Saturday, 25 January 2020

Slaying the dragon

Oscar Wilde is credited with saying, ‘there’s only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about.’ It that context Kris Boyd’s comments on Leigh Griffiths’ mental strength during Wednesday’s Kilmarnock v Celtic fits a pattern in which pundits expound strong and often controversial opinions in order to get noticed, cause debate and in the end have more people tuning in to hear them. Thus their employers are happy and the pay cheques keep arriving.

We’ve seen this approach from the tabloid newspapers for years, particularly in the online editions whose sole purpose is to expose as many people as possible to their adverts. Headlines are sensationalised or ever misleading in order to get folk clicking on the links. The phrase ‘click bait’ was invented for such tactics and it is all about the mighty dollar at the end of the day. A good example was during Celtic’s Europa League clash with Lazio when one tabloid led an online story with the headline ‘Celtic fascist shame.’ The story concerned Lazio’s right wing supporters adopting the Celtic (Keltic) cross as a symbol of their perfidious ideology. It would be easy to see how the reader could be misled into thinking the story concerned Celtic Football Club when in fact it was nothing of the sort. This sort of thing is deliberate and as folk comment, spread their annoyance about the misleading headline, the click counter goes up and the advertisers are happy. As someone once said, ‘ there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’

The word ‘pundit’ comes from the Sanskrit and translates as a wise or learned man and it’s fair to say that not all football pundits live up to that moniker. Boyd has a history of making controversial statements which often fail to hold water. He commented negatively about Celtic’s Boyata and N’tcham, saying that they were not interested in playing for Celtic. The then Celtic manager, Brendan Rodgers suggested he shut up and concentrate on getting back into the Kilmarnock first team. It was with no little irony that he said of Joey Barton...

‘He’s a very intelligent guy who speaks well but when he comes on that radio station (Talksport) and behaves the way he behaves, trying to get attention, trying to get people to phone in. I don’t pay much attention to it.’

It would be fair to say Boyd is guilty of a little attention seeking himself but that’s the nature of the job he does. Others, such as Chris Sutton are equally adept at stirring up debate but at least import some football knowledge and common sense into his statements. In the febrile world of the Celtic, Rangers rivalry pundits who once played for one of the teams are often derided by supporters of the other as biased. The trick is to listen to what they say and think about it logically. Thus Sutton’s comments on Morelos’ ‘cut throat’ gesture are in marked contrast to some former Rangers players who suggested he meant the game is over. Common sense tells you that gesture has the same meaning all over the world and it’s nothing to do with time.

Leigh Griffiths clearly reads or hears some of the comments made by pundits like Boyd as his gesture towards the commentary box after his goal suggests. He is a young man who has had to deal with a mountain of online abuse over the years, some of it vile and involving his family. He has been fighting a battle against his personal demons and hasn’t always made the right choices in life but Boyd should know better than to make crass comments about a player struggling to resurrect his career. He lost his own brother after mental health issues ended tragically and has set up a charity to help others with such problems. That is laudable and very decent of him but perhaps he could show more charity towards people like Leigh Griffiths and not personalise his comments? He’s paid to talk about football and stir up interest but could learn from others who do it with more tact and grace.

Of course some Celtic fans see it as simply another ex Rangers player being negative towards Celtic and one even posted a clip of Boyd on social media being interviewed during his Ibrox days where he seemed unable to even say the word ‘Celtic’ referring to them in the interview as ‘them.’ He’ll never be popular in some quarters but that’s the nature of the often bitter rivalry between Glasgow’s big two. I tend to think he’s still an apprentice at this tv stuff and needs think carefully about what he says and how it is perceived. Mental health remains a delicate subject in Scotland where the prevailing culture of ‘manning up’ still holds sway in certain sectors. He’d do well to keep his comments related to football and perhaps learn from his errors instead of compounding them by trying to justify them in the aftermath.

As for Leigh Griffiths, He has made mistakes in his life as he’d readily admit but I hope he slays his dragons and gets back to doing what he does so well and that’s putting the ball in the net.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

The hell where youth and laughter go

                                                                Glasgow 1916

The crowd was pressing in on all sides and there was an enormous din echoing around the great cavern of Glasgow Central station. It was as if half the city had come to see off the khaki clad sons of the city who were making the long journey south by train before embarking for France and then on to the ominous battlefields which had already claimed so many. Agnes Murphy craned her neck to see if she could catch a glimpse of her son Thomas but the milling crowds around the platform meant that it was all but impossible to see the men loading onto the train with their equipment. He was there somewhere, having completed barely a month’s training before the regiment was ordered to France. Somewhere out of sight  a piper was playing and the melancholy sound echoed around somewhere above the heads of the throng besieging the platform. It sounded like a lament to her, a sad, plaintive cry for those about to be put to the test in Flanders. She sighed, hoping that she would see her firstborn boy again and that God would spare him from this awful war which had claimed so many      already. At long last a shrill whistle blew and train doors were slammed. There were some cheers and a few tears as the train began to move. From every window of the train, heads stuck out calling their farewells to wives, mothers, sweethearts. How many of these fresh faced , smiling lads would not return home?  How many would find their final resting place far from those they loved?

As she turned to leave the station she saw her employer, Mr Fleming, regarding her. She cleaned his house every week and knew that he too had a son off to war. ‘I take it your oldest boy is off to France too, Mrs Murphy?’ He said in that educated accent of his which was neither Scots nor English       but        some quaint combination of both. ‘Aye Mr Fleming, my heart is sore at the parting.’ He nodded sympathetically, ‘it’s a bad business but I suppose they must do their duty to King and country.’ She nodded sadly, ‘there’s no choice in the matter now they’re conscripting our boys. The old men start wars and the young men have to fight them.’ There was a moments silence as they regarded each other before Mr Fleming spoke, ‘well good luck to you and to your boy. I hope you’re reunited when this sorry mess is over.’ She offered him a weary and worried smile, ‘Thank you Mr Fleming. I hope that your son too returns safe and sound.’ With that they parted and Agnes made her way through the busy station alone with her thoughts and worries.

It was three weeks before the first letter from Thomas arrived at Agnes Murphy’s crowded single end in the grimy Carlton district of Glasgow. Getting a letter was a rare event for families like hers so her five young children gathered round as she read Thomas’s reassuring words. He was well and hoping it would all be over soon so he could get home to see them all again. He asked how the Celtic were doing and told his mother not to worry. He was a good son and wrote to her every week. He even arranged for her to receive most of his army pay and if it wasn’t much it was still very welcome to a widow woman bringing up five children on her own. As spring turned to summer Thomas hinted of a ‘big show’ coming up which he hoped would end the war. She received a letter from him on the last day of June saying he was moving up to the line and then there was an ominous silence. Three weeks passed without any word from Thomas and she would scan the stree below her flat looking out for the postman. He would glance up at her window and shake his head indicating there would be no  mail that day.  It was on a wet Monday at the end of July when she saw the postman enter the close. ‘Thank God,’ she thought, ‘a letter from Thomas.’

The postman didn’t meet her eyes as he handed over the buff coloured envelope. He had delivered literally hundreds of these letters around Glasgow and knew they brought bad news. ‘Agnes Murphy looked at him mystified before realisation sunk in. ‘Oh God, no!’ She mumbledas she took the envelope in her trembling hand, tears welling in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry Mrs Murphy,’ the postman said in a sad whisper before turning and leaving her with her pain. She walked in a daze through to the modest little room which served as her living room and bedroom and  sat on the box bed which was built into a recess in the wall and stared at the official looking envelope. On the wall above her bed an image of Jesus, hands outstretched showing the marks of his crucifixion, gazed at her in sympathy.                                          She opened the envelope and began to read the typeface on the cream coloured paper... ‘Dear Mrs  Murphy we regret to inform you that your son Private Thomas Murphy was wounded in action on the Western front....’ Her heart leapt ‘wounded! Then he’s alive. My darlin boy is alive!’ She continued reading and saw that he’d be returning home the following week. The letter didn’t say how badly Thomas was hurt but at least she’d be seeing him again. In the days that followed she spoke to the local coal merchant who agreed to bring one of his carts to the railway station to give Thomas a lift home should he be as she expected incapacitated.

The days dragged past until it was time to return to the same railway station she has gone to to try and wave her son off. There was no cheering throng this time though. Just a morose, worried looking group of people waiting for their sons, husbands, brothers. In the distance a train whistle sounded and a wheezing old engine slowly drew up a the platform dragging behind it a long line of coaches and several cattle trucks at the rear. The men who got off the train were not the cheerful youths of six months earlier. Many looked haunted, thin and grimy. Some of the kilted soldiers were trying to smarten themselves up before seeing their loved ones. They combed their hair and helped each other with their tunics and caps. A few were using candles to burn lice out of the pleats of their kilts. Long moments passed before their officers allowed them to move forward to the gate to embrace their families. Agnes asked a soldier who passed her where the wounded men were. He told her the worst of the wounded were in the cattle trucks at the rear. She hurried along the platform to the first carriage and asked a seargent there where she might find a Thomas Murphy. He checked a list he carried before calling over an orderly. ‘Take this lady downstairs, McLean and be quick about it.’  She followed the man through a doorway and down some musty smelling stairs to a large poorly lit corridor. A pungent smell assaulted her nose as she turned to face a scene she had not envisaged in her worst nightmares. Laid out on the floor of the passageway were around forty stretchers. All of them contained a soldier completely covered in an  army  blanket. Some of the blankets were smeared red with blood. She turned to the orderly confused, ‘but my son is wounded. He’s not dead, he’s injured.’ The soldier looked at her with dead eyes, ‘we lose forty or fifty of the wounded on every train journey north. Your boy will be here. I’m sorry.’ With that he left her in a corridor deep under the railway station among the dead.

Agnes Murphy looked at the soldier standing to her left who seemed to read her thoughts. ‘You need to look for your son. Then you can take him home.’ She was horrified, ‘what?’ ‘You need to lift the  blanket back and identify him before we can release the body. A lot of them have lost their identity tags.’ Agnes’s Murphy tasted hell that day beneath Central Station as she looked at the faces of the dead. Some seemed to be asleep, at peace. Others, faces set in terrified grimaces lay in the gloom shorn of all dignity. At last she eased the blanket back on one of the stretchers and saw the familiar face of her son. She gasped, ‘Oh Thomas my boy, what have they done to you?’ She sat on the cold ground beside the stretcher and cradled his head in her lap.

The above fictional story was inspired by my recent tour of Central Station in Glasgow. The temporary mortuary under the station was real enough in Wolrd War One as was the callous way the government of the day treated those who fought and died in their wars.

Siegfried Sassoon wrote...

And you smug crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer as soldier lads march by
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go....

Saturday, 11 January 2020

252 Steps to Heaven

252 Steps to Heaven

Tony Bradley puffed as he continued his inexorable climb up the steep hill. ‘How many steps is it Cathie?’ he asked his diminutive wife who was demonstrating that determination she usually showed when bargain hunting around the shops or dealing with the council. ‘Two hundred and fifty two, Tony and we’re not stopping till we reach the top. There’s a queue behind us so stay oot ay that back pack.’ Tony’s eyebrows rose a little, how the hell did she know he had a half bottle of Bells in his backpack? His wife was a great loss to the KGB, he mused. She knows bloody everything. He glanced behind him to see people older than him struggling up the stairs and one young person who appeared to be doing it on her knees. With that sort of determination on display he knew he’d push on and make it to the top. Even at 60 and with his dodgy knee aching he would push on. He had his pride.

As Tony climbed the stairs in the heat of an early summer day in southern France, his mind wandered to thoughts of home. When Cathie pushed him to come with her to Lourdes his beloved Celtic were well out of contention for the league title. It had been a wretched, inconsistent season where moments of brilliance were often followed by poor displays. Hibs had knocked Celtic out of the cup after some calamitous defending and Hearts had powered to a strong position in the league so he had agreed to come to France. As spring arrived Celtic had finally found their form. A 4-4 draw at Ibrox was followed by seven straight wins which meant the final league match of the season at Love Street saw Celtic in with a slim chance of winning the title. It was slim, unlikely even, Tony mused but it was a chance. They needed Hearts to lose at Dens Park and Celtic to win well at Love Street. How he wished he was there with his son Sean and his brother Frankie.

At that precise moment, almost 2000km North West of Lourdes Sean Bradley poured the cool, amber lager down his throat feeling that familiar tang as he did so. The first pint of the day always tasted best. The pub by Gilmour Street station in Paisley was filling up with Celtic fans ahead of the final match of the season. They had travelled more in hope than expectation but the dull, damp weather couldn’t stop them hoping for a minor miracle. ‘My auld man will miss the game the day.’ he said above the noise of the bar to his uncle Frankie who was looking at his Guinness as if it were the love of his life. ‘Aye, Sean. Whit possessed him tae go tae bloody Lourdes?  Sean shook his head, ‘my maw talked him intae it. She’s always wanted tae go there and saved a few quid on the quiet. Said it’d dae him good and might even cure his sore knee.’ Frankie laughed, ‘A few pints of Guinness and my aches and pains vanish. Here’s tae the Celts winning and Dundee doing us a wee turn today!’ He raised his glass before pouring the cold, dark liquid into his mouth. ‘Ahhhh! Now that’s a pint!’

Somewhere out of sight in the crowded pub someone started singing and other voices joined in until the pub was filled with noise…. ‘In the war against Rangers in the fight for the cup, when Jimmy McGrory put Celtic one up, we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, on Erin’s green valley look down in thy love.’ Sean and his uncle Frankie joined in, today was a big ask but hey this was Celtic, They knew they’d give their all and hopefully far to the north Dundee would too.

Far to the south Tony Bradley had completed the 252 steps to reach the grotto of Lourdes. Far below in the valley he could see the town and beyond that the patchwork of fields and forests which stretched into the distance. It was quite a sight. Cathie nudged him out of his thoughts, ‘mind and fill this bottle with water for your sister and if you do say a prayer can it be for something worthwhile like world peace and no fitbaw or the 3.30 at Ayr races?’ Tony smiled, she knew him well. They followed the line of pilgrims to the site where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to St Bernadette in 1858. Tony glanced at the scores of crutches and walking sticks hanging to the left of the grotto; left it is said by those healed by the miraculous waters of the spring nearby. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood in a hollow in the rock above them. Prayers were being said in a dozen languages and he and Cathie waited their turn to be close to the grotto.

When they reached the assigned spot Cathie took out her rosary beads and was soon lost in prayer. Tony stood silently contemplating his own beliefs. He was probably best described as a hopeful agnostic. Were those walking sticks and crutches left by people healed here or was the healing more psychosomatic? He grew up in a fairly religious house and of course that was reinforced in school. He recalled as a boy being sent on an errand by his teacher and stopping in the corridor to listen to a class somewhere singing a hymn. It was beautiful in its own way but as he grew up the hypocrisy of some ‘believers’ put him off religion a bit. The bible in one hand and the belt in another weren’t designed to inspire confidence. As he pondered these things, his mind slipped to thoughts of the match taking place in Paisley that very afternoon. Now there was something he could believe. Celtic had been part of his life since he could remember. His old man had taken him to his first game at Celtic Park in 1936 where he had watched Jimmy McGrory score a hat-trick as Celtic beat Ayr United 6-0 to seal their first title win in years. He had been hooked ever since. ‘Jeez, 1936?’ he thought to himself, ‘Man I feel old!’  He glanced at his wife, lost in her own thoughts to his left. Maybe she was right and folk shouldn’t ask God for unimportant things like their football team winning. He looked at the statue standing impassively above him, ‘Keep everyone I care about safe eh? 

Back in Paisley, Sean and Frankie were close to the halfway line in the shed opposite the main stand as Celtic in their lime green away strip were ripping St Mirren apart in a first half in which they had played some splendid football. McStay, McGrain, Aitken and Burns were dominating the game while up front McClair and Johnston were in superb form. They had raced into into a two goal lead before scoring a goal of sublime beauty. McGrain facing his own goal had calmly flicked the ball over his shoulder to McStay who exchanged passes with Aitken before slipping it back to McGrain who found Brian McClair with his pass. McClair glided forward, nutmegged a defender and squared the ball to Johnston who slotted the ball into the net. It was a goal of breath-taking beauty. A goal in the fine footballing traditions of Celtic; the game was won and all they needed now was Dundee to do them a big favour.

Sean and his uncle Frankie were delirious under the cover of the shed and sang their hearts out. Celtic were keeping their part of the bargain and now they just needed a break at Dens Park. Celtic went off to rapturous applause at Half time with a 4-0 lead and the job done. Hearts and Dundee were locked at 0-0 but you never knew in football what would happen. They still had hope in their hearts that Dundee would do something in the second half. The second half began in a strange atmosphere as the many thousands of Celtic fans there were intently waiting for news from Dens Park. Even the team seemed to be marking time waiting to see if there would be a breakthrough one way or another in the other game. The minutes ticked agonisingly past and it was still 0-0 at Dens. If it stayed that way Hearts would be champions. Sean looked at his uncle, the strain written on his face, ‘Hope to hell Dundee score!’ His uncle nodded, ‘It’s never over till it’s over.’ 

In Lourdes Tony Bradley was filling his sister’s water bottle at a line of taps which fed directly from the mountain spring at the grotto. Nearby was a pool it was said people in dire need bathed in to cure their ills. He finished and wandered over to the pool as Cathie filled her bottles. He put his right hand in his pocket and felt the metallic outline of an enamelled Celtic badge he had brought with him. He held it in the palm of his hand and studied it; it showed the club crest with a small silver European cup in the centre and the words ‘Lisbon 1967.’ His old man had given it to him and it was a sort of lucky talisman for him. Without thinking he glanced around before throwing it into the pool. ‘Aw right God, I know yer busy with wars and exploding nuclear plants but if ye can see yer way clear tae helping the Celts out today I’d be much obliged.’

2000km away in Dundee the home side were introducing their substitute, a boyhood Celtic fan who went by the name of Albert Kidd. It’s never over till it’s over.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Ugly Sisters

The Ugly Sisters

As I walked from Celtic Park towards the Gallowgate after last week’s Glasgow derby I could already hear the familiar sounds of sirens drifting on the chilly December air. These games bring out the worst in some and often there are more problems among those who watched the game in pubs and clubs than from the fans actually at the match. Scotland’s relationship with alcohol has long been a cause for concern but when mixed with the emotions a Celtic- Rangers match engenders then it can lead to problems.

The game itself wasn’t pretty to watch especially if you are a Celtic supporter. Rangers rightly edged a dour struggle marked by niggling fouls and a lot of nervous tension. We saw accusations of ‘racist’ abuse hurled at Alfredo Morelos although evidence of this has yet to be shown. One video shared around social media showed Morelos making cut throat gestures towards Celtic supporters as irate punters gave him a lot of verbal abuse. Among the terms clearly audible were ‘Hun bastard’ and ‘Orange bastard’ and Celtic supporters shouldn’t hide away from these facts. There was no discernible racist name calling but the terms used were nonetheless ugly in their own right. Ryan Kent also made an unsavoury gesture towards Celtic fans after scoring his goal to add to an already tense occasion. Supporters on both sides were struck with coins and the predictable songs were given an airing by an away support with seemingly few songs about football in their repertoire.

There has been much bleating from Rangers FC about treating their players with respect on and off the field. Their silence when it’s their supporters abusing people like Neil Lennon was noticeable. The abuse Morelos receives is despicable at times and should be condemned by any fair minded person but few will be taking lessons in morality from a club with Rangers’ history. 

For some people the spectacle, passion, noise and sheer visceral tribalism of these matches make them the highlight of their season. I know a good few folk who love these occasions especially as Celtic have been fairly dominant over the past decade. For others they are ugly, clannish confrontations which they are not enamoured with at all. Whatever you feel about the Glasgow derby it is certainly box office and you could have sold last week’s game out twice over. No comparable country of Scotland’s size can boast two clubs which attract such huge support and the historical genesis of what was once called the ‘Old Firm’ has probably been a mixed blessing for Scottish football.  They bring revenue, interest and at least historically, a modicum of respect in European football but that comes at a sporting and, some would argue, social cost. 

Their domination of the Scottish game is such that no other club has won the title since 1985. That is to say no one under 40 will have much memory of Aberdeen’s league triumph that year. Of the 123 Scottish top league titles since the inception of the league in 1890, the big two have won 105 titles. That is an incredible 85% of Scottish titles won by two clubs and that sort of domination is not healthy for the Scottish game. Their domination in the cup competitions is less pronounced given the one off nature of cup ties but they are both still streets ahead of the competition in these competitions; Celtic have won the Scottish Cup 39 times and Rangers 33. Given the fact that these two big clubs are portrayed as polar opposites in terms of the political, historical and cultural baggage which surrounds them it is all the more intense when they meet. 

It isn’t unusual for big teams to dominate in smaller countries; for instance Portugal’s big three (Porto, Sporting CP and Benfica) have won every championship apart from on two occasions. (1946 and 2001) In Scotland it must remain galling for smaller Scottish clubs to watch busloads of fans leave their towns and head to Glasgow to watch the big two.

St Johnstone, a side whose average attendance has hovered around 4000 for the past few years announced this week that it will allow visiting Celtic and Rangers fans to occupy three of the four stands at their stadium when they play there. This is common sense from a financial point of view as the sight of 3 or 4 thousand empty seats is neither gratifying nor sensible. Their stadium with a capacity of 10,696 will thus host around 7000 away fans for those matches and their fans response was mixed. One said online, ‘Aye, let the ugly sisters fill the lot. We put up with their songs so we might as well take their money.’ That feeling that aspects of the culture surrounding Celtic and Rangers are negative, even alien, influences in Scottish football is shared by a lot of supporters of other clubs. Both are lumped together as the ‘gruesome twosome’ in the opinion of many. 

It’s often interesting to see ourselves as others see us. Consider Celtic and Rangers supporters pitching up in your local town for a game twice each season. The crowd and atmosphere they bring might lend an air of excitement but some of the songs they sing have precious little to do with football. The players they can afford will more often than not be too good for your team although there’s always a chance in a game of football. Some argue Scottish football would be better without the Glasgow clubs and one newspaper used to print a league table ‘minus the Old Firm’ during the time it was thought they’d be heading for the English game. Others suggest Scottish football without them would become like the League of Ireland although given there is no major GAA sports in Scotland that is highly unlikely. Teams like Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts competing for titles would certainly fill their stadiums.

How do we make our game more competitive? In days past when most fans paid at the gate the money was split with the visiting club on a 50-50 basis. Those times are unlikely to return. One aspect which could be changed is pooling all revenues from TV and distributing to clubs equally rather than basing the amount received on league position. It is a fact of life that there is a food chain in football and the bigger clubs will pay more to attract the best players and thus continue to dominate. Scotland is unlikely to see a side out-with Celtic and Rangers win the title unless a rich benefactor buys into one of our better clubs. We saw the high hopes Hearts had with Vladimir Romanov but that dream faded quickly. It could be that the 35 years without a club out-with Celtic and Rangers winning the league could stretch to 45 or even 55 years and much as I love my club being successful that would be a tragedy for our game.

So these two clubs could be locked in their loveless embrace for the foreseeable future and the rest of Scottish football will just have to accept it?