Saturday, 26 January 2019

What a performance

What a performance

This week saw the passing of Hugh McIlvanney one of the true giants of sports writing on these islands. Such was his way with words that you suspected he could easily have followed his brother Willie and become a novelist. Indeed some of his prose is almost poetic in the manner it illuminates those great moments in sport. The Ayrshire boy once put his success down to the fact that his old man insisted he and his 3 brother went to the library once each week and this made them avid readers. Education was to be the vehicle of social mobility for the McIlvanney boys although nothing could erase the gritty working class voices they brought to their chosen professions.

Willie was to find great success with his Laidlaw crime novels while Hugh was to illuminate the world of sports writing with his undoubted gifts. He was famously photographed helping Billy McNeill fight his way through the throngs of ecstatic Celtic fans to receive European football’s ultimate prize in 1967. When writing of Celtic’s triumph in Lisbon saw him in sparkling form as he described the scene at the end of the match in the dressing room of the Estadio Nacional.…

‘’When he had been rescued from the delirious crowd and was walking back to the dressing rooms after Celtic had overcome all the bad breaks to vindicate his confidence Auld – naked to the waist except for an Inter shirt knotted round his neck like a scarf – suddenly stopped in his tracks and shouted to Ronnie Simpson, who was walking ahead. "Hey, Ronnie Simpson, what are we? What are we, son?" He stood there sweating, showing his white teeth between parched lips flecked with saliva. Then he answered his own question with a belligerent roar. "We're the greatest. That's what we are. The greatest." Simpson came running back and they embraced for a full minute.’’

A friend and trusted confidant of those legendary Scottish managers, Stein, Busby and Shankly; McIlvanney wrote of Jock’s relationship with his prize asset the mercurial Jimmy Johnstone with such affection and humour that you warmed to him. In one memorable passage he described Jimmy’s relationship with Stein in the following way…

‘Ye know he’s got spies everywhere,’ that marvellous little eccentric once told me staring into my face with eyes as large as dish aerials. ‘He’s even got spies in the noggin.’ For a moment I thought Jimmy was suggesting some infiltration of his mind, a touch of the Manchurian Candidates; then I latched onto the fact that The Noggin was a pub. Stein would ring the bar and ask in a quiet voice for Mr Johnstone. When Jimmy reached, unsuspecting for the receiver he would be blasted several feet into the air by an explosion of the old familiar vituperation.’

McIlvanney adored the flawed genius that was Jimmy Johnstone, seeing in him all the brilliance and self-destructiveness of the quintessential Scottish hero. Football was played by men like Jimmy with a style, grace and no little courage in an era when players were not adequately protected from the more destructive and immeasurably less talented defenders who sought to stop them by any means.  His thoughts on the passing of Jimmy in 2006 bear witness to the fondness he had for him…

‘Solemnity was always handed its coat early in Jimmy Johnstone’s company and something as ordinary as death had no chance of altering that. What else but laughter could be the predominant sound when the wee man was buried in his native Lanarkshire on Friday? The shadow cast by the horrors of diminishment that punctuated his improbably long struggle against the implacable ravages of motor neurone disease, and by knowing he was only 61 when his resistance was finally exhausted, was a darkness bound to yield to a thousand memories of somebody driven — sometimes destructively, often hilariously — by an instinctive conviction that life was meant to be lively. All of which guarantees that Johnstone will not be remembered simply as a footballer of electrifying virtuosity, though he was certainly that, with a genius for surreally intricate dribbling so extraordinary it is impossible for me to believe any other player before or since quite matched his mastery of tormenting, hypnotic ball control at the closest of quarters. As I have acknowledged in the past, other wingers might fairly be rated more reliably devastating (Garrincha, George Best, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews are obvious candidates) but none of them besieged opponents with such a complex, concentrated swirl of deceptive manoeuvres or ever conveyed a more exhilarating sense of joy in working wonders with the ball.’’

Hugh McIlvanney was not noted for his exceptional writing on football alone. Many claim his boxing writing is the equal to anything he ever produced and helped him to become the first and as yet only sports writer to be awarded the Journalist of the year award. He covered the famous ‘rumble in the jungle’ fight between the veteran Muhammad Ali and formidable George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Some feared for Ali’s safety as he was by that point 36 years old and facing a man with a fearsome reputation for destroying opponents with his brutal punching power. History records though that Ali stunned the boxing world who didn’t give him a chance by knocking Foreman out after using his famous ‘rope a dope’ approach. The world’s press were desperate to interview Ali but it was McIlvanney who found out where the Champ was staying and took a taxi out to his villa. He knocked on the door and told Ali’s bodyguard he was here to interview the Champ and was admitted into the house where he and Ali talked for two hours about the fight. It was the scoop of a lifetime and it was the Miner’s son from Kilmarnock who got it.

On a more sombre note he also covered the brutal fight in Los Angeles between Johnny Owen of Wales and Mexican Lupe Pintor. The brave little Welshman fought in a very hostile environment against a ruthless and determined opponent. McIlvanney said of Mexican fighters...

‘No fighters in the world are more dedicated to the raw violence of the business than Mexicans. Pintor comes out of a gym in Mexico City where more than a hundred boxers work out regularly and others queue for a chance to show that what they can do in the alleys they can do in the ring. A man who rises to the top of such a seething concentration of hostility is likely to have little interest in points-scoring as a means of winning verdicts.

Owen fought valiantly but was in the end stopped by a brutal combination of exhaustion and a never ending barrage of punches from Pintor. In the twelfth round he was knocked out in a brutal manner which was to cost him his life. McIlvanney had his concerns about the Welshman fighting in the heat and enmity of Los Angeles where the home crowded screamed their support for the Mexican fighter from the first to last. He noted what a quiet, almost shy young man Owen was outside the ring and wrote with his usual eloquence...

‘Our reactions are bound to be complicated by the knowledge that it was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression. Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.’

For those of us though who followed football, it was McIlvanney’s writing about the beautiful game which will live on. After a clash with England Manager, Alf Ramsay, at a press conference, the clearly angry England boss said to him, ‘How many caps have you got?’ seeking to belittle the opinionated Jock and take him down a peg or two. The pugnacious McIlvanney was not a man who gave ground in an argument and replied, ‘I could send a turnip on a world tour but it’s not going to return an expert on geography.’

As a Celtic fan it was of course his writing about the golden era of our club’s history which I enjoyed most. In the aftermath of Lisbon he wrote with such style about how Celtic and their followers had enthralled the people of Lisbon and smashed the defensive style of Inter which was strangling creative football. He said…

‘Today Lisbon is almost, but not quite, back in Portuguese hands at the end of the most hysterically exuberant occupation any city has ever known. Pockets of Celtic supporters are holding out in unlikely corners, noisily defending their own carnival atmosphere against the returning tide of normality, determined to preserve the moment, to make the party go on and on.

They emerge with a sudden flood of Glasgow accents from taxis or cafes, or let their voices carry with an irresistible aggregate of decibels across hotel lounges. Always, even among the refugees who turn up at the British Embassy bereft of everything but the rumpled clothes they stand in, the talk is of that magical hour-and-a-half under the hot sun on Thursday in the breathtaking, tree-fringed amphitheatre of the national stadium.

At the airport, the impression is of a Dunkirk with happiness. The discomforts of mass evacuation are tolerable when your team have just won the greatest victory yet achieved by a British football club, and completed a clean sweep of the trophies available to them that has never been equalled anywhere in the world. It was hard work appearing so relaxed and the effort eventually took its toll on Stein when he made a dive for the dressing rooms a minute before the end of the game, unable to stand any more. When we reached him there, he kept muttering: "What a performance. What a performance.’

So we say a farewell to Hugh McIlvanney a man who graced sports writing with his in depth knowledge of the subject and a vocabulary built by the visits he and his brother made to the local library in their youth. Many of today’s writers would do well to study the great man’s work and raise their game. In an era where dumbing down and settling for mediocrity is common he offers a glimpse of what real sports journalism is about. He makes the reader feel as if they were there witnessing the events he is by the sheer skill of his writing. Perhaps his contribution to sports Journalism could be summed up in the words of Jock Stein after that historic game in Lisbon; "what a performance.’

Well played Hugh and thank you.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

A Celtic heart

The ragged, old woman knocked on the Head Master’s door in a quiet, respectful way as if she didn’t expect an answer. ‘Come in,’ said a familiar voice still retaining that Irish lilt he had always had. She entered and saw him sitting at his desk, an open bible in front of him. ‘Sorry to bother you brother but I’m in need of some help.’ He stood and offered her a chair, ‘Tell me Mrs Ward, what troubles you so? You look so worried.’  The old woman sat, fingers interlaced, nervously rotating her thumbs. ‘It’s my granddaughter, Kathleen. I fear she is in danger.’ The man closed the book and listened closely to her as she unburdened herself. When she had finished he knew he had to act and act fast. ‘I promise you, I will not rest until she is returned home to you.’  When the old woman had gone the headmaster pondered the problem facing him. This was a delicate matter and it needed quick action but who should he ask to help him with this? He decided to approach two trustworthy men from the area he could rely on. There was so much to do with the mighty Corinthians arriving in Glasgow in a few days to play Celtic but some things took priority over even that.

Saturday night on the Saltmarket was not for the fainthearted. People of all ages crowded the pavements, many in a state of drunkenness. Ragged children seemingly, free to roam the streets despite the lateness of the hour played or waited to dip the pockets of sleeping drunks. Fiddle music mingling with laughter and singing, poured from the doorways of taverns which were doing a roaring trade. Higher up the street nearer Glasgow cross a brawl between two men was being watched by a cheering crowd of onlookers who took it as a normal part of life in this part of town. Some were even betting on the outcome.

The two men huddled in their heavy coats against the January chill made their way down the street, avoiding the stares of local toughs who knew a stranger when they saw one and were always on the lookout for the Police. John Buckley and Pat Coll reached the dimly lit Wynd they were looking for but as they turned into the alleyway a gruff Irish voice from the shadows halted them. ‘Can I be helping you two gentlemen who seem so lost this night?’  A stocky man of about twenty five, with a cruel scar on his left cheek, stood in front of them, behind him four others watched with hostile eyes. ‘We have an appointment with Mr O’Roirdan,’ one of the men replied, ‘you’d do well not to hinder us.’ The mention of one of the east end’s more notorious characters perceptibly changed the man’s demeanour. ‘Have you now, you won’t mind if we check you first then?’ he said, reaching forward and opening the Pat Coll’s overcoat. He frisked him briefly before nodding curtly for him to pass. As he moved towards the second man he stopped, a glimmer of recognition crossing his face. ‘You won’t need to search me Thomas, your old man and I came on the boat from Derry together.’ The young tough smiled, ‘ah tis you Mr Buckley, no need indeed but I’d best do it anyway.’  When he finished, he nodded the two men towards a close entrance. ‘You’ll find Mr O’Roirdan on the first floor. The black door mind, the others are for business.’

As they climbed the malodourous wooden stairway to the first floor, Pat Coll spoke first. ‘You know that young man?’Yes,’ replied his companion, ‘he was one of the brighter lad’s from the Sacred Heart but alas using his talents to the wrong ends it seems. He lost his way when the fever took his father when people have nothing, they have nothing to lose.’ Pat nodded, ‘Like so many of our people here, John, kept at the bottom of the heap and forced to survive as best they can.’ They reached the top of the stairway and entered a corridor with three doors on either side. All were painted in a peeling reddish colour while one was black. Pat spoke first, ‘be careful with this one, John. He is not a man to be trifled with.’ John Buckley nodded, ‘I will, Pat.  We’ll say the right things and hopefully find out what we need to know.’ John knocked on the door and waited as at least three bolts were undone inside. A suspicious looking man of about fifty glanced out at them through the barely opened door, ‘If it’s a pipe ye want you’re at the wrong house. If it’s a woman you can try the red doors.’  John spoke in a voice calmer than he felt, ‘We’ve no wish for opium or anything else. It’s Mr O’Roirdan we’ve come to see.’ The door opened wider and the man bid them enter with a curt nod of his head. ‘Wait here.’ The two friends sat at an old wooden table and regarded each other as the man entered a door at the rear of the dull ante-room and left them alone. ‘I feel like a fish out of water,’ Pat Coll mumbled to his friend. John nodded, ‘tis indeed a different world but patience Pat, we’ll conclude our business here very soon.’

After a few moments the door-keeper returned bringing with him the aforementioned Patrick O’Roirdan. It was plain to see from his demeanour that he was indeed the ruler of this tawdry domain. He was a man of around forty with a shock of greying hair and a well-trimmed beard. O’Roirdan regarded his visitors with a suspicious eye and inscrutable look on his face, ‘State your business, I’m a busy man,’ he barked in an accent which still held a hint of Belfast in it. The visitors stood from their chairs and John spoke first, ‘Thank you for seeing us Mr O’Roirdan. I’m told you’re a man of some influence in this area so I’ll come straight to the point. A woman late of our Parish passed from consumption, may God rest her, and news reached us that her feckless and drunken husband cannot explain the whereabouts of the 12 year old daughter left in his care, a certain Kathleen Ward.’ O’Roirdan’s face grew sterner as if anger was brewing below the surface but he listened in silence as John continued, ‘It is known that her father came into possession of £10, which is as you know a considerable amount for a labouring man. ’O’Roirdan interrupted him, ‘What exactly do you expect me to know of a twelve year old child? I have no business in that market. There are others who deal in such things but not me,’  John looked at him, ‘I am not for a moment suggesting you do, Mr O’Roirdan but I know from many acquaintances that you have eyes and ears everywhere, This girl is has been sold like a chattel to God knows who and we want her back.’  Mr O’Roirdan stroked his greying beard; he was obviously not used to being spoken to like this. ‘You have a boldness about you. It’s something I admire. It is true some rich men will pay well for a girl, especially if she is untouched. Disease is rife and they risk nothing on a fresh child.’ John noted that O’Roirdan clearly knew about the trade in human misery which flourished in all British cities. He winced a little at what he was hearing but allowed him to continue. ‘My business interests are many and varied but I would not lower myself to deal in innocence.’ Andrew nodded, sensing that there was a grain of decency left in this man who made his money selling gut-rot liquor, opium and prostitution. ‘Will you help us to locate her, Mr O’Roirdan? I fear time is short.’  The man thought for a moment before speaking. ‘I cannot come into conflict with other…’ he paused as if searching for the right word, ‘businessmen… but I will make discreet enquiries. If any news comes to my ear you shall hear of it. Now go.’ John gave the man a slip of paper with the girl’s name written on it. ‘I hope to hear from you soon Mr O’Roirdan.’

As Pat and John made their way back up the Saltmarket they discussed the night’s events. ‘I sense he might help us, John?’  His companion nodded, ’He will if he has a spark of honour left I him.’ Pat nodded, ‘I know a few of his family. His daughter still attends the school. She is in her final year.’ John nodded, ‘Having a relative of similar age to poor Kathleen might tip him in our favour.’ As they turned along the London Road they spoke of other things too. ‘Are the mighty Corinthians in contact? It’s just a week till we test our mettle against them,’ asked Pat. John smiled, ‘Yes indeed and I hear we have sold over 15,000 tickets. This will be the biggest assembly at a football match in the history of Scotland.’ Pat smiled at his friend, ‘I don’t know if the Celtic can match such a mighty club as Corinthians but it would be a feather in our cap to lay such a club low.’ His friend smiled, ’The Englishmen think they’ll play us from the field but we have a team to best them. We’ll also have the funds to best the hunger which stalks our poorer streets, at least for a while. I read today in a newspaper that one child in 6 will not live to see its fifth birthday in the eastern part of Glasgow. That shames us all.’ His companion nodded solemnly, ‘It does indeed but we’ll redouble our efforts. If none would help us then we will help ourselves.’

January 3rd 1889 dawned dull and grey but there was at least some excitement in the air. The rain of past week had relented and all roads led to Celtic Park as the mighty Corinthians were coming to play Celtic. There was a carnival atmosphere in the east end as the crowds flocked around the modest little ground eager to see if the up and coming Celtic side could make an impression against the famous Corinthians. Patrick Coll stood talking to John Buckley outside the grandstand of the stadium which stood by Janefield cemetery. ‘It looks like a fine turnout today. We’ll see a good return for our local charities.’ John nodded, ‘Aye Pat, I hear almost 20,000 tickets have been sold.’  Before the conversation could continue a young man appeared in front of Buckley. John recognised him from the alleyway two nights before. ‘Mr Buckley,’ he began, ‘our mutual friend asked me to give you this.’ John took a folded piece of paper from him, ‘Thank you, Thomas. Tell our mutual friend he has my gratitude.’ He read the note and turned to his friend, ‘Come Pat, I’m afraid I’ll have to forgo watching today’s game as more pressing matters are at hand.’

Pat Coll exhaled audibly he read the short note given to him by John. It gave a man’s name and an address at a plush west end street. It also said cryptically, ‘the goods remain undamaged as yet but as his wife is travelling to England soon to visit with her family I’d be swift so that they remain so.’ John Buckley looked at his old friend, ‘we must get over to this address as quickly as we can.’ Pat stroked his beard and replied, ‘I know of this fellow, he is a Magistrate as well as powerful man in the printing business. He could cause us trouble if we accuse him with no proof but a note from a known reprobate.’ John thought things over before replying, ‘Do you still keep in touch with your friend at the Bulletin?’ Pat looked at him mystified. ‘Yes of course, why?’ John Buckley regarded him, ’Perhaps he should join you on our trip to the west end. Nothing frightens the hypocrite like the threat of his sins being made public.’ Pat nodded, ‘he is here today at the football. I saw him earlier, let me go seek him out and we’ll get going.’

John and Pat, accompanied by reporter Albert Murphy, rung the bell on the door of the plush house which stood on a tree lined street a million miles away from the grim streets of the east end. As they waited, a tall, smart man in a suit opened the door and looked at him quizzically, ‘Yes, how can I be of assistance to you gentlemen?’ Andrew spoke first, ‘Good day, Mr Grimes. My name is John Buckley, this is Mr Patrick Coll and this gentleman is Mr Murphy, a reporter for the Daily Bulletin. I wonder if I might have a word with you on a matter of some delicacy? The man looked at then sternly, ’I have no time for unexpected visitors, perhaps on another occasion.’ As he went to close the door, John said in a loud voice, ‘That is a pity. I should hate it if the reputation of a man such as you was judged in the newspapers.’ The tall man stopped and looked at them for a moment as if weighing up what three strangers could possibly know of his life. ‘You may come in but only for a short while as I have pressing business to attend to.’

John knew to accuse this man outright of buying a child from her dissolute father would lead to him being thrown from the house. More subtlety than that was required. As they sat in the opulent study he regarded Mr Charles Grimes and began. ‘It has come to our attention that you have engaged as a house servant, a certain Kathleen Ward. Miss Ward is, unknown to you I suspect, carrying a certain disease which we won’t speak of in polite society. It may be that this condition could be passed on to others who come into…’ he paused a second for effect, ‘contact with her.’ Grimes regarded them his face darkening, ‘Now listen well, I don’t know what you are insinuating but one word against my reputation and I will ruin all of you.’ John Buckley stayed calm and continued to speak. ‘You misunderstand Mr Grimes; we have heard that you offered a poor child honest employment and even gifted £10 to support her poor family. My friend Mr Murphy would like to praise you in his newspaper for your kindness but we would also like to return the child to her grandmother and see she has the medical treatment she requires.’ The Man’s face remained stern; he was worldly enough to know the game that was being played here. He pondered the situation for a moment before standing without saying a word and leaving the room. The three visitors sat in silence regarding each other. In a few moments Grimes returned with a sullen faced child who was putting on her coat. ‘Here, take her,’ he said in a voice both cold and angry. John stood, ‘Thank you Mr Grimes, we’ll take our leave now. 

As they headed for the door with the confused girl accompanying them, Grimes hissed quietly into John’s ear, ‘You Irish are a degenerate species. What kind of father sells his own daughter?’ John looked into his eyes and said coldly, ‘and what sort of man would buy her?’

The three men arrived back in the east end as the crowds were leaving Celtic Park. ‘It seems we’ve missed the football,’ John Buckley said with a shrug but we missed it for a good cause.’ He instructed Pat to return the child to her grandmother and headed towards the stadium. After some time he located the head master of the Sacred Heart School. ‘Our mission was a success, Brother. The child is back with her grandmother and as far as we could ascertain unharmed.’ The man regarded him with a smile, ‘Thank you John, I knew you were the right man for so delicate a task.’ John smiled and almost as an afterthought replied, ‘How did the Celts fair against the mighty Corinthians? Did we put up a good show?’ The head master returned his smile, ‘Indeed they did John. The Corinthians will return to London suitably chastened after today’s events. The Celtic defeated them by six goals to two.’ John Buckley smiled broadly, ‘That’s grand, Brother, and the money raised will help many of our poorest.’ The other man nodded, ‘You have a good heart, John, a Celtic heart. As our Lord said, ‘the poor will always be with us’, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help where we can.’ John nodded, ‘That’s why we started the Celtic brother, I hope wherever the journey takes it that they never forget that.’

Friday, 11 January 2019

Take root and flourish

Take root and flourish

The winter of 1846 had been cold and wet on the west coast of Ireland. All over the land there was an increasing sense of dread and foreboding as the great hunger dragged on. The actions of landlords would often be the deciding factor on who lived and who died in those bleak times. In County Mayo many of the destitute who had any energy left were put onto public work programmes which made already weakened people complete hard physical work for a pittance in pay. Men were paid 8-10 old pence per day and women 6 pence which in modern terms is roughly £5. Poor as it was this money was all that stood between those on the public works programmes and starvation. For some though even this wasn’t enough. One local newspaper of the time reported a sadly typical event in that era…

‘The deceased was employed at the public works and on Saturday went to the hill of Gurteens to meet the pay Clerk, where in company of other labourers, he remained until night but the Clerk did not appear. Others went off but he remained having got quite weak. He requested a girl who was passing to tell his wife to come meet him and upon the wife’s arrival at the place she found him dead. A verdict of ‘death by starvation’ was returned.’  (Tyrawly Herald 1847)

As An Gorta Mor gripped the land, County Mayo was to see a 29% drop in population. Over the period 1841-1851, the population fell from 388,887 to 274,499. Into this catastrophe was born a child to Martin and Catherine Davitt and they named him Michael. By the time Michael was 4 years old the family would face eviction from their home and be forced to choose between starvation and the harsh conditions and humiliation of the poor house. Upon arrival at the poor house Catherin Davitt was appalled to find parents were routinely separated from any male children over three. As a mother of five children she wanted to be with them all and she and her husband decided to try their luck in England where it was said work was to be found in the burgeoning cities of the industrial north. The family arrived in Liverpool with little more than the clothes they wore. Upon arrival they were told that there was work in Haslingden in Lancashire and the family set out to walk the 48 miles from Liverpool to the town.

They settled in among the sizable Irish community in the east Lancashire town and young Michael had some basic education before he, like many children of that era, joined the workforce at the age of nine. He was trained to operate a spinning machine in a cotton mill and worked long hours in the heat and noise of the factory floor. The work was tiring and dangerous and any lapse in concentration could be costly. In May 1857 young Michael was involved in an accident which saw his arm dragged into a cogwheel and mangled so badly that it had to be amputated. He was just 11 years old at the time and we can only imagine the trauma involved in this accident which was sadly not uncommon in an era where health and safety was a low priority for employers.

A local benefactor took pity on him and gave him a chance to extend his education and give the boy with one arm a better chance in life. He became a voracious reader and joined night school classes which saw him exposed to the ideas of Chartists and other political radicals. As a boy growing up in an Irish community in England, he would also have been exposed to the culture and history of his homeland. As a young man he organised groups of men to defend Catholic churches from attacks by more extreme Protestants in the area but he realised that workers of all faiths were being treated despicably and that such sectarianism was a consequence of old ‘divide and rule’ tactics.

In 1865 Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation with a strong support among much of the Irish community in England. The IRB was dedicated to ending British rule in Ireland using physical force if necessary. Being relatively well educated he rose through the ranks of the organisation and was soon organising Secretary for England and Scotland. He also played an active part in arms smuggling and even took part on raids designed to secure weapons for a rising in Ireland. It was this part of his activities which saw him imprisoned for 15 years in 1870. The IRB like most Irish radical organisations had their share of spies and informers and it was likely prison or worse would be the outcome of Michael’s involvement with them. He endured 7 gruelling years of hard labour, brutal treatment and solitary confinement in prison before his release and he and other Irish prisoners were returned to Ireland where they received a heroes’ welcome from many.

 Davitt’s experiences in prison had merely deepened his belief that he should fight for the rights and well-being of the common man. Like many Irishmen of his day he saw how ‘Landlordism’ had stripped Ireland of its wealth and impoverished much of the population. The principles of the Land League which he joined at the outset were to return ownership of land to the Tenant farmers and take away the fear of eviction which hung over them like the sword of Damocles. Landlords, often from the comfort of England, could make decisions which affected the lives of poor farmers on their Irish estates. That fundamental injustice was one of the things the Land League sought to change with its "Three Fs" (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale) Davitt was also outspoken on the rights of persecuted Jews in Russia, the Boers of South Africa and the working classes of Britain and Ireland who for the most part lived and worked in poor conditions. He fought for the dispossessed Highlanders of Scotland during the so called 'Crofter wars' with as much tenacity as he fought for the poor tenant farmers in his own land and toured the Highlands organising and speaking at meetings.

Against this backdrop, it was ironic then that the Landlord of Celtic FC decided in 1892 to increase the annual rent on the first Celtic Park from £50 per year to £450. (Almost £55,000 at today’s prices) The fledgling club decided to have no truck with such exploitation and move. The move to the other side of Janefield cemetery was said by one wag to be akin to leaving the graveyard for ‘Paradise;’ a nickname which stuck to the new ground at the end of Kerrydale Street.  Given the first generation of Celts were almost all Irish and in sympathy with the ideals of the land league, it was unsurprising that Celtic invited Michael Davitt to the opening of the new Celtic Park where he helped lay a sod of turf from Donegal in the centre of the field. One newspaper of the day celebrated the occasion by printing this short poem…

"On alien soil like yourself I am here;
I'll take root and flourish, of that never fear;
And though I'll be crossed sore and oft by the foes,
You'll find me as hardy as Thistle or Rose.
If model is needed on your own pitch you'll have it."

Davitt was made a patron of Celtic and the club made a generous donation to the Land League to help with its work in Ireland and indeed in Scotland. Celtic presented him with a ‘Glasgow Medal’ and it is recorded that….

‘Mr Davitt's son, a child of five years, and wearing a badge of the club, and a white cap bearing the word " Celtic " in gold letters, was led to the centre of the field by his father and the president of the Club, Mr John Glass. Mr Davitt's young son faved the ball awaiting his attention. Standing in a determined attitude the little gentleman lifted his right foot and amid loud cheers administered to the ball a splendid running kick. This was the kick off and immediately afterwards the contending teams, the Celtic and Queen's Park entered upon the game.The play as might be expected from the two leading clubs in the country proved a fine display. Notwithstanding the splendid playing on both sides the match ended in a draw of one goal each'. 

It was fitting then that 103 years later in 1995 as the new Celtic Park rose above the east end skyline that Celtic kept faith with the past and had a sod of turf from Donegal brought over and transplanted into the Celtic Park pitch. Fifty Donegal Celtic fans travelled with the turf and were met by Fergus McCann at the stadium for the ceremony. Fellow Donegal man Pat Bonner took part too as a connection to the past was honoured. Michael Davitt would have approved.

Michal Davitt’s life would see him continue to fight for social justice and eventually face prison again for his agitation on behalf of the poor. He lectured all over the world from Russia to Palestine and was elected to Parliament in his time and never stopped fighting to right the wrongs he saw around him. He came to the conclusion that non-violent agitation was the best way to challenge injustice and for that reason he was to a degree unfairly air-brushed out of the post 1916 narrative of Irish history. When he died in Dublin in 1906 it was a mark of how far the former Fenian convict had come that the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the highest British official in the land, attended his funeral.

Davitt would have been more proud though of the tens of thousands of ordinary people who filed past his coffin to pay their respects. It was for the advancement of ordinary folk that he struggled so long and hard. The baby born into a land racked by hunger and injustice, who lost an arm in an industrial accident when just eleven years of age, deserves to be remembered as a friend of the poor and a fighter for social justice. Celtic can be proud too that he was a patron of the club in its earliest years and that fact will remind the club that it too has a role to play in living up to its founding principles of social justice, charity and inclusiveness.

Michael Davitt 1846-1906
Celtic Patron
Friend of the poor

Friday, 4 January 2019

Without fear or favour

Without fear or favour

More years ago than I care to remember I stood on the old cinder steps of the Celtic end at Hampden on a freezing December night watching Celtic play Rangers in a league cup semi-final. The game was hard fought but Celtic had the upper hand and rightly took the lead when Tommy Burns carved open the Rangers defence and fed John Doyle who took great pleasure scoring at the traditional Rangers end of Hampden. The game was even thereafter until Davie Cooper cut into the box and Celtic stopper Johannes Edvaldsson went to deal with the danger. From the Celtic end I saw Edvaldsson clearly play the ball, Cooper theatrically threw himself to the ground and Referee Mr Alexander pointed to the spot. So incensed were the Celtic players that they let him and his linesman know what they thought of his decision. To compound the feeling of injustice he sent off Tommy Burns, up to that point the best player on the field, for his protests about the penalty award. There were other incidents in the game which led my young mind to ponder on the impartiality of the Referee. Rangers winning goal came from a Derek Johnstone run which one newspaper said, ‘could have been offside.’ Trust me he was but again the protestations of the Celtic players fell on deaf ears.

Celtic were to lose that game 3-2 and it was the first time I can recall going home from a game feeling that the officiating had clearly had a major influence on the outcome. Of course to suggest a referee is biased against a particular team will get you short shrift from most of the media and lambasted as a bad loser by those who have benefitted from these ‘errors’ by officials. It is simply too much to contemplate for some that the game in our country isn’t 100% honest.

Books like ‘Celtic Paranoia?’ list incidents down the decades which on sober reflection look distinctly dubious. We all know about the SFA closing Celtic Park for trouble at Ibrox. We all know about the SFA threatening to throw Celtic out of the league if they didn’t remove the Irish flag from their stadium on match days. We all know Jim Farry blocked the registration of Jorge Cadete with no apparent reason for two months at a vital time of the season. We all know internal inquiries cleared him until an exasperated Fergus McCann called in his QC and forced the SFA to admit Farry had acted in a manner which constituted gross negligence. He was sacked and left office with a £200,000 pay off. It remains difficult to see how anyone fired in such circumstances could be deserving of such a payment but then a lack of transparency is nothing new in Scottish Football.

In more modern times we saw bizarre officiating at a Rangers v Dundee United match in the spring of 2008 which had then Dundee United boss Craig Levein seething. We saw Rangers player Boughera booked early in a match against Celtic for a brutal foul on Celtic’s Robbie Keane and then commit a further seven or eight fouls on the same player without a second yellow card appearing. The hand ball from Keatings of Inverness in a cup semi final at Hampden was seen by everyone in the stadium except the five officials! We had the ‘Dougie, Dougie’ affair when a referee admitted lying about a rescinded Celtic penalty at Tannadice. We recently saw Scott Brown booked for a ‘tackle’ on Kyle Lafferty in which no contact was made and the Rangers forward clearly simulated injury. No retrospective action was taken. We have a former referee boasting from the safety of retirement about Rangers never losing a game he controlled, another speaking sarcastically at a sports dinner of being ‘unsighted’ for a Celtic penalty claim. All of this feeds into the ‘ABC’ mentality (Anyone but Celtic) in which some see certain officials as at best leaning towards Rangers and at worst being biased. The aftermath of most of the above examples was handled poorly by the SFA and often exacerbated the situations.

All of this came to mind in the wake of the controversy over John Beaton’s performance at Ibrox las week and the fact that the review panel didn’t act over Alfredo Morelos’ actions in that game as they were informed the referee saw the incidents. Firstly, Rangers were the better side by far on the day and deserved their win but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking what is going on with the standard of refereeing in Scotland. If Mr Beaton saw the three much publicised incidents which involved a stamp of Anthony Ralston, a kick on Scott Brown and a virtual sexual assault on Ryan Christie as he apparently reported to the SFA then why on earth did he not even award a foul let alone apply the rules of the game and at least card Morelos? 

Any objective observer would view that game and conclude that the officiating was very poor indeed. Chris Sutton, a man once sent off at Ibrox for two innocuous hand balls was scathing of the footballing authorities and said…

If they had applied the rules correctly then El Buffalo would have been on the end of three separate red cards. That means three bans, six games, or even more if they pushed him through the disciplinary points totting up threshold. But yet again it looks like the SFA have bottled it. They know there would have been a huge outcry from Ibrox, but if that’s the reason Beaton has stuck to his guns then it’s either cowardice or corruption, take your pick.
Of course Sutton writes for a tabloid and it’s his job to get people reading, clicking and talking about his articles but there is a kernel of truth about what he is saying. If Referees were allowed to speak after games and explain why Steven McLean of Hearts was retrospectively banned for two games for grabbing Eboue Kouassi’s private parts and Morelos didn’t even receive a foul against him for a similar offence the referee claims to have seen? Celtic was not impressed by the officiating at the match at Ibrox and commented…
‘Celtic football club is surprised that there will be no disciplinary action taken by the SFA regarding incidents during the match on December 29th, which were widely addressed by the media. It is reported that no action will be taken because the match referee saw all of the incidents in question. Given that the referee took no action at the time, this tends to suggest that such conduct, which in one instance led to a Celtic player, Anthony Ralston being injured, is acceptable in Scottish football. That cannot be right.’
Celtic then go on to say that in the interests of transparency, referee John Beaton should be able to explain these decisions publically. The alternative is for suspicion to fester and alleged pictures on social media of the official apparently enjoying himself in a well-known Rangers Bar don’t exactly allay fears he may be less than impartial. Football is a fast moving game with crucial decisions having to be made in a split second. Jock Stein once said, ‘if you’re good enough the referee doesn’t matter,’ but even he tore into officials after matches like the disgraceful Scottish Cup Final of 1970; a game which is mysteriously hard to find on YouTube in any detail beyond the goals.
We need to accept in a small country such as Scotland that match officials will have favourite teams and that in an ideal world this won’t stop them from performing their duties with integrity. We want our referees to be the best in the business, to be above reproach but currently they are doing little to help their own reputation. Transparency is one way to foster confidence in the refereeing fraternity. Let them speak about why they made certain decisions and even accept it when they say I got that one wrong. Refereeing is a difficult profession to practice but we can surely do a lot better than we currently are?

The alternative is to have supporters talking about officials more than the game itself and openly accusing some officials of bias. In the clannish world of Scottish football that can’t be right. The SFA needs to show some leadership here. Have professional referees, introduce VAR in the top flight and let the referees explain themselves a day or two after matches. The absurdity of a panel made up of former referees being unable to recommend retrospective punishment for on field misbehaviour on the grounds that the match official ‘saw it’ also needs to end. Just because he ‘saw it’ doesn’t mean he made the right decision.

We all love the game of football but it must be seen to be played on an even playing field with officials applying the laws of the game without fear or favour. If that’s not the case we might as well pack up and go home.