flew in its usual place prompting one newspaper to state ‘They are still flying the Eire flag!’

Kelly was supported in his stance by Rangers Chairman John F Wilson, a gesture he appreciated. Indeed Mr Wilson told the council that the emblem had never been of any annoyance to Rangers. ‘Don’t delude ourselves,’ he added. ‘This flag has nothing to do with the trouble.' In time the SFA realised the absurdity of threatening to suspend Celtic from the game over the issue particularly as they found it impossible to demonstrate any rule the club had broken. They appealed to Kelly to be a ‘bigger man’ and take down the flag. The Herald newspaper sensing that the SFA had overstepped the mark stated at the time…

‘Kelly was asked to realize that the matter was no longer one of just taking down the flag; it was a matter of Celtic defying the instructions of the council. He was told that if he would only make the gesture of taking the flag down even without prejudicing further discussions everyone would be happy. ‘You’ll be the biggest man in football’ Mr Kelly was told ‘You’ll establish a reputation never possessed by anyone in football if you’ll only take the flag down.’ Perhaps Mr Kelly did not wish to be the biggest man in football or perhaps he wanted to maintain his reputation for adhering to his principles. There can be no doubt that he struck his shrewdest blow when he stated that suspension could only follow a broken rule. No one had proved Celtic had broken any rules.’

The SFA were clearing struggling to save face and realised that Kelly was right. Hibs Chairman Harry Swan is still thought of unkindly by older Celtic supporters over his role in this episode but real driving force was SFA Secretary George Graham, a man with no love of Celtic and all they represented. This whole episode, coming as it did just three years after Belfast Celtic exited football following the brutal assault on their players in a match against Linfield was symptomatic of the times. 1950’s Scotland was a stuffy, conservative place where everyone was expected to know their place. The uppity Irish in Glasgow’s east end had founded a club which rose to be among the finest in the land and there were at least some who wished Celtic didn’t exist.

The season following the ‘flag flutter’ saw Celtic face Rangers at Celtic Park with the eyes of the press on the lookout for any trouble. There was a minute’s silence before the match to remember a young Celtic player called John Millsop who had tragically died. Gerry McNee states in his book ‘The Story of Celtic’

‘During a one minute silence there were howls of profanity about the Pope and blasphemous demands for the game to begin emanating from the Rangers end of the ground.’

Such ignorance has little to do with a flag hanging at the opposite end of the ground but is rather the product of prevailing social attitudes of the time among a fair percentage of people in Scotland’s industrial heartlands. Scotland is a much changed land since those far off times when a flag could lead to the SFA threatening to expel a club from the association. Celtic’s Bob Kelly stuck to his principles and was vindicated. He is often portrayed as a man who meddled in team affairs to the extent of telling Manager McGrory who to play in games but there is no doubting his love for Celtic and his steely determination to fight  the club’s corner.

Of course flags can still annoy or even antagonise some. It’s not unusual for some to make their feelings known about Celtic supporters continuing display of the Irish tricolour but for most it has become empty rhetoric. The Irish dimension of Celtic is woven into the club’s history and will never be undone. The club mirrors the community which founded and sustains it and now stands proudly as the premier Scottish football club and if some ‘mean spirited’ individuals find that hard to stomach then that’s just tough because it isn’t about to change any time soon.

As for the flag of Ireland, it still flies over Celtic Park with the flags of many other nations. The press of 1952 may have screeched, ‘They are still flying the Eire flag!’ It's flying there still and that isn’t likely to change either, nor should it.

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