Friday, 25 May 2018

Déjà vu again

Déjà vu again

Back in 2014, during the dreadful Israeli bombardment of Gaza an incident occurred which was chilling even by the standard of the carnage occurring then. Four children were playing football on a beach when an Israeli ship fired explosive shells at them. All four were killed and there was understandable outrage. Channel Four News absolutely nailed the Israeli spokesman on the night of the atrocity by asking him…

‘The operation you’re engaged in is called ‘protective edge’ and its stated purpose is to protect Israeli civilians, how does killing children on a beach contribute to that purpose?’

According to the UN, 2,200 Palestinians were killed in the 50-day conflict in 2014, of whom, 1,492 were civilians, 605 militants and 123 unverified. At the time it led to understandable anger in many countries and few individuals allowed their resentment of what the IDF was doing in Gaza and the occupied territories spill over into unjustifiable physical or verbal attacks on individual Jewish people. The policy of a state is not decided by individuals and attacking those with no responsibility for actions you disagree with is pointless and absurd.

The year after the Gaza bombardment, Celtic Director Ian Livingston come in for considerable flak for voting in favour of Conservative Party cuts to tax credits. Many argued against these policies with eloquence, intelligence and genuine feeling while once more a handful of less cerebral individuals resorted to abuse of a personal nature and demanded he leave his post at Celtic. I tried to put a balanced view of that debate on the record and for the most part I felt people accepted that Celtic Football Club should be open to all who hold reasonably sane political views even if we don’t agree with them. It would be dangerous indeed to exclude a group from the Celtic family because we disagree with the views they hold and I for one feel our club would be much poorer if we ventured down that particular barren road. We can see the historical damage exclusivist attitudes and policies did to another Glasgow club, a club which is still dealing with the toxic fallout from their petty apartheid.

So this week we found the media making fuss about a few online trolls giving Nir Bitton abuse. As is often the way, the trashier tabloids dredged a few comments from idiots online and built a story around them.  The trolling of Bitton came in the wake of the appalling toll of deaths and injuries during the ‘Return March’ held in Gaza to mark 70 years since the foundation of Israel and the expulsion of  tens of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. A few resorted to abusing the one Israeli close at hand as if he somehow had an influence on events in the middle-east. Bitton for his part hit back when the abuse started affecting his girlfriend and said…

“I’m just tired of replying to idiots who insult me because I’m Israeli so I’m not going to reply anymore! It’s just a shame for the people who insult me over such a thing like that.  As a father if you guys think I support the death of children or any human being then you are nothing but idiots! I’m all up for the banter but not when you guys texting my wife’s Instagram. I’m getting abuse for a while so I just felt that I had to say that. Don’t mix football and politics, you are better than that. Love you all.”

Bitton may be somewhat naïve to think that politics and football will ever be totally separated, especially at a club like Celtic. I applauded the Green Brigade’s ‘match the fine for Palestine’ campaign which saw over £176,000 gathered for charitable work in a land sorely in need of some hope. Such an action was in keeping with the best humanitarian values all Celts hold dear. What I can never accept though is a minority who try to foist their idea of what Celtic should be on us all and advising us who is worthy to wear the Hoops and who is not.

Bitton tweets his support for the IDF in times of conflict but is that so unusual? This is a young man brought up in Israel, influenced by its media and the narrative it portrays of what occurs in the occupied territories.  He has done his compulsory national service himself and will no doubt also have friends and relatives who are serving in the military at the moment but he isn’t personally responsible for the policies of the Israeli government. The solution to the running sore that is the middle-east will not be found abusing a footballer 2500 miles away but by a concerted effort by governments around the world. John F Kennedy once said…

‘Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression and persecution of others.’

I have huge sympathy for the dreadful treatment of the Palestinians and the huge injustices done to them historically and currently, while a hypocritical world looks the other way. We can though choose to respond to an issue in either positive or negative ways. Celtic supporters and any other fan group are perfectly entitled to show solidarity by flying their flag or fund raising for their medical charities should they so choose. This is a very human and positive response to a beleaguered people caught in an appalling situation.  No one though is entitled to abuse a Celtic player because he is Israeli. That’s just absurd and says more about the abusers than Nir Bitton.

In the final analysis we have to ask ourselves what sort of club we want. Do we want one which is open to all who espouse reasonable and genuinely held views or do we wish to go down the route of excluding those we disagree with? Or worse still, do we want to be influenced by zealots with a narrow political agenda which clouds their every judgement? There can never be total separation of sport and politics but there are sensible limits.

The good ship Celtic has done amazing things in the past 130 years and has relied on players, supporters and officials from all walks of life to do this. From John Thomson to Henrik Larsson, from Bertie Peacock to Jock Stein, from Tommy Gemmell to Victor Wanyama; our players have come from every continent, every faith group, every ethnicity and have all played their heart out for Celtic. Some are born into Celtic while others grow to love Celtic and will keep the club in their hearts forever. All though should be treated with the respect we ourselves would expect. That’s the right way. That’s the Celtic way.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Long may it flourish

My old man once told me that he had tears in his eyes watching the bus carry Jock Stein and the Lisbon Lions as it eased its way up Kerrydale Street in that euphoric May of 1967. ‘It was like it was meant to be,’ he told me with a wistful smile. The fairy tale of a team founded to feed the hungry of Glasgow’s east end rising to become the first non-Latin side to be crowned Champions of Europe seems impossibly implausible but it happened. The world of football may have changed dramatically since those more equal times and it would now be unthinkable for a team like Celtic to repeat that feat today.

During that golden era, in which Stein’s side won 25 major honours in his 12 seasons at the helm, there were no open topped bus trips for the victorious team. Such was the ferocity of feeling Celtic aroused in some the Police would not have allowed such an event even had it been proposed. Things have changed today and the east end of Glasgow has undergone something of a transformation. There has been huge redevelopment which has, for the most part, swept aside the sub-standard housing which many inhabited. This though has come with a depopulation and de-industrialisation and knocked the heart out of long established communities which are only now starting to recover.

It was through this transformed east end which Celtic’s victorious double treble side travelled on their way to Celtic Park. They were welcomed by a delirious crowd who welcomed them home as warmly as any mother ever welcomed a returning son. I stood on the Celtic way watching the sea of smiles, the flags fluttering in the May sunshine and listening to the songs of victory fill the air. Those images are imprinted onto my memory forever as they will be for many others who were there. The Celtic bus was enveloped in a loving embrace by the people who follow this incredible club, who make it what it is today and that affection is just as strong as it was when Jock Stein brought the European Cup back in 1967. It has endured since Neil McCallum headed Celtic’s first ever goal at the first Celtic Park 130 years before. In the wake of that game the Scottish Umpire commented…

‘The Rev Brother Walfrid, who took a deep interest in the origin of the club has every reason to flatter himself as to the success of the Celtic. Long may it flourish in our midst.’

The good brother would have smiled to see how his team has indeed flourished and grown in ways the founding generation would be amazed by. In Victorian Glasgow Celtic gave pride and hope to a poor and marginalised community; gave them a chance to be winners for a change in an unequal world where many struggled just to put food on the table. He would also be happy to know that the fortunes of his people have been transformed as much as the east end streets around Celtic park and they now rightly take their place and play a role in every sector of Scottish society.

Celtic’s achievements since Brendan Rodgers’ arrival have been considerable. Records have tumbled and six successive domestic trophies have been garnered and added to Celtic’s roll of honour. There remains the glass ceiling of Europe to be smashed and while no one thinks Celtic can realistically compete with the elite clubs of Europe we can and should do better than we currently are. That being said, the expectations and hopes of Celtic supporters are simply that the club makes the group stages and gives them some of those great European nights under the lights to enjoy.

Fans of other Scottish clubs would no doubt argue that the gulf Celtic try to bridge against the mega rich clubs in the Champions League is comparable to the gulf they face in trying to stop Celtic domestically. There is a grain of truth in that but Scottish football is showing signs of being on the up again. Hibs are playing good football and on their day can match Celtic, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen will be pushing at the door again and the intriguing arrival of Steven Gerrard at Ibrox will be box office next season although it remains to be seen if the Ibrox club can finance his ambitions. 

Celtic though will not rest on their laurels, there will be players coming in and doubtless a few heading out. Patrick Roberts will be one going to further his career elsewhere but I’m sure he’ll take a head full of good memories with him. Rodgers knows the importance of the Champions League to a club like Celtic in footballing and financial terms. He will have plans in place already to try and enhance his squad and add the quality which will give Celtic a fighting chance of making it through to the group stages and another shot at the big boys.

All of that though is for the future and Celtic fans can now allow themselves a while to bask in the glory of another imperious season in Scottish football. They may not have powered through the season like a well-oiled machine as they did last term during their invincible campaign but they turned up for the big matches and broke their main opponents when it mattered. That 3-2 win at Ibrox when Celtic won the match despite playing for a long spell with ten men was one such game which effectively extinguished any hope their opponents had of mounting a serious challenge for the title. It also inflicted psychological damage which was obvious in the return match at Celtic Park when a Rangers bereft of belief were utterly vanquished and were in truth lucky to escape with just a 5-0 spanking as Celtic eased off in the final 30 minutes.

Yesterday’s celebration at Celtic Park was a worthy thank you to a group of players who have given Celtic fans such marvellous memories. As I watched the supporters dance and sing out their songs of victory, it was noticeable how many children were there. These are great days to grow up supporting Celtic and many of them will be getting the bug I got so long ago. It would be nice to have shared these moments with my old man who shed a tear in Kerrydale Street all those years ago but I’m sure he would have smiled yesterday and said, ‘It was meant to be.’

 It was Da, it was.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Star that Burns the Brightest

The Star that Burns the Brightest

Just a corner kick from Celtic Park
A flame haired boy would play
And in his heart was born a dream
To wear the hoops one day

He saw the people pass him by
On those gritty Calton streets
All on their way to Paradise
And his heart did skip a beat

Till the day his Da said, ‘Tommy!
It’s time for you to see
That famous Celtic Magic
My old man showed to me,’

So he watched McNeill and Johnstone
Bertie Auld and Murdoch too
How he yearned to pull those colours on
Show the crowd what he could do

The years slipped by so quickly
And that boy became a man
He lived his dream in Celtic’s green
As a player and a fan

He never forgot his Calton roots
As he stolled its gritty streets
Still shared a smile & talked a while
with the people he would meet

On the steps outside St Mary’s
I shook his hand one day
I smiled then as he told me of
The Glasgow Celtic way

Then one fine day I told my boys
‘It’s time for you to see
That famous Celtic Magic
My old man showed to me,’

And they sang of James McGrory
Of Larsson and McStay
And a Calton boy called Tommy Burns
Who played the Celtic way

He played his heart out in the green
And the fans sang out his name
The flame hair boy from Soho Street
Brought a beauty to the game

A supporter on the football field
A man who lived his dream
Such a joy to see our Tommy Burns
Grace our Celtic team

And the star that burns the brightest
Leaves a light that lingers yet
And though we had to say goodbye
We never will forget...

Saturday, 12 May 2018

A Piece of Paradise

A Piece of Paradise

Mikey Walsh took the stairs two at a time feeling an excitement in the pit of his stomach which ebbed a little as he reached the second floor and he remembered why he was here. A nurse smiled at him, regarding his Celtic shirt which he wore beneath his jacket, ‘Let’s hope we do it this week eh? No room for error now.’ Mikey grinned, ‘Today’s the day.’ She passed him with a smile, ‘I sure hope so, my old man’s nerves are frayed to breaking point.  Mikey pushed the door of Ward 3 and glanced at the duty desk on his left hand side which was deserted. He paused for a moment unsure if he could just wander in out of visiting time. Time was short today however so he headed up the central aisle towards his father’s bed.

His old man was sitting up in bed reading a newspaper; his glasses perched on the end of his nose. Mikey smiled, ‘Aw right da, that you reading the Daily Ranger again?’ His old man looked up, ‘Michael son! I never expected to see you today? Mikey sat on the chair by his father’s bed, ‘I thought I’d pop in on my way tae pick up Scott and Tony, big day today.’ His father nodded, ‘Celtic better get the job finished today. Last week at Dunfermline was heart attack material.’ The older man smiled remembering why he was in the Southern General in the first place before continuing, ‘I saw every one of the clinchers when Jock’s team did 9 in a row. Fir Park in 66 tae Falkirk in 74, It’d break my heart if that mob won ten. We’ve got to stop them.’ Mikey nodded, ‘They’ll no blow it this week, Jansen knows what it means tae the fans and the players know it’s last chance saloon.’ His old man removed his glasses and regarded him, ‘They’re under real pressure and pressure can bring out the best or make a team fold.’

They chatted, mostly about the championship decider later that day, for 15 minutes before a stern looking ward Sister approached the bed. ‘Mr Walsh visiting is 2 till 3, or 7 till 8 tonight. I must insist your visitor leaves now!’ Old Tommy Walsh regarded her with a shrug, ‘Aye Doll, he’ll be leaving in a minute, just discussing important family business.’ She pursed her lips and turned to go saying, ‘see that he does.’ Mikey watched her march up the Ward, ‘Old school that yin!’ His father grinned, ‘reminds me of yer maw, ye wouldn’t want tae go home tae her wi the wages opened!’ Old Tommy looked at his son, ‘you’d best be off, Michael. Are you all meeting up the Pub later?’ Mikey nodded, ‘aye Da, the whole clan will be there. Here’s hoping we’ve got something tae celebrate. It’ll be like a funeral if we don’t win.’ With that he smiled at his old man and stood to leave, ‘I’d best head, Da, I’ll be up tonight, hopefully bringing good news.’ His old man grinned, ‘Today’s the day, son, I can feel it in my bones.’

Mikey drove out of the hospital and headed towards Paisley Road to pick up his brother Scott and his pal Tony. He drove down Edmiston Drive and past Ibrox stadium which stood quiet and empty, glancing at the red brick façade. ‘Our time now chaps,’ he mumbled to himself hoping it was true.  Scott and Tony stood waiting at the corner by the Fiorentina Restaurant, their Celtic colours invisible behind zipped up jackets. Each carried a plastic bag containing their scarves. This neck of the woods was not the place to be flaunting the green especially on a day like today. They jumped into the car, ‘Aw right Mikey boy, get the tunes oan,’ Scott said with a smile, ‘today’s the day we stop the ten!’ Mikey grinned, ‘you been boozing already bro?’ and pushed the cassette tape into the player, instantly filling the car with the dulcet tones of Christy Moore….

‘Van Diemen’s land is a hell for a man 
to live out his whole life in slavery,
Where the climate is raw and the gun makes the law,
Neither wind nor rain care for bravery, Twenty years have gone by,
I’ve ended my bond, my comrades ghosts walk behind me,
A rebel I came and I’m still the same, on the cold winter’s nights
you will find me… oh I wish I was back home in Derry.’

The car headed east towards Celtic Park and their team’s date with destiny. From all over Scotland, Ireland and a hundred other places they were travelling too, in hope and expectation that their team could finally end ten barren years and win the title. As Tommy Burns had once said you didn’t just play for Celtic when you pulled on that shirt, you played for a people and a cause.

The atmosphere was raucous when the three Celts took their seats in the huge north stand but there was something else in the air too; it was a quietly nagging doubt, an unspoken dread that they’d blow it.  As the teams came out the noise levels were ear splitting, this was it, 90 minutes to be heroes forever of the forgotten men who lost the ten. The game began at a furious pace as St Johnstone dug in and made their intentions clear, they were here to do a professional job and had beaten Celtic in Perth a few months earlier. In just three minutes Henrik Larsson picked up the ball on the left and cut across the 18 yard line with defenders snapping at his heels. The sallow skinned Swede then unleashed a curling shot which sailed into the St Johnstone net. Celtic Park exploded, unleashing a torrent of noise and pent up emotion which flowed from the stands onto the pitch. Maybe they wouldn’t bottle it, maybe today would be their day…

Seven miles away in the Southern General Hospital, the duty Ward Sister was doing her rounds after the departure of the afternoon visitors. All was quiet and as she reached the bed of old Mr Walsh who lay with his eyes closed, the white ear phones of the hospital radio suggesting he was listening to some relaxing music. As she glanced at the board with his notes which hung at the foot of the bed he suddenly open his eyes and roared, ‘Yassss! Henrik ya fucking dancer!’ The startled nurse dropped the board in her fright before scowling at him, ‘Mr Walsh! That language will not be tolerated in this ward!’ He removed one of the earphones and grinned at her, ‘Sorry aboot that doll!’

Back at Celtic Park the 50,000 fans crowded into the three quarters complete stadium then endured 70 long minutes of stress and pressure as the team failed to deliver the killer blow. They knew Rangers were winning at Tannadice and that all it took to kill their dream would be a St Johnstone equaliser. The nervousness of the fans was affecting the players and when George O’Boyle almost got on the end of a cross for the visitors the tension increased. Then in 72 minutes Celtic broke up the left with the dependable Tom Boyd finding McNamara racing up the wing. His low cross was perfectly placed and zipped across the face of goal where the onrushing Harold Brattbakk met it and slammed the ball past Alan Main and into the net.

The goal was greeted like few others in Celtic history. Not only did it seal victory in the match, it ended ten barren years without the title and signalled that Celtic’s years in the wilderness were over. Mikey, eyes closed, hugged his brother in sheer delight as pandemonium erupted around them in the stands. The long wait was over, they had done it. Celtic were the Champions! In that moment of elation he thought of his old man in the hospital, no doubt tuning in on the radio. He was the man who introduced him to this magical football club, who took him to games all over Scotland and taught him the history and what it meant to be a Celt. He glanced around him at celebrating supporters who all shared that common bond, that love of Celtic, ‘that was for you da!’ he mumbled, ‘that was for you!’

Later that fine May day Mikey bounced up the stairs to his old man’s Ward. There was a night of celebrating ahead but first he would visit his old man and tell him of the day’s events. The old man was sitting up in bed and greeted him with a clenched fist salute and a huge smile. Mikey gave him a hug and produced a plastic bag from his jacket. ‘This is for you Da,’ he smiled. The old man looked mystified as he opened the bag and took out an emerald slither of earth and grass. ‘You couldn’t be at Paradise today so I brought a bit of it to you.’ The old man grinned, ‘You were on the park? Tell me about it son, I want tae know every detail.’

As they talked intently about the day’s events, their laughter echoing around the ward, the duty sister passed and glanced at the piece of turf sitting incongruously on the bedside cabinet. She rolled her eyes as old Tommy smiled at her, ‘A wee piece of Paradise, doll. I can cut you a bit if ye want?’ Her expression suggested it wasn’t an offer she’d take up.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

A matter of respect

A matter of respect

A few years ago I took a group of children on a tour of Ibrox Stadium as part of an anti-sectarian initiative. There were supporters of both Celtic and Rangers in the group as well as a few lads of Scottish-Asian heritage who were more interested in cricket. They had been well prepared before the visit and knew a good deal about the slowly dying bigotry which scars west of Scotland life at times. The kindly old chap who guided us around the stadium took us up the marble stairway to the Blue Room with its frescoes of past Managers of the club. We toured the dressing rooms and were cut loose to wander the trophy room too. As we gazed at the mementos of a century or more of sporting success, the old chap asked if anyone had any questions. It was one of the Scottish-Asian lads who raised his hand and asked why Rangers didn’t sign a Catholic player for a large part of their history. The old chap looked flustered and said was answering questions about the ‘trophies and stadium’ only. That old fella was working from his script and was unwilling or unable to go beyond it and such hiding from the facts doesn’t help the new generation understand why things were as they were in the past.

We saw this week a new young manager trying to manage the media and fan expectation as he sets off on his first ever club management job. The arrival of Steven Gerrard at Ibrox was a curious affair. He looked very awkward as he toured the dressing room and was greeted by gruff kit man Jimmy Bell who gives a good impression of the stereotypical dour Scotsman. Gerrard was an excellent footballer in his time although the hyperbole describing his the ‘greatest ever signing by a Scottish club’ was plainly nonsense as Roy Keane had a glittering career which saw him win 19 major honours while Gerrard won 8 and never got close to a championship badge. Press fawning aside though it is an exciting signing which might raise the profile of the game in Scotland. Talk of Gerrard ‘putting Scotland on the map’ is at best patronising claptrap and at worst insulting. The game here is on the up with crowds increasing, stadiums being modernised and some fine young managers building decent sides.

One supporter speaking on the tv news said he hadn’t been so excited since the arrival of Souness. There are, however, huge differences between now and 1986 when Souness first marched up the marble staircase, the chief among them being the paucity of resources at Ibrox now compared to the free spending days of the Murray regime. Celtic has become far more powerful too and is not the poorly run and financed outfit Souness took on in the 1980s. One thing which hasn’t changed though is the fan culture Souness encountered. He once remarked, ‘Here I was married to a Catholic and having to listen to my supporters singing songs about killing Catholics.’  

Souness, whether you loved him or loathed him, had little time for such behaviour which most sensible people knew belonged in the dark ages. That being said there is footage of his players singing the ‘Billy Boys’ in the dressing room after clinching a league title at Tannadice and this showed how deeply embedded the bigotry culture was at Ibrox in the 1980’s. I’m sure many players and fans who sung those songs back then would argue that it’s not meant and that they wouldn’t hurt a fly but they created the mood music for more dangerous elements, who certainly would and that is unacceptable.

As Gerrard strolled the corridors of Ibrox taking in the history of the place, a throng outside the stadium celebrated his arrival by singing about being ‘Up to their knees in Fenian blood’ as the Police guarding the door looked on and said nothing. Gerrard, coming from Merseyside with its huge Irish population, will have some inkling of the attitudes he’ll meet in Scottish football. Liverpool and Everton left any such baggage behind a lifetime ago and in general their rivalry is free from any unsavoury undertones. Not since the Juvenal Street riot of 1909 had sectarianism been a cause of serious violence in Liverpool.

Much has changed in Glasgow over the past three decades but Gerrard will soon learn that his new club’s support contains a sizable minority of individuals who have evolved little since Souness arrived in 1986. They are being presented with a manager who has a genuine pedigree in world football and respond by singing the same tired, old trash which has sullied their reputation for decades. They appear to have no self-awareness at all and some seem to actually wallow in their ignorance.

When Charles Green took control of Rangers in 2012 he missed the historic opportunity to tell the less cerebral among the Rangers support that the times are changing and people should change with them. Instead, no doubt with his eye on a fast buck, he started the ‘No Surrender’ nonsense and played the victim card to explain Rangers self-inflicted demise. As one cynic said at the time, ‘A free cup of tea and a quick ‘No surrender’ and suddenly he was the Messiah.’

No one expects a young, rookie Manager to comment on the evils of sectarianism in Scottish society. It’s still there festering away in the darker corners, even if the vast majority of Scots have long since called it out for the patent nonsense it is. I do however hope Gerrard conducts himself with dignity and does his job without paying any lip service to the ‘WATP’ mentality. He is a young coach starting out on his managerial career and should be allowed to focus on his job and nothing else. As a lifelong Celtic fan, I hope Rodgers and his Celtic side continue to dominate their rivals and that Gerrard has little success on the field of play, but I also hope Celtic supporters treat Gerrard with the same respect he has long showed them and their club.

Scottish society has changed so much since Souness walked in the door of Ibrox in 1986 bringing with him the unbridled capitalism which changed Scottish football forever. He had little time for the culture surrounding Rangers then and whatever you thought of him as a person, he signed players on football ability alone and dragged Rangers into the modern era. 

Some of their supporters have still to make that journey.