Sunday, 29 December 2019

The Story of Celtic

The Story of Celtic

The end of a year is both a time to look forward and a time to look back. The teens are coming to an end and we are about to enter the twenties. The past decade has seen Celtic sweep to almost unparalleled success in domestic football. Three consecutive trebles, eight successive league titles and some amazing moments has made the past decade a wonderful time to be a Celtic fan. 

The previous decade had begun with the arrival of Martin O’Neil and Celtic’s first treble since 1969. His battles with a Rangers we now know to have been financially doped, were epic affairs and O’Neill’s team won 3 titles with two others lost by a single goal and a single point respectively. Strachan succeeded him and won 3 titles in 4 years to ensure Celtic’s place as the dominant side in the decade. In fact, Celtic have won more league titles than any other Scottish side in every decade since the 1960s with the solitary exception of the 1990s when the club was run into the ground and in need to rebuilding.

The current decade began with Celtic’s league challenge petering out in the spring of 2010 and temporary Manager Neil Lennon taking over following the departure of Tony Mowbray. Lennon did manage a victory of Rangers with Fortune and Naylor scoring the goals but the club’s last hope of silverware was in the Scottish cup and an inept display against Ross County at Hampden saw his team go out of the tournament in the semi-final. 

The following season Lennon led Celtic to within a point of the title but a disastrous 3-2 defeat at Inverness on the run in handed the initiative to Rangers who won the title by a single point. Success in the Scottish cup with a 3-0 win over Motherwell at a rain sodden Hampden couldn’t quite dispel the feeling that the league had been thrown away. That spring saw Neil Lennon the victim of bombs in the post, foul abuse at certain away grounds and a physical assault at Tynecastle. It was a disgraceful time for Scottish football and the worst elements of the media made things worse with ludicrous headlines such as one depicting an image of Neil Lennon and the Tax man with the words ‘Who is hated more at Ibrox?’ It was gutter journalism at its worse and inflamed an already tense situation further.

Season 2011-12 saw Rangers race into a seemingly unassailable 12 point lead in the title race and Lennon’s job looked to be on the line. In a pivotal match at Rugby Park the team trailed 3-0 at half time and Rangers were ahead against St Mirren at Ibrox. Things looked bleak for the Celtic Manager but his side demonstrated amazing tenacity to recuse a point in a stirring comeback which saw the game end 3-3. St Mirren snatched a draw at Ibrox and Celtic took heart and went on a run which saw them reduce Rangers lead to 2 points by the time the Ibrox club came to Celtic Park on a wild and windy December night in 2011. Joe Ledley scored the only goal of the game and Celtic went to the top of the table. Their position as the top side in Scotland has remained unchanged from that windy night to this very day.

The spring of 2012 saw Celtic clinch the title as their great rivals stumbled from financial crisis to administration and finally liquidation. Despite ludicrous press talk of a ‘Billionaire’ with wealth which was ‘off the radar’ coming to rescue them, Rangers suffered the ultimate humiliation of going bankrupt and owing creditors large and small tens of millions of pounds. It sent seismic shockwaves through Scottish football as the completely wrongfooted the SFA and SPL who demonstrated a complete lack of moral fibre and leadership. Their attempts to shoehorn the phoenix club which arose in Rangers place into the top league misfired and they badly misjudged the mood among supporters of clubs all over the land who demanded that any new entity should join the league at the lowest rung of the ladder. The clubs too, undoubtedly influenced by fans opinions, thought that fair play was more important than financial considerations and the new club started where they should in the fourth tier of the game. 

The death of Rangers allowed Celtic to power ahead and clinch title after title with relative ease. Aberdeen gave Celtic a run for their money but the Hoops were in no mood to ease off. By the time the new Rangers fought their way past the postmen and Joiners of the lower leagues and returned to the top flight, Celtic were well established as the dominant force in the land. Indeed, the Rangers arrival in the top flight was accompanied by the sort of hubris and arrogance which had contributed to the old club’s downfall. ‘We’re coming for you’ we were told. ‘we’re going for 55’ was the claim and it was with supreme satisfaction that Celtic not only completely dominated the new club but also completed an unheralded three successive trebles. Indeed, some of the thumpings handed out to the Ibrox club in the modern era match anything seen in the days of the Old Firm. In the past few years Celtic have won 5-1, 5-0, 4-0 and 5-1 and reminded the Ibrox men that football is played on the park and not in the blustering puff pieces of the press.

So, as we embark on a new decade which I hope is as successful for Celtic as the previous one, what are my favourite moments? There are so many to choose from in the past ten years and some will inevitably be tied to personal circumstances. But for what it’s worth here are my top five moments of the past decade, in reverse order…

5:  Rangers 1 Celtic 5. April 2017: Celtic’s destruction of Rangers at Ibrox was as much a delight to Celtic supporters as it was a shock to the home fans. The team played with verve and style and could have won even more convincingly. The scenes in the Broomloan Road stand after the game will live long in the memory.

4. Celtic 2 Barcelona 1. November 2012: On a night I’ll never forget, Celtic park celebrated the club’s 125th birthday with a tifo which was at once awe inspiring and beautiful. The team fought with that old Celtic spirit to defeat a Barcelona side at the peak of their powers and probably the best team in the world at that point.

3. Celtic 5 Rangers 1. 10th September 2016: The press built Rangers up for this match and the mouthy figure of Joey Barton had told Celtic he was coming for their title. Joey was anonymous as Celtic thrashed his side and gave Brendan Rodgers the perfect start to his derby record.

2. Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 6. April 2012: Celtic clinch the first of their current run of titles with an emphatic win on the ground where their rivals had clinched the title a year before. All the pain of the previous few seasons was washed away with a sparkling display of attacking football. It was the last match I attended with my nephew who sadly died in an accident. For that reason alone, this game will always live in my heart.

1. Celtic 2 Aberdeen 1: May 2017. The moment Tom Rogic picked up possession in midfield and glided towards the Aberdeen goal is fixed in my memory. The cup, the Treble, the Invincible season all hung on that one moment. In my mind’s eye, I can see the stand around me watch in spellbound anticipation and hope as he moved into the box and unleashed his shot. Then that roar, that joy, that knowledge that the Bhoys had done the seemingly impossible and gone through an entire season undefeated. The scenes after that goal were among the most amazing I’ve ever witnessed in all my years watching Celtic. It was simply astonishing, simply sublime, simply Celtic.

The new decade will doubtless see more memories to add to those above and who knows maybe today’s match will see us end this year on a high. What are your best memories of the past decade?  They may differ from mine but then we have so many to choose from. We are blessed indeed to follow this amazing football club. The history is so beautifully rich and there are undoubtedly many more chapters to be written in the incredible story of Celtic.

Monday, 23 December 2019

The Emerald Gem

The Emerald Gem

The early 19th century was a brutal and dangerous time to alive especially if you came from the poorer parts of society. Infant mortality was high and diseases like cholera and typhoid were still common in the poorer parts of the fast growing cities of the industrial revolution. Crime was rife too in the cities and anyone who fell foul of the law could expect a range of fairly brutal punishments. Flogging was common for a range of minor offences and public executions for more serious offences often drew huge crowds. Many took place on Glasgow Green in the city’s east end and had an air of a fair about them as food sellers and souvenir hawkers plied their trade to the tens of thousands who came to see the execution. It is said the last public execution on the Green attracted 80,000 people who were there to see a certain Doctor Pritchard hang for poisoning his wife and her mother.

Society also tolerated ‘sports’ like bear baiting, bull baiting, cock fighting and a host of other hunting activities. Bear baiting involved tying a bear to a post and setting specially trained dogs on it. Similarly with bull baiting the dogs involved were trained to draw blood from a tethered bull which would defend itself as best it could with its horns.

In this violent atmosphere, it is not surprising that one sport that was also exceedingly popular was bare knuckle prize fighting. Gambling on these bouts was rife and corruption not unusual. There was no real limit to the number of rounds the fighters would endure and some fights lasted for over 2 hours with over 100 rounds endured by the pugilists involved. There were no set rules and fighters would use their heads, knees and often throw opponents to the ground. The bouts were often supported by the powerful and wealthy in society and the authorities would often turn a blind eye to them. One such fight in England in the year 1830 had reverberations as far afield as Glasgow and Dundee.

Simon Byrne, known as ‘the Emerald gem’ was an Irish pugilist noted for his scientific approach to his chosen profession as much as his power and stamina. His opponent, Alexander McKay hailed from Glasgow and was a more direct and brutal fighter. Both men were contracted to receive £200 each for the bout, a sum equivalent to a year’s wages today for the average worker. Thousands turned up to see the fight and it was a brutal spectacle indeed as both men laid into each other for 47 bloody rounds before a baying crowd. In the end McKay collapsed after a thumping left hand from Byrne caught him in the throat. He collapsed and was dragged to his corner where he complained of pain in his head. He was ‘bled’ by a surgeon as the crowd looked on before being carried to a nearby Inn. It was there he died the following evening. The authorities were forced to act and Byrne was arrested and charged with manslaughter. The young Irishman was on trial for his life and the press and public crammed into the courtroom to hear the evidence.

The trial of Simon Byrne heard many testimonies about his good character outside the ring and one witness described him as a ‘very human and kind man.’ The case had the potential to cause scandal in polite society as many rich and powerful people supported and even organised fights. One witness told the court that McKay had fallen before the fight and hit his head on a stone. This unlikely piece of evidence should be viewed with suspicion as it was in the interests of many to see Byrne walk free. As it was the jury retired to consider their verdict and to most people’s surprise returned in ten minutes to declare Byrne an innocent man. He walked free to much cheering from the public gallery.
In McKay’s home country of Scotland, the death of their champion at the hands of an Irishman was not received well in some quarters. In Dundee a bar room brawl caused by a dispute over the fight led to widespread rioting. Thousands stormed into the Irish part of town and brutally assaulted any Irish person they could find. The Catholic chapel was destroyed and three people were killed and over 200 injured. A contemporary account of the disorder stated…

‘After putting any Irishman they could find to rout, the mob then proceeded into town and proceeded into the houses of all of those they knew to be natives of the sister kingdom (Ireland)  dragging them out of their beds and beating them mercilessly, smashing all their windows and even carrying away and burning the very wooden stairs that led to their habitation. Tuesday night was most alarming, the mob parading the streets and no Irishman durst be seen, if recognised they were instantly knocked down and maltreated, the Police not daring to interfere with so numerous a mob. On Wednesday 18,000 rioters gathered at the cross when the rioters proceeded to the Roman Catholic Chapel which was partially destroyed, breaking all the windows and other articles in the interior. The people assembled again on Thursday, seeking out the poor Irish and chasing them from the town from which many were glad to escape with their lives.’

It’s hard to believe that the pogrom in Dundee against the Irish community there was sparked by a boxing match far to the south in England. It suggests an underlying resentment which only needed the right spark to start the blaze. Similar scenes took place in Glasgow where four people died and hundreds were injured before the local Yeomanry (Soldiers) were called in to restore order. The larger Irish population in Glasgow was by all accounts ready to defend itself and serious rioting ensued for several days. Newspapers of the time describe the tumultuous scenes in the following manner…

‘The brawls that followed the intelligence respecting the result of the fight caused the apprehension of upwards of 200 persons, and led to the death of an unfortunate young man. This city, especially the lower parts of it, has been the scene of continual riot and fighting for two days past, and the Police Office was more crowded with offenders on Sunday than ever it has been in the memory of the oldest servant of the establishment. Early in the morning there were many regular pugilistic contests in the Green, and notwithstanding the difficulty of apprehending delinquents in such as situation, the officers succeeded in securing a number of the ringleaders. This most unseemly conduct is to be attributed altogether to the extraordinary excitement created amongst a certain class, in consequence of the boxing match betwixt Byrne and McKay (the latter of whom belongs to this city), as cried throughout the streets. But it is likely, if the report of McKay's death be true, that such a punishment may await some of those more particularly concerned in that affair as will put a check to such atrociously disgraceful and brutalising exhibitions in future.

The disturbances in the High Street and Saltmarket were attended with very fatal results, with the death of no less than four men, one of them a foot soldier, having lost their lives. When the dead body of the soldier was carried to the Barracks, the whole of his Regiment turned out into the street, adding frightfully to the previous disorder. The Dragoons, on the requisition of the Lord Provost, were now employed to quell the riot of the citizens and the tumult of the foot soldiers, and to apprehend the persons composing the mobs, and the murderers. A great number of persons were in consequence taken into custody, and lodged in the jail and other places of security. Before the tumult was effectually quelled, however, and while the exasperation continued, the mob had repaired to Great Clyde Street, and there broke the windows of the Roman Catholic Chapel, and otherwise destroyed that building.’

It seems astonishing to us that a boxing match could lead to such scenes but as with Dundee the underlying tensions in Glasgow contributed to the violence. It is also worth noting that the death of a soldier led to the ‘whole of his Regiment turning out into the street, adding frightfully to the previous disorder.’ It is very likely that the soldiers adding to the disorder were far from impartial during the rioting.

Simon Byrne, may or may not have known about the disorder in Scotland following his fight with Alexander McKay but what we do know is that just three years later he himself was to die in the ring after a brutal 99 round encounter with a deaf fighter named James Burke. The London Times was scathing about the whole bloody sport and said….

We condemn utterly these barbarous, filthy and swindling exhibitions called prize fights. We hope an example will be made of the more wealthy monsters in this affair of blood – the sanguinary cowards who stood by and saw a fellow creature beaten to death for their sport and gain!

As time went on boxing was to become more restricted and subjected to rules. There may still be the occasional tragedy in the ring but it is now far less likely than it was in the brutal days when Simon ‘The Emerald Gem’ Byrne fought for his very life.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Oh my days

Oh my days

Watching young players come through the ranks and prosper at Celtic has been a pleasing aspect of following the hoops over the years. Some, like Paul McStay or Danny McGrain, stay for virtually all of their careers and become club legends. Others like Dalglish, Nicholas or Kieran Tierney burst onto the scene and give us some amazing memories before the lure of the English league and all its trappings of wealth and fame turn their heads. Celtic supporters have always accepted that the Scottish game has its limitations and that some players will eventually move on. I can still remember how upset I was as a lad when Kenny Dalglish left for Liverpool. The £440,000 fee was huge for the time but even that amount of money was a bargain for a player some consider one of the greatest ever to grace the Scottish game. It didn’t help that the season after Kenny left was the worst in 20 years for Celtic. Danny McGrain was injured in the October and Pat Stanton out for a long time too. Shorn of their best players Celtic lost 15 league matches and finished fifth in the league, failing to qualify for Europe for the first time in a many years. This downturn in the club’s fortunes was partly responsible for the classless booing of Dalglish by a significant minority of the fans at Jock Stein’s testimonial match between Celtic and Liverpool in 1978.

Charlie Nicholas was another player who jumped ship for mercenary reasons and it’s difficult to blame him when Club Chairman, Desmond White’s opening line in contract talks was ‘you know, we’d understand if you left…’ White was clearly aware of the fee Nicholas would accrue in England and as it transpired he joined Arsenal in 1983. It could be hugely frustrating for fans that Celtic often made no real effort to keep players they held dear. The apparent lack of ambition of the board at times in the club’s history clearly hamstrung the team at times and positions of strength were often frittered away.

Others players like Paul McStay, Tommy Burns and Danny McGrain spent virtually their whole careers at Celtic and will always have a special place in the hearts of the fans which few of those who left can aspire too. In the modern era though the one club player has become a rarity as the Bosman ruling freed players to go seek the best terms they could find when their contract expires. James Forrest looks a likely a candidate to spend his whole career at Celtic and has developed into a very effective and important player for the club. He doesn’t receive the cult status or adulation others do at times but remains a key component in Celtic’s recent success.

The arrival of Jeremie Frimpong at Celtic went almost unnoticed at the time. Another ‘project’ was how one article described him suggesting that such modest price tags (£350,000) suggested he was a raw teenager with much to learn. The young player, who is of Dutch-Ghanian heritage, has impressed hugely during first team outings with Celtic and plays with pace, style and boundless enthusiasm. His energy levels drive him up and down the pitch for 90 minutes and the fans have really taken to him. His manager was impressed enough by his performances to say of him…

‘He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever seen at that age. He’s an outstanding talent and watching him makes me tired. The amount of runs he makes wears people down.’

It is testimony to Lennon’s confidence in Frimpong that he threw him into the League Cup Final against Rangers in front of a noisy capacity crowd at Hampden on a rainy, windswept day in Glasgow. He was up against the much hyped Ryan Kent and demonstrated that he could mix it with the best in Scotland by giving a good account of himself. Of course more experienced team mates put him in a difficult situation when their inability to clear their lines led to Frimpong being on the wrong side of Alfredo Morelos. The youngster laid hands on the striker and that was all the encouragement the Columbian needed to go to ground. It must have been a horrendous moment for the teenager to see the referee point to the penalty spot before flashing a red card in his direction. As he trudged wearily from the field his anguish was written on his face. His team were 1-0 ahead but were now facing a penalty and 30 minutes playing with ten men.

Frimpong described his feeling of what occurred next in a post-match interview which made even the most cynical fans smile….

‘When Fraser saved it, fans were shouting and I had my head turned and I’m like which side is…? So I turned around and it was our side and I was buzzing, I was buzzing. But then I had like the worst feeling ever. I’m like oh my days, the minute’s go so slow. I was like oh, I wanted to cry yeh, and then when he blew the last whistle. I was like oh my God I was buzzing, I was buzzing. Oh my days, best game ever, best game ever!’

Frimpong’s infectious enthusiasm and apparent boyish innocence masks a determined young man who learned from some of the best since joining Manchester City as a 9 year old. He spoke recently of how he would quiz the first team players at City and learn from them. He arrived at Celtic as a young lad in a new environment and Scott Brown noted immediately that there was no attitude problem from the youngster who was clearly here to learn his trade and work hard. The Celtic skipper said of him…

‘I think he’s been brought up properly. His mum and dad have done a great job with him. The way he is, he’s just passed his driving test at the 27th attempt. Or was it the fourth? Anyway the lads have been giving him a wee bit of grief for that but he takes everything in his stride. He’s happy as Larry and he comes in and puts a smile on all the lads’ faces. For the first couple of weeks he didn’t really speak to anybody. It was other people who were speaking to him. It’s not easy coming here, especially from Manchester City. We thought a wee laddie coming in here from Man City could have a big time attitude but he’s come in and been unbelievable. For me, you can see right away that the wee man is genuine. He has that energy and that smile and there isn’t a single person who has a bad word to say about him.’

Jeremie Frimpong has ambitions to play for the Dutch national side and is actually trying to learn to speak that difficult language. He will undoubtedly attract interest from the English Premiership in the years ahead if his progress continues and we should enjoy the infectious enthusiasm, energy and skill he brings to the team while we can. He has been a breath of fresh air and I hope he hangs around long enough to contribute to what could be a historic period for Celtic. He puts a smile on people’s faces with his personality and his play and that is to be savoured in these difficult times. He’s in the early stages of his Celtic career but the signs are good that we have a real player on our hands.

If he sticks around for a few years and continues his development – oh my days, I’ll be buzzing!

Saturday, 14 December 2019

The H Word

The H Word

Many years I go I lived and worked in England and being a keen Celtic fan it was hard not getting my weekly chance to see my team in action. Of course in every town and city in the UK you’ll find pockets of Celts meeting up in pubs and clubs to watch games or just talk Celtic with likeminded folk. I did travel north when work and family life allowed and took in as many Celtic games as I could and those trips took on a special significance. As a young man I recall the euphoria of games in the centenary year culminating it that magical, sunlit 1988 cup final. Absence clearly does makes the heart grow fonder when it comes to Celtic.Of course my English pals would try to entice me into coming along to back their teams and I did watch a fair bit of football there but once a Celt always a Celt. I saw matches in Birmingham, London, Oxford and even as far as Merseyside and the fan culture there was different from Scotland. I recall being at the old Upton Park to see West Ham play Spurs and it was a pretty poisonous atmosphere. Spurs fans were subjected to chants containing lines such as…

‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz- Hitler’s gonna gas em again…’

Spurs of course are said to have a large Jewish following so the import is clear. Working class football culture has always sought to goad the opposition but there are limits. Of course Manchester United fans were subjected to the despicable, ‘Who’s that lying on the runway?’ song which celebrates the Munich air disaster which killed over 20 people including 8 of their players. Such chants do go beyond what is acceptable even when the fiercest or rivals meet. There will always be room for the more witty chants even if they are politically incorrect in these sanitised days.  Opposition fans used to chant at Manchester United’s Ji Sung Park… (To the tune of “Lord of the Dance”)
Park, Park, wherever you may be,
You eat dogs in your home country,
But it could be worse,
You could be f*****g scouse,
Eating rats in your council house.’
Such a song plays on the usual stereotypes but is understood by opposition fans as part of football banter unlike songs about Munich or Hillsborough which most decent people abhor.
One of the great changes to occur in English football has been the gentrification of what was once a solidly working class sport. The more uncouth behaviours of supporters are now frowned upon by the new breed of middle class supporters who like their football experience to be more sedate. In Scotland the government’s ill planned attempt to control what was chanted at football matches ended in farce as the law was repealed. The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was fatally flawed in that it failed to set out precisely what made a song ‘sectarian.’ The more inane chants heard among sections of Rangers supporters were fairly obvious in their crude intent. Thus songs about being ‘up to our knees in Fenian blood’ or the racist ‘famine song’ were fairly easy to label as the filth they are but other unionist/loyalist or Republican songs had the judges confused and more than a few hauled up to court walked free.
Celtic supporters have always sung songs which reflected the Irish heritage of the club and most (though by no means all) of their supporters. Thus in early times the ‘Dear little Shamrock’ or ‘Erin’s green valley’ were sung. In later years more overtly political songs such as ‘The boys of the old brigade’ or ‘Roll of Honour’ were given an airing and there remains an ongoing debate about the nature political expression should take at football grounds. The labelling of rebel songs as ‘sectarian’ is not something Celtic supporters, not indeed most Irish people, would accept although there is no doubt that behind the faux-outrage we hear from some about them in our society, there are others who are genuinely uncomfortable about them.
Similarly the term ‘Hun’ has come to prominence again with the corrupted version of  Shakin Stevens' 'Merry Christmas Everyone' doing the rounds and containing the line, ‘Merry Christmas, f*ck the Huns.’ Some Celtic fans, myself included, have never considered the term sectarian. It always meant a Rangers fan or players and those of a certain vintage will remember the term being used about Celtic fans. Well-meaning anti-sectarian groups tend to use the word as an accepted sectarian term but this is disputed by many who see it as nothing more than a prop used to support the narrative that both sides are as bad as each other. I have a protestant friend who is Celtic mad and often uses the ‘H’ word so his intent it is clearly not sectarian? That being said, to some perception is as important as intent and if some of those on the receiving end of the word are genuinely offended by it then perhaps it is better in the dustbin of history?
Jock Stein once invaded the terraces at Stirling Albion’s little stadium to remonstrate with Celtic supporters who he considered to be singing songs that were distasteful and commented afterwards…
’There are enough good Celtic songs to sing without bringing religion or politics into it.’
He had a point but the culture of singing Irish songs at Celtic matches is deeply ingrained and has been from the club’s inception. There have been few songs sung by Celtic fans over the decades which were truly sectarian in nature; the moronic ‘Roamin in the gloamin’ comes to mind but that was never popular with the majority of fans who saw it for the trash it was. Celtic have sent letters and distributed leaflets asking fans to think about what they sing at matches. There have been many ditties and chants over the years which were uncouth, offensive or simply in bad taste but that has moderated in recent times. Supporters will always goad the opposition but the clever and subtle is always better than the blunt force of foul mouthed vitriol.
As the powers that be seek to make football more of a family experience then the pressure will continue to be on fans to conform to the standards they set. UEFA will continue to fine clubs whose fans they deem to have been overstepping the mark. It is important that they hammer the racism we have seen in European stadiums over the years and send out a clear message that this isn’t acceptable. There is much to be done to seriously eliminate it from football but stadium closures and increasing fines will get the message across. They have fired a shot across the bows of Rangers by closing a section of Ibrox for a recent European game and if attitudes haven’t changed among some at least they now think twice before spouting their bile.
The Scottish football authorities must bear some responsibility for the lingering poison which pollutes some games here. For decades Rangers sectarian signing policy went unchallenged. Similarly with the songbook at Ibrox, if the SFA talked about closing stands then perhaps real change would occur. The media too are too keen to play the ‘both sides the same’ card and fail to condemn fairly obvious racism and sectarianism at times. Graham Spiers wrote after one match between Celtic and Rangers…
‘On Sunday afternoon at Celtic Park, sports reporters myself included sat through the usual litany of bile spouted by visiting Rangers fans, with hardly a mention of it in next day reports.’
Therein lies the problem; call it out whenever it rears its ugly head even if it’s among your own support. That way bigotry will no longer be acceptable and the more lumpen types will get the message. There will probably be no real revolutionary change in the attitudes of some fans too thick to see their petty prejudices for what they really are but we do owe it to future generations to educate them in a better way to behave.
Football thrives on rivalries and the atmospheres they create but there are limits to what should be acceptable and each of us who loves this old game should ponder on what they are.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

The History Bhoys

The History Bhoys

Following Celtic for many years has taught me that there will be frustrating days, there will also be days when you don’t get the result your team’s play merits. There will also be times when the team clicks, the chances are taken and the opponents battered. It’s a passionate game too and the fans who identify so strongly with their club often go through an emotional rollercoaster in a match. We saw that earlier in the week as Celtic defeated Hamilton. At 1-0 and with over 20 shots peppering the Hamilton goal it looked a simple matter of simply scoring the clinching goal and moving on to the next challenge. However 1-0 is a dangerous lead and Hamilton broke away to make it 1-1 in the last minute. Some supporters were caught up in an anger born of frustration. They knew well that Aberdeen were holding Rangers at Pittodrie and the opportunity to go two points clear of the Ibrox club looked like it was being thrown away and their anger was directed onto the field. Scott Brown of course popped up with a dramatic injury time winner to clinch the points and Celtic was two points clear at the top. The mood changed in that instant from frustration to joy and players lambasted by certain individuals moments earlier, were once more heroes. Such is the fickle nature of the game we love and some of those who follow it.

 It was bemusing to see some take their frustration out on a team on 9 successive trophies, with a cup final a few days later and sitting at the top of the league but such is the nature of some who follow football. Didier Agathe, Celtic’s pacey wing back of the Martin O’Neill era once said of the occasional frustrated barracking he got at Celtic; ‘It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they care too much.’  Of course you pay your money and you are entitled to voice your opinions but some perspective is always required. Everything you win in football has to be earned and nothing should ever be taken for granted.

Later today Celtic will run out at Hampden into what will no doubt be a raucous and compelling atmosphere. Hampden is a much reduced stadium since the redevelopment of the 1990s but when it’s full and Glasgow’s big two meet it can still be an atmospheric and noisy stadium. The much maligned Scottish game can still produce atmospheres which eclipse any in the mega rich EPL. The Manchester derby this weekend was played in front of a lethargic and only sporadically noisy crowd. That will not be the case at Hampden where supporters will be fully committed to driving their team on to victory.

Today’s league cup final could have been sold out twice over and many supporters will have to settle for watching on TV in homes, pubs and clubs all over the world. It is important that the Celtic players approach the match in their usual professional manner and aren’t hustled out of their normal style of play. If they turn up and there are no extenuating circumstances such as refereeing errors or silly red cards then I expect Celtic to win as in my opinion they remain the better side. On paper they have better players but as the great Brian Clough once said ‘football isn’t played on paper’ and there are so many variables which come into play in a match of this type. It will be tough and it’ll require a solid performance to win but I believe the team know what’s at stake here and won’t give anything less than 100%. Neill Lennon will ensure they are motivated and organised and of course the supporters will back them all the way.

We all know what this match means to Celtic as they continue their relentless domination of Scottish football. A Celtic victory would send out a clear message that the Hoops have no intention of relinquishing their place at the top of the Scottish game and would be a blow to the morale of an improved Rangers side. Neil Lennon said after his side’s 2-0 win at Ibrox in September that if you’d have believed what was written in the press then Celtic shouldn’t have bothered turning up. The sort of cheer leading in some quarters which masquerades as journalism has been a feature of Scottish football for as long as I can remember. Lennon rightly let his players do their talking on the field at Ibrox and they shut a few up with a fine display. More of the same today would do nicely.

Rangers are going well but their second half display at Pittodrie must have been worrying for their supporters. Celtic are a far more effective side than Aberdeen and have strung together 11 successive victories so confidence is high. It didn’t go unnoticed either that the Lazio side Celtic beat twice in Europe last night defeated Juventus 3-1 and are unbeaten in their last 12 Serie A games so it’s clear Celtic are no mugs these days. Of course the old adage about form going out the window in derby matches comes into play and on a wet pitch with 50,000 screaming fans in attendance it will undoubtedly be a tense and nerve jangling match but if Celtic play well then that tenth successive domestic trophy could be coming home to Paradise and that would be an astonishing achievement. Even Stein’s magnificent team couldn’t do that although they did come close in the 1967-69 period where they won 9 out of 10 major trophies competed for. (They lost to Dunfermline in the early rounds of the 1967-68 Scottish Cup) History is tantalisingly close for this crop of Celtic players and if few think they could match the Lions they can at least write their own page in Celtic’s history. I’ll raise a glass to that.

Come on you Bhoys in green!

Saturday, 30 November 2019

A different level

A different level

This week has been a good one for Scottish football with the two Glasgow teams continuing to do well in Europe. Celtic played with assurance for most of the game during their 3-1 win over Rennes and won a group which at the outset had people worried that they’d struggle to qualify. They are undefeated in four games against teams from two of the so called big leagues and have already recorded their highest ever points total in a European group. They have played in 13 European ties this season and their record is currently P13 W10 D2 L1. Their solitary defeat came in the home tie with Cluj in the Champions League Qualifiers and cost them a shot at a place at the top table of the European game.

There is a school of thought that a reinvigorated Rangers has spurred Celtic on to better things but that is only a small part of the story. Lennon and Rodgers before him have been building a squad which has cover in every position and are being trained to play good, passing football. They now have the best young Scottish talent at Celtic Park and have steeled them with quality additions like Chris Jullien. This Celtic side is young and growing in self-confidence and experience. All of this augurs well for the rest of the season and the challenges it will bring. Reaching the last 32 of the Europa League in such style is a positive sign and if few harbour realistic hopes of winning the competition we do at least have hopes of progressing further once the draw is made in December.

It did not go unnoticed that Alfredo Morelos scored two goals against Feyenoord to eclipse Henrik Larsson’s 12 goal haul in European competition in 2002-03 season. Only the most zealous Celtic supporter would deny that Morelos is a good striker. He is clearly is and seems to have reined in his rash behaviour this season. Some though have taken Morelos’ goal haul to mean he is a better striker than Larsson as they did when Kris Boyd became the SPL’s top goal scorer. Morelos, like Boyd, is a penalty box striker who knew where the net is but comparisons to Larsson are wide of the mark. This is a player who’s goal to games ratio eclipses both Boyd and Morelos and who has scored at the highest level of the game. Larsson is a Champions League winner, a World Cup Semi Finalist and the UK’s all-time leading scorer in European competitions. He is on a different level to Boyd and Morelos and was coveted by teams like Barcelona and Manchester United and his loyalty to Celtic kept him in Scottish football despite many offers to move to more lucrative leagues.

Larsson’s goal scoring exploits saw him hit the net against teams like Juventus, Liverpool, Celta Vigo, Valencia and Blackburn Rovers and Porto’s best ever side. In 2002-03 season Larsson scored against Basel, FK Suduva,(3) Blackburn Rovers, (2) Celta Vigo, Liverpool, Boavista (2) and FC Porto.(2) Only Suduva could be considered minnows among that group of clubs. Morelos has scored against St Joseph’s (4) Mitdjylland (3) Legia Warsaw (1) Feyenoord (3) and FC Porto (2). More than half his goals in Europe came against the third best side in Malta and a team ranked 114 in UEFA’s co-efficient table. This is no slight on Morelos who it must be said is a real talent but it is a decade too early to compare him to a player like Henrik Larsson.

Celtic fans will of course point to the fact that Morelos has yet to register a goal against the Hoops in 11 games against them. Indeed Kris Boyd scored just once against Celtic in almost 40 games for Rangers and Kilmarnock and was characterised as a striker who scored most of his goals against smaller teams. That may be a little unfair but what is undeniable is that neither Boyd nor Morelos is the all-round footballer Larsson was.

The form of both Celtic and Rangers in Europe this season is helping Scotland’s co-efficient and in the next couple of years we could see two Scottish clubs having a crack at the Champions League. That is an encouraging sign for our game and much as Celtic fans have enjoyed this period of unprecedented success, competition is what will make the team sharper. December begins tomorrow and it will see Glasgow’s big two lock horns in the League Cup Final and an important SPFL match at Celtic Park. These two games will have a huge bearing on how the rest of the season pans out. Celtic fans know that Rangers have improved under Gerrard but most still feel Celtic are the better side and should both teams play at the top of their game then it’ll be the Hoops who will prevail.

Football though thrives on uncertainty; a refereeing error, a silly red card or unexpected penalty can turn a game. So too can teams who batter opponents but fail to take their chances; Feyenoord could have been 3 goals up on Rangers at half time this week but poor finishing and good goalkeeping cost them in the end. It’s up to Celtic to continue to play with the style and fluidity they have demonstrated in recent months and remind everyone why they remain the Champions and best side in Scotland. Only Cluj and Livingston have beaten Celtic in almost 30 competitive games this season. Celtic have defeated both of them since and under Lennon are playing good football and reminding us all that there’s life after Rodgers.

Lennon looks a more experienced and more pragmatic manager than he was the first time around at Celtic. He’ll also know what it means to the fans to dominate the derby fixtures and push on for that magical 9 in a row. We can never be certain of much in football but we can rely on Lennon to send out a team with fire in its belly to fight for every ball. He’ll keep the players focused on the next games at Ross County and then on the home tie with Hamilton and ensure that they keep up the pressure at the top of the league. He wasn’t everyone’s choice as Manager after Rodgers jumped ship but his team is shaping up well and he now has the full backing of the support.

November saw Celtic win every game they played in. If they can replicate that form in December it could be another great season. All things in life worth having need to be earned though and the Hoops will need to battle hard to keep their winning streak going.  We’re in for some exiting times before 2020 dawns so let’s get right behind the team and roar them on in every game.

When Celtic and their fans are united they make a formidable opponent for anyone.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Ten

The Ten

One of life’s ironies is that it often makes sense when you look back at it but it has to be lived going forward. 22 years ago this coming week Celtic faced up to Dundee United in the League Cup Final at Ibrox.  Celtic had stuttered in the league that November losing to Rangers and Motherwell before playing a second game with Rangers which had been postponed from earlier in the season because of the death of Princess Diana. Few of us in Celtic Park on a raucous and turbulent night could have foreseen the importance of Alan Stubbs’ last minute equaliser which salvaged a deserved point for Celtic.

New players had been arriving at the club as Wim Jansen recruited the men he felt would stop the dreaded ‘Ten’ from Rangers which would eclipse Jock Stein’s record. Men such as Larsson, Burley, Lambert, Brattbakk, Blinker and Rieper arrived at Celtic Park to stem the blue tide which had washed over the club for nine long years. Celtic supporters knew the importance of the title but with just one solitary trophy won in the previous 3000 days, they badly wanted to get their hands on the league cup. They knew they were a better team than Dundee United having beaten them 4-0 a week before the final but the ghosts of Raith Rovers and Falkirk hung heavy in the air. Celtic had faltered so often in the key games in that era and although their form was improving they had shown in the first half of season 1997-98 a nagging inconsistency which worried some of their supporters.

Often in a football season we look back and say ‘that was a turning point.’ We saw one such pivotal moment when on form Rangers marched towards a home fixture with Celtic in fine form only to be broken by Odsonne Edouard’s stunning winning goal in a 3-2 win at Ibrox. Scoring first and playing for a long period against ten men couldn’t prevent Rangers from crumbling against a bold Celtic side that had a centre back sent off and then had the courage to throw on another striker. The psychological damage done was incalculable and Rangers title challenge petered out.

That league cup final held on St Andrew’s day in 1997 was won well by Celtic with Rieper, Larsson and Burley scoring as Celtic comfortably defeated Dundee United at Ibrox. I was in the Copeland Road that day and the scenes were amazing. The Ibrox main stand was festooned in Celtic flags and banners as two thirds of the stadium roared out their songs of victory. As the Oasis hit of the era ‘Roll with it’ boomed out and the players danced around the field with the cup I remember thinking, ‘We’re back, this’ll do this team the world of good, they can push on from here.’ I threw my scarf at the players as they paraded past the Copeland Road stand and Tom Boyd picked it up. By chance I spoke to him at the Celtic Sleep-out a couple of years ago about that day and he said that winning that cup and the arrival of quality players made them think that they could win the league that year. There would be a few twists and turns along the way but in the spring of 1998 Celtic finally ended a decade of pain for their fans by stopping the Ten.

December’s League Cup final has the potential to be a very telling match. Celtic are going for their tenth domestic trophy in a row; a feat unheard of in Scottish football. For Rangers the game offers an opportunity to win the club’s first major trophy since the new club’s inception in 2012. They have invested tens of millions of pounds over the past few years to try and wrest Celtic’s supremacy from them and have so far failed miserably. As a Celtic fan I obviously want Celtic to win and win well and if both teams perform at their best I think Celtic have the players to win the match. For once the fixtures are a little kinder to Celtic as they approach the match. They have Hamilton at home on December 4 while Rangers are at Pittodrie the same night. That being said the Final is four days later and both teams will have time to recover. Perhaps Celtic will use the squad to ensure key men aren’t injured whereas Rangers will need their best team to get a result at Aberdeen as the Dons seldom give them anything other than a hard match in the north east.

Nothing lasts forever in sport; not success and not failure. The 1990s taught Celtic fans that lesson and one day this incredible trophy winning streak will end. Neil Lennon and his team will be determined to ensure that this winning sequence doesn’t end in the upcoming league cup final. Celtic are going for their own ‘Ten’ trophies in a row and pushing for another nine in a row in the championship. These are incredible times to be a Celtic fan and every last one of us should enjoy it to the full.

We know that this incredible trophy winning streak will inevitably end one day but hopefully just not yet.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

What is truth?

What is truth?
It is recorded in the New Testament that around two thousand years ago the Roman Governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, during his questioning of Jesus asked him if he was a King. Jesus is reported to have said to him, 'For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.' Pilate responded by saying, 'What is truth?'

Truth used to be viewed as a verifiable, indisputable fact but it seems we have entered a ‘post truth’ phase in our public discourse where people’s views are shaped by their emotions and what they would like to believe rather than any verifiable facts. ‘Fake news’ abounds and elements a cynical media count clicks on their advert filled websites rather than the number of distortions in their stories. American linguist and social thinker, Noam Chomsky in his book ‘Manufactured Consent’ theorises that the powerful elite who control much of the media and guide political discourse are able to manipulate the masses into doing as they see fit. Thus we see incongruity everywhere; from the child of immigrants with no empathy for modern migrants or the poor man living in a sink estate voting for a political Party which gives tax cuts to the rich and austerity to the poor.  Malcolm X once said….

“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

This week saw a ludicrous story about HMRC being responsible for the death of Rangers in 2012 doing the rounds. We were informed that a decision by the tax authorities not to pursue the corpse of the old club for punitive fines and interests meant that they had ‘miscalculated’ the amount Rangers owed and therefore frightened off any potential investors. This absolute fantasy was destroyed by the usually silent HMRC who informed the bemused and confused that there had been no such miscalculation and that their decision not to pursue the money owed by the old Rangers was based on the fact that they were unlikely to get anything other than a few pence in the pound as will the long list of creditors owed millions.

A classic bout of confirmation bias then ensued where this story was seized upon by some Rangers followers as proof of some great conspiracy against them. Some fairly laughable comments appeared on social media demanding their £50m back! That is- demanding a rebate on money which was never paid in the first place and never will be paid! Never forget that among the spin and distortion this football club ripped off businesses small and large for tens of millions of pounds. Not least the tax payers who cough up to fund public services and watched rich men avoid paying their fair share. In an act of consummate irony, the Sun newspaper which so readily pumps out distortions of reality actually brought in an independent tax expert who blew the whole ‘HMRC miscalculation killed Rangers’ fantasy out of the water. There was no miscalculation; they merely decided not to pursue monies they knew they would never see.

Of course wiser heads could see through this whole attempt to deny the death of Rangers and spin the mythology that a jealous cabal in Scottish football and society had it in for them. The more prosaic truth is that greed and arrogance brought the house down. The hubris of the Murray years was inevitably followed by the nemesis of liquidation. No U-turns by a media with an eye on the blue pound, no historical revisionism by supporters who can’t accept that their club died in disgrace, will ever change the concrete reality of what happened to Rangers in 2012. It was inevitable that many Rangers fans would find this reality hard to deal with and the spin would begin. Being ‘demoted’ to the fourth tier of Scottish football and missing out on a European place were cited as punishments rather than what they actually were; the consequences of going bust. Rangers didn’t start in the fourth tier; Rangers ceased to be in 2012. The new club had to seek permission to join the league and thus were allowed to do so starting at the bottom rung of the professional game.

The irony is that those who deny this verifiable truth would be arguing the complete opposite had it been Celtic FC which was liquidated in 2012.

Harper Lee in that great American novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has one of her main characters, Atticus Finch explaining to his daughter why some people can’t see the truth before their eyes. He says to her…

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.’

We all must use our conscience to cut through the distortion, lies and agendas which seem to make up so much of our public discourse these days. There will be people reading these words who will decide that I’m just another Celtic supporter having a go at Rangers by creating my own distorted narrative. All I ask is that they look at the verifiable facts of what happened to Rangers in the Murray years. Think for yourselves and check the sources and facts before coming to a logical conclusion. 

If you do you may well conclude that the target of your ire shouldn’t be people who point out the holes in the current counter-factual narrative being spun around why Rangers were liquidated, but those who brought Rangers FC to ruin in the first place.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

A labour of love

A labour of love

Celtic’s victory of SS Lazio in the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday night was one of those occasions which will live long in the memory. Not since the epic events of seven years earlier to the day when a truly brilliant Barcelona side was beaten at Celtic Park has a victory been celebrated so enthusiastically. Of course Lazio are no Barcelona and some of their defending will show you why but that being said, for an SPFL side to beat the fourth placed side in Serie A home and away is no mean feat. Of the 26,155 at the match a good 10,000 were Celtic supporters and they had a ball despite isolated incidents when local cowards used knives to injure three innocent people.

Some have played down Celtic’s achievement but consider Lazio’s performances since losing to Chris Jullien’s towering header at Celtic Park; Lazio have defeated Fiorentina (a) 2-1 Torino (h) 4-0 and most impressively AC Milan (a) 2-1 to record their first win in the San Siro in over 30 years. They sit 4th in Serie A in one of the Champions League positions and have in Ciro Immobile the current Italian national side centre forward. They are no mugs and for Celtic to beat them twice in a fortnight is quite an achievement. Italian Newspaper Corriera Della Serra reported on the night’s events with the following words…

‘N’tcham’s goal unleashed wild enthusiasm among the 9000 Scots who filled the south curve. The north curve was closed for racism and listening to the intensity of the cheering you’d have thought you were in Glasgow. The strong ideological opposition between the supporters of the two teams had moments of tension especially away from the stadium on the night before the game. In the city centre two Scots were stabbed and a German accompanying them. In Trastevere a group of Celtic fans had to barricade themselves in a pub. Police arrested eight: three Scots for resisting a public official and five from Lazio who were found with sticks and knives near the bar.’

Sad as it is that three supporters were injured, the Italian Police were clearly on the ball and prevented further incidents. This is to be praised as visiting supporters have on occasion found the Carabinieri to be just as dangerous as any local hooligans. Predictable excuses from Scottish based tabloids that Celtic supporters were targeted because of the banners in section 111 at the home leg of the tie seemed spurious given the reputation of football fans in Rome for violence. Numerous supporters from Spurs, Liverpool, CSK Moscow and Manchester United have all been stabbed or badly beaten in the Italian capital in recent years. A game between Roma and Manchester United back provided one of the worst examples not only of organised attacks by local thugs on visiting supporters but of the dreadful behaviour of the local Police towards the away fans. One UK reporter wrote about what he had witnessed that night…

‘Eighteen United fans were ambushed by ultras, ten of them were stabbed and another fifty fans had to be bandaged up and repaired after unforgivable scenes when the Police embarked on a military style attack. Their batons hit pretty much everything that moved. Some images show riot sticks being used the wrong way round, heavy handle first, in a way which seems premeditated to cause maximum damage. The Carabinieri that night were having their debrief in the same part of the bus park and we could see them embracing and high fiving. One guy, sweaty and breathless with his helmet tucked under his arm was swishing his baton through the air re-enacting his best shots. His colleagues were laughing and clapping-celebrating it seemed.’

A young female supporter at that game was videoing the police brutality when at least three policemen, faces covered, identification numbers removed from their uniforms punched her and snatch her camera, she is then hit with a baton for no other reason than filming police officers behaving brutally.

It’s perhaps correct given the prevailing culture of violence which hangs around Italian football to say that Celtic’s trip to Rome was relatively speaking trouble free. Perhaps the much reported ‘ideological differences’ between Celtic and Lazio fans meant the Police were well prepared and worked to a plan in order to prevent trouble. They themselves have been under scrutiny after events at the Roma v Manchester United match outlined above and thankfully behaved more professionally when Celtic fans were in town.

It’s a labour of love following Celtic around Europe and something I did more of in my younger days before the demands of work and life curtailed those opportunities. Those supporters who do travel abroad to back Celtic occasionally endure poor treatment in places they visit but  more often than not their infectious good humour and passion for their club makes them friends abroad rather than enemies. There are clubs who have real nasty elements following them, we all know who they are, but Celtic supporters are not generally in Europe looking for trouble although they have in the past responded to violence meted out to them. We saw this in Amsterdam a few years back in the notorious ‘Fenian lamppost’ incident when plain clothes police officers behaved despicably towards visiting fans. Celtic fans abroad may drink a lot and some may be a bit uncouth at times but aren’t generally looking for bother.

Some of the incidents I’ve seen or heard of about Celts on their travels have made me smile. The rush hour commuters on the Brussels underground treated to hundreds of Celtic fans singing ‘Walk with me oh my Lord’ as they headed to Anderlecht. Or the disabled school kids on a cross channel ferry, who initially looked nervous as scores of football supporters entered the lounge. They were soon singing, laughing and sporting Celtic souvenirs as the fans interacted with them. Their teachers were given a good amount of money collected from among the supporters for the children. Then there was Seville. Was there ever a more joyous celebration of what Celtic is all about? The colour, the noise, the sheer good humour of 80,000 Celtic fans there for a fiesta. Their reaction to defeat that night was telling too as FC Porto supporters were applauded on the long walk back to town after the game. Compare that to events in Manchester in 2008.

For younger fans, following Celtic to some European city is a bit of an adventure. You might never go to Romania or Kazakhstan again but you can say you were there backing the hoops. Some funny stories from those travels include the Celtic fan in Germany who was making progress chatting up a young lady in a bar only to find that ‘she’ was in fact a guy. The online banter with Fenerbahce fans when two of their misguided supporters posted threatening pictures with faces covered and cruel looking knives in hand. Celtic fans responded with faces covered pics brandishing everything from a spoon, a packet of Turkish delights, a toothbrush and a hoover. The decent Fenerbahce fans joined in with images of them brandishing items such as hair straighteners, a fishing net and a food mixer. It was good to see two sets of rival supporters using humour to relate to each other. Needless to say Celtic supporters enjoyed their trip to Turkey and there were no problems.

The availability of cheap air travel has made reaching far flung European cities easier for fans than it was in the days when it took 36 hours to reach Madrid on a bus with no toilet. I hope supporters of the grand old team continue to follow their team all over Europe and make friends on their travels. There will be places where caution is required but overall they will find a warm welcome. Tommy Burns once said "When you pull on that jersey you're not just playing for a football club, you're playing for a people and a cause" Most Celtic supporters know that they too are representing Celtic when they travel abroad and keep that in mind. 

Thankfully the vast majority do and impress the locals with their passion for their club and their friendliness. That’s the Celtic way and long may it continue.