Friday, 29 June 2018

The Smashing of the van

The Smashing of the van

I strolled down Castle Street in Glasgow’s east end this week and got to thinking about the history which had been played out in this, the oldest part of the city. As I passed the Royal Infirmary, once the site of the Castle which gave the street its name, I recalled the tales of William Wallace capturing that same castle during the Scottish Wars of Independence in 1297. Further down the street stands Glasgow cathedral. It was here the stone masons confronted the Reformers in the sixteenth century who were determined to destroy the building as they had destroyed so many other great church buildings in Scotland. Thankfully a compromise was agreed and they destroyed instead any interior signs of ‘Popery’ such as art works, statues and rood screens but left the building standing. Across the road is the oldest surviving house in Glasgow built in 1472 and diagonally opposite that is a statue of William of Orange in Roman garb on his horse with its tail held on by a ball and socket joint after repeated vandalism in the late nineteenth century.

Go a little further and you’ll see the remains of the walls of the old Duke Street prison. The Ladywell flats complex is inside the much reduced walls of what was one of Scotland’s major jails. It was here almost a century ago that an incident occurred which is surprisingly little known today. Let me take you back though to a very different Glasgow from the one we know today…

It seemed like a normal Wednesday afternoon in Glasgow as people went about their business on a warm spring day in 1921. The east end of Glasgow was enjoying some bright May weather and the area around Castle Street, which led to the Cathedral and Royal Infirmary, was busy but all seemed normal. That was about to change as the lumbering Black Maria Police van made its way from the Central Police Court in St Andrew’s Square to Duke Street Prison. It contained just two prisoners and one of them was of such importance that four armed officers formed an escort. The back of the van was divided into compartments known as dog boxes; one contained a petty criminal and the only other occupied dog box contained Frank Carty.

Carty was a highly dangerous man in the eyes of the British authorities. A battle hardened Commander of the IRA who had fought the Black and Tans in his homeland for two long and bloody years. He had already escaped from Sligo and Derry prisons and the authorities were taking no chances. Glasgow then was a city with a large Irish population many of whom were sympathetic to the cause Carty fought for. Indeed, Eamon de Valera, the president the Irish Republic said of Scotland’s assistance to the struggle for Irish independence:

The financial contribution to the Irish struggle from among the Scottish communities was in excess of funds from any other country, including Ireland.’

Scotland was more than a source of money and sympathy for the Republican cause during the Irish war of independence; weapons, explosives and volunteers crossed the sea too. Most major population centres in Scotland had their clandestine companies of volunteers who robbed munition works, stole weapons and on one occasion held up the crew of a Royal Navy gunboat docked at Finnieston and stole their weapons. Chris Bambery in his book ‘A people’s history of Scotland’ states that…

‘Seamus Reader, the commander of the Scottish IRA was able to slip into the chemistry department of Glasgow University where he manufactured explosives which were then shipped to Ireland.’

In this atmosphere, it was plain to see why the Police thought Frank Carty needed some extra security as he journeyed to Duke Street Jail. As events were to prove, they were right to be concerned for as the Van slowed near the entrance of the Prison, a team of IRA Volunteers led by hardened Republican Sam Adair sprung their ambush. Witnesses spoke of ‘scores’ of armed men running from lanes and closes of the High Street to ambush the van. As people fled in terror, the IRA men fired into the van killing one of the escorting officers and wounding another. The other officers returned fire and a deadly gun fight took place on the public street. The attackers were unable to free Carty despite firing repeatedly into the lock on the metal door of the van. In the end the attackers gave up and melted away into the warren of closes and lanes which made up the area then.

Glasgow was shocked by what had occurred on that bright May day and police raids took place immediately in areas they thought sympathetic to the rebels in Ireland. The Glasgow Irish were still ghettoised in those times and life revolved around the local community, the Parish and for many Celtic Park. As doors were battered down in the east end of the city, people were becoming irate and a large crowd gathered in Abercrombie Street. The Police arrived by the van load to raid more homes and their heavy handed approach ensured that the anger in a community, which had long thought they were treated unfairly, was growing. When they arrested a local Priest, Father McCrory of St Mary’s, things got out of hand and serious rioting occurred. The Police were forced to withdraw but not before dozens had been taken into custody and scores of firearms recovered. As a mob reported as two thousand strong controlled the Gallowgate area that night, the army quietly readied itself in case it was required to assist the hard pressed Police.

Charges against a dozen men and women involved in the ‘smashing of the van’ went to trial in Edinburgh but the Jury found all involved not guilty or not proven. No one was ever convicted for the killing of Superintendent Robert Johnstone who died that day. Sam Adair the IRA man who led the attempt to free Frank Carty died in the civil war which followed the signing of the treaty which ended the ‘Tan War’ and led to the partition of Ireland. He was fighting for the anti-treaty IRA against Pro-Treaty forces when he was killed in an ambush set by his former comrades. It was said that Frank Carty, the man he had tried to rescue in Glasgow, had ordered the ambush.

Glasgow in those times was in many ways a divided city and this was expressed in many ways, not least in its sectarian geography and the street gangs of the era, some of whom were hundreds strong. The Billy Boys and Bridgeton Derry were often locking horns with their mainly catholic rivals the Norman Conks or the Shamrock. Their battles could be brutal and this era gave Glasgow its ‘No Mean City’ reputation. In Politics, the Glasgow Irish were often more interested in what was going on in Ireland than the local scene where virulently anti-Catholic political parties had sprung up. The Protestant Action Party and Protestant League could win a quarter of the vote at local elections in Edinburgh and Glasgow. With high unemployment, poverty and over-crowding, the conditions were rife for such extremist voices to be heard.

The year following the attempt to free Frank Carty Celtic travelled to Greenock for the finale of a very tight Championship race. They needed to avoid defeat to ensure they would be champions and Morton, who would win the cup that year, would prove formidable opponents. As thousands of Celtic supporters flooded into Greenock there was tension in the air. Police stopped Celtic fans entering the stadium with banners described in the press as ‘Sinn Fein’ flags (Irish tricolours) but they were simply passed over the wall to their comrades inside. Fighting broke out on the terraces as they game commenced and continued sporadically until the teams left the field at half-time. It was then the real trouble occurred, with hundreds involved clashes and fans racing from one end of the field to the other to join in the fray. Ship yard workers from Greenock had been seen carrying bags of metal rivets into the game and these caused many injuries when thrown. The Police were helpless to stop the mayhem and only the resumption of the game distracted the rioters from their activities. Celtic drew 1-1 thanks to a late goal from Andy McAtee and won the title by one point but as fans exited the stadium the violence resumed. Morton fans were seen to burn Celtic flags and both sets of supporters laid into each other again. There was trouble in and around the railway station and on the trains back to Glasgow where among other things Police had to overpower a man wielding a razor. Shop windows were smashed and looted, the cells were full and the hospital overcrowded by the end of a day in which Greenock had seen the worst rioting in its history.

It’s interesting comparing the Glasgow of the 1920’s to the modern city. We often see some faux outrage when someone sings a non PC song at a football match or displays a banner with political content but that pales into insignificance when we consider the political and social divisions at play a century ago. The Irish-Scots have come a long way in the past hundred years and are now a fully integrated and prominent part of the Scottish nation. Through inter-marriage and the passing of time, each succeeding generation becomes more Scottish, proud of their ancestry of course, but now much more comfortable in their native land. Scotland’s largest migrant group, once virtually written out of any history of the country, are now being rightly recognised for their role in building its infra structure, for their contribution in sports, the arts, education, law, politics and much more.  

Perhaps the most visible symbol of their presence in this old city is to be found in the east end of Glasgow at the top of what we used to call Kerrydale Street...

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Real Deal

The Real Deal

Henrik Larsson lay prostrate on the emerald turf of Celtic Park as a hush descended around the packed Stadium. The Swedish striker was never one for lying down without good reason and most of the supporters knew his injury was serious. Gus Bahoken of Livingston had broken Larsson’s jaw in two places after a clumsy and rather brutal attempt at heading the ball. Accidental or not, Celtic fans knew Larsson’s absence in those early months of 2003 was a major blow. Celtic were locked in a tense battle for the league title and would face Stuttgart in the UEFA cup that month.  The fans knew how important Larsson was to the team and some recalled how their season had fallen apart after he had broken his leg in Lyon in 1999. Blood was mopped from his face and he was helped from the field to loud but rather worried applause. He was taken straight to hospital and the fracture confirmed.

Ron Moore, long time sports reporter with the Daily Mirror decided to try and get a scoop and headed north to interview Larsson. The trouble was he didn’t ask in advance and Larsson is a private man who guards his family’s privacy jealously. Moore had the cheek to let himself into Larsson’s front yard and wait for him to return and the Swede was not amused. The interview consisted of the following exchange…

Moore: ‘How are you Henrik?’
Larsson: (Heavily bandaged) ‘Fuck off.’
Moore: ‘How long will you be wearing the bandage?’
Larsson: ‘Fuck off.’
Moore: ‘When will you be able to play again?
Larsson: ‘Fuck off.’

Henrik Larsson was without doubt one of the best strikers ever to grace the Scottish game and his prowess in front of goal is legendary but for all his deft touches, intelligent movement and clinical finishes he was as tough as they come too. Professional football can be brutal at times and Larsson took his fair share of ruthless treatment on the field. He talked in the years after his retirement about the dark side of the game and said…

‘It can get pretty ugly sometimes. I know I’ll get hurt, tackled from behind sometimes but I know that from the outset. Sometimes to cover a defender you grab hold of their shorts and if you happen to grab their package too well you just pull harder.’

Larsson once stated that Craig Moore of Rangers was one of his toughest opponents but praised him by saying that much as the Australian dished out some fairly brutal treatment, he takes it back without complaining.

Of course spending seven years of his career at Celtic brought out the usual arrogant and condescending comments from commentators south of the border that his 242 goals in green and white were more down to the relative weakness of the Scottish League than Larsson’s abilities. Fans of all clubs in Scotland have endured the ‘My Nan’ brigade for as long as football has been played.  Celtic’s record against English opposition in European fixtures has been good over the years as Leeds United, Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United will tell you but there was no doubting our pleasure when Henrik demonstrated at the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League level that he was the real deal. As a striker he scored goals against sides like Juventus, Liverpool, Porto and Valencia but It irked him that the ignorant would deride his achievements in Scotland and he once stated….

“They would say, ‘Yeah he can do it in Scotland, but can he do it in the big leagues?’ It was a bit annoying because if it was that easy, why didn’t everybody score so many goals?”

The man who holds the goal scoring record in European matches while at a UK club demonstrated at Barcelona and Manchester United that he would have been a star in any league.

We Scots have a tendency to talk down our own game but as many who ventured north of Hadrian’s Wall to play in Scotland have found, it is not the stroll in the park they expected. In recent times we have seen a host of prodigies from the English Academy system loaned out to gain experience in Scotland. Few of them have made any impact at all and even experienced professionals like Joey Barton found the need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for excuses after being an abject failure in the much maligned SPFL.

Those of us who enjoyed Henrik Larsson’s seven years at Celtic Park knew what we were watching. He had started his footballing career in his native Sweden before moving to Feyenoord in Holland where even he would admit things weren’t perfect. It was as if he had found his spiritual home at Celtic and the warmth he basked in from the supporters seemed to help him blossom into a top player.  He famously said after Celtic had beaten Blackburn Rovers in the UEFA Cup at Ewood Park, ‘Yeh, we were shit in Glasgow but they should learn a lesson, you never talk until the game is over.’ Blackburn’s ‘Men against boys’ jibe after the first game in Glasgow (Which they lost) was dripping in all the old arrogance we expect from English opposition and it was an utter delight to ram their words down their throats in their own stadium.

Henrik Larsson sits third in the all-time goal scoring charts for Celtic behind the legendary Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox. His career at Celtic saw him win eight major honours, a golden boot as Europe’s top scorer and helped the club to a European final. Beyond the statistics though we have a thousand memories of the deft clips over the goalkeeper, the flashing dreadlocks as he headed for goal, the tongue out in celebration and sheer grit and determination he added to his undoubted skills.

I’ve been fortunate to watch some excellent footballers wearing the green and white over the years but few have been as good as Henrik Larsson. It was an added bonus that he seemed to get what Celtic was all about too and developed a real affection for the club. He said once…

“This is the club for me. This is where I made myself as a player, this is where everybody got to know me and this is the club that I will be eternally grateful to for giving me that opportunity when maybe other clubs didn’t believe in me. This is where I got back into the Swedish national team and went on to play in European Championships and World Cups for Sweden. I couldn’t have done that without Celtic.”

It is testimony to the impact he made at Celtic that 14 years after his last competitive game for the club he is still recalled with such affection. We don’t forget our heroes at Celtic and Henrik Larsson was certainly one of them.

Thank you Henrik. Hail Hail

Friday, 8 June 2018

Hasta La Victoria...

Watching news filter through that the Argentinian football side had decided not to play a game in Israel this week reminded me yet again of the impossibility of totally separating sport from politics. The disgracefully callous treatment of Palestinians on the ‘great march of return’ demonstrations was one of the key factors which led to pressure being brought to bear on Argentina who announced that they would not fulfill the fixture. It was for some, including many Palestinians, a sign that at least some in the world cared about their plight, For others it was another example of pressure being brought to bear unfairly on a football team merely out to play a game. It got me thinking about another game of football long ago which did take place and perhaps never should have.

In September 1973 as Celtic drove relentlessly towards another league title, events were occurring on the other side of the world which would eventually impact on Scotland and our national game. The left leaning Chilean Popular Unity Party led by Salvador Allende was swept from power in a CIA backed coup led by the Chilean military and General Augusto Pinochet. It was a brutal seizure of power which saw Chilean jets bombing their own Presidential Palace as troops and tanks flooded the streets. The round-up of Allende supporters began immediately and thousands of political opponents were arrested, tortured and in many cases murdered. Among them was folk singer and poet, Victor Jara.

Jara’s songs had urged the people to build a better, fairer country and there was no doubting his support for Allende. This was enough for him to be arrested and taken to the Chilean national football stadium where he was held with thousands of others. When he was recognised by the soldiers, he was taken to the changing room and brutally tortured. His hands and fingers were smashed with an axe as the guards mocked him and asked that he play his guitar for them. One of the officers loaded a single bullet into a gun and spun the chamber; he then played Russian Roulette with the gun pressed to Jara’s head until eventually it went off and Victor fell. He ordered two young conscripts to finish him and they fired over 40 bullets into Jara’s body.

In the aftermath of the bloodletting at the national stadium in Santiago, the USSR team was due to play a world cup play-off match. They refused to go there and their spokesman said….

The Football Federation of the USSR has asked FIFA to hold the match in a third country as the stadium in Santiago is stained with the blood of Chilean patriots. Soviet sportsmen cannot at this time perform at such a venue on moral grounds.’

FIFA sent officials to the stadium which was still holding prisoners who were cowed and out of sight. FIFA ordered the USSR to play the game which of course they refused. This led to the bizarre spectacle of Chile kicking off a game against an absent opposition and scoring a ‘goal’ against team which was sitting at home 8000 miles away.

Over 7000 men and women had been held in dreadful conditions in the stadium and many of them were brutalised and murdered. Yet just a few short years after these events, the SFA decided in their wisdom to play a football match against Pinochet’s Chile in that same stadium. There was huge outcry in Scotland from fans, political groups, trade unions and church groups. Indeed engineers at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride refused to repair engines of planes from the Chilean air force. An act of solidarity recalled this year in the excellent documentary, ‘Nae Pasaran.’ The SFA though were having none of it and pushed ahead with the match which was part of the build up to the World Cup in Argentina. Many players thought that refusal to go to Chile might jeopardise their chances of going to the world cup the following year. Alan Rough, the Scottish goalkeeper of the time, said later…

“When I went into that stadium, I remember going into the dressing room and I remember seeing the bullet holes on the wall where they had lined up people and killed them. I think if we had been given more information, that there were actually people still being killed and still being arrested on the street and being taken away and shot most of the players wouldn’t have gone.”

Scotland won their ‘Shame game’ in Santiago by 4 goals to 2 but the bitterness and controversy lingered on. Had Scotland cancelled the match it would have been seen by many as an act of solidarity with the oppressed and won Scotland many friends. At least the controversy the game caused raised awareness about what was going on in Chile but for many football fans, it was a game which should never have taken place.

Those of you who remember the sporting boycott of South Africa during the Apartheid era will know that it was of the most visual and potent weapons used to highlight the injustices there. In 1963 FIFA suspended South Africa and when FIFA President Stanley Rous went to negotiate with the South African FA, they asked if they could field and all white side at the 1966 World Cup in England and an all black side in the 1970 tournament in Mexico. FIFA rightly shook their head in disbelief and walked away. In the end, political, economic and sporting pressures built up leading South Africa to abandon Apartheid and become a more integrated and fairer society.

There are those who would apply similar pressure to Israel. Scotland is due to play in Israel in October as part of the European Nations League fixtures. There will undoubtedly be pressure put on the SFA by some not to go there, particularly if the brutality goes on, but it is highly unlikely they’ll even consider not going. The match, unlike the friendly in Chile in 1977, is a competitive, UEFA sanctioned game and not going would leave Scotland open to punitive sanctions. In fairness though, Celtic has played in Israel against Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Hapoel Tel Aviv in the past and there was little call for any boycotts then. Pragmatism and an unwillingness to face the wrath of UEFA ensured those ties went ahead. Politics and sport will never be totally separated but they are uncomfortable bed-fellows.

Victor Jara was asked by a Journalist just a few days before the Coup which was to claim his life, what love meant to him. He replied…

Love of my home, my wife and my children. Love for the earth that helps me live. Love for education and of work. Love of others who work for the common good. Love of justice as the instrument that provides equilibrium for human dignity. Love of peace in order to enjoy one's life. Love of freedom, but not the freedom acquired at the expense of others’ freedom, but rather the freedom of all.‘

Few would disagree with those words. Some in our world though still take their freedom at the expense of others. Until such injustices end there will always be protests; there will always be those who won’t look the other way. 

That is a matter for each human being’s conscience and I for one won’t condemn those who say, that’s enough, no more!

Saturday, 2 June 2018

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood

It’s a feature of life that the older generation are often unhappy with the behaviour of the young. Consider the following quote…

‘The children of today love luxury, have bad manners, show contempt for authority and are disrespectful to their elders.’

A few of you reading these words will no doubt be nodding your head and thinking they contain a grain of truth. It may surprise you to know that they were written by Greek Philosopher, Socrates, 2400 years ago. It seems that these generational squabbles are nothing new.

This came to mind when I met an old friend recently who used to accompany me all over the as we followed Celtic in our youth. We got to reminiscing about those times and among the great footballing memories we shared, there were also some more hair-raising adventures discussed. The Hampden riot in 1980 was chief among them and in truth I’ve never seen Glasgow in such a ferment before or since, The trouble at the stadium was repeated in streets and bars throughout the city and the Police cells were full to bursting when the sun set.

Younger Celtic supporters today often get it in the neck from their elders for things such as pyrotechnics, flares (smoke bombs - not 1970s trousers) and jumping around at football as if they were in a mosh pit but truth be told, their fathers and grandfathers were just as lively in their youth and often worse! Growing up and following Celtic in the 1970s and 80s was an experience which could offer the same thrills and disappointments as following the team today but the football environment we moved in was more lawless and could even be dangerous at times.

For instance in the spring of 1978 Celtic were facing the last few games of a dreadful season in which they would finish fifth in the league and fail to qualify for Europe for the first time in years. They were on the wrong end of a 4-1 hiding at Easter Road when some of the fans got violent. Golf balls and bottles flew and the field was invaded. It took most of the Celtic team and manager to usher fans back onto the terracing. Police made 30 arrests. Later that year, Celtic travelled to Burnley to play in the Anglo-Scottish Cup. 10,000 Celtic fans headed down and many had been drinking all day by the time the game started. The usual moronic taunts from the local supporters led to some Celtic fans ripping up railings and starting what was by any standards serious disorder. Fighting halted the game for a while and it took the Police a good while to restore order. The local Police chief said it was the worst hooliganism he had ever seen in Burnley. By 1980 we had the cup final with Rangers and perhaps the worst scenes of rioting seen at a major Scottish sporting event since the 1909 cup final had been abandoned and Hampden left smouldering by a rampaging mob.

Incidents as serious as the ones above were rare but there was an underlying threat of trouble at many games in those days as policing hadn’t yet evolved the tactics to make it less likely and stadiums were antiquated and un-segregated for the most part. You knew in advance that there were away matches were a scrap was likely with unsurprisingly Hibs, Hearts, Rangers and even Dundee being among them.  Alcohol was ubiquitous and I still recall watching in amazement as a man denied entry to Celtic Park with a bottle of Eldorado wine drank the lot in two huge swigs before dumping the empty in a bin by the turnstile and entering the stadium.

On occasion there were fights within the Celtic support with gangs from various parts of Glasgow bumping into each other in the old Jungle. There were also times when some supporters were willing to take on the Police as we saw in the infamous Janefield Street Riot of 1984. There was a huge element of provocation that night and some could justifiably claim self-defence. Police horses had charged up a packed Janefield Street in the aftermath of a Celtic v Rangers game causing absolute mayhem. People fell over and the sheer weight of bodies trying to avoid the horses caused walls and railings to collapse. There seemed no justification for the charge by Strathclyde’s mounted division but when they reached the stadium and turned to charge again, they were met by a hail of bricks garnered from the collapsed wall. Van loads of Police arrived then and lashed out at anyone within reach with batons, boots and fists. It was an ugly night and one on which it was difficult to discern who exactly were the hooligans and who the guardians of the law. It was a similar tale at the Cliftonville v Celtic match in Belfast that year when the RUC reverted to type and behaved with similar brutality.

The Celtic song book in those days was more earthy too and alongside the standards like ‘The grand old team’ and ‘You’ll never walk alone’ there were numerous Irish nationalist songs and some fairly crude lyrics were added to popular chart tunes of the time.  One which sticks in the mind used the tune from the song ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ about Muhammad Ali’s fight with George Foreman, but with the lyric amended, it was hardly Lennon and McCartney but such ditties were common among most supports when abusing rivals…

‘Came a monkey called John Grieg, to Park, to Parkhead,
Had a face like ham and egg, McCluskey broke the bastard’s leg
Hear the rumble in the Jungle…. at Parkhead’

Terrace life in the 1970s and 80s could be fantastic when the crowd was roaring out the backing for the team but even the most fervent Celt would admit it could be a bit hair-raising at times too. I’m sure most of the older Celtic fans reading these words will be able to recount incidents in stadiums, streets, railway stations or pubs which had them wondering what the hell was going on.

So maybe we should cut the younger generation a bit of slack. Of course they’ll get on your nerves at times with their antics but we older fans should remember that we were once like that. My old man once said to a neighbour who was at the door complaining about us playing football in the back court, ‘Were ye never a wean yerself?’  We should bear that in mind when the next feel like moaning about the young. We did many similar things when boyhood’s fire was in our blood and most of us turned out okay in the end.

Every generation seems to need to make its own mistakes before learning from them and growing up. I recall coming home bedraggled from a match at Ibrox as a lad. I had my hooped shirt on and was delighted that Celtic had won. My Celtic mad uncle smiled as he watched me talking excitedly about the match and Joe Craig’s stunning winning goal, before saying to me… ‘You are as I was. I am as you will be.’

I was a youngster learning about the world and my place in it. I was finding out first-hand about that comradeship and warmth which goes with following Celtic. It was all part of growing up. It has ever been thus, even Socrates knew that.